I want my horses pulling pretty carriages around Central Park, my tea served by a lady’s maid, and my bespoke dresses in taffeta.
Yes, I’ve been watching HBO’s “The Gilded Age” and doing so in conjunction with the “Yellowstone” prequel, “1883” on Paramount+.
It’s hard to believe both stories take place at the same time.
The more I watch Philly-native Marian Brook, who moved to NYC to live the upstairs/downstairs life in her aunt’s East 61st Street brownstone, and Elsa Dutton, who is traversing the Great Plains the pre-Transcontinental Railroad way — on horseback — I’m even more confident about what I’ve always known: I’m a city girl, and the only city for me is New York.
I’ll admit though, there are times when Elsa does have it over Marian. The cowgirl traded in her Laura Ingalls wardrobe for chaps and is more of a maverick than her horse. Since recently turning 18, the great-aunt of Kevin Costner’s “Yellowstone” character has had two lovers before the wagon train even made it through Kansas: the cowpoke version of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo and a Native American warrior. Oh, and Elsa gets away with murder, literally. When her first boyfriend is gunned down by bandits, she shoots the killer point-blank, and no one in the camp so much as blinks.
Marian, on the other hand, has never met a bustle that was tight enough, can’t leave the house unchaperoned, nor can she accept the marriage proposal of a young, handsome attorney because her zinger-lobbing dowager aunt says he’s not high up enough on the high society food chain.
But for all Elsa’s free-spiritedness (her Comanche beau calls her Lightning Yellow Hair), she’s on a journey where the only constant is unpredictability: Will she too get shot by rustlers? Bit by a rattlesnake? Succumb to the north’s frigid temperatures unless starvation gets her first? Get infected by smallpox? Or contract cholera from drinking river water? Speaking of which, even after bathing in the river, she still seems to have a light coating of grime all over her. Then, in between the fear of what might cross her pioneering path, there’s the tedium. Every part of the journey looks the same: a never-ending wilderness with mountains far off in the distance, except when the occasional tornado obstructs the view.
With all due respect to the Elsas who braved hardship and the unknown to settle the frontier, I’d be hanging with Marian by Bethesda Fountain.
Indoor plumbing alone would have been enough to make staying east an easy choice, but New York was still the place to be even in its transitioning state (kind of like it is now). I could have maneuvered that NYC, since despite the lack of technology and mask-wearing, some things haven’t changed: the old money v. new money one-upmanship, new money’s social climbing, underhanded business dealings, rudeness cloaked in passive/aggressive politeness, fabulous parties you can’t get into unless you’re on the list, and of course references to summering in Newport (now it’s also the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard or wherever one’s second home is).
More importantly, there’s the clear delineation between the haves and have-nots, racial biases, and when faced with going to the outer boroughs, invitees acting like they’re headed into Elsa-like uncharted territory.
Regardless of its imperfections though, 1880s Manhattan is far more interesting and exciting than whence Marian came or anywhere else, and helps her come out of her shell as NYC of the 1980s did for me when I moved down from the Bronx. I’m also more comfortable with her form of rebellion: an innocent questioning of old social norms that leads to a subtle challenge to form new ones such as befriending a black writer who works as the secretary to Marian’s aunt, refusing to snub a socialite who’s fallen out of favor with polite society, and sneaking out to attend parties and meet her man.
In the immortal words of Green Acres’ Ava Gabor: “I just adore a penthouse view. Dah-ling I love you but give me Park Avenue,” anytime. And any time.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novel “The Last Single Woman in New York City,” (Heliotrope Books) available May 17, 2022.