The HBO series The Gilded Age follows Marion Brook (played by Louisa Jacobson, actor Meryl Streep’s daughter) who travels from Pennsylvania to New York after her father dies and leaves her penniless. Happily, her aunts Ada Brook and Agnes van Rhijn take her in, though she begins to find the social conventions stifling. Across the street, George Russell and his wife Bertha are a newly rich couple in the railroad business. Met with suspicion, they struggle to socialise with the snobbish old élite.
Many male characters in the series are based on some of the ‘robber barons’ or ‘captains of industry’ of the day. While robber barons employed unscrupulous methods to develop a monopoly in their industry, captains of industry were philanthropists who made and used their wealth in a way that would benefit society. However, real figures such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller made their mark on America by combining elements of the two. Other prominent male characters include T. Thomas Fortune, one of the few black men to successfully navigate the prejudicial times. Born into slavery, he became an early pioneer in black publishing and is today considered one of the foundational figures of the Civil Rights Movement in America.
The series is equally based on women belonging to an élite group of socialites known as “The Four Hundred”, a list of society’s most relevant. At the time, women could not vote but had significant social power. They were led by Caroline Schermerhorn Astor and subsequently Mamie Fish, Theresa Fair Oelrichs, and Alva Belmont. Other prominent women of the period included Susan B. Anthony, a campaigner for civil rights and women’s suffrage, the poet Emily Dickinson, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who popularised the anti-slavery movement with her 1852 book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the series, Mrs. Astor is classic old money New York. Her daughter Carrie Astor represents a youthful, more democratic approach to socialising. Mamie Fish appears as a power player in society, famous for her lavish parties and her biting sense of humour.
Born in 1949 in Cairo, Egypt, Julian Fellowes was the fourth son of a British diplomatic couple. He grew up in East Sussex in the UK and became an actor, moving to Los Angeles in 1981, where he played small roles in television and in film. On returning to the UK, he played parts in theatre and in prominent BBC series, including Our Friends in the North and Aristocrats, as well as in films including Damage (1992). He wrote the script for the film Gosford Park, for which he won an Oscar in 2002. He created the acclaimed period drama Downton Abbey in 2010, which ran for six series; a first film came out in 2019 and a second is released in the UK later this month. In the meantime, he has created a six-part drama series, Belgravia (2020), in which older women compete in a war of inheritances.
The idea for an ‘American Downton Abbey’ was inspired by the success of the Downton character Cora (played by Elizabeth McGovern), an American heiress who marries into English nobility, much like many of the Gilded Age so-called ‘Buccaneers’ did. Fellowes was struck by the relevance of the Gilded Age to today, with its fixation on appearances and flaunting of wealth, remarking that this he found a particularly ‘American’ tendency: “It’s a kind of dishonesty. You’re trying to present yourself all the time as a success story.”
Fellowes was also aware that given the great differences between traditional, aristocratic Britain and democratic American culture and society, he needed an authentic voice to tell the story; HBO suggested Emmy Award-winning black American writer Sonja Warfield. Filming took place on Long Island and in a number of Rhode Island mansions, and the stunning costumes were designed by Kasia Walicka-Maimone.