In contemplating the luxuriant splendors of five American ""palaces"" built between World War I and the Depression, author Maher gambols like a playful amorino: "". . . the dreams of children have been instructed with the fantasies of palaces. . . gleaming sconces, vast gilded halls and great stairs that turn back upon themselves. . . ."" In each of the five monographs Maher examines the careers, and gossips about the personalities, of patrons and their relationships with architects, decorators and art dealers who collaborated to produce the whelming residences. The stately Palladian mansion, Whitemarsh Hall in Chestnut Hill, Pa., owes much to the taste of its gracious mistress Eva Stotesbury who had an ""instinct for palaces""; in a similar manner the pale cream rose Ca'D'Zan in Sarasota, home of John Ringling North, reflected the ""rococo excesses"" of the master's avocations: "". . . a gilded circus bandwagon."" Vizcaya in Biscayne Bay, home of James E. Deering, ""the quiet man of International Harvester,"" was something of an innovation, at least in the methods used by architect and decorator to assemble authentic antiquities imported from Europe. In discussing the handsome Huntington pile in California, Maher is most intrigued by the baffling secrets in the life of Arabella (Worsham) Huntington. Then there was Shadow Lane in New Jersey acquired by that eccentric Woolworth magnate Hubert Parson, a mansion previously used as a summer White House by Wilson in 1916. The 100 black-and-white illustrations include references to classical models and underscore the author's delight in massive yet very personal structures--and the photographs of some of the artifacts in ruins are heart-breaking. A fine guide to those great houses still intact and open to the public.