Party of the Century
February 10, 1897 - At 10pm on this night, 900 guests started arriving at New York's Waldorf Astoria for a grand ball thrown by Mrs. Bradley-Martin. It's remembered as one of the most extravagant soirees in US history. Critics complained about the decadent display at a time when the country was crawling out of an economic depression.
A wildly rich British socialite, Mrs. Cornelia Bradley-Martin saw an opportunity to stimulate the local economy with a huge party:
...let us give a costume ball at so short notice that our guests won't have time to get their dresses from Paris. That will give an impetus to trade that nothing else will.
In the invitations Mrs. Bradley-Martin asked her guests to come dressed as characters from the 16th, 17th or 18th century. The hostess herself would appear as Mary Queen of Scots in a dress glittering with $100,000 worth of diamonds. She was amazingly outdone by John Jacob Astor's wife who would wear over $200,000 in diamonds as a dazzling Marie Antoinette. Other attendees would include two George Washingtons, three Catherine the Greats and ten Madame de Pompadours.
The public outcry began as soon as the invitations went out. The clergy complained that the rich were wasting money that should be directed to charities. Newspapers eagerly reported on the party preparations, fueling the frustrations of the working class that was struggling to survive. Worried that class warfare might erupt at the Waldorf, the Assistant Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, stationed a small army of officers around the hotel to keep the peace.
The ball began with a dance, the quadrille de honneur. Many of the guests were unaccustomed to wearing swords, and this made for some humorous moments on the dance floor as weapons snagged on frilly gowns and sent people tumbling.
At around 1 in the morning a 28-course meal was served including lobster, caviar-stuffed oysters, roast suckling pig, canvasback duck stuffed with truffles and plover's eggs. The crystal glasses were kept full with four thousand bottles of 1884 Moët et Chandon.
To make sure her guests made it to and from the ball safely, Mrs. Bradley-Martin retained over 400 carriages. At the end of the night, the bill came to a whopping $369,000 (approximately $9,000,000 nowadays).
When the city tax authorities caught wind of the price tag they immediately filed suit to raise the Bradley-Martin's taxes. The suit was dismissed as it turned out the couple only spent the social season in the city, and their official residence was back in England.
Stung by the bad press and with the tax collectors nipping at their heels, the Bradley-Martins fled New York and returned home to London - where they could throw their big parties unabated.