A Complicated Pedigree

(2001 Snowbound, All Rights Reser)
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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, June 6, 2008

THE LOVELIEST WOMAN IN AMERICA

By Bibi Gaston

Morrow. 339 pp. $26.95.

People write memoirs for so many different reasons!

Bibi Gaston, a well-known landscape architect, seems to have written this one to honor the memory of her grandmother, Rosamond Pinchot, and to leach the mystery and disgrace from Rosamond's suicide, which happened years before Bibi was born. But "The Loveliest Woman in the World" also turns out to be a kind of Dreiserian treatise on the corrosive uses of money and class in America and how self-destructive patterns of behavior are often handed down in families. "Awareness precedes control," the New Age adage says, and by casting a light on the events before and after her grandmother's suicide, Bibi hopes to keep these horrid patterns from cursing generations to come.

We are all born into families whose drafts of personal history have already been heavily edited. We can only know what we are told or what we figure out. Bibi Gaston always knew that her father's mother had killed herself and that no one in the family spoke of her, but only in the vague way of a little child.

One of three children, Bibi grew up in a 200-year-old picturesque old mill 20 miles outside Princeton, N.J. Her father "never went to work," she writes, "but I didn't think it strange because no one in our family ever went to work." He spent life as a world-class eccentric, never without a Moroccan bag filled with bananas and other goodies that he had brought back from his travels. He taunted his wife for the "worst sin imaginable": "accumulation of gross poundage." In 1969 she filed for divorce. An enormous battle over money began, but Bibi didn't understand where the money was. Bibi's mother barely eked out a living as a paralegal, and her father, who claimed relatives with "vast wealth," didn't seem all that well-off either. It wouldn't be until later that Bibi would realize that her Grandmother Rosamond had earned the money herself and had purchased two buildings in Manhattan that her relatives were viciously squabbling over. By 1986, when Bibi graduated from the University of Virginia, she had pretty much had it with her whole seamy, disorganized family: "I was in no hurry to leave because I didn't have anywhere to go."

The same week of her graduation, a college friend asked Bibi along to a dinner party given by novelist John Casey. As she lingered in the hallway, Bibi found a framed magazine advertisement featuring a beautiful woman, "Rosamond Pinchot (Mrs. William Gaston)," as the driver of a "New Century Hupmobile." At the dining table, John Casey surveyed Bibi and said, "She looks like a Pinchot." Through conversation that evening, it became clear that, indeed, the beautiful lady in the magazine ad was Bibi's own grandmother -- the one who had scarcely been spoken of in her own home. Bibi's grandmother had been the success; Bibi's grandmother had been the one with the money. (Mrs. Casey was Rosamond's niece -- a whole other story.)

It would be years before she would piece together the story. Rosamond Pinchot, Bibi learned, was the niece of Gifford Pinchot, chief of the U.S. Forest Service and governor of Pennsylvania in the 1920s and '30s. Rosamond's father, Amos, made his home in Grey Towers, a replica of an ancient French chateau. Teddy Roosevelt was a family friend. The young Rosamond, on an Atlantic crossing with her mother, was discovered by theatrical mogul Max Reinhardt, who asked her to star in "The Miracle," a mammoth religious pageant he was putting together for a Broadway run. Rosamond didn't have to act -- just run up and down aisles a lot and look astonished. She became an instant celebrity, was dubbed "the loveliest woman in America" and from then on was stuck trying to figure out what all that meant.

Rosamond kept copious diaries, which are excerpted in the book. In them, she writes about belonging to the upper crust of Manhattan, or as she called it, the "on tops." She made a lot of money and bought those two buildings in Manhattan, a decision that would bring her descendants distress and extended drama. She was not a particularly good actress, but she went to Hollywood, where her screen test didn't pan out. Her life then took a downward turn: She was dropped from the New York Social Register in 1934. She had married a brute, "Big Bill" Gaston, with whom she had two children. But he maintained strings of girlfriends, and ultimately they divorced. Bibi realized, two generations later, that "the women in my family had self-destructed over men for three generations." Rosamond eventually began living on lettuce and buttermilk in an effort to lose weight. She went from Belle of the Ball to Hard Luck Girl. She took up with Jed Harris, the director of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," and killed herself on opening night. The ugly fight over who owned the Manhattan buildings began. Two prominent New York families -- the Pinchots and the Gastons -- began to crumble from within.

Bibi Gaston does a remarkable job piecing together this dramatic family history, but two questions remain: Bibi's father's younger brother is said to have acquired (somehow) those two buildings and the income from them. How did he manage that? But that's a Dreiserian question, outside the scope of this memoir. The other question: Has Bibi Gaston thrown off the family curse by writing about it? That, of course, remains to be seen.

Sunday in Book World

A vacation's worth of summer novels, including:

· A magical book about a boy and his dogs.

· A thrilling western from Leif Enger.

· The rich life of "Olive Kitteridge."

· And Chuck Palahniuk's porn saga.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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