Thursday, August 9, 2012
Farewell To Fifth Avenue
In 1935, when Cornelius Jr., the rebellious son of Cornelius Vanderbilt III, published a memoir called "Farewell to Fifth Avenue" he was again doing the opposite of what his parents wanted. 6 years later his words came true when his mother Mrs. Vanderbilt, the former Grace Graham Wilson, gave her final but most terrific ball in the vast and venerable Vanderbilt mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue. 1,800 guests swarmed in , weighed down by $100 million worth of jewelry and all their decorations.
The ball was to be a United Service benefit, supposedly open to the public, but at $20 a person ($312 in 2012) only the wealthy could afford to attend. The guests list included many of New York City and Newport's Old Guard such as Mrs. William Watts Sherman and the former Mrs. James Laurens Van Alen, by then Mrs. Louis Bruguiere, Mrs. George W. Kavanaugh and her friend Lady Decies, the former Mrs. Harry Lehr, Several members of New York City's "Cafe Society" like Mrs. Winston Guest , Mrs. Robert Lehman, Mr. and Mrs. William Woodward Jr., and several of society's eccentrics, such as Doris Duke and Charlene Cassini. Two Astors attended John Astor VI and Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Astor and then there was also two Vanderbilts, Gloria Vanderbilt and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney.
The ball would raise thousands of dollars and would be Grace's most terrific event. As the orchestra played brilliant music, the guests danced in the ballroom, dined in the picture gallery, lounged in the library, played games in the red and gold ante room, mingled in the great hall, had dessert in the dining room and watched performances in the music room.
The night had been as lively as ever, despite that Grace was depressed over the fact that this would be her last event in the Vanderbilt mansion. Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh and her friend Elizabeth Lehr Decies created as scene when they arrived because they were each weighed down by 10 pounds of jewelry (diamonds of course). Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh was the enormously wealthy wife of manufacturer Colonel George Washington Kavanaugh, and her occupation seemed only to be diamonds and society.
As if to remember the night, Mrs. Vanderbilt had let photographers come in and take pictures of the guests and of some of the rooms. The most famous one taken was of Grace Vanderbilt, seated in front of the tapestry wall in the ante room.
By 1 in the morning, most of the older guests began to leave and return home. One of the first to leave was Mrs. Van Alen, who needed to return to Newport and prepare for the dinner party she would be hosting that night. Mrs. Van Alen's limousine pulled up in front of the Vanderbilt mansion and her chauffeur helped into the car and prepared to take her to the airport where she would board her private jet and head to Newport. During the last hour of the party, as if to signify that Her Grace Vanderbilt nodded approval, as the orchestra played it's last notes a window in the french ballroom flew open, the wind blew and the curtains billowed as if a spirit were making a grand exit. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III had left her house for the last time.