Thursday, September 27, 2012

Chauncey Depew’s Big Day

New York City,

Chauncey Depew was particularly busy on February 17, 1890. In addition to being the president of the New York Central Railroad, Depew headed the so-called World’s Fair Committee, charged by New York’s moneyed interests with securing the upcoming Colombian Exposition for their city. It had been four months since they discussed the matter over dinner at Delmonico’s and time was now running out. It was Monday and Congress was expected to make a decision by the end of the week. And yet, even at this late date, New York’s political leaders were still divided as to whether they wanted to host such a massive event—the municipality was difficult enough to manage without having millions of additional people descend on it over a six-month period. Depew would now make one last effort to align the warring political factions in what would be a long day marked by striking contrasts. The newspapers seemed to report his every move. 

He was the right man for the task. A Yale-educated attorney, Depew was well-respected, persuasive and an outstanding orator, ranked in the top tier of New York’s public speakers, along with fellow-lawyer Whitelaw Reid, the retired general Horace Porter, and the preacher Henry Ward Beecher. In fact, Depew was such a popular after-dinner speaker that he often attended several banquets a week, sitting at the dais for hours before delivering his witty remarks. He described public speaking as his hobby, for he enjoyed the camaraderie and acclaim afforded by these engagements, often slipping a banquet menu into his pocket as a souvenir. 
Cartoon from The New York World

A box containing fifty of his menus from the years 1888 to 1892 recently surfaced at a rural auction in the Midwest. Although most of the menus came from lavish banquets, the box also contained two small menu cards dated February 17, 1890, pinpointing Depew's exact whereabouts at two points during that important day. They provide a fascinating glimpse of the inner workings of the city’s ruling elite during the Gilded Age.

One of these menus came from the midday meal at The Lincoln, a middling hotel at Broadway and 52nd Street.1  Having reportedly met with politicians from Albany in the afternoon, Depew may have brokered a deal over this one-dollar table d’hote dinner, featuring the type of everyday fare normally served in such establishments during the late nineteenth century. Without knowing its history of ownership, this unexceptional menu from a now-forgotten hotel would be of no special interest. 

That evening Depew participated in a large public meeting at the Cooper Union, where he gave a rousing speech in support of hosting the world's fair. In response to charges that New York Central would profit from the event, he asserted that the railroad, which he managed as part of the Vanderbilt system, would only receive about a million dollars of additional revenue, a modest portion of the windfall expected to roll into the city. It was a masterful performance, fully reported in the newspapers. However, there was no mention of where he went after his speech.

Interestingly, the other menu shows that Depew later attended a ball held by the Patriarchs, the wealthiest and most exclusive social group in New York.2 Although Depew was a high-level executive, he was far removed from the world of these rich aristocrats, comprising the old-money Knickerbocker families and a few newcomers like the Astors. Since it was the custom of high society to attend the opera on Monday nights during the season, this late-night dance began later than usual, allowing time for the horse-drawn carriages to bring everyone down to Delmonico’s on Madison Square after the performance. Flushed with victory, Depew probably went to the ball to give the Patriarchs a first-hand report, during the intervals between the quadrilles, waltzes, and gallops. Having just begun construction on a large hotel on Fifth Avenue at 33rd Street, William Waldorf Astor may have been particularly interested in hearing what Depew had to say that evening.3

The dancing was temporarily interrupted at 12:30 AM for a buffet supper. Except for the usual crush around the small elevator, most of the crowd slowly filed downstairs from the large assembly room on the third floor to the dining rooms, where fifty tables were waiting for them. The cold dishes were laid out beforehand, carefully arranged so that they could be seamlessly replenished during the service; the warm dishes were served continuously, a few at a time. Distinguished by an alternating red and gilded edge, the elegant menu shown above is printed in a restrained version of the artistic style. Delmonico’s was then at the peak of its eighty-year reign as one of the country’s best restaurants. 

When Depew saved these menu cards, he probably thought they marked a triumphal moment in his career. As things turned out, the double-dealing politicians from Albany had not negotiated in good faith, later working quietly behind the scenes to raise doubts in the minds of the Congress. The World’s Colombian Exposition was subsequently awarded to Chicago. However, Depew’s work on behalf of the World's Fair only served to enhance his reputation as the consummate insider.4 In 1899, he was appointed as a United States Senator, representing the State of New York.5

1. This hotel predated the much larger Lincoln Hotel (now named the Milford Plaza Hotel) which opened on Eighth Avenue in 1928. 
2. Established in the early 1870s through the efforts of socialite Ward McAllister, the Patriarchs comprised a committee of twenty-five distinguished gentlemen whose purpose was “to create and lead society.” In return for an annual subscription fee of $125, a Patriarch could invite four ladies and five gentlemen to each of their balls at Delmonico’s. These invitations were highly coveted by parvenus anxious to enter the upper echelons of society. The powerful Vanderbilt family, with whom Chauncey Depew had long been associated, was not granted membership until 1888, when Cornelius Vanderbilt II was admitted. The Patriarchs held their last ball in 1897. 
 3. John Jacob Astor III died five days later on February 22, 1890, making William Waldorf Astor, his son and only heir, the “wealthiest man in the world” according to the New York Times. Although New York failed in its bid for the fair, the 13-story Waldorf Hotel still opened in 1893, six weeks before the World’s Columbian Exposition began in Chicago.  
4. Several menus in the box show that Depew visited the Windy City during the inter-city competition, presumably as a trusted intermediary.
5. The New York State legislature appointed U.S. senators until 1914.

1 comment:

lostpastremembered said...

I can't believe you found a box of his menus Henry. That is remarkable. Provenance is all. I love the way the 2 posts dovetail together so masterfully... the barons of NY duking it out with the rubes upstate and then losing... wonder why they were against having the exposition in NY???