Ward McAllister

Ward McAllister

Samuel Ward McAllister (1827–1895) was the self-appointed arbiter of New York society from the 1860s to the early 1890s.

The Four Hundred

McAllister coined the phrase "the Four Hundred". According to him, this was the number of people in New York who really mattered; the people who felt at ease in the ballrooms of high society. The number was popularly supposed to be the capacity of Mrs. William Backhouse Astor Jr.'s ballroom. ("The Four Million", the title of a book by O. Henry, was a reaction to this phrase, expressing Henry's opinion that "every" human being in New York was worthy of notice).


McAllister, from a socially prominent Savannah judicial family, established himself as a successful attorney in California during the Gold Rush. He used the earnings from his legal prowess to journey throughout Europe's great cities and spas—Bath, Pau, Bad Nauheim, et cetera—where he observed the mannerisms of the titled nobility. Upon his return to the United States, McAllister settled in New York, married heiress Sarah Taintor Gibbons. Using his wife's wealth and his own social connections (he was related to lobbyist Samuel Ward, who had married a granddaughter of John Jacob Astor), McAllister sought to become a tastemaker amongst New York's "Knickerbocracy", a collection of old merchant and landowning families who traced their lineage back to the days of colonial New Amsterdam. Above all in McAllister's life it was his desire for social recognition and what he termed "Tong", the cream of society.

Although purported to be an index of New York's best families, McAllister's list was suspiciously top-heavy with nouveau riche industrialists, and McAllister's southern allies, seeking a new start in the nation's financial capital after the American Civil War. In his glory, McAllister referred to his patroness, Mrs. Caroline Astor ("The" Mrs. Astor) as his "Mystic Rose". He was largely responsible for turning the simple seaside resort of Newport, Rhode Island into a mecca for the pleasure-seeking, status-conscious rich of the Gilded Age.

Among the undesirables McAllister endeavored to exclude from the charmed circle of the Four Hundred were the many nouveau riche Midwesterners who poured into New York seeking social recognition. In 1893 McAllister wrote a column about the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in which he urged that, if Chicago society hostesses wanted be taken seriously, they should hire French chefs and "not frappé their wine too much." The "Chicago Journal" replied, "The mayor will not frappé his wine too much. He will frappé it just enough so the guests can blow the foam off the tops of the glasses without a vulgar exhibition of lung and lip power. His ham sandwiches, sinkers, and ... pigs' feet, will be triumphs of the gastronomic art."

McAllister's downfall came when he published a book of memoirs entitled "Society as I Have Found It". The book, and his hunger for media attention did little to endear him to the old guard who valued their privacy in an era when millionaires were the equivalent of movie stars. McAllister died in disgrace while dining alone at New York's Union Club.

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