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Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family

by Suzannah Lessard

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-385-31445-0
Publisher: Dial Books

A dreamlike memoir of the violence and sexuality underlying a well-planned family landscape, its statuary nooks and architectural crannies filled with secrets. Lessard (a contributing editor to Mirabella and the Washington Monthly and Whiting Award winner) is the great- granddaughter of turn-of-the-century architect Stanford White, a man best remembered as the shooting victim in the notorious love triangle also involving Harry Thaw and his wife, Evelyn Nesbit. Lessard and her five sisters grew up near Smithtown, Long Island, on the White estate known as the Place, where the family retreated in the wake of the stunning public disclosures about Stanford White's debauchery that followed his death. The circumstances of White's death and his secret dissipations were never mentioned at the Place, where Lessard's often privileged childhood included horses, boats, and acres to roam, and a covey of loving and eccentric relatives. But sometimes the male relatives, including her father, were overly loving, and some gun-toting eccentrics were prone to violence. Lessard lived in an atmosphere that was safe, but not safe; when she moved to Manhattan on her own, she responded to White's designs—including the landmark Washington Square Arch—with both joy and fear, feelings she felt were anchored in her family experiences. A meeting with her sisters in which each revealed sexual experiences with their father plus disclosure of a cousin's rape by another cousin while the rest of the family danced in the barn on the Place led her to explore the family past. Most interesting are chapters on great-grandfather Stanford's architectural and hedonistic adventures, plus tales of her Chanler/Astor relations. Stories of her growing-up have a narcotic quality that keeps the reader at bay. Probably therapeutic for the author, riveting for the social voyeur, and mildly illuminating for the student of family pathology. (First serial to the New Yorker)