Episode 2 of HBO’s The Gilded Age introduced Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy), the powerful socialite who was the leader of the Four Hundred. Mrs. Astor not only was a real-life historical figure but she also has a connection to Downton Abbey. The Gilded Age centers on the conflict between Old New York, whose members like Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) refuse to allow “New Money” like George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) from entering New York’s exclusive high society.
Although The Gilded Age’s main characters are fictional, they represent or are based upon real-life historical figures. Further, The Gilded Age also includes real people who actually lived in the era like Mrs. Astor, her daughter Carrie Astor (Amy Forsythe), and Mamie Fish (Ashlie Atkinson), while the Vanderbilts have been name-dropped but haven’t appeared. Since The Gilded Age is purportedly set in the Downton Abbey universe, many of Downton’s characters are also alive and living across the Atlantic in 1882, or, like Cora Levinson (Elizabeth McGovern) and her family, they haven’t appeared in The Gilded Age (yet). The Gilded Age episode 2 established that Mrs. Astor rules this decadent society, and the grand dame makes an appearance to inaugurate the climactic charity event to benefit war widows and their orphans.
The real-life Mrs. Astor was Caroline “Lina” Schermerhorn Astor, who was classic old money New York. She was both a Van Cortlandt and Schermerhorn by birth and an Astor by her marriage William Backhouse Astor, Jr., who died in 1892, 10 years after The Gilded Age begins. Mrs. Astor was the gatekeeper of New York high society, an exclusive club that was known as the Four Hundred. A who’s who of Old New York, the members of the Four Hundred were dictated by social arbiter Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), who will appear in a future episode of The Gilded Age. McAllister was said to have coined the phrase “The Four Hundred” because he claimed there were “only 400 people in fashionable New York Society,” although the same number is also supposedly reflected by how many people could fit in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom. In 1892, McAllister officially published the names of the Four Hundred in The New York Times.
Mrs. Astor’s son, and Carrie’s brother, John Jacob Astor, has yet to appear in The Gilded Age but he has a tragic connection to Downton Abbey history. J.J. was the Astor who died on the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912. James Crawley, the cousin of Robert Crawley and the presumptive heir to Downton Abbey, and his only son Patrick, were also passengers who died when the Titanic sank. James’ body was pulled from the sea and was buried in Canada but Patrick’s body was never recovered. The deaths of James and Patrick Crawley sparked the crisis to find a presumptive heir to Downton Abbey, which is why Robert’s more distant cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) became the heir until his death in Downton Abbey season 3.
Mrs. Astor and Carrie Astor are poised to play bigger roles as The Gilded Age continues. By the end of The Gilded Age episode 2, Mrs. Astor witnessed the ostentatious display of wealth and power by George Russell. She remarked, “the lion has roared,” and Mrs. Astor later told her daughter that the Russells are people to keep an eye on. In real life, Mrs. Astor acquiesced to welcome Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt and her New Money railroad tycoon family, the Vanderbilts, into New York high society. The same could eventually happen between Mrs. Astor and the Russells, which would be the ultimate victory for Bertha in The Gilded Age.