I wish I was a better person. Really I do. But I’m just not. Because if given the chance to travel back to anyplace in time for one day, I’m worried that I wouldn’t take the chance to witness some historic moment or risk messing up a chain of future events by trying to right an egregious wrong. I might even pass on the opportunity to meet someone lost to me. I’m afraid that the temptation to spend a day amongst the swells of the Gilded Age might be too much to resist.
Oh, those parties of such excess, where Marie Antoinette would have felt like a sparrow amongst peacocks. The hothouse flowers in winter, the constellations of jewels, the gowns, the contrived dances and tableaus. How could I resist? Of course, I’d probably have to be there as a maid; I’d be a failure as a debutante. But no matter where you sit, the view would be something, wouldn’t it? I feel painfully shallow.
Patricia Beard’s tale of turn-of-the-century, corporate malfeasance, After the Ball, is centered around one of these parties, an event held on January 31, 1905. The host was James Hazen Hyde, a rich young man who had recently inherited a high position in the Equitable Life Assurance Society, the company his father had found and built into the most successful insurer in the nation. James wasn’t ready for the job; his father, penitent and worried after the loss of an older son, smothered James with all the fine things in life, but didn’t prepare him to take over the company. In 1905, that moment was still a few years off; a trusted associate, James W. Alexander was holding down the fort until James reached his 30th birthday.
Of course James didn’t have a whole heck of a lot of time to spend at the office learning the business, as he was pretty busy being one of the prime swells around town. In an era when the smart parties regularly began on Monday nights at 11 pm (after the opera) and continued on to breakfast, it was hard to then head downtown to sit at a desk all day. James was also a serious Francophile, who had majored in French at Harvard, and managed to spend a great deal of time in Paris (though he could actually claim he was there to cultivate business—Equitable had a big stake in France but was under fire as the French government was considering changing laws involving foreign insurers).
When he wasn’t in Paris, or at the family’s country house on Long Island, or running races around town in his four-in-hand coach (yes, that’s right—race coach), James did keep his hand in the family business a little. He made the mistake, though, of choosing as a friend and mentor one of the Gilded Age’s great schemers, E.H. Harriman.
Harriman is important to the story, not because he was a guest at James’ big party, but because he, along with Morgan, Frick, James Hill, and other powerful financiers of the day, all used Equitable in one way or another as the battle for control of the company erupted after the party. Alexander, angry at the way James had kept Alexander’s son off the Equitable board, decided he’d had enough and began to plot and scheme James’s removal from the company. Egged on by the Equitable’s most successful salesman and second vice-president, Gage Tarbell (a name from an Edith Wharton novel, I’m sure), who was bitter about the nepotism that placed James above him and prevented him from ever rising further, Alexander gathered up all the reasons he could dig up to reduce James’ power and force him out. One of those reasons included an allusion to the idea that James had used company money for his lifestyle of excess, including the lavish January 31 party.
And that’s the problem with Beard’s book: Alexander does make the accusation about the party, but he makes it well after the corporate infighting scandal had been splashed across the front page. It never gained much traction, though. Other parties had been much more scandalous or seen as symbols of excess. James’s party had been covered in a generally positive light. Plus the financial manipulations revealed in the fight—syndicates created to buy and sell assets back and forth within a company, conflicts of interest, sloppy bookkeeping, advances and loans not accounted for--were more attention-grabbing. The battle for a company this big and powerful was already enough news.
As Beard explains quite well, life insurance was something people took very, very seriously in the 19th-early 20th century. For most people now, I think it’s just another benefit they get at work that they don’t think about much (that’s at least my perception as an uninsured outsider). In the 19th century, though, life insurance was vital; a working man who died in an accident in a factory or construction site had to have some kind of policy or else his family, likely already scraping along, would be destitute. Even in upper-middle class or the “average rich” a life insurance policy might be the only things preventing disaster, for in those families, the widow would not be able to work or take in boarders or any of the other options, that as difficult as they were, at least were possibilities for lower-class survivors. People of a certain class were not prepared to or expected to work and a widow, fearing for her children’s social and marital prospects, would not dare cross this line. So in this context, life insurance could be the difference between genteel poverty and hanging on to a carefully won social status.
But if the party was nothing more than the last big New York event of James’ life, then the book seems mostly like a tale of financial wrongdoing, with all the info about the party and James’s raucous life as nothing more than candy flowers on a loaf of bread. As stories of high finance and low scandal go, the Equitable’s is no worse than the rest, especially from that time period of epic backroom machinations and behind the scenes skullduggery. In the end, James was pushed out, but so were Alexander and Tarbell. No one went to prison. Harriman didn’t get the Equitable shares he had been after at the time (thus his betrayal of James during the protracted wrangling), but did quietly buy them a few years later. No earthshaking legislation came out of this story; it did not really change the lives of the rich, the poor, or the middle-class in any real way. The Equitable survived and prospered (full disclosure: I did temp for several years at Equitable Real Estate Investment Management and while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, I did appreciate their putting up with me) until it was recently bought by the French giant AXA (James would have been quite happy).
Beard ends the book with the story of the rest of James’s life, spent mostly in Paris, where he married and divorced several times and generally did nothing. He had a son, Henry, who became a lawyer and worked for the OSS during WW II. This is all mildly interesting, but in reality, it feels tacked onto the main story. In the end, James Hazen Hyde, as badly treated as he was by some of the people at his father’s company and the other robber barons involved, is not someone readers can really care about, let alone pity.
After the Ball is partly about a moment of Gilded Age excess and partly about an example of turn-of-the-20th-century financial deviousness, but the two don’t really depend on each other enough to warrant weaving them together. And neither are grand enough representatives of those genres to stand alone. Beard writes well enough and the descriptions of the parties and times are fine. Her explanations of the corporate chicanery are clear enough even for non-Wall Street types. It’s a good enough addition for collectors of these little stories of the period, but not gripping enough for those interested in the bigger picture or truly gripping tales of the gaudy and bad Gilded Age.
Now excuse me, I have to figure out that time travel thing and get ready for the party.