Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Court of Astor

Book Review

Title: Season of Splender—The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York
Author: Greg King

Thorstein Veblen once talked about the conspicuous consumption of the leisure class. He wasn't kidding.

I found this out reading Greg King's well researched book on the heyday of the ultra-rich and their social lives in New York city, back in the late 19th Century. I've heard the names of Astor and Vanderbilt before, but King's book added color and substance to those names, along with information about other families of the ultra-rich of the Gilded Age. And in fact, my eyes bugged out in astonishment at the opulence these people bestowed upon themselves and how much money they threw around. If you're interested in architecture, King lavishes plenty of detail when describing the mansions they built, and in several chapters he splurges on seldom-used architectural vocabulary, so it's a good idea to have a dictionary handy while you're reading his book. For example, I now know what a mansard roof is. But one thing is for sure: the ultra-rich didn't just build large mansions on 5th Avenue, they built insanely magnificent palaces for themselves, much with the aim of impressing other people. Furthermore, their social lives were so far removed from anything in my experience and so foreign that it was like reading about some strange tribe hidden in a muddy jungle somewhere in faraway New Guinea. The luxury was just unbelievable.

King's book ends very appropriately with the sinking of the Titanic. I recommend the book.