Assouline's latest tome on New York's elite high society offers fascinating insight into the rarefied world of America's aristocracy.
Assouline's new tome on America's upper echelon highlights the fascinating history of New York's society set. Author and historian Nick Foulkes discusses the world of high society, then and now.
While academics are often eager to dismiss America as having no more than a fledgling past, the global impact of New York's high society on the elite classes in less than four centuries is undeniable. According to High Society: The History of America's Upper Class, Assouline's lavish dedication to New York aristocracy, written by London-based historian and author Nick Foulkes, the inauguration of the city's first public and private balls in the 1730s marked the arrival of the city's society scene.
The Wall Street crash, the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House and the induction of art and fashion into its privileged fold have all played fundamental roles in shaping today's high society.
The names remain familiar as the bloodlines of founding families: Astor and Vanderbilt continue to reign. The passing away last year of Brooke Astor, a descendant of the mighty dynasty and affectionately regarded as "the city's unofficial first lady," and society's great matron Nan Kempner in 2005 marked the end of an era and the start of a fresh chapter for the new generation of society swans. Nick Foulkes offers insight into the rarefied world of New York's most elite.
Nick Foulkes' definition of luxury:
Time and sufficient savoir vivre to enjoy it properly.
If luxury were...
A moment :
Lighting a cigar having just won a backgammon tournament – given that I seldom win a backgammon tournament and that smoking in anything other than a private residence or prison cell is illegal in the UK, this would be a luxury. Either that or something domestic like reading to my children.
A place :
A tower suite with views of Central Park at the Carlyle; the gardens of the Marbella Club, Capri; the Hôtel du Cap viewed from the deck of someone else's yacht; the Terrace of the Nacional Hotel in Havana.
A person :
Mark Birley – the most tasteful man of the 20th century, who lived life at a pitch of refinement that others can only dream of. He died in 2007 and I miss him greatly.
An object :
So many things: a fine Havana cigar (like the reserva Partagas of a few years ago, sadly all gone), a suit made for me by Terry Haste or Mariano Rubinacci, a Charvet shirt, a pair of Eric Cook shoes, a Girard-Perregaux wristwatch, a pair of vintage Nardi or Van Cleef cufflinks, a Cartier London crash watch from the late 1960s, a bottle of Oris Noir from Ormonde Jayne.
Where can the earliest origins of high society be traced back to, and within which culture?
High society is one of those terribly artificial constructs that assumes you have social organization stratifying itself. Whether it was the pharaohs of Egypt or the medieval barons of France, it seems to be the natural way of things. With reference to the book, even though it tended to be the riffraff or non-conformists who would go to far-flung places like America or Australia, I always joke with Americans, saying, "I bet your ancestors traveled first class on The Mayflower."
As society in general becomes more traveled, has high society become more cosmopolitan?
I don't think that it has become more cosmopolitan, I think that you have cafe society, as Graydon Carter refers to the "espresso society," which is a different thing all together and is much more exhilarating than high society. High society is more about earls and barons. There is an aristocracy of talent as well. What's interesting about the British aristocracy is that it's always been quite inclusive, whereas in America, oddly enough, they were much more snooty. In England, the court of Edward VII was a very cosmopolitan setup, so I think in a funny way, American high society has always been a bit more precious and a bit more self-regarding than the English version, which is more relaxed.
High society seems to be a kind of watered down version of the royal court. Now celebrities seem to be infringing upon the realms of high society. If this is the case, where do you see high society going?
High society has always been in flux. It depends on how you view it. I'm working on a book at the moment that's about the Derby of 1844. This was a particularly crooked race. One of the chief rogues was John Gallier, who was in debtor's prison. He was taken out to become a prize fighter and then became of great fixer of odds on horses. He wound up an MP, and one of his sons became a viscount; it happens.
Does high society still exist?
I think it does. It's fashionable to downplay it, particularly in a time of great financial turmoil – although, ironically, it may prove to be a time when the non-monetary values are resurgent.
How do high society circles differ among countries and cultures?
It's quite difficult to generalize, but what I find quite romantic are things like the black aristocracy of Rome, which can trace its ancestry back to Roman times. Also, there's a friend of mine called Jean-Pierre Martel, who's an ancestor of Charles Martel, who fought some great battle. I find that direct link with history quite romantic.
What are the New York society hotspots?
The Waverly is certainly one of them, and the Carlisle. The history is what interests me the most. When it gets modern, it gets a bit tedious for me.
Who was the ultimate socialite in your opinion?
Harry Lehr, who's in the book. He was a very talented man who turned his talents to social climbing. There was something quite endearing about Harry Lehr, something quite cynical and nasty about him. Engaging company though he was, there was something sinister about him. I think that Lord McAllister was also fun, but I can't quite figure out if Lord McAllister really was as pompous as he seems in his books, or whether it was an extremely elaborate joke at the expense of his society patrons.
Who are today's society swans?
I really couldn't tell you, as I think that it only becomes apparent after the event. You only have to look at David Patrick Colombia's pages – those that one might see in Vanity Fair, possibly, but somebody like Amy Fine Collins, who is a woman of great elegance of both mind and body. I would say that she is somebody who might qualify.
What are the biggest misconceptions about high society, both historically and now?
There have always been complaints from those within it that there are those that are in it that shouldn't be in it. Its exclusivity has always been questioned. I doubt that there was ever a golden age of high society.
Do society tribes exist?
I'm sure there are, as everything has become more focused these days. You have art, fashion, people whose interests are highly developed in particular spheres.
High society within the US has always been regarded as matriarchal, but as women carve out their own successful careers, is the balance shifting? How do you see roles evolving?
Men in society tend to be walkers or fashion designers, women still tend to be the ones that run it – people like Lynne Wyatt, dear Nan Kempner, who's no longer with us... They managed to do it through a mix of philanthropy and personal style. I don't think that men have that touch.
As a historian, what is your favorite era of high society?
The English part of me tends to lean toward the 19th century. I wrote a book called "Dancing into Battle" about social life in Brussels at the time of the battle of Waterloo. It's a book that I had great fun writing. It was about how a good selection of high society, before the battle, went off to Belgium because it was cheaper to live and they could really live it up there, but they found themselves getting caught up in this god almighty battle. They could literally hear the canons thundering from their ballroom. That was the best that I've encountered yet.
High Society: The History of America's Upper Class, by Nick Foulkes, is available from Assouline.