Summer Reading: All About the Gilded Age

This summer I made a few small goals for myself…one of them was to read a new book each month. In June, I started with Empty Mansions: the Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, and because I’m a sucker for themes, I decided to make my July and August selections about the Gilded Age as well. And with all of the unpleasantness of 2020, I couldn’t think of a better time to take a literary vacation to a time of luxury and opulence.

The Gilded Age–a phrase coined by Mark Twain (renowned writer and outspoken critic of Huguette Clark’s father) in his novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, was a time of unprecedented economic growth in the United States roughly from 1870-1900. At the time, industries in the U.S. were booming, the transcontinental railroad was being built and as a result, the notorious Fifth Avenue mansions were being built by the Vanderbilts, Astors and Clarks and the stunning palaces built by these families dotted the shores of Newport, Rhode Island. Unimaginable fortunes were being made in oil, copper and gold and the United States was coming into its own as a world power.

Written by Pulitzer Prize winner, Bill Dedman and Clark’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell Jr., Empty Mansions was a fabulous book to start my summer reading with. Huguette Clark–the daughter of copper magnate W.A. Clark, spent the last 20 years of her life living in a hospital room in New York City even though she had three luxury apartments on Fifth Avenue, a mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut, and a palatial compound in Santa Barbara.

This book intrigued me for a few reasons….first and foremost, Huguette’s mother, Anna, was born in Butte, Montana, a small mining town where Huguette’s father made his fortune. Butte is just a short 30-minute drive from Anaconda–an even smaller mining town where all of my family is from. Huguette was also married in Santa Barbara about two minutes from where I was married, at the Four Seasons, so I had all of these parallels with her that were just so interesting to me.

The book itself is incredibly well written and so fascinating. Huguette’s father almost seems like he was a character from a Wild West film–fighting native Americans for land and tricking his way into the senate. His political background was particularly interesting to me because of how it intertwined with my family’s stories. For years, I have heard my grandmother talk about how Anaconda, Montana (the town both of my parents grew up in and where most of my extended family lives) should have been the capital of the state, but that someone (I now assume that someone is W.A.) stashed ballots to make the town lose the vote. After reading Empty Mansions, I now understand the bitter rivalry between W.A. Clark and the “Copper King” Marcus Daly–who was pushing for Anaconda to become the capital.

A far cry from her boisterous father, Huguette lived the majority of her life as a recluse. She spent a large portion of her fortune on her beloved dolls and a stunning collection of impressionist paintings that museums could only dream of having today. In a time when most would be relishing their fine surroundings and hopping between compounds in Manhattan and Santa Barbara, Huguette lived out the last two decades of her life in hospitals, arguably being manipulated by the doctors and nurses around her. If you are looking for a bizarre and intriguing summer read, I would highly recommend Empty Mansions.

This summer, I am taking a deep-dive into the Gilded Age by reading Empty Mansions, A Season of Splendor and To Marry an English Lord.

For the month of July, I am reading A Season of Splendor: the Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York by Greg King. Caroline Schermerhorn Astorthe Mrs. Astor, reigned as the queen of New York society for nearly half a century and single-handedly decided who was in and who was out of the upper crust of society through a social register known as “The 400” …a list W.A. Clark could never gain access to.

In August, I plan to read To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery in the Gilded Age by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace. As fans of Downton Abbey know, during the Gilded Age, it became commonplace for American oil and textile heiresses to raise their social status by marrying English aristocrats who had titles and estates, but no money to run them.

Come back next month for my review of A season of Splendor! I hope you’re all enjoying your summer. Leave me a comment and let me know what you’re reading!



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