A Party Worth Emigrating For? Gilded Age Excess and The Bradley-Martin Ball

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The Bradley-Martin Ball.

“The power of wealth with its refinement and vulgarity was everywhere. It gleamed from countless jewels, and it was proclaimed by the thousands of orchids and roses, whose fragrance that night was like incense burnt on the altar of the Golden Calf.” –Frederick Martin Townsend, Things I Remember (1913)

Bradley and Cornelia Martin, self-styled the “Bradley-Martins,” occupy a special place in the history of Gilded Age New York. Having inherited a massive fortune of about six million dollars (roughly equivalent to $162 million in today’s money), they bought their way into high society. They threw a series of balls and dinners throughout the 1890s, married their daughter to the Earl of Craven, and hosted a ball so lavish their taxes were doubled and they fled the country.

The Bradley-Martin Ball would go down in history as one of the most expensive parties ever recorded. For a party lasting about five hours, the Bradley-Martins spent an incredible $400,000, which would be about $9 million in today’s money, or $11,000 per each of the 800 guests.

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The old Waldorf, 1890s

The ball was held on February 10th, 1897 at the newly completed Waldorf-Astoria on Fifth Avenue (now the site of the Empire State Building). Money being no object, the Bradley-Martins instructed the hotel staff to do whatever they had to do to make the hotel look like Versailles during the reign of Louis XV.

Thousands of flowers were brought in from hot houses as far away as South Carolina and Alabama. Countless roses were thrown against the walls and allowed to rest where they fell to be crushed underfoot. Flowers covered the tables and the walls, and even managed to obscure the orchestra who played Chopin, Mozart, and Hungarian Court music throughout the night.

The party started at 11:00pm and one hundred waiters served dinner at 1:00am. The twenty-eight dishes on offer included such party classics as caviar-stuffed oysters, canvasback duck, turtle, plovers eggs, foie gras, and suckling pig. 4,000 bottles of Moet & Chandon, or five bottles per guest, were consumed in just five hours.

The idea was almost altruistic. The country was two decades deep into a recession that saw much of the country unemployed or underpaid. In hopes of stimulating the local economy, Mrs. Bradley-Martin insisted on using local vendors for everything, so the money wouldn’t just go to “foreigners”. The eight hundred guests were invited on short notice and given a challenge: they must come dressed as famous people from the 16th-18th centuries. There would be no time to get their costumes from Paris, so the wealthiest people in the United States would be forced to get everything in New York.

As much as the Bradley-Martins spent on the ball, their guests doubled it with what they wore. Most chose to dress as royalty, naturally. As The New York Times reported:

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Mrs. F.H. Benedict as “A Louis XV Marquise”

“There is no estimating the value of the rare old jewels to be worn at the Bradley Martin ball. All the jewelers who deal in antiques say they have been cleaned out of all they had on hand, and people still keep calling for old buckles, snuff boxes, lorgnettes, diamond or pearl studded girdles, rings, and, in fact, every conceivable decoration in gems.

“All this, of course, is outside of the costly jewels held as heirlooms by the old families of New York. These have been taken from safety vaults and furbished up for the occasion in such quantities that the spectator will be puzzled to know where they all came from.” (The New York Times, February 9th, 1897)

There was no shortage of jewels among New York City’s elite in 1897. Many of the jewels worn at the ball had previously belonged to French nobility. The 1887 auction of the French crown jewels had been all but cleaned out by America’s elite (click here to see what we’re talking about.), and they were excited to show them off. Tiffany’s verified their quality—there would be no paste present at the Waldorf!

All in all, there were fifty Marie Antoinettes, ten Madame Pompadours, eight Madame Maintenons, and three Catherine the Greats. Mrs. Bradley-Martin came as Mary, Queen of Scots, but actually wore a necklace made from jewels that had once belonged to the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Because that’s not creepy.

Although Mrs. Bradley-Martin’s jewels just for that night were worth an estimated $2.7 million in today’s money, John Jacob Astor’s wife’s jewels were closer to $5 million.

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A guest in elaborate Native American costume. Cultural appropriation: go big or go home.

It wasn’t just the women going all out. Oliver Belmont showed up in a suit of armor so heavy he could barely move (it was the gold inlay that did it), and there were so many ornamental swords present the men were tripping over them in their effort not to wound anyone on the dance floor.

There was unprecedented media coverage leading up to the event. The New York Times published a list of the confirmed guests and the costumes they planned to wear.  While the public was interested and many showed up to watch the guests arrive at the Waldorf, most did not receive the event with the cap-doffing acceptance the Bradley-Martins must have envisioned. The family was creating work! Shouldn’t the poor be grateful?

To put things in perspective, there had been a twenty-year recession in the US starting about 1877, and by 1897, unemployment was high. The average yearly wage for an American worker was about $400, or not quite $8 a week. You could get a steak dinner for 85 cents if you were feeling fancy, but most wouldn’t be able to afford even that. $1.25 a day would feed, clothe, and house a family with five children. As grateful as many of them no doubt were for the work, seeing the city’s elite drop fortunes to outdo each other for a bit of a lark must have felt like a slap to the face. People were literally starving to death in the streets. How could anyone justify spending thousands on tutti-frutti?

As generous as they had hoped to be by stimulating local business, one can’t help but wonder if the money would have been better spent elsewhere. The estimated $400,000 spent on a five-hour party for people who had no trouble paying for their own caviar-stuffed oysters and Moet (only half a dozen present were not millionaires) could have paid the average wages for 249,600 people for a day, or supported 40 average families for fifteen years. It could have bought half a ton of coal each for 280,000 families.

But, you know. Foie gras is valid, too.

Miraculously, there were no riots. Two hundred policemen surrounded the building to protect the guests and the jewels they wore. The richest of the rich survived to party another day, but New York was not happy. They had been given a little work, but those employed in various positions to support the party (decorating, serving, etc) would have made perhaps a dollar a day at most.

Although most contemporary sources claim the vast majority of people were indifferent to the wasteful opulence of the ball, the criticism in the papers following the event was more than just a cry for publicity. The expense of the ball drew condemnation of ministers and the attention of the New York City tax authority, who doubled the taxes for the Bradley-Martins and increased them for many of their guests. The family effectively dodged this by selling their house and moving to England to live full-time. Bradley’s brother insists they would have done it anyway following the birth of their grandson:

“After the ball the authorities promptly raised my brother’s taxes quite out of proportion to those paid by any one else, and the matter was only settled after a very acrimonious dispute. Bradley and his wife resented intensely the annoyance to which they had been subjected, and they decided to sell their house in New York and buy a residence in London.

“Four years previously their only daughter, Cornelia, had married Lord Craven, and my brother felt that the family affections were now implanted in the Old World. His grandson, who was born in the year of the famous ball, was such a source of pride to us all that I believe the advent of the boy finally decided the Bradley Martins about leaving New York.”

Regardless, Mrs. Bradley-Martin got her wish. She did top the Vanderbilts by hosting the grandest ball the city had ever seen, and today the Bradley-Martin Ball is remembered as the last great ball of the Gilded Age.

Jessica Cale

Sources 

Frederick Martin Townsend, Things I Remember. London: E. Nash, 1913, pp. 238-243.
The New York Times: Echoes of the Big Ball (Feburary 11, 1897)
The New York Times: The Bradley Martin Fete (February 10, 1897)
Holland, Evangeline. The Bradley-Martin Ball (Edwardian Promenade).
Sidney, Deana. The Bradley Martin-Ball, Bling and Beef Jardiniere with Bearnaise Sauce (Lost Past Remembered).
Meet Myth America, Party Like It’s 1897.
Famous Diamonds, The French Crown Jewels: The Beginning to the End 

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