Vanderbilt Halloween Season: A 1930s Masquerade Ball

On Halloween, children like to dress up in spooky costumes and masks, and go door-to-door, trick or treating for candy. In William and Rosamund Vanderbilt’s day, an analogous activity for adults was to dress up in elaborate costumes, wear striking masks, and attend masquerade balls in New York City. Candy was not involved. The adults preferred champagne and cocktails.

Venetian costume-ball mask on display in Rosamund Vanderbilt’s walk-in closet in the Vanderbilt Mansion
Vanderbilt Museum photo

During the Halloween season at the Vanderbilt Museum, the Mansion has been decorated as if William and Rosamund Vanderbilt have planned an autumn masquerade ball, to be held on their yacht Alva, anchored in Northport Bay.

During the 1930s and ‘40s, the Vanderbilts were photographed at costume balls and grand parties, and often were mentioned in the society pages of New York City newspapers.

On Saturday and Sunday, October 28-29, and on Halloween day, Tuesday, October 31, visitors will see tour guides dressed in historic costumes, including as suffragettes, in a tribute to William K. Vanderbilt II’s mother, Alva, who was active in the movement for women’s voting rights.

Stephanie Gress, the Vanderbilt Museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said “Costumes are displayed in bedrooms, as if waiting for Willie and Rosamund and their guests to dress for the evening. The mansion is decorated in a fall theme, as is the Vanderbilts’ dining room and table. Bowls of pumpkins, apples and autumn vegetables are displayed in the kitchen.”

Visitors will see authentic Venetian masks, like those made famous at the masked balls of Venice, placed throughout the mansion, Gress said. Most of the Venetian masks were donated for display by Lorraine Vernola and Sue Madlinger from their private collections.

“Alva Vanderbilt was the architect of perhaps the most famous costume ball in history, in March of 1883,” Gress said.

Alva and William K. Vanderbilt Sr. had completed the construction of their new mansion at 660 Fifth Avenue in New York City. Designed by the renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt and Alva herself, Le Petit Chateau, as it came to be known, was a towering French-Renaissance style mansion that spanned an entire Manhattan block. To celebrate, the Vanderbilts held a magnificent costume ball in their elegant new home, Gress said.

The dining table at Eagle’s Nest, the Vanderbilt Mansion, decorated for autumn. Each plate is decorated with a costume ball mask, including an eagle mask for Mr. Vanderbilt, in the foreground.
Vanderbilt Museum photo

“The ‘Vanderbilt Ball’ was arguably the most extravagant social event ever to take place in New York City,” she said. “At ten o’clock on the evening of March 26, crowds of onlookers were kept at bay as 1,200 invited guests entered the palatial residence. Once inside, they were surrounded by every imaginable opulence – uniformed footmen, warm lighting, elaborate floral arrangements, magnificent furnishings, and masterfully carved wood and stone work. The guests were equally impressive, with costumes ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime.”

The Vanderbilt Ball marked the official arrival of the Vanderbilt Family into New York society. Despite their immense wealth, the Vanderbilts were regarded as nouveau riche by the city’s “old money” elite. News of the ball spread to the highest echelons of New York society, known as The 400. Caroline Astor, the reigning society queen, had the power to make or break the reputation of any family.

“Alva had been ignored by Mrs. Astor for too long, and used the ball to outmaneuver her, Gress said. “Alva was savvy, and used the press to her advantage. She invited them to preview her decorated ballroom. By the time the invitations were mailed, the Vanderbilt Ball was already touted as the event of the season.”

Ironically, among those who did not receive an invitation were the Astors. Mrs. Astor knew that she had to swallow her pride and acknowledge the Vanderbilts – because not attending the ball would spell social disaster for her and for her daughter Helen, who wanted desperately to attend.

The Vanderbilt Ball was a huge success, Gress said. By the end of the night, the Vanderbilts no longer were regarded as “vulgar new money,” but were accepted as part of the New York Social Register. The ball, which had raised the bar for future social events, was estimated to have cost $236,000, including costumes, decorations, and entertainment. In today’s dollars, that is more than $5,000,000.

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