Waldorf-Astoria – Peacock Alley

Those early beginnings of the Waldorf marked the ending of what Mrs. Wharton has aptly labeled the “Age of Innocence.” It is not suggested here that the Waldorf was a black-mustached villain that brought worldly knowledge, sophistication, and continental smartness into a guileless America. ‘What it did, however, was to con-tribute to a slowly growing appreciation of the graciousness in living. The old school books used to refer in picture and story to the graceful leisure of the Colonial period and, later, of the “Old South.” Perhaps the period between the Civil War and the early ‘nineties lost all that. At any rate, it doesn’t seem to have existed extensively. We were, as a nation, subject to growing-pains. We were beginning to grow at a tremendous rate, it is true, and our industries were springing up numerously and our desire for commercial expansion was rapidly asserting itself. But at the same time we were inferior minded—so some of the critics of the day tell us, anyway. We looked toward Europe with wonder and unconcealed admiration; thought of it as the Heaven of manners in literature, the arts, clothes, and in living. Then we got what the present-day psychologists call our “defense mechanism” into action; we regarded display, grandeur, and massiveness with suspicion, if not envy.

Even private expenditure still clung to provincial standards with little or no encouragement to indulge itself in the grand manner. Foreign royalty, with all its luxuriousness, and foreign splendor in general, with all of what we thought of as its pretense, we professed to smile at.

The Waldorf came along to challenge this attitude.

But before considering what the Waldorf did it might be appropriate to entertain ourselves with the causes of the condition we refer to—this growth of the nation’s social state of mind. That period, for instance, presented the picture of a country, as Mark Sullivan says, still mostly frontier of one sort or another. Yet he fails to add that although the pioneering years had passed, as well as the years of wonder, of awe, of fear, of cruel strife, there remained the undiscovered realms of culture, of social development, of literary, scientific, and artistic appreciation.

Since it was to find the Waldorf-Astoria a colorful background for much of its acitivity, it is important here to look into New York society, as it approached the ‘nineties, passed it, and moved up through the years until today, when we find what Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer has called “a loose, rather indiscriminate social circle” that is a far cry from the stately, patrician society New York knew in pre-Revolutionary times.

Early New York Dutch society was composed of real aristocrats and today there still lingers such patrician names as De Peyster, Sprat, Bogartus, Van Cordandt, Phillipse, Kierstede, and Beekman. The women of the Netherlands brought with them to this country their own social structure. It was, for years, a circle unto itself, seldom opening its doors to outsiders. But other old families gradually were admitted and today these include the Astors, Morgans, Vanderbilts, the Lamonts, the Vanderbilts, the Villards—but these are newcomers compared with the other names previously mentioned.

Not until the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies did society evince a keen interest in art, literature, music, painting. When it did do so it stimulated museums, the opera, and entertained people of talent. Otherwise, however, wealth was not something to flaunt. Society meant family,. breeding. Entertainments outside of one’s house were not heard of. The hotels of the time were never thought of as places to hold social affairs.

Indeed, it was not until 187o that Archibald Gracie King startled society by celebrating the debut of one of his daughters in Delmonico’s, at Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue. He probably was the first man, prominent in the society of New York, to give a formal dinner and ball outside his home. It was about that time that society was beginning to accept the waltz as a dance worthy of a ballroom. Later were to come the fox-trot and tango, which drove out the polka, the schottische, and gave the young people a chance to supplant their elders on the floor.

Before the Waldorf period the social season did not start until New-year’s day. Saturdays were always “at home” days. One of the most important social affairs was The Assembly. This gave way to the “Cheap and Hungries,” which held dances at Delmonico’s, and then Ward McAllister came along to form the Patriarchs. The latter group consisted of twenty-five persons of the highest social standing. Thus McAllister’s first selection of the preeminent New Yorkers took in only twenty-five and not four hundred. However, each of the twenty-five was allowed to invite nine guests to the various dinners and dances given by the clique—so that the innermost circle of society encompassed for a time not more than 225 persons.

Late in the ‘seventies, meanwhile, society began to expand and to change, breaking away from the old Dutch traditions. Wealth and achievement—and no longer mere birth—began to be the countersigns that gained admittance for those clamoring outside the gates. The rigidity of the past slowly crumbled, the old restrictions slowly were broken down. Many circles, each a dynasty unto itself, sprang up, so that eventually there was to be not one social planet, but many. Wealth, of course, played the most significant part in this change. Great fortunes hitherto unknown were made.

With the coming of great wealth there began to creep into society affairs a magnificence on a scale previously known only in Europe. The parties given were sumptuous, extravagant. Fashion became fashionable, the bizarre. swept simplicity into a corner. Society sought a grander place than Rockaway for its summer playground and so it established itself at Newport.

One of the most famous balls given at the time was that by Mrs. Schermerhorn, who lived in Lafayette Place, then a fashionable street. Her home was furnished in Louis XV style and society was astonished by it. But the ball was even more amazing and McAllister declared it was the greatest de luxe affair in New York’s history.

But the Schermerhorn ball could not compare with that given by Mrs. William Astor. It surpassed everything New York had known before in the way of social affairs. It was then, by the way, that the term “Four Hundred” came into existence. Ward McAllister, up from the South, had been a social adviser to Mrs. Astor. She was then the supreme leader of the city’s society in the days just preceding the opening of the Waldorf.

Mrs. Astor had made up a tentative list of guests. She had included many, many more names than she could hope to invite. Yet she feared to strike out some names and leave in others. The task of issuing invitations in those days was surrounded with peril. A single misstep, an offense to the wrong person, could cause a social upheaval.

This was particularly so in the case of Mrs. Astor’s party. At that time society was in an indeterminate state. There were many who pretended to be in society, many more who thought they were in it, and many who didn’t know just who was and who wasn’t. But everybody accepted the fact that the guest list of the Astor ball would be the final determination of the creme de la creme, the inner circle, of society. Therefore it was necessary for Mrs. Astor to choose her names with extreme care.

She probably decided the task was more than she could handle, so she turned it over to Ward McAllister. This was exactly the sort of problem he delighted in. He had before him names that ran into hundreds, but he was confronted with the fact that the Astor ballroom could not possibly provide for more than four hunched per-sons.

Therefore he studied all the names and finally selected four hundred of them. He later is said to have boasted of his selections. The newspapers, hearing about it, mentioned McAllister’s “Four Hundred,” and from that day it lingered on the tongues of high and low whenever New York society was mentioned. Today, although we speak of “the Four Hundred,” it would be a thankless and impossible task to select four hundred names really representative of what the ‘eighties and ‘nineties would have recognized as society.

Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish also had much to do in stimulating dazzling social affairs, perhaps chiefly because of the competent aid of Harry Lehr. It was he who inspired the fad of injecting “interesting people” into formal affairs people, that is, who had achieved something in the arts, the sciences, music and literature, regardless of what their standing might be.

This social acceptance of luxuriousness and splendor, however, by no means inserted itself into the popular mind. The average man and woman, as has been said before, frowned upon grand display—chiefly because the average person knew it was beyond his or her own horizon of enjoyment. The arrival of the Waldorf, however, was an invitation to the public to taste of this grandeur.

It is not for us to say here whether Mr. Astor or Mr. Boldt or anyone else connected with the beginning of the hotel had all this in mind. But the Waldorf did present a lavish picture that overwhelmed even the vaunted hotels of Europe and upset our own acceptance of mere simplicity, without beauty, as a virtue. It put into a public place in New York splendor, beauty, and gorgeousness. Then we, like Europe, began to put ourselves a little proudly, slowly, on display. And out of that there was bound to come a new Main Street in America—Peacock Alley.

New York, and that part of the nation that came to the metropolis, needed it, of course. Certainly, in spite of their attractions, neither Broadway nor Fifth Avenue were—nor are-real Main Streets. Broadway was then, and is now, a sort of a carnival thoroughfare. Today Fifth Avenue might be a glorified Main Street were it not so massive that it dwarfs us. Besides, we are so numerous and, Heaven help us, so sophisticated, that only on Easter Sunday do we think of parading to see and to be seen.

But back in the ‘nineties, and particularly when the Astoria was added to the Waldorf, people who lived in New York or who came to the city insisted upon walking at least once through the “Alley.” Every day was Easter Sunday there.

Looking upon it from the condescending eminence of present-day achievements, you might suppose the Alley was not an imposing thing, after all. But it was. It origin-ally was the corridor forming the Thirty-third Street lobby of the hotel, where women of fashion were sup-posed to play the peacock and strut in their fine frocks for the delectation of the other sex and the envy of their own. When the Astoria opened, the Thirty-fourth Street corridor claimed the promenaders and inherited the name. It was a corridor three hundred feet long. At first nobody ever thought of it as anything but just a corridor; a grand one, of course, in the biggest hotel in America. But this is how Oscar explains it got its name:

The first corridor ran between the Palm Room and the Empire Room. The Palm Room was perhaps New York’s most lavish and exclusive restaurant. Not even Delmonico’s surpassed it. It was there that the most prominent people of the town—that social dynasty including the Vanderbilts, the Goulds, and the Twomblies —dined. Tables were engaged long beforehand: otherwise you didn’t get in. There usually was not a table to be had after seven o’clock in the evening. You saw the women come in, their long trails draping the floor, the diamonds and pearls and necklaces gleaming, or their generously feathered hats bobbing up and down as they moved with stately tread along the corridor.

People from the outside used to jam the corridor every night just to see this parade of fashion, beauty, and importance. Those who did not come to be seen came to see. Since there was prestige attached to staying at the hotel, it was but natural that guests would want to show themselves off. So they strolled through the corridor. Finally somebody—Oscar never learned just who it was and nobody knows to this day, for that matter—remarked that the corridor seemed like an alley of peacocks. Then newspapers picked up the label, “Peacock Alley.” No-body protested it, because it really wasn’t irrelevant; the people of wealth who dined in the Palm Room rather liked it, for they were not ashamed of their pride.

So popular was the famous “Alley” that its floating population on an ordinary day might be twenty-five thousand and on days when a President or prince was staying at the hotel it was not unusual to find that 36,000 persons had moved through Peacock Alley at some time during the day.

The fame of the corridor soon spread throughout the United States. To realize its peculiar importance in the nineties it is only necessary to talk with those who recall that early period of the Waldorf. Or, better still, you might glance over an article that appeared in a magazine called The New Yorker, dated February, 1903. I must confess that this periodical does not seem to have been the progenitor of the present-day magazine by that name. Our New Yorker is flippant, while the magazine of the ‘nineties was fiercely serious. Here, for instance, is what one William Marion Reedy, fresh from the West, wrote under the title, “A Westerner in the Waldorf.” I quote it here, not to escape the task of giving a more direct picture of Peacock Alley, but to reveal how earnestly it was regarded throughout the land in its day.

“The place is like Port Said,” dramatically begins our Western friend, “as Kipling described it in the phrase that if you stopped long enough there everybody in the world that is worth knowing would eventually happen along. You meet the `magnets’ from everywhere in the provinces. You bump into adventurers, pikers, chevaliers d’industrie. Money moguls from mule towns are abundant. Senators from the far West are in evidence with wives who still wear big diamond earrings.

“Inventors are here living in luxury that means the free-lunch route at home, trying to dispose of their patents. Here congregate the mining men who want to raise money to open up a new Golconda. Almost as numerous are the men who have wild-eyed schemes for the consolidation of railroads. Everywhere the pathetic hanger-on, who lingers near the big broker or the great railroad manager in the hope of picking up some hint or tip on which he can make a quick and profitable turn in the market.

“There are lots of young fellows about in good clothes with plenty of money, pouring highballs into their faces and looking woefully tired, but determined to be real things in the gay world, There are the mashers who ogle women along Rubber Neck lane or Peacock Alley walk. There are the roues who hope to find a new face in the four-o’clock crush. And then, too, there are the real men of affairs who hold court, as it were, for their satellites and issue to minions orders that have much bearing upon the affairs of the world.”

You might suppose our Western friend was entranced by all this. No, he is just sad. He mourns over the whole spectacle in this fashion:

“But it’s all a whirl. There is a certain, splendor in it, of course, but the splendor doesn’t conceal the sordidness of it all. You look in the faces of these men and there’s no joy therein. The eyes and lips are sad. There is scarcely ever a gleam of soul to be discovered. No one has more than ten minutes to devote to anyone. Everybody is passed up as soon as it is found that he has no `dope’ on the way to make a dollar. You don’t hear of cards or horses or women or theatres or anything just schemes or plans or mergers of properties and dividends.

“Peacock Alley seems to be a sort of sample of Paradise for women. It is the Mecca of the dowagers, dames, and damosels of the outlying districts. Here they come with their gowns made by the swellest dressmakers from Kokomo and Nokomis and Crescent Circle. They flount them along that walk. They are magnificently uncomfortable. They didn’t know that New York ladies do not appear in the evening without hats. They are so sorry they didn’t know that the princess mode for gowns was the proper caper, that white was this season’s color, and that lace and grape decorations were the rage. In the Palm Room you find these women with men who are not entirely at ease in evening dress.”

At last the Western commentator, slowly growing desperate, turns a benign eye on Oscar in this fashion:

“And then there’s Oscar. It is Oscar who makes appeal to the mighty organ wherein the Chinese locate the soul. Oscar is the man who is apotheosized every time some dame or damosel tells her friends in the far West: `Oh, we had such a lovely time at the Waldorf.’ His no false fame. You will dine at fifty places of note in New York and yet you’ll find the cuisine no better anywhere than at the Waldorf-Astoria. The Four Hundred may sometimes affect Sherry’s, or Del’s, the flashier sets may rave about Martin’s, the upper Bohemians may rhapsodize about Rector’s. But the Waldorf-Astoria is head of the entire procession.”

It was not only the far West that rhapsodized about Peacock Alley or recognized its importance. The Dramatic Mirror, in the same year, came forth with the announcement (exclusive, of course) that a show was to be produced in which Peacock Alley would form the background. The name of the show was “The Earl of Pawtucket,” in which Frank Monroe, a prominent actor of his day, impersonated Oscar. The show was tremendously successful. In fact, the Mirror exclaimed that it was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise doubtful sea-son. In that year, you see, the critics were sadly declaring that the stage was going downward. The stage, it seems, is perennially on the verge of disaster.

But Peacock Alley, in spite of its reputation, was but a minor part of the big hotel. To the public mind it may have been the outstanding feature; to those who conducted the hotel it was an interesting, but one of many, details in that miniature city’s life.

Just off the corridor were really more colorful sights. Besides the Empire Room there was the Palm Garden, as elegant a place as you could find in New York; the two Men’s Cafes, one on the street side of the corridor and the other, the North Cafe, with its carved pillars and beams, used as a men’s restaurant. Then there was another room where you found the famous four-sided bar.

The four-sided bar came with the Astoria addition to the Waldorf. Why the old Waldorf never had a bar is a mystery, unless it be explained that Mr. Boldt or some-body else thought a bar was a little too unrestrained in character. The idea then was to sit at a table if you wanted a drink.

But when such men as John W. (“Bet a Million”) Gates used to demand a bar, it was decided to erect one. Old John W. didn’t like the idea of sitting at a table, except when he played cards. And he wasn’t one to be ignored. He was one of the Waldorf’s best guests. It is said that in rental alone, even in the early part of the twentieth century, he paid twenty thousand dollars a year for his big’ apartment in the hotel. ,He was one of the town’s richest men, but he liked the feel of a rail under his foot.

Gates was also one of the jolliest men that ever frequented the Waldorf-Astoria bar, in spite of his reputation as a stern, uncompromising business man. Everybody —except his business rivals, of course—liked him, for his honesty, which was borne out in one delightful episode that deserves its first telling here:

In this barroom Gates and his cronies sometimes played bridge every afternoon for a stretch of weeks (Sundays excepted). Once Gates and a couple of his friends were introduced to a young business man. Gates invited him to sit in at their game.

“How much a point?” inquired the young man, a little nervously. “A hundred a point,” they said, off-hand. He looked at them with growing concern. But they didn’t seem the least concerned. Gates was chewing away on his cigar. The young man figured it all out to himself. They must mean one hundred cents, or a dollar, a point! That was terrifically steep for him. The highest he ever had played for was a quarter a point, and even then he thought he was daring: a quarter of a cent was his comfortable average. Still, he could not tarnish his pride now by withdrawing at the thought of a dollar a point. Besides, he had confidence in his own skill.

The young business man’s skill was displayed that afternoon as it never was before. Probably the horrible thought of a dollar a point, hanging over his head like a Damocles sword, caused him to play his best every time he bid or flourished a card. He won. When the account was gone over, at the end of the game, Gates said, as if peremptorily dismissing the matter, that he’d have his man look after it and send the winner a check.

The next day the young business man was stupefied to receive a check for $33,000. There was some awful mistake or he was being made the butt of a joke. He hurried over to Gates. “Look here,” the young man said, “you’ve made some kind of a mistake. All you owe me is $330, but the check is for $33,000!”

Gates looked at the young man as though he couldn’t believe what he had heard. “What can you mean, my man,” he said, with that puzzled air of his. “You say $33o? Didn’t you know we were playing at a hundred dollars a point? Get out of here before I call you a dunce.”

This same “Bet a Million” Gates was involved in far more important and colorful deals than a bridge game, however, for he was to be one of the leading factors in the formation of the United States Steel Corporation. His peculiar and dramatic part in that deal, which began and was executed in the Waldorf-Astoria, deserves consideration later.

There were others who frequented the barroom with Gates—if not for a quiet drink, then to meet acquaintances. For instance, Arthur Wellesley Milbury, who was the senior living guest at the Waldorf-Astoria at one time, tells of many interesting personalities of which this deserves mention:

“A hush invariably descended on the barroom when there entered that most spectacular bunch of young men that Gotham ever saw. I refer to Billy Morse, James Gordon Bennett the second, Fred May, Fred Gebhardt, George Work. While they remained, no one had eyes or ears for anything except these young bloods, famed for, and capable of, any kind of an exploit. They were a happy, good-natured group, and when I think of them I think that something of their light-hearted spirit has long since departed from New York. They knew the true, beautiful meaning of gayety. The people in night clubs today only think they know it.”

Again, if you looked into the Morning Telegraph as long ago as March, 1898, you would have noted this observation by a smart but anonymous commentator:

“I see that Mr. Mackenzie Gordon, one of the elect, a famous cocktail connoisseur, and a devilish golf enthusiast, is to impersonate Jean de Reszke at the Waldorf-Astoria when society delineates well-known pictures by famous artists. Mr. Mackenzie Gordon as Jean de Reszke should be really funny, almost as funny, for instance, as an imitation of Henry Irving by Marshall P. Wilder. However, Mr. Mackenzie Gordon will not deceive us, for that charming gentleman cannot look like anybody but Mr. Mackenzie Gordon to save his life.