Yes, that’s right, August Belmont and Edith Wharton.
Belmont the Jewish immigrant financier arriviste, he who changed his name from the German Schonberg to the French/Italian-flavored Belmont, the parvenu who married into the establishment, taking as his wife Carolyn Slidell Perry, daughter of the Commodore.
Wharton the descendant of the great old Dutch New York families, the Rhinelanders, the Schermerhorns; born Edith Newbold Jones, she came from the family of whom it is said that the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” was coined. Inhabiter and chronicler of the Gilded Age, a member of the Four Hundred, Wharton was the establishment.
What on earth could these two possibly have in common? As it turns out, not much.
I haven’t come across anything that suggests that Mr. Belmont was aware of Mrs. Wharton’s existence, but while reading Hermione Lee’s recently published and well received biography of the author, I several times came across Belmont’s name—if he didn’t know who she was, she certainly knew who he was…though her impression of him is not a pretty one.
While in many ways progressive—Wharton turned a sharp and critical eye onto her own society, and her novels challenge social mores and conventions, acknowledging the flaws and the dangers of the world in which she was raised–she is also given to perpetuating unattractive and common stereotypes in her writing, particularly when it comes to Jews.
Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth and Julius Beaufort in The Age of Innocence are depicted as crude social-climbers trying to buy their way into New York’s finest drawing rooms. Though Rosedale in particular is more than redeemed by the end of the novel, and Beaufort’s illegitimate daughter marries into one of fictional New York’s finest families, through much of the works these characters are barely tolerated, even as they slowly infiltrate the highest echelons of New York society. Lee suggests that Wharton draws on both society’s prevailing anti-Semitism (she cites the establishment in the 1870’s of the “American Society for the Suppression of the Jews) along with Belmont’s “meteoric rise” in her characterizations of Rosedale and Beaufort.
Belmont’s presence in Wharton’s life is not only fictional, however; in discussing the primness of Wharton’s childhood, Lee relates the following anecdote:
When the mistress of the notorious banker August Belmont was seen driving
shamelessly down Fifth Avenue in her canary-colored brougham (just like Fanny
Ring, Beaufort’s mistress in The Age of Innocence), [Wharton’s mother] Lucretia
told her daughter to turn her head away and “look out of the other window”…
And in 1897, when Wharton was 35, Belmont’s son, August, Jr., apparently attended a party that was “thoroughly execrated” in the national press for its nouvelle riche ostentation. (Lee does not note that it is Belmont fils, but as Belmont père died in 1890, it seems unlikely to have been he.) Held in the Waldorf-Astoria by a couple trying to crack New York society, the party’s theme was the Palace of Versailles, and guests were invited to wear Louis XV regalia: “The financier August Belmont arrived in a suit of gold-inlaid armour valued at $10,000.” Wonder how many race horses that might have purchased in the waning years of the nineteenth century?
Lee’s biography is exhaustively researched and, at 762 pages, comprehensive to say the least. I wrote my master’s thesis on Edith Wharton and have read most of her fiction, countless critical articles on her work, and several biographies of her. Given the scope of Lee’s work, though, I expected to learn something new in this latest edition of her life. I’d never have suspected, though, that it would be about worlds-colliding moments between Mr. Belmont and Mrs. Wharton.
My latest post is up at Belmontstakes.com, about a Belmont home-bred winning the Belmont in 1869.
And don’t forget to play the attendance charity game–a minimum of four guesses needs to be posted here (scroll down) by 9 am on Saturday morning.
Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.