When I was working at the Astor’s Beechwood Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island they took their living history very seriously. We didn’t have a script for our tours. We had a giant binder of history we had to learn. We had to learn about the politics and manners of the time period. We had an entire day of family tree lessons. It was intense.
At the end of our two-week-long history boot camp, we did something called a live-in dinner. That meant that the returning cast members acted as servants and the new cast members played their aristocratic characters. We were going to spend a full seven-course meal in character in the year 1891. Sounds amazing, right?
The night of the dinner arrived. I wasn’t nervous about staying in characters or the turning of the tables. I was worried about the wine that was supposed to come with every course. I had never drunk wine. I had never really drunk anything besides Boons Farm at that point. Don’t mock me. I was a very sheltered almost twenty-two year old. I was talking to one of my castmates about this fear, and he had a brilliant plan.
We knew we were going to be sitting next to each other since we needed seafood free plates. He was Jewish, and I’m allergic to fish. His wasn’t planning on getting drunk, so as long as I never drank more than he did I would be fine. I felt so much better sitting down to have my hair done and my tiara placed knowing we had a plan. The time came, and I was ready. I was dressed in my sapphire blue ball gown with full train. My corset made it fit perfectly, and my sapphire and diamond jewelry (fake, but a girl can dream) looked perfect.
We all sat down to dinner, and the servants brought us our first course. Everything was going perfectly. My character was Susan Ridgeway Willing, older sister to Ava Astor. I knew all my history and mingled wonderfully with the other guests. The food was amazing. I couldn’t really eat much because of the corset, but my teeny tiny bites tasted wonderful. I sipped on my wine and had a wonderful time.
And then dinner was over, and it was time to stand up. That’s when I realized I was drunk for the first time in my life. In a ball gown at a work event. And then they announced that the ladies would be retiring to the French parlor for absinthe while the men went to the veranda for brandy and cigars. I couldn’t say no. That would have been almost as big a social faux pas as asking to pee! So to the French parlor I went. I balanced on the edge of the fine furniture as they gave me two glasses of absinthe.
Finally, the evening was over, and we all gathered in the ballroom for our debriefing. My boss asked what we learned that night. I raised my hand straight away and said, “I learned I’m drunk.”
Luckily he laughed instead of firing me. He was a really great boss like that. They took off my bodice and loosened my corset enough to give me water, and I sat and listened vaguely to the rest of the debriefing. Somewhere there are pictures of me crawling up Mrs. Astor’s grand staircase in my full length ball gown skirt , corset, and jewels. I unfortunately have no idea where those pictures are.
I learned an important lesson that night that had nothing to do with life in the gilded age. Never go glass for glass with a Jewish male who’s used to Manischewitz. Especially not in a corset.