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The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family by [Lessard, Suzannah]
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The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family Kindle Edition

3.1 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Length: 350 pages Word Wise: Enabled Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
Page Flip: Enabled

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Editorial Reviews Review

In 1906, Suzannah Lessard's great-grandfather, the prominent architect, socialite, and hedonist Stanford White, was sensationally murdered by the husband of a showgirl White had seduced when she was 16. The acquittal of the killer on the grounds of insanity added to the scandalous gossip. In this beautifully written memoir, Lessard, a writer for the New Yorker, recalls growing up on the White family estate on Long Island, where the murder was a taboo subject. She evokes a sense of repressed and dark passion that infected the harmonious landscaping and architecture White had created. She writes of "coldness that may feel like warmth, or violence that presents as lust for life." In this extraordinarily literary nonfiction mystery, Lessard slowly reveals that her family history held more secrets than the murder, and reaches a startling and controversial climax.

From Publishers Weekly

When a writer as gifted as Lessard makes her debut with a memoir as candid, perceptive and wrenchingly affecting as this history of her family, it is a signal event. While the complex character and magnificent accomplishments of Lessard's great-grandfather, celebrated Gilded Age architect and murder victim Stanford White, could indeed be the focus of a fascinating story, Whiting Award winner Lessard brings to her assiduously researched narrative a depth of understanding and a moral vision that imbue this work with a deeper significance. This is a mesmerizing narrative composed of many interlocking layers. Most simply, it is an account of the several ancestral lines from which Stanford White descended, and of how the genetic strain of genius and rampant sexual perversity affected his descendants. It's a lucidly detailed portrait of several upper-class social milieus from whose combined values White was formed: the Smiths of Smithtown, Long Island, unpretentious Yankee stock intimately tied to their land holdings over many generations; the Chanler siblings, eccentric and vastly wealthy orphans brought up on a splendid country estate in the Hudson River valley. It is an incandescent depiction of the classical monuments that White contributed to our culture, from the Washington Square Arch to a mansion at Newport. It is an evocation of Box Hill, the almost magically beautiful and serene family compound on Long Island, where Lessard was raised, and of the dark secrets that shadowed its idyllic vistas. It is a chronicle of the circumstances leading to demented millionaire Harry Thaw's revenging his wife Evelyn Nesbit's honor by murdering White in Madison Square Garden in 1906, with what we already know about the sensational event augmented by Lessard's portrait of the bizarre silence in which the family shrouded the crime. And it is a personal revelation of Lessard's own suffering, of the sexual abuse to which she and her siblings were subjected and of the reasons this perversion occurred and was tolerated. Lessard is a writer of mature talent, immense sensibility and poetic expression. Her understanding of the visceral and spiritual effects of architecture and music and landscape on the heart and the soul is both brilliantly instinctive and intelligently reasoned. As exposed by Lessard, what resulted from the family's genteel social code?which prohibited discussion of emotions and pain?is practically a textbook example of psychological dysfunction. That Lessard finally has been able?at great emotional cost?to tell her overlapping stories with simple eloquence is both a triumph for her and a resonating experience for her readers. Illustrations. BOMC and QPB selections; first serial to the New Yorker.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 3864 KB
  • Print Length: 350 pages
  • Publisher: Delta; Reprint edition (January 23, 2013)
  • Publication Date: January 23, 2013
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00ATLA8P2
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #837,204 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Lance C. Panzer on June 2, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book defies a brief explanation. I sensed deep passion in the author as I read her words, a passion for her family's weaknesses and strengths, a passion for knowing herself, a passion for the power of architecture, and a passion for her great-grandfather, the infuriatingly complex architect, Stanford White.
Stanford was generous and careless, creative and self-destructive, maniacally disciplined and utterly irresponsible. While he selflessly gave his heart and soul to his massive stone buildings, he thoughtlessly shattered the hearts and lives of the people around him. Even while he was racked by ill health, he drove himself in his work life AND his recreational life as if he were immortal. He either believed he could never die, or knew he surely must and so didn't care.
The sexual portrait of Stanford can be rather harrowing: The countless love nests he set up around New York; his systematic debauchery of young women (many of whom fell in love with him); the attorneys he hired to hush things up; the endless supply of cronies he found to join him in his nocturnal plundering--his appetites--and his ability to feed his appetites--knew no limits. As for Evelyn Nesbit, the celebrated beauty who arguably played a role in Stanford's murder, I'll just say she wasn't the first girl to ride in his red velvet swing.
Finally, two notes. This author presents architecture, and its impact on the human psyche, in a beautiful, moving way; she breathes life into the bricks of Stanford's buildings. And her depiction of the Gilded Age is superb. It's the stuff of a great trashy Summer novel. Except it's real. And probably still goes on today.
I should also warn future readers that there's a fair amount of incest in this book.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Before I start to review the book, I must say that I have been fascinated by the story of the death of Stanford White since the first time I heard it when I was in my teens. Of course, I was fascinated in a very `young' way. Something on the order of `You mean they did those things back then, too.' And the book satisfied (and broadened) my by now adult fascination. What a pleasure to read.
Ms. Lessard (White's great-granddaughter) has written a brilliant family history, showing how White's death affected the family through 4 generations.
But the book is far from merely a family history. The author discusses througouht the book her own love-hate relationship with her great grandfather and the beautiful and (for her) frightening architecture he left behind. From the New York Public Library to her own college and New York's Washington Square arch, White's architecture is everywhere.
The author is unsparing in her judgements of White, and perceptive in her conclusi! ! ons about him. And what's more, I learned the facts of the story from the inside, which constituted a fascinating and satisfying quest.
I would fail in my efforts to review this book if I didn't mention the pleasure and excitement that I felt while immersed in Ms. Lessard's description of the Gilded Age. Is it because we are at the end of the century now as well that the Gilded Age retains its fascination? I can't say. But she does a masterful job of evoking the era.
And the almost legendary people who make appearances: Stanford White, Evelyn Nesbit, John Barrymore, Harry Thaw. What a fascinating book. I would say it's the best book of it's type I've ever read, but I'm not sure what type it is. However, it is deeply satisfying and interesting in the most intimate of ways.
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Format: Paperback
What would it be like to be descended from one of America's most celebrated architects? For that matter, what would it be like to be descended from a man whose lurid, predatory sexual practices were once front-page news?
Members of the Stanford White family have had to deal with those issues for almost 100 years now, since White was gunned down at Madison Square Garden in 1906. For the most part, the White family did not discuss their illustrious pater familias, but Stanford White is ever-present, in all respects, in their collective lives. How the family did (or did not) deal with this mixed legacy would manifest itself over the next four generations.
Suzannah Lessard, a great-granddaughter of Stanford White, addresses this legacy squarely. She does not attempt to suger-coat White's personality, which combines breath-taking artistic genius with a self-indulgent predatory streak that ultimately led to his destruction. Through the book, she weaves multiple tales about her family, which includes stories of mental illness, sexual abuse, and emotional repression. She does this with remarkable candor.
This is a Social Register family. They are related to the Astors, the Winthrops, the Chanlers, the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers, etc. They own a magnificent property, designed by Stanford White, on Long Island. On the surface, it would appear that this family has the world as its oyster. Suzannah Lessard shows that no amount of social prominence and privelage can protect a family from the problems that can face us all.
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