Early in The Loveliest Woman in America, "The author requests the reader's patience." As well she should.
The story of Rosamond Pinchot Gaston is one I've caught glimpses of in other books, most recently in Nancy ... "A Very Private Woman" the biography of Rosamond's half-sister Mary Pinchot Meyer, so I was pleased to see a full biography had finally been written. Rosamond was "discovered" at 19. She went on to star in a Broadway hit and appear regularly in the society columns of the 20s and 30s before her seemingly sudden and inexplicable suicide in 1937. This is a story with definite possibilities.
Even after reading that patience was required for this book I wasn't too put off. I have a very limited tolerance for stories about the author's unconventional childhood. Rarely are these stories worth telling to a wide audience and even more rarely are they well told. But who would anyone spend endless pages on, let us say, what it was like to attend elementary school in Princeton, New Jersey in 1963 when material from the life of a woman who hobnobbed with the likes of George Cukor and Claire Boothe Luce was available? No one would be so foolish, right?
In a word: wrong.
My patience was tried mightily by this book. The chapters about Rosamond aren't bad but they do include some very questionable prose and what I can only describe as an addiction to metaphors. Very, very bad metaphors. Elizabeth Arden is described as "a walking empire of ingenuity, a siren of survival, a roving pink tornado." Another woman is described as "dispensing advice like a wheezing lesbian oracle." The champ, however, is the description of Clare Boothe Luce as "one of those women who attacked life with a sledgehammer."
If you can make sense of out that description, please let me know. I can't figure out if Clare is treating life like a tear-down that she plans to remodel or if she wants to reduce it to small pieces she can cart away to her local landfill. Neither of which strikes me as being particularly indicative of ambition. Still, that sentence is a model of clarity compared to "a woman who mucked around in the world of men whose love was about as murky as pond ooze."
Of course, while that is bad prose it isn't as pretentious and downright insufferable as what goes on in the sections when Gaston ruminates on the meaning of life. These sections are helpfully printed in italics so that the reader can fortify his/herself with liquor to face lines like "I suspect most Americans are lost." By the time I got to Gaston's big thesis, delivered to an ex-boyfriend (who she pointlessly lets us know was Canadian), I was wondering if I can soldier on to the end. Then I read the big idea of this book:
"Longing isn't love, it's longing."
I am very sorry to report that the Canadian boyfriend does not appear to have given this line the response it deserved, namely "Bitch, please." And so, unaware apparently that this is not profundity of the deepest sort, Gaston goes on to repeat this line three more times in the book so that we will all understand that when people we love go away we sometimes think we love them more than they would if they hung around and got on our nerves.
There's only one way to read the italics portions of this book. Out loud, with friends. Lines like "I was in a deep sleep when I chose the men in my life" are surprisingly entertaining in a group setting. Less entertaining, is Gaston's utter failure to grasp the complexity of mental illness in general and depression specifically. She never explores what Rosamond meant by "Cinderella feeling" although it was obviously a code for feelings of depression and anxiety. Instead she either implies that Rosamond was used and discarded by the star machine and men in her life - what a radical notion, or she declares Rosamond's suicide was just a middle finger aimed at the world. Because suicide is such a rational act.
Most of Rosamond's life gets this barely skin deep treatment. We never understand why Rosamond disliked her mother, why she was so resentful of her step-mother and her half-sisters well into her thirties, why she loved any of the men she loved or why she declared that she hated her own sons. Nor does Rosamond come across as particularly likable half the time although Gaston doesn't seem to notice. "Big Bill" Gaston, Rosamond's husband, comes across as a complete jerk which makes her attraction to him all the more inexplicable.
Oddly enough, the two women who do come out best are actress Kay Francis, who is smart enough to know when a man is a good date but would make a lousy husband, and Lady Diana Cooper, who's truly gracious and compassionate letter to one of Rosamond's sons is included. I get the feeling they'd know what to say if someone told them "longing isn't love, it's longing."
If you do choose to read this book, consider the Kindle edition. Not only does it have all the photographs included, the very interested formatting of this version makes hilarious lines like "Clare hatched the perfect plan to rent Big Bill's Crotch _________Island" possible.