“Can I get something for your throat, dear?” – inquired Mr. Stuyvesant Fish. His wife retorted: “Yes, this diamond and pearl necklace I saw today at Tiffany’s.”
The most irreverent broad of the Gilded Age, Marion (“Mamie”) Fish did not shine with beauty. Nore with education. Heavyset, stern, barely literate, and often quite rude, whatever she lacked in graces she more than made up for in quick wit and acidic tongue.
The dominion over polite society, held for years by Mrs. Astor, shifted with time to the so-called triumvirate of the Gilded Age. It was comprised of three powerful society dames: Alva Vanderbilt, Tessie Oelrichs, and Mamie Fish.
Like most of the society hostesses of her time, Mrs. Fish entertained frequently and lavishly. But, being bored with long stuffy dinners, she changed the rules of the game.
First, she cut those insufferable long dinners which she referred to as 8 to 10 courses of boredom from 3 hours to a speedy 50 minutes. To facilitate the pace she had footmen standing behind guests with instructions to remove the plates as soon as possible. Guests had to hold the plates down with one hand while eating with another in order to hold on to them.
Tired of seeing the same “older faces and younger clothes” she came up with ideas to make her parties fun. Her dinner invitations stated: “There will be something besides dinner, come.”
Her partner-in-crime, adviser, and court jester was Gilded Age socialite Harry Lehr. The pair acted as two ill-behaved children in the gilded age playpens of Newport and New York. In New York, Mamie hosted her parties at the 19 Gramercy Park South house and later in her palatial mansion at 25 East 78th. Of the latter, she stated quite plainly: “It would be an uncomfortable place for anyone without breeding.”
Her party entertainment was quite shocking and in questionable taste. One of them, headlined “dinner party for dolls,” required that all conversation would be in baby talk. Another ended with a baby elephant walking through the room after dinner.
Once Harry Lehr and Mamie excited their friends by announcing that dinner would be graced by the presence of a Prince. The dinner was held in Harry Lehr’s house with the host and Mamie Fish flanking the guest of honor, Prince del Drago, who turned out to be a monkey. The royalty behaved until, after a few glasses of champagne, he jumped and proceeded to swing from the chandelier.
There was a dinner party for dogs to which 100 dogs were invited. The canines, accompanied by their owners, sported diamond collars, and other fine jewelry including diamond tiaras. They dined on the stewed liver, fricassee made of bones, and dog biscuits. One unfortunate dachshund overate, fainted, and had to be removed, unconscious, by his owner.
The exuberant displays of excess in the time of extreme poverty are quite unsavory but one has to admit, also rather imaginative.
Mamie Fish, the ungracious hostess, with her direct manner and signature hoarse laughter, made a brand of her insults. But guests came back for more as it became almost fashionable to be insulted by her.
Alva Vanderbilt confronted Mamie after hearing that Mamie said that Alva looked like a frog. Unflappable Mamie cooly corrected, “A toad, my dear; a toad.”
- “Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt” by Arthur T. Vanderbilt, HarperCollins Publishers, April 16, 2013
- “Mamie Fish” http://bigoldhouses.blogspot.com/2013/12/mamie-fish.html
- Marion Graves Anthon Fish https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marion_Graves_Anthon_Fish
- “Stuyvesant Fish Mansion New York City” from The Gilded Age Ear blog http://thegildedageera.blogspot.com/2012/07/stuyvesant-fish-mansion-new-york-city.html
- “The sauciest society hostess of the Gilded Age” from Ephemeral New York blog https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/mamie-fish/