The Gilded Age: The real-life ball that inspired Bertha’s flamboyant finale
Gilded Age Creator Julian Fellowes knows a good story. The screenwriter received an Oscar for it Gosford Parknumerous awards and nominations for Downton Abbey (with another film on the way this May) and growing interest in his latest Upstairs-Downstairs endeavor to be aired on HBO. So when the author stumbled upon the story of Alva Vanderbilt’s historic 1883 ball — and her amazingly clever scheming that basically forced New York Queen Bee Caroline Astor to attend — he knew he wanted to spotlight this real-life incident The Gilded Agethe finale of the first season.
“I remember when I read about Alva’s Ball I thought, ‘This is so great,'” Fellowes said vanity fair on a current zoom. “I’m just going to lift the whole thing up and bring it into the drama.”
In real life, Vanderbilt – a direct inspiration for Carrie Coons After arriving in New York with husband William, Bertha Russell was keen to establish herself in high society. After encountering opposition from old-money snobs, particularly Astor, Vanderbilt decided to throw a lavish costume ball for 1,200 people — and involved Astor’s own daughter in her strategy by refusing to invite the teenager (who was actually attend a dance with Alva’s daughter), unless Caroline herself paid a visit. The ruse worked, and due to Caroline’s participation (approval, which her 1,000+ guests finally got to witness!), the ball marked Vanderbilt’s official coming out.
The costume ball was also something of an extravagant housewarming party. Vanderbilt and her husband had recently completed construction of their “Petite Chateau,” which reportedly cost $3 million (about $90 million today). The four-story mansion on Fifth Avenue was built in the style of French royalty and would go on to inspire other European-style homes in New York. (Fellowes notes that the Morris Hunt-designed house, one of the great mansions of the true Gilded Age, has since “been demolished and replaced with a commercial building of no architectural merit whatsoever,” says Fellowes. “It was a great loss to New York. “)
The hostess was so determined to show off her property that she (or one of her staff) invited one over New York Times journalist to tour her home before the party and even provide exact measurements of the rooms and the name of her florist, both of which appear in the report. “All Society in Costume: Mrs. WK Vanderbilt’s Great Fancy Dress Ball” made the cover of the New York Times and spilled on a second. There were precise details about the anticipation for the event (it “excited New York society more than any social event that has taken place here in many years”), a tick-tock of the event itself, a description of the evening’s best costumes and a summary of the quadrilles. (The quadrille, popular in the 19th century, was a four-couple dance and a formal ancestor of square dancing.) Many balls featured a quadrille, but Vanderbilt had six—each with a clever theme and absurdly expensive costume. The quadrilles had been rehearsed weeks in advance and choreographed in various elaborately decorated areas of the Petit Chateau. (All the better to show off their sprawling properties!).
“In the case of the Dresden Quadrille, the women clothed and powdered their faces in white to resemble Dresden porcelain and became living statues in a home filled with sculpture, painting, and decorative art,” writes the Met. “Other quadrilles, including one with life-size hobbyhorses attached to the dancers’ hips, flowed out of the third-floor dining room (dubbed the “Gymnasium”), down the grand staircase, and into the second-floor drawing room. The choreographed dances traversed multiple parts of the house, inserting bodies, fabrics and props into spaces that were not yet fully occupied as the house had only been completed a few days before.”
The Gilded Age pays particular homage to the quadrille hobby-horse, imagining that this is the dance in which the Russells’ daughter, Gladys, dances [Taissa Farmiga] and Carrie [Amy Forsyth] take part.
As a historian Helen VeitAssociate Professor of History at Michigan State University and Advisor to The Gilded AgeIn an interview, she notes, “The costumes we see in the Russell Quadrille also point to the original Vanderbilt Ball. At the real Vanderbilt Ball, all the guests wore elaborate and expensive costumes. We don’t have costumes at the Russell Ball, but you get a sense of the literal fortunes that wealthy women of the Golden Age, like Alva Vanderbilt, were willing to spend on fleeting entertainments that cemented their social position.” (The Making of the actual hobbyhorse costumes made from actual animal skins lasted over two months and was probably never used again.)