- Historic Sites
An exclusive preserve of New York’s social elite —its rise, its flourishing years, and its slide into genteel decline
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
In a gazetteer of the geography of high society, Tuxedo Park, New York, might properly be described as a village (pop. 972), 40 miles NW of the Union Club in New York City, once famous for its rarefied social climate. And for the lexicographer, it is thought to be the place of origin in America of the dinner jacket—ä man’s full dress suit with the tails lopped off—commonly, though improperly, called the tuxedo.
Founded in 1886 to provide a spring and autumn sanctuary for a select flock of that migratory species that follows the sun from Newport to Palm Beach, Tuxedo Park was the nonpareil of the secluded enclaves of the rich. Though widely imitated, its original select blend of vintage money, congenial habits, and impeccable social antecedents has never been successfully duplicated.
Although Tuxedo Park managed to survive the advent of the income tax, and limped its way through the Depression, now, in 1978, its continued existence—in any form that Pierre Lorillard IV, its founding spirit, would recognize—seems most uncertain.
E. Digby Baltzell, a distinguished social historian specializing in the habits peculiar to the rich, has called Tuxedo Park “a caricature of the Victorian millionaire’s mania for exclusiveness.” Not just the ordinary sort of millionaire would do, however. In the beginning the money also had to be properly aged. Yet the highly selective standards for admission to Tuxedo Park were perhaps less a calculated than a reflex response to the chaos in New York society caused by the massive invasion of parvenus following the Civil War. By the 1880’s, the old alliance of Knickerbocker families with the post-Revolutionary mercantile rich, which had reigned supreme for nearly a century, was crumbling under the onslaught of newcomers whose unprecedented wealth and blatant opulence were socially irresistible. Tuxedo Park, like Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred, was an attempt, however ineffectual, to cope with this shattering upheaval.
Tuxedo Park’s debut on June 1, 1886, was an event witnessed only by the cream of New York Society. Although it was a select and sophisticated assemblage, few of its members were too blasé not to marvel at the wonders spread before their eyes on that spring day.
What only eight months earlier had been a six-thousandacre wilderness of forbidding forests and rocky ravines in the Ramapo Hills was now a place of manorial elegance and rustic charm. In that brief time, an army of eighteen hundred Italian and Slav immigrants—recruited at the docks and lodged outside the park proper in a small city of hastily constructed shanties—had totally transformed the landscape. Among the miracles of construction were thirty miles of graded dirt and macadam roads, a complete water and sewage system, an impregnable gatehouse and police station, two blocks of stores, the village stables, a sizable dam, a swimming tank, an icehouse, a fish hatchery, and twenty-two commodious cottages. Most impressive of all was a luxurious clubhouse overlooking a sparkling lake. Facilities for any sport in which ladies and gentlemen of refinement would in that day have cared to indulge either had already been completed or were under construction. The crowning glory of this sportsman’s paradise, however, had not yet been conceived. Just before the turn of the century a curious structure would be built in which court tennis, that most ancient, most intricate, and most aristocratic of all games, could be played.
A more prosaic but even more alluring feature was the sturdy barbed-wire fence, eight feet high and twenty-four miles long, which encircled the entire park. Patrolled around the clock by a private constabulary, the fence provided the inmates with a blissful sense of social security.
Pierre Lorillard IV, whose iron whim brought about the transformation of a forbidding wilderness into an elegant playpen for adults, was a New York tobacco magnate and sportsman. A man of formidable presence and imperious manner, Lorillard, to the dismay of Bruce Price, his architect, ordered the construction of buildings in the same casual way that other men might order a brandy and soda at their club. Once as he was leaving Price’s office, he called nonchalantly back over his shoulder, “By the way, make it four cottages more, instead of two. Show me the plans tomorrow, and break ground for them next Monday.”
In most resort and residential enclaves which boast of a club, membership is automatically conferred upon anyone who buys property. Not so at Tuxedo. There, membership preceded ownership and was not lightly conferred. The nuances of the club’s role in maintaining Tuxedo’s territorial integrity were once explained by Goold Hoyt, an official of the Tuxedo Park Association and a member of the club’s normally aloof board of governors, on a distressing occasion when it was alleged (wrongly, it turned out) that a person of disreputable character had bought property in the park. “The association never sells land to anybody who is not a member of the club …,” Mr. Hoyt stated loftily; ”… all the property owners are members of the club, and none of them would sell to a person who would be likely to prove an undesirable resident. Such a person would scarcely want to buy, either, for it would be decidedly unpleasant, I should fancy, to be a resident of the park and not be admitted to the club.”