Mr. Smith, who lives in Santa Maria, California, frequently writes for The Freeman.
Ward McAllister, a 19th-century social climber, coined the term “The Four Hundred” to determine who was, and who was not, among the social elite. The term had great relevance for him because it determined the other 399 people who could be comfortably accommodated in Mrs. William Astor’s ballroom. Those who were invited were in and those who were not invited were out, and McAllister did the spade work for Mrs. Astor in making this determination.
McAllister seemed to assume that this situation would last forever; that the “right” people would breed more of their kind and that his beloved Four Hundred would continue through eternity. He was wrong, however, because he totally misread the forces that were shaping a great nation. His venture into American aristocracy failed because in our society any elite grouping is necessarily a fleeting, temporal thing. Whatever kind of an upper class exists at a given moment is based upon accomplishment.
By the 1890s, when McAllister compiled his list, the movers and shakers of a new era were already taking form. Sebastian Kresge risked it all by opening his first store in 1897. A Polish orphan, later to Americanize his name to Samuel Gold-wyn, would pass through Ellis Island without a penny in his pocket.
A Four Hundred of the 1950s, 1970s, or of today would include almost none of the surnames on McAllister’s list. There were no Sarnoffs waltzing in that ballroom because the family hadn’t yet immigrated from Russia. Nor was there anyone from Glenn Martin’s family tree. Young Martin would start his first aircraft company in 1915, his “plant” being an abandoned church in Santa Aria, California. Walter Chrysler at the time was working as an apprentice at the American Locomotive Company, and Henry Ford was a backyard tinkerer in Detroit. There were no Trumps or Krocs on the guest list; nor were there any Gianninis, Sikorskys, or Gettys.
Two young men named William Hewlett and David Packard would make a name for themselves in American industry, but not before they had pooled their assets of $538 and started a company in Packard’s garage. Celebrated architect I. M. Pei arrived in this country in 1935 and, as the expression goes, made something of himself. His ancestors, of course, weren’t on the Astor guest list because they were otherwise occupied with finding something to eat in southern China. McAllister, as might be expected, had never heard any of these names. These people would come along later, make an indelible mark on this country, and take a place on whatever list a collector of big names happened to be compiling.
The crux of all this is in the very nature of capitalism. If there is a social elite, it is an elite of accomplishment. Those who move to the forefront do so by what they have done and hold their power only as long as they are producing. In American society one doesn’t coast on a family name for very long. Old money is measured in decades, not in centuries.
Those who say that one has to belong to a certain social class to make a mark have no comprehension of the capitalistic system and less of history. Our “in” people are invariably those who have done something. These are the people who are the most wanted by talk-show hosts and are considered catch-of-the- day for any social-climbing party giver.
McAllister’s guest list is a time capsule that clearly identifies the people who shaped an era. Included in The Four Hundred were the accomplishers of the late 19th century: the industrialists, the artists, the builders, the people who made decisions and got things done. Most of them were self-made, and the old money in the room would have looked like new coinage on the other side of the Atlantic. Indeed, the Astors themselves could look back only a century to when John Jacob arrived penniless from Germany with ideas of making it big in the New World. His American Fur Company was founded in 1808, and his descendants had become the oldest of the old money long before the century had played itself out.
No, there is no American aristocracy, and one doesn’t have to be born to the purple to make it big in America. Tomorrow’s Four Hundred is now in the larval stage, waiting to break out into the sunlight. Right now they are children living in crowded apartments in Brooklyn, trailer parks in New Mexico, or strawberry fields in California; or maybe their parents are looking for ways to get to America. They will somehow elbow their way to the top and will spend their time on center stage. These people will be the new social elite and will bring a brand-new set of names to the roster of big and important individuals.
This is the way the system works. We will always have a Four Hundred of sorts, but no one gets a free ride, and there are no names carved in stone. As they say in Hollywood, you are only as good as your last picture.