I found it rather appalling actually. The list, the idea that people made such lists, and that people might have wanted to be on the list. Although this was the Gilded Age, how much I wonder, have things changed?
I looked the list over and the Durants were not 'members'. But some of the 400 clubbers were guests at their camp Pine Knot in the Adirondacks from 1892-1894. I suppose the Durants were not on the list because they were nouveau rich, acquired through railroads and mining.
Put into context, it is understandable why Ella's brother, William, was driven to maintain his status as a moneyed gentleman in New York City even though his family was officially bankrupt by 1881.
After his father's death in 1885, William started selling off the lands in the Adirondacks that his father had so artfully acquired for a pittance in the 1860s. Finally, he sold the Adirondack railroad as well, and then William had cash flow. Building and launching a yacht of his own was the epitome of social status, and in 1892, after years of struggling with his father's debts and having little money, William must have been eager to show his friends and colleagues that the Durant name was back in good standing. Hence he had a yacht so he could travel the world and race.
William’s extravagant yacht - the Utowana - may have been his chance to attract investment in his schemes by demonstrating his own wealth to his other yachting friends. His letters from 11th Lord Napier, 2nd Baron Ettrick are filled with references to the yacht races in Cowe, Isle of Wight. And J. Malcolm Forbes sent letters to William with detailed descriptions about the racing conditions in Newport, RI.
Was William ‘speculating to accumulate’? Was the yacht another business venture that failed? Or was his real motive in building the yacht selfish – to don once more the trappings of success and regain entry to the social circles of the elite, a lifestyle he enjoyed for so long in his younger days?
Perhaps the flaw in what was intrinsically a reasonable strategy lies in William’s genius and his constant hunt for perfection. We know from the records that William was never satisfied with ‘just good enough’. He was driven to create perfection in everything he built, at hugely increased cost in resources, time and money. The yacht Utowana was no exception.
As the saying goes though, wealth begets wealth and that is where William made his biggest error. He spent his money, but didn't invest it in new ventures that may have kept the family fortunes afloat. What land holdings he had left in the Adirondacks and the steamboat business were not enough to keep up with the lifestyle he chose to lead. One can't help wonder though if he was driven by the need to resurrect the family name and fortune or by his own need to fit in with the 400 club. Or perhaps, both.