Despite the fact that I have no particular interest in the subject, circumstances have conspired so that I am approaching a specialist's knowledge of upper-class turn-of-the-century New York City Society. Here's what happened: back in 2007, I was planning a biography-reading project. I wanted to read biographies, autobiographies, fiction that plays with the form of auto/biography, and "non-traditional biographies," whatever that might mean. I was drawn to Alfred Allen Lewis's Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women: Elisabeth Marbury, Anne Morgan, Elsie de Wolfe, Anne Vanderbilt, and Their Times, despite its ludicrously long title, because I was intrigued by the idea of writing a "life story" of a small group of people rather than just one. I'd read Gillian Gill's book on the Nightingale family, but Marbury, Morgan, de Wolfe and Vanderbilt were not related by blood: their paths intersected in more unpredictable ways, and I liked the notion of tracing those connections through time. Shortly thereafter I discovered that my favorite biographer, Hermione Lee, was coming out with a biography of Edith Wharton, who moved in roughly the same "Old New York" circles as the four women in Lewis's book. I would read a book about sewage treatment if Lee wrote one, so into the pile it went. Lastly I received an early-review copy of Laura Claridge's biography of Emily Post, not realizing that Post, too, was part of the insular upper-class New York life at the turn of the 20th century.
Having read and reviewed the Lee and Claridge books already, and having finally moved on to the Lewis, I now have far more knowledge than I ever wanted or expected about Alva Vanderbilt's machinations to force her daughter Consuelo into matrimony; about the deadly Ward McAllister and his relationship with Caroline Astor's ballroom; about the scandalous murder of architect Stanford White and the reactions of the genteel ladies at the Colony Club; about the Jones matriarchs with whom we've all been "keeping up" ever since.
Not that Marbury's, de Wolfe's, Morgan's and Vanderbilt's stories are limited to society soirees—not at all. All four women lived remarkable lives, both public and private. Bessy Marbury was a self-made woman and the first modern play agent, representing French, British, and American playwrights and selling their work to producers on an advance plus continuing royalties (previous to this, most French and British playwrights were offered a lump sum for the American production rights, which often meant far less money for them in the long run). She made a fortune, creating a career out of thin air and representing such diverse luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, PG Wodehouse and Jerome Kern; she also gave Cole Porter his start, and was instrumental in inventing the modern American musical comedy. Later in life she became heavily involved with New York's Democratic Party, becoming frenemies with Eleanor Roosevelt and helping to elect FDR. Elsie de Wolfe, whose first career as a Broadway actress was only moderately successful, achieved renown as one of the first female interior decorators, reinventing the field and opening it to women while apparently letting her taste define a generation of New York and Paris interiors and stage sets. Anne Morgan, who declared to her father Pierpont while still a tiny child that she wanted to be "something more than a rich fool, anyway," was a tireless relief worker for New York workingwomen and the French civilian casualties of both World Wars, and Anne Vanderbilt was a leader in such diverse movements as helping to criminalize heroin, war relief, and establishing resources for the newly-emerging female professional class in New York City.
In addition to the interest of their careers, the personal lives of all four women make an interesting study. Marbury and de Wolfe remained unmarried and lived together for years; they seem to have had a semi-romantic, but probably not sexual, relationship, which was certainly long-lived, deep, and affectionate. Lewis points out that the turn of the 20th century through the decades that followed was a particularly interesting period for two women to set up housekeeping together: when Bessy and Elsie first moved in together, in the nineteenth century, the so-called "Boston marriage" was a relatively established tradition. Lesbianism was not assumed in such cases, although some of them undoubtedly included sexual relationships between women; primarily, it was a choice that prioritized female friendship and female agency over marriage and children, and was a solution to the economic difficulty of living alone. On the other hand, there were hardly any women living openly as lesbians in the 1890s (the era of Wilde's disastrous trial)—female sexuality, in fact, was so overlooked and repressed at the time that to many people, the possibility of a sexual relationship involving no male would never even occur. By the end of their lives, however, the landscape had shifted radically: lesbianism was a known, if not accepted, phenomenon, and two emotionally close, unmarried women living together in the 1920s were assumed to be lesbians. The whole idea of homosexuality as an identity (rather than a behavior) gained currency during this 30- or 40-year period. Lewis does a good job of tracing the rapid cultural evolution of thought around lesbianism and close female friendship over the course of these decades. The events of the four women's lives provide a handy framework: by the time Anne Morgan and Bessy Marbury became involved, lesbianism had arrived on the cultural radar, and by the 1930s, when Anne Morgan and Anne Vanderbilt formed a late-life connection, it was frankly acknowledged as a love affair. (The frankness, one imagines, allowed largely by the fact that these two women were among the wealthiest heiresses in the world.)
Leaving the sexuality angle aside, Lewis also has interesting things to say about the role of class in the evolution of the American feminist movement from the 1890s through the 1940s. The Annes—Morgan and Vanderbilt—were both supporters of suffrage and other feminist causes, setting up, for example, an extensive club-cum-apartment-complex in which the emerging professional class of women could live, socialize, network, and advance their careers. They also both served on the board of Margaret Sanger's first birth-control-promotion organizations (the precursors to Planned Parenthood). But the Annes were also exactly the kind of upper- and middle-class do-gooders whose efforts working-class activists like Mother Jones often dismissed out of hand, and one can understand why. The projects they chose focused on increasing the freedoms of middle-class women—women who were already employed, who were looking to break out of "traditional" roles and advance their careers; women with the leisure to take an interest in national politics; women who wanted to plan their families and make a conscious decision to have fewer or no children. For those who struggled on a daily basis just to get by, the Annes and their organizations did little (with the obvious exception of French women displaced by the World Wars). When Margaret Sanger and Anne Morgan saw a family living in poverty with ten children, they thought "If only poor women could control their own fertility, they could get out in the workforce and pull themselves out of the slums." Mother Jones saw the same family and thought, "If only the capitalist system paid working men a living wage, mothers wouldn't need to work and the parents could support however many children they had." Both attitudes have their strengths and glaring weaknesses, but communication between the two tended to be poor. This split between working-class and middle/upper-class values is an issue that still plagues feminism, and it was interesting to be reminded how far back its roots extend.
With so much of interest on offer, I'm glad I made it through Lewis's book, but I must say that it would have been infinitely better had it been a hundred pages shorter. Lewis's project of tracing the interwoven lives of four women leads to MANY bit-characters and connections to keep track of, which is made even more confusing by his inclusion of a huge number of gossipy asides that have only the most tangential bearing on any of his four subjects. Why are we treated to a summary of young Edith Jones's (soon-to-become Wharton's) doomed love affair with Harry Stevens? Why do we need to know about the trajectory of the wild parties given by Cole Porter on the Italian Riviera, or the bold theatrical experiments of Mae West's transvestites in The Drag? Not that these stories aren't interesting: I fully intend to read a stand-alone biography of West before long, and I have already read an epic one on Wharton. It's just that, with four main subjects instead of one, Lewis's narrative needed to contract and clarify, rather than expanding to include every anecdote that could possibly be tied to the lives of his four subjects. At times, the unstoppable cascade of names and places, familial relationships and drawing-room banter, became overwhelming, boring, or both, and I put the book aside. I did continue picking it up again for the insights into the evolution of cultural values, but I couldn't help wishing Lewis had been blessed with a more decisive editor. Nevertheless, I'm glad to have read this one, as the context it provided will probably add depth to my reading of period novels as well as other nonfiction, and its four main subjects, while interesting on their own, were even more so in terms of their relationships.
I'm counting Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women toward a slew of different challenges: it's my fifth book for my personal TBR Challenge, and my third book for both the GLBT Challenge and the Women Unbound Challenge. Whew!