THE GRANDES DAMES by Stephen Birmingham


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Brief, mildly diverting sketches of eight slightly spectacular 1880s-1940s females: tough, confident, lucky, charming, good-looking, well-mannered, moneyed, and possessed of ""a sense of personal theater,"" in social chronicler Birmingham's eyes. Thus we have: Philadelphian Eva Stotesbury, who entertained 100,000 guests in her 147-room mansion and ""frequently introduced wildlife into her decors""; Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner, ""the stylish invalid"" who wore long clinging dresses in an age of hoop skirts, and included John Singer Sargent, Henry James, and Bernard Berenson among her protÉgÉs (""Isabella liked men""); Edith Stern of New Orleans, who devoted her fortune to black philanthropies but was still prey to monied whimsy--tiring of the view from her mansion, she moved it a few blocks down the street; Chicagoan Edith McCormick Rockefeller, who owned a set of gold flatware worth $5,000,000 and refused to stir from a dinner party at the news of her son's death (for which Birmingham inexplicably offers a half-hearted apology); modest Cincinnatian ""Guppy"" Emery, who built a model city for the poor and ""ate the plump grapes from her prize vines with a knife and fork""; New York's Arabella Huntington, who started as her husband's mistress and wound up, after his death, as the wife of his nephew (""He was crazy about Arabella""); Eleanor Belmont, also a New Yorker and a successful actress (Shaw wrote Major Barbara for her) who retired to marry money and spent her widowhood revitalizing the Metropolitan Opera; and finally Ima Hogg of Houston, who, besides championing the cause of mental health, rode an ostrich, offered a would-be burglar a job, and liked the Beatles. Extravagant personalities, true--and apart from Isabella Gardner, largely uncelebrated. But the brevity of the treatment does little for them as individuals--while their massing makes them sound like a gaggle of rich eccentrics. Spotty, then, and only for social-hijinks addicts.

Pub Date: June 7th, 1982
Publisher: Simon & Schuster