Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women

Written by Alfred Allan Lewis
Review by Ellen Keith

What do Bessy Marbury, Elsie de Wolfe, Anne Morgan, and Anne Vanderbilt have in common? After reading this group biography, I’m still wondering. On the surface the facts are these: Bessy Marbury was a play agent who became the domestic partner of Elsie de Wolfe, an actress better known as an interior designer and later wife of Sir Charles Mendl. Somewhere along the way, Elsie had to start sharing Bessy with Anne Morgan (daughter of financier J. P. Morgan), and Anne in turn later became enamored with Anne Vanderbilt, wife of Willie K. Vanderbilt, although her feelings were not reciprocated romantically.

All of these pairings occurred against the backdrop of the turn of the century with labor strikes, World War I, and Oscar Wilde, among other notables, providing plenty of color. This book was so crammed full of details such as in “Mr. Blank was also so-and-so’s cousin” that I was exhausted. By making this a biography rather than fiction, Lewis must rely on the facts rather than artistic license, so at a dinner attended by both Anne Morgan and Vita Sackville-West, Anne is described as “probably most fascinated by the beautiful Vita.” There are a lot of “probablies” in this book. Granted these are all interesting women in their own right, and one can make a case for Marbury, de Wolfe, and Morgan getting the group treatment, but it wasn’t until more than halfway through the book that I saw why Vanderbilt had been included as well. Reading this book is like having several books spliced together—an uneven experience.