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Season 2/Episode 3, “Head to Head”

A surprising guest attends Bertha's fundraiser and starts trouble. Larry begins renovations at Mrs. Blane’s house, aka Kingscote. Peggy presses her editor to let her go to Tuskegee. Oscar Wilde charms society, but his play does not.

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In this Episode…

☞ We see Agnes Van Rhijn reading The Daily Graphic, the first American illustrated newspaper which ran from 1873 to 1889.

☞ The Elms kitchen is frequently seen as the Russells’ kitchen. In this episode, it first appears when maid Adelheid breathlessly tells the other staff members that the scheming former maid Turner is upstairs – as a guest of Mrs. Russell!

The Elms kitchen (Photograph by Barbara Nitke/HBO)
The Elms kitchen (Photograph by Barbara Nitke/HBO)
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Mrs. Fane and Oscar Wilde (Photograph by Barbara Nitke/HBO)

☞ Several of the characters attend Oscar Wilde’s first play, Vera; or, the Nihilists, which premiered at the Union Square Theatre on August 20, 1883. Wilde was known for his poetry and prose, and gave a lecture tour of North America in 1882, but his theatrical career would not take off for another 10 years or so.

☞ Wilde wears a green carnation on his lapel; this later became a symbol of homosexuality beginning with the premiere of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892.

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Eleanor Robson Belmont

☞ Mrs. Fish mentions Mrs. Wilson at the party for the Metropolitan Opera. Most likely this is Melissa Clementine Johnston Wilson, mother of the “marrying Wilsons,” including Mary Wilson Goelet, Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, Leila Wilson Herbert and Marshall Orme Wilson, who has been mentioned in the series as a marriage interest of Carrie Astor.

☞ Mrs. Russell takes a place on the Metropolitan Opera’s board of directors. In reality, the first woman on the Met’s board was Eleanor Robson Belmont (1879–1979) in 1933.

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Peggy Scott (Photograph by Barbara Nitke/HBO)

☞ Peggy Scott convinces editor T. Thomas Fortune to let her go with him to cover an event at Tuskegee Institute, a major African-American place of learning in Alabama. The institute (now Tuskegee University) was very new at this time, having opened on July 4, 1881. Booker T. Washington, only 25 at the opening, was the school’s first leader.

Kingscote, as the Newport home of the widow Susan Blane, is covered with scaffolding as Larry Russell’s renovation project gets under way.

Larry and Susan talk and flirt in the South Parlor of Kingscote, with its orange-gold wallpaper, and the South Parlor, with its distinctive green and brown stripes. The opening between these rooms is very recognizable with its peaked shape. The Preservation Society’s staff had to remove a lot of furniture and décor for the filming of this scene.

Susan Blane and Larry Russell in the South Parlor of Kingscote (Photograph by Barbara Nitke/HBO)
Kingscote South Parlor
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Mrs. Russell and Mrs. Winterton (Photograph by Barbara Nitke/HBO)

☞ An upcoming visit by the Duke of Buckingham is mentioned by Mrs. Winterton (aka Turner, Mrs. Russell’s former lady’s maid): “We are to receive him in Newport.” Could this be a hint of a future plot line where the Duke is seeking a rich American bride? Parallels with Consuelo Vanderbilt of Marble House and the Duke of Marlborough come to mind.

 The Duke is set to come to America on the RMS Servia. This ship was the first ocean liner built of steel instead of iron, and the first ship in the Cunard fleet with electric lighting.

 Ada refers to browsing “receipts” of clam chowder. This older term shares etymology with “recipe” but is an older usage. Another variation in terminology is present with the American pronunciation of “valet”; if you’ve seen Downton Abbey, you may remember that the English pronounced the T at the end. The English pronunciation is an older one, and the “val-AY” pronunciation preferred by the Americans is Frenchified.

 When Henderson returns to Pittsburgh to report back to his steel workers union, he declares that to achieve their goals, the unionists must be willing to die for the cause. This was a very real risk, and violent suppression of union activity would increase in the 1880s and 1890s with events like Haymarket Affair (1886) and the Homestead Strike (1892).

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