Television

The 19th-Century Hustler Who Inspired Nathan Lane’s Character on The Gilded Age

Ward McAllister spent an entire inheritance on a single outfit so the city’s richest would assume he was one of them.

Samuel Ward McAllister, left, and Nathan Lane on The Gilded Age.
Samuel Ward McAllister, left, and Nathan Lane on The Gilded Age. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by United States Library of Congress and Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO.

“Be sure to make it a success,” says Aurora Fane (Kelli O’Hara) to Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) in the sixth episode of HBO’s The Gilded Age. “He won’t give you a second chance.” Ward McAllister, the social arbiter of New York high society, has asked the nouveau-riche Russells for a luncheon. McAllister, played by a mustachioed Nathan Lane, sweeps into the Russells’ home and appraises their (borrowed) butler: “An English butler! That’s a good start!”

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Who was Samuel Ward McAllister (1827–1895), who single-handedly appointed himself the arbiter of New York high society in the Gilded Age? The short-of-stature gourmand acquired more than one nickname in his time. Socialite Elizabeth Lehr called him the “Shepherd of the Four Hundred”; old-money scion Stuyvesant Fish called him a “demagogue.” My favorite McAllister appellation comes from a poem written for him by a friend, after a dinner he orchestrated at Delmonico’s, at the height of his influence. McAllister included this in his 1890 memoir, Society as I Have Found It, so he must have liked it too:

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There ne’er was seen so fair a sight

 As at Delmonico’s last night;

 When feathers, flowers, gems, and lace

 Adorned each lovely form and face;

 A garden of all thorns bereft,

 The outside world behind them left.

 They sat in order, as if “Burke”

 Had sent a message by his clerk.

 And by whose magic wand is this

 All conjured up? the height of bliss.

 ’Tis he who now before you looms—

 The Autocrat of Drawing Rooms.

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The “Autocrat of Drawing Rooms” is a peculiarly American figure: a man who made influence his business, and rode his good taste—or, perhaps, his willingness to declare that he had the best taste?—as far as he could. He was not wealthy—not in the way Lehr and Fish, or McAllister’s eventual patron Caroline Astor, were. Historian Cecilia Tichi writes that McAllister’s father was “hospitable but impecunious.” The family was from Savannah, where Ward grew up in the antebellum years. They spent summers in Newport, Rhode Island, which was a refuge for wealthy Southerners fleeing heat before it became the place for New York swells to build their seasonal “cottages” (yet another way that Northern and Southern money crisscrossed and intertwined in the nineteenth century).

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Perhaps because of this tenuous connection, McAllister was fascinated early on with the elite. As a young man, he moved in with a wealthy relative in New York, hoping to be left her money. When she died and bequeathed him only $1,000 in her will, he used it all on one night’s evening dress (for a very important ball, you see). He let the people there, who assumed he was going to inherit it all, draw their own conclusions.

By trade, McAllister was a lawyer, and worked in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, where he began to study the art of “giving dinners.” Around 1852, he married Sarah Taintor Gibbons, a “reclusive” woman, according to Tichi, who appears only once or twice in his memoir. Sarah may not have been on board with his social whirl—how could a “recluse” have stood the sheer number of luncheons, banquets, picnics, and charity events described in Society as I Have Found It?—but the end result is that McAllister’s pursuits seem even more singular, as he’s constantly planning and giving entertainments all by himself.

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After their marriage, he and Sarah went to Europe, and he was truly smitten with the “Society” he found there, as well as with the food and wine. He truly came into his own back in New York, in 1872–3. Tichi attributes his easy ascendency to New York’s uncertainty, at the time, about who was worthy of being called “Society” (an uncertainty that is, of course, the basis for the plot of The Gilded Age). As his first venture into creating hierarchy out of this uncertainty, McAllister established a club of 25 (later 50) men called “The Patriarchs.” The Patriarchs included people with last names like Astor, Gracie, and Schermerhorn, as well as, of course, McAllister. They policed one another’s use of wealth. “For example, suppose a Patriarch were temporarily short of cash and rented his private box in the exclusive Golden Horse-shoe at the Metropolitan Opera House” to a family deemed unsuitable, Tichi writes. “The owner of the box would be invited to have a word with a fellow Patriarch, perhaps at his club, and urged to cease and desist.”

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McAllister’s invitation of Caroline (Mrs. William) Schermerhorn Astor to advise the Patriarchs laid the groundwork for his and Astor’s long relationship, as Astor (played by Donna Murphy on the show) took on the role of New York’s most influential socialite. Together they established the concept of the “Four Hundred,” a number first broached when McAllister said, in an aside, to a reporter in 1888: “Why, there are only about 400 people in fashionable New York Society. If you go outside that number you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease. See the point?” (Apparently, McAllister used the vaguely British aside “See the point?” so often, people began to mock the tic behind his back—especially later, after his downfall.)

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Historian Clifton Hood writes that “the numeral 400 quickly caught on and acquired a totemic stature,” long before McAllister actually acted upon his comment by drawing up a list. (It took him a few years.) Society pages began describing events as having “McAllister’s 400” in attendance, or not; a family used 400 roses as symbolic adornment of their house for a daughter being presented to society. Other cities imitated New York, and raised up their own “400.” It was McAllister’s neat use of publicity that made the concept stick. People who weren’t on the list included big names like John D. Rockefeller and J. Pierpont Morgan, and the papers loved this fact, reporting dubiously-sourced information on the hurt feelings of those excluded.

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Oddly enough, the whole time he was engineering social relationships between wealthy New Yorkers, McAllister himself lived in what Tichi describes as “a rather modest house” on West 36th Street. He found ways to compensate. His memoir is full of little moments where he talks about his superior taste, as when he describes dining near the Prince of Prussia, and discovering he was “no judge of wine,” as he “gulped it down” rather than sipping. (The Prince, on the other hand, was also possessed of the more laudable habit of taking a two-hour walk right along McAllister’s favorite route; “it was with pleasure I bowed most respectfully to him day by day.”) He pats himself on the back for throwing the best picnics in Newport, a rustic location where he could rely on his organizational and administrative abilities to bring an assembled company on a boat ride to an orchard where they could delight in the pleasures of nature. Once, President Chester A. Arthur participated, and had a great time. “Grand, elaborate entertainments are often not as enjoyable as country frolics,” McAllister pronounced; convenient, for a man who could not have hosted a grand, elaborate ball in his own home.

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Fashionable people, McAllister proclaimed, were just like him. In a memorable passage of the memoir, he defended the existence of wealthy people. “The mistake made by the world at large is that fashionable people are selfish, frivolous, and indifferent to the welfare of their fellow-creatures; all of which is a popular error, arising simply from a want of knowledge of the true state of things,” he wrote. Fashionable people, he insisted, are job creators, who “cause the expenditure of money and its distribution.” They were patrons of the arts, and they would prevent the United States from “settling down into a humdrum rut and becoming merely a money-making and money-saving people, with nothing to brighten up and enliven life.” But this supposedly beneficent meritocracy of taste was, of course, always a fiction of sorts, clothing all kinds of exclusions. Society as I Have Found It is full of nasty racism toward the “darkeys” and “colored” people of Savannah, and the reader will (not) enjoy many pronouncements about how “colored cooks,” while naturally inspired, cannot hold a candle to French chefs, who are “artists.”

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McAllister’s influence didn’t last. The publication of the memoir, in 1890, made many of his former friends angry. As with many such social climbers, it seems that the publication of the memoir was a tipping point, catalyzing a lot of bad feelings people had carried toward McAllister all along. The memoir was too much airing of dirty laundry, and it also made McAllister look pathetic. After the publication of the memoir, the magazine Town Topics, which once reported rumors about the Four Hundred, began calling McAllister “Mr. McHustler.” By the time he died in 1895, Tichi writes, “he and Mrs. Astor had long parted ways; there was no need for her to cancel her dinner party to attend his funeral.”

The Gilded Age may not quite have the sharp elbows necessary to get at the true pathos of McHustler’s story. But at the very least, the actor who is playing Ward McAllister gets it. In an interview with Town and Country, Nathan Lane said of the historical figure whose small boots he is filling: “His legacy is essentially forgotten, thank god. Can’t we all just get along??!!”

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