August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
An exclusive preserve of New York’s social elite —its rise, its flourishing years, and its slide into genteel decline
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.”
Although the possession of inherited wealth was never an absolutely essential criterion for admission, a substantial number of members were blessed with it, and working for a living was viewed with suspicion by many of the original Tuxedoites. Bankers, financiers, and others who dealt with money only in its more intangible and dignified aspects, however, were acceptable.
The number of members was at first restricted to two hundred gentlemen of distinction, but the pressure for membership was so great that within a year the permissible number of club members was increased to four hundred, exclusive of resident members. By 1888, as a result of this more democratic policy, there were 348 nonresident members and 29 resident members, among them a sizable contingent of parvenus who had been judged worthy. Indeed, the difficulty of getting into the Tuxedo Club perhaps has been exaggerated, at least by outsiders. According to the late George Rushmore, who grew up in the park and whose father was one of the original club members, “if a person could get a proposer and a seconder and kept quiet, he was likely to make the grade without too much ancestral background. The one way not to be elected … [was] to buy a house in the park before election.”
Nevertheless, it was the club’s reputation for exclusiveness, whether deserved or not, that was the key to the unique prestige of Tuxedo Park, first as a seasonal resort and later as a place of permanent residence. Without the club and the elevated social functions of which it was a center, the park, for all its superb combination of natural beauty and civilized amenities, might soon have degenerated into just another inconvenient and overly pretentious suburban backwater. The luxurious clubhouse was an ideal rendezvous for genial coaching parties and a perfect setting for anything from a cozy tea party on the terrace overlooking the lake to a stately cotillion in its elegant ballroom. The grand climax of the Tuxedo season, and the first major event of the New York season as well, was the club’s Autumn Ball. This glittering affair soon became the traditional occasion at which Tuxedo debutantes made their formal bow as huntresses for husbands. It was at the first of these balls, incidentally, in October, 1886, that Griswold Lorillard, younger son of the founding father, is alleged to have introduced to America the first truncated set of evening clothes.
But the gayest time of all in the heyday of Tuxedo was the week between Christmas and New Year’s when the clubhouse overflowed with members and their guests celebrating the holidays in a hectic round of “Pigeon-shooting, coasting, skating, tobogganing, dancing, flirting, singing, card playing, and last, but by no means least, eating and drinking. …” Flirting was one of the more popular of those diversions and, as one sardonic observer put it, “while sleigh bells jingled outside, the society belles jangled inside.”
All through the nineties and the first decade of the 1900’s, the sounds of men at work with hammers and saws echoed across the hills and dales of the park. Architecturally there were two distinct periods, the modest and the pretentious. Houses of the modest period adhered faithfully, for the most part, to the cozy style of the original cottages designed by Bruce Price. Modest at Tuxedo meant a structure of wood or stucco containing from five to ten bedrooms. After a dozen years of steady building, nearly a hundred of these earlyTuxedo-style cottages were scattered along the park’s winding roads. Snuggled into a hillside, as the rugged terrain usually demanded, they blended gracefully into the landscape and were deceptively unimpressive from the outside. But in an era of ostentatious display, even the disapproval of Lorillard himself could not prevent the spread at Tuxedo of an unseemly taste for competitive grandeur. By the turn of the century, architectural pretentiousness was epidemic.
One of the first to succumb was Charles B. Alexander, a corporation lawyer who had married a California gold-rush heiress. The Alexanders, unaccustomed as yet to mingling with the more aloof members of the Tuxedo set, sought to confirm their wealth and station with a castellated brick and stone affair large enough to contain a spacious ballroom. But the Alexander house was soon overshadowed by Henry W. Poor’s immense, brick, Tudor-style manor house.
Architects of the Gilded Age were themselves not always immune to the insidious lure of the grandiose, and their clients sometimes got more than they bargained for. One mishap of this sort occurred with a house built for Mrs. Henry Barbey, a sister of the founder. Mrs. Barbey’s main residence was in Switzerland and she had in mind only a small chalet where she could spend a month or two each year in her native land. The planning was done by correspondence, however, and her instructions were not too precise. The result was that her small chalet turned out to be an imposing mansion with a great hall and fifteen-foot ceilings and all but impossible to heat in the winter. A gentleman who rented it one year ate breakfast in his fur coat. Mrs. Barbey herself, according to legend, took one look at the house and never came back.
There was also during this period a weird epidemic of laboriously moving cottages built during the modest period to more felicitous, or at least more impressive, locations. And many of the older and smaller cottages were enlarged, often to twice their original size. One was enlarged so much that it needed fourteen rooms just for the servants.
Victory in these architectural jousts probably belonged to the Richard Mortimers. The Mortimers were pioneer settlers who, in 1905, deserted their cozy cottage for a fifty-four-room villa in the Italian style. It was not so much the villa itself that won the palm for the Mortimers as it was the massive iron entrance gate, flanked by an imposing pair of lions, and a majestic avenue, lined with marble busts of Roman emperors, that led awed visitors to the Mortimers’ front door.
Although the monuments to vanity at Tuxedo Park were relatively restrained compared with those at Newport and other resorts where the parvenu roamed at will, they not only were incompatible with Lorillard’s concept of country living in refined simplicity but they carried within them the seeds of future disaster. Like antediluvian monsters that could not adapt to changes, the overblown cottages and grandiose manor houses of the pretentious period became increasingly prone to attacks of financial distemper.
Nor was grandiose architecture the only peril to which Tuxedo Park was exposed. As a seasonal resort, it was vulnerable to the whims of fashion, and although it developed into a remarkably stable community compared with other resorts, it was always plagued by transients and deserters. William Waldorf Astor, Tuxedo’s richest and most insistently aristocratic colonist, was an early defector. In 1890, following a series of humiliating social and political fiascos, Mr. Astor announced that, with the exception of Tuxedo, “America is not a fit place for a gentleman to live” and left in a huff for Great Britain. There he founded the distinguished English branch of the Astor family, became more British than the British, and eventually was rewarded with a hereditary title. Even Tuxedo Park could not match that kind of social security.
The most deplorable defection, however, was that of the founding father himself. Ten years after he had presided over the park’s opening ceremonies, the chronic discord between Lorillard and his wife became too acute for comfort, and he went elsewhere to live with a mistress. He retained firm control of the Tuxedo Park Association, however, and on his death in 1901 at the age of sixty-eight, his still substantial holdings were left in trust for his grandchildren. The reign of the Lorillard dynasty over Tuxedo Park, though diminished in energy and power, was faithfully carried on by his son and grandson, Pierre V and Pierre VI.
Tribal clannishness, nourished by frequent intermarriages among offspring of the pioneer settlers and intensified by the insidious effect of the fence syndrome, bred both disdain for outsiders and fear of their contaminating influence. Unrelated but otherwise perfectly acceptable newcomers sometimes found it so difficult to break into the activities of a tightly knit cousinage that they gave up in despair and departed. Snobbery at Tuxedo came in such concentrated and virulent doses that it produced a stifling air of complacency and stilted formality. Although Tuxedoites might, as individuals, deplore the elaborate formality that prevailed in the park, it seemed to be a group affliction for which there was no cure. Even Emily Post, who was the daughter of Lorillard’s harrassed architect, Bruce Price, and had been brought up in the park, eventually found Tuxedo manners too artificial for her taste and she too defected.
“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.
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.”
More unmanageable than its internal problems are the pressures on Tuxedo Park from the outside. Orange County, in which the park is situated, lies in the outer ring of counties surrounding New York City, and distance has thus far protected it from the perils of rampant suburban growth. But the New York Metropolitan Regional Plan Association predicts that the population of Orange County will increase from roughly 230,000 to 450,000 during the next decade, and owners of large tracts of undeveloped land in areas adjacent to the park have been rubbing their hands with glee. Even the Tuxedo Park Association, once the vigilant watchdog both of the park’s territorial integrity and of its social purity, was briefly infected by the contagious atmosphere of growth. In 1975 the association announced that it was planning to build 2,555 new housing units on 1,185 acres. The land in question was beyond the boundaries of the park proper and provided a consoling buffer zone against plebeian neighbors in the surrounding town of Tuxedo. Although the plan called for a clustered development that would leave 50 per cent of the land open, it was greeted with dismay by many residents of the park, and that particular building project was eventually abandoned. The next specific threat came about two years later when a developer obtained preliminary approval from the Tuxedo town board for another cluster development—even larger—in nearby Sterling Forest. This scheme is currently tied up in various suits and environmental impact studies, and many residents, both inside and outside of Tuxedo Park proper, are unhappy about it. But it seems certain that some kind of growth must occur. Mounting property taxes make it economically unfeasible to keep holding the land indefinitely without any development.
For its part, the Tuxedo Park Association has contended that it is motivated primarily by a desire “to maintain a balance of creative tension between the forces of development and the forces of conservation”—undoubtedly a laudable aim. However, while “creative tension” may be a soothing euphemism for the often irreconcilable differences of opinion that exist between real estate developers and town planning boards, it seems to be a singularly inappropriate one for a community with the unique historical background of Tuxedo Park. The only tension, creative or otherwise, ever intended by the founders of this once impregnable bastion of the socially prominent was that in the breasts of the outsiders who yearned to become insiders.
An aura of social distinction still clings to Tuxedo Park, and descendants of the founders continue to use it either as a temporary roosting place on their seasonal migrations or as a permanent sanctuary. But their number is dwindling and they are now an endangered species, threatened by the advancing tide of suburbia, surging northward from the metropolis. As the enclave becomes physically more and more hemmed in by noxious highways, industrial parks, and housing developments, there seems no place for Tuxedo Park to go socially except down.
The board of governors of the Tuxedo Club does not capitulate easily, however. It has never seen fit to relax its old taboo against certain ethnic groups. But the sovereignty of the board is now limited to the precincts of the club, and the lofty Mr. Hoyt would be shocked to discover that today there are numerous Tuxedoites, including a healthy proportion of Jewish families, who do not find it “decidedly unpleasant,” as he once fancied it should be, “to be a resident of the park and not be admitted to the club.” There are, in fact, those who feel that this drastic change from the ways of the past, belated though it may be, is one of the few encouraging omens for the future of Tuxedo Park.