by James Fox
Review by Cathleen Myers
Irene was America’s first Supermodel – the living incarnation of the Gibson Girl created by her artist husband Charles Dana Gibson. Nancy became Lady Astor – the first woman in Parliament. Romantic Phyllis married economist Robert Brand, the world peace architect who helped shape the founding of the United Nations. Lizzie, the very model of a respectable Southern Lady, married into genteel poverty. But free spirit Nora, whose lovers may have included F. Scott Fitzgerald, was a law unto herself.
They were the beautiful Langhorne sisters of Virginia – born into the last generation of Post-Civil War Southern Belles. The story of Irene, Nancy and Phyllis’ rise to international fame is both an utterly fascinating tale and an important chapter in feminist history. James Fox, Phyllis’ grandson, is able to draw on a mountain of unpublished private correspondence as well as from family oral tradition to create a unique biography. True, his reliance on family tradition is both a strength and a weakness. It gives him valuable first hand evidence but he also tends to accept certain controversial conclusions (like the purely Platonic nature of Nancy’s relationship with her lover Philip Kerr) as Gospel. We are told, preposterously, that Nancy resented the drop-in visits of the King. (Yeah. Right.); and that Nancy and Phyllis had 20 inch waists. Their photos, especially Nancy’s, show them to be a pair of stunning athletic beauties and it is easy to believe they were the finest horsewomen in the world. But they were not unusually slender.
It is understandable that Fox focuses primarily on Nancy Astor and Phyllis Brand. Lady Astor is a feminist icon – a rebellious tomboy who became not only a great political hostess but also the first female career politician of the modern age. And Phyllis Brand, though less brilliant than her sister, played an important behind the scenes as the muse and helpmate of the leader of an important political movement. Since Fox knew her husband intimately, we get some really good inside stories about the family. But those of us who live and die for the history of fashion and beauty, cannot help but wish that Fox had devoted more space and far more photos to the dazzling Irene, who helped shape the ideal of American beauty into a new mode – the healthy, independent, athletic, and confident Gibson Girl. This is a feminist achievement in itself. Indeed, as with many male historians, Fox’s weakness is in the "traditionally female" branches of knowledge: Fashion history, corsets, housekeeping details, and dance. He gives us tantalizing glimpses of Irene’s triumphs as America’s leading Belle, leading the Grand March and the Cotillion even in such Yankee Society Strongholds as Mrs. Astor’s "400" parties. But it’s obvious he hasn’t a clue what a Cotillion is.
Still, you’ll enjoy this book. Fox is a fine story teller with a thorough understanding of the political and social backdrop of the sisters’ story, which stretches from the end of the Civil War to the 1960’s.
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