A distinguished Dutch biographer’s account of the life of Allene Tew (1872-1955), who rose from middle-class obscurity to become one of America’s first socialites.
Born in Janesville, Wisconsin, but raised in Jamestown, New York, Tew was the only child of a bank clerk with rich relatives. Her free-spirited ways and taste for “pleasure [and] adventure” distinguished Tew from other girls of her time. At 18, she became involved with Tod Hostetter, the son of nouveau riche millionaire parents from Pittsburgh. Tew became pregnant out of wedlock and then married Hostetter, who she later discovered was addicted to gambling. She became a widow for the first time by age 30 and married again two years later, this time to a New York stockbroker named Morton Nichols. During their five-year marriage she earned a reputation as a “fantastic, inexhaustible organizer of…charity benefits.” By 1909, Tew was again independent and a major figure in New York society. She remarried in 1912, this time to a wealthy, self-made engineer named Anson Wood Burchard, whom van der Zijl characterizes as the one man out of the five she married who “genuinely loved her for herself.” Their marriage represented the happiest and saddest times in her life: During the time they were together, Tew lost both her children and her parents before losing Burchard in 1927. She went to Europe, where she scandalized American high society by marrying a German prince named Henrich Reuss, divorcing him, then marrying a Russian count 12 years her junior named Pavel Kotzbue. Now part of the European aristocracy, she helped broker what at first seemed an unlikely marriage between Princess Juliana of the Netherlands and a man of obscure aristocratic origin. Set against the tumultuous history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this biography is certainly entertaining, but it is also a fascinating story about a remarkable woman’s indomitable spirit and will to survive.
A concise, thoughtful, and well-researched biography.