On May 3rd, a couple months ago now, the New York Times style section ran a piece entitled "Much Gilt, Little Guilt: The Met Gala 2022 celebrated themes of opulence, excess and fame." Opulence and excess conspicuously displayed? This sounded like the conspicuous consumption that Oswald Veblen's uncle Thorstein wrote about in The Theory of the Leisure Class. But there was another surprise connection to the Veblen House that jumped out from the text of the article: the Bradley-Martin Ball.
When “Gilded Glamour,” the dress code of the 2022 Met Gala, was announced, it seemed to be either a recipe for extravagant disaster or irony. After all, the current era has often been compared to the late 19th-century Gilded Age, that period between 1870 and 1900 when extreme wealth was concentrated in the hands of the very few, the robber barons came to the fore, and income inequality grew ever greater just beneath the gold veneer on the glittering surface.A bit of background: The Veblen House was built not by the Veblens but by Jesse and Mary Whiton-Stuart, a prosperous Manhattan couple well-steeped in wealth, old and new, with family connections to the Rensselaers and Juilliards, the Pynes and Stocktons. They in turn had had a son and daughter, both of whom married three or four times into wealthy families. Son Robert's third marriage was to Edwina Atwell Martin, who had previously been married to Esmond Bradley Martin.
That first gilded age came to a symbolic end with a famously ostentatious party, the Bradley-Martin Ball of 1897, in which many of the attendees, the good and great and greedy of New York society, dressed in full swag as Marie Antoinette. Also, Queen Louise of Prussia.
The lineage goes something like this: The Bradley Martin who hosted the ball of 1897 met his future wife Cornelia Sherman at the wedding of one of the Vanderbilts. One of their sons, Bradley Martin, Jr, married Margaret Phipps, the daughter of Henry Phipps--the business partner of Andrew Carnegie. Phipps money in Pittsburgh would later fund the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden. Their son Esmond Bradley Martin was married for a time to Ewina Atwell, who later married Robert Whiton-Stuart. That marriage, in 1972, came 75 years and two generations after the extravagance of the Bradley Martin Ball. A son of Edwina's, whom I corresponded with, said that when Robert and Edwina married, each thought the other had money, only to soon discover they both had already spent their respective inheritances.
The other son of Edwina's, Esmond Bradley Martin, Jr., left the plush world of his upbringing to devote his life to saving elephants and rhinos in Africa. Robert Whiton-Stuart's marriage to Edwina late in life made him Esmond's father in law, though it's not clear if the two ever met.
Note: Esmond the conservationist embodies the 20th century shift from conquest to conservation. His great grandfather Bradley Martin "leased Balmacaan, a well known game preserve" in Scotland. His grandfather, Bradley Martin, Jr "listed his recreations as shooting, fishing, motoring, travelling and deer stalking." His father, Esmond, Sr, for many years "was the world's fly-fishing record holder for Atlantic salmon." From this paternal lineage of conquest came Esmond, Jr, the conservationist.