Sunday, April 6, 2014

Colonel William d'Alton Mann: The Rudest Man of the 20th Century?

Colonel Mann as a Civil war Soldier~ When Col. William D'Alton Mann published Town Topics, he made a straightforward if unpleasant practice of "borrowing" large sums from individuals who did not want unkind things printed about themselves in the gossip sheet. Return of the money customarily was not made or expected.
The rudest man of the twentieth century was a master of every social grace. A paradox? Not entirely: As Amy Vanderbilt wrote in the first edition of her enduringly popular etiquette guide, "some of the rudest and most objectionable people I have ever known have been technically the most `correct'." And Colonel William d'Alton Mann might have been born to prove her point. He appeared in New York in the 1890s, at the dawn of a turbulent era of world war, boom, and depression. Yet if one could believe his Who's Who entry, Mann was everything turn-of-the-century Americans most admired: Civil War hero, entrepreneur, business tycoon, millionaire, inventor, editor, publisher. He presided daily over his own table at Delmonico's, the grand restaurant at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street. Like most real and would-be metropolitan aristocrats, he kept several residences—a Manhattan brownstone, a country house in Morristown, and a private island retreat on Lake George in the Adirondacks, where he dispensed seigniorial hospitality to friends and employees alike. He was a family man, with a faithful, dowdy wife and a daughter on whom he doted.
Obscure and deeply unhappy young society matron, the 33-year-old Emily Post
Yet by 1905 he was being roundly vilified by every respectable newspaper in the city and several national magazines as a social menace, a coarse criminal mocker of every bond that united the privileged world of New York's elite. And for this hurricane of civic outrage, Mann, if he had to trace the blame to a single person, might well have pointed to a then obscure and deeply unhappy young society matron—the thirty-three-year-old Emily Post, a decade and a half before she launched her public career as the century's leading doyenne of manners and protectress of etiquette.

Part of Mann's "Budoir" Railroad Car patent
Mann's origins were shadowy and probably humble (his life was thoroughly and entertainingly chronicled in 1965 by New Yorker writer Andy Logan). Born in Sandusky, Ohio, on September 27, 1839, to a family of thirteen children, he studied engineering for a while, then earned first a captain's and finally a colonel's commission in the Civil War, ultimately distinguishing himself at Gettysburg. He also raked in a fortune in royalties by inventing an equipment-toting rig for infantry troops, then licensing it to the U.S. and Austrian armies. After the war he settled in Mobile, Alabama, where he manufactured cottonseed oil, dabbled in railroads and oil swindles, founded the Mobile Register (which still publishes today), ran for Congress, and invented a luxury railroad car, the "Mann Boudoir Car" (the prototype design for the Wagons-Lits still in use on Continental European railroads). In appearance portly, white-haired, snowy-bearded, he might, depending on his mood and the state of your relations with him, appear as either a beaming Santa, thundervoiced Jehovah, or swaggering Falstaff.

                                    
In 1891, his brother, E. D. Mann, vanished in the aftermath of an obscenity conviction and left his business—a soon to be notorious New York weekly named Town Topics—leaderless. The magazine had begun life some years earlier as The American Queen, edited by Louis Keller, the founder of the Social Register, and "dedicated to art, music, literature, and society." Under E. D. Mann, however, while preserving a tone of strict propriety, it ripened into a scandal sheet, faithfully reporting high-society peccadilloes and often identifying perpetrators by name.  

Colonel Mann came to New York, assumed the editorship, and gradually raised Town Topics to a hitherto unmatched mastery in the art of scandal. The gossip was personal, vicious, salacious. But the sophistication with which Mann served it up was a world above that of latter-day tabloids like the National Enquirer or the Globe.
With his brother now incommunicado at a location unknown, Colonel Mann came to New York, assumed the editorship, and gradually raised Town Topics to a hitherto unmatched mastery in the art of scandal. The gossip was personal, vicious, salacious. But the sophistication with which Mann served it up was a world above that of latter-day tabloids like the National Enquirer or the Globe. Mann himself rewrote and edited the magazine's opening "Saunterings" feature. The prose was refined, funny, elegant, and razor-sharp, a clear precursor of The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" in its soigne' tone, but with a hidden payload of brutal satire underneath the polish. As the Saunterer, Mann became a celebrity in his own right, and apparently an intimate of the very elite he took delight in savaging. "When mature spinsters take it into their heads to indulge themselves in a little souse party," a typical item commenced, "they should do it in the privacy of their house. I thought this at the reveillon at a certain hotel on New Year's Eve, when I saw the hennaed head of a fair but fat and fully forty maiden vainly striving to direct her uncertain feet on a zigzag course around the tables. Ordinarily she is a very handsome lady, but youth—sweet, sweet youth—is the only period at which one may be drunk and still retain some degree of attractiveness."
Nor were all Mann's targets left thus mercifully nameless. When her 1915 charity ball at Sherry's slid into rigor mortis at the intended height of the festivities, and an exasperated Mrs. Alexander Blair Thaw, the Pennsylvania Railroad heiress, hurled herself in a tantrum upon the balalaika orchestra (which had donated its services free of charge), "Saunterings" gleefully identified her.


Alice Roosevelt and friends at the World's Fair, 1904, "Amused at the manners and customs of the Filipinos"
In 1904, the Saunterer unleashed a scathing attack on the twenty-year-old Alice Roosevelt, just beginning her controversial social career: "From wearing costly lingerie to indulging in fancy dances for the edification of men was only a step. And then came—second step—indulging freely in stimulants. Flying all around Newport without a chaperon was another thing that greatly concerned Mother Grundy. There may have been no reason for the old lady making such a fuss about it, but if the young woman knew some of the tales that are told at the clubs at Newport she would be more careful in the future about what she does and how she does it. They are given to saying almost anything at the Reading Room, but I was really surprised to hear her name mentioned openly there in connection with that of a certain multi-millionaire of the colony and with certain doings that gentle people are not supposed to discuss. They also said that she should not have listened to the risqué jokes told her by the son of one of her Newport hostesses."

Mann typically wrote "Saunterings" items up from notes supplied by eavesdropping servants or hired spies disguised as ball musicians. But the unsavory side of this information-gathering system hardly fazed him. "There is no feature of my paper of which I am more proud," he wrote, trumpeting Saunterings' "reformative and regenerative influence. To save the sinner by rebuking the sin is an achievement over which the angels rejoice." Mann ducked lawsuits by a clever device: describing the scandal without naming names in one item, then following it with an apparently innocuous social note that just happened to identify the miscreants. Readers quickly cracked the code; Town Topics was never successfully sued for libel.

Information for Mann's work was supplied by eavesdropping servants or hired spies disguised as ball musicians
The colonel stoutly maintained—and from all the evidence really seems to have believed—that he was performing a public service. Taunting the errant to purge incivility, however, was not his sole aim. For behind its satiric commentary on the manners of the rich, Town Topics was actually the front for a blackmail operation perhaps unique in history. Having nosed out a lapse, Mann would dispatch a henchman, who would threaten to publish in "Saunterings" unless the culprit either bought advertising in the magazine or a block of its essentially worthless stock.

If the victim balked, a damaging item duly appeared (to be followed by as many more as the magazine's considerable ingenuity could gather). But—fiendishly enough—the outcome was just as bad if the blackmailer cooperated, because Mann, in mock gratitude, would then plant not one but a whole series of flattering—indeed, suspiciously unctuous—notices in "Saunterings." This merely had the effect of revealing to the ever-growing number of those who knew how Town Topics worked that the subject had either paid (out of vanity) for favorable coverage, or (out of fear) to hide a shameful secret. And, of course, when the payoff took the form of an advertisement in the magazine, its appearance blazoned not only the advertiser's business but the probability that he'd forked over liberally to conceal a blackmailable secret. By paying, in other words, one simply purchased a different, more ironic kind of exposure; to anyone well attuned to the magazine, it became completely impossible to distinguish between florid compliment and corrosive insult.

Mann tried to blackmail Emily Post's husband, Edwin, mired in a financial bad patch, and on strained and distant terms with his wife. Post had been supporting a Broadway chorine in what the euphemism of the day called a "white apartment" in Stamford, Connecticut
Mann enjoyed the double if paradoxical rewards of crime and sanctimony until 1905, when he miscalculated by making an ill-judged attempt to blackmail Emily Post's husband, Edwin. A Wall Street stockbroker mired in a financial bad patch, and on strained and distant terms with his wife, Post had been supporting a Broadway chorine in what the euphemism of the day called a "white apartment" in Stamford, Connecticut. Unable to disgorge the $500 demanded by Mann, Post confessed to Emily. From the very beginning, her sense of propriety differed sharply from the false modesty that would have counseled hushing the matter up at all costs. Instead, she advised him to contact the district attorney and set up a sting operation. He did. Mann's agent, Charles P. Ahle, was arrested in Post's Wall Street office on July 11, 1905, triggering a public sensation, which was to fill the columns of newspapers and titillate readers for nearly a year. Collier's magazine, prompted (its publisher claimed) by the scabrousness of the attack on Alice Roosevelt, launched a series of sharply worded articles, disclosing that Mann had been paying a city juvenile court judge, Joseph Deuel, to vet Town Topics for actionable items. This was bait laid for Mann, but Deuel hotheadedly seized it, suing Collier's editor, Norman Hapgood, for libel. A jury took exactly seven minutes to declare Hapgood innocent, and the district attorney, sifting through Mann's testimony, promptly charged him with perjury, and subjected him to a criminal prosecution that kept the fires of scandal burning well into the spring of 1906.


In the midst of all this, another, even more titillating scam came to light: a keepsake folio, bound in green morocco, profusely embossed in gold leaf, printed on the heaviest and crispest vellum, and floridly titled Fads and Fancies of Representative Americans at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, Being a Portrayal of Their Tastes, Diversions and Achievements. It too was a front for blackmail and extortion, but here the stakes were higher. Inside were short and apparently flattering biographical tributes to eighty-one eminent Americans, including a past president, Grover Cleveland, and the chief executive then sitting, Theodore Roosevelt (whom Mann must have thought above holding any grudges over Alice). To gain an ironically flattering mention in Fads and Fancies (and avoid a public sniffing of one's dirty linen in Town Topics), one paid a minimum of $1,500, but some subscribers—presumably those with the biggest bank accounts and the most explosive secrets—forked over as much as $9,000, essentially to immortalize themselves as victims (and hence as guilty provokers) of blackmail.

Once living the high life, paid for by way of blackmail, in a 1916 New York Times article, Colonel Mann loses his island.
In its singularly insolent way, Fads and Fancies is a masterpiece of double entendre. It opens with a declaration that "the plates from which the impressions were made have been destroyed." Reassurance to the bibliophile? Or a derisive echo of the blackmailer's promise to destroy incriminating material? The introduction teeters delicately between gushing with appreciative wonderment and throwing down a gauntlet: "American society! What is it? Who gives it the right of being? Whence is it derived? What influences have borne upon it and shaped it?" This pointed question gets no answer, but there is an explanation of high society's usefulness to the less privileged onlooker. "It is the touch of romance in their workaday world," it dryly continues, "to read in the papers of how such a one, who has risen from their ranks by his own energy and ability, is now disporting himself among the world's greatest on equal terms."

With all Mann's schemes exploding to a chorus of scorn, it looked, to the relief of polite society, as if fashionable New York was about to rid itself of its most dauntless and pernicious pest. But they'd underestimated their enemy. Mann ultimately beat his perjury rap, and while it's not clear that he ever fully reassembled his blackmail apparatus, Town Topics lost little of its bite, declining only after his death in 1920. It lingered on into the 1930s, when, to the relief of the sinning elite and the chagrin of everybody else, it folded.

Are Manners Moral?  

Colonel Mann's saga was a juicy scandal in its own right. But it also betokened a sense of crisis about manners that marked the early years of this century. Between 1900 and 1920, the nation's popular magazines were full of articles assessing the state of American social behavior and carrying titles like "Has the American Bad Manners?" (Ladies' Home Journal, 1900), "Decay of American Manners" (Harper's Weekly, 1903), and "Are We Ashamed of Good Manners?" (Century Magazine, 1909). Interest in the subject peaked in 1922 with the runaway success of Emily Post's Etiquette. Though it echoed popular late Victorian etiquette authorities like Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood (1826-1903), Post's book soon overshadowed them, in part because it acknowledged the treacherous and shifting ground under the subject, and addressed frankly a widening conviction among Americans that good conduct and morality were becoming unglued from each other.
From: A Short History of Rudeness
Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America
By Mark Caldwell