Excerpt from Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Banquet at Delmonico's

Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

By Barry Werth

Banquet at Delmonico's
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2009,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2011,
    400 pages.

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Before leaving for the Continent, Youmans dined with the botanist Sir Joseph Hooker, the first recognized man of science to risk his reputation by publicly supporting Darwin. It was Hooker, director of the worldfamous Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew, who had introduced Darwin to Asa Gray. Weeks earlier, at Spencer’s urging, Hooker had invited Youmans to Kew, where they now discussed at length not the international series but Youmans’s decision to endow Spencer. Hooker recently had tried to do the same for Gray, but the deal soured when Gray "gave the money to Harvard instead," he explained. "You did better for Spencer," he told Youmans.

Your work told where it should: Spencer is the mighty thinker among us. And what a splendid talker. He talks right at you like a book, and his language is so fluent and adaptive! He is all right now. The recognition of his genius is now complete. What a lucky thing it was that he failed in getting a consulate or some other public appointment when he began his Philosophy. . . . No man can do great original work and be hampered by the cares of a position. The thing is impossible. The work must have the whole man. That is why I have tried to get Gray free in America. You Americans don’t know how much of a man Gray is. But he is hampered with students’ work, and

In mid-November, Beecher, the fifty-nine-year-old pastor of Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in thriving Brooklyn Heights, received a note from thirty-three-year-old Victoria Woodhull, celebrated copublisher of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which advanced among other causes women’s suffrage, shoetop-length skirts, spirit contact with the dead, free love, vegetarianism, and licensed prostitution. Some months earlier a vague, menacing statement had appeared in her newspaper:

Civilization is festering to the bursting point in our great cities and notably in Brooklyn. . . . At this very moment, awful and Herculean efforts are being made to suppress the most terrific scandal which has ever astounded and convulsed any community. . . . We have the inventory of discarded husbands and wives and lovers, with dates, circumstances and establishments.

Since then Beecher had resisted Woodhull’s efforts to meet with him. Men of God, like politicians, grow accustomed to accusations of infidelity, but Beecher, an antislavery and women’s rights paragon, feared that Woodhull could destroy him. More than a year earlier his parishioner Elizabeth Tilton had confessed to her husband, Theodore, a popular newspaper editor, poet, reformer, and devoted friend and follower of Beecher’s, that she and Beecher had been sexually intimate. Rumors of the charge coincided with Woodhull’s sensational rise to national prominence. Betrothed to an alcoholic with whom she bore a profoundly retarded son at age fifteen, she had eked out a living in the years before the war operating séances, telling fortunes, and peddling patent medicines and abortifacients before finally divorcing him, marrying an anarchist, and moving with both of them (her first husband was now infirm) to New York City. With her sister, Tennessee Claflin, she soon came under the wing of railroad and shipping mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt, who established them as the first female brokers on Wall Street, where in six months they made enough money to enter the rising mainstream of Manhattan society, establish their weekly, and launch Woodhull into politics.

A businesswoman, Woodhull wore tailored, mannish jackets, skirts that ended above the ankle, and colored neckties, trappings that downplayed her passions and rage at society, though only slightly. She was dark-eyed, surprisingly elegant considering her history, and slimmer than her sister, whom Vanderbilt, an illiterate transportation genius with a wife and thirteen children, liked to call "my little sparrow" as he cooed to her and bounced her on his knee in his office.

Excerpted from Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth. Copyright © 2009 by Barry Werth. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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