Ask McGehee: Do any of the characters in HBO’s series “The Gilded Age” have a connection to Mobile?

William Butler Duncan

So far, the only Southerner represented has been Savannah-born Ward McAllister (played by Nathan Lane), who created the idea of the New York Four Hundred — that there were really only that number of people worth knowing in that city.

The lead character, social climber Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), was certainly inspired in part by Mobile-born Alva Smith Vanderbilt. Alva had married William K. Vanderbilt in 1875 but found the family snubbed by old New York despite the size of their bank accounts. When the couple was finally invited to New York’s most prestigious annual event, the Patriarch’s Ball, society’s leader Caroline Astor refused to be introduced to them.

Alva was incensed. Many a Mobilian knew her temper and drive as a child, and her determination now knew no limits. On March 26, 1883, she held a costume ball in her newly completed mansion on Fifth Avenue to ostensibly honor an old friend who had married into British nobility. That event even caught the attention of Caroline Astor who, upon discovering she was not to be included, went into her own rage. She finally relented and sent her calling card to the Vanderbilt home to acknowledge their existence, and a truce was established.

In the series, Bertha Russell holds an event believing all of New York society would flock to her magnificent new home out of curiosity. Too bad she didn’t consult Alva, since none of the people she wanted to know showed up. Watch for further links to Alva as Mrs. Russell turns away well-connected suitors for her daughter. Looks like she may be holding out like Alva, who made her daughter unhappily marry the Duke of Marlborough.

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Others with Mobile connections who may well appear in some fashion include:

Frank Crawford: The First Mobilian to Marry a Vanderbilt

Born in Mobile in 1839, she received that unusual first name because her father had promised his best friend that the couple’s next born would be named in his honor. He kept his word. In 1859, she married John Elliott and left for a nice honeymoon. Surely Mr. Elliott thought it odd that Frank brought her widowed mother, Martha Crawford, along. Upon the return trip, Frank went home with her mother, and the marriage was annulled. 

In 1867, Frank and Martha Crawford took a trip to New York to visit a cousin, Sophia Vanderbilt, whose husband, the Commodore, was the creator of the vast family fortune. Sophia died a few months later, and the Commodore invited the Crawfords to move into his home. A year later, the trio took a trip to Canada, and the news services reported that Cornelius Vanderbilt had taken a wife. The shock came when it was discovered that the 75-year-old grandfather had chosen the 31-year-old Frank and not her mother.

Alva Smith married the Commodore’s grandson William K. just six years later. The Vanderbilts apparently liked Mobilians. Alva was not the least bit intimidated by the multimillionaire and later said of him, “I had never known what it was to be awed by anybody.”

Frank, an ardent Methodist, convinced her husband, the Commodore, that instead of spending $1 million to build a 625-foot-tall monument in Central Park to jointly honor himself and George Washington, he should spend the money on education. The result was Vanderbilt University.

William Butler Duncan: Mobile’s Biggest Booster

Scottish-born, he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, with his family in the 1850s, graduating from Brown in 1860. Five years later, he founded the London-based banking firm of Duncan, Sherman & Co. where none other than J. P. Morgan would one day apprentice.

In 1874, he took over the bankrupt Mobile and Ohio Railroad and soon had it making a profit. Although his main residence remained in Manhattan, he was a regular guest at the Battle House and would later be described as “one of the biggest boosters Mobile ever had.”

While Mobile was pulling itself out of the worst of Reconstruction, Duncan and his wife moved into a simple but large home at One Fifth Avenue. He was one of the 25 members of The Patriarchs along with the Astors, Livingstons and Schermerhorns, and would undoubtedly have been present at the ball when Alva was snubbed by Mrs. Astor. 

In the 1890s, Duncan personally paid to have the median on Government Street east of Royal constructed and landscaped with grass and Lombardy poplars. This beautification project was planned to give those arriving by boat or train a better first impression of the Port City. It has been called Duncan Place ever since.

William d’Alton Mann: Robber of Robber Barons

A native of Ohio and a Union veteran, he arrived in Mobile in 1867 with $50,000 earned from patenting inventions he had developed during the war. While others with that history would have been shunned, Mann’s legendary personality won Mobilians over. In 1868, he combined three newspapers into The Register. 

In 1891, Mann moved to New York and took over an insignificant newspaper called Town Topics. The paper soon began covering social events in the city and always included scandalous and scathing columns about the Four Hundred, as well as all those trying to claw their way in.

No names were ever mentioned in those columns, but there were enough clues to make it painfully obvious who the prominent parties were. Mann developed a wide network of house servants, hotel employees, telegraph operators, tailors and seamstresses who were only too happy to divulge inside gossip for a price.

With readership at an all-time high, Mann could strike fear in New York’s wealthiest citizens. When invited to lunch, a millionaire would hear of a proposed topic that involved his wife, daughter or girlfriend and be told the next issue was coming to press. For a gift ranging up to $25,000 to go towards the eventual publication of a book called “Fads and Fancies,” the scandal would not appear in Town Topics. The truth was, no such book would ever exist.

In 1903, Mann’s reputation was damaged by a libel suit followed by his arrest for perjury. He died forgotten in 1920, long after the Gilded Age had ended. Surely his infamous role in that period will not be overlooked by HBO.

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