High Life In Argentina
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
HOW THE NABOBS OF BUENOS AIRES LOOK, ACT, AND LIVE-A NATION OF GAMBLERS WHO SPEND MILLIONS A YEAR ON RACES, LOTTERIES, AND THE STOCK-EXCHANGE-BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE CLUBS-A NIGHT AT THE OPERA-WELL-DRESSED WOMEN AND IMPUDENT YOUNG MEN-CURIOUS CUSTOMS OF COURTSHIP AND MARRIAGE—ODD FEATURES OF FAMILY LIFE.
HIGH life in Buenos Aires! High life in the Paris of South America, where millionaires are thicker than blackberries in August and honey-lipped heiresses swarm like bees in midsummer! We may see it out driving in the park of Palermo, or meet it every afternoon on the Calle Florida. We may take chances with it every Sunday at the races, or we may stare at its diamonds every night during the opera season. If we have good introductions we may go inside its mansions and attend its fine dinners, or perhaps take part in a game at the Jockey Club, where fortunes often change hands in a night.
The races are one of the social institutions of the Argentine capital. The president and his cabinet, the officers of the army and navy, everyone, in fact, who pretends to be anybody, attends them, and this notwithstanding that they are always held on Sundays. The chief race track is owned' by the Jockey Club. The club is the most celebrated in South America; its initiation fee is three times that of any club in New York, and its annual dues amount to a larger sum than many an Argentine young man earns in a year. Its clubhouse will compare favourably in furniture and finishings with almost any palace of Europe. The races are managed by this club, and all the money won and lost passes through its hands. The club takes a certain percentage of all the bets made, and when I tell you that last year more than 413, 000, 000 were publicly wagered you can see that a small percentage gives the club a big income.
There are many fine horses in Argentina, and the races are usually well contested. The day I attended, them eighty-seven horses were entered, and the grand stand contained more than ten thousand people. A building covering about half an acre was devoted to pool-selling, and a stream of men went to and from the windows of the building to make their bets or to receive their winnings. Every one was betting. Men, women, and children put their money on every race, and as the horses neared the winning-post the crowds in the grand stand went wild. Teri thousand people then rose to their feet, some climbing on the benches, and now and then a yell went up from many throats. The crowd was well dressed ; it was composed of both men and women and of all' classes. The choice seats were reserved for the members of the Jockey Club and their friends, and a cheaper section was patronized by the poor.
The Portenos, as the citizens of Buenos Aires are called, spend their Sunday afternoons up to three o'clock at the races. The races begin at 12 o'clock and end at 3 o'clock. At about 3:30 P. M. you will see the carriages leaving the race track for Palermo Park. This is a beautiful forest and garden, covering 850 acres, situated on the northern edge of the city, beyond the Recoleta cemetery and park, adjacent to one of the finest residence sections. It was formerly the estate of the dictator Rosas, who beautified it. It has fine drives, magnificent palm trees, and winding lakes, with here and there a café.
It is on Sundays and on Thursdays that all fashionable Buenos Aires comes to Palermo, and on some Sunday afternoons as many as a thousand carriages and ten thousand pedestrians are to be seen there at one time. Carriages are used by all classes. The people of the Latin races are fond of show, and the Spaniard, the Italian, and the Argentine of even moderate means will starve himself during the week in order that he may take a drive on Sunday. The rich are proud of their horses and carriages, and some of the turnouts, with coachmen and footmen in livery, are magnificent. The harness is often plated with silver and gold, and horses are of as choice a stock as you will find in Hyde Park or in the Bois de Boulogne. Young bloods sit on high drags and drive with gloved hands. On the backs of other vehicles you see stiff-backed little tigers sitting or gorgeously dressed footmen standing. Cavalry officers in uniform gallop by, and boys canter along on ponies.
At five o'clock on Sunday afternoons the crowd is the densest. It is then the height of the day at Palermo, and the sight is one for the gods and men, especially for men, for most of the carriages are open, and the majority of the women who sit in them are of that beautiful type which is seen at its best in Buenos Aires. Rosy faces, with luscious lips and large luminous eyes, look out at you from nearly every carriage that passes. The pictures are well framed. There are no dark mantas or head shawls, such as they have in Peru ; there is no prudish modesty, no dropping of the eyes or blushing. These are live flesh-and-blood girls, not nuns. They are girls who are not afraid to look a man in the face and who are evidently able to care for themselves, although their fathers and mothers by Spanish custom keep them secluded. They do not walk alone on the streets, and one seldom sees them out of doors, except in carriages. They are, however, on dress parade every afternoon at the windows, and as you look up, if the street is clear, you may, perhaps, be rewarded with a smile.
Buenos Aires is a theatre-going city. It has twenty-six houses of amusement, at which its people spend in the neighbourhood of $2,000,000 a year. The most fashionable of all is the Italian Opera, where the boxes for the season cost $1,000 in silver and upward, and where some of the greatest singers of the world take part. The boxes are usually taken for the season, and an Argentine " swell" would rather sell his shirt and wear a «dickey " than give up his place in a box at the opera. The orchestra or pit is next in price to the boxes. A seat there costs sixteen dollars a night, or a little more than five dollars in gold, and the seats in the « peanut gallery" are as low as twenty-five cents.
During my last night at the opera the Italian star Tomagno sang in "Wilhelm Tell," but the audience interested me even more than the singing. There were, I should say, at least 3,000 people present, and every man and woman in the boxes and orchestra was in full dress. There was not a man in a business suit save in the upper galleries. The women were without bon-nets, and most of them had on low-necked gowns, with arms bare, unless when covered with long white gloves reaching as far as the biceps. The dresses were more costly than those one sees at a White House reception. There were jewels everywhere. There was, I venture to say, a good half-peck of diamonds on the feminine part of the audience ; diamonds as big as the end of my little finger hung from the lobes of pink ears, clusters of diamond flowers rested in beds of lace upon voluptuous bosoms, and combs set with diamonds fastened the well-groomed tresses of Argentine beauties on the crowns of their shapely heads. There were pearls as large as marrowfat peas, necklaces of them, joined at the centre with great rubies or emeralds. There were also sapphires and opals and gold galore.
Most of the women were pretty, representing as many varieties of complexion and feature as you will see at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. I did not notice a predominance of the Spanish type ; so many of the rich Argentine families have intermarried with foreigners that their women are as cosmopolitan in appearance as our own. Some of them were homely, and not a few, I say it with hesitation, owed much of their good looks to their make-up. Powder and paint are artistically used in Buenos Aires and there is no capital city where the professional hairdressers and face enamellers have a better trade. I have been told that these people have their regular clientèle of rich women, who come regularly to be made up before they set out for their drive in the park or an evening at the opera. On opera nights you have to engage your enameller beforehand, or wait in the anteroom for hours before he will call out "Next."
However this may be, the effect at the opera is magnificent. The opera house in Buenos Aires is very large, the largest, I believe, in South America. It has five galleries, the lower three of which are of boxes. When the curtain is up the men behind the ladies in the boxes are practically out of sight, and from the pit where I sat in my sixteen-dollar seat, I could see above me the busts of the ladies resting as it seemed on the red plush railing of the galleries. There were hundreds of these busts running tier upon tier, making a flesh-and-blood beauty-show far superior to the London waxworks and well worth coming to Argentina to behold. In addition to the ordinary boxes, there is a special gallery in the opera house called the " cazuela," where ladies can come without escorts, and in which men are not al-lowed. Seats in this cost from two to five dollars each; and the gallery, I noticed, was well patronized.
The opera at Buenos Aires is rather a social event than a musical entertainment. I would fail if I attempted to describe the importance with which dress is regarded. In my simple American way I first thought of not going in evening dress, but fearing that my morning costume of black might possibly attract attention I put on an evening suit. It was warm, however, and I did not wear gloves. On entering the house I found that every man in the orchestra except myself had on "kids," and everyone carried in his hand a tall silk hat. Between the acts the men rose to their feet, clapped on their hats, and then sauntered to and fro through the house. Some stood at their seats with their opera glasses to their eyes and stared at the women, regardless of whether they knew them or not; but the greater part walked to the entrances to the aisles and stood there in knots, with their hats on, and feasted their eyes upon the women. It was a sort of cannibal feast, but the paint and enamel on most of the faces were so thick that it drew no blood to the surface.
And this brings me to a custom of the young dandies of the Argentine capital, who make a business of standing on the street and greedily staring at ladies as they go by. In no other city does this rudeness prevail to such an extent as in Buenos Aires. It is most common on the Calle Florida, which is the Broad-way or Regent Street of the Argentine capital. It is the fashionable shopping street, its stores being those of the chief jewellers, confectioners, milliners, tailors, and fashionable restaurateurs. The street has not more than twenty feet of roadway between its -narrow sidewalks.
Every afternoon from four to six o'clock a line of carriages moves up one side of the Calle Florida and down the other. It may grow dark, but up to six p. m. the line is solid, and you may here see a thousand prancing horses moving to and fro. The carriages are usually open, and in them sit the most fashion-able ladies of the city. They drive here every evening, merely because it is the fashion, and the young men stand on the street and stare at them as they pass. Every afternoon the Calle Florida is thronged with knots of young men who have come out for this purpose. They are well dressed and well groomed. They carry canes and wear gloves; they smoke cigarettes as they look about them. From time to time they make comments on the women who go by, and not infrequently say things which are absolutely indecent. Not long ago one of them ventured a remark to an American girl who was passing along the street. What he said was an insult, and the young American rewarded him with a slap across the mouth which almost knocked him to the ground. The ordinary Argentine girl would have pouted and passed on. Within the past year or so the Argentine police have been trying to stop this insulting of women, and now any woman who makes a complaint can have her insulter taken at once to the city authorities for trial.
We hear a good deal said of « Young America" and his impudence. The boys of Argentina are even more precocious than those of the United States. An Argentine father seldom whips his son, and the children generally have much more liberty south of the equator than north of it. The Sunday School is almost unknown, and the ordinary ideas of morality are so loose that children are brought up in a most pernicious way.
As to lying, this is common among men, women, and children. The polite lie is met with everywhere; it is even encouraged, and a father will sometimes say about his little girl or boy in admiring tones: « Why, hear that child lie!" or « How well it does lie "; « Why, I could not lie better than that myself." They have the Spanish ideas of honour. You might, for instance, call an Argentine a liar and he would think nothing of it; he might even consider it a compliment; but if you should call him a coward, he could not consistently rest until he had knocked you down or stabbed you under the fifth rib.
The young Argentines learn wickedness at a much younger age than our boys. Many of them have depraved minds at fifteen and they then begin to pose as men. Boys talk politics before they are out of knee-pants. Nearly every college has its political factions. The students organize revolts against the professors, thus training themselves to get up revolutions against the government when they grow older.
The well-to-do young Argentine is not brought up to any business. He has a prejudice against trade and work and wants a profession. It is the fashionable thing to study law and thus get the title of doctor, even though the young man may not expect to practice.
The Argentine children learn the languages easily, and many young men speak both French and English. The girls of the richer classes are usually good linguists, but outside the languages they know but little. I doubt whether you will find a score of young girls in Buenos Aires who have any such education as is given at our first-class women colleges.
As to family life, it is hard to learn much about that in the high circles of the Argentine. Each family is run as a close corporation, and when a son is married he usually brings his wife home, when sometimes an addition is built to the house, and the newly-married couple moves into it. The sexes are not kept apart as much as in other parts of South America before marriage. Still there is no such indiscriminate calling and courting as in the United States. If a young man pay any attentions to a young woman he is understood to mean business, and if he go to her house often a marriage proposal is expected to follow. When he calls he does not see his sweetheart alone, and he is not permitted to be with her unless the family or some part of it is present.
After marriage there is more freedom, but even then women are closely watched. I am told that wives are usually faithful to their husbands and that the percentage of good married women is greater in Buenos Aires than in many of the capitals of Europe. One seldom hears of a scandal in connection with a wife or a mother of a high Argentine family. The country is Catholic and there is no such thing as a divorce, although there are separations. The women are proud, and their regard for their children often keeps them from making a fuss about things which otherwise they could not pardon. As to the men, there are many good husbands, but there are not a few who have the Parisian idea of such things, and who seem to model their lives after that of the heroes of French novels. The percentage of illegitimate births is very high.
The women are the religious element of Buenos Aires. They maintain the churches, attend mass regularly, and 'manage all the charities of the country. One of the chief charitable organizations which they control is supplied with funds from the national lottery, a certain percentage of its receipts being given them. This lottery has drawings weekly and the sums realized are enormous. The women take charge of the profits and spend the money for charity. Such actions must have a bad effect upon the character of the people. You cannot make a child think that it is bad to gamble when his mother handles ill-gotten gains, no matter for what good object. The result is that the Argentines are a nation of gamblers, and Buenos Aires to-day is as badly affected by its lottery as was New Orleans when the Louisiana raffle was in operation.
There are drawings now every week, the grand prize at times being upwards of $10o,000 in silver, and at Christmas time $i,000,000. Last year $28,000,000 worth of lottery tickets were sold. There are lottery offices in every block ; you meet lottery ticket peddlers on every corner, and one is not safe from them even at the doors of the churches.
Among the gambling institutions are the ball alleys, the races, and the stock-exchange. In the lotteries, the ball alleys, and on the race course, I see by a statement in a Buenos Aires paper, that $47,000,000 were lost and won last year, while the sales at the stock-exchange footed up the enormous amount of $436,000,000 in gold. The total foreign trade of Argentina during that year was less than $120,000,000 in gold, showing that three-fourths of the business of the exchange was done on worthless paper. There is a great deal of private gambling in Buenos Aires. There are card tables at the clubs where a "hacienda" may be lost in a night, and there are many small gambling hells that carry on their business contrary to law under the very eyes of the police.