The Gilded Age, HBO’s newest period piece, skillfully combines actual individuals with fictional scandalous characters. Characters like the prominent Astors and the despised Stanford White are dead ringers for their historical contemporaries.
If so, then the Russells must be genuine people, right? The new money family, headed by George (Morgan Spector) and Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), move into the gorgeous mansion across from Central Park… and across from the Van Rhijn estate.
Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) is the quintessential example of old money’s rigorous adherence to its standards, isolating herself from anyone with new money, and providing a striking contrast to the new money characters.
That is exactly why the Russells are in the area—to pose a danger. As early as The Gilded Age’s first three episodes, the Russell family has already left their stamp on New York.
Not to be trifled with are George Russell, the robber baron, and Bertha, the unyielding woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants.
In this case, it means being welcomed into the elite social and economic circles of New York City. No one has let her in thus far, but we anticipate that will change. Is it true that the Russells are modeled on a genuine family?
Despite the fact that George and Bertha Russell from ‘The Gilded Age’ aren’t actual historical persons, they may be inspired by a genuine couple.
Morgan Spector, who plays George, likens himself to the real-life Jay Gould in a trailer for The Gilded Age. As with George, Jay Gould was a robber baron in the real Gilded Age of the United States.
On top of that, Jay was a devoted husband and father. The way Morgan brings to life George, a man who prioritizes his family above all else, is fascinating. His wife and kids have his undying support, and he’s a warm, caring person at home, but he’s ice-cold and emotionless in the workplace.
It seems that Jay, like Jay, wanted to introduce his family to New York’s high society, but Mrs. Astor never allowed it. Even Gilded Age creator Julian Fellowes has admitted that Jay Gould served as an inspiration for his character George.
As Morgan says, “There was a lot of hate speech directed at Gould in the media at the time. To a large extent, he personified the era’s injustices because of how he came to represent them.
He has unfathomable levels of power, and he sometimes uses them to trample on defenseless victims. George has a nearly inhuman quality where he occasionally gives free rein to his own fury.”
We’re familiar with that George side of his personality, and we have no doubt that, in fictional form, he could achieve even greater success than the real George Washington.
Black New Yorkers and the Rise of the Robber Barons
George Russell, Bertha’s husband (played by Morgan Spector), is likewise based on a real-life industrialist, albeit it’s not the one you’d think.
Fellowes claims that one of the era’s harshest robber barons, Jay Gould, who was known as a doting husband and father who would lead his children about the yard on a pony, served as inspiration for George.
The contrast is fantastic. I found it quite intriguing that he saved his compassion and empathy for his own family while treating everyone else like dirt. Fellowes concludes, “So that’s kind of George Russell.”
When creating the role of Peggy Scott (played by Denée Benton), a young writer and secretary, Fellowes drew significantly from the history of African Americans in New York City throughout the 1800s.
Peggy’s dad runs a drugstore, a business model that was popularised by African-American businesspeople in the decades after the Civil War (and which appears in the program).
Fellowes claims to have learned about this background while reading Black Gotham by Carla Peterson, in which the author does a similar exploration of her own family history.
I always envisioned Peggy as a successful person, he continues. The persistence of prejudice made striking that balance challenging. I made an effort to not be overly sentimental or dishonest, but we still have reminders of the hardships endured.
And the moment when she and her father are strolling down the street when a white couple expects them to halt and move aside is not out of the ordinary. Furthermore, the general public was compelled to bear the situation.
I thought it inspiring that they were always slogging through the muck to achieve their goals.
However, there were accomplished individuals; there were female authors and novelists as well as African American authors who found success and published works. That’s why I used it as a basis for her personality.
Bertha and George Russell in “The Gilded Age”: Based on a Real Couple?
They didn’t actually have a Bertha and a George in history. Most, if not all, of the show’s major players, are entirely fictitious. The authors apparently made this decision on purpose.
Using made-up characters allowed the author more leeway in the story than they would have had if they had used real individuals as the main characters.
On the other hand, there are some parallels between Alva and William K. Vanderbilt and Bertha and George. In contrast to their current status, the Vanderbilts started from very modest beginnings.
Jan Aertszoon, also spelled Aertson, was the first Vanderbilt to arrive in the New World in 1650. He was indentured as a servant to the Van Kouwenhoven family in the Dutch province of New Netherlands.
During the Gilded Age, they rode the railroad boom to financial success and prominence. When it came to the Vanderbilt family’s railroad holdings, William Kissam Vanderbilt was the man in command.
There appear to be no further parallels between him and George. He was a skilled horse breeder with a temperament very different from George’s on the show.
In contrast, Alva, like Bertha, was set on integrating the Vanderbilts into proper society, which eventually led to friction between herself and Caroline Astor.
Mrs. Astor was the last word in social authority as the head of the illustrious Four Hundred of the New York Society. After Mrs. Astor acknowledged Alva as an equal, tensions between the two women subsided.
The way things are shaping up, Bertha is going to have it out with Mrs. Astor, who exists only in ‘The Gilded Age.’ Together, she and George make quite the dynamic duo in the show. In most respects, they complete one another.
They also appear to be each other’s primary sources of strength. When Bertha’s party bombs and nobody comes up, George consoles his distraught wife by reminding her of their shared identity.
The era known as the Gilded Age in United States history was one of great transformation and fascination.
Despite the fact that Bertha and George are made up, their story is reflective of that of many New York City affluent families. Among these families, the Vanderbilts are but one illustration.