Interiors intrigue me. Like many New Yorkers, I am often tempted to see what is inside those great doorman-barricaded buildings that line Fifth Avenue or Park Avenue. Step into the marble lobby, ride the elevator to the penthouse and let your imagination be carried aloft. What would it be like to live in a vast suite overlooking Central Park, with its parquet floors, coffered ceilings, and handsome antiques? Surely, dwelling here means being beautiful, rich and glamorous.
In reality, most people who live in big cities live in small rooms with tiny closets and a bathroom barely large enough to turn around in. But one can dream.
The three novels I have chosen allow fanciful musings of the Gilded Age — which roughly spans the period in American history between Reconstruction and the turn of the 20th century — with its grand apartments and lavish furnishings. But of course, then, as now, most people lived in cramped quarters with little to look at. And if life amongst the gilded rich seemed enchanting, for the masses existence could be dreary at best.
What was it like to search for an apartment in New York 100 years ago? Apparently, not so different from today. A Hazard of New Fortunes is a story of social conflict between a self-made millionaire and an idealistic reformer. When Basil March, an editor in Boston, is asked to come to New York to start a new magazine, he begins with big dreams and quickly scales down to reality. As he and his wife hunt for their dream home, they list their requirements: The apartment must have an elevator and steam heat, it must be no higher than the third floor and have 10 spacious rooms. After a long and exhausting search, they succumb to a gas-heated, six room flat crammed with folding beds, heavy curtains, and bric-a-brac of every description —Japanese screens, Turkish carpets covered with animal skins; chandeliers with shades, and an abundance of clocks. "There is nothing in the book with which I amused myself more than the househunting of the Marches," wrote the author, William Dean Howells, a few years later. "It is not much different for a young literary pair adventuring in New York now," he said, in 1909. I might add it is not so different in New York now, ca. 2013.
Although I prefer to imagine myself in the splendid houses of industrialists and philanthropists, I found myself riveted by the sordid alleyways of pimps, prostitutes and poor immigrants who populate The Alienist. A story of good and evil, this murder mystery involves an investigation by a newspaper reporter and his friend, an alienist, the term at the time for a psychologist. This creepy tale by Caleb Carr reeks with atmosphere and takes the reader from the rotten tenements of immigrants in New York to the great mansions of the Gilded Age. The stage is set for bizarre murders, corrupt politicians, historical characters, and modest romance. We are led along the dank hallways and tiny cells of Sing Sing, with its fatally torturous ice water baths. We're escorted by a butler into the marble floored interiors of J.P. Morgan's palatial mansion. Delicious!
Money is the great doer and undoer in The Financier. It's the story of corrupt politicians and scandalous businessmen who try to beat the system. Frank Cowperwood thinks he has it made with his banking business until his unscrupulous methods land him in jail. We trace his success and failure as he rises from a modest house in Philadelphia to an elaborate, art-filled home. When his shady dealings lead to conviction for embezzlement of city funds, he plunges into prison and solitary confinement. But like the true life tycoon that Theodore Dreiser based his novel on, the reprehensible entrepreneur will rise again, only to build a bigger mansion the next time.
Dreams come and go: The hunt for the perfect home continues.
Janet Wallach is the author of The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age.
Three Books...is edited and produced by the team NPR Books.