Feature 1930s High Society

Find out more about the 1930s celebrities, socialites and aristocrats.

1930s High Society

Sandwiched between the giddy 1920's and World War II, the 1930s saw a huge disparity in the lifestyles of the common man and those considered High Society.

The period following the Great War, the so-called “Roaring Twenties” earned its name due to the booming economy and explosion in consumerism as Americans enthusiastically embraced the future.

Innovation and increased efficiency at home and at work allowed for more leisure time and people embraced cultural and social pursuits such as literature, film, music and partying.

Women were also gaining their independence and making their mark outside the home.

But the good times came to a crashing halt on “Black Friday”, October 29, 1929 when the stock market crashed. Within a year 5,000 banks collapsed and six-million workers lost their jobs. By 1933 more than 15-million people – one-quarter of the workforce – were unemployed.

The Great Depression was partly caused by the great inequality between the rich who accounted for a third of all wealth and the poor who had no savings at all. As the economy worsened many lost their fortunes, and some members of high society were forced to curb their extravagant lifestyles.

But for others the Depression was simply an inconvenience especially in New York where the city’s glamorous venues – places to see and be seen – such as El Morocco and The Stork Club were heaving with celebrities, socialites and aristocrats.

For the vast majority the 1930s was a time of misery. But for many American dynastic families, parties helped to escape the reality on the street and the grander the better.

While storefronts stood empty, the 47-storey Waldorf-Astoria Hotel opened in 1931 at a cost of $42 million ($600 million today). Hosting a number of lavish parties during the Depression, the Waldorf even had it’s own in-house professional hostess in Elsa Maxwell. She delighted high society with her child-like bashes: costume and painting parties, cooking soirees, and parlor games. In fact, it was during this decade that this "hostest with the mostest” invented the "scavenger hunt" to keep her guests entertained.

The Ritz was another favored venue for extravagant celebrations. It hosted two of High Society’s most memorable coming out parties during the Great Depression. Socialite and “poor little rich girl” Barbara Hutton, grand-daughter of the dime-store magnate Frank W. Woolworth, made her debut there in 1933. Costing more than $60,000 ($1million today) it was one of the most glamorous parties of the 1930s. Eucalyptus and silver birch trees were imported from California, four orchestras played accompanied by singer, Rudy Vallee. It was attended by a veritable Who’s Who list of the rich and famous, including the Astors and the Rockefellers.

It was on the West Coast that even greater excesses were witnessed, at a time when most Americans could not afford to feed their family.

Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was fast losing revenue from advertisers taking flight. Yet he refused to believe it would last: the worse the Depression got, the more frantic Heart's spending became. Throughout the early 1930's Hearst held elaborate parties and commissioned new bedrooms at his home to accommodate all the guests. According to the Hollywood gossip and historian Kenneth Anger, the parties were "the most extravagant the movie colony had ever seen.” On New Year's Eve 1932, he held a Kids’ Masquerade that was so extravagant that gossip columnist Louella Parsons apologized to her readers and explained "the beauty of this party was that the costumes were inexpensive.”

America has never again seen such obvious excess at a time of widespread poverty, which has cemented the reputation of 1930's High Society into the stuff of legend.