The Loveliest Woman in America by Bibi Gaston
One cold, icy night in the dead of winter, 1938, Rosamond Pinchot – scion of a prominent East Coast family, and world-famous as a “long-legged beauty” who once was the toast of Broadway – committed suicide.
And she did it in style, albeit a grimly premeditated one, as Bibi Gaston recounts in The Loveliest Woman in America, her highly readable, compelling personal memoir of three generations of her pedigreed family’s troubled history.
While Rosamond’s two young sons lay sleeping upstairs, the 33-year-old actress, who was Ms. Gaston’s grandmother, drove her Buick into the three-car garage at her Long Island estate, “took a garden hose, connected it to the exhaust pipe and led it through the rear window into the passenger compartment. She chinked the opening with a piece of burlap so that the fumes would not escape, started the motor and lay down in the backseat.”
At 6:15 a.m., her cook, Ida Hannivan “found her dead, dressed in a white evening gown with an ermine wrap.”
Rosamond’s death was front page news. “In ermine, Rosamond Pinchot exits from life,” declared the New York Daily Mirror. Unable to resist the theatrical allusion, Rosamond Pinchot’s funeral, which drew mourners from both high society and stage and screen, was invariably described as her “final curtain.”
Which was nearly the case. Over the next seven decades, aided and abetted by family silences and evasions, nearly all memory of a once iconic figure – in the twenties Rosamond was heralded as New York’s pre-eminent “It Girl” – receded from view. So much so that Gaston, who was born in the late 1950s, reports that she would grow up knowing only two things about her grandmother: that she was beautiful and that she had killed herself.
In one haunting passage, Gaston writes: “There are a thousand ways of vanishing; a family’s silence is one of them.”
The past lay dormant until the death of Gaston’s eccentric, nomadic, Harvard-educated father in 2001. Estranged from his ex-wife and children for many years, Gaston’s father had lived most of his adult life in Morocco. Upon his death, Gaston inherited a mysterious cardboard box. Looking inside, she discovered some 1,500 pages of Rosamond’s diary, which had been long since given up for lost. A diarist herself since the age of eight (“self-blogging, I guess you could say,” she reports in a publisher’s interview), Ms. Gaston now found herself in possession of her long-deceased grandmother’s innermost thoughts.
Thus began Ms. Gaston’s seven-year search to unlock the secrets of her past. Her book amounts to an inquest into Rosamond’s death, an exploration of her star-crossed family and, ultimately, what she calls her own “search for home.”
Born in 1904, Rosamond Pinchot was the daughter of Amos Pinchot, a prominent New York attorney. His brother was Gifford Pinchot who, after heading the U.S. Forestry Service during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, served two non-consecutive terms as Pennsylvania’s governor in the 1920s and 1930s. Together, the Pinchot brothers helped found the progressive wing of the Republican Party.
In the summer of 1923, Rosamond was on board the Aquitania, a passenger ship, when Max Reinhardt, Europe’s leading theatrical producer, spotted her. For Reinhardt, who was on the qui vive for an American actress for his U.S. debut of “The Miracle,” it was love at first sight. Standing an athletic 5’11 with broad shoulders, she fascinated Reinhardt as she “soared, glided and pirouetted across the dance floor” aboard the ocean liner. Even as she danced the night away, a member of Reinhardt’s retinue approached Rosamond and announced the producer’s interest in casting her in his upcoming play.
Initially, Rosamond demurred. She was only 19 years old, not an actress and had no stage experience.
By the time the ocean-liner sailed into New York harbor, she had consented. The deal awaited only the imprimatur of the production’s impresario, Morris Gest, who we learn is “one of new York’s most relentless publicity hounds.” Gest immediately recognized the public relations bonanza that awaited their casting this child of privilege in Reinhardt’s play.
And Rosamond did not disappoint. In the leading role as the nun Megildis, who grows bored with her life in a medieval cloister, she was not required to speak at length. Lured into the forest by an evil piper, Rosamond as nun would spend the better part of the play wandering through “mysterious landscapes, forests, palaces and prisons” while men battled for her favors.
In addition to her own illustrious family, the opening night of The Miracle was attended by a gathering of not just what Rosamond liked to call in her diary the “On Tops.” Among the Who’s Who that Ms. Gaston lists as attendees were the Whitneys and the Vanderbilts, U.S. Senator Simon Guggenheim, Mrs. Charles Dana Gibson, Mr. and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, the Astors, the Lippincotts, Conde Nast, the Ochs, and Jay Gould (known as the infamous “Mephistopheles of Wall Street”) and his wife.
Other show-goers included the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello and such members of international royalty as the Duke and Duchess de Richelieu. The production itself astonished audiences and critics alike. Alexander Woollcott, the premier theater critic of the day, wrote that it was “a spectacle such as this country had never seen before.” John Corbin of The New York Times, added: “As for Miss Pinchot, the outstanding impression of her performance was the half animal grace and the physical vitality that first attracted Reinhardt’s attention.”
She seemingly had everything, including her pick of men. But there would be only one man for her: the magnetic “Big Bill” Gaston. “Like her father,” Ms. Gaston writes, “he was an attorney and commanded an audience with his mastery of words…There was something deeply familiar about him that women fell in love with, something in his bright blue eyes, sensitivity perhaps, loneliness perhaps.”
Their marriage was celebrated, a mixture of her Pinchots with the patrician Gastons of Boston. Two children followed, but it wasn’t long before the marriage soured. It is here that the diaries are especially informative – and chilling. Consider this anguished passage as Rosamond reflects on an evening after her husband returns home from his favorite speakeasy.
“By this time, 11 o’clock, I’m sunk every night it seems. It’s so dreary living next to a person and hardly speaking to them because you know there is nothing but nastiness between you. When we are alone, we haven’t a word to say. So we sit in silence. Bill left another of his handkerchiefs with lipstick around today. Why the hell must he do that? I feel cornered sometimes. Desperate in any direction. I can see nothing but loneliness and heartbreak at least for a while.”
Through the difficult, stormy years of on-again, off-again separation from her philandering husband – Rosamond and Big Bill never divorced – Rosamond developed close friendships with many of the best-known social, political and business luminaries of the day. Her diary occasionally offers up sharp and even pitiless impressions of, among others, Eleanor Roosevelt, Claire Booth Brokaw (later to be Clare Boothe Luce) and the cosmetics entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden.
United Press had commissioned her to write about Eleanor’s first days in the White House. But many of her best observations appear to have been reserved for her diary. Descrying a plethora of famous faces in the gallery at Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, Rosamond observes, “Politicians don’t look very well out of doors in the daytime. It doesn’t become them.” Of FDR, she notes that his “slightly feeble quips” are “one of the President’s few unattractive characteristics.” And while she approves that “his manners are so genial,” she can’t help but observe that, following a bodyguard out of the room, he moves in his “jerky, paralyzed way.”
The Loveliest Woman in America can be read as a companion to not just the classic novels and plays of the first third of the twentieth century – The House of Mirth, The Great Gatsby, Our Town, Appointment in Samarra – but as a social history as well. Readers will also unfortunately be reminded of the tense relations that existed between the white Anglo-Saxon protestant world of the Pinchots and Gastons and the Jewish community who were emerging as influential in the worlds of theater, publishing and the arts.
The book, of course, also documents the personal history of a family torn apart by suicide and the wounds silence can inflict upon future generations.
For Ms. Gaston herself, the book is not only an exhumation of the past but a meditation, which she shares with the reader, as she contemplates her own life at midpassage.
Paul Sweeney, of Austin, Texas, is a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Institutional Investor and The Texas Observer. Among his journalistic specialties is the personality profile. This is Sweeney’s first book review since his senior year in college when he received an A for a book report on Russian politics.