It was a cavernous room, three storeys high with a soaring, skylit ceiling and hundreds of ornately framed paintings crowding the walls. The house had been built in 1899, with this room a conscious echo of the illustrious Mrs Astor’s ballroom, though considerably smaller. While the old Astor mansion had been torn down in 1926, the Carroll House, a few blocks North, remained sentinel on 5th Avenue, guarding the old ways from the crop of luxury apartment buildings springing up around it; scarcely filling the foundations of the gilded age mansions they were replacing. The Carroll House yet resisted: patriarch Charles Carroll made a handsome living down on Wall Street, and with his sons following him into banking or the stock market, he felt assured of the family’s continuing prosperity.
Charles stood in the minstrels’ gallery on the first floor, coolly observing the hurried movements of the servants below. Scores of men and women bustled around the enormous room, pulling dust covers off chairs and chaise longues, while others arranged rare hot-house flowers in huge urns, and more still were anxiously hovering several feet behind him, waiting until he departed so they could set up chairs for the hired musicians who would play into the early hours of the morning - the very first morning of 1929. His wife, Eliza, glided past the staff and rested a hand on the balustrade. “You’re making the help nervous,” she chastened him. “They don’t like to be watched.”
“I find it makes them work more diligently,” he responded unfeelingly. “You ought to be getting ready with the girls.”
“I know,” she sighed. “You won’t like their dresses, Charles. You had better prepare something nice to say.”
“I can’t abide these raised hemlines,” he muttered. “In my day a woman showed off her waist, not her legs!”
“I know, dear,” Eliza said, smoothing her own old-fashioned silhouette. “It’s the fashion,” she went on. “I expect we’ll see some rather outrageous outfits this evening. I don’t think it’s just my perception that the balls we’ve thrown have become more debauched of late.”
“I’d run a dry house,” Charles said, “but no-one would come to our parties.”
“Quite right,” Eliza sighed again. “Come on dear. You have to get ready yourself.”
Some hours later, the work diligently undertaken, the great room was filled with guests - the tarnishing remnants of the New York 400 as well as the new age of socialites: the actors and actresses, the fashion models, the artistic muses and the degenerate, eternally drunken writers all crowded the ballroom and filled its immense height with peals of laughter and loud, bombastic talk about the year to come. Eliza and Charles entered to great fanfare and could be seen throughout the evening - both accepting the mantle of serious, dignified leaders of society with grace and aplomb - mingling with guests, laughing charmingly at jokes, even ones in poor taste, and occasionally, taking one of their rather unexpectedly wild children by the elbow and hissing into their ear that they ought to behave themselves. Their oldest son, married now two years, was to be found in a corner near the fireplace whispering into the ear of the aging Rita de Acosta Lydig, who laughed luminously, dressed head to toe in the latest fashions which seemed designed specifically, Charles felt, to upset him. “That woman is a year younger than me!” he hissed to Eliza during a perfunctory dance some hours before midnight. “What is she thinking, spending all night with a boy half her age?”
“I suppose she likes the attention,” Eliza commented nastily, casting her eye to the corner where her son was handing Ms. Lydig another illicit coupe of champagne. “She’s not got much else to do these days than prey on young men who don’t know to be shocked by her reputation.”
“She should keep away from James,” Charles muttered. “Where’s his idiot wife tonight?”
“Oh, she’s here,” Eliza said. “Probably under a table by now, the boozehound.” The song ended and the couple broke apart. “It’s a shame that even girls from the best families can be such chippies these days.”
“I suppose we shouldn’t cast stones,” said Charles bitterly. “Adele looks quite the chippy herself tonight.”
“Charles!” Eliza admonished.
“One wonders if she ought to be presented this year at all, or made to wait until she’s learned how to behave in society.”
“She won’t hear of being made to wait to come out. Emily debuted at 17 and so shall Adele.”
“You talking about me, Pops?” came a sunny voice from behind Charles. “What’s a gal got to do for a dance with her papa around here?”
“Drink less champagne, for one thing,” Charles said disapprovingly, though he laughed and held out his arms to his youngest daughter when she pouted.
“I’ll have you know it was something called a martini that I drank,” Adele said to her father as Eliza drifted away to discreetly pull her son off Rita Lydig.
“Who on earth gave you that?” Charles shook his head. “Never mind, don’t tell me. It’ll only end up being one of your brothers and then I’ll have to be cross with all of you.”
“Don’t be cross, Pops,” Adele said easily, twirling without invitation or direction. “It’s New Years Eve! In a few short hours it’ll be 1929, the year I will be presented to society and my life can finally begin!”
“Yes, well,” Charles said. “You really oughtn’t even be here tonight, given that you haven’t come out yet.”
“Oh Pops,” Adele said wistfully. “Everyone in New York is either here or in Times Square tonight. Would you rather have me out alone in the cold to watch some silly ball drop?”
“No, my dear, I suppose not.”
The evening was spent in increasing frivolity, with much in the way of prohibited liquids imbibed by the glittering crowd. By the time the band struck up Auld Lang Syne, many a feathered headpiece was already wilting, and many a bowtie had been skillfully disassembled by a wanton flapper. A gaggle of Zeigfeld girls arrived shortly after midnight and there was a rush for the dancefloor; an energetic charleston ensued, with all five Carroll children in the middle of it all, the cherries in the sundae, the stars on top of the christmas tree. Charles and Eliza were exhausted, and sat next to a monstrous fern in a corner for a breath and a sip of water, now being quietly handed out by servants to revellers too drunk to know it wasn’t gin anymore.
“I seem to be getting too old for this,” Charles said, mopping his brow.
“Perhaps this shall be our last New Years Eve ball,” Eliza mused. “Adele will surely have her pick of invitations next year.”
“Perhaps,” Charles said. “Come on dear. I think we can retire now, and leave the children to host.”
“Yes, darling. Let’s say goodnight.”
The next afternoon, after even the most determinedly immoveable of guests had been removed from the premises, the servants began the gargantuan task of returning the ballroom to its dormant state. In the course of this they found no less than seven individual stockings; thirteen assorted cufflinks; three bow-ties; one diamond necklace; at least six shattered martini glasses hastily kicked behind a couch; a pair of black opera gloves; a pair of creamy kid gloves; a broken string of pearls (which must have gone unnoticed by the wearer for quite some time, because servants kept tripping on loose pearls from one corner of the ballroom to the other, cursing the careless owner with each spectacular pratfall); one feathered hair ornament that was irreparably sticky; seventeen forgotten coats and a single white shoe, scuffed black at the toe. It took hours to wipe the stain of the evening from the room, but when they finished, white dust covers again draped over the furniture, the heavy urns were unadorned with flowers, and the minstrels’ gallery was quiet as a church.
A swirling, thunderous storm raged over the city in February. The Carroll family and their staff were asleep when they heard the cacophony in the ballroom reverberating through the house - a large piece of debris had smashed one of the enormous skylights, and rain was pouring through the hole.
As with most troublesome aspects of mansion maintenance, it was the servants who dealt with the fallout. The next day, when the rain had stopped, two of the household staff swept up the broken glass and tried to pick shards out of the sodden Oriental rugs whilst repairs were carried out on the roof overhead.
“At least there’s no use for this place in the next while,” one of them - a doll-faced girl named Alice who was younger even than Adele - said to the other.
“Mmm hmm,” her partner responded without looking up from the rug. “Ain’t much to do in New York ‘til the season begins. Guess that’s why young Mr Carroll been foolin’ with Madam Lydig on Sunday nights, when he’s s’posed to be at the club with the other gentlemen.”
“Rita Lydig?” Alice said, aghast. “Marjorie, she’s ancient!”
“Mind your manners! She’s younger than me. And a beauty, even still.”
“James is so young and handsome though -”
“That’s young Mr Carroll to you.”
“ - and he has his beautiful wife -”
“That don’t mean a thing if a man intends to step out. Some men could have Helen of Troy at home, but they’d still be out makin’ whoopee with whomever lets ‘em. ‘Sides, like I say - you’ll be lucky if you grow old lookin’ like Ms. Lydig.” Alice looked troubled, and Marjorie rolled her eyes. “Go and fetch one of the men to help us roll up this carpet and get it outside to dry.”
Alice darted from the room while Marjorie heaved herself up from the floor, and looked skyward. “Cost of that,” she muttered. “Maybe I oughta get myself down to Wall Street. Make myself a fortune just to blow it all on windows.”
In May the ballroom was filled with ecstatic young ladies in gleaming white dresses, each wearing white kid gloves to their elbows and elaborate headpieces on their almost uniformly bobbed hair. Adele spent the evening, trancelike, in the arms of her escort, a glassy-eyed Vanderbilt cousin who spoke vaguely of becoming an aviator, which young, foolish Adele took to mean he was going to make movies like Howard Hughes. Charles made a speech, congratulating his youngest daughter on her flawless presentation to society at the debutante ball earlier that evening, and then hurried his wife to bed, insisting they leave the youngsters to their afterparty. He’d just overheard Junius Morgan whispering feverishly to one of the Winthrop boys he recognised vaguely from the trading floor - and he didn’t want Eliza to hear. Adele was a spectacular host in their absence, and had to be carried to bed in the wee hours by four servants, whom she swore to secrecy on pain of death - her death: she swore if they told her parents the state she was in, she’d throw herself off the half-built Chrysler building.
In September, the quiet of the ballroom was broken by a giggle as Adele and a boy - not the Vanderbilt cousin, but someone of rather less auspicious birth - stumbled to the middle of the room, clutching each other. “Shh,” Adele said, giggling helplessly. “This room stays shut up when we’re not using it, and Pops hates us in here when it’s not been aired out in a while.”
“All these paintings, and not a soul to see ‘em,” the boy said, clucking his tongue. “I heard a rumour your daddy has a Picasso in here, and I want to see if it’s true.”
“I think you’re just being a rug hopper,” Adele said, throwing her arms around his neck. “You just think I’m just some dumb Dora, happy to hang around in her own damn house all night when we could be out on the town.”
“I heard there was a Picasso,” he said, removing her arms and craning to see the highest corners of the room. “How’d your daddy get so rich anyhow?”
“We don’t talk about money,” Adele said loftily. “Pops works on Wall Street.”
“Wall Street, huh?” he cocked an eyebrow. “I hear things are getting bad on Wall Street. What’s your daddy say about that?”
“Read my lips, you lousy dewdropper,” Adele said, suddenly furious. “We don’t talk about money. Now, we’re getting out of here. If you want to see me again, you better take me to Delmonico’s pronto.”
“Maybe you oughta start talking about money. Might not be as much of it around as you’re used to soon.” He was still scanning the walls for the fabled Picasso.
“I’m serious!” Adele stamped her foot and set her many beaded necklaces jangling. He chuckled.
“Okay - okay!” He held his hands up. “How about the Cotton Club? It’s a little more my speed than crusty old Delmonico’s.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Well, fine, but you’re buying.” She stalked out of the room with her nose high, pausing only to add “and I’m not taking any mad money, so don’t even think about welching on me, ya louse.” He followed her with a grim chuckle. There wasn’t a Picasso. The rumours were either false - or the old man had already started selling.
“What are you all doing?” Charles cried, looking rumpled and bloodshot, leaning against the door frame for support. “Stop it at once!”
“Darling!” Eliza appeared from behind. “They’re setting up for the party!” She put a hand on his arm. “Please, everyone - on with your work.” The servants, frozen in place at their master’s angry proclamation, resumed their activities, until Charles shrieked once more. “Stop!”
He grabbed his wife by her arm; his grip was vicelike and she mewled in pain, struggling against him. “What party? What are you talking about, Eliza?”
“Your birthday!” she said, wrenching her arm away from him. “It’s the first weekend of November - we always - we…”
“You stupid woman,” he snarled. “Everyone out!” he screamed. “Leave!”
“Charles!” Eliza gasped, tears springing to her eyes. “I don’t understand!”
“There’s nothing left!” he hissed, looking wildly around the half undressed room; dust sheets dropped on the floor as the servants scattered. “There’s nothing left!”
“I don’t know what you’re saying,” Eliza said miserably. “Charles, please.”
Her husband sank to the floor, the wind knocked out of him. He knelt on the thick carpet and put his head in his hands. “It’s all gone,” he moaned.
Eliza looked helplessly around the room. “Here,” she said, striding across the dance floor to scoop a dropped orchid from an abandoned flower arrangement. “Darling, here. You love orchids.” She pressed it - perfect, unblemished creamy white - into his hand. He looked up at her as if seeing her for the first time. “What have I done?” he whispered. “What have we all done?”
Some weeks later, Charles returned to the great ballroom, which was filled with the strange, sweet smell of decaying flowers. The dust sheets lay where they’d been deserted. That which was exposed had, for the first time, a thin layer of dust over it. Charles never noticed. It was night, and he entered from the minstrels’ gallery. He stayed a while, seeing the room through the lens of memory; his wife, his daughters, remembering parties and balls and flowing champagne. He remembered himself as a young man, emboldened by his father’s fortune, describing the scale of the room to the architect who would build it for him. He thought of his sons, of how selfish he’d been with their future.
An hour later, his valet, one of the few servants they’d retained, came to fetch him from the ballroom as instructed. The valet, normally a grim-faced stoic, screamed at the sight of him, purple in the dim light, perfectly still, several feet below the balustrade.
“We’ll need everyone for this room I reckon. Wouldya look at this place?” The foreman’s voice was brassy and loud, and the crew behind him all snickered. “Much as I hate to be working on new year’s eve,” he said, “there’s not many places nice as this to clear out.”
“I dunno boss,” a young lad heaved one of the Louis XIV chairs up into his arms. “I did another robber baron last week. Just a few blocks down 5th.”
“Didja now? Well, it wasn’t with my crew, so watch your step around here, see?”
“What happened to this guy, boss?” He looked around, one of his men had rolled up one of the great Oriental rugs and had it perched on one shoulder. He looked ready to collapse under the weight.
“What’re you doing with that, ya schmuck? Somebody help this kid out, huh?”
As another one of his team hurried to help take the weight, the foreman sighed dramatically, relishing the question. “It’s a classic tale, son,” he said, watching yet more men pulling the paintings off the far wall. “Watch it over there! Everything in this room is worth more than any one of you!”
“Had it all, lost it all. I hear this guy hung himself right over there. Left a wife and five kids without a clam between ‘em.”
“What do you think’ll happen to the place, boss?” asked another employee, who had an armful of heavy silver candlesticks.
The foreman shrugged. “Torn down probably, unless they can find a buyer. You know that dame, the one that just died? The model, what’s her name?”
“Rita Lydig! I heard she was shtupping the old man. Maybe he offed himself ‘cause he lost all his money and his mistress in the same week.” He smirked, before barking at the boy, still struggling with the candlesticks: “Scram! Go on now, get on with it!”
By nightfall the room was cleared. Nobody ever entered the ballroom at the Carroll House again. Its final guest was the wrecking ball.