The Grandes Dames

The Grandes Dames

by Stephen Birmingham


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Astor. Rockefeller. McCormick. Belmont. All family names that still adorn buildings, streets and charity foundations. While the men blazed across America with their oil, industry, and railways, the matriarchs founded art museums, opera houses, and symphony houses that functioned almost as private clubs. These women ruled American society with a style and impact that make today s socialites seem pale reflections of their forbears. Linked by money, marriage, privilege, power and class, they formed a grand American matriarchy that dominated the social and cultural life of the nation between the 1870s and the Second World War. The Grandes Damesof America knew just what they wanted and precisely how to get it, and when faced with criticism, malice or jealousy, they would rise above their detractors and usually persevere. Preeminent social historian Stephen Birmingham takes us into the drawing rooms of these powerful women, providing keen insights into aspects of an American Society that no longer exists. Caroline Astor, when asked for her fare boarding a street car, responded, No thank you, I have my own favorite charities. Edith Effie Stern decided that no existing school would do for her child, so she had a new one built. And the legendary Isabella Stewart Gardner replied to a contemporary who was overly taken with their Mayflower ancestors: Of course, immigration laws are much more strict nowadays. These women had looks, manner, and style, but more than that they had presence there was a sense that when one of them entered a room, something momentous was about to occur. Birmingham opens a window to the highest levels of American society with these eight profiles of American royalty ."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781493024759
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 08/15/2016
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 10.50(w) x 12.40(h) x 5.80(d)

About the Author

Stephen Birmingham is a preeminent social historian, known for his books The Right People, Real Lace, and The Grandees. He allows his reader unparalleled access to the most exclusive society sets, and tells their stories with great warmth and wit.

Read an Excerpt

The Grandes Dames

By Stephen Birmingham


Copyright © 1982 Stephen Birmingham
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-4104-1



There are several qualities that would seem to be required of a woman before she can be admitted to the hierarchy of Great Ladies, or grandes dames, a member of that vanished breed — the Great American Matriarchy — which ruled American society from the 1880s to the Second World War. One would certainly be toughness — physical and emotional toughness — the ability to fly serenely in the face of criticism, malice, and jealousy. To be a grande dame required thick skin. It also required, on the opposite end of the scale, a naïve, almost childlike, faith in oneself and one's infallibility. Luck was involved too, and, of course, money. Looks and manners — and that elusive ingredient charm — all helped, but were not essential. Most important, perhaps, was what author James Maher has described as "a sense of personal theatre." This is the sense which, if one is blessed with it, assures its possessor that, when she has entered a room, something important has happened. A curtain has risen, and the pink spotlight has fallen on the face of the star. It picks her out from the others, and follows her as she moves. The audience is hushed, expectant. Tilting her head just slightly to acknowledge the packed auditorium, she smiles. Then she speaks. Her timing and inflection are perfect. The drama, which is her creation, has begun.

Lucretia Bishop Roberts seemed to have been born with this sense of personal theatre. There was, for example, the matter of her name. She was a beautiful child, with light wavy hair, enormous gray eyes, a cupid's bow mouth, a beautifully shaped, slightly turned-up nose. Her skin was fair and flawless, her cheekbones were high and her cheeks were dimpled. Surely this pretty girl did not deserve to be named Lucretia, calling to mind as it did Lucretia Borgia, the famous poisoner. She also disliked her girlhood nickname, Lulu. No, this girl with the face of an angel, resembling paintings of the first woman in the Garden of Innocence, was more appropriately an Eva. And Eva was what Lucretia Roberts became. Later, when she became one of the wonders of her era, Eva would explain that her mother had given pet names to all her children, and that Eva had been hers. But one wonders. Every great star in the theatre tries to choose a name appropriate to her particular aura as she perceives it. And so Lucretia became Eva.

She had been born in Chicago in 1865, of parents who were by no means rich but were nonetheless respectable. Her father, James Henry Roberts, was an attorney who liked to recall the days when he had ridden the judicial circuits in southern and central Illinois with an older lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. In Chicago, Mr. Roberts's law partner was Melville W. Fuller, and the firm had a number of important clients, among them the Illinois Central Railroad. Fuller, in particular, was active in Illinois state politics, and from 1863 to 1865 was a member of the State House of Representatives. In 1888, by President Grover Cleveland's appointment, Fuller was named to succeed Morrison R. Waite as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. According to a Roberts family legend, Cleveland had given both Fuller and Roberts equal consideration, and the two partners had flipped a coin to see which man would go to Washington. Roberts had lost. The story is undoubtedly apocryphal, but as a young woman Eva Roberts learned to believe that somehow fate had cheated her family of a magnificent destiny. While her father's partner went on into the pages of American history textbooks, her father remained James Roberts, Esq., successful attorney at law.

In 1889, Eva accompanied her father to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he was arguing a particularly bitter case involving one of the many railroad "wars" that had become a commonplace of the era. The opposing counsel was a New York lawyer named Charles Thorn Cromwell, and with the senior Mr. Cromwell was his son, Oliver Eaton Cromwell. In the little frontier town, Eva Roberts and Oliver Cromwell met and fell in love. It was a match that displeased both sets of parents. Charles Cromwell and James Roberts were not only representing opposing sides of the case; they were also bitter enemies, had been for years, and were complete opposites in terms of personality. Cromwell was foulmouthed, hard-drinking, and uncouth. Eva's father was courtly, abstemious, and devout. When Eva and Oliver Cromwell announced their intention to marry, Eva's father reportedly warned her, "Daughter, you must faithfully attend church every Sabbath to arm yourself against the godless Cromwells." Eva and Oliver were married in Albuquerque later that year, and their honeymoon was spent in a local hotel. She was twenty-four and he was forty-one.

Godless the Cromwells might be, but they were socially very well connected. Oliver Eaton Cromwell was a direct descendant of the Oliver Cromwell, Britain's Lord Protector. In New York, his father had belonged to all the best clubs, including the Union and the New York Yacht Club, and the Cromwell yachts had won a number of important racing trophies. When Oliver brought his beautiful young bride to New York in 1890, he and Eva sailed into the Social Register and into the waiting arms of New York's reigning hostess, Mrs. William Astor, and her chief lieutenant, Ward McAllister.

Mrs. Astor and McAllister had codified and delineated New York society ten years earlier. A list, Mr. McAllister explained, had to be made of those who "counted" in New York, as opposed to those who did not, and that list consisted of no more than four hundred people. Besides, the capacity of Mrs. Astor's ballroom was four hundred, and thus the phrase "the Four Hundred" became fixed in the press and made its way into the American vernacular. (For years society reporters tried to get McAllister to reveal the names of who the chosen Four Hundred were, and when he finally complied it seemed that his arithmetic was off: his list consisted of only three hundred and four names.)

Though Caroline Astor unquestionably considered herself the grandest of New York's grandes dames — and would continue to do so long after Ward McAllister had ceased to be useful to her (cruelly, she held a large gala on the eve of her former mentor's funeral) — it would be incorrect to suppose that she served as a role model for Eva's later career in society. Caroline Astor was a plain, stiff, frosty woman who rarely smiled and was often rude. It is possible, too, that she was not very bright. A story persists that once, boarding a streetcar and asked to deposit her fare, Mrs. Astor said, "No, thank you. I have my own favorite charities." (But how could this be true? She had her own carriages and coachmen and would never have needed to use a public conveyance.) She was usually overdressed, nearly always in black, the better to show off her extravagant amounts of jewelry, and she invariably wore a very obvious black wig. Furthermore, she gave terrible parties, and why New York society groveled before Caroline Astor's pointed feet for nearly a quarter of a century is, in retrospect, a little hard to understand. Her own sense of personal theatre was based on intimidation rather than enchantment.

For her evening entertainments, Caroline Astor had set rigid, grueling rules. Gaiety was frowned upon, as was any conversation that smacked remotely of intelligence or wit. Within Mrs. Astor's gilded inner circle, the talk was almost studiedly irrelevant, and its topics were restricted, as historian Lloyd Morris put it, to "thoughtful discussions of food, wines, horses, yachts, cotillions, marriages, villas at Newport and the solecisms of ineligibles." Anything that might be remotely considered an idea was eschewed at the Astor dinner table, and during the day Mrs. Astor's set had the dinners of the previous evenings to discuss. Actors, opera singers, musicians, composers, and people connected with the theatre in any way were considered socially disreputable. Writers, painters, and sculptors were not deemed worth discussing — or buying — until they had been respectably dead for a number of years. Politicians were vulgar, nor were educators or even clergymen regarded as fit for inclusion in fashionable society. The only "working" people to whom the Four Hundred gave the nod were high-ranking members of the military, and the Astor-McAllister list included at least five generals and two colonels and their respective ladies.

Mrs. Astor and her friends' one concession to the arts was to attend the opera at the old Academy of Music on Monday and Friday nights during the winter season. But the dictates of fashion precluded any real appreciation of the music, as fashion required that one not enter one's box until the end of the first act. Then, during the second interval, one made conversation with one's friends in the neighboring boxes. Then, before the house lights dimmed for the third act — so that the departure could be observed by the less fortunate in the stalls below — one grandly left the opera and went home.

At Mrs. Astor's Fifth Avenue house, the evenings were equally ritualized. Foregathering for dinner was at seven, and an invitation to dinner with the Astors meant arriving at seven, not a moment later. If too early, one waited in one's carriage outside the door and alighted to ring the bell at clockstroke. This meant that all the guests arrived at once, and proceeded into the house in single file. The gentlemen wore white tie and tails, and the ladies long gowns and their best jewels. The ladies took their wraps to a downstairs cloakroom, and the gentlemen took theirs upstairs. In the gentlemen's cloakroom, white envelopes were arranged on a silver tray, a gentleman's name on each envelope. Inside was a card with a lady's name on it — the lady he was to escort in to dinner. The ladies and gentlemen then reassembled downstairs, and there their hostess received them in her black wig and black dress which might be adorned with "the costliest necklace of emeralds and diamonds in America," or "the finest sapphire."

When the receiving line broke up, a butler appeared with a tray, and cocktails were served. There was never a choice of drinks. Mrs. Astor preferred something called a Jack Rose, and a Jack Rose was therefore what was offered, one to a guest in a small sherry-sized glass. A maid then entered with a tray of canapés, again one apiece. No one would have dreamed of asking for a second canapé, much less a second drink. In exactly fifteen minutes dinner was announced. At the table were printed place cards and menus, each embossed with the Astor crest, outlining the courses through the appetizer, soup, fish, meat or game, salad, cheese and fruit, dessert and coffee, with perhaps a lemon sorbet somewhere in the middle "to cleanse the palate." Of course, each course was adorned with an appropriate wine.

Dinner lasted two hours, and through it all, in addition to keeping track of what one was saying to one's dinner partner, it was necessary to keep an attentive eye on the hostess to catch the exact moment when she "changed the conversation." When Mrs. Astor shifted the focus of her attention from the dinner partner on her right to the person on her left, the entire dinner table had to turn heads with her. At approximately half past nine, Mrs. Astor rose, and the table did likewise. The ladies and gentlemen then separated — the men to the library for brandy and cigars, the ladies to the adjacent drawing room for a ladylike glass of mirabelle liqueur and gossip. In the library, the consumption of brandy was usually rapid and enthusiastic; it was the first chance the men had had all evening for solid alcoholic stimulation. Then, in exactly half an hour a butler opened the doors between the two rooms, and the gentlemen joined the ladies for another thirty minutes. At half past ten, Mrs. Astor rose again, the signal that the party was over.

The new Mrs. Oliver Cromwell had almost immediately become pregnant, and her first child, a daughter, was born in 1890. Two more children followed, both boys. Though her face was still smooth and beautiful, childbearing thickened Eva's figure somewhat. Still, it was not a matronly figure, and, with the aid of corsetières, she was able to achieve the hour-glass silhouette that was very much the fashion of the day — full-bosomed, full-hipped, with a tightly cinched-in waist. Ward McAllister died in 1893 and, though she did not yet realize it, Caroline Astor's star was beginning to set on the New York social horizon; her last important ball was held in the spring of 1897. Now it was possible for Eva Cromwell to do some important entertaining of her own.

Like many of his male contemporaries in Mrs. Astor's group, Oliver Cromwell's occupation was somewhat loosely defined. His father had died and left him a rich man. He was "in finance" and he "kept an office" — consisting of a secretary, a stock ticker, and a telephone — downtown, where he "managed his investments." Unlike the Philadelphia financier Edward T. Stotesbury, whom Eva would meet later on, Oliver Cromwell did not seem to have a lucky streak. Then, too, as America entered the twentieth century, panics on Wall Street began to occur with alarming frequency. In 1903 there was the so-called rich man's panic, caused by manipulators in U.S. Steel stock, when Steel plunged from $58 to $8 a share, taking most of the market with it. Then, four years later, the panic of 1907 threatened to wreck the whole fabric of the financial community. (Acting almost singlehandedly in October of that year, J. P. Morgan managed to avert a depositors' run on a number of leading U.S. banks; among the handful of financiers Morgan turned to were John D. Rockefeller, E. H. Harriman, and Edward Stotesbury.)

Through all these vicissitudes, Oliver Cromwell plunged ahead in the stock market, sending good money after bad and displaying all the desperate traits of a compulsive gambler. Alarmed, Eva begged her husband to move the family to Washington, on the probably naïve assumption that if she could physically remove him from the Wall Street area she could curb his speculative fever. It is also possible that she had begun to weary of the tedious predictability of New York parties, for which Mrs. Astor's continued to set the tone. And so the move to the capital was made.

In Washington, of course, Eva had many important social contacts. Her father's former partner was Chief Justice, and Washington, under the cheerful administration of President Teddy Roosevelt — sparked by the spirited antics of his irrepressible daughter Alice — was a merry place. Alice Roosevelt and Eva's daughter Louise were about the same age, and were invited to many of the same parties, and Eva and Oliver Cromwell were an immediate social success. They were taken up by the international diplomatic set, and it was here that Eva began to blossom into full flower as a hostess. Her parties were much gayer and less constrained than Mrs. Astor's. Guests chattered in both French and English. Champagne flowed. The hostess's personality was as sparkling and effervescent as Caroline Astor's had been dour and flat, and Eva was able to demonstrate another extraordinary talent: the ability, in a roomful of hundreds of people, to remember the name of every guest and, in most cases, the names of their children. Her sense of personal theatre was beginning to emerge.

Then, in 1909, tragedy struck. Oliver Cromwell suffered a series of strokes, the third of which was fatal. He had been sixty-one, and Eva was a widow at forty-four. The press reported that Eva had inherited "three houses" and an "ample fortune," but two of the three houses had never existed, and the fortune — though there was enough for Eva to live on comfortably — was far from ample. It had been seriously drained by her husband's financial misadventures. Eva went into deep mourning and seclusion.

Early in the spring of 1910, at the suggestion of friends who were concerned about her continuing depression, Eva Cromwell decided to take a trip to Europe with her nineteen-year-old daughter. The trip was intended to take Eva's mind off her loss. It would "give her something to do." It was assumed, of course, that Eva's brilliant social career was over.

In fact, it was just beginning.



By 1910, Edward T. Stotesbury was already known as "the richest man at Morgan's." The wunderkind who had started his banking career as a lowly janitor-clerk had not disappointed those men who first spotted his financial genius and promoted him upward, Anthony J. Drexel and J. Pierpont Morgan. Officially, Stotesbury was now the resident senior partner of Drexel and Company of Philadelphia, but he was also a senior partner of J. P. Morgan & Company in New York — "Morgan's man in Philadelphia," as he was often called. Actually, of course, the Morgan and Drexel banks were themselves a partnership, making Stotesbury a double partner. It was not as confusing as it sounded: Morgan ran New York and Stotesbury ran Philadelphia. When necessary, the two men used each other's services.


Excerpted from The Grandes Dames by Stephen Birmingham. Copyright © 1982 Stephen Birmingham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


PART ONE Little Eva vs. Philadelphia,
1. "A Sense of Personal Theatre",
2. Philadelphia, Meet Mrs. Cromwell,
3. The Ring-Mistress,
4. More Stately Mansions,
PART TWO New York Belle Among the Brahmins,
5. "A Terrible Cut-up",
6. A Patroness Is Born,
7. Flings,
8. The Palazzo,
PART THREE Jewish Princess of the Old South,
9. J.R.'s Money,
10. J.R.'s Daughter-R.A.U.,
11. "The Example We Set",
PART FOUR The Queen of Gomorrah,
12. 1000 Lake Shore Drive,
13. Mrs. McCormick Departs,
14. Mrs. McCormick Returns,
PART FIVE The Loneliest Millionairess,
15. "Guppy",
16. A Litany of Good Works,
17. The Tsarina and the Lady,
PART SIX A Woman of Mystery,
18. Secrets and Scandals,
19. Mrs. Huntington,
20. Pompadour and Medici,
21. The Grands Messieurs,
PART SEVEN "Walk Erect, Young Woman!",
22. Ingenue,
23. Rules and Regulations,
24. Leading Lady,
PART EIGHT First Lady,
25. "A Hard Woman to Say 'No' To",
26. Bayou Bend,
27. "I'm Doing What I Want to Do",
Afterword: "A Vanishing Breed",
Image Gallery,

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