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HBO’s 'The Gilded Age': Who’s in, who’s out, and 'who’s that?'

By JOANNE RAE M. RAMIREZ, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 19, 2024 5:00 am Updated Jan 19, 2024 9:30 am

The Gilded Age comes and goes in every era, every epoch, every century—every presidential administration even, for that matter. The only difference is who gets to be part of the “Gilded 400,” so to speak—economically and socially. One’s political stock is a product of these two factors (except for a few exceptions).

I spent the last part of the holiday break glued to The Gilded Age on HBO (upon the recommendation of PeopleAsia managing editor Jose Paolo dela Cruz). Written by Julian Fellowes, the same creator of Downton AbbeyThe Gilded Age TV series, set in New York when the mansions were opulent but the road in front of them was dust, tells of American “royalty” in the late 19th century. Historical sources say the “Gilded Age,” the term for the period of economic boom that started after the American Civil War and ended at the turn of the century, was taken from the title of one of Mark Twain’s lesser-known novels, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873).

The ‘ladies who lunch’ including the aristocratic Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy) and new rich Bertha
Russell (Carrie Coon).

In the Philippines, the Gilded Age was “the beginning of the consumer class and the rise of the sugar fortunes, around 1860 to 1920,” according to Jaime Ponce de Leon, founder of Leon Gallery, and purveyor of the art of all epochs and its appreciation. In reference to that timeline, I would presume Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata was set in the Philippines’ “gilded age.” But I digress.

HBO’s The Gilded Age is a must for chroniclers and students of society’s tremors and temblors, ripples, and tsunamis, who’s in, who’s out, and to quote Maurice Arcache, the late and beloved authority of society’s comings and goings, “Who’s that?”

I actually missed palangga Maurice when I was watching Seasons 1 and 2 of the series, which reportedly has a Season 3! One of the characters in the movie, Ward McAllister (portrayed by the versatile Nathan Lane), the so-called “gatekeeper” of who’s in, who’s out and “who’s that” in Philippine society, reminded me so much of the lovable Maurice’s influence and clout. In the series, and perhaps this is where Maurice and McAllister the character are different, the latter is a virtual shadow of one woman, the all-powerful “queen” of the Gilded Age, Mrs. Caroline Astor (played on the series by Donna Murphy). Mrs. Astor is based on a true-to life New York socialite, whose husband was the scion of America’s first multi-millionaire. She has been described as “social arbiter par excellence… comes straight out of 19th-century New York social diaries.”

According to Town & Country, not only were the Astors a “Who’s Who” of society, but also a “What’s What” of New York landmarks. Those of us who cannot forget the movie Titanic remember that among those who chose to sink with ship was John Jacob Astor, Caroline and William Astor’s youngest son.

Christine Baranski as the feisty Agnes Van Ryn in The Gilded Age.

Seeking to poach McAllister is the wealthy and cunning fictional Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), whose husband’s character is based on the “robber barons” of America’s Gilded Age. Yes, you read that right: robber barons. George Russell (Morgan Spector) made his own fortune as a shrewd businessman and shares his wife’s ambitions in many ways. Bertha Russell’s character is loosely based, according to online sources, on a Vanderbilt, whose fortune was newer than the Astors’.

With her blinding wealth, Bertha seeks a pedestal in New York society on a gilded throne as well. McAllister becomes the object of a tug-o-war between her and the seemingly invincible Caroline Astor. Sinong nagwagi? I dare not be a spoiler.

The Russells of New York in their gilded mansion.

Another unforgettable character is old-rich Agnes Van Rhyn, portrayed with crisp haughtiness by Christine Baranski. She is just like Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) of Downton Abbey. Together they can make contestants in a game of Charades guess the meaning of “taray” in a second.

“I am opposed to her tribe,” Mrs. Van Rhyn says when she feels someone is not of her pedigree.

“It seems to me the ship is sinking. We must follow the example of the rats,” she says when she sizes up a room and sees someone not of her “tribe” there. But Agnes has redeeming qualities—she fights for women’s rights and does not discriminate against people of color. Working for her, I guess.


Early this week, I had dinner with some amigas, and one of them observed that there are many come-backing faces in today’s society—and flaunting it. In modern times, specifically the 21st century and the new millennium, the Gilded Age is like a revolving door of leading men and ladies. The 400 is of slightly less permanence than the Gilded Age’s list of the 19th century.

A young, maverick heiress once told me she was attending Mass at the Santuario de San Antonio church, the temple of the rich and famous of its surrounding villages, with an older heiress, who was scanning the church for an empty pew as she made her entrance. Alas, there was none. The older woman then turned to the younger one, one eyebrow raised, and said under her breath while looking around: “Who are these people?” Thankfully, someone she knew recognized her and offered her his seat.

This older Filipino socialite may well be a representation of the Caroline Astors and Agnes Van Rhyns—old rich, and a guardian of the gilded rope that creates a boundary between the Who’s Who set and the Who’s That. And yes, with a tongue that cuts like a steak knife.

When we were new at the gilded halls of Malacañang Palace during the Cory administration, we were a tribe of mestizos, Chinoys, and Pinoys. Of course, there was, honestly, a “conquering hero” entitlement in most of the tribe as they set foot and organized the teams that the previous administration had left behind. In fairness, no one was illegally dismissed. Anyway, one of the holdovers described the new team as filled with “insulares and peninsulares,” comparing the tisoys of the new administration to the Spaniards that came to colonize the islands in the 16th century. The term made its way to the popular column of Louie Beltran. Then someone asked, “Paano naman si Rene Saguisag (one of Cory’s trusted lieutenants and a former senator)?” They then answered fondly, “Indio!” I believe Saguisag was amused.

TV series and movies like The Gilded Age hold up a mirror to ourselves and our possessiveness of our stature in society. It is perhaps the reason some families hold on to political power, because it makes them part of “the 400” for longer than usual.

Well, nothing wrong with being rich as long as you are happily rich, and you give to charity. But! As Agnes Van Rhyn says, “Charity has two functions in our world, my dear. The first is to raise funds for the less fortunate, which is wholly good. The second is to provide a ladder for the people to climb into society who do not belong there.”