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Monday, January 19, 2015

“After the Ball: Gilded Age Secrets, Boardroom Betrayals, and the Party That Ignited the Great Wall Street Scandal of 1905”, by Patricia Beard

420 pages, Xlibris, ISBN-13: 978-1436357869

After the Ball: Gilded Age Secrets, Boardroom Betrayals, and the Party That Ignited the Great Wall Street Scandal of 1905 (whew!) is a well-written reminder that the more things change – especially in the business world – the more they remain the same. With simple contextual shifts, the story could have easily appeared in an MSNBC/CNN feeding frenzy today rather than as a distant (albeit poignant) episode during the final throes of America’s Gilded Age. Patricia Beard chronicles the pivotal event in the young life of James Hazen Hyde, heir apparent to the Equitable Life Assurance Society empire. While one of the most fascinating watershed events in corporate and governmental righteousness, the story also serves as a harbinger to the whirlwind circling about a perception of scandal as various individuals with distinct agendas respond to that perception.

Written in the style of a finely honed historical novel, After the Ball provides the reader with a detailed tapestry of turn-of-the-century upper class society. The “Ball”, as a tipping point, can be seen as a metaphor for the perceptual demarcation between the excesses of the old from the social idealism (or perhaps the idealistic rhetoric) of new, more “moral” commerce. Hyde appears as the sacrificial lamb, an embodiment of corporate greed and excess. A seemingly trivial and superficial (although admittedly lavish) private affair provides the ammunition for self-righteous, self-styled altruistic corporate raiders and opportunistic politicians to feast upon the carcass of a fallen member of the club. Business practices of the day are contrasted with societal norms, offering the reader an excellent understanding of upper-class life in “pinkies-out” New York City along with the detailed portrait of the protagonist. Hyde’s downfall seems to have been a lack of ambition or interest in learning the business he inherited, coupled with an over-eagerness to reap the benefits of his father’s financial success. Illustrating the latter is the party that serves as the book’s climax, an incomprehensibly extravagant affair by the standards of any era. Beard argues that Hyde’s detractors had already been hoping for years to bring him down, and the ball simply served as a welcome excuse to do so. Whether she’s right or wrong about that, the event certainly proved to be fertile ground for scandal. In a classic case of “the truth is never juicy enough”, rumors began circulating that Hyde had paid for the ball with company funds (he hadn’t) and that the already-obscene cost was four times as much as it really was. Despite being guilty of nothing worse than bad taste, Hyde was soon bought out of his father’s company and out of Wall Street society. Investigations and reform legislation followed, but those who were guilty of real wrongdoing were never punished.

Beard’s overview of the financial events and disputes will probably be too simple for those with a strong knowledge of finance and business, but it’s perfect for the rest of us. In any case, she is clearly more interested in Gilded Age high society and how it set the stage for James Hyde and his party, and her research in that area is impressive. The era’s many excesses leap off the pages, with various Vanderbilts and Roosevelts making cameos throughout, making the greed and injustice palpable without anything approaching peachiness. Hyde himself becomes a somewhat tragic figure, living off his inheritance in Europe, outliving the damage to his reputation but emerging as a walking anachronism on his return to New York in the 1940s.

Beard’s writing style, while substantive, is delightfully polished, engaging the reader throughout the narrative with the crisp prose displaying a clearly defined purpose and fidelity to the themes throughout. While not always in strict chronological order, the book is well organized to deftly move the story along its intended path toward its conclusion. In the Afterward, a short exploration of Hyde’s son Henry and his adventures in World War II, offers an additional fascinating contrast between the perceived superficiality of the father and the seriousness of the affairs of the son. The material in this portion of the book, while an appropriate epilogue to the story of James, would also stand nicely as the subject of its own book. I would recommend After the Ball to anyone fascinated with the continuing drama of American business and upper-class society.

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