The Real-Life Inspiration for 'The Gilded Age's' Lina Astor Ruled New York Society

Katherine Stinson - Author

Mar. 22 2022, Published 6:07 p.m. ET

The esteemed Caroline 'Lina' Astor (Donna Murphy)
Source: HBO

America rejected a monarchy during the American Revolution, but that didn't stop certain rich Americans from ruling society in the 1880s.

Much of the HBO series The Gilded Age is drawn from the lives of real-life historical figures who lorded over society in 19th century New York City. One of those figures was Caroline "Lina" Astor" (played by Donna Murphy in the series).

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Would it be hyperbolic to call Caroline the queen of New York society? Everyone treats her as if she's Queen Elizabeth the 1st after all. Caroline and the Astor family are part of the "old money" class in society — i.e., those who were born into generational wealth.

Needless to say, Caroline turns her elite nose down at George (Morgan Spector) and Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), a couple who had the gall to be "new money" people (those who had come into their wealth more recently).

Bertha Rusell (Carrie Coon) and Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy)
Source: HBO

New money on the left, old money on the right.

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The real-life Lina Astor was pretty similar to her 'Gilded Age' counterpart.

The real Caroline Astor was also considered to be an unofficial queen of New York society in the 1880s. Per a report from ScreenRant, Caroline was "the first and last word in deciding status and who or what is fashionable in New York City during the Gilded Age."

According to the report, the real Caroline's "old money" wealth was drawn from two sources. The first was her own family.

Town & Country magazine reported that Caroline was descended from two Dutch families, the Schermerhorns and the Van Cortlandts. Both families were part of the earliest European settlers in North America, gaining wealth through "mercantile businesses and real estate holdings."

The second source of Caroline's wealth derived from her marriage to William Astor, the grandson of America's very first multimillionaire, John Jacob Astor.

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Not only did Caroline act like an American queen, but she dressed like one too. According to History Extra, Caroline famously wore a stomacher that reportedly belonged to the executed French queen Marie Antoinette. Per the same report, Caroline always "cultivated a regal presence; she wore dark or jewel tones, and often purple, and was always swathed in diamonds."

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Referring back to the ScreenRant report, Caroline Astor wasn't the only Mrs. Astor in town. However, she claimed the title of the Mrs. Astor, a power play that placed her firmly in the upper, upper echelon of the New York City elite.

Caroline also had a great deal of influence with a club called the Four Hundred. It was basically the club to be in if you wanted to be considered the best of the best of New York society. Anybody who was anybody would kill for Caroline's approval.

To make a modern-day comparison, Caroline was like Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) in the original Gossip Girl, except even more influential than the queen of the Upper East Side. It's highly likely that Donna will return as Caroline "Lina" Astor in Season 2 of The Gilded Age. After all, she is playing the Mrs. Astor!

You can stream Season 1 of The Gilded Age now on HBO Max.

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