On March 26, 1883, Mrs. Vanderbilt gave a party. And what a party it was: it cost, in today’s dollars, $6 million, and its 1,200 opulently costumed guests included included the Mrs. Astor, who had rigorously excluded the Vanderbilts and their crass, arriviste ilk from her list of New York’s old-moneyed elite. But she capitulated because, while they may have been socially inferior to the 400, the new breed of millionaires were a lot richer; and when they wanted something – social acceptance, a state legislature, an English title – they bought it. Their manners – and their ethics – were constantly questioned, but their energy was never in dispute. I thought of the 400 while reading The New York Times’ examination of the 158 families who have so far contributed almost half the money to the 2016 presidential campaign, almost all of it to non-establishment candidates. In depicting the current Republican split between a blue-collar, red-necked Tea Party and the Wall Street wing, the media overlook how much of the conflict is between new money and old – and how much new money there is.
There are major changes going on in America, comparable to the Gilded Age, and while I do not like the politics it has brought, I respect the energy. I think of Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan in Fitzgerald’s enduring portrait of America. And I remember that, for all the ugliness of their family fortune’s origins, subsequent generations of Rockefellers have used their money to do much good in the world; and Andrew Carnegie endowed 1,689 libraries across the country.