Warning: SPOILERS for The Gilded Age Episode 8 – “Tucked Up in Newport”
The true story of Mrs. Astor and the Vanderbilts hint that The Gilded Age season 1 will end with Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) winning so that she and her family enter New York’s high society. Despite George Russell (Morgan Spector) being in legal and financial jeopardy because of a tragic railroad crash, which Mr. Russell escaped unscathed, Bertha continues to scheme her way into Old New York’s forbidden doors. Bertha’s friendship with Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), the right hand of Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy), even got her invited to Newport, Rhode Island, where Mrs. Russell got to view the Astors’ luxurious summer getaway.
In real life, Mrs. Caroline Shermerhorn Astor had a similar rivalry with Alva Vanderbilt as The Gilded Age‘s Mrs. Astor has with Bertha Russell. Lina, as Mrs. Astor was known to her friends, ruled the Four Hundred, which was the elite families of New York descended from the island’s original European landowners centuries before. Mrs. Astor detested “new money,” i.e. wealth that was earned instead of inherited, and the Vanderbilts were the greatest earned fortune in New York, thanks to their domination of shipping and railroads. As New York legend has it, Alva Vanderbilt planned a costume ball with an elaborate dance performance that Mrs. Astor’s daughter, Carrie, wasn’t invited to because Lina did not call upon Mrs. Vanderbilt. Mrs. Astor ultimately acquiesced and formally called upon Alva as well as attended the Vanderbilts’ ball. The Vanderbilts were then invited to the Astors’ annual ball, cementing the Vanderbilt family’s entry into New York high society.
The Gilded Age‘s drama involving Mrs. Astor, Carrie Astor (Amy Forsyth), Bertha, and Gladys Russell (Taissa Farmiga) is playing out almost beat-for-beat like the Astors and Vanderbilts’ history. Once Carrie and Gladys became friends, Bertha, who saw Carrie as a direct line to her mother, planned a debutante ball for Gladys, complete with Carrie and her young society friends performing a quadrille dance. But Mrs. Astor snubbed Bertha when she came to deliver an invitation, which led Mrs. Russell to uninvite Carrie and her friends since, according to society’s rules, Carrie cannot come if her mother refused to receive Bertha. This has driven a wedge between Carrie and her mother as the younger Astor disagrees with the old traditions maintained by Mrs. Astor.
Although the Vanderbilt family exists in The Gilded Age‘s fictional universe, the Russells are clearly series creator Julian Fellowes’ stand-ins for the Vanderbilts as the Russells possess the grandest railroad fortune in New York. George Russell’s character is inspired by the Vanderbilt men as well as notorious robber baron Jay Gould, who has also been name-dropped several times in The Gilded Age. Meanwhile, Bertha Russell is obviously meant to be The Gilded Age’s version of Alva Vanderbilt as she edges closer to breaking through the gateway into high society guarded by Mrs. Astor. Alva Vanderbilt’s victory over Mrs. Astor occurred in 1883 so The Gilded Age has moved up its events to happen during the series’ 1882 timeframe.
The Gilded Age season 1 has built to Bertha finally hosting a lavish party in the grand ballroom of her 5th Avenue and 61st street palace. All season, Mrs. Russell refused to give Gladys a debutante ball for fears of not being able to fill her ballroom. Bertha is now so close to her goal and all that has to happen in The Gilded Age is for Carrie Astor to get her way and somehow coax Mrs. Astor into formally calling upon Bertha. If The Gilded Age follows through on the real-life history between the Astors and the Vanderbilts, then Bertha will finally get her heart’s desire and enter high society just like Alva Vanderbilt did. But The Gilded Age could also deny Bertha her victory and set the stage for Mrs. Russell to try again in season 2.
Next: The Gilded Age: How Thomas Edison Really Lit Up New York City
The Gilded Age airs Mondays @ 9pm on HBO and streams on HBO Max.