First, some history. In 1883, during the middle of the Gilded Age, Alva Vanderbilt decided to force her way into the elite sector of New York society known as “Mrs Astor’s Four Hundred”.
For years, Mrs Astor had maintained her own list of acceptable blue bloods. “Old money”, a relative term compared with Europe, counted; “new money” did not. Unfortunately for Alva, the Vanderbilt family wealth — which topped $1bn (£616m) in today’s money — was considered new money.
It was perhaps not surprising that Mrs Astor fought so hard to maintain the tribal identity of New York high society. The Gilded Age was an era of sudden prosperity (the economy grew by 400% between 1860 and 1900) and gross income disparities. According to best estimates, by 1905 the top 1% held more than 50% of the country’s wealth. Yet it was also an era of unprecedented social mobility.
Alva Vanderbilt understood that the issue at stake was class versus caste. Armed with that insight, she built the showiest mansion on Park Avenue, planned history’s most expensive costume ball (costing $250,000 when the average income was $380 a year), and invited every smart person in New York — except for Mrs Astor and her daughter Carrie, then in the middle of her debutante season.