The Real-Life Socialites That Inspired Julian Fellowes' The Gilded Age

Much like Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey, HBO's The Gilded Age is inspired by a real group of elite socialites, known as "The Four Hundred." Learn about their luxurious history here.

By Alyssa Ray Jan 25, 2022 3:30 AMTags
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America finally has its own Downton Abbey, and rightfully so.

On Monday, Jan. 24, HBO premiered the latest period drama by Julian Fellowes and, instead of taking a closer look at the British aristocracy, The Gilded Age shined a light on late-1800s New York City, where old money society fought to keep control from rising robber barons and their equally ambitious wives.

"[The Old Money families] were more modest," Fellowes said of the rivalry to Entertainment Weekly. "They were living in houses in Washington Square that were not enormous. They lived respectable lives, and that was New York society at the time. But for the new arrivals, that wasn't enough for them. They wanted to do something bigger and better. They started to build these palaces on Fifth Avenue and gradually pushed further north. So you had these great rivalries between the new families and the old."

And though the leading characters in Fellowes' new work—played by Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, Carrie Coon and many others—are fiction, they're inspired by real-life socialites that went toe-to-toe to rule Fifth Avenue and beyond.

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No, this isn't Gossip Girl. We're talking about "The Four Hundred," the official list that named the crème de la crème and dictated the city's high society.

So, who made the list, who ruled the roost and who overthrew the old ways to become the most famous socialite of them all? We have all of those juicy historical details in the gallery below.

Caroline Schermerhorn Astor

America has no royalty, but Caroline Schermerhorn Astor came as close as one could be in New York society. Ruling over the Four Hundred, Caroline, known to most as Mrs. Astor, dictated who was a part of acceptable society until her death in 1908. In short: If Mrs. Astor didn't like you, you would be ousted by high society.

Not only is Mrs. Astor represented in The Gilded Age, played by Donna Murphy, but she also clearly inspired other characters in the new period piece. Namely, Christine Baranski's Agnes van Rhijn, who is a staunch protector of old money society and refuses to mingle with her new money neighbors. Much like Mrs. Astor, the fictional Mrs. van Rhijn has connections to the original Dutch settlers of NY, including the prominent Livingston family.

Alva Vanderbilt

The Vanderbilt name is still prominent to this day. So it may surprise you that, at one point in the 1800s, the Vanderbilts were outcasts in high society, as they were a part of the nouveau riche thanks to their success in railroads and shipping.

So how did the Vanderbilts become one of the most important families in New York City? Well, Alva Erskine Smith married into the family.

Using her husband's wealth, the new Mrs. Vanderbilt built prominent family homes in the city and in Newport, launched her own Opera House and threw lavish balls. But she didn't just access New York's stuffy society. She conquered it, taking over for Mrs. Astor—alongside fellow socialites Mamie Fish and Theresa Fair Oelrichs—upon her death.

Further proving she wasn't afraid of change, Alva eventually divorced Mr. William K. Vanderbilt and remarried family friend Oliver Belmont. She was also an advocate for the women's suffrage movement.

Though Alva Vanderbilt is just a name mentioned in The Gilded Age, she clearly inspired the character Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), who attempts to use her immense wealth to break into high society.

William Kissam Vanderbilt

William Kissam Vanderbilt was Alva's other half between 1875 and 1895. An heir to the Vanderbilt railroad fortune, Willie had an abundance of money and was unafraid to spend it on having a good time. Eventually, Willie's infidelity resulted in his divorce from Alva, in which she received a large settlement.

In The Gilded Age, George Russell is likely inspired by the Vanderbilt men, as he's a classic robber baron and a member of new money New York. Though, we hope he's not like Willie, as we're fans of powerhouse couple Mr. and Mrs. Russell and would hate to see them split.

Consuelo Vanderbilt

Poor Consuelo Vanderbilt. All the sweet-natured socialite wanted to do was to make her mother happy and, in doing so, found herself in a loveless marriage to the ninth Duke of Marlborough. Alva was the matchmaker behind the arrangement, as connections to the British aristocracy secured their place in society forever.

The marriage was doomed, with the pair divorcing in 1921. Consuelo remarried for love, this time to an adventurous pilot, Col. Jacques Balsan.

We see similarities between Consuelo Vanderbilt and Gladys Russell, the innocent daughter of the social-climbing Mrs. Russell on The Gilded Age.

Ward McAllister

Ward McAllister was Mrs. Astor's right hand, as they were distantly related. He created the coveted Four Hundred list, which was allegedly inspired by the number of people that could fit in Mrs. Astor's ballroom. Though Mrs. Astor was his patroness, Ward eventually included members of the nouveau riche and wrote a tell-all memoir, Society as I Have Found It.

Nathan Lane plays the New York tastemaker in The Gilded Age.

Miss Carrie Astor and Mamie Fish

Miss Carrie Astor, portrayed by Amy Forsyth in this image, is a real-life socialite brought to the Gilded Age screen. She was the daughter of Mrs. Astor and a prominent member of New York City society in her own right. In The Gilded Age, Carrie is an unmarried debutante mingling with Larry Russell (Harry Richardson), a recent Harvard grad from new money.

Also featured: Mamie Fish, played by Ashlie Atkinson, was a staple of the social scenes in NYC and Newport. Apparently, Mrs. Fish liked to be styled as the "fun-maker" of the Four Hundred.

The Gilded Age airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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