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Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski in 'The Gilded Age'. Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

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The Gilded Age: 11 Books That Evoke the Lavish Era

If the HBO series has piqued your interest in excessive wealth, here are 11 books to make you an expert on gloves, gowns and heiresses / BY Nathalie Atkinson / February 18th, 2022


Mark Twain’s satirical 1873 novel The Gilded Age gave name to this era of American history, a period of innovation, expansion and excessive, competitive wealth that’s rife with lavish design, social history and intrigue. If, like us, the Julian Fellowes HBO series of the same name has piqued your interest, here are 11 titles to explore.

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1A Gilded Deathby Cecelia Tichi

You’ll want to keep What Would Mrs. Astor Do?, Tichi’s history of manners and period trends, at hand while watching the HBO series — her insight was invaluable in my recent feature about the lifestyle trappings of the era. The professor of English and American studies at Vanderbilt University also writes mystery fiction set among the leisure class of the Gilded Age; start with this cozy.


2Brooklyn’s Promised Landby Judith Wellman

This is the rediscovered history of the virtually unknown, 19th-century Black community of Weeksville, an early African-American settlement that flourished after New York State abolished slavery in 1827. Free Black professionals bought land in whats now Crown Heights, which became the second-largest free Black community in the United States.


3Gilded New York: Design, Fashion, and Society,edited by Donald Albrecht and Jeannine Falino

This gem published by the Museum of the City of New York is my favourite of the many coffee table books that cover the period. It surveys the interrelated trends of the era across the decorative arts, jewelery and interiors of extravagant mansions now long gone. Of note, there is a close-up look at the lavish, so-called “Electric Light” gown by Maison Worth, famously worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II to the Vanderbilt Ball of 1883. It’s a look at how the over-the-top wealthy truly lived.


4Gilded Suffragistsby Johanna Neuman

Call them the Real Housewives of the Upper East Side. This is an entertaining study of the early campaign for women’s rights, particularly the stealth work among elite New York women with names like Whitney, Astor and Belmont. They used soft power and social clout to advance the movement, and were unfairly dismissed as mere socialites.


5Consuelo and Alva Vanderbiltby Amanda Mackenzie Stuart

This is the riveting and ultimately tragic account of the mother-daughter duo who tried to defy the extremely materialistic worlds they were born and married into. At 39, Alva famously had the largest divorce settlement in American history, which led her to marry daughter Consuelo off, against her will, to the cash-poor Duke of Marlborough.


6Black Gothamby Carla L. Peterson

African-American scholar Dr. Erica Armstrong-Dunbar, historical consultant on the HBO series and its executive co-producer, has detailed in interviews how research and books like this one about early Black regional history helped shape the show’s narrative and its accurate portrayal of the entrepreneurial Black middle class that built prosperous enclaves around New York (see Episode 5). Bonus: theres also an online archive to explore.


7Glovesby Anne Green

Between Carrie’s rubber dish gloves for her daily smoke and that grand gown finale on the bridge in Paris, gloves played a memorable supporting role in the Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That … . This lively new book uses photographs and pop culture to unfurl the cultural significance of the humble glove across eras, and never were manners and mores more important than in the etiquette-obsessed Gilded Age. Read it to be armed for their imminent revival.


8Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babiesby Laura Thompson

Gilded age or gilded cage? Thompson gives us an engaging look at the burden of wealth for unhappy heiresses such as Barbara Hutton and Patty Hearst, alongside stories of the women who defied societal expectation to do interesting and important things with their lives and fortunes, like Victorian philanthropist Angela Burden-Coutts, fashion editor Daisy Fellowes and eccentric Nancy Cunard, who was an early supporter of the Civil Rights movement.


9American Eveby Paula Uruburu

If true crime is your thing, then this is the book for you. In a #MeToo era, it illuminates the true and notorious murder of the Gilded Age’s most famous architect, Stanford White, who is a peripheral character in the HBO series. After his relationship with 16-year-old chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit ended, she detailed White’s sexual abuse to her new husband, who shot and killed the architect in front of hundreds of guests during a 1906 performance at Madison Square Garden (a building designed by White). At the time, Nesbit was the most photographed woman of the era (think: Kim Kardashian), and the court case is a consummate story about celebrity and corruption, as all consuming in its day as the O.J. Simpson trial.


10The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New Yorkby Anne de Courcy

This is a classic of the biographical gold-digger genre that subverts the usual trope by being about rich families in search of status and titles rather than wealth. The social historian calculates that between 1870 and 1914, 454 wealthy American girls married titled Europeans (100 of them British aristocrats, 60 of which were eldest sons inheriting titles). 


11Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame Xby Deborah Davis

New Orleans socialite Virginie Gautreau moved from New Orleans to Paris after the Civil War, married a rich French banker, and became the subject of Sargent’s scandalous painting. The original off-the-shoulder, dress-strap pose made it sexually suggestive and caused uproar at the stuffy Paris Salon of 1884. This historical novel traces how the infamy altered the fates of its notorious beautiful subject – the It girl of the Belle Époque – and the artist.


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