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The father is handsome, pedigreed, impecunious William C. Whitney (18411904), who married into Standard Oil wealth and made his own bundle from New York mass transit; the heiress is his all-endowed daughter Dorothy. Why the two are paired is not clear, however, until the epilogue; and meanwhile one wonders why Swanberg (Pulitzer, Norman Thomas) is writing about either Whitney at his usual length. In the case of William, he lacks the keys to the two central puzzles of his subject's life. Why did this popular and able man--a Secretary of the Navy, a President-maker (Cleveland) and prospective President--quit public life for thoroughbred horses and showy houses? And why did the family split after his wife's death and his blameless remarriage--two of the Whitney children siding with their mother's outraged brother, and two lining up with their father? The second puzzle Swanberg addresses feebly (via a gossip column item about ""a notorious burlesque actress""); the puzzle of William's bow-out, which intrigued Henry Adams, he passes over without comment. His contribution to the record is to insist that William's business dealings were more crooked than is commonly realized. For the rest, there's lots on first wife Flora's penchant for lavish entertaining, their incomparability, and everybody's frantic socializing. Dorothy we see distinguishing herself at nine by firmly deciding to stay with her father. But most of her half of the book is devoted to her courtship by, and eventual marriage to, charming, talented, unmoneyed Michael Straight, an upstart like her father, but fatally weak--one of those bright lights that gutters out early in resentment and self-pity. Some of this is interesting (Michael representing the House of Morgan in Imperial China; the Straights underwriting The New Republic); but it goes on and on about poor Michael (Dorothy, unfortunately, kept a Line-a-Day diary) until his untimely death in the WW I flu epidemic puts an end to his and our misery. Dorothy, also a New School founder, has quietly become more liberal than he; and in the epilogue we learn that she subsequently married a younger English radical agriculturalist, moved to England, started an unorthodox school, and lived imaginatively ever after. Swanberg sees her--without any evidence--as making amends for her father's ill-gotten wealth; but the story of robber-baron father/reformist daughter that he apparently wishes to present is itself incomplete--if, indeed, any such simplistic construction is warranted at all.

Pub Date: May 20th, 1980
Publisher: Scribners