"CAPITAL ELITES: High Society in Washington, D.C., after the Civil War" by Kathryn Allamong Jacob

"CAPITAL ELITES: High Society in Washington, D.C., after the Civil War"

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Jacob reveals that while Washington, D.C.'s cocktail- and dinner-party circuit has changed in its makeup over the last 200 years, its spirit remains the same. Jacob (assistant program director for publications at the National Historical Publications and Records Commission) focuses on three subsets of D.C.'s elite during the Gilded Age, as dubbed by Mark Twain: the Antiques (who later became known as the Cave-Dwellers), the Officials, and the Parvenus. Before the Civil War, the fine old Southern Antique families reigned in society. After the war, with Southern ways and means felled by Confederate defeat, war heroes, Bonanza Kings, and patent profiteers poured into the capital, and the Northern Republican officials who came to administer the restored Union set the social agenda. By the turn of the century, masses of new millionaires had streamed into Washington, which, because of its regular post-election population turnover, was known as the easiest American society to break into, The bankrolls and ballrooms of the nouveaux riches ruled the social pages of the newspapers. In each of the three eras, snubs, scandals, seasonal belles, and supermarriages fed the rumor mill. Interestingly, the First Ladies of the last century suffered some of the same travails as their 20th-century successors: Mary Todd Lincoln was criticized for her expensive clothing tastes, and Julia Grant was caught up in a gold speculation scandal. Despite such occasional juicy historical gossip, the book often resembles a who-was-who catalog. Ultimately, the social gaze Jacob casts upon D.C.'s well-born and well-to-do proves superficial, like a party-goer who describes the setting, the guest list, the seating, the menu, and a few snippets of overheard conversation without ever catching the double entendres. In describing social jockeying in pre-Beltway D.C., Jacob sacrifices incisiveness for comprehensiveness.

Pub Date: Nov. 22nd, 1994
Page count: 344pp
Publisher: Smithsonian