Posted by: zhiv | January 12, 2012

Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women, Alfred Allan Lewis

I picked up this book at the library sale for a couple of bucks, a whim, and then took it with me on vacation on an even bigger whim, just because I thought I might want to read some non-fiction. I didn’t even have any idea what it was, really, and then as I started reading it I was surprised that I was still going, and didn’t know why. And then, all of a sudden, it became extremely interesting, even compelling, and for a good while I loved it and completely enjoyed myself. The last 75 pages or so were a long wrap up that wasn’t very good, one of the pitfalls of biography and perhaps especially group biography–somebody is going to live too long and make it boring and somewhat anti-climactic.

So, in a good-sized nutshell, this poorly titled book tells the story of four independent and wealthy women of the Gilded Age, who jointly reached the height of their powers in the Edwardian period and in World War I, when they were all rather formidable and something of a unified whole. They enjoyed domestic partnerships and love affairs, and lived through the transition from the seemingly chaste 19th century Boston Marriage to the postwar confluence of feminism, modernism, lesbianism and liberation, shaping it themselves to a certain degree. Like I said, I wasn’t sure why I ever had my hand on this book in the first place, but I guess I was curious about connecting the “marriages” of Annie Fields & Sarah Orne Jewett, and Alice James & Katherine Loring (the mutual models for The Bostonians), with the world of Gertrude Stein and Willa Cather. And then you throw in New York City and robber barons and Stanford White, and you’re bound to bump into Edith Wharton, and this promised to be a view of the world that Wharton knew and wrote about. So here I go, reading about independent women, pretty happily I must say. The two Annes, Morgan and Vanderbilt, are okay, and I don’t mind reading about can-do, well-meaning rich women, especially when they’re effective and humane. Elsie de Wolfe is funny and obnoxious and vain and absurd, a strong and lively contrast to Alice B. Toklas in a somewhat similar role, and she’s a good secondary character. The style of the book is solid, not great, showing lots of hard work and knowledge and even devotion to the topic (important for a biographer, of course), and it has probably just the right amount of gossip for the subject matter–plenty, but not too much. But the real story and the great value of the book, the character who made everything worthwhile, is Elizabeth “Bessie” Marbury, just a phenomenal figure. My god–what a woman, and what a story!

I’m reading this book and finding it interesting enough, and it’s telling the story of Bessie Marbury’s family, how they live respectably in mid-century NYC, with impeccable social credentials and not too rich and not too poor. Same goes for Elsie de Wolfe, maybe poorer, and Anne Morgan, JP’s daughter, a whole lot richer. The backgrounds do a good job of rendering the city in the midst of its 19th century rise, which is always fun. So far, so good, and Bessie Marbury is in a “relationship” with Elsie, trying to write and find a way to get along in the world, interested in the theater. She’s a dynamo, she pushes Elsie’s career as an actress, and it seems pretty obvious that she’s going to figure something out. And she does indeed, as she sees the value of light French theater being adapted to the New York stage, and more or less comes up with the concept of the modern literary agent and manager. She starts out representing the leading French playwrights, the entire Society of Men of Letters, and then goes on to work with George Bernhard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, and later Eugene O’Neill and Cole Porter and a zillion others. It’s crazy. She’s a hitmaker, ruling and reinventing Broadway along with Charles Frohman and later the Schuberts. She comes up with the idea for the modern musical, more or less. It’s a calvalcade of stars and international celebrities. She sponsors Elsie, who becomes a personality, and their New York home and salon becomes famous, and Elsie turns decorator (right after Edith Wharton). The New York house is surpassed by the beauty and culture of their famous residence at Versailles, the Villa Trianon, where Anne Morgan builds her own wing and moves in. Elsie is fabulous and flighty as it gets, and will be until she dies in her 90s in Beverly Hills (where else?), while Bessie is about work and genius and meat and potatoes and growing obese, an old guard figure who turns to politics after the war and helps guide the rise of FDR. It’s pretty amazing stuff, actually, with Morgans and Vanderbilts and a hundred others thrown in. Lots of fun.

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