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How ‘The Gilded Age’ brought Ward McAllister back to life

Today’s nouveau riche will be tomorrow’s hoity-toity.

A theme as old as time and one that clops through the new HBO show “The Gilded Age.”

If it wasn’t obvious five episodes in, it certainly became doubly so this week with the arrival of Nathan Lane as the all-too-real Ward McAllister. Appearing in this latest period snow globe, courtesy of Julian Fellowes — taking on the ascendant aristocracy in 1880s New York, in which made-up characters mesh with historic ones — Nathan as Ward is a flurry of exclamation. Currying favours. Licking boots. Lips pursed to coax and corral.

Who was this asterisk in the social archives of America? A puppet master, if you will: the Gold Rush lawyer who famously attached himself to Caroline Astor. The “Mrs. Astor.” Her husband, William, had jubilantly inherited the vast riches of his brother John Jacob Astor III, making her, in the process, a power broker in her own right.

McAllister was her hype man, her gatekeeper, her human “cloud.” Her rock, her anchor. Long before Truman Capote would enter stage left with his “swans,” Ward laid the bread crumbs in Manhattan society, even famously dreaming up the concept of the “Four Hundred,” a catch-all reference to the A-list of the age (one that also lined up with the number of guests who could comfortably fit into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom).

“He sounded like a condescending twit obsessed with money and power, and I’m not saying he wasn’t, but according to those who knew him well, he was also a very charming and flamboyant Southerner who was known as the life of the party. And he could throw a mean picnic in Newport.”

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That according to Lane himself, talking all things McAllister to Town & Country recently. He came recommended for the part by his friend Christine Baranski, who plays a haughty member of the Old Guard in the series (the actress who also rather memorably played his movie wife in “The Birdcage”). Reading everything he could about that time to prepare, including a book by the gadfly himself — “Society as I Have Found It” (1890) — Lane does not settle for subtlety in his performance. Twirling moustache included.

All fairly faithful, as Keith Taillon confirms. “A social climber of studied and comical determination, Ward was routinely mocked for his unkempt style and studied way of speaking,” the historian wrote in one of a series of posts he has been doing about “The Gilded Age” on his Instagram account. “Nonetheless, his detractors recognized his power to make or break a person’s place in society.” A leveraged superpower, c/o his relationship with Mrs. Astor.

Exhibit A: The manner in which he becomes a conduit for the social ambitions of one Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), wife of cunning robber baron George Russell (Morgan Spector) in the series. Having amassed a fortune and built a monster dwelling on Fifth Avenue — a nod to the way industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, then viewed an arriviste, erected his own ostentatious mansion during that era — the couple have everything except one thing: access. To the inner, inner sanctum. Enter: McAllister.

What was his back story? As someone who’s long had a passing interest in the man, I will tell you: born to a family of judges in Savannah, Georgia (but far from wealthy), Ward attended parties and balls like it was homework. In 1849, he passed the Georgia Bar Exam and headed west, to California, achieving respectability as a lawyer. Next, he married heiress Sarah Gibbons but soon spent two years touring Europe, learning about wine and fashion, architecture and manners. He returned to America: first to Newport (which he is responsible for making into a summer mecca for the rich), then New York, where he encountered Mrs. Astor. A symbiosis: born. He spent years at her side, planning menus, curating guest lists, playing footsie with the press. Half Thomas Cromwell; half Kris Jenner: think of McAllister that way.

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Under McAllister’s guidance, Mrs. Astor bloomed: she instituted livery for her servants, began collecting art, hired a French chef (because who are you if you do not have a French chef in “The Gilded Age”?). American society was such then, it sought to make up for its youthful naïveté by usurping the class signifiers of Europe for its own.

Edith Wharton, the pre-eminent chronicler of that time — many believe she based the character of Sillerton Jackson on McAllister in her iconic novel “The Age of Innocence” — once wrote about attending one of those Astor balls (her eyebrows clearly raised!). “The tiara-ed heads and bulging white waistcoats of the most accredited millionaires glittered between gold plate and orchids,” she described.

Social gravity being its own irrefutable force — what goes up must come yada-yada — McAllister did eventually tumble to Earth. Having already started to lose his grip and rubbed other hostesses the wrong way, he went a bridge too far in writing his memoir. Society was not amused. He had said too much. His persona non grata status worsened more when, in a very thirsty move, he handed a list of the “Four Hundred” — a closely guarded one — to the New York Times. Bottom line: he was the life of the party — until he wasn’t.

In early 1895, word spread through creamy society that McAllister had died. Toppled over alone in a restaurant. Mrs. Astor, whose reign over New York he’d helped bolt down, did not attend his funeral.

But that all comes later. In the setting of “The Gilded Age,” as personified by Lane, McAllister is still in the glow of influence. His prevailing legacy, as the recent book “Vanderbilt” surmised? It was and is this: “He was the first and greatest of what would later be called a walker, a gentleman friend whose special skill lies in escorting society ladies whose husbands have other interests or limited time … The right walker, after all, can make or break a woman in society, and Ward McAllister was the original.”

Shinan Govani is a Toronto-based freelance contributing columnist covering culture and society. Follow him on Twitter: @shinangovani

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