Scandals

The real ‘Gilded Age’ scandals more shocking than the HBO show

Eat your heart out, “Real Housewives.”

New York’s Golden Age came with plenty of excess, fraud, and big-hitter schemes of the day.
NY Post photo composite

HBO’s new show “The Gilded Age,” premiering Monday at 9 p.m. EST, chronicles the lifestyles of the rich and famous in Manhattan in the late 1800s — complete with ostentatious displays of wealth, ridiculous parties and heaps of gossip and scandal worthy of a tabloid.

The lifestyles of the rich and famous in Manhattan in the late 1800s are chronicled in new HBO series "Golden age."
The lifestyles of the rich and famous in Manhattan in the late 1800s are chronicled in HBO’s new series “The Gilded Age.”
Alison CohenRose

Created by Julian Fellowes, the man behind ‘Downton Abbey,’ the series also shines a light on the deep-rooted rivalries and prejudices within New York’s high society (and the social climbers desperate to get an edge ).

Here, The Post examines some of the craziest stories from the true Golden Age.

Washington Square Arch architect murdered for being a ‘rapist’

To this day, the designs of Gilded Age architect Stanford White define New York City: the Washington Square Arch, the Judson Memorial Church, and the Players Club, among many other marvels.

But it was his murder in 1906, and the shocking reason behind it, that really shook the city.

Famous architect Stanford While was murdered while attending a play at the original Madison Square Garden.
Famous architect Stanford While was murdered while attending a play at the original Madison Square Garden.
Archive Bettmann

White, 52, had attended the premiere of the musical “Mam’Zelle Champagne” at second Madison Square Garden, which he also designed. But the show was a flop and the audience left early. Among them were Harry Kendall Thaw – 35-year-old heir to the Pennsylvania Railroad fortune – and his 21-year-old wife, Evelyn Nesbit.

When bullets hit White in the face and he fell to the ground, the crowd at first thought it was part of the show. But he had been shot by Thaw.

“I did it,” Thaw said as he was escorted out of the theater, “because he ruined my wife.”

Five years earlier, Nesbit was a teenage model and backing vocalist who had been seduced by the married architect into visiting his secret 24th Street lair – complete with a red velvet swing and a bed topped with a mirror-lit canopy.

Nesbit later testified that she drank champagne, passed out, and woke up naked with White beside her. She saw blood on the sheets – White, she alleged, had drugged and raped her.

White designed the Washington Square Arch (above), as well as the Judson Memorial Church and the Players Club in Manhattan.
White designed the Washington Square Arch (above), as well as the Judson Memorial Church and the Players Club in Manhattan.
Getty Images

Yet Nesbit continued to see her attacker, who lavished furs and jewelry on her, until she fell in love with coal baron Thaw.

Nesbit initially resisted Thaw, and he grew jealous of his relationship with White – a situation made worse by blackballing architect Thaw of the exclusive Knickerbocker club.

Once Nesbit and Thaw started dating and she confided in him about the attack, Thaw became furious, hiring eight detectives to track White, for what would be $170,000 today. today. (Why he did that: who knows?)

White was killed by Henry Thaw (left), who claimed he was getting revenge for drugging and raping Thaw's wife, backing vocalist Evelyn Nesbit.
White was killed by Henry Thaw (left), who claimed he was getting revenge for drugging and raping Thaw’s wife, backing vocalist Evelyn Nesbit.
Getty Images; ZUMAPRESS.com

After the murder, Thaw was sentenced to incarceration in a felony hospital in 1916. Some historians have speculated that Nesbit’s white rape testimony may have been coerced by Thaw’s defense attorneys.

In his memoir “Prodigal Days,” Nesbit described the events of that night differently: White did not drug her; she drank too much champagne and fell asleep.

She went on to carve out a successful career in silent films. Just before he died in 1967, Nesbit summed up his role in the Trial of the Century: “I shook up civilization.

New York’s first snob

Samuel Ward McAllister decided whether you were in or out.

Wealthy by marriage, he kept a list – The Four Hundred – of the people who mattered most on the city’s social scene. The New York Times published it, and those left out weren’t happy. (See: Alva Vanderbilt, below.)

Ward McAllister kept a list of the 400 most prominent people in Manhattan society, angering those left behind.
Samuel Ward McAllister kept a list of the 400 most prominent people in Manhattan society, which angered those who weren’t there.
New York Historical Society

“[The Four Hundred] was the epitome of excess,” said historian Tom Miller, author of “Seeking New York,” a guide to Manhattan’s iconic buildings, many of which date from the Gilded Age. “He invented a society that didn’t exist before.”

McAllister (one of the few real-life characters in the TV series, he is played by Nathan Lane) claimed that 400 was the number of people in New York who felt comfortable in high-society ballrooms. Beyond that, he sniffled, it was scum.

“He said, ‘If you go over that number, you end up meeting people who make other people uncomfortable,” Miller explained.

Debra Schmidt Bach, curator of decorative arts and special exhibits at the New York Historical Society, told the Post that McAllister was “an absolute elitist…He was apparently very charming and good at conversation, but he was only interested in people descended from ‘Knickerbocker families’ – those who could trace their roots to colonial Dutch families.

Bach added that McAllister would have boasted that he only had time for the elites whose ancestors were “the Huguenots, the Pilgrims or the Puritans”.

The list, meanwhile, was also McAllister’s way of getting invited to the best parties and events in town — a goal since he moved to the city in the mid-1800s from Savannah, Georgia.

Miller said that as soon as McAllister arrived in Manhattan, he spent the $1,000 he inherited from his grandmother on a set of dressy clothes to wear for a social affair. Later, prominent Manhattan socialite Caroline Astor would become his patroness and close friend.

Caroline Astor was a patron and friend of McAllister – until he poked fun at his wealthy friends with a tell-all book.
Caroline Astor was a patron and friend of McAllister – until he poked fun at his wealthy friends with a tell-all book.
Heritage Images via Getty Images

McAllister soon discovered that the way to earn the respect of the wealthy was to take advantage of their inferiority. He told a reporter that a million dollars was “respectable poverty” and liked to belittle Midwestern expats whom he considered the new rich.

He drew the ire of the Chicago Times after writing that if hostesses in this city wanted to be taken seriously in New York, they had to hire French chefs.

He was also known to take money to get aspiring invitations to fancy parties – sometimes as much as $250,000 in today’s money.

But, just as Truman Capote would 85 years later, McAllister wrote a book that burned the very people who embraced him.

“It was a developer that spread out all the dirty laundry [of the elite]”, Miller said. “He didn’t give specific names, but it was easy to read between the lines. He would use initials – ‘Mr. SV did that,’ or ‘Ms. B did that. ‘- so everyone knows who they were.

When he died five years later, McAllister had fallen into such disgrace that hardly anyone showed up at his funeral, including Mrs Astor. She had dinner that night.

The Vanderbilt that worked her way into high society

Alva Vanderbilt has shocked polite Manhattan society more than once.

While she and her husband, William Kissamm Vanderbilt, were incredibly wealthy thanks to her family’s shipping empire, they were not embraced by the city’s high society.

Railroad money was “new money” and was looked down upon by clans like the Astors, who had made their fortunes from real estate and, before that, the fur trade.

Excluded from McAllister's
Excluded from McAllister’s “The Four Hundred,” Alva Vanderbilt showed other wealthy Manhattanites with the party to beat all parties.
Wiki Commons

But Alva, who had been kicked out of McAllister’s “The Four Hundred,” was determined to fight her way to the top.

“The first step to being included in high society was getting the attention of high society,” said historian Miller, who runs the Daytonian blog in Manhattan.

And that meant surpassing them. Alva therefore enlisted famed architect Richard Morris Hunt – who designed the Great Hall at the Met – to build a French Renaissance-style mansion on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, called “Le Petit Château”.

But there was nothing small about it: Completed in 1882, the four-story, castle-like home took up one city block and had a 1,750-square-foot banquet hall that proved the canvas perfect backdrop for Alva’s big project.

She sent out over 700 invitations to a lavish ball – which is said to cost over $5 million in modern money. But she deliberately left Carrie Astor, the city’s It Girl, off the list. When Carrie complained to her mother, who happened to be McAllister’s boss, that she was not invited, Mrs. Astor was forced to invite Alva over for tea. Finally, Alva had her pass into high society.

“It was such a sly and wonderful decision,” Miller said.

And Alva, whose husband was cheating on her, had not finished shocking her new peers.

Alva and William K. Vanderbilt "Little Castle" was held at 660 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Alva and William K. Vanderbilt’s “Little Castle” stood at 660 Fifth Ave. in Manhattan.
Getty Images

“Infidelity was rampant and wives were expected to turn a blind eye,” Miller said of the time.

Alva instead filed for divorce, an unprecedented move in 1895. It became, as one newspaper judged, “the greatest divorce case America has ever seen.”

Golden Age deans resented her for bringing discredit to their elite circles, and Alva — now with a $10 million divorce settlement — was left out.

But by then she had moved on to other pursuits, including her second husband, Olivier Hazard Perry Beaumont, a wealthy politician.

She also became a key figure in the women’s suffrage movement and helped establish and lead the National Women’s Party. In 2016, Barack Obama designated a house she bought for the group as a national monument.

And Alva eventually found another way to show off Manhattan’s beau monde: She married her daughter Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Duke of Marlborough, a member of British royalty.