High Society in a Global Perspective. Media and Social Transformation in the 20th Century

High Society in a Global Perspective. Media and Social Transformation in the 20th Century

Margit Szöllösi-Janze, LMU München; Juliane Hornung, Universität zu Köln; Nicolai Hannig, TU Darmstadt; Emanuel Steinbacher, LMU München
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
21.07.2022 - 22.07.2022
Kristina Gunne

Around 1900, a new elite social group emerged in the U.S. whose status and influence were no longer determined solely by birth or wealth, but rather by mass media visibility: High Society. Already during the 1880s, the traditional focus in American journalism had shifted from politics and economics towards a new form of so-called social news that was interested in love affairs, weddings, parties, and, above all, gendered consumerism. Now, media professionals decided who was in High Society and who wasn’t. In consequence, High Society members and those who wanted to become part of it began to develop an awareness of their own mediality and adopted distinctive media-oriented behaviors.

Was High Society a purely Anglo-American, “Western” or even “White” phenomenon, linking the U.S., England and Central Europe, or did it develop a global reach during the long 20th century? This question and, in a broader sense, the transformation of society under the impact of the media was at the centre of the international conference organised by Nicolai Hannig, Juliane Hornung, Emanuel Steinbacher and Margit Szöllösi-Janze, held in the beautiful Kaulbach-Villa of the Historisches Kolleg in Munich. The conference was part of the research project “The Thaws: High Society, Media, and Family in the United States in the First Half of the 20th Century” that was financed by the Gerda Henkel Foundation1 and concluded the project. Within the project, two dissertations were funded: “Mord in der High Society. Gesellschaft, Medien und Skandal im New York um 1900” written by Emanuel Steinbacher2; and „Um die Welt mit den Thaws. Eine Mediengeschichte der New Yorker High Society in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts“ written by Juliane Hornung.3

The aim of the conference was to explore the phenomenon of High Society in a global perspective, shedding light on capitalist as well as socialist, colonial and postcolonial societies. The speakers represented an internationally manifold picture that underpinned the claim to discuss and define High Society as a relatively open, almost fluid social structure. Accordingly it was asked how and to what extent High Societies in Europe, Africa, Asia or America – nationally and regionally – show comparable characteristics including their networking among each other. In five panels, the workshop highlighted different aspects of the connecting lines between media and social transformation under concrete geographical and historical circumstances.

MARGIT SZÖLLÖSI-JANZE (Munich) introduced the workshop with a lecture in which she defined the claim of the conference: to understand “High Society” as an analytical concept and to work out its criteria. The research project aimed to re-conceptualize “High Society” and understand it as being constituted through mediality and not only by the level of wealth. In this sense, “High Society” is a relational concept, which does not, however, focus on mere class differences – on a simple social “top” and “bottom”. In contrast, the project assumed dynamic processes of media inclusion and exclusion that you could characterize more as “in” and “out” of media attention. Although wealth and a distinctive lifestyle always formed a gateway into High Society, media visibility came to the fore as an essential prerequisite.

In this respect, the first panel illuminated High Society and its global reach. ROLAND WENZLHUEMER (Munich) used the example of the murder case of Dr. Crippen from London in 1910 to show how Crippen became a global media phenomenon. He emphasised the interplay between connectivity and disconnectivity of global media at a time when there were no telephone lines but just written letters or telegraphs. By reconstructing the flight of Dr. Crippen on an overseas ship as an example, far away from the mainland, Wenzlhuemer showed that Crippen became a global media phenomenon through the information supply of the ship´s radio operators.

JULIANE HORNUNG (Cologne) used Margaret and Lawrence Thaw, a New York couple, to show the global lines of connection of High Society in the first half of the 20th century. In addition to New York as the capital of High Society at that time, Hornung identified certain melting points where High Society met, such as the first-class decks of transatlantic steamships, European hotspots such as Paris, Venice, Biarritz or Monte Carlo, grand hotels and casinos, also, very early even, cruises on the Nile. Hornung thus emphasised the intercontinental and also transnational character of High Society.

MICHAEL HOMBERG (Potsdam) reconstructed jet-setter life in the 1950s to 1970s. As he showed with the example of the German “Gentleman Playboy” Gunter Sachs, the jet-set lifestyle quickly became a media phenomenon and the paparazzi accompanied him and actors, models, politicians or musicians to the already global hotspots of High Society. They portrayed intimate and private moments that found their way into newspapers or television. In his talk, Homberg illuminated the interplay between members of the High Society and the press as a deliberate means of gaining popularity. He was thus able to show the chronologically consistent continuation of a development that had already been laid out in Juliane Hornung's presentation.

The second panel focused on the connection between media and social mobility. ONOOKOME OKOME (Edmonton) claimed that social transformation by the media does not always have to be associated with the upper class but can also be associated with the people from the street. In Nigeria from the 1940s to the 1970s, simply written pamphlets reflected a new colonial modernity. As a reaction against austerity and tradition, the pamphlets – written in English – represented a political instrument of rebellion against the colonial era and conveyed a “sense of newness” for the local community. Okome showed that “High Society” as a concept did not work for every mediated society, in this way questioning its reach and necessary characteristics.

BRENDA WYNN GREER (Wellesley) focused on the rise to fame of the African American elite in the USA. She showed how African American photographers and media makers popularised the black first-class elite and shaped their “positive” relationship to capitalist relations and mass consumption after the end of the Second World War. In the ensuing discussion, the question of what High Society is and who can be seen as part of it arose. By focusing their talks on specific social groups at different times on different continents, Greer and Okome helped sharpen the reach of “High Society” as an analytical concept for historiographical purposes.

The Key Note Lecture was given by ALEXEY TIKHOMIROV (Bielefeld). He presented the path of the Bolshevik elites from the beginning of the 20th century to Soviet oligarchs until the end of the Cold War. Divided into four phases, he showed how the Kremlin’s “High Society” defined itself through invisibility and how certain external traits such as a moustache or a bald head made the members of an all-male Soviet elite appear. Women, however, visible and irreplaceable as counterpoints in Western media societies, were conspicuously absent. In the following discussion, this raised the question whether High Society was – and is – not a genuinely consumerist-capitalist phenomenon.

The third panel focused on the interplay of gender, body and consumption and their visibility in the media. Three papers on very different examples showed the extent to which consumption, gender and the gendered body were used as a resource for social advancement.

SUMEI WANG (Taipei) displayed how the colonial influence of Japan since the 1910s replaced Taiwanese traditions such as foot-binding with the image of the “modern girl”. Radio broadcasts, silent films or magazines became available to the Taiwanese society and thus transported the image of the Western “modern girl” to Taiwan, thereby transforming and adapting it to regional habits of the visual and graphical.

NICOLAI HANNIG (Darmstadt) illustrated how political protest during the colonial period in the Congo has become an international media phenomenon since the 1970s. The so-called “Sapeurs”, a group of men dressed in Western fashion, imitated the clothes of their colonial masters as a response, thus undermining the hegemonic conditions. After the civil war, the fashion trend developed into a political statement.

ERICA BALL’s (Los Angeles) paper looked at the US at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. She drew the life of Madame C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire, and her rise to become a symbol of a modern black woman. By creating a line of hair products for curly hair, she launched herself as the symbolic figure of a new generation of African American women, becoming a celebrity herself through her success, media visibility and PR.

The fourth panel reconstructed the role of family and privacy for the mass media in the context of High Society. MARK WHITE (London) presented the development of J.F. Kennedy’s image as a political leader in his early years since the first congressional election in 1946. He highlighted the crucial importance of the Kennedy family and his subsequent marriage to Jackie. To keep his image and that of the family as ideal as possible, he hired photographers and journalists to put him in the right light. Establishing close ties with journalists with the aim of controlling the media turned out, much like in the case of Madame C.J. Walker's strategy, to be a consistent asset.

EMANUEL STEINBACHER (Munich) focused on the media gaze on Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, member of High Society in the US at the beginning of the 20th century. At the age of 15, her body could already be seen on magazine covers and she enjoyed great popularity. Over the years, she staged her entire life through the media. Her marriage became a Cinderella story, home stories were shot and she took advantage of public opportunities at any time. Nesbit thus shaped what was understood by “being High Society” and influenced strategies how one remained part of it. More than that, postcards or hand mirrors with her face were sold, turning High Society into a consumer good. Consequently, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw marketed herself as her own brand.

RYAN LINKOF (Los Angeles) illuminated the “royal body” of the British royal family since the mid-1930s. He pointed out the dual character of the monarchical body: on the one hand the symbolic of the monarchical system, and the actual physical body on the other. Using a number of photographs showing the British royal family scantily clad, Linkof illustrated the influence of such images on the interplay between the physical mortal body and the “royal body”. In doing so, he underlined the massive influence snapshots had on the perception of closeness and participation in the lives of media figures, be they royals or High Society-members.

The last talk dealt with the interplay between media visibility and political power. TALITHA ESPIRITU (Wheaton) showed to what extent the status as a member of High Society had an influence on the political legitimacy of leading politicians in developmental authoritarian regimes. As an example, she took up the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines and illustrated how emotions and melodrama in public helped Marcos to stabilise his dictatorship.

The resumé in the final discussion defined “High Society” as an analytical concept as quite valid and emphasised its manifold empirical expressions. It cannot be crystallised by media visibility alone, nor by wealth or a specific group. Rather it is dependent on social, national, regional and also temporal circumstances, most of which produce slightly different expressions of what can be understood as High Society. Against this backdrop, it seemed more adequate to speak of multiple High Societies. Even bringing such diverse global and (post)colonial contexts together under the umbrella of “High Society” proved to be a challenging task. At the same time, the conference participants agreed that this is precisely what makes the concept so connectable to different spatial or temporal research traits.

Conference Overview:

Margit Szöllösi-Janze (LMU Munich): Introduction and Welcome

Panel 1: The High Society and Its Global Reach

Roland Wenzlhuemer (LMU Munich): Crippen Aboard: Global Media Dis:connectivity in the Early 20th Century

Juliane Hornung (University of Cologne): New York – Paris – Hyderabad: New York’s High Society and its Global Reach in the First Half of the 20th Century

Michael Homberg (ZZF Potsdam): High Life. Jet-Setters, Playboys and the Global High Society, 1950s to 1970s

Panel 2: Media and Social Mobility

Onookome Okome (University of Alberta): Highlife Modernity and Contemporary Popular Culture in Nigeria

Brenna Wynn Greer (Wellesley College): The Kingmakers: Black Mediamakers and Racial Uplift in the Postwar United States

Keynote and Evening Talk

Aleyey Tikhomirov (University of Bielefeld): From Revolutionaries to Oligarchs: The (Post-) Soviet High Society in the Kremlin

Panel 3: Gender, Body and Consumption. Agency through Media Visibility

Sumei Wang (National Chengchi University): Media, Consumption and Body: Modern Girl in the Colonial Taiwan

Nicolai Hannig (Darmstadt): Sapeurs: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congo – Dandyism and Political Protest

Erica Ball (Occidental College): Madam C. J. Walker and the Making of the Modern Black Woman

Panel 4: Media, Family and the Private

Mark White (Queen Mary University of London): JFK, America’s ‘Royal Family’ and the Fourth Estate

Emanuel Steinbacher (LMU Munich): The Many Faces of Evelyn Nesbit Thaw: Mediating Families, Privacy and the Media in the Early High Society

Ryan Linkof (Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts): “The Emperor Has No Clothes”: Exposing the Royal Body since 1936

Panel 5: Media and Power. Modern Legitimation and Charisma

Talitha Espiritu (Wheaton College): New Society vs. High Society: Melodrama, Sentimental Publicity and the Marcos Dictatorship in the Philippines (1972-1986)

Final Discussion

1 Link to the research project: https://www.gerda-henkel-stiftung.de/thaws (19.10.2022).
2 Link to the published dissertation: https://www.wallstein-verlag.de/9783835352131-mord-in-der-high-society.html (19.10.2022).
3 Link to the published dissertation: https://www.wallstein-verlag.de/9783835337718-um-die-welt-mit-den-thaws.html (19.10.2022).

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