A memoir from the granddaughter of the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Biddle (The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made: A Family Memoir, 2017), who served as the president of the Whitney from 1977 to 1995, writes about how her grandmother Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942) founded the Whitney and how her descendants, including the author, continue to serve on its board. As Biddle shows, in families of wealth, it was accepted that children were turned over to nannies, governesses, and servants while parents were often absent in body and mind. The formality her parents exhibited toward her and her siblings left her seeking more meaningful human contact, which she found in a kind nursery attendant, a teacher, and her riding instructor, among others. She never smiled in childhood photos, was frightened to disobey, and was under constant supervision. Though she had security and comfort, the author was taught to mask feelings of sadness, boredom, and the constant loneliness she mentions throughout the book. “School” was just a few children on the grounds of Joye Cottage in Aiken, South Carolina, where most of her childhood was spent. “It was my first nest,” she writes, “and the one that means the most to me in a long life; a touchstone, origin and symbol of that part of me that is deep inside.” Biddle writes fondly of days spent fishing and hunting, activities that she was occasionally able to enjoy with her parents. When summering in France, the family spoke only French, receiving a fine if they spoke English. Dotted throughout the narrative are intriguing tidbits about life among the ultrawealthy—e.g., the artist who painted her portrait in 1938 “would later be painting President Roosevelt at the time he died.”
Refreshingly, the author rarely complains or brags, creating an honest portrait of a privileged upbringing.