- 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
“Tuxedo was the most formal place in the world,” Mrs. Post said later. “Nobody ever waved or hello-ed or hi-ed at Tuxedo. You bowed when you shook hands.… And first names were considered very bad form. … There were only five men in Tuxedo who called me Emily—and never in formal Society.” The fence syndrome worked both ways and sometimes it ignited sparks of rebellion among the younger inmates of the park. Dorothy Draper, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Tuckerman, loyal Tuxedoites to the core, minced no words about it. ”… I couldn’t stand Tuxedo,” said Mrs. Draper. “I can’t stand any place with a fence around it. Tuxedo had holes in its fence and I escaped through one of them and married George Draper. But I still don’t like the idea of that fence.” The case of Clermont L. Barnwell, another fugitive, is even more poignant. The first baby ever born in the park—on June 7, 1888—he could never escape the unhappy distinction of being known as the Tuxedo Baby. “All my life,” Mr. Barnwell lamented, “it’s been almost as much of a cross to bear as a bar sinister.”
An illuminating instance of the Tuxedo group mentality in action occurred in 1908 when a young whippersnapper named Jay Gould II had the effrontery to win the club’s cherished Gold Racquet court tennis tournament for the third year in a row. The tournament had been opened to outsiders with some reluctance and apparently only on the proud assumption that social inferiors could not compete successfully against such Tuxedo-bred masters of this game of kings as T. Suffern Tailer, Clarence C. Pell, and Pierre Lorillard VI. To make matters worse, young Gould was no ordinary outsider: he was the grandson and namesake of the late and still detested scourge of Wall Street. To the dismay of his social betters, however, he developed into one of the great players in the history of the sport and reigned supreme as national champion for twenty years. After his third triumph in the Gold Racquet, the club’s august board of governors cravenly concluded that the only way to rid themselves of this embarrassment was to abandon the tournament. Even when it was revived many years later, after Gould was safely in retirement, the governors took the precaution of stipulating that national titleholders, past or present, were ineligible to compete.
Death and taxes, those implacable menaces to exclusive enclaves of the rich in a democracy, inevitably took their toll at Tuxedo. Gaps in the dwindling ranks of the old guard were filled by newcomers of less impeccable lineage, ranging in quality from George F. Baker, a self-made but otherwise eminently respectable banker of the old school, down to Charles E. Mitchell, a new breed of banker who flourished in the boom days of the 1920’s by selling securities of dubious value to gullible investors. Despite this decline, Tuxedo Park’s reputation for exclusiveness rolled along for many years on the momentum of its early prestige. The Autumn Ball continued to be a major event of the New York social season and the Tuxedo Club remained a defiant citadel of inherited wealth.
The Great Depression of the 1930’s battered the park as the income from trust funds and invested capital, which had always been the main support of the migratory rich, was drastically reduced because of fading dividends and defaulted bonds. Cottages were boarded up to economize on maintenance costs, and some of the great manor houses were demolished to reduce taxes. A disturbing omen for the future was the occasional sale of an abandoned cottage at a pitifully low price to a buyer who had no chance whatever of making the club.
If times were hard inside the park, they were even harder on the other side of the fence. Residents of the park, while accepting feudal privileges as their natural due, had not been noteworthy for assuming any concomitant feudal obligations and for the most part were indifferent to the welfare of the surrounding community. It did not seem to disturb them, for instance, that many of the villagers (as those who lived on the wrong side of the fence were condescendingly called) still inhabited the wretched shanties of their immigrant fathers and grandfathers who had built the park.