A Post Knickerbocker Petronius
( Originally Published 1918 )
A Post-Knickerbocker Petronius—The Early Life of Mr. Ward McAllister—A Discovery of Europe—A Glimpse of British High Life—The Judgment of a Diplomat—The South and Newport—Organizing New York Society—The "Four Hundred "—Maxims of a Master and Maitre d'Hotel.
MRS. BURTON HARRISON, in " Recollections, Grave and Gay," told of a visit made in 1892 as one of a party of invited guests travelling by special train to the newly built Four Seasons Hotel at Cumberland Gap, in Tennessee, where the directors of a new land company and health-resort scheme had arranged a week of sports and entertainments. About forty congenial persons from New York and Washington made the trip, the mountaineers and their families along the route assembling at stations to see the notabilities among them. The chief attraction, Mrs. Harrison recorded, seemed to be Ward McAllister, who had been expected, but did not go. At one station, James Brown Potter, engaged in taking a constitutional to remove train stiffness, was pointed out by another of the party to a group of staring natives as the famous arbiter of New York fashion.
" I want to know ! " said a gaunt mountain horseman. " Wal, I've rid fifteen miles a-purpus to see that dude McAllister, and I don't begrutch it, not a mite."
All over the land there were yokels and the spouses of yokels and even the children of yokels, moved by a like interest and curiosity; while rural visitors to New York, and also New Yorkers born for that matter—if such a person as a born New Yorker actually existed—craned their necks from the tops of the Fifth Avenue buses in the hope of catching a glimpse of the great man, who, for a brief, flitting moment was an institution of as much importance as the Obelisk or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But so far as the great world beyond the Weehawken Hills went, Ward McAllister's was an ephemeral glory. It was a clear case of anachronism. He was born one hundred years too late, or two hundred years, or two thousand. His was the soul of the Roman Petronius, or of one of the Corinthian eccentrics, who strutted in St. James's Park or past Carlton House in the early days of the Regency, and gave colour to that otherwise grim England that was grappling for life with the Corsican ; or of " King " Nash of Bath. It was the " King," perhaps, that he suggested most of all. But in the Carlton House circle he might have out-Brummelled Brummel, and supplanted that famous Beau as the object of the fat Prince's attentions and ingratitude. Indeed there was a flavour of Brummel's biting insolence in some of the sayings that were attributed to the New Yorker. For example, there was a well-known literary woman of New York, who had in some way incurred the arbiter's august disapproval.
" She write stories of New York society! " he said. " Why, I have seen her myself, buying her Madeira at Park & Tilford's in a demijohn."
When Thackeray was contemplating writing " The Virginians," he desired information about the personality of Washington, and applied to the American historian Kennedy. Kennedy began to impart his knowledge in the manner that might have been expected from a historian when the Englishman interrupted rather testily, " No, no. That's not what I want. Tell me, was he a fussy old gentleman in a wig, who spilled snuff down the front of his coat? " It was in some such spirit that I applied to that old friend of the fine Italian manner, and the profound personal and inherited knowledge of the ways and the men and women of New York. I did not, I explained, wish to be unkind, but the memory of that latter-day Petronius was one of the most mirth-provoking memories of my boyhood. Was he fair game for a chapter of a flippant nature? But why not? was the retort. He himself would have adored it.
Fame came to him through the newspaper re-porter. It was a smaller New York, a more limited Fifth Avenue in those days, and Mrs. Astor ruled its society without any one to question her sovereignty. She was about to give a great ball, and Ward McAllister, as the self-appointed and generally accepted secretary of society, was in charge of the list of invitations.
To the reporter sent to interview him Mr. McAllister explained that, owing to problems of space, only four hundred cards were to be sent out, commenting: " After all, there are only four hundred persons in New York who count in a social way."
" And who are those four hundred persons? " asked the quick-witted reporter.
On that point Mr. McAllister was more reticent. But the reporter obtained the list of those who were to be invited to the ball, and the names were printed as those who constituted New York's " Four Hundred."
" Society," said my friend sagely, " needs to be managed just as a circus is managed. Of good family, with an independent income large enough to make him free from the necessity of work, and small enough to keep him from the time-using diversions of extravagance, with a knowledge of wines, and a bent for selecting the proper kind of buttons for the coat in which to attend a cock-fight, he was the man for his circle and age. A Brummel? Hardly that. There was nothing of the ill-starred Beau in his appearance. His influence was good, as Brummel's was occasionally good. You recall the saying of the Duchess of York to the effect that it was Brummel's influence which more or less reformed the manners of the smart young men who were notorious for their excesses, their self-assertiveness, their want of courtesy. He was more akin to the ill-favoured Richard Nash, whose wise autocracy helped so much in the redeeming of the city of Bath."
After all, whether it was part pose, or whether the man was quite sincere in his professed belief in the profound importance of what most of the world is inclined to regard as trivialities, he was always consistent. As a youth he went to live in the house of a relative, in Tenth Street, New York, when that neighbourhood retained a flavour of aristocracy. A legacy of one thousand dollars fell to him. It was his first legacy. A cannier soul would have made the money go a long way. He spent it all for the costume that he was to wear at the fancy dress ball that was to be given by Mrs. John C. Stevens at her residence in College Place. " I flattered myself that it was the handsomest and richest costume at the ball." A little later, in 1850, he went to San Francisco, to join his father in the practice of law. It was in the first days of the gold rush, when the city was in the making, and fabulous prices were paid for the commodities of life. In the make-up of a man there had to be a certain amount of stern stuff if he was to survive in that struggle for existence. Young McAllister prospered, and in the course of time built himself a house. " My furniture," he recorded, " just from Paris, was acajou and white and blue horse-hair. My bed quilt cost me $250. It was a lovely Chinese floss silk shawl." His talents as a giver of dinners were in evidence at that early age, and his father made use of them in connection with the law business. There was a French chef., at a salary of ten thousand dollars a year. High prices and scarcity served only as spurs to the young Petronius.
" Such dinners as I gave I have never seen surpassed anywhere," he complacently recorded in later years. Some one spoke to the elder Mc-Allister of the admirable manner in which his son kept house. " Yes," was the sapient retort. " He keeps everything but the Ten Commandments."
Two years of California, and then he returned East. At that period of his life the idea of the Diplomatic Service as a career appealed to him. Mr. Buchanan was going to England as Minister, and Ward McAllister applied to President Pierce for the post of Secretary of Legation. He was persona grata with Buchanan, he had the influence necessary to push his petition, and the matter seemed settled. But just then along came his father, who wanted to be made Circuit Judge of the United States for the State of California. Two appointments at the same time to one family were out of the question, so the young man stepped aside as became a dutiful son. But see Europe he would, and if he could not go in the Government's service and at the public expense as a dabbler with official sealing wax, he would go as a private citizen. The record he preserved of that journey gives a marvellous picture of the man.
In London he met a Californian, in with all the sporting world, on intimate terms with the champion prize-fighter of England, the Queen's pages, and the Tattersalls crowd. Chaperoned by this curious countryman, McAllister's first introduction to London life took the form of a dinner at a great house in the suburbs. It was a strange house and a strange company, more in keeping with the eighteenth century than the middle of the nineteenth. The rat-pit, the drawing of the badger, the bloody battling of the bull terriers, the high betting, the Gargantuan eating and drinking and shouting, the smashing of glasses and plates, the imperturbable footmen in green and gold liveries calmly replacing in their chairs the guests overcome by strong potations—it was a picture for Hogarth's pencil at its best, or Gillray's at its craziest.
The intimation is that, in the course of this and similar adventures, McAllister was defraying his own expenses and those of his Californian companion. Provided it was the kind of life he wanted to see, it was money well spent.
Then he went off to Windsor, and there, at the village inn, dined with Her Majesty's chef and the keeper of the jewel-room. Again it was probably the visitor from across the seas who gave the dinner, as a result of which he was permitted to visit the royal kitchen, and see the roasts turning on the spits.
" I saw Prince Albert and the Prince of Wales that morning shooting pheasants alongside of the Windsor Long Walk, and stood within a few yards of them. I feel sure we ate, that day, the pheasants that had been shot by Prince Albert." Doesn't it read like a bit of Thackeray—say from the paper in " The Book of Snobs " on " The Court Circular " with its references to the shooting methods of a certain German Prince-Consort?
"A tiny bit of orange peel,
The butt of a cigar,
Once trod on by a Princely heel, How beautiful they are ! "
Having exhausted England the young discoverer travelled to Paris and thence to Florence. There are believed to be a few art galleries in Florence and some monuments of historical interest. But about these Lochinvar did not disturb his head greatly. Instead he discovered a cook—" I paid the fellow twenty-four Pauls a day "—whose manner of roasting a turkey was most extraordinary. He cultivated the English doctor of the city and through him procured invitations to the balls given by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The King of Bavaria attended one of these balls, and something very terrible happened. It was lese-majeste in its most virulent form.
The offender was an American girl who committed the crime while being whirled about in McAllister's arms. " I did it ! I was determined to do it! As I passed the King I dug him in in the ribs with my elbow. Now I am satisfied." " I soon disposed of the young woman," recorded her partner of the dance, " and never ` attempted her ' again."
There were other eccentric Americans at large in Europe in those days besides the fair belle of Stonington. One of them, in Rome, wore a decoration that excited the curiosity of his host, the Austrian Minister. His Excellency finally found the opportunity to refer to it questioningly. " Sir! " said the American, drawing himself up. " My country is a Republic. If it had been a Monarchy, I would have been the Duke of Pennsylvania. The order I wear is that of the Cincinnati." The Minister, deeply impressed, withdrew. In Rome McAllister found that the American Minister was in the habit of inviting Italians to meet Italians, and Americans to meet Americans. When asked the reason, he replied : " I have the greatest admiration for my country-men : they are enterprising, money-getting, in fact, a wonderful nation, but there is not a gentleman among them."
In reading the blasting comment I am moved to wonder what manner of man the Minister was who took no shame in giving expression to such an opinion of his brethren of the western world. " And then," Thackeray might have written, " I sink another shaft, and come upon another rich vein of Snob-ore. The Diplomatic Snob, etc." Yesterday Americans travelling in other lands had every reason to resent a type of representative that had been sent abroad to uphold the honour and dignity of our flag; the uncouth manners, the shirt sleeves, the narrow intolerance, that told all too plainly the story of party reward. Yet, somehow, I rather prefer that man, unpleasant as he was, and humiliating to patriotic pride as he was, to the dandy and ingrate of whom Mr. McAllister told. I like to think that, however Europeans may have laughed and wondered at the yokel out of place, for the sycophant denying his compatriots was reserved the bitterest of their contempt.
From Italy McAllister went to spend the summer at Baden-Baden. The Prince of Prussia, later the Emperor William, was there. It pained the young American to find that the royal visitor was no connoisseur, gulping his wine instead of sipping and lingering over it. But there is haste to express intense admiration. " His habit of walking two hours under the trees of the Allee Lichtenthal was also mine, and it was with pleasure I bowed most respectfully to him day by day." The final touch to the McAllister education came at Pau, where he passed the following winter, and the winter after. He ran down to Bordeaux, made friends with all the wine fraternity there, tasted and criticized, wormed himself into the good graces of the owners of the enormous Bordeaux caves, and learned there for the first time what claret was. " There I learned how to give dinners ; to esteem and value the Coq de Bruyere of the Pyrenees, and the Pic de Mars."
Thus equipped for the serious business of life as he conceived it, he returned home. He entertained old Commodore Vanderbilt at a dinner that caused the ex-Staten Island ferryman to remark: " My young friend, if you go on giving such dinners as these you need have no fear of planting your-self in this city." He was at first disappointed at the reception accorded him by his native city of Savannah. He had prided himself on giving that town the benefit of his European education. But there was a certain resentment at his attitude until " I took up the young fry, who let their elders very soon know that I had certainly learned something and that Mc's dinners were bound to be a feature of Savannah.". Then came his coup. Certain noble lords were expected from England, the son of the Duke of Devonshire and the son of the Earl of Shaftesbury, and all wondered who would have the honour of entertaining them.
The British Consul counted on the distinction. " He was a great character there, giving the finest dinners, and being an authority on wine, i.e., Madeira, ` Her Majesty's Consul will have the honour.' I secretly smiled, as I knew they were coming to me, and I expected them the next day. This same good old Consul had ignored me, hearing that I had the audacity to give at my table filet de boeuf aux truffes et champignons.
I returned home feeling sure that these young noblemen would be but a few hours under my roof before Her Majesty's Consul would give me the honour of a visit." He was right. The strangers had not been settled an hour when the tactful Briton rushed up the front steps. Throwing his arms around McAllister's neck, he ex-claimed : " My dear boy, I was in love with your mother thirty years ago; you are her image; carry me to your noble guests." " Ever after," is the naive record of our hero, " I had the respect and esteem of this dear old man."
Let us get back to our sheep. The narrative has been rambling too far from Fifth Avenue, and it is with the arbiter of the Avenue that we have to do. Behold him launched, laughed at perhaps, occasionally, but feared and courted. He was at the ball given to the Prince of Wales in the Academy of Music, being the first after the royal guest to take the floor for the waltz.
He devoted an entire day in railway travel in order to procure a dress-suit, as he called it, in which to appear at a dinner to two English lords. He began to arrange for cotillon dinners, figuring the cost, checking off the invitations, standing at the door of the salon, naming to each man the lady he was to take in.
There was one point to which his subserviency to British visitors would not go. Gastronomically he was as sturdy a patriot as any farmer who blazed away at the Red Coats from behind the Lexington hedges. Stoutly he defended the " saddle " of venison instead of the " haunch." Our tenderloin steak was quite as good as the English rump. Of Madeira he once said, with the spirit of Nathan Hale, " You have none to liken unto ours.
That Prince of Wales who afterwards became George the Fourth, in the vigour of his youth, and the prime force of his invention, invented a shoe-buckle. The crowning work in the life of Ward McAllister was probably the institution of the F.C.D.C.'s, abbreviation for the Family Circle Dancing Class. The Patriarch Balls, of which the first were given in the winters of 1872 and 1873, were growing too large and were being monopolized by the married women. The new association was for the jeune fille, and was to be more limited and intimate. Its dances were held at Dodworth's, later Delmonico's, and in the foyer of the Metropolitan Opera House. The arbiter paid the price of his greatness. " From the giving of the first to the time of my giving them up, I had no peace either at home or abroad. I was as-sailed on all sides, became in a sense a diplomat, committed myself to nothing, promised much and performed as little as possible. . . .
" My mornings were given up to being interviewed of and about them; mothers would call at my house, entirely unknown to me, the sole words of introduction being, ` Kind sir, I have a daughter.' These words were cabalistic; I would spring up, bow to the ground, and reply : ` My dear Madam, say no more, you have my sympathy; we are in accord; no introduction is necessary; you have a daughter and want her to go to the F.C.D.C.'s. I will do all in my power to do this for you; but my dear lady, please understand, that in all matters concerning these little dances I must consult the powers that be. I am their humble servant; I must take orders from them.' All of which was a figure of speech on my part." The arbiter would then diplomatically suggest the possibility of a friend of social influence, and make some allusion to family. That always started the fair visitor. The family always went back to King John and, in some instances, to William the Conqueror. " ` My dear Madam,' I would reply, ` does it not satisfy any one to come into existence with the birth of one's country? In my opinion, four generations of gentlemen make as good and true a gentleman as forty. I know my English brethren will not agree with me in this, but, in spite of them, it is my belief.' With disdain, my visitor would reply : ` You are easily satisfied, sir.' And so on, from day to day, these interviews would go on; all were Huguenots, Pilgrims, or Puritans. I would sometimes call one a Pilgrim instead of a Puritan, and by this would uncork the vials of wrath."
To the credit of the post-Knickerbocker Petronius it must be said that he was ever content with his lot. If there were poses to laugh at, there were qualities to respect. A meaner soul might have turned the peacock prestige to financial account. " Had I charged a fee for every consultation with anxious mothers on this subject " (that of introducing a young girl into New York society) " I would be a rich man." A Wall Street banker visiting him in his modest home in Twenty-first Street exclaimed against the surroundings, offering to buy a certain stock at the opening of the Board, and send the resulting profits in the afternoon of the same day. Commodore Vanderbilt, who apparently never forgot that first dinner, once advised: " Mac, sell everything you have and put it in Harlem stock; it is now twenty-four; you will make more money than you know how to take care of."
But steadfastly McAllister refused to be tempted. So long as his cottage was a " cottage of gentility," why try to augment his fortune? " A gentleman can afford to walk; he cannot afford to have a shabby equipage," he once said. That distinction which he felt to be his was not to be impaired by his trudging afoot.
It is not in the pictures of his youth, winning his way into society to rule it; but come to ripe years, secure in his position, imparting his creed on points of social usage, with mellow dogmatism laying down the law in all matters of vintages and viands, that he is most impressive. " My dear sir, I do not argue, I inform."
It was that spirit that led to the dictum that made him famous. " My dear boy, there are only four hundred persons in New York who really count socially." It was as if he had said : " Decant all your clarets before serving them, even your rain ordinaire. If at a dinner you give both Burgundy and claret, give your finest claret with the roast, your Burgundy with the cheese. Stand up both wines the morning of the dinner, and in decanting, hold the decanter in your left hand, and let the wine first pour against the inside of the neck of the decanter, so as to break its fall."
Doubtless, t'other side of Styx, his spirit has found congenial companions. I see his shade in dignified disputation with other shades. He argues with Brummel about the tying of a cravat, with Nash about a minuet, the proper composition of a sauce is the subject of a weighty dialogue with the great Vatel.