In Gilded Age New York, superrich families like the Astors and the Vanderbilts were known for their opulent balls.
The most over-the-top ball of them all, however, was held by Bradley and Cornelia Martin, a wealthy lawyer and his matron-like wife known as the Bradley Martins.
In the late 19th century, their riches made the Bradley Martins part of the upper crust of city society. And in 1896, the story goes, they had an idea.
Mrs. Martin believed that hosting a costume ball would lift spirits. And the money spent (about $300,000) would end up benefiting the florists, cooks, and other service workers they had to hire—a trickle-down effect as it were.
So they sent out 1,200 invitations, booked the Waldorf Hotel at 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue for February 10, 1897, and held their legendary “monument to vanity,” as the New York World put it.
About 600 invitees attended. They arrived at a hotel (below) transformed into Versailles. Guests dressed as Kings and Queens of legendary European royalty. Mrs. Martin, at right, went as Mary Queen of Scots.
Attendees dined on champagne, duck, truffles, petit fours, and other delicacies; they danced until 5 a.m.
The next day, the newspapers dutifully reported the details of the ball—but they also excoriated the Bradley Martins for their wastefulness and tacky display of wealth during an economic recession.
“The ball was greeted with a torrent of criticism and the Bradley Martins removed themselves to England; there was much clucking of tongues in the society pages and sermons about foolish ostentation,” wrote Eric Homberger in Mrs. Astor’s New York.
Even a city used to gawking at unrestrained vulgar ostentation had had enough. The Gilded Age was unofficially over.