Known as the arbitress of the Gilded Age, “The” Mrs. Astor, as she was called, reigned over New York high society for four decades. Her highly exclusive annual ball, to which she invited 400 of the city’s most well-to-do establishment (no nouveaux riche permitted!) was held on the 3rd Monday of January, and people would sooner leave the country than admit they had not been invited. The ambitious Astor, the youngest of nine children, was educated in France and was known for her rigid etiquette and discretion. Dinner was always seven courses plus coffee—no more, no less. The etiquette book, “What Would Mrs. Astor Do?” was written in her honor.
She dressed expensively in dark colors, favoring black, royal purple or blue velvet dresses. In this era of conspicuous wealth following the Civil War when many fortunes were made, Astor layered on diamonds—tiaras, necklaces, stacks of bracelets and glittering drop earrings. Her lavish parties featured midnight dinners, peacock-feather rugs, and cigarettes wrapped in $100 bills. It has been said, however, that her greatest asset was her dignity, and she raised five children, including John Jacob Astor IV, who built New York’s storied St. Regis Hotel.
Indeed Mrs. Astor is known as the matriarch of the St Regis brand, having introduced many of the hotel’s rituals, such as High Tea. The St. Regis signature scent is named “Caroline’s Four Hundred,” after her exclusive guest list, and is inspired by the American Beauty roses (her favorite) that were on display at one of her last galas. After she died, it is said that it took three women to take her place in New York’s high society.