Welcome to Weird Word Wednesday! If you’re headed back to work today, here’s a weird word to brighten things up. It’s pasquinade, which means “a satire or lampoon, especially one posted in a public place.” To learn more, we’re heading back to the Gilded Age, the span of time in the United States from after the Civil War to almost 1900. Back then, high society reigned, made possible if you had money to fling around like there was no tomorrow.
Much of this took place in New York City, and for those of you fortunate enough to have visited this wonderful place, the Empire State Building, at 350 5th Avenue, stands at the site of the former mansion of William Backhouse Astor, Jr. and his socially-mobile wife, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.
Caroline was the gatekeeper of NYC’s high society. You could have all the money you wanted, but if it wasn’t “old” money (wealth that had been in a family for generations) you’d end up standing at her front door, nose pressed against the glass in a futile attempt to get in. Your efforts were watched by many, and social columns buzzed with details of over-the-top balls and soirees given by those with dough. Failed efforts to become a part of all this could get you pasquinaded by a brief mention in the social columns. Ouch.
Enter Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt. Smart, determined and forceful, Alva was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1853. She married William K. Vanderbilt in 1875.
I’m reading “Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt” by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, a book that shares the relationship between Alva and her daughter, Consuelo. I learned that Alva’s mother, Phoebe, attempted to crash Mobile society and was rebuffed. The book said “Some people ate Mrs. Smith’s suppers; many did not. There was needless and ungracious comment, and one swift writer pasquinaded her social ambitions in a pamphlet for ‘private’ circulation.”
Double ouch! Imagine having your attempts to be socially accepted being publicly slammed in a pamphlet?
Alva at costume ball
All this left Alva with a teensy chip on her shoulder, and after she married William K. in New York, she ran up against the formidable Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. The Mrs. Astor, as she liked to be called, who had no desire to mingle with Alva.
All this changed in 1883, when Alva held a lavish costume ball. Young socialites frothed to be on the guest list, among them The Mrs. Astor’s daughter, also Caroline. Up to that point, The Mrs. Astor hadn’t paid a social call on Alva, and Alva used that as justification for refusing to include the younger Caroline on the guest list.
Forced into a social corner and fearing pasquination, The Mrs. Astor gritted her teeth, climbed into her carriage and paid the call on Alva, ensuring Caroline’s place at the ball. I can almost see Alva smirking with satisfaction as she watched The Mrs. Astor drive away after what surely was a frosty meeting.
A few years ago, we went to Newport, Rhode Island, in part to tour the extravagant mansions built by the Astors and the Vanderbilts. We toured Marble House, built for William K. and Alva Vanderbilt. It’s almost too much – with 500,000 cubic feet of marble and a ballroom covered in 22-karat gold leaf, it’s hard to imagine anyone really, truly living here. It’s a monument to avoiding pasquination, to Alva’s desire to retain social power in a very blatant form.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Aristotle (384 – 322 BC):
“The greatest crimes are due to excess rather than want.”