One Night at Sherry’s: James Hazen Hyde Has a Ball (and Some Cake)

Party Over Here! Guests at Hyde’s 1905 Ball at Sherry’s Restaurant

At the age of 23, Manhattan socialite and supreme party-er of the Gilded Age, James Hazen Hyde (1876-1859) inherited a fortune. He was given majority control of the extremely profitable Equitable Assurance Society, a company founded by his father, Henry Baldwin Hyde, in 1859.

Hyde was the prototypical dandy of turn-of-the-20th-century New York. His clothes were made in Paris (a city that he loved and visited frequently). He was enormously fond of horses and coaches (and once raced, with Alfred Vanderbilt,–by coach!–from Philadelphia to New York City).

James Hazen Hyde was a dandy.

He attended Harvard, summered on Long Island, at “the Oaks,” his 400-acre estate, and when, “in town,” he lived at 9 East 40th Street in Manhattan. His offices were located at 120 Broadway, in the swanky and expensive Equitable Life Building, built by his father after the American Civil War for 3 million dollars. (It was the first New York building to have passenger elevators).

“strongest in the world,” for now at least, 1902

Hyde was an art lover and he would spend his life amassing a spectacular collection. Ultimately, much of his collection would wind up in a variety of museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum (see a piece from his collection here.)

A self-professed Francophile, Hyde was fluent in french. So what better theme to chose for his “high society” party than a costume fete set in the (recreated) gardens of the Versailles of 18th century France?

The “400”–New York’s wealthiest, including the Astors and the Vanderbilts– were invited to [Louis] Sherry’s Restaurant at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue on the evening (10:30 pm) of January 31, 1905.

They had been instructed to arrive in costume; the women wore lavish dresses, every detail of which was assiduously recorded in the society columns; the men came in “hunt and court costumes,” and many wore wigs or powdered their hair. (Sherry’s was a known hot-spot for the wildly expensive and outrageous parties of NYC’s uber-rich. See Ephemeral New York’s post about a dinner hosted there where the guests were back in the saddle…)

Hyde and his sister in an early “flashlight” version of the step and repeat (see below)

At Hyde’s party, guests were greeted upon arrival by “several flunkeys,” the New York Times reported.

The women were given time to adjust and compose themselves in dressing rooms before being escorted to the ballroom. There, their host, James Hyde awaited, dressed “in the costume of the New York Coaching Club” (with “traditional bottle-green coat with wide skirts and flaps, read waistcoat and dark knee breeches.”) Beside him, stood his sister, Mrs. Sydney Dillon Ripley.

Now, the elite would have some fun as they presented themselves to the camera in an early example of a “step and repeat.”

Hyde had secured Joseph Byron, the famed “flashlight photographer,” who operated a fully equipped photograph gallery on site, “where five operators, by the aid of the new ‘Cooper Hewitt’ light, took over two hundred photographs” of guests (and party staff too). (See the Museum of the City of New York’s Collection here.)

These portraits are fantastic and fantastical as they reveal just how the 400 wanted to be seen. Striking poses that in some cases appear extremely serious, the portrait subjects appear almost entirely unaware of the irony involved in their outlandish presentation. Wealthy Americans “showing off”–there can be no other term for it–by wearing costumes that evoke a toppled regime whose members also similarly used money to display their sense of privilege and power over the “flunkeys.”

The 400 to the Flunkeys: Let Them Serve Cake!

In a ballroom decorated with lattice work, green vines and roses, guests were treated to 18th century-dancing, with a balcony set aside for “those who did not care to don fancy costumes.”

“My, what a fancy costume!” Hyde with Madame Rejane, Museum of the City of NY Collection

Next, a ballet was performed by dancers of the Metropolitan Opera House.

After the dance, guests descended to the second floor of the restaurant where the gardens of Trianon had been re-created.

The second floor of Sherry’s had been sodded with real grass. Statuary, shrubs, and potted orange trees were arranged surrounding the tables. Wisteria and vines, more lattice work and arbors created the fantasy that only the wealthy could delight in.

Sherry’s Restaurant: Transformed for Hyde’s Gala, 1905

Various orchestras, stationed throughout the restaurant, took turns serenading the guests as they dined. The engraved parchment menus announced a dinner fit for a king and queen:

“Consumme Voltaire,”
“Fasand Pique Louis XV,”
and of course, bon bons and Pol Roger.
See the menu here.

Does this bonnet make my head look big? Eleanor “Bo Beep” Jay Iselin and Arthur Iselin

Mdms Astor and Vanderbilt were among the many women who showed themselves to favor the “Marie Antoinette dress,” while the men seemed to enjoy donning military uniforms. Col. John Jacob Astor, for example, wore “white knee breeches, blue velvet coat and powdered hair, suggesting of Gen. Lafayette.”

Wild Party-goer, Phoenix Ingraham

Meanwhile Mrs Philip Rinelander wore a dress of “pale blue, covered with point lace, garlands of pink roses, large blue velvet hat with pink and blue feather, collarette of turquoise and diamonds and turquoise crown.”

“Will work for tips and wigs.” Some of the waiters who worked Hyde’s Ball

The party was a grand success. The 600 guests departed at 7AM, having enjoyed not one dinner, not two, but a full three dinners.

And thus, they added another notch to the belt of over the top parties of New York’s elite.

“[Hyde] is a bachelor, a man of a large independent fortune,” wrote J. C. Cartwright, in an article recounting the event for Metropolitan Magazine. “His taste and his fortune combined resulted in the most carefully planned, the most successfully managed, and the most novel ball given in the memory of living New Yorkers.”

But this would be Hyde’s final New York gala.

Hyde, Pre-Bash, 1904, Library of Congress


Soon, the very guests who had gorged, er, eaten the food he supplied at his fancy dress ball turned on him. His friends in high places accused him of “ruinuous waste” (Success Magazine, 1905) and malfeasance (including paying for his $200,000 Versailles party out of the funds of the Equitable Assurance Society). Powerful New Yorkers who held the reigns of financial power created a scandal the likes of which New Yorkers always enjoyed. A Wall Street “panic” ensued, with the profitable and relatively nascent insurance industry tottering, (if only momentarily).

New York Times, February 1905

The scandal was, in effect, orchestrated by Hyde’s enemies. Hyde, according to the terms of his father’s will, was to become president of the Equitable in 1906.

This apparently did not sit well with the board of directors, including E. H. Harriman, Henry Clay Frick, and good ol J.P. Morgan.

“It takes a little more than ordinary genius to startle New York society,” 
reported William J. Graham a few years after the scandal, in an account of how Hyde had been intentionally toppled and targeted, “and the fact that this ball so thoroughly startled it, attests that young Hyde was not lacking in the family genius, even though he chose to misapply it. The broadcast advertisement of this garish festival was blatantly vulgarized by the press.” (“The Romance of Life Insurance,” The World Today, July 1908, 714)

Eventually, Hyde was run out of town, not on a rail, but on a steamship.

He set sail in December 1905.

His refuge?

Why, Paris, of course.

Hyde said good-bye to all that (he still had millions in his bank account) and embarked on a life in France that seemed to suit him well.

A few years later, back in New York, on a bitterly cold January day in 1912, the Equitable Life Assurance Building was destroyed by fire.

The remains of the building were covered in ice that formed when hit by the water shot by fire hoses.

A year after the fire, Hyde, still in Paris, married Marthe Leishman, with whom he had a son, Henry Baldwin Hyde, (who would later go on to serve as the ultimate spy for the US during WWII.)  The couple divorced in 1918.

Even while overseas, Hyde never turned his back on his country. In fact, during World War One, he turned his Paris flat into a hospital and worked for the American Red Cross.

He also worked to support Franco-American cultural exchanges and opportunities for students at French and American universities, including at his alma mater, Harvard and at the Sorbonne, where he established a foundation for the study of America and American Ideas and Institutions (See, for eg, Educational Advantages for American Students in France (1908).

A re-made man: Hyde in France

In a 1919 portrait of Hyde in The New France Magazine, he was described in terms that underscored his success in re-making himself. He was a:

lecturer at all the great French Universities, officer of the Legion of Honor and wearing also the ribbons of an officer of the Instruction Publique, the Medaille de la Reconnaissance Francaise and two or three other orders; writer of erudite historical monographs, Fourth-of-July orator upon invitation of the French Government, but, more than all, mentor of Americans in Paris— a citizen of the United States at whose house in Paris you meet ministers of state, distinguished visitors, men with missions from the world over, generals, journalists, notabilities and “interesting people” of every sort—that is James Hazen Hyde.

In 1930, Hyde married again. His second wife bore the title Countess Ella Matuschka, from her first marriage. But she had previously been known as Helena Walker from Detroit, Michigan. (Her grandfather was Hiram Walker, liquor baron.)

“Oui. I was once from Detroit.”

Hyde certainly had matured since his 1905 fancy dress ball. And with maturation comes certain privileges. But his love for the life of the rich and French had clearly not been extinguished. And so he exercised the rights of his privileged, mature status and chose not to compromise for his second wedding with a mere replica of a place he truly loved. Instead, he chose as the site for his second wedding the real thing: Versailles.

Hyde would remain an adopted son of the city of lights until the Germans overtook it in World War II.  Then he only reluctantly returned to New York City, settling into the Savoy Plaza, with occasional stays at his estate in Saratoga.

He continued his academic efforts after returning to the U.S. In 1946, he gave $1,000 to the American Historical Association (he was a lifetime member of the AHA) for the establishment of an annual prize to recognize “the best work on Franco-American relations or on the history of France in the nineteenth century. (The prize was only awarded once, in 1948, and then discontinued.)

When he passed away in 1959, one obituary observed that his death broke “a tie with a cultural past which today seems almost as remote as Louis the XVIII.” 

Fancy Dress Ball, Oscars 2012

Well, perhaps not quite broken. After all many Americans still seem to desire to appear in public in all their riches, stepping, repeating, stepping, repeating….

~ Jenny Thompson

 Cake, Cake, Cake. Oh, Flunkey, I get so bored with it all! (Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette)

For more on Hyde: Patricia Beard’s After the Ball: Gilded Age Secrets, Boardroom Betrayals, and the Party That Ignited the Great Wall Street Scandal of 1905 (2003) takes a look at Hyde and the financial scandal. (Watch C-Span’s coverage of a talk about the book Beard gave in 2003.)




  1. WOW–what a life–but not much different in many respects than the reprobates that abound today in that upper strata–the 1% or less who can do and say anything they like without consequences…

    Liked by 1 person

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