- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow; y First printing edition (June 10, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0060857706
- ISBN-13: 978-0060857707
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 32 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #153,030 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Loveliest Woman in America: A Tragic Actress, Her Lost Diaries, and Her Granddaughter's Search for Home Hardcover – June 10, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
The life of Rosamond Pinchot Gaston has the makings of a great story. In 1926, the 20-year-old debutante was headed home from France when a Broadway producer on the ship discovered her and launched her acting career. But the same year, Rosamond also fled fame and wealth to toil at a cannery in California. She planned to force herself to survive without her family, her name, her past, or her bank account. By 1927 she had returned to the stage, though her continued stardom didn't bring happiness: Rosamond committed suicide in 1938. Bibi Gaston, Rosamond's granddaughter, learned about the star only when she received a box containing Rosamond's diaries and scrapbooks. But the author fails to draw us into Rosamond's story. Gaston writes in summary rather than scenes and gives an incomplete sense of Rosamond's character: Rosamond's diaries don't always explain her motivations, such as why she took her hiatus in California. Gaston also writes about her own life and how learning about her grandmother's dramatic life affected her, but the memoir aspect of the book is a distraction from the juicy part of the story. 50 b&w photos. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In contemporary times, with routine tabloid exaggeration and careless superlatives heralding shoddy reality shows, being known as “the loveliest woman in America” doesn’t have quite the same impact as it did in the 1920s, when Gaston’s grandmother, Rosamond Pinchot, was awarded the sobriquet by the American press. For a young woman blossoming at the dawn of the Jazz Age, the accolade was a direct result not of her illustrious family’s wealth or social prominence but of her notoriety as an actress who became an overnight sensation. Of course, such success was not without its consequences. A tumultuous marriage to New York society’s mercurial Bill Gaston and an affair with Broadway’s “bad boy” Jed Harris eventually drove Rosamond to her death at 33. Cloaked in scandal and secrecy, the newly revealed circumstances of her grandmother’s suicide motivated Gaston, a landscape architect, to embark on a painful and transforming journey of discovery that would not only reveal the identities of countless ancestors she never knew existed but would also provide the necessary touchstones for her own spiritual and emotional well-being. --Carol Haggas
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Still, the book is called "The Loveliest Woman in America" and indeed it is Rosamond's beauty that "sells" the book and creates its primary interest, so it would be nice to at least have had more pictures of her, if not more of her diaries too. In fact, I wonder if it wouldn't have been more interesting if she had just published the diary instead of this book. None the less, it is well written and interesting, and certainly better than nothing after the bewitching portrait of Rosamond in Jean Stein's "Edie" sparked an interest in the heretofore long-forgotten actress.
is a gifted storyteller and a brave heart.
The story of Rosamond Pinchot Gaston is one I've caught glimpses of in other books, most recently in Nina Burleigh's "A Very Private Woman" the biography of Rosamond's half-sister Mary Pinchot Meyer, so I was pleased to see a full biography had finally been written. Rosamond was "discovered" at 19. She went on to star in a Broadway hit and appear regularly in the society columns of the 20s and 30s before her seemingly sudden and inexplicable suicide in 1938. This is a story with definite possibilities.
Even after reading that patience was required for this book I wasn't too put off. I have a very limited tolerance for stories about the author's unconventional childhood. Rarely are these stories worth telling to a wide audience and even more rarely are they well told. But who would anyone spend endless pages on, let us say, what it was like to attend elementary school in Princeton, New Jersey in 1963 when material from the life of a woman who hobnobbed with the likes of George Cukor and Claire Boothe Luce was available? No one would be so foolish, right?
In a word: wrong.
My patience was tried mightily by this book. The chapters about Rosamond aren't bad but they do include some very questionable prose and what I can only describe as an addiction to metaphors. Very, very bad metaphors. Elizabeth Arden is described as "a walking empire of ingenuity, a siren of survival, a roving pink tornado." Another woman is described as "dispensing advice like a wheezing lesbian oracle." The champ, however, is the description of Clare Boothe Luce as "one of those women who attacked life with a sledgehammer."
If you can make sense of out that description, please let me know. I can't figure out if Clare is treating life like a tear-down that she plans to remodel or if she wants to reduce it to small pieces she can cart away to her local landfill. Neither of which strikes me as being particularly indicative of ambition. Still, that sentence is a model of clarity compared to "a woman who mucked around in the world of men whose love was about as murky as pond ooze."
Of course, while that is bad prose it isn't as pretentious and downright insufferable as what goes on in the sections when Gaston ruminates on the meaning of life. These sections are helpfully printed in italics so that the reader can fortify him/herself with liquor to face lines like "I suspect most Americans are lost." By the time I got to Gaston's big thesis, delivered to an ex-boyfriend (who she pointlessly lets us know was Canadian), I was wondering if I can soldier on to the end. Then I read the big idea of this book:
"Longing isn't love, it's longing."
I am very sorry to report that the Canadian boyfriend does not appear to have given this line the response it deserved, namely "Woman, please." And so, unaware apparently that this is not profundity of the deepest sort, Gaston goes on to repeat this line three more times in the book so that we will all understand that when people we love go away we sometimes think we love them more than they would if they hung around and got on our nerves.
There's only one way to read the italics portions of this book. Out loud, with friends. Lines like "I was in a deep sleep when I chose the men in my life" are surprisingly entertaining in a group setting. Less entertaining, is Gaston's utter failure to grasp the complexity of mental illness in general and depression specifically. She never explores what Rosamond meant by "Cinderella feeling" although it was obviously a code for feelings of depression and anxiety. Instead she either implies that Rosamond was used and discarded by the star machine and men in her life - what a radical notion, or she declares Rosamond's suicide was just a middle finger aimed at the world. Because suicide is such a rational act.
Most of Rosamond's life gets this barely skin deep treatment. We never understand why Rosamond disliked her mother, why she was so resentful of her step-mother and her half-sisters well into her thirties, why she loved any of the men she loved or why she declared that she hated her own sons. Nor does Rosamond come across as particularly likable half the time although Gaston doesn't seem to notice. "Big Bill" Gaston, Rosamond's husband, comes across as a complete jerk which makes her attraction to him all the more inexplicable.
Oddly enough, the two women who do come out best are actress Kay Francis, who is smart enough to know when a man is a good date but would make a lousy husband, and Lady Diana Cooper, who's truly gracious and compassionate letter to one of Rosamond's sons is included. I get the feeling they'd know what to say if someone told them "longing isn't love, it's longing."
If you do choose to read this book, consider the Kindle edition. Not only does it have all the photographs included but the fanciful spacing at one point makes it appear that Claire Boothe is attempting to rent a portion of Big Bill's anatomy rather than his vacation home.
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