Although we're in the most plutocratic era in history, according to a new book by former FT editor Chrystia Freeland, the Gilded Age of the-late nineteenth century came pretty close.
It's hard to imagine a more ostentatious gathering of uber wealth than the 1897 Bradley-Martin Ball.
Here's how Freeland describes the party in Plutocrats: The Rise Of The Global Super-Rich And The Fall Of Everyone Else:
On February 10, 1897, seven hundred members of America's super-elite gathered at the Waldorf Hotel for a costume ball hosted by Bradley Martin, a New York lawyer, and his wife Cornelia. The New York Times reported that most popular costume for woman was Marie Antoinette—the choice of 50 ladies. Cornelia, a plump matron with blues eyes, a bow mouth, a generous bosom, and incipient jewels, dressed as Mary Stuart, but bested them all by wearing a necklace once owned by the French queen. Bradley came as Louis XIV—the Sun King himself. John Jacob Astor was Henry of Navarre. His mother, Caroline, was one of Marie Antoinettes, in a gown adorned with $250,000 worth of jewels. J.P. Morgan dressed as Moliere; his niece, Miss Pierpont Morgan, came as Queen Louise of Prussia."
"Mark Twain had coined the term "The Gilded Age" in a novel of that name published twenty-four years earlier, but the Martin ball represented a new level of visible super-wealth even in a country that was growing used to it. According to The New York Times, the event was "the most elaborate private entertainment that has ever taken place in the metropolis." The New York World said the Martins' guests included eighty-six people whose total wealth was "more than men could grasp." According to the tabloid, a dozen guests were worth more than $10 million. Another two dozen had fortunes of $5 million. Only a handful weren't millionaires."
The Bradley-Martins spent $369,000 on the evening, equivalent to nearly $9 million in today's money. Meanwhile the country was entering the last year of a 20-year depression.
[E]ven in a country that embraced capitalism, the Martin ball turned out to be a miscalculation ... The opprobrium — and, on the crest of the wider public anger toward the plutocracy the Martins had come to epitomize, the imposition of an income tax on the super-rich — the Martins faced as a result of the ball prompted them to flee to Great Britain, where they already owned a house in England and rented a 65,000-acre estate in Scotland.
The Martin ball has been called the last hurrah of the Gilded Age, as it was followed by an ega of social welfare legislation.
Now fast forward to the future ...
We're in a new Gilded Age, with new ostentatious parties, like the $3 million birthday party of Blackstone founder Steve Schwarzman in 2007. Or—post recession—the $20 million birthday party of British billionaire Sir Philip Green.