[In]…this gossipy and amusing book…Beebe writes of vast sums expended by Vanderbilts, Goulds and Morgans on yachts, castellated mansions, cotillions, fine libraries and blooded horses.”
The Big Spenders was Lucius Beebe’s last and many think his best book. In it he describes the lavish spending of the Gilded Age, not from a puritanical perspective, but rather as a theater critic might. One spending spree might be called excessive and tasteless; another might have been excessive, but it was amusing, or a grand spectacle, and tastefully done.
Beebe enjoys it all immensely, and so do his readers. Whether it is James Gordon Bennett buying a Monte Carlo restaurant because he was refused a seat by the window, Boni de Castellane spending $12 million of robber baron Jay Gould’s money in record time, Spencer Penrose leaving a bedside memo reminding himself not to spend more than $1 million the next day, or a legion of high-fliers brushing their teeth in vintage champagne after dining on a gold table service on board an immense yacht.
About the Author
Lucius Beebe (1902-1966) was born into a wealthy family in Massachusetts, was expelled from Yale, but graduated from Harvard. In 1933, in the midst of the Depression, he began a newspaper column called “This New York” which chronicled the doings of high and café society. A 1939 Life Magazine cover described him as “Mr. New York.”
He was also very interested in railroads and the West, which led him to move to Nevada in 1950 and also to a new column for the San Francisco Chronicle called “This Wild West.” A self-styled snob, gossip, dandy, and hedonist, Beebe remarked that, “All I want is the best of everything.” He did seem to be enjoying himself, and his wit and non-conformist attitudes were widely appreciated even in the high period of American conformism, the 1950s.
The Flying Lady Magazine
“For better or worse, the things he writes about&emdash;no matter in how exaggerated a fashion—did happen and they are entertaining.”
[Complete review: The Flying Lady Magazine]
1: Patroons and Parvenus
2: Golden Times, Golden Gate
3: Pets of the Lobster Palaces
4: The Benevolent Blackmailer
5: Three Parties that Made Headlines
6: Magnifico of Maxim’s
7: How You Traveled Was Who You Were
8: How to Move Stylishly
9: Good Times in the Money Mountains
10: The Men
11: The Plutocrats of Pittsburgh
12: Bonanza Bazaar
13: Misfortune’s Darling
14: Game Preserve for the Rich
15: Fun with Real Estate
From the Foreword
When, in the wide-open New York that flowered in the years immediately after the Civil War, the town’s biggest gambler and a political jeffe of consequence John Morrissey opened what were reputed to be the world’s most lavish gaming rooms on Twenty-fourth Street opposite the chaste premises of the ultrarespectable Fifth Avenue Hotel, there were those of his neighbors who took offense. These fastidious cave dwellers, although not above patronizing Morrissey’s games of chance or eating a dish of diamondback terrapin from his celebrated free buffet, maintained that his casino lowered the moral tone of the community, and their wives, when the Morrisseys attended grand opera at the Academy of Music, ostentatiously glared at Mrs. Morrissey through mother-of-pearl opera glasses.
On a to-hell-with-you basis of affront to these social dissidents, Morrissey ran for Congress. He won handily and just to be sure nobody missed the point, he ran a second time and was re-elected by an even wider margin.
To celebrate his second victory, he commanded from Lemaire of Paris, for his wife, what were probably the most ostentatious pair of opera glasses ever seen until that time. Their framework was in the form of a diamond and sapphire lyre and they cost $75,000, which enabled the delighted Mrs. Morrissey to glare right back and in an even more expensive manner at her social detractors on opening nights.
Openhanded John Morrissey’s pleasure in his wife’s effulgence anticipated by only a few decades that of Potter Palmer, the Chicago hotel-man who kept his wife so loaded with jewels that observers following her progress through the restaurant of the Paris Ritz thought that she staggered visibly, not from any communion with the wine card, but from sheer weight of diamonds. “There she stands with half a million on her back,” Potter Palmer used to say admiringly.
From Chapter One: Patroons and Parvenus
The nearest thing to a royal family that has ever appeared on the American scene was not the three Barrymores who assumed the title from a play in which Ethel, John, and Lionel were starred, but the Vanderbilts. The parallel between the clan founded, by the first emergent Commodore Cornelius Van Der Bilt can be drawn on any number of counts. Vanderbilts occupied for approximately three generations the very apex of social and tangible splendor reserved in other countries for regnant royalty. They seized dynastic succession from the palsied hands of other and previous social and financial monarchs who faltered in their exercise of power. When they took over the social domination of New York they took over, too, the perquisites and properties of royalty on a scale appropriate to hereditary and acquired power. The Mrs. Vanderbilt of the moment was undisputed queen of the nation’s drawing rooms and ballrooms. From her predecessor on the throne she usurped the simplicity of being; known merely as the Mrs. Vanderbilt. First names were superfluous, as are last names in the royal houses of Europe. And most of all, they lived and acted like royalty. Their palaces and summer palaces, their balls and routs and banquetings, their royal alliances and their vendettas, their armies of servitors, partisans, and sycophants, their love affairs, scandals, and shortcomings, all were the stuff of an imperial routine. To be socially accepted by the appropriate Vanderbilt of the moment was the equivalent of making one’s bow at the Court of St. James’s. There were even pretenders, mostly at safe remove, like Mrs. Potter Palmer who received on a raised dais in her Chicago palace in almost precisely the way the pretender to the throne of France maintained a court in exile in England.
From whatever angle you choose to regard them, the Vanderbilts had style. They showed Americans how to live, as nobody has done as a cohesive family group before or since. Like the royal houses of France or Portugal or Prussia or Roumania, they began as parvenus, but unlike many royal successions, they survived in high estate to become grandees and magnificoes. They were not much loved; they were widely feared and respected and they were envied on a scale to dwarf the human imagining. It was the envy of their inferiors, universal, consuming, explicit, and unabashed, that made them what they were.
For the most part, too, the members of this favored clan of acquisitive and ostentatious men and women cared little for public suffrage. The “public be damned” canard pinned on William Henry Vanderbilt by quoting him out of context was a commentary on the malicious yellow journalism of an irresponsible time, but, and in more decorous terms, it fairly represented their social and political philosophy. They looked after their own. The family was so well established as reasonable employers that during the railway troubles of 1877 a majority of New York Central employees refused to go on strike and were well rewarded for their loyalty, but the railroad management acted out of enlightened self-interest and not philanthropy. The Vanderbilts were feudal.
And, although they have, in their turn, vacated the high place they occupied in the American scheme of things, they have left their impress forever on the national awareness. When Wayne Andrews came to do his not-too-admiring story of the Vanderbilt family and all its works, he called it The Vanderbilt Legend and he was right. They were legendary people and the stuff of America’s most enduring saga of wealth and wealthy ways.