The subtitle is a promise: ‘Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family’. It promises mystery and its unravelling, and delivers a new literary genre: a steamy bouillabaisse with puzzling lumps of biography, autobiography, genealogy, Freudian family romance, thriller and psycho-philosophical pronouncements floating about in it. Stanford White is the author’s great-grandfather. He was a glamorous turn-of-the-century architect in New York, very sought after in his time and still admired today; though most famous, perhaps, for his death. In 1906 he was shot dead while watching a performance of Mam’zelle Champagne at the Roof Top in Madison Square Gardens (which he designed). The trial that followed has been described as the most sensational in the States until O.J. Simpson came along.
Stanford White’s style was Beaux Arts, which the author equates with Neoclassical. She also calls it ‘imperial’, meaning, presumably, ‘dominating’ or even ‘domineering’; and reflecting the ruthlessness of Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age, to which it belongs. Anyway, it’s not Neoclassical in any European sense, but eclectically historical, using classical orders, but within a mélange of styles: predominantly Renaissance, Louis XIV and Louis XV, never Gothic. White abominated Gothic. He went in for pillars, pilasters, pediments, putti, swags, caryatids, cornices and rosettes, and for huge marble fireplaces and coffered ceilings ripped out of European palaces. Lessard persuades one that he was a genius at using volume and light to create serene, festive space. Nearly all of his New York banks, churches, clubs, company headquarters and palatial mansions for the newly rich have been pulled down or have fallen into decay. His work survives mostly on Long Island, where he built vast summer villas for the same clientèle, including himself. His own house, Box Hill, was and remains the show-piece of an estate – the Place – dotted with houses for members of his extended family.
This is where Lessard grew up in the Forties and Fifties, the eldest of six sisters living among shoals of cousins, uncles, aunts, great-uncles and great-aunts, and the full complement of parents, as well as grandparents and even great-grandparents. The landscape sloped down to the sea and was designed by White, with fountains and statues, formal hedges, arbours, colonnades, stone benches, rows of potted orange trees and a windmill. White’s origins were comparatively humble, but the families he and his son married into were upper-crust and rich. They had sailboats and horses and tennis courts and picnics – every ingredient for growing up idyllic. Lessard describes it all with unbridled, mystically tinged lyricism.
Her book is overwritten, self-indulgent and humourless; cute, mawkish and pretentious by turns, but far from unreadable, and with some powerful and effective passages. Her insights can be strong, some of her descriptions are good, and her excesses are not due to naivety. For years she was a staff writer on the New Yorker, so she has a feel for current preoccupations and tastes. In her straining after the essence of things, she reminds one of David Malouf and of Bruce Chatwin (who married into her clan). I don’t mean that she copies them: she is too committed, too intense for that; an element of what an American reviewer called ‘self-administered therapy’ convinces one that she is too seriously involved to be playing literary games. All the same, her metaphors are a bit much. She describes the look on her great-grandmother’s face, for instance, as ‘brought into focus by sensibility and thought in a way that made one think of a liquid jewel, of wine’. This is on page 182; by page 194 the phenomenon has become hereditary, as Lessard observes in her grand-mother ‘a look of her mother’s that was like a liquid jewel, or like wine’. It’s not a look I’ve ever seen on anyone’s face. Still, it points up the heredity which is as central to Lessard’s saga as the curse of the Atrides or the Nibelungen is to theirs. Come to think of it, it is a curse too.
The passage about the hereditary look also illustrates why it is so fiendishly difficult to sort out the huge cast of characters spread over four philoprogenitive generations. Suzannah Lessard’s great-grandmother, Mrs Stanford White, is perversely known as ‘Grandma’, while her grand-mother, Laura Chanler, is ‘Mama’. ‘Mama’ married Stanford White’s son Lawrence (‘Papa’). So ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ are Lessard’s grandparents. They had eight children, one of whom is Lessard’s mother – referred to as ‘my mother’. Her father is ‘Dad’; rather a come-down. Dad is a composer and comes from a working-class Californian family of French-Canadian origin. Thank goodness the book has a family tree at the front (though, maddeningly, no index at the back): one needs to consult it at every other page.
The two posh Wasp families the Whites married into are the Smiths and the Chanlers, both with Long Island bases and lots of appeal fora heritage readership. The Smiths (Stanford White’s wife was a Smith) are descended from a 17th-century judge and gave their name to the local town, Smithtown. They sound impeccably respectable and one of them married rich enough to leave the others piles of money. The Chanler clan, in the late 19th century, included II orphaned siblings maternally descended from John Jacob Astor. The eldest orphan had eight children, one of whom married Stanford White’s only child Lawrence. This Chanler lady, if you remember, became ‘Mama’ – Lessard’s grandmother with the second-generation liquid jewel/wine face. The Chanlers were amusing and artistic as well as classy. Some were painters, sculptors and musicians; all could write a sonnet at the drop of a hat; many drank and several were certifiably mad. By Lessard’s time they had turned into ‘upper-crust Bohemians’ living in ‘a community of artists’. When her book came out in the States, there were complaints about dirty linen being washed in public; and a cousin with the distinguished name of J. Winthrop Aldrich objected that when Uncle Willie Chanler threw his wooden leg at a waiter it was ‘at Maxim’s in Paris, and not, as Ms Lessard has stated, at Delmonico’s in New York’. The Chanlers were always dashing to Europe, and while living in Rome as a young woman and hobnobbing by preference with the black aristocracy, Daisy Chanler converted to Catholicism. She was Lessard’s great-grandmother on her mother’s side, and the originator of the liquid jewel/wine look. Her descendants, including the author, are Catholics too (it suited the aesthetic strain in the family), while remaining unassailably Wasp in everything but religious observance.
Stanford White was a remarkable architect. He had not just the talent but also the energy and charm necessary to make it in the profession. But he overdid both energy and charm. By the time of his death, at the age of 53, he was dying anyway, though he didn’t know it. Manic overwork fuelled by drink and drugs, and worry over colossal debts had undermined his health. As for the charm, he aimed it not only at clients, but also at an astronomically large number of very young women, whom he seduced, sometimes with a group of friends who called themselves the Sewer Club. One of the young women was a showgirl called Evelyn Nesbit. She was exceptionally beautiful (there is a photograph), and Lessard makes the point that beauty of any kind – human or artistic – was irresistible to her great-grandfather. He seduced her in one of several flats he kept for such purposes. This one had a red velvet swing hanging from the ceiling. Evelyn was only 16, i.e. under age, so whether or not she consented, legally it was rape. On the whole White went in for one-night stands, but Evelyn lasted a few years. When the affair was over she married a creepy millionaire from Detroit. Harry Thaw was unhinged, given to destructive rages; and so jealous of White’s past relations with his wife that he carried a revolver and was always threatening to kill him. So when he took Evelyn to a cabaret show and found White in the audience, he walked over to his table and shot him in the face. The trial (there were two, actually) went on for two years, and ended with Thaw being declared insane and sent to an asylum. In the Fifties the story was made into a film called The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing.
The scandal was never mentioned at the Place. Repression hung in the air. But as Lessard unfolds her tale, other irregularities creep out of the woodwork: her father was very keen on spanking her; her uncle Bobby, the sculptor, was a famous groper and overdid it with her when she was in her early teens; his brother Johnny, who had been lobotomised 25 years before, startlingly married and produced a daughter. The daughter was still at boarding-school when one of her older cousins – known to be unaccountable, if not mad – raped her during a family dance in the old barn. Just then an owl settled on a rafter above
like a minor deity – the deity of the whimsical blessedness of our tribe in its giftedness and its drunkenness, its glories and its failures, its charming idiosyncrasy and terrible disturbance ... I was still capable of being touched by an occasion like this, in which the mad and the unmad danced in our ancestral barn among our houses great and small, cradled in our landscape of sacred spots that held our love of one another in trust.
All the same, the final revelation is a shock. Lessard’s life is going badly: ‘A promising writing career had been throttled by frustration,’ she bleats. ‘A highly valued network of friendships had frayed. Above all, my marriage, which had started full of hope, had become painful and empty as even the home I had worked to create with such joy had become a place without sanctuary.’ (The reason for the last misfortune seems to be that she insisted on building it on the Place in a spot where it annoyed the other inhabitants, and they turned hostile.) Then it’s Christmas 1988. Four of her sisters come to stay at Box Hill. On New Year’s Day the five of them sit on the drawing-room sofa and Madeleine-with ‘the sun creating a coppery halo of her dark brown hair’ – follows her analyst’s instructions to tell the rest that Dad had sexually abused her when she was a child. It turns out that all of them except Isabella had the same experience. And Dad wasn’t even a White or a Smith or a Chanler.
For Lessard, sitting on that sofa, ‘the world cracked open. And inside was the world.’ The therapy – more shock than self-administered – works on all the sisters (who are in their twenties, thirties and forties). They shake off their repressions and grow up at last and learn to love one another instead of being cool. ‘There were no truncated girls here. There were women in the room.’ ‘Grace’ showers down on everybody, ‘conveying a sense of different realities lying alongside’. The prose gets more and more ecstatic. It’s definitely a happy ending.