Sex and the City Circa 1890: Echoes of Today’s Daily Dish

Gilded City: Scandal and Sensation in Turn-of-the-Century New York , by M.H. Dunlop. William Morrow, 296 pages, $25.

When the gulf between rich and poor is broadest, scandal blossoms. This was New York in the 1890’s: flush from a two-decade boom, stunned by a Wall Street panic early in 1893, spiraling into a century-ending depression. The rich had money to burn, the poor had nothing to eat, and everyone else needed some distraction. Then as now, scandal was a way for the anxious middle class to mock its yearning for wealth and fear of poverty.

M. H. Dunlop, who teaches 19th-century American literature and culture at Iowa State University, has scoured the major New York newspapers of the day and brought back to life the great, forgotten scandals and sensations of 1890’s New York, dosed with some postmodern attitude.

The stories as Ms. Dunlop presents them in Gilded City are thoroughly entertaining, if not especially enlightening. They were all front-page news at the time, and Ms. Dunlop, for the most part, doesn’t challenge the sensational reporting, especially that of the New York Herald , which by then was peaking as a great paper, having never shed its baser instincts. But her catalog of fin-de-si├Ęcle follies does offer some sobering perspective on the excesses of our own cash-coated days.

A wedding and a ball thrown by the Bradley Martins, American tax exiles living in Scotland, set the book’s tone. In 1893, the Bradley Martins married off their 16-year-old daughter at Grace Church in a riot of ostentation, publicity and, at the end, vandalism by hordes of the informed but uninvited. The wedding occurred a few weeks before the stock crash that launched the country’s second-worst depression, which was in full bloom when the Bradley Martins returned in 1897 for their American finale: a costume ball for 1,200 invitees at the Waldorf, outfits of the 16th to 18th centuries required. In the two-week run-up, the ball became the talk of America, London and Paris. In the end, though, only 700 guests ignored the advice of their ministers, the design challenges of authentic and expensive costuming, the threat of bombs and the jeering of five-block crowds. Despite the most luxurious arrangements inside the hotel-its lower windows boarded to deny public viewing-most of the guests left early. The New York Times declared it “in every way the greatest night in the history of New York society,” but the longest-lasting last word has been had by leisure-class-basher Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in the aftermath of the multimillion-dollar affair. Ms. Dunlop’s general disparagement of the Bradley Martins and their ilk puts her safely in Veblen’s cozy corner.

The cozy corner is one of many Gilded Age manias that Ms. Dunlop explores. Orientalism, introduced to America in the 1870’s, cluttered the corners of 1890’s New York flats: a hodgepodge of drapings, rugs, divans, chairs, tables and lamps from various reaches of the East. Trend-setting artist William Merritt Chase had been loading his famous studio on 10th Street for years with bric-a-brac from all over the globe, but not long after fitting out a cozy corner, everything came undone: The studio’s entire contents-1,800 lots-went at auction in 1896 at a fraction of their purchase price. Anyone who’s spending now on feng shui may want to consider that the Oriental interior-design binge of the 1890’s lasted for about three years.

The rich spent time, as well as money, on curious whims. Slumming was in vogue in the 1890’s: late-night, police-escorted tours of the darkest slums for men in evening dress. Society editor and poet Richard Watson Gilder slummed with gusto, though proper Henry James peeped and pulled back.

Sex, as always, was on everybody’s mind. In 1894, an anonymous bachelor went on at notorious length in the Herald about a teenage schoolgirl he spied on the Sixth Avenue el. The Herald pioneered the personal ad, which varied little from today’s: “Refined miss, 18, plump, pretty face, good form, loving disposition, desires acquaintance [with] gentleman of means; object matrimony. Girlish.”

Rich men also had non-sexual outlets for their animal instincts. The 75 members of the University Epicurean Club, on University Place, gathered for simple pleasure: “Each man gripped a tankard of ale in one hand, seized a broiled steak with the other, dipped it into a vat of ‘epicurean sauce,’ and went to gnawing on it.” The club featured neither females nor forks.

The full force of the era’s sexed-up social privilege was seen in the infamous “Seeley dinner” of Dec. 19, 1896, which Ms. Dunlop reconstructs with delight. At Louis Sherry’s society restaurant, Herbert Barnum Seeley, 25-year-old nephew of the late showman P.T., presided over a bachelor party for his brother Clinton and 20 of their fellow (mostly married) Larchmont Yacht Club friends. After a 13-course meal came the main attraction: an assortment of disrobing dancers, including Little Egypt, managed by Oscar Hammerstein (grandfather of the librettist and lyricist). Just as the men were shedding whatever distinction their evening clothes had afforded them, a police raid ended the bacchanal-but initiated a year’s worth of headlines. Grand-jury testimony revealed details “against the interests of public morality”; and because trial testimony promised more of the same, all indictments were dropped.

Men’s special desire for young girls was evident in the “sex club” of architect Stanford White, a “satyr” in Ms. Dunlop’s eyes. The young Seeleys were caught and exposed, but White-perhaps because of his professional stature and his unfortunate murder by the crazed husband of his former sweet-16 plaything Evelyn Nesbit-has escaped general censure of his private life. Ms. Dunlop admirably tracks 100 years of a now-crumbling biographical cover-up, albeit in a one-and-a-half-page endnote.

The book concludes with another fine, lengthy endnote relating the author’s search for the remains of Tip, a world-traveled celebrity elephant subjected to brutal treatment in the miserable Central Park Zoo and a hysterical public execution in 1894. But the main narrative, relying again on newspaper accounts, demonizes American Museum of Natural History official William Wallace, whom Ms. Dunlop makes out to be a bloodthirsty, rifle-toting animal-hater bent on Tip’s death and subsequent skinning, boiling-down and eventual display (in skeletal and stuffed form) in the museum’s galleries. This is the same Wallace who, three years later, was the protective, kind, loving and faithful foster father of Minik Wallace, the Eskimo-boy sensation who goes unmentioned in Gilded City .

A hundred years from now, someone will certainly sift our tabloids for local tales of sex, money and mayhem. Trump, Kimes, Helmsley, Strawberry, even our double-daming Giuliani-all might be suitably forgotten names ripe for renaissance. But reading M.H. Dunlop’s gilded tales, one is reminded of an eternal truth: Easy panning for the big chunks of dirt allows the finer stuff to slip away.

Gerard Koeppel, author of Water for Gotham: A History (Princeton University Press), is writing a book on the building of the Erie Canal .