Although Renée Rosen’s latest book is a work of fiction, she manages to tell the incredible true story of the feud between Alva Vanderbilt and Caroline Astor in The Social Graces. Set during the Gilded Age, the book comments on the societal absurdities and paradoxes of the era and examines how women were able to create their own way in the world at a time when they had few guaranteed rights.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Renée. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Social Graces.

Renée Rosen: Thanks for having me here.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Will you tell listeners what your book is about? Then I want to hear what inspired you to write it.

Renée: Okay, the elevator pitch. The Social Graces is based on the true story of two very powerful women, Alva Vanderbilt and Caroline Astor, who were vying for control of New York society during the Gilded Age. On the one hand, you have Caroline Astor who was “the” Mrs. Astor. She was the reigning queen of society and the gatekeeper. She determined who was in and who was left out in the cold. They went so far as to actually draw up a list of the four hundred. There were literally four hundred names that they deemed were allowed into fashionable society. Ironically, Alva Vanderbilt was not on that list. Why did Mrs. Astor not want Alva Vanderbilt in society? It was really because society was divided into two very distinctive camps. On the one hand, you had the knickerbockers or the old money. On the other side, you had the industrialists or the nouveau riche, the new money. Caroline Astor was a knickerbocker. She did not like new money. She especially did not like railroad money. She felt that one’s wealth should be inherited, not earned, which I think is a great gig if you can get it. She thought the nouveau riche were really flashy and tacky. They didn’t have manners. My god, they ate their peas with a fork rather than a fork and knife. Alva, of course, was railroad money. She was new money. She took great offense to the exclusion. It set up this bitter rivalry between these two women. It became a competition. Who could throw the most elaborate ball? Who had the more expensive clothes? Who had the bigger mansion? A bookseller friend of mine said, oh, my god, this is like The Real Housewives of New York City but in worth gowns. I thought that was a good description. Really, it’s about ladies behaving badly.

Zibby: As you point out in the book, Mrs. Astor’s money, that also was nouveau at some point. That was also from an industrial fortunate as well.

Renée: Which she conveniently didn’t discuss.

Zibby: She does not like to admit that. I didn’t research. Was Emily really the daughter’s name? Did any of that happen, or was that totally your imagination?

Renée: No, I took some liberties because at the end of the day, I’m trying to tell a story.

Zibby: By that happen, I mean, there’s a scene at the very beginning of the book where Emily, Caroline’s daughter, slips and falls. Alva is there to rescue her.

Renée: That actually came about as of a research trip. I went to Newport, Rhode Island, which was the summer-fun spot for the rich. They had these cottages, these fifty and seventy-five-room cottages. They’re all along the Atlantic. There’s this famous walkway called Cliff Walk. John and I wanted to walk. I wanted to see the back of the cottages and everything. I’m so enamored of the homes. I’m not paying attention to the signs. Warning, pathway about to end. Advance at your own peril. Fifty-foot cliffs. I’m not wearing sensible shoes. We come to this impasse. It’s literally just rugged rock and very rugged terrain. John practically carried me over that. He said, “I think we need to turn around and go back.” I said, “Oh, no. I will never make it back over that. I will die.” I thought that was the worst of it. That was a cakewalk compared to what lay ahead. It was three hours. I thought, if I survive this, I am using this. That’s actually where that scene came from. In terms of the other daughters — Caroline had four daughters. They each gave her a run for her money. The various scandals of the daughters were definitely factually based.

Zibby: The stagecoach driver, the whole thing.

Renée: That part took a little — my head’s already into the next book, so you’re more up to speed.

Zibby: Oh, sorry.

Renée: No, I forgot about that. I did take a little bit of license with that. Charlotte was definitely the rebel. She did have a scandal that went viral, Gilded Age style. Carrie, the youngest, did go on a hunger strike. Emily did cause her father to enter a dual, was posed with being challenged to a dual. Helen was kind of the obedient daughter.

Zibby: I found it interesting how you handled — now I’m blanking on his name, Mrs. Astor’s righthand man.

Renée: Ward McAllister.

Zibby: Yeah, and how he had married into wealth to up his station in life. He was obviously gay, but nobody was talking about it then, and how the society was handling that.

Renée: He was Mrs. Astor’s escort. Mrs. Astor’s husband was either on his yacht, drunk, or canoodling with harlots, or all of the above. She was always on her own. Ward’s wife was also very sickly and couldn’t go. Ward was her escort, but nobody ever suspected that there was anything going on between the two of them.

Zibby: Also, the suitor who comes back from England and wears a monocle and pretends he has a British accent and is a total poser.

Renée: Van Alen. Of course, they all spoke with that Mid-Atlantic accent that is not English, and it’s not American. It’s its own — yet they criticized him for talking with a fake British accent.

Zibby: I just love this theme of not belonging. Alva, you talk a lot about how she just is trying to fit in, trying to find her place, find her people, feel accepted because of her background and how she had grown up and always being excluded in school, and now being excluded from society and being disinvited to parties. That feels like the end of the world. What does it mean to really be accepted? Where does society’s power really come from? Can it rest with one person? I know it did in this fictious, based-on-reality world. Who is the arbiter of society now? What is it, Us Weekly? Who does that now?

Renée: The Kardashians? I don’t know. The thing that I found so fascinating was that Ward McAllister and Caroline Astor really engineered this thing called society. They did that because — you’re talking the 1870s. Women had very few rights. They didn’t work outside the home. They couldn’t own property. They didn’t even have their own money. The one thing that they had was social currency, so they created this world with its own hierarchy. That was the only arena where a woman could exercise any sort of influence. She got to plan the menu, the guestlist. It was the reason they got up in the morning. Somebody had to plan those nine-course dinner parties. It gave them purpose.

Zibby: I wouldn’t have thought that she was so involved. I know here, she’s like, add these courses. Do this. Do that. I don’t know, I just would’ve thought somebody was planning it for her as opposed to Mrs. Astor being in the weeds.

Renée: She ran society like a CEO of a big, major corporation. Even if the balls went on until four in the morning, she was at her desk at eight thirty in the morning handling her correspondence. She did have an assistant. She had a social secretary.

Zibby: Social .

Renée: Yeah, but that was just somebody to deal with the florists. They took it really seriously. It’s so easy to discount it as being so superficial and so frivolous, but when you look at the fact that they had no other outlet, it’s kind of a brilliant move.

Zibby: To be honest, if you reframed it, it’s really like self-government. It’s sort of what they’re doing.

Renée: That’s very true. I didn’t think about it like that, but yeah.

Zibby: If it had been in the male society, that’s what they were kind of doing as well, the Declaration of Independence. Who are all the states? These are another kind of citizens, if you will, of a state that she’s creating.

Renée: They modeled it after Europe. Being a knickerbocker meant that was the closest thing we had to American royalty. It was just such a fascinating time. I was just amazed by these people. I could not have dreamed up these characters. Fact is definitely stranger than fiction.

Zibby: It reminds me of Little Women, the four sisters and just the antics and what happens and family and relationships and love interests. Is this going to be a movie? It has to be a movie.

Renée: Oh, god, from your mouth to — yes, hello? I would love that.

Zibby: Has there been a movie — you must have researched this on the way — about these families in this time?

Renée: Age of Innocence is sort of loosely based on that. What I’m really waiting for is the HBO series The Gilded Age by Julian Fellowes, the same man who created Downton Abbey. I kept checking, when is it going to premiere? When is it going to premiere? I’m sure there will be cameos of the Astors and the Vanderbilts and all that, but it’s really New York society right in the Gilded Age. I’m very excited for that.

Zibby: Allison Pataki has a new book coming out about Marjorie Merriweather Post, which I know is a different era, but also a doyen heiress of society. It might be interesting to have you guys talk about that, how it changed over time.

Renée: Merriweather Post was just an amazing woman. She took over her father’s business. She started Mar-a-Lago. I’m sure she’s — well, we won’t even go there. She’s a fascinating character. I saw that because I was actually looking — I was doing some preliminary research into her life. Then I saw that Allison was writing it. I’m like, good, yay. She’ll do a fabulous job with that.

Zibby: I’m happy to put you guys in touch if you ever want to do anything together or whatever. Wait, you said a little bit ago that you were so deep in your next book that you were forgetting some of the things of this book. Tell me about the next book. This sounds very exciting already.

Renée: The next book, I am super excited about. I don’t have a title for it yet, but it’s about Estée Lauder. She was really a very interesting woman. She started making these lotions, potions, and elixirs in her kitchen in her Upper West Side apartment. Then she would take them to the beauty parlors and start hawking her wares. It really focuses on that time period up until she landed her first account at Saks Fifth Avenue. You weren’t in business at the time unless you were at Saks. She was a real trailblazer. I don’t want to give too much away for people that don’t know her personal story, but there were a few things that didn’t quite add up. It’s just a fun look at the cosmetic industry of the time and Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein and Charles Revson, who was the head of Revlon, Max Factor, and all that. I am having so much fun with this book.

Zibby: Amazing. Have you read Rouge by Richard Kirshenbaum?

Renée: No, I’m trying not to read other fiction.

Zibby: Sorry, I’ll stop bringing in other books.

Renée: Only because I have made that mistake of reading fiction that’s based — then I’m so paranoid the rest of the time that I’m being influenced.

Zibby: When you’re writing about Estée Lauder, do you try to get her life rights? Do you talk to the family about anything, or do you just get to use your imagination and run with it?

Renée: Did you ever see the movie Can You Ever Forgive Me? with Melissa McCarthy? It was based on Lee Israel, who was this New York Times best-selling biographer. She was forging all these letters later by Dorothy Parker and all these other luminaries and all that and got busted. Before she did that, she did an unauthorized biography on Estée Lauder. She revealed a lot of stuff that they didn’t necessarily want out there. When Estée found out about it, she raced to write her own book. It was really a rush to publication. Both books are really not very — if they had had more time, they would’ve been good books. You can tell that they were both rushed. That gave me a lot of insight. Because the Lauder family is so involved in protecting Estée’s legacy, I decided to not talk to them. Like I did in Park Avenue Summer, I’ve introduced a fictional character who is an assistant buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue, cosmetic buyer. When you do biographical historical fiction, I don’t want to just tell a story that’s already out there in nonfiction form and fictionalize it. I want to bring something new to it. Interweaving a fictional character allows me to do that.

Zibby: How did you get started as a writer? Give me the quick story of your life.

Renée: I’ve known since I was a little girl that I wanted to be a writer. In fact, none of my friends would play Barbies with me because all they wanted to do was put on the clothes, and I was very concerned with the storyline. Barbie and Ken cannot go to Paris because, first of all, they’re having financial problems. Second of all, they have a fight. They’re in the middle of a fight. They need to resolve that. They’re like, just put the clothes on. I was always telling stories. My first book took me seventeen years to write. My second book took me ten years to write. My mother said, “If you want to make a living at this, let’s pick up the pace.” It took me a long time. I got like three hundred rejections before I found an agent. Then I got a book published. Then there was another seven-year dry spell before I got another agent, another book deal, so very up, down, up, down.

Zibby: It’s just amazing how often I hear that. It’s just so hard to believe. Then as soon as you somehow break in, then there are all these books. Now you’re just cranking them out.

Renée: I feel so fortunate that I’ve got a great team and I’ve found a home, that I get to do this. I have friends who are either querying for agents or trying to get their first books out there. It just takes one. You just got to have that bounce-back. Rejection, five more queries go out. Just keep at it.

Zibby: I wonder if there needs to be almost like a clearinghouse. A lot of really good stuff gets rejected, but then a lot of stuff should be rejected. Some of it’s not quite ready. As an author, you don’t know where you fall on that spectrum.

Renée: Timing accounts for so much of this. A book that wasn’t right five years ago could be perfect for right now. People who want to follow a trend because they don’t understand how long the publishing cycle is — if domestic suspense is very hot at a certain time period, everyone wants to do that. Then by the time their book comes out or is ready to go to market, it’s not fresh anymore. It’s a tough business, but it’s a wonderful business.

Zibby: Yes. What do you like to read, by the way?

Renée: Oh, gosh. I read a lot of historical fiction. I’m not sure what draws a line between literary and non-literary, but I do love beautifully crafted sentences. I will just savor that. I discovered audiobooks during the pandemic. I couldn’t read in the beginning. Like many people, there was a few distractions going on. I started listening to audiobooks and working jigsaw puzzles. That got me through the pandemic. Now I’m sort of hooked on audiobooks, which is great because I’m able to get more reading in. I don’t know if that counts as reading.

Zibby: It counts. It counts.

Renée: It counts, okay.

Zibby: I did a Facebook Live recently with the founder of AudioFile Magazine. I had this whole talk with her, Robin, about the audio and how it’s changing over time and where it’s going. There’s such a boom. People love to listen. They didn’t even know it. With podcasts and audio, here we are talking. People are listening.

Renée: It’s great. You go and work out, and you can get lost in a book. You’re not thinking about, oh, my god, three more minutes of this grueling workout. I’ve always got my pods in. I’ve always got a book queued up.

Zibby: What’s today? Just out of curiosity.

Renée: Today, what am I reading? I just started the new Sally Rooney book.

Zibby: Did it come out today? I think it must have just come out.

Renée: Yeah. That’s just a treat.

Zibby: Excellent. Amazing. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Renée: You got the usual. You got to read and write, and read and write, and read and write. I think the secret sauce, really, is you have to believe it’s going to happen for you. When you absolutely commit to it and believe it’s going to happen, I just think doors start to open. You’ll start to meet people. I didn’t know another writer when I decided I was going to write books. I hadn’t met anybody else that was doing this. I don’t even where it came from that I was going to do this. At some point, you just have to believe. If it happened for one other person, why can’t it happen for you? The power of belief, it’s a real thing. It keeps you going when the disappointments come. You brush yourself off. As long as you just make that commitment to yourself and know in your heart of hearts that it is going to happen, you just keep going.

Zibby: I love that. I did this weight-loss program on Noom based on all these positive psychology and behavior modification techniques. One of the things they say right in the beginning is, the biggest determinant of whether or not you will lose weight on this app is if you believe you will. Eighty-five percent of the success comes from the belief. I believed it, and then it didn’t work. I did lose some weight, but then I gained it all right back. I don’t know, they didn’t talk about that. I did believe. While I was believing, it worked. I think it applies to most things in life, that conviction, absolutely. Amazing. Renée, thank you so much. Thanks for talking about The Social Graces. I really want to see this as a movie or a limited or something because I’m so fascinated. I really wanted to hear more about all of the characters, tracking Caroline and Emily and all of them. I left wanting more. I’ll just say that.

Renée: Oh, that’s wonderful to hear. Thank you. Thanks so much for having me on the podcast. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: My pleasure. I hope to see you in person sometime.

Renée: Yes, that would be great. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.


SOCIAL GRACES by Renée Rosen

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