Alva Vanderbilt’s Party of the Century

Alva Vanderbilt Belmont
Young Alva Vanderbilt

March 26, 1883

“Petit Chateau” – 660 Fifth Ave @ 52nd Street

When Alva Vanderbilt built a home, she built a castle, and when she threw a housewarming party, it was the party of the century.

Alva Vanderbilt, the wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt (Commodore’s grandson), had a mission: to carve out her own rightful place in Gilded Age society. At the time the undisputed leader of the well-guarded elite group of the select 400 was Mrs. Astor, who snubbed nouveaux riches like the Vanderbilts. It took quite a creative approach (on top of unlimited resources) to achieve the goal. To be admitted to Mrs. Astor’s 400, one would have to have received an invite to her annual ball, a little coveted calling card which determined where you were in or out of the high society. Alva Vanderbilt, who was conspicuously not invited, came up with an ingenious plan to remedy the situation.

The “Petit Chateau,” Alva’s new house in the middle of so-called Vanderbilt Row at 660 5th Ave, was a most grandiose and attention-grabbing structure. But building the house was just the first part of the plan. The next move was a housewarming party. Well before the time when advertising became close to a science, Alva knew to advertise the upcoming event. The city was abuzz with the expectation. On top of rumors and the usual drawing-room conversations, the preparations for the ball received wide coverage in the media as journalists were specifically invited into the house while it was being made ready.

The party was supposed to be a dress-up. Those who expected the be invited were planning highly elaborate costumes while the young people were practicing their dance steps. In the tradition of the 19th century, balls always started with quadrilles performed by young couples. Every young society lady in town was looking into a mirror imagining herself in a whimsical costume and practicing these very important quadrille steps. One of those young ladies was Carrie, Mrs. Astor’s daughter. When all her friends received the invitations, young Carrie didn’t get one. And that was the key part of Alva’s ingenious plan! In order to procure the invitation for her daughter to the ball, Mrs. Astor had to drop her pride, drive her carriage up the street to Mrs. Vanderbilt’s house, and drop her calling card. Thus, Alva Vanderbilt was formally introduced to the leader of the society and ensured her place in the pantheon of Mrs. Astor’s 400.

The Masked Ball given March 26, 1883, was, indeed, the party of the century. It was scheduled to start at 10 pm, but by 8 pm the streets were full of onlookers who gathered along 5th Avenue to take a look at the elaborate costumes of the invitees. There were numerous kings and queens, princesses and counts. Some costumes stood out. The hostess herself was dressed as Venetian Renaissance Princess. Her sister in law, Alice Vanderbilt, had the most unusual and creative costume of all: she was dressed as electric light. Her dress lit up like a Christmas tree powered by batteries hidden within her costume. Such a costume would be quite unusual even today, but imagine the reaction it inspired in 1883, when Thomas Edison had just recently worked out the electric light. Another costume which stood out could be described as rather creepy. The Cat costume included 17 real cat tails pinned to the dress and one white taxidermied cat worn as a hat.

Miss Kate Fearing Strong known as Puss in her Cat costume
Mora (b. 1849). Miss Kate Fearing Strong known as Puss in her Cat costume 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1460.

As per Gilded Age custom, the dance started after 11 pm and the dinner (prepared by the chefs of Delmonico’s) was served at 2 am, followed by more dancing which lasted into the small hours in the morning.

The ball cost $250,000 (equivalent to nearly 6 million dollars today), with $65,000 spent only on the champagne served to the astounding number of guests – 1200!

Symbolic of the age of exuberance and ostentatious wealth, this Masked Ball went down in history as the party of the century. However, it is also a symbol of wit, creativity, and one woman’s unbendable will to achieve her goals.

Mrs_Vanderbilt_ElectricLight
Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II aka Alice Claypoole Gwynne as ‘Electric Light’.

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