Brow Beat

Who Will Be in the “American Downton Abbey”?

Yesterday we learned that Julian Fellowes is developing a TV series set in Gilded Age New York City for NBC. As fans of both Fellowes’ work—from  Gosford Park to Downton Abbey—and historical TV shows more generally, we immediately started guessing just which people and events from that period might inspire him. Fellowes frequently delves into the stories of historical figures for his dramas—he reincarnated British royalty in The Young Victoria, the screen star Ivor Novello in Gosford Park, and his own great aunt as Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey—and it seems safe to assume that some real-life, long-ago New York characters will surface in the new series, even if they’re fictionalized (à la Kemal Pamuk in Downton, whose grisly tale was based on actual events).

The series will be set in the 1880s, a decade Fellowes has described as “a vivid time with dizzying, brilliant ascents and calamitous falls; of record-breaking ostentation and savage rivalry; a time when money was king.” We took those comments as a clue to his possible historical inspirations—and, in addition to our own research, we consulted Jean Strouse, the author of Morgan, American Financier and Alice James, A Biography (and a Downton Abbey devotee) for further suggestions. Here are our best guesses.

Alva Vanderbilt
The socialite wife of multi-millionaire William Kissam Vanderbilt, Alva was a philanthropist, suffragette, and, in the view of some, an insufferable snob. During the 1880s, she was busy designing the Petit Chateau on the Upper East Side and the Marble House in Newport, R.I. Later, in 1895, she would simultaneously push her daughter Consuelo Vanderbilt into an advantageous marriage—to the 9th Duke of Marlborough—and shock society by divorcing her husband on grounds of adultery.* She was married again, to Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, an old friend of Vanderbilt’s who was five years younger than she. We doubt Fellowes will be able to resist depicting her, and can already imagine Alva (or her fictional counterpart) spouting wonderful, Dowager Countess-like put-downs.

Edward H. Harriman
Fellowes loves to use railroads as symbols for impending change. Harriman rose from Wall Street message boy to stockbroker and railroad magnate, all before he turned 40. By reorganizing the defunct Lake Ontario Southern Railroad and selling it, in 1883, to the Pennsylvania Railroad, he became director of the great Union Pacific Railroad. He also had a fondness for lavish dwellings, establishing a multi-thousand-acre estate called Arden House outside a town then known as Turner, but which is now Harriman, N.Y. He expanded his beloved estate until his death. Reminds us of Lord Grantham’s grand Season 1 proclamation: “I claim no career beyond the nurture of this house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child.”

J.P. Morgan
If Fellowes is going for contemporary resonance, he could hardly do better than featuring Morgan. By the 1880s, he had risen to partner at the New York firm Drexel, Morgan & Co., a prominent government financer that would become J.P. Morgan and Company in 1895. Morgan made a name for himself by re-organizing railroad companies, so he and Harriman (or their fictional doppelgangers) might fit well in a series together.*

Edith Wharton
From her late teens to her mid-twenties, Edith Wharton had already begun emerging as a burgeoning writer—her poems started appearing in magazines in 1880. Wharton also experienced the bitter disappointments of an unhappy marriage (she wed Edward Robbins Wharton, a manic depressive, in 1885) that would crop up in The Age of Innocence, amongst other celebrated novels. Does this ring of all the miserable marriages in Gosford Park to you? It’s also possible, of course, that the well-read Fellowes will take cues from Wharton’s novels, such as the New York society tale The Custom of the Country.

Andrew Carnegie
The first great steel magnate and a classic rags-to-riches figure, Carnegie was at the height of its powers in the 1880s. The Carnegie Steel Company had already adopted the profitable Bessemer steel-making process and vertical integration. Between ruthless business practices (which prompted the violent Homestead Strike at his Pennsylvania Steel Plant in 1892, a great potential plot point) and a rich personal life (he married Louise Whitfield, twenty years his junior, in 1886), Carnegie is a perfect candidate for operatic portrayal.

John D. Rockefeller
Rockefeller owned Standard Oil, which refined 90 percent of American oil by 1879. He made history in 1882 when he formed the first large U.S. business trust—the Sherman Antitrust Act was still 8 years away—and moved Standard Oil’s headquarters to New York City in 1885. Could Fellowes shy away from depicting America’s most celebrated tycoon and philanthropist? Seems unlikely.

* This post originally referred to Consuelo Vanderbilt as Alva Vanderbilt’s son. She was her daughter. The original photo provided for J.P. Morgan depicted his son; it has been replaced.