A rich bachelor’s ball ignites a Gilded Age scandal

jameshazenhydeportraitNew York has always been home to young men like James Hazen Hyde.

Handsome, cultured, and—as the heir to the Equitable Life Assurance Society—incredibly rich, Hyde was one of the brash young men Gilded Age newspapers couldn’t wait to gush about, and then tear apart, at the turn of the 20th century.

A Harvard graduate who loved art and French culture, he lived in his own brownstone at Nine East 40th Street and had his clothes hand-made in Paris.

Hyde raced “four-in-hand” coaches (four-horse carriages) with his friend Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, and he dated President Theodore Roosevelt’s equally social daughter Alice.

hazenballgreenjacketHyde wasn’t publicity shy; he even commissioned a French painter to do his portrait (above), which gave him a royal air and showing off his dark Lothario-like looks.

He also enjoyed a good party. In 1905, Hyde threw what could be described as the most spectacular ball of the century: “a French 18th century–themed costume party for which he would be known all of his life,” wrote Patricia Beard in After the Ball.

The ball was held at posh Fifth Avenue society haunt Sherry’s on January 31. At 10:30 p.m., 600 guests were received in a two-story ballroom transformed to look like the gardens of Versailles. Invitees “wore costumes embroidered with emeralds and pearls, and jewels that had belonged to empresses,” stated Beard.


Society writers heralded the event the next day in all the papers. “James H. Hyde Gives Splendid Costume Fete,” wrote the New York Times, printing the names of notable guests (like Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and various Belmonts) along with a description of what costume they wore.

hydeballmcny93-1-19504But all the press attention from the ball led to his downfall. Though Hyde had a majority share in the Equitable company, he was to become president when he turned 30, which would happen in 1906.

Prominent board members who already wanted Hyde out of the company decided to use the publicity surrounding the ball to charge that he was “too frivolous to run a company,” explained New York History blog.

Rumors spread that he spent Equitable money to fund the ball, among other examples of sleazy business practices. Policy holders got angry, and New York State investigated.

hydeportraitsittingdownIn December 1905, with his reputation ruined (though he was never charged with criminal wrongdoing), Hyde took off for France.

He sold his Long Island estate, carriages, private rail car, and his majority share in the company his father founded and bequeathed to him.

He lived in France until 1941, when he returned to New York, “still attracting attention when he walked along Fifth Avenue in his cape and spats,” wrote Beard.

He died in 1959, dapper and wealthy but in obscurity, donating much of his art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverHyde’s extravagant, excessive ball and the subsequent scandal make a fitting coda for the end of the Gilded Age . . . which is explored in depth and illustrated lavishly in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Second photo: halfpuddinghalfsauce.blogspot.com; third photo: MCNY;; fourth photo: MCNY; 93.1.19504]

Tags: , , , , , , ,

16 Responses to “A rich bachelor’s ball ignites a Gilded Age scandal”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    That last picture shows he remained a dashing and handsome devil….until….who knows when that picture was taken. Gossip took him down……it sounds like! Good grief! His reputation was ruined! Never charged with wrongdoing! I would have liked him….I think!


  2. ksbeth Says:

    wow, what an interesting story

  3. voluntariopr Says:

    We need more men who know how to dress like James Hazen Hyde. It is incredible that the rich and famous men go around looking like vagrants with scruffy beards, torn jeans, tattoos. and worse of all, baseball caps worn backwards.

  4. carolegill Says:

    That is interesting. Dapper but alone.

  5. In lumina Says:

    […] via A rich bachelor’s ball ignites a Gilded Age scandal — Ephemeral New York […]

  6. Brian G Andersson Says:

    He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery – in The Bronx.

  7. voluntariopr Says:

    They say his ghost appear on the Woodlawn Grounds at dawn and sometimes offers men advices on how to dress for success.

  8. This 1840 spectacular costume ball started it all | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] walls was the city’s first extravagant costume ball, credited with launching the fad for the blowout spectacular balls beloved by society throughout the 19th […]

  9. This 1840 spectacular costume ball started it all ⋆ New York city blog Says:

    […] walls was the city’s first extravagant costume ball, credited with launching the fad for the blowout spectacular balls beloved by society throughout the 19th century. (adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || […]

  10. The Gilded Age social season began in November | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] horse show later in the the month, debutante and Patriarchs’ balls in December, and then various balls (often costume balls) and charity events—the high point of which was Mrs. Astor’s own ball […]

  11. Fiona J. Mackintosh Says:

    HI. I’d really love to know where you found the second picture – the one that looks like a book illustration of the ball – because my father posed for this very picture in the late 1950s! He and my mother and some friends were photographed posing in these Louis XVI costumes to aid the illustrator – I still have those photographs somewhere. If you could point me to your source, I’d be hugely grateful!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: