Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy, A Lost Generation Love Storyby Amanda Vaill
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"Once upon a time there was a prince and a princess -- that's how the story of the Murphys should begin," said a friend of this golden pair. Handsome, gifted, wealthy Americans with homes in Paris and on the French Riviera, Gerald and Sara Murphy were at the very center of expatriate cultural and social life during the modernist ferment of the 1920s. Gerald Murphy -- witty, urbane, and elusive -- was a giver of magical parties and an acclaimed painter. Sara Murphy, an enigmatic beauty who wore her pearls to the beach, enthralled and inspired Pablo Picasso (he painted her both clothed and nude), Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The models for Nicole and Dick Diver in Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night,the Murphys also counted among their friends John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Fernand Leger, Archibald MacLeish, Cole Porter, and a host of others. Far more than mere patrons, they were kindred creative spirits whose sustaining friendship released creative energy. Yet none of the artists who used the Murphys for their models fully captured the real story of their lives: their Edith Wharton childhoods, their unexpected youthful romance, their ten-year secret courtship, their complex and enduring marriage -- and the tragedy that struck them, when the world they had created seemed most perfect, in what Gerald called, "our most vulnerable spot, our children." Certainly Fitzgerald, who once complained that there were no second acts in American lives, could not have envisioned the tenacity with which the Murphys struggled to hold themselves and their charmed circle together through the dark years of the thirties and forties, when death, financial ruin, madness, and war assailed it. Amanda Vaill's account of the Murphys and their friends follows them through the whole arc of their glittering and sometimes tragic lives -- the first such account to do so. Drawing on a hitherto untapped wealth of family diaries, photographs, letters and other papers, as well as on archival research and interviews on two continents, Vaill has documented the pivotal role of the Murphys in the interplay of cultures that gave rise to the Lost Generation. She explores for the first time the sexual undercurrents that ran beneath Gerald's and Sara's relationships with Picasso, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald and affected the work of all three men. Most important, she evokes both Murphys, and the geniuses who had the good fortune to be their friends, with a clarity and tenderness that makes them virtually step off the page. "There was a shine to life wherever they were," said the poet Archibald MacLeish -- and this book, which reads as much like a rich and engaging novel as a work of biography, shows why.
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"My father, of course, had wanted boys"
SARA SHERMAN WIBORG MURPHY was a figure of myth long before the Fitzgeralds and the Hemingways and MacLeishes met her in France. Her father, Frank Bestow Wiborg, had been born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1855, the son of Henry Paulinus Wiborg, a Norwegian immigrant who was either a deckhand on a lake steamer (as family legend has it) or "one of the pioneer businessmen of Cleveland" (as the Centennial History of Cincinnati describes him). When Frank was about twelve, his father died; according to the deckhand legend, he contracted pneumonia while saving the victims of a boat accident, and his widow, Susan, remarried a man with whom young Frank could not get along. In the best Horatio Alger tradition, Frank Wiborg then reportedly left home to seek his fortune and found his way to Cincinnati, where he managed to gain admittance to the Chickering Institute, a select college preparatory academy emphasizing the classics and sciences.
He graduated in 1874 -- in his family's account, he paid his way by peddling newspapers -- and got work as a salesman for a producer of printer's ink, Levi Addison Ault, and so dazzled his employer that a mere four years later Ault offered him a partnership in the company. This was the great period of printmaking, when newspaper lithographs, sheet music, poetry broadsheets, glossy magazines, and posters were the predominant mode of graphic expression, and the new company of Ault and Wiborg, which manufactured and mixed its own dry color to produce high-quality lithographer's ink, found its product in great demand, not only in the United States but worldwide. Toulouse-Lautrec was just one of the artists who used Ault and Wiborg inks for his prints; and the company commissioned him to create an advertising poster, using as a model the beautiful Misia Natanson, patron and muse of Vuillard, Proust, Bonnard, Faure, and Ravel.
The engineer of this dynamic expansion, Frank Wiborg was the very model of the spirit of American enterprise. Young, handsome in a foursquare, mustachioed, Teddy Roosevelt kind of way, restless, dynamic, and smart, he was clearly a man on the way up. And he gave himself an immeasurable boost by marrying, in 1882, the daughter of one of Ohio's most illustrious families.
Adeline Moulton Sherman was willowy, dark-haired, and pretty, the daughter of Major Hoyt Sherman, a lawyer and banker who had served as United States paymaster during the Civil War and accumulated all enormous fortune in Iowa, his adopted state, which he represented as a state legislator for many years. One of his brothers was Senator John Sherman of Ohio, who gave the Sherman Anti-Trust Act its name; another was the Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, who memorably marched through Georgia from Atlanta to the sea, burning and pillaging as he went, and remarked (from personal experience, no doubt) that "War is hell." Marrying Adeline transformed Frank Wiborg from up-and-coming to already-there; all that was needed was a son to set the seal on his happiness.
He was destined to be disappointed. The year after their marriage, Addie Wiborg gave birth to a daughter, "After an awful struggle," noted the new father in his diary for November 7, 1883, "at 7:15 [p.m.] a little girl baby arrives. I never experienced such great relief and we are all very happy over it." At the top of the page he wrote, in large round letters: "Sara Sherman Wiborg born." Sara was followed, four years later, by a second daughter, Mary Hoyt, and two years after that by a third, Olga Marie. "My father, of course, had wanted boys," said Sara many years afterward, "but he became resigned to girls later on and was always wonderful to his three daughters."
Certainly, in a material sense, he was. At the time of Sara's birth, Wiborg had already established his household outside of Cincinnati proper, in the country suburb of Clifton; soon he built a mansion for his growing family, complete with stables and a sunken garden, at the intersection of Clifton Avenue and Senator Place -- the latter, almost inevitably, was named after another uncle of his wife's, Senator George H. Pendleton. The new house, which one reached by driving over a wooden bridge from Clifton Avenue, was a showplace, positively bristling with imported boiserie and fancy furniture. The lofty ceilings, towering mantels, and winding staircases were embellished with carved birds and garlands; the walls were hung with splendid tapestries; the floors were inlaid with rare woods; and in the large parlor, the drawing room, and the spacious hall, Venetian and French mirrors reflected back the glow of chandeliers. There was a library and music room, and just off the library -- as one Cincinnati society reporter breathlessly noted -- a little Turkish smoking room, "all the appointments of which were brought from Cairo by the Wiborgs, even to the carved jalousies through which the veiled daughters of the Turkish Beys see and remain unseen,"
The Wiborg daughters, veiled or not, were emphatically not unseen. They attended Miss Ely's private school for girls in Cincinnati, to which they were driven each morning in a two-horse barouche. In winter, to protect them from the chill, the carriage was closed, causing what Sara referred to as "squeamish feelings," so that the girls arrived at school "sometimes pale and shaken." At Miss Ely's the girls worked hard: they learned French from a Madame Fredin as well as geography, arithmetic, composition, grammar, history, music, and drawing; but in the afternoons and on holidays they ran decorously wild through the woods and fields of Clifton, riding, "coasting" (sledding), and playing outdoors with the dogs -- the Wiborgs kept dachshunds and wolfhounds -- or picking wildflowers in the pasture.
Birthdays were celebrated with enthusiasm and much suspense over who would draw what favor out of the traditional cake: would it be the thimble (which foretold spinsterhood), the sixpence (riches), or the ring (marriage)? At other times the children played at dressing up, or bundled into bed with their friends to watch a magic lantern show. But often their amusements had a more worldly cast -- a performance of the opera Hansel and Gretel at Christmastime, a Paderewski concert ("beautiful," pronounced twelve-year-old Sara), or an excursion to see Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in King Arthur.
Sara exhibited an early interest in music, but her two favorite pastimes were drawing ("I think drawing is lovely," she confided to her diary at age twelve) and dancing. "I went to dancing school and had a good time," she wrote. "Always do on Thursdays!!!" Blond and fresh-faced, with slanting eyes and delicate features, she had an elfin quality that set her apart from her equally beautiful but strikingly different sisters: the dark, intense Mary Hoyt (who was called Hoytie) and the classically serene Olga. Hoytie, an imperious, self-involved child who once protested, in a sudden summer rainstorm, "It's raining on me!" was her father's favorite, and she and Sara had an uneasy relationship. Sara was far closer to Olga, despite the difference in their ages.
Their father, who was known as an exacting but fair employer, ran his family the way he ran his company. He expected from his womenfolk the same enterprise and industry that had made him a millionaire by the time he was forty; and for the most part he got it. The strain of living up to Frank's expectations took its toll, however: as time passed, Adeline suffered increasingly from headaches and digestive twinges and other manifestations of late-Victorian malaise, although she soldiered on valiantly. She was a world-class party giver who could turn a drawing room into a bower of enchantment (as the society columnists were fond of saying) with the best of them. And as she progressed from entertaining le tout Cincinnati to consorting with the presidents and princes who were Frank's clients and associates at home and abroad, she realized that her three charming daughters were potent weapons in her social arsenal.
In 1898 the Wiborgs went to live in Germany so Frank could expand Ault and Wiborg's European presence, and the young Misses Wiborg proved themselves as adept at charming royalty as they did the citizens of Cincinnati. They had met Kaiser Wilhelm II in Norway the previous summer, when they were invited on board the imperial yacht, the Hohenzollern, and His Imperial Majesty bad given the girls ribbons emblazoned with the ship's name for their broad-brimmed hats and had "kissed us all around," as Sara reported to an aunt. Now they renewed the acquaintance at an afternoon audience at the kaiser's Charlottenburg Palace, which fourteen-year-old Sara, aware of the event's importance, chronicled in a leather-bound journal, At the palace a footman in silver livery led the Wiborgs up a marble staircase to a waiting room where, after a few moments, "the door flew open and two large Russian hounds came bounding in and close after them the princes and the little princess. Last of all came the Kaiser and the Kaiserin."
The Wiborg girls politely kissed the empress's hand and tried to do the same to the kaiser, but -- possibly sensitive about his withered left arm -- he demurred. They exchanged handshakes with the princes and princess, but soon all the children were romping with the dogs on the rug. The oldest princes provided a diversion by trooping off upstairs to do their lessons and making such a clatter that, wrote Sara with typical candor, "it sounded as if the ceiling were falling down." But the kaiser and kaiserin only laughed, and offered their guests hot chocolate "with whip cream" and cakes, There was one tricky moment during this momentous occasion when eight-year-old Olga lost her gloves and thought she must have dropped them under the table -- to grope, or not to grope? -- but the youngest prince simply dived beneath the cloth to retrieve them, shooing away the footmen who tried to help him.
All this familial gemutlichkeit gave Frank Wiborg, and his company, a kind of most favored nation status in Germany, and enhanced Frank's standing among American industrialists as well. Four years later, when the kaiser's brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, made a trip to the United States, the Wiborgs were among his official hosts, and "lavishly entertained" him (as the Cincinnati Enquirer's reporter put it) at Clifton. But by then Frank and Adeline Wiborg had extended their social horizons far beyond the banks of the Ohio.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, New York City was the mercantile, artistic, and social capital of America. It was the fulcrum on which J. P. Morgan rested the lever of his millions; it was home to Mrs. Astor's ballroom and the four hundred blue bloods who could dance in it; it boasted the Metropolitan Opera, Andrew Carnegie's palatial Florentine-inspired Music Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Ladies' Mile, and Madison Square Garden. If you were going to be a leader of industry or society -- and the Wiborgs aspired to be both -- you had to conquer New York. Cincinnati might be the Queen City of the West, but compared to New York it was sleepy and provincial.
Adeline Wiborg already had New York connections through her sister, Helen Sherman Griffith, who was married to Lieutenant General Nelson Miles, and through a cousin, Colgate Hoyt. And with Frank on the move so much of the time, shuttling between Ault and Wiborg offices and factories in Europe and Asia and South America, it made sense for her to establish some kind of pied-a-terre in New York. She settled on the Gotham Hotel, which had recently been built on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, a fashionable address, with smart, up-to-date accommodations, and no servants to hire or worry about.
Many women of Adeline's class and economic bracket would have made a move to New York in order to launch their daughters on a course toward a brilliant marriage, but this thought seems to have been far from Adeline's mind. Although by now Sara was in her teens, an age when most young girls of her class were being prepared for presentation to society and then for marriage, Adeline tried to postpone this inevitable progression. Perhaps, as her granddaughter later theorized, she simply enjoyed Sara's company and wished to keep her to herself; or perhaps she and Frank were simply too busy to attend to the business of marrying Sara off. Possibly she needed Sara as a buffer against her energetic and demanding husband. Whatever the reason, their eldest daughter, like a princess in a fairy tale, grew ever taller and fairer -- and still she stayed in the schoolroom with Hoytie and Olga. It was as if the three sisters were a matched set, "the Wiborg girls," traveling companions and social ornaments, to be shown off in public but enjoyed only in private.
In the late autumn of 1902, Frank Wiborg was asked to accompany his brother-in-law General Miles, who was commander in chief of the army, on a round-the-world fact-finding trip. Their party planned a stopover in Peking, where only two years previously rebellious anti-Western Chinese soldiers had held the entire foreign colony hostage, killing 234 of the 480 defenders, for fifty-five days during the Boxer Rebellion -- but no such incidents marred this trip. After an audience with the dowager empress, Hu-Tsi, Frank and the general boarded the Trans-Siberian Railroad for St. Petersburg in January 1903, and didn't return to the U.S. until the spring. Adeline and the girls, however, missed the opportunity to kiss the hands of the empress, or the czar and czarina. They were left at home, and Sara, who at nineteen might have expected her leash to be let out a little, was instead enrolled at Miss Spence's School, an elite academy for young ladies on West 48th Street, where the rather advanced curriculum included French and Latin, literature, history, chemistry, art history, psychology, and -- Frank Wiborg was doubtless delighted to discover -- practical mathematics and household accounting.
She wasn't entirely happy there: she thought many of her schoolmates snobbish, and was appalled by their gossipy, boy-crazy conversation -- "so harmful at that impressionable age, she said later. Although lively and clever, Sara wasn't as serious a student as some in her class. She didn't elect to pursue the preparatory course that Clara Spence offered to a few college-bound girls, and at her graduation in 1904 she was awarded a certificate rather than the diploma given for meeting Miss Spence's stringent academic standards. But she was now, at last, officially out of the schoolroom; she could wear her long blond hair up and her skirts down to the ground. Although her parents might not have felt ready to let her go, she was ripe for adventure.
She soon got it, in a limited form. That June, Adeline Wiborg took her two elder daughters and their cousin Sara Sherman on a trip to Europe. And in France, accompanied by a Cleveland friend of the girls, Mary Groesbeck, as well as one of Adeline's own cronies, a poker-faced Edwardian dowager named Dickson and her son, Roland, they toured the chateau country by automobile, a dashing, very modern thing to do.
The trip started out badly: in Paris it took them four tries before they could find rooms in the Continental, which (wrote Sara in her travel journal) was "a horrid place." Not that they stayed there long. By the next day Adeline had moved them to the Hotel Campbell, on the avenue de Friedland near the Arc de Triomphe, and shortly afterward they moved yet again to a furnished apartment just up the street from the Opera. Considering the number of trunks and valises involved in each relocation, the family's first few days in Paris must have been a nightmare of logistics and tipping.
Then there were the cars. Automobiles in the first decade of this century were still little more than horseless carriages -- they had open passenger compartments with convertible accordion tops, far from watertight, and shock absorbers were still just a gleam in some automotive engineer's eye. The Wiborg party engaged two automobiles, with two chauffeurs, Georges and Eugene, as well as two "mecaniciens"; thus accompanied, and swathed in long dusters and motoring veils, they set off for Chartres, only to be soaked by rain. In the downpour the chauffeurs lost their way; next, the car containing Sara, Mary Groesbeck, Mrs. Dickson, and her son developed motor trouble; then it got stuck in the mud. Sara, showing the sense of the absurd with which she frequently undercut her surroundings, dissolved into helpless giggles. Mrs. Dickson was not amused: "Don't laugh, girls!" she kept saying. "It isn't at all a laughing matter!" Finally Sara and Mary got out -- it had stopped raining by this time -- and helped the chauffeur and mecanicien push the car out of its rut. What with more tire trouble, a fresh downpour, and bad roads, the little party didn't reach Tours until 3:30 A.M., soaked to the skin after seventeen hours on the road.
Sara was undaunted by this unpromising start, and by the time the weather cleared and "Grouchy George" and Eugene had been replaced, she was pronouncing the tour "perfect." She was an enthusiastic traveler, shuddering deliciously over the chamber at Blois where the Duc de Guise was murdered by his perfidious cousin, and musing about why Queen Catherine de Medici would have forced her rival, the king's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, to swap chateaux. "Catherine certainly was a cat," pronounced Sara, "& I can't help being on Diane's side, though I suppose C. was in the right on this one occasion." (What Adeline Wiborg thought of her daughter's sympathy for the Other Woman isn't recorded.) Not that Sara saw everything uncritically: she thought the chateau at Blois garishly restored -- "too fresh and burnished-looking ... the general effect is horrid.... As Henry James says in A Little Tour in France, it looks like "an expensive set in the opera.'" But she was continually delighted by unexpected details: the squalor of a "dirty picturesque village"; the "old wrinkled bent women of 80, carrying huge bundles on their backs that no Frenchman, however young or strong, would think of lifting"; "the beaming face of an American youth who ... helped us find other automobiles at Tours, [who] had such a remarkable way of whistling out of one side of his mouth that Mary and I had to Kodak him on the top of the tower at Loches, unbeknownst to him, however."
Adeline Wiborg could successfully keep the young man off-limits -- "We didn't meet him, or know his name, or anything," lamented Sara -- but she couldn't repress her eldest daughter's evident and growing individuality. And it was this quality, more than her blond beauty or her melodious singing voice or her skill with a sailboat, that entranced a sixteen-year-old schoolboy she did meet at the end of the summer, at a party in East Hampton, Long Island,
In 1895 the village of East Hampton, on Long Island's eastern tip, was a peaceful backwater full of clapboard or shingle houses strung out along a grassy, elm-shaded main street that sported a seventeenth-century windmill, formerly used for grinding grain, at each end. After the Civil War the village had become a summer haven for numerous New York and Brooklyn ministers; a number of New York-based artists, among them Winslow Homer and Childe Hassam, had begun spending the summer months there as well, attracted by the flat expanses of the surrounding farmland, with their great vault of sky, the pristine beaches, and the opalescent light.
The artists had to hire carriages, or trudge on foot, from neighboring Bridgehampton, for the railroad from New York, which bore Gilded Age vacationers to the new resorts of Long Island's South Shore, didn't extend as far as East Hampton -- it came to Bridgehampton, a few miles to the west, and then swerved north to the old whaling village of Sag Harbor. Progress and fashion seemed to have passed East Hampton by, literally as well as figuratively. Certainly it was an unlikely magnet for a worldly man of affairs like Frank Wiborg.
Although Frank's involvement with Ault and Wiborg meant that a permanent move from Cincinnati was out of the question, the increasing amounts of time that his wife and daughters and even he himself were spending in New York made their Gotham Hotel pied-a-terre seem inadequate. In fact, a summer retreat near the city -- away from the sometimes oppressive heat and humidity of the Ohio valley -- looked like a good idea. And Frank was nothing if not a savvy entrepreneur with an eye for emerging markets.
In 1895 Frank Wiborg began buying a substantial amount of property in East Hampton, including the first parcels of what would eventually become a six-hundred-acre tract of land that lay between the ocean and a large saltwater inlet called Hook Pond. There was a gambrel-roofed farmhouse on the property that belonged to the previous owners, a family named Pell, but it was insufficiently grand for the future that Frank Wiborg had in mind for himself and his family, and he commissioned Grosvenor Atterbury -- one of the architects of New York's City Hall and of the Metropolitan Museum's American Wing -- to add onto it. The result was a thirty-room mansion called the Dunes, which grew out of and ultimately subsumed the original house. When it was finished, it boasted eleven "master's bedrooms" with five baths, nine servants' rooms with three baths, a ground-floor shower and changing room for swimmers, and a huge living room that was forty-two feet wide and seventy feet long. Its walls were covered in Currier and Ives prints, marine paintings, and seventeenth-century Beauvais tapestries, its floors by enormous bear rugs with open mouths, sharp teeth, and lolling red felt tongues, its rooms filled with enormous dark mahogany furniture. It had stables and pastures and a dairy, Italian gardens and flagged terraces and shady porches. It was one of the first great summer houses in East Hampton, and it was prophetic: in 1896, the year after Frank acquired the Dunes property, the railroad was extended to East Hampton, and the town emerged as a fashionable summer resort. (Not so coincidentally, Frank Wiborg's real estate investments had an exponential increase in value.)
The Wiborgs began spending their summers -- and increasingly their autumns, winters, and springs -- in East Hampton, in the sprawling stucco house overlooking the ocean, where the sound of the surf resonated in every room. They swam in the ocean regularly -- "in bathing" is a frequent comment in both Frank's and his daughter's diaries; they rode on the beaches; they played golf on seaside links; they learned to sail. Adeline and her daughters worked in the garden -- she was an enthusiastic horticulturalist -- and served tea on the porch with its view of the flower beds and the sea.
Although East Hampton was becoming a watering place for the wealthy, with vast shingled "cottages" arising along its windblown dunes and tranquil saltwater ponds, the vacationing artists had given it a distinctive flavor. An anonymous chronicler of the 1920s described East Hampton society as "based on a community of intellectual tastes rather than a feverish craving for display and excitement," unlike neighboring Southampton, which this authority depicted as "ruled by the fading remnant of the once all-powerful New York society."
Intellectual it may or may not have been, but East Hampton was relaxed, entertaining, and gay. The daughter of one of Sara's closest friends remembers it as bathed in a kind of perpetual summer light, like a William Merritt Chase painting: "the women all had tiny waists and beautiful shoes, and they wore long fluttering eyelet dresses, and veils on their hats -- chiffon veils that tied under the chin -- and there was always a breeze." There were golf games and amateur theatricals at the Maidstone Club, horse shows and dog shows in neighbors' paddocks, parties on friends' porches and sloping lawns -- and it was at one of these that Sara Wiborg met a boy named Gerald Murphy, He was nearly five years younger than she, Olga's contemporary more than hers, a brown-haired lower middle former from the Hotchkiss School with a square jaw and diffident manner. Although, or because, he was so clearly not beau material, she was nice to him, drawing him out about school (he was a rather indifferent student), travel (he had been to Europe once as a small boy and longed to go again), his interests (plays, pictures, golf, music), dogs (he loved them but didn't own any).
Somehow they hit it off. For Sara, the intense, curious, and admiring boy made an audience at once stimulating and uncritical; for Gerald, the wealthy, well-traveled, beautiful Sara was like a glamorous older sister with whom he could share both his thoughts and his dreams. Soon he was a regular visitor to the Dunes, and even Adeline Wiborg saw nothing to object to about him. He was just a schoolboy, after all, and he had impeccable manners. The girls called him Cousin, and when Sara lectured him about his studies she told him to think of her as "a wise old Aunt." If she found herself daydreaming about anyone, it was about Gerald's older brother, Fred, a tall, red-haired, amusing young man who had just graduated from Hotchkiss and would start Yale in the fall, For his part, Gerald spent at least as much time with Hoytie as with Sara -- she was, after all, closer in age, and much more possessive.
Things would change, but so slowly neither of them would know the precise moment when the wind shifted. He knew it first, though. And he set his course, very firmly, on this new tack.
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Meet the Author
Amanda Vaill, formerly executive editor at Viking Penguin, is now a full-time writer and critic whose work has appeared in Esquire, GQ, New York, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. She lives in New York.
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Fitzgerald and Hemingway were just the tip of the Lost Generation iceberg. Sara and Gerald Murphy lived fascinating lives and were connected with the most important writers and artists of their time. This book reads like a novel without skimping on the stranger-than-fiction details.
This book was so good. Just read it you will not be disappointed.
A valuable and enlightening picture of America expats in France at the beginning of the century. The Murphys story reads like a good novel.
Era of dysfunctional "lost generation" and then moan about unhappy endings watch the roosevelt saga on pbs t.v. and see another one but where both uncle and niece manage to raise families and contribute despite depression heredity and no great beauty