Princeton Portrait: Day moved through a strange, opulent, lost New York

Daniel Hertzberg

George Lord Day 1882, the personal lawyer for the Astors as well as many of high society’s “400” — a term for the 400 people Caroline Astor invited to her annual ball — was the arbiter of Gilded Age New York City. He moved in a world that one could only join through inherited wealth, a cunning marriage, or blatant chutzpah: a lost New York that was even stranger and more opulent than people imagine.

Day lived at the Majestic, a hotel on Central Park West that featured a full orchestra playing in the dining room each night, balls each weekend, palatial Louis XIV salons, and mandatory white ties and tails for guests. The hotel would not provide rooms, the New York Herald reported, unless applicants furnished “references of the very highest character.” But swindlers got in by dressing the part — as when, in 1895, a young man “of aristocratic bearing and faultless dress” presented himself at the Majestic, took the best suite (to be charged to his parents, who would arrive soon, he said), booked a carriage the next morning to greet his parents at the pier, and then, en route, snuck out the carriage door. (In the mock-genteel slang of the day, the word for hightailing it like this was absquatulate.) Fake aristocrats were an epidemic.

Day’s job was to brush away every legal obstacle to his clients’ desires; this freed them for important battles, as when Caroline and her daughter-in-law, Mary Astor, fired fusillades of calling cards at each other over the rights to the name “Mrs. Astor.” Caroline’s balls were novels in miniature, as the dancers obeyed leaders who called out dance sequences that often simulated juicy drama: “The Ladies Deceived,” in which a man pretended to invite a series of ladies to dance; “The Forsaken Gentleman,” a chain of selections that left a man standing alone; “The Reunion of Couples”; “The False Invitation”; “The Inconstants”; “The Pursuit.” 

Day’s job was to brush away every legal obstacle to his clients’ desires.

At Princeton, Day had competed in debate and edited the Nassau Literary Magazine. In college, he had written an editorial admonishing his classmates to stop cheering at the errors of opposing teams at sports games, a practice that he considered vulgar. Even if other schools heckled their opponents, he wrote, “such facts should only make us the more careful to preserve our own characters as gentlemen.” 

In adulthood, he continued to move in circles that treated sports as training in knightly arts. He attended coming-out parties for young men who debuted into society by showing off their skill with fencing foils. He attended exhibitions, with Mark Twain, where fencing masters — called professors — dueled in white jackets and gloves. He galloped in polo matches (“knights of the mallet,” the society pages called polo players) and waved a handkerchief at Princeton-Yale football games.

In 1894, while hunting foxes with the Meadow Brook Hunt Club, he fell under his horse — an injury that threatened to kill him. After being treated in a private hospital, he withdrew with his valet and doctors to the Meadow Brook clubhouse to die. He recovered, but the injury compelled him to retire from work, so he submitted to a quiet life sailing yachts around the world. 

Four years later, he sailed on his yacht, Fleur-de-Lys, with a party of guests to Portugal — unaware that Spain had declared war with the United States and that the U.S. flag on his ship opened him to capture. A tramp ship, trying to warn him, signaled, “Who are you, and where are you going?” according to a 1908 account in Yachting magazine. “‘Deuced impertinent of that rough fellow to thus address me,’ thought saucy Fleur-de-Lys, and ignored the presumption,” the account continued. Spanish gunboats began to pursue the Americans, who kept ahead in their pleasure craft until dark, and soon after disembarked on shore. Day and his guests fled on land to Paris, where they presumably soothed their troubled nerves with very good wine.