Learn about Life in the 1920s


FIFTEEN THOUSAND MILLIONAIRES in one country, our own; nearly four thousand of these in Greater New York, and three of those four thousand living on a single street or near it!


Park Avenue, declares Stuart Chase in The New Republic, has become the top of the American ladder of success, the ne plus ultra of wealth. Once upon a time the acme of worldly ambition was a stone palace on Fifth Avenue, but now it is a sumptuous apartment in a steel-and-stone sky-scraper on Park Avenue. Here comes to anchor, at last, fortune after fortune, until now the street lays claim to the most stupendous aggregation of multi-millionaires the world has ever seen. Hear Mr. Chase further:

The spoil of a continent, ay, of the seven seas, is massed along this harsh stone canyon—the winnings from oil, steel, railroads, mining, lumber, motor-cars, banking, real estate, moving-pictures, foreign trade, speculating, the manufacturing of widgets, the marketing of tooth-paste, the distribution of the assets of button kings. The art treasures of Europe and the East—paintings, frescoes, paneling, tapestries, jewels, period furniture—have been imported by the shipload to make these dollars manifest.

The Avenue spends $280,000,000 a year, according to a recent and conservative estimate, and the income of its average family probably exceeds $100,000. The ratios are swollen, furthermore, by the number of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit princes of finance who maintain apartments on the Avenue, even tho they may use them only a few weeks in the year. The connection is a desirable one. Indeed, from every point of view, this street with its park, its flora and fauna, merits our respectful and thoughtful attention. There are no more worlds to conquer. If America has a heaven, this is it.

Park Avenue is parallel to Fifth, and two blocks east of it. The last of the "ducal families," to quote Mr. Chase, are migrating thither from Fifth—save for a strip opposite Central Park—and "the palaces that they reared in the nineties are, after solemn public exhibition, being ignominiously destroyed by profane gentlemen in mud-plastered overalls," to give way to sky-scraper office buildings. Then, as we read:

It is into the social vacuum left by this desecration that Park Avenue has moved, but never, in its palmiest days, did Fifth Avenue boast such serried phalanxes of millionaires. More fashion it may have had, more individuality, more resplendent names bursting above the rooftops of an adolescent nation—Vanderbilts, Goulds, Astors, Senator dark and his incredible chateau—but never such solid, crushing and cascading wealth.

We have, indeed, on Park Avenue, the mass production of millionaires. It looks the part. The gaudy individual mansions of the handicraft era have given way to the regimented, standardized and stupendous unit rectangles of quantity production. The Avenue, from Forty-sixth to Ninety-sixth Street, is a succession of monolithic packing-cases, each an apartment house from twelve to twenty stories high, sitting with infinite solidity on its full city block. Hardly a terrace, a garden, a portico; nothing to break the relentless line of flat stone profile; not an inch yielded from the property line that meets the sidewalk. One great cube of masonry after another in almost unendurable monotony, save where the Grand Central Station bisects the Avenue neatly at Forty-second Street, and where the Ritz Tower bells upward to the sky.

And yet it is a broad and noble street, running like an arrow from north to south. From the Grand Central to Fifty-seventh Street, the park space in its center (under which rumble the trains of the New York Central) is dull stone pavement without a touch of green, but from Fifty-seventh north it blossoms into a strip of formal garden with grass and shrubs. Thus there is, in places, a park on Park Avenue, contrary to the philology of most streets.

But beyond its immense solidity, Mr. Chase asserts, the outward aspects of this new Millionaire Row betoken nothing worth while. The gates of this heaven are massive, he says, but not pearly. Such pearls as there are must be sought inside, back of the relentless walls. But there, it seems:

Within the limits of standardized steel and veneer-masonry construction, the apartments do what they can. One hears of a single bathroom in jade and gold costing $35,000. One hears of "duplex roof" apartments, which are really separate houses perched on the tops of the monoliths, with light on four sides, renting as high as $40,000 a year. Mr. Adolph Zukor leases nine rooms at $4,000 per room. Twenty thousand dollars a year for space below the roof is a common figure. For the most exclusive section of the Avenue, the average rental is in the neighborhood of $1,500 per room per year. The "cooperative" apartment house, so-called, is here the order of the day. In a cooperative, one buys one's apartments outright. The residents then own the building, roof and walls complete, while the speculative builder, not, it is said, without a smile, steps out of the picture altogether. It costs about $7,500 a room to buy into a cooperative—say, $75,000 for a family home. This is obviously less costly than paying the current rentals, but one bears the not inconsiderable risks of the future of New York real estate. After all, there is a limit to the number of sardines which can be packed in a can.

Even at these princely figures, the Park Avenue resident only spends from 5 to 10 per cent. of his income for rent or its equivalent, in contrast with the 25 to 35 per cent. paid by the wage-earner. But a man who needs, according to current market quotations, $25,000 to finance a debutante daughter through one season, must save somewhere.

The most luxurious apartment on the Avenue is held by a bachelor. It is on the roof, and contains a ballroom eighty by forty feet, and a living-room two-thirds as spacious. For its lordly floors, rare rugs have been especially woven, while all dressing-cabinets have been built into the walls of the bedrooms, so that, when the drawers are closed, the wall design is innocent of all hint of the toilet.

Two modes of furnishings are very chic at the present time—wood paneling, largely imported, piece by piece, from the manor houses of England; and especially constructed bar-rooms with brass rails and beer engines, tiny, but complete. ... In one apartment stands a steel safe seven feet high, and when its owner has turned the combination handles and swung back the massive door, there stands before you, row on row, a collection of rare old vintages and liqueurs, as dazzling as it is priceless.

The most important factor, however, Mr. Chase assures us, is the outlay, not for rent, but for furnishings:

One simply is not settled, it the decorations do not reach $100,000—the operation being frequently on the principle of giving the interior decorator carte blanche. For the fauna of the Avenue is perhaps equally compounded of real swells, and of butter-and-egg men whose children are destined to be real swells. (Not to mention a liberal sprinkling of apartments reigned over by that particular variety of blond which gentlemen are said to prefer.) Imported fireplaces are strictly in order, as are beamed and frescoed ceilings. Meanwhile, in order that the master may not grow irritable waiting for his half grapefruit, electric clocks are sunk into kitchen walls, and regulated from the central office. Of servants' bedrooms, the average size is six by eight feet.

For those unduly irritated by the servant problem—in this heaven it is no more settled than upon earth; and for papa and mama—or popper and mommer—after the children have married and departed, there is the apartment hotel, of which the Ritz Tower is the outstanding exhibit this year. In these, instead of maintaining ten or twelve rooms with a corps of one's own servants, one may live with equal luxury in three or four rooms, the house providing all services, including those of maid and butler, with meals served in one's rooms or in the exquisite restaurant below. For this snug home life, one pays in the neighborhood of $3,000 per room per year in rental alone.

Even the fabulous profits of the war period, we are told, did not produce such a crop of million-dollar incomes as has matured since then. Of the 15,000 millionaires in the United States, 207 individuals had an income of more than a million dollars in 1926—the largest number on record. The writer specifies:

At the head of the list stands Mr. Henry Ford, with a private fortune of some $300,000,000, and sole ownership of the Ford Motor Company, for which Mr. J. W. Prentiss has on three separate occasions tendered one billion dollars. Thus Mr. Ford's total resources are in the neighborhood of $1,300,000,000 (in which both his son Edsel and Mrs. Ford share). The second greatest fortune is undoubtedly that of Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the third, probably, that of Mr. Andrew J. Mellon, the Secretary of the Treasury. There are at least a score of individuals worth one hundred millions or more. There are more multimillionaires in the United States than in all the rest of the world combined, even if we include the quasi-governmental wealth of the princes of India and the East. Columbus revealed a continent which was destined to be richer by milliards than that he sought. Richer in money, if not in craftsmanship and beauty.

We note apartment houses with sixty millionaires under a single roof! Along the whole stretch of the Avenue, perhaps 3,000 are on exhibition, while another thousand have the spending of the income on a million—$50,000 and upward a year. And spend it. For here live the ultimate Joneses; if we can keep up with them, life has no further crowns, no further penalties. Through the service entrances, and up the service elevators, pours the quintessence of what money can buy. Lorelei Lee, we remember, turned back contemptuously from all the capitals of Europe, and headed straight for Park Avenue, the only spot from which shopping could be conducted properly. Nor could one ask for a sounder judge of values.

The gross volume of that shopping has been summarized by the Park Avenue Association, as follows:

Between Thirty-fourth and Ninety-sixth Street—a distance of about three miles—there live some 16,000 persons—roughly, 4,000 families. For the year 1927, the Association expects them to spend the staggering total of $280,000,000, or $70,000 per family. The average income, after allowing for savings and reinvestments, is probably in excess of $100,000. Well may the Association say that "Park Avenue leads the world in concentrated buying power." Nothing like it has ever been seen on earth before.

The Association goes on to give us the details of that gargantuan spending, being careful to point out that its estimates are probably 25 per cent. below the actual figures, in order to state the case conservatively. In the aggregate, 4,000 women and their daughters will spend $85,000,000 for clothes of all kinds—about $21,000 per family, including one mother and one daughter. Fathers and sons will spend about $18,000,000 for clothes—a little more than one-fifth of the outgo for the women—say, $4,500 to tailors and shirt-makers, per family. What it costs to maintain a wife who keeps up with the procession could scarcely be better demonstrated. Let the young man of fashion budget his own outlay for clothes, multiply it by five, and see if he is prepared to meet the Park Avenue standard!

The total outlay for rent and furnishings, including pictures and antiques, is over $58,000,000, about $15,000 per family. For food and restaurants, the Avenue will spend $32,000,000, or $8,000 per family. For jewelry, it will spend $20,000,000, $5,000 per family. For motor cars and garaging, $16,000,000, $4,000 per family. For travel, $15,000,000; for beautifying and perfumes, $8,000,000; for yachts, $7,000,000; for theaters and cabarets, $5,000,000 (an absurdly low estimate, says the Park Avenue Association); for flowers, candy, and gift things, $10,000,000. And for charity, which covereth all, $5,000,000.

The Association discreetly refrains from estimating the total spent for liquor, but the New York World, following the same system of statistical analysis, computes an outlay of $15,000,000, or just under $4,000 per family.

The modern merchant, we are told, has not been slow to see the desirability of diverting this golden Niagara into deserving channels. Indeed, it is probably the chief purpose of the Park Avenue Association to husband that diversion. We learn further:

The Association is the creation of one H. Gordon Duval, and it consists of two branches. The "residential division" is the high-hat branch, and is composed of residents of the Avenue, who pay $26 a year dues in the interest of architecture and exclusiveness. When a bus route threatens its dignity, Mr. Duval, buttressed by legal counsel and a delegation of members, appears in high indignation before the City Board of Estimate. What board could fail to listen sympathetically to the accredited representatives of 3,000 millionaires?

The other and less exalted division is composed of some 1,200 merchants who live on or near the Avenue. Each pays $52—just twice the high-hat rate—and by way of compensation, it is stipulated in the bond that each member merchant shall be loaned a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers of those who live on the planet's gaudiest thoroughfare. So diligent has been the use made of these lists that some of the listees are beginning to protest. They allege that when they are not answering the telephone in connection with a new shipment of Harris tweeds, they are blunting paper cutters opening letters from the Adorable Model Co., Inc. Thus Mr. Duval would seem to be in danger of having a schism on his hands. But a man who can drive 3,000 millionaires abreast will doubtless be more than equal to the occasion.

Indeed, to live on or near the Avenue places one automatically on the key "sucker list" of the country. It is one of the responsibilities of the office. (If the phrase offends, "plucking the lilies" may be substituted, on the suggestion of the Better Business Bureau.) To suckers or lilies—please yourself—the glad tidings are brought, by a staggering postman, of beauty salons, night clubs, investment opportunities, facilities for the chemical analysis of alcoholic beverages, flowers, pearls, exclusive marble mausoleums with embalming services included, drives for unnumbered charities, motor-cars with long and haughty hoods, insurance, round-the-worid tours, perfumes to blend with our personalities, auctions of genuine antiques (early English is the latest on the Avenue), French models for the little ones (a charming frock for a 6-year-old, and only $125). Recently the file containing the mail matter sent out by a stock-selling promoter to one prospective customer was analyzed. The file weighed eleven pounds and represented ninety-one different mailings. One hundred and twenty-five envelops were used. There were forty-one letters, seventy-nine multigraphed pages, fifty-two newspaper enclosures, thirty-four return post-cards, and seventy-two subscription blanks. The cost of the printing alone was estimated at $29.26.

To many dwellers on the Avenue, success has come from spirited salesmanship. To become now the target, rather than the arm that bends the bow, may be occasionally annoying, but is understandable. It is enough to cap the pyramid of the power which turns a million wheels, and animates a hundred million breasts.

Source: The Literary Digest for July 2, 1927