‘The Gilded Age’: Who Was the Real Mrs. Astor?

The Gilded Age might be fiction, but that doesn’t mean that the HBO series about the war between New York’s old-money families and the nouveau riche doesn’t have some basis in reality. The series sprinkles in several characters based on real people, including architect Stanford White (John Nesbit) and the imposing society matron Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (Donna Murphy), aka The Mrs. Astor. So, who was the real Mrs. Astor?

In ‘The Gilded Age,’ Mrs. Astor is at the top of New York’s social elite

Donna Murphy as Mrs Astor, wearing a yellow gown and hat, in 'The Gilded Age'
Donna Murphy as Mrs. Astor in ‘The Gilded Age’ | Photograph by Alison Rosa/HBO

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The Gilded Age introduced Mrs. Astor at the end of its first episode, “Never the New,” where she was seen tossing an invitation from aggressive social climber Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) in the fire without a second thought. In episode 2, “Money Isn’t Everything,” Mrs. Astor makes another appearance when she opens the much-anticipated charity bazaar. 

While Mrs. Astor isn’t a major character in The Gilded Age (at least not yet), the show makes it clear she’s a force to be reckoned with. Her approval means everything. Without it, Mrs. Russell can’t hope to achieve her goal of penetrating the upper echelon of New York society. 

For now, the Russells – who earned their money in railroads – are firmly on the outside of the city’s elite inner circle. But that could be changing soon. After several women snub Bertha’s offer of her ballroom for a charity event, her husband George (Morgan Spector) buys out the entire bazaar in one fell swoop. It’s a bold move, and one that doesn’t go unnoticed by Mrs. Astor. 

“Yesterday I would have said that [George Russell] was a nobody,” she says at the end of the episode. “But today? I’m obliged to concede that he is someone to be reckoned with … We will hear of him again.”

The real Mrs. Astor was a formidable social force

cropped image of a portrait of Mrs. Caroline Astor by Carolus-Duran
Portrait of Mrs. William Astor (Caroline Webster Schermerhorn) by Carolus-Duran | Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Gilded Age doesn’t exaggerate the crucial role Mrs. Astor played in New York society in the late 19th century. She was the head of The Four Hundred – the exclusive list of who was seen as being part of the city’s social elite (via Britannica). The number of people admitted to the club was said to be limited by the capacity of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom, which could supposedly hold 400 people. An invitation to one of her balls could determine who was in or who was out, socially speaking.

Mrs. Astor was born in 1830 to a wealthy New York family that had settled in America during the colonial era. She married William Astor in 1853. He was the son of John Jacob Astor, who made his fortune in the fur trade, as well as by smuggling illegal opium from China (via History.com).  They had several children. One daughter married a member of the Roosevelt family, and their only son, John Jacob Astor IV, died during the sinking of the Titanic

Mrs. Astor’s daughter Caroline forced her to recognize an important new money family 

Mrs. Astor wasn’t eager to embrace New York’s newly rich families. But eventually, her daughter Caroline “Carrie” Astor (played by Amy Forsyth in The Gilded Age) forced her to make a concession. In 1883, Caroline wanted to attend a costume party hosted by the Vanderbilts. In order to get her daughter an invitation, Mrs. Astor had to call on Alva Vanderbilt, whose husband had made his fortune as a railroad tycoon, just like Mr. Russell. Eventually, Caroline married a man whose sister married a Vanderbilt, bringing the two families together. 

So far, the Vanderbilts haven’t popped up as characters in The Gilded Age. But it’s possible the show will borrow from their history and show Mrs. Astor eventually caving to Mrs. Russell’s ambitions for the sake of her daughter. 

New episodes of The Gilded Age air Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. 

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