A look back at the ‘supreme host­ess’ of the Amer­i­can gilded age


Does a novel about a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure who spe­cial­ized in ar­rang­ing ad­van­ta­geous mar­riages, in­clud­ing her own, strike you as plu­to­crat porn? Not to worry: Therese Anne Fowler’s “A Well-Be­haved Woman” es­chews the “Dynasty” ap­proach in fa­vor of a gim­let-eyed look at the vacu­ity and hypocrisy of life among the 400.

The 400, you may re­call, were the cream of Amer­i­can Gilded Age so­ci­ety; the num­ber hav­ing been ar­rived at by es­ti­mat­ing how many rev­el­ers could fit into the Man­hat­tan ball­room of that so­ci­ety’s doyenne, Mrs. Wil­liams Back­house As­tor Jr. — the Mrs. As­tor. Her gate­keeper was Ward McAl­lis­ter, who like Fowler’s well-be­haved pro­tag­o­nist, Alva Smith (18531933), came from the South and mar­ried well.

Alva’s catch is Wil­liam Van­der­bilt, a grand­son of the Com­modore, upon whose death Wil­liam be­comes one of the world’s rich­est men. His wealth is a god­send not just for Alva, but for her whole blue-blooded fam­ily, who were in such dire straits as to be get­ting by on two skimpy meals a day. In re­turn, Alva will put her con­nec­tions and in­tel­li­gence to use in rais­ing the nou­veau-riche Van­der­bilts’ so­cial stand­ing.

How Alva and Ward de­vise a plan and bring it off makes for one of the novel’s most en­ter­tain­ing episodes. The first step is to get the new­ly­weds in­vited to an As­tor ball. This comes to pass, but the grande dame re­fuses to no­tice the cou­ple when they ar­rive. None­the­less, Ward as­sures his co-con­spir­a­tor that they’ve made progress — “this is an in­cur­sion.” The clever schem­ing by which Alva even­tu­ally tri­umphs as “the supreme host­ess of New York, the lady who brought Mrs. As­tor to heel,” should be left for the reader to dis­cover.

The supreme host­ess, how­ever, is less than supremely happy. Wil­liam turns out to be a gen­er­ous, dec­o­ra­tive, sporty, empty-headed, furtively un­faith­ful play­boy. Alva man­ages to over­look his faults un­til her dear­est friend, Consuelo Yz­naga (af­ter whom Alva and Wil­liam have named their only daugh­ter), writes her a re­morse­ful let­ter: Consuelo and Wil­liam have been car­ry­ing on be­hind Alva’s back for years. This hurts all the more be­cause Alva has long har­bored, but never acted upon, a crush on an­other rich man, Oliver Bel­mont (of the Bel­mont Stakes clan), who has just about ev­ery­thing Wil­liam lacks, no­tably brains, charm and am­bi­tion.

Re­gard­ing Oliver, Alva is a bit dense, denser, in fact, than Fowler has gen­er­ally made her out to be. How could such a close reader of so­cial cues not sense that Oliver, whom she runs into fre­quently, has a crush of his own — on her?

At any rate, Alva makes up her mind

to seek a di­vorce, some­thing that women of her class — or any class — rarely do at the time. Wil­liam urges her to be­have as a wife should: for­give him and pre­tend that all is well. She re­fuses. The cou­ple’s pro­tracted de­bate over whether she can cause such a scan­dal with­out in­flict­ing se­vere dam­age on her­self and their chil­dren makes for high drama. Alva not only sticks to her guns; to pro­tect her old friend Consuelo, she forces Wil­liam to sup­ply grounds for the di­vorce by fak­ing an af­fair with a dif­fer­ent woman, who is well-paid for her trou­ble.

Af­ter some ini­tial set­backs, Alva ral­lies to hang on to her high place. Not so for­tu­nate is her old friend Ward McAl­lis­ter. Like Tru­man Capote in the 1960s, Ward com­mits the egre­gious er­ror of writ­ing an insider’s book about the up­per crust. His “So­ci­ety as I Have Found It” is a mem­oir, and Capote’s un­fin­ished “An­swered Prayers” is fic­tion, but each writer suf­fers the same pun­ish­ment: os­tracism by the crowd he be­trayed.

Fowler closes out her nar­ra­tive as Alva’s life is en­ter­ing its fi­nal phase, when she has lent her pres­tige and given a big chunk of her money to the cause of women’s suf­frage. By then — the first two decades of the 20th cen­tury — Alva was in her 60s and 70s, and the ac­tual cam­paign­ing fell to younger women, es­pe­cially Alice Paul. But Alva’s sup­port was both vi­tal and con­tro­ver­sial, suf­fragettes, as they were called, be­ing no more rep­utable than di­vorcees.

Fowler, who lives in North Carolina, has now writ­ten two nov­els with Tar Heel ties. Her first, “Z,” was about Zelda Fitzger­ald, who spent her last years in an Asheville men­tal in­sti­tu­tion. In writ­ing both books, Fowler has noted, she started out not lik­ing the main “char­ac­ter.” And each time, she dis­cov­ered, “the ev­i­dence didn’t match the rep­u­ta­tion.” Fowler’s Alva is tough, cagey and un­will­ing to set­tle

A Well-Be­haved Woman: A Novel of the Van­der­bilts By Therese Anne Fowler St. Martin’s. 400 pp. $27.99

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