For National Book Lover's Day, August 9, Etiquetteer wants to share with you a delightful recent find, “King Lehr” and the Gilded Age, Elizabeth Drexel Lehr’s incisive, not-too-bitter tale of Harry Lehr, court jester to Mrs. Astor and the other Queens of New York - and the man with a secret who married her for her money. You will understand Edith Wharton so much more after you read it.
MARRIAGE UNDER FALSE PRETENSES
Elizabeth Drexel Lehr lived the life of a Wharton heroine: balls, parties, Opera nights, magnificent clothes and jewels, Court presentations in Europe, summer frivolities in Newport, and heartache. Her father, who died during her childhood, left her lavishly provided for. Her first husband died early in her marriage, leaving her with a young son. “Our moments of destiny steal upon us so quietly, generally so unperceived, that we are hardly aware of them until they have passed by,” she wrote. “Only in after years can we look back on them and see them from their true perspective, know that they made or marred our whole lives. Such a moment came to me when I met Harry Lehr."
Introduced to “the most amusing man in New York” on the very first night she had left off her mourning, Harry gradually began courting her, and then invited her to meet his four best friends at Sherry’s. (If one was not at Delmonico’s, one was at Sherry’s.) Expecting to be the only lady in a party of gentlemen, Elizabeth was surprised to see that Harry’s four best friends were the Queens of New York: Mrs. Astor, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mrs. Oliver Belmont (née Alva Vanderbilt), and Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, powerful matrons who could make or break anyone for anything. Elizabeth confirmed that she was up for review, "for as we rose to leave the restaurant I heard Mrs. Oelrichs say ‘I think she is delightful, Harry. We four are going to take her up. We will make her the fashion. You need have no fear . . . ‘“
Harry lost no time, proposing on the way home. And he lost no time after the wedding either, callously explaining that he married her for her money, solely to care for his mother; and that “I can school myself to be polite to you, but that is all.” Elizabeth, devastated, remained in the marriage for the sake of her mother, who, like her idol Queen Victoria, could not countenance divorced people. Thus began Elizabeth’s life at the apex of high society. “I found myself swept into the gay set to which Harry Lehr belonged, or rather of which he was the pivot. We were invited everywhere, parties were given in our honour . . . I flung myself into the gay social whirl that was to be my raison d’être. Vain substitute for the love I had longed for!”
THE QUEENS OF NEW YORK SHAKE UP PERFECT PROPRIETY
Etiquetteer wasn’t initially attracted to this memoir for any marital scandal of the 400, but rather to see how the Gilded Age social leaders used their position to change behavior in Society, and then in America. “Trickle-down manners,” if you will, from the Queens of New York.
From Elizabeth’s widowed mother, whose revered Queen Victoria, to Mamie Fish, who loved best jokes that could sting, Elizabeth witnessed a generational change in acceptable behavior for women, especially the super-wealthy. Then as now, Novelty ruled the day, goaded by Fear of Boredom. While Elizabeth’s mother appears to have been a modest and dignified wife and widow, the wives of Gilded Age tycoons occupied themselves with amusing parties and new ways to wear show-stopping jewels. Mrs. John Drexel wore her famous pearls as a Sam Browne belt. Mrs. Frederick Vanderbilt, inspired by the ladies of Venice, hung a big jewel from a rope of pearls at her waist. “So she always progressed to her loge at the Opera kicking a great uncut sapphire or ruby . . . "
These ladies challenged conventions in other ways, too. First, Mrs. Astor, to please Harry Lehr, actually dined in a public restaurant, a development so surprising that it made all the newspapers the next day. Shocking! Elizabeth also tells the story of years later when Mamie Fish and Frances Burke-Roche, “determined to be in the van of modernity," made it acceptable for ladies to appear in public restaurants in evening dresses with exposed necks. “Absurd that the public should be deprived of the sight of a pretty neck just because an obsolete convention decreed that nice women could appear in evening dress only in the shelter of their own and their friends’ houses,’ said Fannie Burke-Roche." And off they went to Sherry's, after many gentlemen declined to escort them (“Men are conservative creatures . . . “), creating more than a sensation. Louis Sherry, the proprietor, “turned pale with indignation, but he retained his poise . . . only from two such celebrated leaders of society could he have tolerated so scandalous an infringement of the rules of etiquette. But his disapproval was evident.” A social historian more adept than Etiquetteer could trace this humble beginning all the way to the Paris Hilton sex tapes.
Etiquetteer rather sympathizes with Mr. Sherry. His lament might be that of the stereotypical landlady of the period, “How do you expect me to run a respectable house?!” Some years later he was vanquished by another matron, Edith Gould, who deliberately took out her vanity case and used powder and lipstick at her luncheon table.* “But when Mrs. Frederick Havemeyer boldly lighted a cigarette at the table one Sunday evening and proceeded to smoke it in a leisurely fashion, she exceeded the bounds of his tolerance, for she was told politely but firmly that she must either extinguish it or leave the restaurant.”
But the most revolutionary change was the growing acceptance of divorce. If Alva Vanderbilt hadn't divorced her philandering husband "Willie K." and then married Oliver H.P. Belmont, the social acceptance of divorce would certainly have taken a lot longer. (In the 21st century it is difficult to imagine a day when divorce truly meant social ostracism. Consult Edith Wharton's short story "Autre Temps, Autre Mouers" on the subject.) Alva once confronted Elizabeth about her unhappy marriage to Harry. "'You ought to leave him. I'll help you. I don't believe in marriage anyway . . . ' It was obvious that I had gone down in her estimation when I declined . . . 'You are the old-fashioned woman, Bessie. I am the woman of the future.'" And indeed, today the stigma of divorce has been all but erased.
But what of Harry? Worthy successor of the late Ward McAllister, Mrs. Astor’s right-hand man and the one responsible for the term “the 400,” Harry Lehr came on the scene just in time to be taken up by Mrs. Astor before her health kept her from participating actively in Society. Harry then became court jester to the four “reigning queens of New York," but especially of Mamie Fish, who clearly shared his love of the irreverent and the absurd. He made the 400 laugh, and that's how he conquered them.
Elizabeth tells of several of their collaborations, but three that stand out are Harry's appearance as the Czar of Russia, the "monkey dinner," and the famous "dogs dinner" that was "denounced from pulpits" across the nation. The first came out of a little feud between Mamie Fish and Mrs. Ogden Goelet, "an enormously rich widow [who] had more suitors than she could count," over a handsome bachelor, James de Wolfe Cutting. Mrs. Fish invited Newport to a ball in honor of the Grand Duke Boris of Russia, a guest of Mrs. Goelet, and invited le tout Newport, but not Jimmy Cutting. Mrs. Goelet, the day before the party, sweetly told Mrs. Fish that no one in her house party could possibly attend the ball if Jimmy was not invited - including the Grand Duke, the guest of honor. Oops! Harry knew that the situation needed to be made laughably funny for Mrs. Fish to survive socially, and she persuaded him (it probably wasn't difficult) to impersonate the Czar at the ball. Elizabeth reports "The ladies nearest the entrance, in varying degrees of hesitancy, sank in a court curtsey, only to recover themselves with shrieks of laughter when they realized they were paying homage to Harry Lehr! The whole room rippled with merriment as . . . he made a solemn circuit on the arm of his hostess . . . in exact imitation of a stately royal progress. Mrs. Fish's party was saved!" And it earned Harry his nickname, "King Lehr."
The "monkey dinner" involved a "prince from Corsica" being invited at the last minute to a dinner at the Lehr's - "I asked him whether he was any relation of the ----------s whom we met in Rome, and he said that he certainly was. They all belong to the same family, only the Prince's is a distant branch." The "prince" turned out to be a small monkey in perfectly fitting evening clothes, who sat in the seat of honor at Elizabeth's right, with Mamie Fish (Harry's co-conspirator) on his right. "The dinner party was a great success, but somehow the story, absurdly exaggerated, got into the hands of the newspaper reporters and the result was a deluge of sarcastic comments." It cost Mrs. Fish absolute sovereignty over the 400.
The famous "dogs' dinner" was held for the dogs of friends, about 100 of them, where served " stewed liver and rice, fricassée of bones, and shredded dog biscuit" at a long table on their verandah. A young reporter managed to get into the garden with a small dog, but Harry, discovering he wasn't a guest, had him leave. The result: " . . scathing columns appeared in the newspapers next day. We were said to have fed our canine guests on wings of chicken and pâté de foie gras . . . and this in a time of trade depression. Harry Lehr was denounced by preachers throughout the States for having 'wasted on dogs food that would have fed hundreds of starving people.'"
Elizabeth illustrates the brilliance of the seasons before World War I with descriptions of rooms, parties, and especially the people who filled them - and sometimes their rudeness. Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer abandoned her escort, Lispinard Stewart - "famed for the perfection of his manners as well as his conceit" - to sit with other friends at a large dinner party at the Belmont's. He never forgave her. James Van Alen, "Newport's most eligible widower" and a man with a fetish for everything Elizabethan, held a musicale and invited le tout Newport . . . except Harry and Mamie Fish. When she confronted him, Mr. Van Alen told her they made too much noise to be invited to a musicale. Mrs. Fish, though, would win out: "Oh, so that's it! Well, let me too you, sweet pet" (her invariable expression when she intended to say something nasty), "that unless we are asked there won't be any party. Harry and I will tell everyone that your cook has developed smallpox, and we will give a rival musicale. You will see they will all come to it!" Vanquished, Mr. Van Alen invited them both to dinner as long as they promised to stay on the terrace during the musicale.
Racism and anti-Semitism are ugly, acknowledged facts of Gilded Age society, more shocking in this century than at the time of this memoir's publication in the 1930s. The author paints so vivid and lavish a picture of Society’s doing that the casual use of a racist slur to describe an orchestra is almost like slapping the reader across the face. You've been warned.
With that, you'd think that Elizabeth would have been more forthright about her husband's true character. But discretion trumps history, and at the end of the book, Elizabeth can only reveal surprise, reading his locked diaries, that ". . . he had known love, had given an emotion of which I had not believed him capable. His diary was a love story, but it was the story of David and Jonathan." The name of Harry's true love is not revealed.
All in all, "King Lehr" and the Gilded Age is an absorbing read about a circle of enormous wealth that set the tone for American social life at least through World War I, if not World War II. We owe a debt to the author for painting the seamy shadows of this period as well as its glitter.
*So we have Edith Gould to blame for this. While making up at the table has been going on for just over a century, Etiquetteer really isn’t comfortable with it. Seeing the magic happen makes it less magical.