|Delmonico's at Madison Square|
Although there were four Delmonico’s in Manhattan at the time, members of the fashionable upper class congregated at the newest uptown location at Madison Square. Occupying the entire south side of 26th Street, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, the restaurant was well-positioned to serve the needs of high society. On this occasion, the elite diners found the third-floor banquet room festooned with British and American flags and large banners bearing the coats of arms of both nations. Colorful flower displays were placed along every table and a miniature theater made of candy was positioned at the middle of the dais for all to see.
Some of these dishes on the menu shown below were prepared using traditional French recipes, such as the entree poulardes braisées à la Périgord, a neutered, fattened hen trussed with thick slices of truffles between the fat and skin before being roasted on a spit over a fire; and the game dish bécacassines au cresson which was roasted snipes served with watercress. Other dishes were developed by chef Charles Ranhofer who often named his creations after famous people, such as the hors d’oeuvre timbales à la Dumas, the small cylindrical-shaped molds of chicken forcemeat decorated with truffles and slices of tongue named after the French writer Alexandre Dumas.
This menu belonged to poet George Parsons Lathrop who wrote his name on the back, insuring its return after being passed around for autographs. Most of those who signed his card were seated nearby, like his brother Francis, a decorative artist who worked on the new Metropolitan Opera House that opened in 1883; Louis F. Austin, a Brooklyn-born journalist who was Henry Irving’s private secretary; and fellow-poet David L. Proudfit. Two of the signatures feature a small drawing, providing a charming touch of Victoriana—a cat drawn by playwright Henry Guy Carleton, and an owl by artist and engineer F. Hopkinson Smith who was then building the base for the Statue of Liberty, scheduled to arrive by ship in two months.
Seated at the next table, poet and drama critic William “Willie” Winter may have signed the card after reciting a poem that he wrote for the occasion:
“If not the torrid diamond wave that made young life sublime,
If not the tropic rose that bloomed in every track of time,
If not exultant passion’s joy when all the world was fair,
At least one flash of heaven, one breath of art’s immortal air!”
As shown below, the large seating chart (16 x 11½ in.) shows that 170 people attended the dinner, including members of the press. The banquet room was arranged in the typical manner with five long tables marked “A” through “E.” The dais could seat about fifteen, including the guest of honor, presiding host, speakers, and other distinguished guests. The blue pencil line marking seat 28 at table “A” showed George Lathrop where he would be seated. (Click once or twice to see enlarged images.)
The New York Times reported that “nearly 200 representative Americans” attended the dinner, a misleading claim closer to the room’s capacity of about 215 people than the number who actually attended. Perhaps the newspaper was putting a positive spin on a banquet that was under-subscribed, despite all of the hoopla about Irving’s talents as an actor. In addition, the well-to-do attendees were not so much "representative Americans," as they represented a cross-section of the country’s upper-class, something that the paper’s readership intuitively understood. The banqueters included wealthy businessman William Henry Vanderbilt seated at the head of table “E,” next to the German-American painter Albert Bierstadt, famous for his sweeping western landscapes. At the next table was financier Cyrus Field, remembered for founding the Atlantic Telegraph Company that laid the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean in 1858, and at the far end of that table was lawyer Elihu Root who would later serve as Secretary of War under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Among the notable attendees seated at the dais was Senator William Evart, filling in as host for former-president Chester A. Arthur who was too ill to attend. Henry Irving was seated on Evart’s right, and on his other side was the charismatic preacher Henry Ward Beecher, "the most famous men in America."1
|Henry Ward Beecher|
After receiving a full minute of applause, Beecher began by acknowledging that some might be surprised to see him there. He recounted how he had been raised by stern Puritan parents who taught him that the theater was the home of the devil, an actor was an irredeemable creature, and an actress was beyond all words. However, after reaching the age of seventy, he decided to go and see it for himself. After his first bite of the forbidden fruit, he was eating all the apples he could, having now attended seven or eight performances. Displaying his characteristic wit, Beecher recounted that he had been recently asked whether he still thought the theater was harmful for young Christians. He answered by explaining that it might not be too detrimental, as long as they followed his example and waited until they were seventy before attending. Beecher concluded his speech by saying that Irving’s departure gave him the feeling that he usually got in autumn, when the birds were leaving and he did not know whether he would ever hear them sing again. On that maudlin note, he took his seat amidst loud cheers and prolonged applause. The great orator had pulled it off once again.
As shown by the red arrow in the detail above, Roosevelt was seated at table “D,” almost directly in front of Beecher, and next to his good friend Henry Cabot Lodge, the reform-minded Republican politician from Massachusetts. Roosevelt’s presence must have been unexpected, for early on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day the year before, his mother Mittie died of acute typhoid fever, and his twenty-two-year-old wife Alice died of Bright’s disease, within hours of each other in the same house on 57th Street. Crossing out that day in his diary, Roosevelt wrote, “The light has gone out of my life,” and soon departed for his ranch in the Badlands of the Dakota Territories. Temporarily back in town to finish his book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, he worked himself to a point where it affected his health, causing him to delay his scheduled departure. In fact, he was looking so pale and dyspeptic that his sisters became worried, making inquiries about his health.2 It is interesting that the correspondent from the Times, sitting only a few feet away at the next table, reported that Roosevelt and Lodge kept up an “animated conversation” all evening, especially given that neither young man was in public office. As was so often the case, Roosevelt exhibited amazing energy and exuberance, even when in a weakened condition. He finally departed for Badlands ten days later, returning again to New York in the summer of 1885, his health fully restored. It was then that he saw Sagamore Hill for the first time, his newly-completed home at Oyster Bay. In October 1886, Roosevelt ran for mayor of New York and lost, coming in third. (The setback coincided with the dedication of the Statue of Liberty.) Two months later he sailed to London to marry Edith Carow, his new life finally beginning to take shape.
|Theodore Roosevelt, 1885|
Although menus and seating charts broaden our understanding of such social events, our knowledge remains limited. For example, we will never be able to appreciate Beecher’s oratory skills given the transient nature of his art. In the case of Roosevelt, we have recordings of his high-pitched voice, and know how he emphasized points by striking the palm of his hand, but we may never know what he and Lodge were discussing so vigorously that evening.
Henry Irving sailed for Liverpool two days later on the S. S. Arizona, vowing that this American tour had been his last, despite having made a lot of money. Nevertheless, Irving returned to the United States many more times to perform. In 1894, he hosted a large dinner at Delmonico’s for his friends. By then, his fame had grown to the point that chef Ranhofer named a stuffed chicken dish after him—poulet farci et grillé à la Irving.
1. Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, New York, 2006.
2. Edmond Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, New York, 2001.