Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous

Detail from a photographic self-portrait in the nude by Amélie Rives (1892) and, inset, John Armstrong (
Detail from a photographic self-portrait in the nude by Amélie Rives (1892) and, inset, John Armstrong ("Archie") Chanler (Special Collections / Univ. Of Virginia Library And, Inset, Rokeby Collection)
Reviewed by Francine Prose
Sunday, July 30, 2006

ARCHIE AND AMÉLIE

Love and Madness in the Gilded Age

By Donna M. Lucey

Harmony. 339 pp. $25.95

Perhaps I'm a shallow reader, in search of the cheap thrill, but when a historical biography begins with its hero escaping from the Bloomingdale Asylum, a "madhouse for the rich" in 1900, the book exerts a fairly immediate claim on my attention. Such is the case with Archie and Amélie , in which, we will presently learn, the daring escapee is none other than John Armstrong "Archie" Chanler, a society figure and scion of Old New York's distinguished Astor family. To sustain our interest, the narrative must build on that somewhat theatrical beginning, and thanks to the vividness of its subject matter and the lucidity of its style, this tale of "love and madness in the Gilded Age" does just that. Throughout, it engages its readers in the initially charming and ultimately harrowing tale of the marriage between two self-willed and self-absorbed thoroughbreds, a public and scandalous romance that crashed and burned, as such romances are wont to do, in a decidedly spectacular fashion.

Wearing its research lightly, Donna M. Lucey's book tracks the all-too-relevant family history of the unfortunate Archie, a member of an entitled Hudson River clan whose considerable eccentricity failed to muddle an essential hardheadedness when it came to matters of inheritance and the distribution of family wealth. Meanwhile, the lovely Amélie Rives was growing up in a similarly prestigious but inconveniently impecunious Southern matriarchy. Reduced circumstances hardly clouded Amélie's sense of her own worth and even perhaps inspired her to step out on her own and became a famous writer. Her most successful fiction, The Quick or the Dead? (1899 -- with that question mark lending the title its hilarious piquancy), was a steamy account of a widow's erotic passion for her late husband's look-alike cousin. The novel sold an impressive 300,000 copies and, as might have been expected, won its lovely and unashamedly self-promoting author a remarkable amount of notoriety, including so much upsetting hate mail that she had to ask her publisher to screen her correspondence.

The couple met in Newport, and the attraction between them sizzled as a consequence of an incident with a lost dancing shoe -- an event that sounds like real life imitating Cinderella as reimagined by Margaret Mitchell. After a rocky courtship, the wildly ambitious and seductive Amélie finally said yes, and the pair were married in a hasty ceremony attended by only one member of Archie's proper, fiercely territorial family.

To Lucey's credit, she mostly leaves us to draw our own conclusions when, soon after the wedding, Amélie began writing her sister-in-law letters steeped in grief and anguish. Was Archie more than slightly mad? Was the flirtatious Amélie frigid? Could their postnuptial difficulties have had something to do with sex? After this inauspicious beginning, the marriage limped through seven more years, much of which the couple spent apart or abroad.

Along the way, Amélie became the toast of Europe, making the acquaintance of such literary luminaries as Oscar Wilde and Henry James. There she also became involved in a disastrously passionate friendship with Archie's unstable younger brother and discovered the splendors and misery of morphine addiction. Though Archie appears to have indulged his wife's every whim -- renting the palace at Fontainebleau as a vacation villa -- money, it seemed, was not enough to buy connubial bliss.

Eventually, in 1895, the ill-matched pair divorced, further shocking and embarrassing relatives on both sides of the family. Four months later, Amélie remarried a certain Russian Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy, "an artist and an aristocrat," who, like his new wife, possessed more glamour and panache than money. Meanwhile, poor Archie descended into madness, combining paranoia with schemes for communicating with dead spirits. Among his delusions was the conviction that he could put himself into a sort of trance in which his face would somehow morph into the death mask of Napoleon.

Worried about Archie's welfare, and perhaps even more concerned about how his instability might affect their family fortune, his siblings arranged to have him transported and committed to the Bloomingdale Asylum, in the northern suburbs of Manhattan, from which, against all odds, Archie managed to liberate himself. After a struggle to clear his name of the insanity allegations, he retired to Virginia, to a mansion not far from Amélie's ancestral home. There his declining years were marked by increasing madness and high drama: Archie shot and killed the husband of an abused wife who had taken refuge in his home.

Reading Archie and Amélie , I found myself thinking of the famous conversation between Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. "The rich are different from you and me," Fitzgerald is supposed to have said, to which Hemingway allegedly replied, "Yes, they have more money." What Archie and Amélie suggests is that the rich may have been even more different from the rest of us, at least before the pharmaceutical industry discovered how to modify the bizarre behaviors that were, for so long, the privilege of the privileged. ·

Francine Prose's "Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them" will be published in September.


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