Prolific Auchincloss again lets loose his particular brand of character sketch-cum-social history, focusing on the period between 1880 and 1910. Auchincloss begins with "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt. Only glancing reference is made to his shipping and railroad empire, but we learn that he worked in the morning, drove his trotters after lunch, and drank at night. His principal heir was son William Henry: "There is something distasteful in the picture of this homely, stout, phlegmatic man, with his small pig eyes," who bore his father's insults and ended up "with the whole fortune in his pocket." One of William's sons married the ferocious Alva Smith: fired by social ambition, she gave legendary costume parties and bullied her daughter, Consuelo, into an unhappy marriage. Other flashy Vanderbilts include Adele Sloane, who carried on a risquÇ flirtation before settling down suitably; Grace Wilson, queen of the society columns; and the sculptor and art patron Gertrude Whitney. Of the non-Vanderbilts featured, one of the weirder and more fascinating subjects is Edmund Stanton, the manager of the Metropolitan Opera who incurred hostility by packing the schedule with Wagner. An uneven mix of revealing anecdotes, recapitulation (detailed plot summaries of Wharton novels), and omission (little in the way of historical or economic context). Fans who already have an interest in the period may relish these oblique and opinionated characterizations; but the off-center sketching (so graceful and evocative in Auchincloss' best novels) here offers the historical equivalent of gilding: it draws the eye only to life's shiny, decorated surface.