"THE VANDERBILT WOMEN: Dynasty of Wealth, Glamour, and Tragedy" by Clarice Stasz

"THE VANDERBILT WOMEN: Dynasty of Wealth, Glamour, and Tragedy"

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Transcending 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"" harriers 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.

Pub Date: Dec. 2nd, 1991
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: St. Martin's