film / tv / substack / social media / lists / web / celeb / pajiba love / misc / about / cbr
film / tv / substack / web / celeb

The-Gilded-Age-Season-2-Russells-1014x570.jpg

What History Might Predict for 'The Gilded Age'

By Chris Revelle | TV | November 7, 2023 |

By Chris Revelle | TV | November 7, 2023 |


The-Gilded-Age-Season-2-Russells-1014x570.jpg

Bless the mess that is The Gilded Age on Max, a historical fanfiction with a prestige tv budget and undeniable Broadway icons wearing insane clothing inside real mansions. It’s a very watchable kind of bad and for that, I am forever in love with it. As with all historical fictions, there’s a mix of real figures from the Gilded Age, composite or stand-in characters, and entirely fictional creations. One of the greater joys to be had watching the show is looking up the real locations (the most recent episode heavily featured the real Newport Tennis Club) and the big-name figures that appear as well as the big events. Given that we’re still in the early stages of season 2, I thought it would be fun to make some predictions about where the season may be going based on what we know happened in history.

George and Bertha Russell are played with dastardly aplomb by Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon, respectively. George is said to be partially based on Jay Gould, arguably the ur-example of a robber baron. This is slightly confusing as there is also a Jay Gould in the world of the show, and he appeared at Goerge’s robber baron Legion of Doom meeting in the first episode grumbling about this new thing the workers are doing called unions, but this show is forever hot nonsense so it’s fine. Bertha, on the other hand, is explicitly based on Alva Belmont, who similarly muscled her way into New York high society like an elegant Terminator. Alva was a suffragette who donated big amounts of money to the cause in both the US and the UK. She sought to extend the cause outside white women by including Black women and establishing a settlement house for suffragettes in Harlem, but she also gave money to southern suffrage movements that explicitly banned Black people. However, there’s one detail about Alva that has implications for the rest of the Russell family: Alva was once married to a Vanderbilt.

Aside from being a name synonymous with old money, this 20-year marriage was notable as it was with William Kissam Vanderbilt that Alva had her children: Harold, William II, and Consuelo. This could mean that depending on how closely Bertha is modeled on Alva, Bertha, and George could eventually split on the show. Episode two ended with the return of Turner, Bertha’s underwritten lady’s maid who artlessly threw herself at George by climbing naked into his bed uninvited. Turner appears to have married upward to some rich old dude, so who knows? Maybe she’ll be the break in my favorite sexy supervillain couple. As for their children, Larry doesn’t seem to be modeled on either Vanderbilt son as I don’t see a note that either was an architect with the hots for a foxy widow played by Laura Benanti, but Consuelo bears a resemblance to Gladys in one important respect: they both had a domineering mother who kept them hermetically sealed away from society with the goal of securing her the best match possible. It remains to be seen what happens with Gladys, but if Consuelo’s future is any indication it could get pretty dramatic. Alva played a long and merciless game that eventually paid off in the form of Consuelo’s engagement to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Charles Spencer-Churchill. Hooray, a match so good, it comes with a foreign gentry title!


Unfortunately, Consuelo wasn’t thrilled, as one might not be when you’re not interested in the house-poor English Lord your mother ordered you to marry. Besides, Consuelo was in a scandalous secret relationship with a socialite named Winthrop Rutherfurd. Anyway, Consuelo married Charles and openly wept at their wedding. Their marriage bears a resemblance to the situation of the Granthams on Downton Abbey in which Lord Grantham married the American Cora to bring in some much-needed money.

One of the storylines this season involves the New York opera house, the Academy of Music, and the coming of a hot new opera house called the Metropolitan. The Academy was THE choice for taking in some high-scoeity music and the Met was built for the many newly rich people the Academy turned away. You may have some guesses about where this old-money vs new-money conflict is going! The Academy of Music has an interesting history itself as it was built when the former preeminent opera house, the Astor, closed after a riot. What was the riot about? Why, competing performances of Macbeth of course! The Broadway Theater put Macbeth on at the same time the Astor did and that could clearly not stand. Anyway, as you may already know, the Metropolitan won the war of the opera houses and the Academy of Music was demolished to make way for the Edison Consolidated building.

Let’s end with something wild. A minor character who’s nonetheless name-dropped several times is the architect Stanford White (of the famous Beaux-Arts firm McKim, Meade & White) who on Gilded Age worked with Bertha to design the giant Russell palace (that uses the interiors of the Breakers). I looked him up out of errant curiosity and found out… he had an utterly insane personal life. White had a “caretaking relationship” with a young woman named Evelyn Nesbit whom he helped get artist modeling gigs. When she was 16 and White was 48, he invited her over for dinner before drugging and raping her. They had some manner of relationship for a while before drifting apart. Years later, Nesbit married rail and coal baron Henry Thaw who eventually learned about White and was intensely jealous of him. While at a theater production one night, Thaw pulled a pistol on White, allegedly saying, “You’ve ruined my wife” before shooting White dead. Initially, theater-goers thought this was all a part of the show, but when people discovered what happened, chaos ensured. Thaw went through two different trials during which he pled temporary insanity and was found not guilty as a result. However, he was confined to a state hospital that he later escaped from.

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.