The women who, both at home and abroad, are regarded as the leaders of American society in these last days of the century are or have been, almost without exception, at some time in their career identified with New York. Though there is no city in the United States that fills the central position which Paris holds in reference to all France, and which London occupies, at least socially, in England, the geographical position of New York, to a nation whose progressive spirit inspires it with a keen interest in the doings of the entire world, has given it a leading place, and to the commanding position it holds in the financial life of the American people it undoubtedly owes much of its prominence as a social centre.
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Those who at present constitute its ruling element, and who in the eyes of the country at large form the unit of New York society, are, as a rule, the possessors of enormous wealth. The elegance of their various homes, the magnificence of their hospitalities, the luxurious state in which they travel, all tend to give them an immense influence in a young country where such a princely scale of existence was practically unknown thirty-five years ago, and where there are many striving for similar results.
Women born of this class, and who possess, in addition to the advantages it bestows upon them, personal gifts of an unusual order, have from the very outset of their social career a remarkable fame and prestige. In some instances they come of families who have been distinguished in the life of New York since the days when the homes of the people who made up its one set were gathered about the battery and lower end of the town, and when the division of its classes was the natural one of condition, and not the arbitrary one which its abnormal growth has entailed upon it in recent years.
New York’s belles in the early century were for the most part native, and anything so remote as the Pacific coast, whence comes one of its belles of the present era, entered nobody’s wildest dreams.
A Franklin flies his kite, a Fulton is born, a Morse flashes his reverent thought fifty miles in the twinkling of an eye, and lo! the ages in which man crept and groped have rolled from us. Distance has lost the meaning it had a little more than a hundred years ago, when Lady Kitty Duer was accounted one of the belles of New York; they come now from every section of the country to add their charm to the life of the metropolis.
Many of these beautiful women, moreover, are as celebrated in European capitals as they are through-out America, and it is difficult to estimate how much of our fame in the eyes of other nations we owe to them. To stand forth, however, in their own country as beings unusually gifted is quite as great a triumph today as it was more than a hundred years ago.
“Your countrywoman, Mrs. Wolcott,” said the minister from England, admiring the beauty of the Connecticut statesman’s wife, to an official of the young government in the days when its capital was located in New York, “would be admired even at St. James.”
“Sir,” replied the American, “she is admired even on Litchfield Hill.”