Books by Clarice Stasz

Released: Aug. 1, 1995

In this biographical stew, keeping the Abbys, Elsies, and Isabels straight demands a detailed menu and a hearty appetite for information about this American dynasty. Whatever their other faults and virtues, the Rockefeller women were nothing if not fecund, and in Stasz's (The Vanderbilt Women, 1991) narrative the players' identities begin to blur by the third generation (John D. Sr.'s children). Standing out from the crowd is the founding mother, Eliza Davison (b. 1813), whose wandering (and ultimately bigamous) husband was home at least long enough to father six children; of them, John Sr., and William went on to found Standard Oil and the Rockefeller family of legend. John's wife, Laura Spelman, from a family whose Ohio homes were noted stops on the Underground Railway, created a home dedicated to piety and service. The family has its share of rebels, eccentrics, and prima donnas. John D. Jr. married Abby Aldrich, whose five sonsJohn D. 3rd, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and Davidbecame political and economic powerhouses as well as the subjects of diverting scandal. The book's pace becomes nearly breathless with reports of this and the next generation's marriages, divorces, offspring, and charities. Stasz tries to make a case for the Rockefeller women as the power behind the family's philanthropy, but she doesn't quite succeed. Although their influence resulted in the family fortune being funneled into some of this country's most valued institutionsSpelman College, New York City's Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the YWCA, among othersthe family money always remained under the firm control of the Rockefeller men. The women seemed to be best at their assigned roles: wives, mothers, and society's moral guardians. Cluttered with forgettable characters and focusing on John D. Sr. as much as his womenfolk, this is nevertheless a reminder of how the Rockefeller fortune has shaped the cultural institutions of this country. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >
Released: Dec. 2, 1991

Transcending the usual lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous sensationalism, Stasz (American Dreamers, 1988, etc.) here creates a captivating and thoughtful blend of social history and family chronicle. Blessed with unassailable pedigree and unimaginable wealth, the Vanderbilt women, argues Stasz, present a tantalizing illustration of ``the unfolding of female rebellion from one generation to the next.'' Allotting space and considerable understanding to the expected social matrons and neglected wives (and not slighting abundant and well-known scandals), the author takes particular delight in the many Vanderbilt renegades. Chief among them is the extraordinary Alva Smith, who turned her considerable energies from the task of conquering society (finding a suitably rich husband in sportsman William K. Vanderbilt; breaking the ``old money'' barriers maintained by the formidable Mrs. Astor—of ``400'' fame—with her spectacular social extravaganzas) to that of shocking it. Divorcing the philandering ``Willie,'' she married sympathetic aesthete (and millionaire) Harry Belmont, and, as the widowed Mrs. Belmont, became a startlingly progressive and hard-working leader of the women's movement (advocating not just suffrage, but equal rights). A quieter rebel, her niece Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the other star of Stasz's study, became a notable sculptor and patron of the arts, supporting and championing the American artists who clustered around her Greenwich Village studio, and later founding the Whitney Museum. Unfortunately, as Stasz ably points out, the very real accomplishments of these women (and of Gertrude's famous niece Gloria, sympathetically portrayed here as far more than an earnest dilettante) were often belittled (not least by themselves) due to their immense wealth. Their most striking characteristic, the author notes, is that, consigned to a ``women's sphere'' that isolated them from the power reserved for male descendants, they used their freedom and resources to carve stubbornly individual existences. A deft, delightful, and compulsively readable mixture of gossip and feminist history. (Twenty-four pages of b&w photos—not seen.) Read full book review >