It was the party of the year, perhaps even the party of the century. Expensive and exclusive, it came at an inopportune time and received plenty of press coverage—much of it negative. If Barack Obama’s birthday party was a monumental display of nouveau riche vulgarity, it also resembled the Bradley–Martin Ball, a party held in 1897 as the nation recovered from the deep depression that had begun in 1893.
If you missed the press coverage, Obama’s party was held on a 29-acre, $12 million estate on the shore of Martha’s Vineyard. The tent was the size of a football field. Hundreds of glitterati guests were invited, from A-list movie stars and politicians to entertainers and singers. Many flew in by private jet; a vast staff tended to everyone’s needs. The food was lavish, the wines superb, the liquor strictly top-shelf. The singing and dancing went on until the wee hours. And because the hosts were a former president of the United States, celebrating his sixtieth birthday, and his wife, the Secret Service established a no-fly zone overhead and carefully controlled access on land.
The party drew unwanted attention. With some areas of the country reimposing mask mandates and others struggling to rebound economically, criticism of the partying high and mighty ensued. Then again, Annie Karni, a White House correspondent for the New York Times, assured CNN listeners that there was no problem, as the guests were a “sophisticated, vaccinated crowd,” not the great unwashed who might have spread Covid. And on NBC’s Meet the Press, Anthony Fauci condemned as dangerous the recent motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, but made no mention of the Obama party.
In all of this, the party is reminiscent of the ball thrown by Bradley Martin. Martin came from an old Albany family, the son of a very successful banker. In 1896, his wife announced that they were throwing a costume ball at the ultra-fashionable Waldorf Hotel (soon to merge with its next-door neighbor and become the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, then the largest in the world). Twelve hundred invitations went out to the cream of New York Gilded Age society; about 700 guests attended.
As with Obama, Martin spared no expense. Decorations included 5,000 roses and 3,000 orchids. Jewels by the bucketful were taken out of safe-deposit boxes or rented for the occasion. Bradley Martin dressed as Louis XV, his wife as Mary, Queen of Scots (wearing a ruby necklace that had once belonged to Marie Antoinette). A large orchestra and the Marine Corps band entertained the guests. The New York Times ran an article three days ahead of the party that detailed what each guest planned to wear. The party, which began at 10:30, went on until nearly dawn.
The criticism in the newspapers and pulpits across the country was intense. The ball cost $370,000 at a time when $400 was the per capita annual income. One outraged protestant minister thundered: “You rich people put next to nothing in the collection plate, and yet you’ll spend thousands of dollars on Mrs. Bradley–Martin’s ball.” New York City promptly doubled the tax assessment on the couple’s New York mansion.
The couple tried to defend themselves. Throwing such a lavish event, they insisted, was an attempt to help revive the economy by employing so many people and spending so much on food and drink. That argument proved a public-relations disaster. The couple soon retreated to Britain, where they had already been spending much of their time. They never threw another ball.
The late nineteenth century and the early twenty-first have much in common. Each saw an explosion of wealth—fueled by industrial growth then, by the digital revolution now. For the first time in their families’ histories, many people had wealth almost beyond tabulating. Being human, they wanted to flaunt it. And many did, with huge yachts, platoons of servants, lavish balls, carriages, and great urban palaces and Newport cottages. In New York, by 1900 the richest and largest city in America, the mansions of the superrich stretched two miles up Fifth Avenue, from 57th Street to 96th Street, the greatest millionaires’ row the world has ever known. But the Gilded Age superrich also gave enormous sums of money to universities, museums, libraries, concert halls, hospitals, social work, and scientific exploration and research.
Some of today’s billionaires do the same. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have established huge philanthropic organizations. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have been investing heavily, and successfully, to lower the cost of space travel. But Obama is not well known for personal philanthropy. The Obama Foundation, created in 2014, has been funded almost entirely by outside contributions and is chiefly involved in building the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago—a monument to, well, Barack Obama.
Still, after last weekend, he will, like the Bradley–Martins, certainly be known for his fantastic party.
Photos by Underwood Archives/Getty Images (Left), SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images (Right)