Why Mrs Astor’s Family Is So Powerful

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Mrs. Astor was fawned upon for her power and influence in The Gilded Age and here’s why she and her family were revered in the show and in real life.

Warning: SPOILERS for The Gilded Age Episode 2 – « Money Isn’t Everything »

Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) was formally introduced in The Gilded Age episode 2, which was a glimpse at why the queen of New York’s high society is so powerful. Creator Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age is a lush immersion into the upper crust of 1882 New York City. The Gilded Age dramatically depicts how Old New York, exemplified by women like Mrs. Astor and Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), sought to keep New Money families like George (Morgan Spector) and Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) out of the social power circles of Manhattan.

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Previously spoken about with reverential awe, Mrs. Astor appears in The Gilded Age episode 2’s climax when she formally opens the fundraiser for war widows and their children run by Aurora Fane (Kelli O’Hara) and Anne Morris (Katie Finneran). Aurora greets Mrs. Astor’s arrival by calling her « a marvel » and a « queen among her people. » Indeed, Mrs. Astor was the most admired guest at the charity until George Russell arrived and bought out the event as a public display of revenge for how Bertha was snubbed by Mrs. Fane and Mrs. Morris. Mrs. Astor’s socialite daughter Carrie (Amy Forsyth) also appears as a character in The Gilded Age. The fact that Larry Russell (Harry Richardson) moves in the same fashionable young crowd as Mrs. Astor’s 21-year-old daughter excited the social-climbing Bertha, and she encouraged her Harvard graduate son to get to know Carrie, which was another assurance of the Astors’ power and influence.


In real life, as in the fiction of The Gilded Age, Mrs. Astor’s and her family’s power was derived from both her heritage as Dutch aristocracy descended from the city’s original settlers and also from her marriage to William Backhouse Astor, the grandson of John Jacob Astor, America’s first multimillionaire. Caroline « Lina » Webster Schermerhorn Astor was the arbiter of a club known as the Four Hundred, which was the creme-de-la-creme of New York’s elite. The Four Hundred were alternately known as the Knickerbockers and were strictly comprised of old money families who trace their histories to the founding of New York City. Although there were other Mrs. Astors, Lina seized the title of The Mrs. Astor and took her place as ruler of Old New York’s social circle.


Mrs. Astor is the first and last word in deciding status and who or what is fashionable in New York City during the Gilded Age. Mrs. Astor’s parties were exclusive to members of the Four Hundred, comprised only of old money families. Along with Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), who will appear later in The Gilded Age, Mrs. Astor curated the membership of the Four Hundred and she decided on the 25 families that would be included at all of her parties. Each Gilded Age family must have one million dollars of net worth and be of the same Old New York breeding as the Astors. In 1892, McAllister published the names of the Four Hundred in the New York Times, formally defining the who’s who of New York’s high society elite.


In The Gilded Age, George Russell’s ostentatious power play showing off his wealth made Mrs. Astor take notice. Mrs. Astor conceded that the Russells were going to be people to reckon with, although she stopped short of agreeing with Carrie that George and Bertha should be befriended. In real life, Mrs. Astor famously stonewalled new money families like the Russells and the real-life Vanderbilts who earned their fortunes instead of inherited them. Yet the desire to be favored by Mrs. Astor and her circle was all-consuming for a woman like Bertha Russell, who yearns to be accepted in New York high society. The Gilded Age presents Mrs. Astor at the height of her power and influence and it remains to be seen if Bertha will feud with Mrs. Astor the way the real-life Lina initially denied Alva Vanderbilt entry into the Four Hundred. It was finally acquiescing to the Vanderbilts and their new money that sparked the end of Mrs. Astor’s power and reign.


The Gilded Age airs Mondays @ 9pm on HBO and streams on HBO Max.

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