America’s first celebrities, comparable to film and rock stars today, were the social uber-rich. These cliquish patricians were the envy, style setters, and aspiration of the masses. Pity the new monied who strove to join the inner circle. Miriam Leslie was one, determined to breach high society, the Astor-ocracy.
By the mid-seventies when New York was seeing an invasion of “goldfish,” wealthy industrial barons and their families, the old-line Caroline Schermmerhorn Astor decided things had gone too far. She and her majordomo Ward McAllister, created an elite social citadel of the well born favored few. It was a masterpiece of power by exclusion: twenty-five “men of breeding,” the Patriarchs, to vet members and Mrs. Astor’s annual ball for the four hundred “right people.” Strivers and fat cat arrivistes clambered for invitations. Not to be included was social death. But, as McAllister sniffed: “the whole secret of the success of these . . . balls lay in making them select.”
More elegant equipages, costumes, entertainments, and real estate didn’t work, as Miriam discovered. She spent fortunes on a Saratoga estate and fetes, a Worth couturier wardrobe, and adopted an English accent. But she was doomed on all counts. She worked in the glare of the business world, was a three-time divorcee, unpedigreed, and who knows what else.
Miriam, however, didn’t sob in her pillow. She savaged the “crested nobility” in print, squared her shoulders, and one-upped the Four Hundred with a fiancé who was a Spanish marquis and a title of her own, Baroness de Bazus. If it was bogus, who knew? She could snub back the “haughty ladies” and swank with the best of them.
Learn more about Miriam’s life and New York City in the Gilded Age in Diamonds and Deadlines: A Tale of Greed, Deceit, and a Female Tycoon in the Gilded Age
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