- 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
The social gulf between the residents of the park and the villagers was so immense that the Honorable Katharine D. P. Collier St. George, the aristocratic Republican congressional representative for the district, felt obliged to observe this distinction even in addressing an election rally. “Ladies of the park,” she would say, nodding to a small but conspicuous group in the forefront of her audience, and then with a sweeping glance for the remainder of the assemblage, she would continue, “and women of the village.”
Bound to Tuxedo Park by ignorance and poverty, the villagers provided the cheap labor to perform the menial tasks on which aristocratic grandeur depends. This convenient arrangement persisted until better-educated and less subservient younger generations of villagers finally rebelled against feudal servitude without feudal rights. In the end, the defection of domestics and gardeners was far more disastrous than that of Willie Astor.
As the years went by, a few advocates of change surfaced, even among the elders of the tribe. Pierre VI, who in 1940 succeeded his father, Pierre V, as the head of the tottering Lorillard dynasty, was the most reckless of them. A confirmed bachelor, already in his late fifties, Pierre VI was, by Tuxedo standards, a shocking iconoclast who lived in spartan quarters above the Tennis Club and scoffed at social pretensions. “We want red-blooded young people who may have only very moderate incomes,” he insisted. “What is blue blood, anyway? I never was able to find out.”
The only solution for the plight of Tuxedo, according to Pierre VI, was to tear down all the old white elephants and replace them with up-to-date houses, priced within the means of five-thousand-dollar incomes. Outrageous as this may have seemed to many Tuxedoites, it was obvious that drastic measures were needed to rescue the Tuxedo Park Association from financial disaster, and Pierre VI had his supporters. Early in 1942, outside management was brought into the association for the first time to promote a less radical subversion of Tuxedo’s traditions. New houses in the eight- to ten-thousand-dollar range were built on a few of the many acres of still vacant land, and some of the elegant stables and carriage houses were converted into apartments, but the surviving architectural follies were allowed to remain standing. Pierre Lorillard VI did not live to see the completion of his emergency transfusion into Tuxedo’s hardening arteries. He died in 1943 at the age of sixty-one.
Since then, the harried Tuxedo Park Association has endeavored to conduct an orderly retreat from the glories of the past. The fence has come down and the park’s sovereign domain has been gradually whittled away to one-third of its original size. The great houses of the pretentious period have either vanished entirely or been converted to institutional use. The site of the Mortimers’ imperial splendors has been engulfed by weeds, yet their original cottage still stands.
The Tuxedo Club itself, though quite independent of the association, was not untouched by the Depression. By 1936 the roster of members had dwindled from a peak of over five hundred in the years before the stock market crash of 1929 to less than half that number. This alarming erosion continued until, in 1941, a cut-rate category of membership was devised: for fifty dollars a year, a person residing more than twenty miles from the clubhouse could become an associate member and enjoy all the privileges of full members except that of voting at club meetings. This timely bargain attracted not only an influx of new faces but a surprising number of old members who apparently considered the saving, small though it was, to be worthwhile. By 1944, associate members outnumbered full members by a narrow margin (189 to 186), and the roster was restored to a semblance of its former strength, at least numerically.
Perhaps the most grievous blow suffered by the club, however, was social, not financial. In 1971 the Autumn Ball of hallowed tradition was canceled. For many years it had been one of the most prestigious of debutante showcases. But the youth revolution of the sixties had finally reached Tuxedo Park, and there was an appalling lack of interest among young females of the tribe in what had been regarded until recently as an obligatory ceremonial rite. Traditions die hard in Tuxedo, however, and lately, according to Mrs. David A. Grant of the ball committee, “the tide seems to be turning and once more there is an interest among the young of Tuxedo in continuing the Autumn Ball tradition.” Plans are now being made to revive it in a less formidable and more relaxed manner as a dinner-dance, and Mrs. Grant still hopes that “the Autumn Ball will continue as a Tuxedo tradition for many years to come.”