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We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante (Excelsior Editions) Paperback – July 2, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this self-indulgent memoir, journalist Pell recollects her privileged East Coast upbringing and her gradual break with the affluence and expectations of her dynastic clan. As a young woman, Pell rode horses, spent time at her grandparents' Tuxedo Park villa ("with two enormous round towers and a long, splendid living room that you stepped down into from a double stairway") and shopped at Bergdorfs with relatives called Cooky, Pookie, Goody and Tinkie (Pell was nicknamed Topsy). Following her debut, Pell went to college "to be interesting to my future husband and to pass the time until he showed up," and it wasn't until she graduated and moved to the West Coast that she escaped the overweening pressure to fill the family-standard "snobbish foxhunting debutante" mold. Her eventual transformation to black sheep, unfortunately, is too little too late. Though her luxurious childhood is marked by genuine emotional pain, alienation and confusion, most readers will have a hard time empathizing with her personal issues or her upper-class guilt, particularly in the present financial climate.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"In We Used to Own the Bronx, her revealing and riveting memoir, Eve Pell defies the dictates of her social class--to be charming but not to say what she felt--and bares all. She detonates bombshells and unmasks betrayals on almost every page." --San Francisco Chronicle

"... a literary treat. ... Pell gives us a kind of cultural anthropology of the closest thing in America to a landed gentry." --Wall Street Journal Review by Sol Stern

"We all know what poverty can do--to individuals, to families, to societies that look the other way ... But what about wealth? What can the possession of immense fortune, over time, do to us? Eve Pell knows. Eve Pell, in this riveting new memoir, tells. We should listen." --Too Much

"...refreshingly direct ... Pell ... uses her lively memoir of growing up in aristocratic style to ask a series of provocative questions: Is it possible to choke on a silver spoon? What good is a sense of entitlement? Are riches wasted on the rich? Her candid account of bristling at her birthright transcends the stereotype suggested by the subtitle to divulge the psychic pressures of living with inherited privilege in a meritocracy-mad country ... To her lasting credit, We Used to Own the Bronx is a graceful object lesson in how perspective is gained not all at once but by accretion, the reward of years of methodical observation."

"Eve Pell gives us a fascinating glimpse into a secret world of unfathomable wealth and privilege. Hers is an unexpected and ultimately hopeful journey of rebellion and reconciliation." --Jane Fonda

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Product Details

  • Series: Excelsior Editions
  • Paperback: 278 pages
  • Publisher: Excelsior Editions (July 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1438424981
  • ISBN-13: 978-1438424989
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,319,529 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Dick McCurdie on March 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover
We used to be neighbors, but I've only met Eve Pell a few times. After reading her `We Used to Own the Bronx' I feel that I've know her for ever. Her story is illuminating exposé of one of the most prominent early families in the country: wealthy as Croesus, but with all that privilege there was an unhealthy dose of tension. Eve takes us on her compelling journey from a life of servants and horses to elite schools to life as a socialite to radical activist and award winning journalist. Along the way, she found time to become a first-rate, long-distance runner. We get `skinny' on the Edwardian era leisure class with its obscure rules and prejudices that tend to insulate them from the real World but which can backfire causing angst, divorce, alcoholism and suicide. Couldn't put it down...
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78 of 95 people found the following review helpful By T. Berner on May 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Ms. Pell begins the first chapter of her book by observing: "I come from a family in love with itself." That sums up what's wrong with the book, the author and the family.

Actually, I know something about the family myself, since some of my ancestors were Pells. I tell people that the fortune zigged and my branch of the family zagged, but in truth, they swam in that pond until my great-grandmother married an Irish Catholic (a worse sin than marrying a Jew) and was disowned by the family. That my great-grandfather converted to Anglicanism didn't change anything.

If anything, Ms. Pell underemphasizes the family's egoism. The family used to house its archives in a townhouse in midtown Manhattan. They published a quarterly magazine about themselves. They published books about the family, such as one called something like "War Heroes of the Pell Family," listing page after page of able bodied men who avoided combat by snagging billets at supply depots and training commands.

The author's rare note of moderation is all the more unusual since the highs (and presumably the lows - they are, or were until this book came along, more private) are largely exaggerated. You can start with the title. The Pells never "owned The Bronx," the Morris family, older and far more accomplished than the Pells, owned most of it. The Pells owned a narrow, 9000 acre strip along the east coast of what is now The Bronx and Westchester County.

The truth of the matter is that the family has been in decline for 300 years, staying afloat by strategic, gold digging marriages with robber barons they had only distaste for. This seems to have had the effect of breeding all of the love and human emotion out of their family relationships.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Alice Bingham Gorman on March 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It is said that if you want the emotional truth of an era, read a novel, not a history book. In this day and time, a great memoir is a combination the two. In Eve Pell's "We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante," there is deep emotional truth that shatters the myths of the frivolous fifties, as well as the radical idealism of the sixties. An award-winning journalist, Pell is an intelligent, insightful, and courageous woman who fought hard for reality in the world around her and in her personal life. We, as readers, are lucky she was willing to share her journey.
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Format: Hardcover
In 1654, when Thomas Pell bought land in what is now the Bronx and Westchester County, the British crown gave him a title: Lord of the Manor of Pelham.

A revolution and three hundred years later, the Pell family still believed in privilege --- Eve Pell describes herself as "a snobbish fox-hunting debutante" who was educated only because girls have to do something until their husbands appear.

Her husband showed up, right on time. Three children followed. And then something happened that wasn't in the script --- Eve Pell divorced, befriended the Black Panthers, made documentary films that explored the nasty side of American politics and, in her 60th year, became a world-class runner.

She tells that before-and-after story, briskly and with considerable flair, in We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante. If you've ever pressed your nose to the chintz-covered window of Old Money and wished you were born into a great American family, this is the book you need --- Pell will take you inside the mansion and share every glorious and terrible secret of the aristocracy.

Her mother was so self-involved she never told Eve she loved her until she was 68 and failing. Her father was so cheap he went to a dentist in Queens. Her stepfather's solution to her brother's bed-wetting: take him to the basement, spank him with a dog collar. Such was life in the mansions of her youth. "Books and servants," she writes. "They were the consolations."

How cruel is exclusivity? Try this:

"A boarding school classmate of mine told me about the childhood game called "Club" that she played at private school in first grade. "The point of Club was that two or three girls would belong and gather under the sliding board at recess.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Jane F. Geniesse on May 14, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I could not put it down. What a fascinating memoir, and what courage to have written it! The author apparently worked on it for years, and it certainly has the depth of an effort thoroughly rationalized and complete. For several days after finishing it, I was haunted by the book's characters--especially Eve's mother.They all left an indelible imprint on me, as they certainly had on Eve who has the skill and insight to recreate them for us.
I grieved, as Eve does, over the appalling treatment her brother received--although his parents, tragically, apparently meant to do well by this difficult boy, but they had no instinct for parenting. That they felt the need to follow a very, very mis-guided parenting manual makes for pitiable reading.
As for Eve's descriptions of the nearly vanished debutante traditions, it was fun to read and remember. Being a product of a boarding school myself who "came out" at the Boston Cotillion before going on to Radcliffe, I was charmed by Eve's description of how we dressed, how we behaved and those crazy parties we went to--although she went to far more (and far more glamorous ones) than we Cambridge girls did. My own wonderful brother, a Groton graduate who went on to Harvard, was far busier than I trucking back and forth to New York for the parties. I wonder if Eve knew him...All the same, Boston was not exactly bereft of debutante gaiety....oh, such a long time ago.
I suspect, and Eve hints, that her stunningly beautiful mother vaguely understood that she was not doing the job required for her children---and when Eve finally summoned the courage to tell her so, she spent the next day in bed weeping. That says a lot.
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