Just how gilded was this age, and how much nose-wrinkling might it have inspired in the dowager countess? The formidable Downton Abbey matriarch wasn't fond of new-moneyed Americans, the subjects of a new NBC series involving the ITV show's writer, Julian Fellowes.
Downtown Abbey – sorry, The Gilded Age – will be set in New York City during the era American historian Greg King says lasted from the 1870s and the industrial revolution to 1914 and the First World War, when "old-money blue bloods confronted the nouveau riche... and forged an uneasy and dazzling new social order".
Before the days of federal tax, the Astors, Rockefellers and Carnegies – and their fictional counterparts chronicled by Edith Wharton in novels such as The House of Mirth – presided over an elite that carved out a city of staggering riches. "In winter they rushed from the Metropolitan Opera to glittering ballrooms, to dance through the night," King writes in A Season of Splendor. "In summer, ensconced in plush, private Pullman cars or aboard sleek yachts, New York society dispersed to sprawling Italian palazzos and Gothic castles... nestled in the Berkshires, and fringing the cliffs of Newport."
NBC may need to blow its props budget to do the era justice. It may also need to audition horses. King identifies a dinner in 1903 that was so extravagant, news of it helped turn a city against its architects. To mark the opening of his vast 5th Avenue stables, the industrialist C K G Billings invited 35 men to the Sherry Hotel. He had laid the ballroom with turf and the guests were seated on horses brought up in the lifts. Waiters served dinner on golden trays fitted to the saddles while the men "sipped champagne from long rubber tubes attached to the saddlebags."
Champagne through a tube? For the dowager countess, there could not be enough smelling salts in the world.