Capitoline Catfights and the Exhausting Life of the Society Beauty: 1890s

Mary Victoria Leiter, society beauty

Mary Victoria Leiter, society beauty


Washington is coming to be a very sanguinary social battle-field. As the seat of government, and consequently the residence of foreign diplomats, it is a very desirable point of vantage from which to assail the citadels of New York society. If a socially ambitious woman can take the diplomats into camp—and this is not a difficult matter, for they are cosmopolites who are prone to take the gifts the gods provide and are particularly susceptible to the fascinations of a good cook— she acquires a standing that soon opens the charmed portals of New York and Newport to her.

Mrs. L. Z. Leiter has done this and is emphasizing the fact in a way that has convulsed the feminine East. She came out of Chicago some ten years ago, backed by her husband’s millions and the unquestionable charms of a very beautiful daughter, and the latter’s marriage, year before last, to the Hon. George Curzon has made her position almost impregnable. This winter she has had a second daughter to bring out, and she has disrupted social Washington in doing so. The present Miss Leiter was brought out at a reception and cotillion which were given on the same evening that the Small and Early Dancing Class— patronized by Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge, Mrs. Archibald Hopkins, the wife of Admiral John G. Walker, and Mrs. Ward, the grandmother of Mrs. William C. Endicott, Jr.— had selected for their dance. As Mrs. Leiter had expressed her disapproval of young women dancing in public halls, the patronesses of the Small and Earlies felt that the gage of battle had been thrown down, and the people who were invited to both affairs were in a quandary as to which they would attend. Many of them were in doubt as the reception they would receive at Mrs. Leiter’s hands, for it is on record that at a cotillion which she gave during the Brice regime, there was actually a silken ribbon hung through the ball-room to separate the socially elect among her guests from the hoi polloi. However, at this present dance, Mrs. Leiter secured the cream of the diplomatic corps, and her position is now more assured than ever.

Mrs. Leiter is not the only example of society militant in Washington. There was an interchange of courtesies at a recent reception, in which the wife of a former congressman and the wife of a bureau official were the principals. It was a crowded afternoon affair, and the ex- congressman’s wife was assisting the hostess in receiving the guests. When the wife of the bureau official was presented, the hostess said to the woman of the receiving party: “You know Mrs. Blank, don’t you?” “Certainly,” said the ex-congressman’s wife, “I would know her anywhere by that pink dress.” The cheeks of the bureau official’s wife were suffused with a rosy glow, but she turned on her tormentor and said: “Probably if my husband had been mixed up in as many questionable transactions as yours, madam, it would not be necessary for me to wear my pink reception- dress so often as to cause comment.” Every word rang out clear and sharp upon the ears of the astonished guests. Inasmuch as there had been frequent criticism of the ex-congressman for his connection with questionable transactions, the force of the bureau official’s wife’s retort can readily be imagined.  

Still another woman prominent in Capitoline society recently sustained severe discomfiture at a fancy-dress ball for which she had moved heaven and earth to obtain an invitation. It appears that the woman who was to give the entertainment and the one who was so anxious to become a guest, both patronized the same dressmaker. There had been some feeling between the two, growing out of a previous social affair, and the hostess of the ball determined to even up all scores. Accordingly she called upon their mutual friend, the dressmaker, and learned the material which would be used in making up the ball-dress for the unwelcome guest. When the latter arrived at the house and was ushered into the ball-room, she was chagrined and enraged beyond expression to find the entire room, walls, ceiling, and doorways, draped with material which was an exact match for the dress upon which she had bestowed so much pains and money. There was not much peace of mind for her that evening, and she is still planning how to be revenged for the affront. The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 31 January1898

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs. L.Z. Leiter was the wife of Chicago millionaire Levi Leiter, founder of the department store Field & Leiter (Later Marshall Fields). The first beautiful daughter mentioned above was Mary Victoria, later Baroness Curzon, of the Durbar Peacock Dress. She was a woman beloved by all and took a great interest in Indian charities and in silk manufacturing. She died tragically young, at age 36.  The younger daughter was Margaret, who married the 19th Earl of Suffolk. This was social-climbing with a vengeance.

Let us take a look at the boudoir secrets of these fashionable young ladies. Mrs Daffodil has been in the employ of several Society Beauties and can assure her readers that neither the life of the Beauty nor of her maid is “any picnic,” to use the American idiom.


The Way Society Beauties Retain Their Charms.

One Sips Bouillon Before Sinking to Sleep and Nearly All Sleep Till Noon

Cosmetics Not in General Use

Lovely Pedestrians

“Tell me, how do you manage to keep your complexion so flawless, your eyes so full and bright through a long winter of balls, later suppers and such dissipation?” was asked by a New York Journal reporter of one of the notably beautiful girls in society the other day.

She has been out two seasons and at the time spoken of she had just been confessing that for six successive nights she had not been to bed before three o’clock. Since the first of December she had attended twelve balls, twenty-three dances, fifteen dinner parties, twenty-eight luncheon parties and over a hundred receptions besides the opera three times a week and the theater every time a new play appeared. These figures were gathered from a little silver-clasped diary, which she like all other society girls is obliged to keep.

“Oh, mamma taught me how to take care of myself last season,” was the reply. “You see, I had just come from school in Geneva, where we went to bed at nine every night and arose at six in the morning. All the summer previous to my debut we spent at the French and German watering-places and in Paris selecting my gowns. When we came home I was in perfect health, and before my debut I went three times to the opera. The first evening I had to be pinched to keep awake till twelve, when mamma was obliged to take me home. I slept until ten o’clock the next morning. Now I can not close my eyes until three o’clock.

“What time do you get up?”

“Oh, when I awake; that is one of mamma’s strict rules I am always to awake naturally, never to be called. If I have danced a great deal I often sleep until twelve o’clock, but never after. You see, broken rest is not a bit refreshing. As soon as I feel thoroughly awake I touch a little bell near me and my maid brings me a basin of luke-warm rose water. I sponge my face and hands and brush my teeth, and then I have a cup of chocolate and one piece of toast.  Then I read my mail and by that time I feel delightfully rested. At school I had to jump out of bed at six and dress in twenty minutes.

“Do you bathe every morning?” “I take a sponge bath and a Turkish rubbing. I take my warm bath at night, you know. It is too enervating for day-time. When I come home at two or three o’clock my maid has my bath ready. I do not stay in it but ten minutes, then I sit down before my open fire, sip a cup of hot bouillon, have my hair brushed and braided, and as soon as I get to bed I go fast asleep.”

When this beauty completes her first toilet she dresses for a luncheon or reception. If she is going to the former she eats no more breakfast, if to the latter she takes a breakfast—a small bit of beefsteak, some fruit and rolls; no coffee, but a cup of tea.

“I never take more than a bite at a reception,” she said. “Sometimes I want to very much, but mamma says that irregular eating will ruin the complexion of an angel, so of course I refrain. I dine at seven and then I eat anything I want except pastry. At balls I never eat anything but chicken croquettes and ices, and I drink only bouillon. I could not and keep my complexion fresh.”

This society girl uses no cosmetics, but a little baby powder put on her face to “take off the shine” may be excepted. When she was asked about exercise and out-door air she laughingly said that dancing was all the exercise she could stand at present, and that she took her fresh air in her carriage going about from one reception to the other.

“Of course as soon as Lent begins I take up bowling and badminton,” she went on, “because you know one’s arms are apt to get thin, and that is bad for décolleté gowns. Then I have horseback riding and tennis as soon as the weather becomes fine. In the summer I lead a ‘natural life,’ as the doctors say. The girls who go to Newport cannot do it, but mamma takes me abroad.”

There are comparatively few society girls who take a walk during the winter. Miss Sallie Hargous and Miss Camilla Moss are two exceptions and  almost any fine afternoon they may be seen on Fifth avenue. They are like English beauties, robust and rosy-cheeked, and have not the ethereal beauty of “carriage beauties,” as the other class are called.

Miss Mabel Wright is perhaps one of the finest pedestrians in the fashionable world. It is said that she takes a cold bath every day , and to this she owes her delicate pink and white complexion. The Misses Goodridge are not brought up in luxurious fashion, although so wealthy. They get up at ten o’clock every morning, and always go for a walk before luncheon.

Miss Leiter, the famous Washington beauty, never stays later at any ball than two o’clock and whether at a ball or not she always goes to bed at three o’clock all winter and gets up at eleven, then breakfasts, rides, returns for luncheon and is then ready for the evening’s gayety. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 9 April 1890: p. 2

Endless fittings at the great couture houses in Paris; the “season” with its endless round of country-house visits, shooting parties, and balls; Atlantic crossings, holidays in Italy or Egypt, and a surfeit of dinner-party bores–the life of a Society Beauty is really all too tiresome.

Yet, spare a moment of pity for the lady’s maid who is obliged to sit up to all hours with a cup of boullion on the hob, waiting for her mistress to return. She must undress her, put her to bed in freshly warmed sheets, and, before retiring, repair any of the evening’s ravages to the toilette. A lady’s maid’s work is never done. There are stockings and gloves to be mended, tiaras to be cleaned and returned to their cases, pearls to be wiped with a chamois, and chiffon flounces shredded by amorous gentlemen to be rewoven or replaced with pleated lawn frills, which stand up better to the Rush of Life.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


5 thoughts on “Capitoline Catfights and the Exhausting Life of the Society Beauty: 1890s

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