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Does Anyone Have Parties This Wonderful Anymore? The 1942 New York City Bash That Brought the House Down.

When Mrs. Grace Vanderbilt, once the Queen of New York City society, below, threw a party it was always over the top. She not only literally rolled out the red carpet for the guests, but entertained in grand style in those gilded rooms, “As opulent-looking and lavish as those of a Czar’s palace.”

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But it was the last party she threw at 640 Fifth Avenue, below, that beat them all, for it was a lavish 1942 fundraiser thrown on the eve of the house’s demolition, and the setting for one of my favorite scenes in my novel Lilac Girls. Mrs. Vanderbilt wanted to move since over time the homes around the mansion had been replaced with taller buildings and soon the 640 Fifth Avenue mansion became lost in a sea of skyscrapers, the only private residence left in that part of town.

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The mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue dwarfed by Rockefeller Center

The general public was invited at $25 per ticket along with debutantes, army and navy officers and movie stars, including Merle Oberon, below with two Mrs. William Randolph Hearsts. Guests, most seeing the inside of the home for the first time, gazed at the rock crystal chandeliers, Pompeian frescoes and pillars of grained onyx and helped themselves to a sumptuous buffet, set with the Vanderbilt’s best silver.

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The bridge tables were well-attended that night as the scoreboard below proves, but dancing to an orchestra playing Cole Porter and Irving Berlin tunes was popular as well. The media described the gathering as “staid and formal despite mixed gathering. Most of the guests were far too awed to be noisy.”

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(Excited to see my maiden name on the board, “Miss M. Hall” playing with “Mr. Hill.” In a previous life?)

 

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Good times at the bridge tables

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1957a075eef5767711307c2b754140a6          The party was a great success, raising a hefty sum for the Red Cross and other charities and before the wrecking ball arrived Mrs. Vanderbilt moved to a townhouse in a more fashionable part of town. Her new house, below, once belonged to William Starr Miller and Grace called it “The Gardener’s Cottage” because it contained only 28 rooms, versus the 85 rooms at 640 Fifth Avenue.

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Grace Vanderbilt, with her mansions, yachts and extravagant entertaining, was the last of the Gilded era’s grand hostesses. How sad the city couldn’t have saved more of those beautiful mansions for today’s public to enjoy.

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Grace at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera with her famous silver fox wrap