The debutante


(This is the final part of a three part series about love and courtship in the 19th century. In our modern world, would we make the same decisions they did?)


"Beauty was a gift in the 1880s and 1990s. It justified success and excused a certain number of failings. It was a career."

A Backward Glance Edith Wharton

In the summer of 1899, Amy Bend stood on the platform awaiting the train for Lenox. Contemplating her standing there, it is hard not to compare her with Lily Bart, the tragic heroine of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel, "The House of Mirth." The question is would Amy's story end the same?

Bend was introduced to society in 1889. She was 19, the daughter of the George H. Bend. Bend had been on the stock exchange and was loved by society women as the finest cotillion leader. The men, however, knew that his fortune was a memory. Beautiful Amy was sent into the marriage market as the last asset of a bankrupt family.

Appallingly the chances of debutantes making a brilliant marriage were handicapped like horses on the pages of Town Topics. According to editor Colonel Mann, Amy was one of "the handsomest and best placed girls in America" to make a good marriage. "She [is] as charmed by the voluptuous nonsense of the social routine as are canaries by figs and sugar loaf."

What she wore and where she wore it consumed society columnists. "Crowned by beauty and blondness," Town Topics reported, she was delectable in pink, enchanting in white, and wore "green tulle décolleté edged in silver with a bluebird in her hair. The value of a Meissonier was locked in Amy's ball gowns."

Amy and her gowns were the Bend family's investment in their future. They had no better financial plan than their daughter marry well before the bill at the dressmakers came due.

Things seemed to be progressing nicely when John Jacob Astor III came to call. In time Astor did marry -- Miss Willing of Philadelphia. Etiquette books of the day cautioned that a felicitous marriage was based on partners sharing similar social and economic backgrounds. The Bend's were no financial match for the Willings' of Philadelphia.

Town Topics remained loyal. After Astor's marriage it reported, that "clouds are suffusing Miss Bend's countenance [but] she can command a 1,000 scions from a 1,000 noble houses and by losing one 999 remain." The Bend family could only hope so.

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Astor was followed, in queue-like fashion, by A. Lanfear Norrie. He was rich, well connected, and on society's guest lists. When he proposed, Amy accepted. The Norrie family announced the engagement at a grand ball on April 23, 1893.

On Sunday May 14, 1893, less than a month later, Adele Sloane (daughter of Emily Vanderbilt and William Sloane of Elm Court) wrote in her diary, "Amy Bend has broken off her engagement to Norrie. Amy ought never to given her word. She never loved him. I knew she was only going to marry him because he could give her everything she wanted and to please her father and mother. I can't understand why she announced it. Such an injustice to the man. I blame Amy Bend. She ought to have thought more, and yet for her sake I am glad, and yet I don't want to see her quite yet."


Seventy-five years after Catharine Sedgwick broke her engagement and knew she would face a diminution in the eyes of the community, not that much had changed. Love was now the acceptable prerequisite for marriage, but a woman still had to tread lightly if she refused a gentleman's offer.

Adele Sloane dropped Amy Bend as a friend not because she broke off the engagement but because she broke it after it was made public and therefore humiliated the man. Adele could not understand why Amy had considered the marriage: one of the richest young women in America could not understand the pressure on her poor friend; could not understand Amy had only beauty to recommend her as money dwindled and the years passed.

William Kissam Vanderbilt was not as finicky. He approached Amy. Vanderbilt could afford all Amy's ball gowns and more. However, he was old enough to be her father, was a divorced man, and therefore, nothing came of the flirtation.

As 1893 drew to a close, Amy was 24 years old, had been "out" for four years, and her radiant smile and eloquent eyes had netted her nothing while the cost of gowns and entertainments mounted. The Bends became dependent upon the generosity of friends.

In 1897 Norrie married and built a city palace for his new wife. As she passed the grand house on her way to balls and dinners, perhaps Amy was not as charmed by the social routine as she had been. Did she regret turning Norrie down even though she did not love him? Did she feel that choice, in light of her circumstances, was a gamble she could not afford? Amy had been out too long. Town Topics was no longer complimentary: "the speculation as to [Bend's] matrimonial future has become rather wearing."

As she stood waiting for the train to Lenox, Amy Bend seemed the model for Wharton's Lily Bart. In 1899 Amy was 29 years old, and as the novel opens, Lily was 29. Both were beautiful, poor and hopeful. Like Lily, Amy was on her way to a weekend at a posh country home, Elm Court. But did Edith Wharton know Amy? If Wharton read Town Topics and the society columns, she certainly knew of her. If she had not been introduced, that was about to change.

Elm Court was the Lenox cottage of Emily Vanderbilt and William Sloane, parents of the disapproving Adele. In the intervening six years, Adele had married, and if she had also forgiven Amy, she was probably present. Other guests included Amy, Cortlandt Field Bishop, and Edith and Teddy Wharton.

The flamboyant and wealthy Bishop loved Amy at first sight, and Amy reciprocated. Amy's story did not end as Lily's did. It ended in a brilliant marriage filled with world travel, ease, and comfort in a Berkshire cottage and a city home. A daring couple, they tested all the new-fangled inventions including the motor car and air travel. It was the Bishops who took Wharton for her first (and only?) ride in a hot air balloon.

Carole Owens is a Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities scholar, and author currently working on a book about 19th century love and courtship.


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