Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mr. Society

Who was Ward McAllister?

An article in "Vanity Fair" in 1889 asked this very question. It said he was the life of the party. He was a well-traveled man who made it a point to take note of what was the best in wining, dining, and entertaining. He learned the ways of society in Europe and came back to the United States an expert. He was Mr. Society--19th century style.

He was largely responsible for making Newport, RI, the summer mecca of the rich. When he began going there in the 1850’s, it was mainly comprised of rich Southern families. Few Northerners were a part of the Newport elite. People waited for McAllister to get there so the fun could begin. “Wait until McAllister comes. He will make it lively.”

From the start, McAllister was big into keeping the gates of society tightly guarded. Regarding Newport society: “Now do not for a moment imagine that all were indiscriminately asked to these little fetes. On the contrary, if you were not of the inner circle, and were a newcomer, it took the combined efforts of all your friends’ backing and pushing to procure an invitation for you. For years, whole families sat on the stool of probation, awaiting trial and acceptance, but many were then rejected, but once received, you were put on an intimate footing with all. To acquire such intimacy in a great city like New York would have taken you a lifetime.” Soon he would be thickly enmeshed in that New York society…

Ward was one of those people who could get a party going and keep it going. In Newport, friends would say to him that they didn’t care about other people’s fancy dinners, but wouldn’t think of missing one of his Newport picnics. He’d often arrange them on a whim, asking a key person for a date, asking what their favorite food was, then drive through Newport, stopping his friends in their carriages, telling them about the picnic date, and getting them to bring some food item. Sometimes he even charged people $20. Yet people paid the price because McAllister always did it up right. He was the king of pleasure. He also was wise enough to say, “There is no society without ladies.” I agree completely.

During the Civil War he stayed away from Newport. “It wasn’t in good form to entertain while the trouble was going on.” The Civil war = "the trouble".  What an understatement. He returned after the war and took up his old position as leader of Newport society. Then he moved his ambition to New York City. He became friends with Mrs. Caroline Astor (the Mrs. Astor) and the two of them bound together to create their version of New York society. In Europe, aristocracy gained their place because of blood lines, but in America, many wealthy people were demanding a place in society by earning their way to prominence. Blue-bloods looked down at new-bloods, the nouveau riche. And yet…there was an acknowledgement that things in America couldn’t be run the same way as they were in Europe. But how to do it?

McAllister offered the idea that those who were wealthy could share a likeness within their class—a class consciousness that would unite the best of the best. Mrs. Astor worked with McAllister to “set up a screening system to keep the right people in, and the wrong ones—new money, tradesmen, Jews, divorcees and the like—out.” (Hermione Lee in Edith Wharton.) Those who are fans of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence will see McAllister in the character of Sillerton Jackson, who appears as the go-to guy regarding correct form and manners.

In 1872, McAllister and Mrs. Astor created the Society of the Patriarchs, a group of 25 “men of worth, respectability, and responsibility”. These were the people with the power, the ones who would help create an American high society. Each year they gave the Patriarch ball. Each member was given nine invitations—five for men, and four for women. They would submit their guest list to McAllister, who would okay it. Obviously, an invitation to this event was highly sought after, and if you were invited to it—and other events—you would thereby cement your position in the higher eschelon of society.

But then McAllister made a blunder. He talked to a reporter for the “New York Tribune”: “There are only about four hundred people in fashionable New York Society. If you go outside that number you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or make other people not at ease ... who have not the poise, the aptitude for polite conversation, the polished and deferential manner, the infinite capacity of good humor and ability to entertain or be entertained that society demands.”
McAllister telling Uncle Sam he needs to
be like an English Gentleman

This drew the line in the societal sand. You were either in. Or out. (see blog next week on “The Four Hundred”.) It also showcased McAllister as the keeper of the list—which didn’t even exist at the time. It was created three years later, and only contained 319 names.

Even though McAllister ran among the richest people in America, he never earned more than a modest income. But he did marry well to heiress Sarah Gibbons. Her father had a steamboat grant from Robert Fulton (inventor of the steamboat) and derived $25,000-30,000 annually from wharf property in New York City. In today's dollars, that would be $625,000-750,000. Not too shabby. And yet something must have happened to that money because he never lived as though he was wealthy. He just ran with those who were.

He was the ultimate event-planner. For 90-minutes every morning he would hold court to society’s queens and offer them advice for their parties. He could labor over the wording in an invitation or the correct placement of the flowers. One time, some ladies got angry with him, thinking he was giving preferential treatment to so-and-so’s daughters over their own, and tried to put on a cotillion without him. It was a failure.

Mrs. McAllister did not appear in society and was an invalid, cared for by their daughter, Louise. McAllister would have weekly dinners at his house, but only for six guests, and only attended by Louise and himself as hostess and host. They were not society fetes, but small intimate gatherings in his simple house at 16 East Sixteenth St.

He was not what you would expect. He was not a dandy, wearing fancy clothes. He was middle aged, five foot-ten, weighing 200 pounds. He was balding. What he offered was knowledge of how to entertain well. His way became the way.

But sometimes he got cocky.  He often shared his opinion that New York society was better than society in any other American city. When Chicago held the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, McAllister commented that if hostesses in Chicago wanted to be taken seriously they needed to hire French chefs and "not frappé their wine too much." I love the response from the "Chicago Journal": "The mayor will not frappé his wine too much. He will frappé it just enough so the guests can blow the foam off the tops of the glasses without a vulgar exhibition of lung and lip power. His ham sandwiches, sinkers, and ... pigs' feet, will be triumphs of the gastronomic art." So there, Ward.

He also raised the ire of Bostonians when he disparaged their young ladies: “They are good scholars, but poor sweethearts. There are, of course, instances when young Boston ladies really do fall in love, but it is of a classical sort which would make the society young man of New York rather uncomfortable.” (June 17, 1894.) He goes on to berate their fashion sense, saying their first concern is whether they can afford a dress. Apparently, the true fashionistas of New York society never bothered to ask that question. If you ask me, it sounds like the young ladies of Boston owned a good deal of common sense, that the dandies in New York didn’t deserve! You can see why McAllister angered people. If you were within his inner circle he was a dear. But otherwise? He was wicked in his assessments, casting you off as inferior.

But then, he finally went too far. In 1890, he wrote his memoirs in a book called Society as I Have Found It, where he detailed his life, his experiences in Europe where he received his education in etiquette, as well as his version of various events in society. He told of his desire to be a part of society and even revealed his glee when he finally became the man who counseled the same. New York society was not amused.

By the 1890’s, McAllister was a quaint old man with old-fashioned ideas; a man who'd written a tell-all book that had told too much of the celebrities of the day—the wealthy. He died alone at a restaurant. In an article in the "New York Times" about his death, one society gentleman is quoted as saying, "Poor McAllister! What a pity it is he wrote a book!"//Nancy Moser


  1. What a chance encounter to have found this blog! Upon reading page 215 in "Masquerade," I typed in Ward McAllister into Google to see what he looked like and to learn about him. The first picture I clicked on lead me to this blog. I was astounded to see that it gave so much information about Mr. McAllister. Then, I was astonished to see the post was written by Nancy Moser, the author of the book I am at this very moment reading! I am enjoying the book very much and literally picked it up, on the bottom shelf at my local library (where you happen to reside alphabetically), on a whim, and thought this sounds interesting. I look forward to finishing the book and reading more books by you, Ms. Moser. You have a new fan in me!

  2. It certainly does sound as if you were supposed to read my book and blog! I love hearing about such happenstances. If you like the Scarpellis in "Masquerade" you'll want to read "An Unlikely Suitor" which stars Lucia, Lea, and Sofia. It comes out in May 2011 and can be preordered now. I look forward to hearing from you again!

  3. Hello, I apologize, if i sound naive, but as i'd say you are an expert on this subject, could you tell if someone said to you implying something underneath, "I suggest you find Mr. Society", what might that mean?

  4. I'm far from an expert (I know a little about a lot)but to answer your question, it would depend on the era and locale of the people who are speaking. During the Gilded Age NYC, "Mr. Society" might mean McAllister specifically. But in any other era/locale it would probably just mean a man who's heavily active in high society.