Aspire | Action | Acquire
Aspire | Action | Acquire

Celebritocracy

Before the Civil War, the proprietor of the New York Sun published a list of New Yorkers who whom were supposedly the city’s wealthiest. In 1855, William Backhouse Astor topped the list of nineteen with a wealth of over one million dollars. Astor’s fortune, inherited from his father John Jacob, was placed at $6 million. Cornelius Vanderbilt, at the age of sixty-one, was listed with an estimated wealth of $1,500,00.[1]

William Backhouse Sr.’s son, William Backhouse jr., married Caroline (nee Schermerhorn), whose lineage can be traced back to her seventeenth century great-great-great grandparents settling in New York. The Schermerhorn’s were a rich part of New York’s early high society, which marrying into the Astor wealth continued. As we learn from Nelson Aldrich Jr., old money, needs injections of new money to continue its custodianship of pretentious culture.

The Vanderbilt grandchildren were not on Caroline Astor’s list until Alva Vanderbilt, married to William Kissam (1849-1920), issued twelve hundred invitations to her own gala ball. Mrs Astor’s unfavorable disposition towards the Vanderbilts is said to have been premised on her dislike for “railway’ money[2]. As elegantly noted by Burton Hendrick, railroading “was not a trade that tended to develop gentle manners;”[3] despite passing into industrial maturity.

What was common to the early patriarchs, John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt, was their uncouthness. As said of Astor in a biography of the family, “Wealth and education had distanced them [family] from the man who provided those things[4].” Similarly, Vanderbilt, is described as having “the stately appearance of a prince” and the “uncouth grammar and manners of a longshoreman[5]”. Both men were known as ruthlessness in business.

By the late 1890s, the capital of the Gilded Age, New York, replete with Vaudeville music halls, became “the ruddy, uncouth harlot of the continent’s cities, drunk on Pittsburgh steel, Ohio Oil, California gold,”[6] wrote J. P. Morgan’s biographer. They were dens probably best avoided by the wealthy. Their yachts often providing respite from prying eyes. Wanting to avoid his wife’s gala balls, William Kissam Astor spent his time on his yacht, the largest privately-owned vessel of its time. Alfred I. du Pont, a founding member of the Miami Yacht Club, was another. Several Vanderbilt heirs enjoyed competitive yacht racing.

J. P. Morgan, a founder of the New York Yacht Club, disclaimed fashionable society. J. D. Rockefeller’s strict Baptist beliefs self-disenfranchised himself. Their preference was for club memberships. Of ten most commonly written about New York businessmen between 1900 and 1904, and listed on New York Social Register, nine averaged 9.4 memberships apiece. Connected to railroads, J. P. Morgan belonged to 19 clubs, W. K. Vanderbilt to 15, E. H. Harriman to 14. Surprisingly, Andrew Carnegie did not make the list.[7]

The currency of Old Money, as validated by Nelson Aldrich, is not money, which is usually in decline by the third generation, but its college educated networks. Education brought with it an air of social respectability to the male dominated world of patrician wealth that first- and second-generation money by itself did not. Prophetically, Aldrich credits “celibritocracy” for encroaching on “aristocracy,” and High Society which was “dominated by women of such dazzling force of character that “lady” hardly begins to describe them.” “With the death of High Society, born leaders of women would have to go elsewhere,” he wrote.[8]


[1] Burton J. Hendrick, The Life of Andrew Carnegie (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1933), 104-105.

[2] Arthur T. Vanderbilt, Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt, (New York, Morrow, 2013), 98.

[3] Burton J. Hendrick, The Life of Andrew Carnegie (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1933), 60.

[4] Derek Wilson, The Astors, 1763-1992: Landscape with Millionaires (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 83.

[5] John K. Winkler, Morgan the Magnificent: The Life of J Pierpont Morgan (1937-1913) (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1932), 65.

[6] John K. Winkler, Morgan the Magnificent: The Life of J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1931), 135.

[7] Frederick L. Allen, The Lords of Creation: The History of America’s 1 Percent, ed. Mark C. Miller (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2017), 73, 84-85.

[8] Nelson W. Aldrich, Old Money: The Mythology of America’s Upper Class (New York: Distributed by Random House, 1988), 48-49.