Monday, June 16, 2008

How The "400" Was Born


It Was Used In an Interview With Ward McAllister In 1888.

The famous phrase, "The Four Hundred," which has become synonymous in American ears with the most fashionable and socially exclusive set in the population of New York in particular and of other American cities and big towns in general, was born on March 25, 1888, when there appeared in The Tribune a long interview with Ward McAllister.

The article was headed "Secrets of Ball Giving," and in its opening paragraphs it treated of Mr. McAllister's ancestry and his position in New York. When the interviewing part of the story began, Mr. McAllister told of the organization of the Patriarchs' ball in 1873 and related various little episodes of interest connected with the gentlemen who were among its first subscribers. Finally he reached this point: "Society is an occupation in itself. Only a man who has a good deal of leisure and a taste for it can keep up with its demands and with what interests it. Say what you will, the modern leader of society must still have considerable of the old courtier and chevalier endowment to make a success of it. Numbers of people are introduced in fashionable society who cannot and do not make a success, and they fall out. They cannot float themselves even when some one gives them a good start. Those people have not the poise, the aptitude for polite conversation, the polished and deferential manner, the infinite capacity of good humor and ability to entertain or be entertained that society demands." He paused for a moment, and when he spoke again, lo! the famous phrase fell from his inspired lips:

"Why, there are only about 400 people in fashionable New York society. If you go outside that number, you either strike people who are not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease. See the point? Of course there are any number of the most cultivated and highly respectable, even distinguished, people outside of fashionable society. When we give a large ball like the last New Year's ball, for 800 guests, we go outside of the exclusive fashionable set and invite proiessional men, doctors, lawyers, editors, artists and the like. But the day when fortunes admitted men to exclusive society has gone by. Twenty or thirty years ago it was otherwise."

From that point to the end Mr. McAllister talked about famous dinners and suppers in the history of New York's fashionable entertaining, and also of the most captivating dishes for such feasts of the socially elect. Within a fortnight his statement about the number of persons in the fashionable set had been copied all over the eastern part of the country, and it gradually became solidly ingrafted into the popular colloquialisms of American slang and catch phrases. Mr. McAllister not long afterward, in another interview, qualified his estimate by explaining that he intended to convoy the idea that there were 400 households in the city the members of which were in fashionable society, but his qualification never get sufficient currency to kill the original estimate. — New York Mail and Express.

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