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, the states political leaders were still divided as to whether they wanted to host this massive event—the municipality was difficult enough to manage without having millions of additional people visit over a six-month period.  During this long day marked by striking contrasts, Depew made one last effort to align the warring political factions; The newspapers seemingly reported his every move. 

A box containing fifty of menus once belonging to Chauncey Depew recently came to light. Most of them were lavish menus from large banquets held from 1888 to 1892. However, the box also contained two simple menu cards, both dated February 17, 1890. Pinpointing Depews exact whereabouts on two occasions during that important day, these menus provide a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the ruling elite during the Gilded Age.

Depew was a persuasive, Yale-educated attorney, then regarded as one of the most outstanding orators of his time. Not surprisingly, he was ranked in the top tier of the city’s after-dinner speakers, along with fellow-lawyer Whitelaw Reid, the retired general Horace Porter, and the preacher Henry Ward Beecher. In fact, Depew was so popular that he often spoke at several banquets a week, sitting at the dais for hours before delivering his witty remarks. He enjoyed the camaraderie and acclaim afforded by these engagements, often slipping a banquet menu into his pocket as a souvenir. He described public speaking as his hobby.

On the afternoon in question, Depew brokered a deal with politicians who came down from Albany to meet with him. The menu below comes from the midday meal at The Lincoln, a middling hotel at Broadway and 52nd Street, suggesting they may have discussed the matter over a simple meal.1 This one-dollar dinner features the type of everyday fare normally served in such establishments. Without knowing its history of ownership, this menu would be of no special interest. 

In the early evening, Depew gave a rousing speech in support of the world's fair at a large public meeting at the Cooper Union. In response to charges that the New York Central (which he managed for the Vanderbilts) would profit from the event, Depew claimed that the railroad would only receive about a million dollars of additional revenue, a modest portion of the windfall expected to roll into the city. Although his masterful performance was fully reported in the newspapers, there was no mention of where he went after his speech.

The menu below shows that Depew attended a ball that night which was sponsored by The Patriarchs, the wealthiest and most exclusive social group in New York.2 During the social season, it was the custom of high society to attend the opera on Monday nights. As a result, this late-night dance began later than usual. This allowed enough time for the horse-drawn carriages to bring everyone down to Delmonico’s on Madison Square after the performance. At thirty minutes past midnight, there a buffet supper. This interruption to the dance program usually created a crush around the small elevator. However, most of the crowd slowly filed down the stairs from the third-floor ballroom to the dining rooms, where they found fifty tables waiting for them. The cold dishes were laid out beforehand, carefully arranged so that they could be seamlessly replenished; the warm dishes were served continuously, a few at a time. Distinguished by an alternating red and gilded edge, this elegant menu 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 best restaurants in the country. 

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 smattering of the nouveau riche. Flushed with victory, Depew undoubtedly gave the “patriarchs a first-hand report, during intervals between the quadrilles, waltzes, and gallops. William Waldorf Astor, having recently broken ground on a large hotel on Fifth Avenue at 33rd Street, would have been particularly interested in hearing what Depew had to say that night.3 

At the time, Depew probably thought these menu cards marked a triumphal moment in his career. As things turned out, the double-dealing politicians from Albany had not negotiated in good faith, and the World’s Colombian Exposition was subsequently awarded to Chicago. Nevertheless, Depew’s work on behalf of the World's Fair only served to enhance his reputation as the consummate insider. In 1899, he was appointed as a United States Senator, representing the State of New York.4, 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???