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 Dames of 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”.
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.