Who was the real Mrs. Astor?
Golden age may be fiction, but that does not mean that the HBO series about the war between New York families of the old rich and the new rich has no basis in reality. The series sprinkles several characters based on real people, including architect Stanford White (John Nesbit) and hulking society matron Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (Donna Murphy), aka The Mrs. Astor. So who was the real Mrs. Astor?
In “The Gilded Age”, Mrs. Astor is at the top of New York’s social elite
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Golden age featured Ms. Astor at the end of her first episode, “Never the New,” where she was seen throwing an invite from aggressive social climber Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) into the fire without a second thought. In episode 2, “Money Isn’t Everything”, Mrs. Astor makes another appearance when she opens the highly anticipated charity bazaar.
Although Mrs. Astor is not a major character in Golden age (at least not yet), the series is clearly showing that she is a force to be reckoned with. His approval means everything. Without it, Ms. Russell cannot hope to achieve her goal of penetrating the upper echelon of New York society.
For now, the Russells – who made their money in the railroads – are firmly outside the inner circle of the city’s elite. But that could soon change. After several women snubbed Bertha’s offer of her ballroom for a charity event, her husband George (Morgan Spector) buys out the whole mess in one fell swoop. It’s a bold move, and one that doesn’t go unnoticed by Mrs. Astor.
“Yesterday, I would have said that [George Russell] was nobody,” she says at the end of the episode. “But today? I have to admit he is someone to be reckoned with… We will hear from him again.
The real Mrs. Astor was a formidable social force
Golden age does not exaggerate the crucial role played by Mrs. Astor in New York society at the end of the 19th century. She was the head of The Four Hundred — the exclusive list of those considered part of the city’s social elite (via British). The number of people admitted to the club was reportedly limited by the capacity of Ms Astor’s ballroom, which was said to hold 400 people. An invitation to one of his balls could determine who was in or who was out, socially speaking.
Mrs. Astor was born in 1830 to a wealthy New York family who had moved to America during colonial times. She married William Astor in 1853. He was the son of John Jacob Astor, who made his fortune in the fur trade as well as by smuggling illegal opium from China (via History.com). They had several children. A daughter married a member of the Roosevelt family, and their only son, John Jacob Astor IV, died in the sinking of the Titanic.
Mrs. Astor’s daughter Caroline forced her to recognize an important new money family
Mrs. Astor was not eager to embrace New York’s new wealthy families. But ultimately, his daughter Caroline “Carrie” Astor (played by Amy Forsyth in Golden age) forced her to make a concession. In 1883, Caroline wanted to attend a costume party thrown by the Vanderbilts. In order to secure an invitation for her daughter, Mrs. Astor had to appeal to Alva Vanderbilt, whose husband had made his fortune as a railroad tycoon, as had Mr. Russell. Eventually, Caroline married a man whose sister married a Vanderbilt, bringing the two families together.
So far, the Vanderbilts have not appeared as characters in Golden age. But it’s possible the series will borrow from their history and show that Mrs. Astor will eventually give in to Mrs. Russell’s ambitions for the sake of her daughter.
New episodes of Golden age airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
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