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The Loveliest Woman in America
For forty-three years, all I knew was that Rosamond was beautiful and that she had killed herself. I may have spent the rest of my life knowing just those two things and everything would have gone on the way things do. After all, who really needs to dredge up something you can't do anything about? But in the summer of 2003, I went back to the Forester's Pool in Pennsylvania where I had distributed my father's ashes in the waters where he had learned to fish and swim with his mother, Rosamond. That day, I was given a plain cardboard box containing a thousand pages of Rosamond's diaries that people thought had vanished. For seventy years, her diaries and scrapbooks languished in airplane hangars, flooding basements, and dusty closets. They disappeared into the dark corners of a family's pain. Retrieved from darkness, the diaries changed my life forever. Through them, I learned a good part of Rosamond's story and found a home in the words of my grandmother.
Like a bird sighted in the forest that everyone thought was extinct, Rosamond's scrapbooks and diaries just showed up. When I started digging around, her obituary also showed up. It told of her death at thirty-three, on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold. I could have placed everything on a shelf or in a closet for another seventy years and that might have been the end of it, but the artifacts were suddenly taking up a lot of room. I was confounded by the series of events that brought them to me, so, smitten by circumstance, I found myself piecing together Rosamond's brief but beautiful story. While discoveringher life, I came to know the members of two remarkable families, the Pinchots of Pennsylvania, a family I never knew was mine, and the Gastons of Massachusetts, who Rosamond said were not good for the blossoming of the soul. I came to understand how Rosamond, the woman who had been called the loveliest in America, and my father, the enigma to end all enigmas, and I, a woman who had yet to find a place to call home, had each inherited the extremes of everything a family has to offer.
Rosamond. When I first heard it, her name made me think of all the roses in the world. Not just the cultivated hybrids that require a gardener or the finicky tea roses you see in all their perfumed perfection at a flower show, but the rambling floribunda and the rugosas that flourish where nothing else will, those wild shrub roses that flood our days and nights with scent and blossoms that fade all too quickly. She'd never had time to fade with the rest of us. Her name spoke of warmth and light and summer. When I see her name, I think of what we ourselves become when we are willing to love not just what is beautiful, but what is not always easy to love, what is wild, sometimes dangerous and rare.
I'd always been inquisitive, some say intrepid, so when I received the diaries, it was as if I'd discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls or excavated the underground passage to a secret golden room. There wasn't one thing about my family that didn't warrant a serious investigation. I was always searching for clues. After hearing at about five years old that Rosamond was beautiful and that she had killed herself, beauty and death went together, which said a lot about what might happen to a girl. Forty years later, I had grown up and I'd learned to separate beauty and death. I had also learned that Rosamond had wrung a lot of living out of thirty-three years. Much of it had been documented by her, except that the last four years of her diaries were missing. That seemed peculiar, of course. But what I found even more strange was that for some reason the diaries and scrapbooks were all handed to me.
The scrapbooks weren't small and colorful flipbooks people leave around the house so friends can take a peek at the kids; they were huge and heavy, embossed with her name, Rosamond Pinchot Gaston, in gold leaf across forest green covers. The letters are faded now, but through the scrapbooks, I came to know Rosamond like a character in a silent movie. The visuals were spectacular but the silence was deafening. The images struck me not only as beautiful but also as strikingly modern. Rosamond in what looks to be Chanel, Rosamond in overalls. Her look was timeless. They show her in silhouette against the Manhattan skyline, under Hollywood's fabulous houses of skylights, fishing in the streams of Pennsylvania, and walking her dog on the Upper East Side as though it was yesterday. Her look was always changing. She could be Marilyn Monroe, an Olympic athlete, or Mata Hari; and in the 1920s and 1930s, New York had just as many faces. The city was vibrant and pulsating, and Rosamond's life straddled one of its more exuberant periods, the Jazz Age. Not only was she a celebrity, she was also a remarkable sportswoman and equestrian. She lived a scintillating social life and could identify each tree in the forest. She had legions of suitors who wanted to make her; she ran around New York City's reservoir to stay slim; she dined with the likes of Dorothy Parker, Sinclair Lewis, and George Gershwin. Her scrapbooks and diaries described a woman of many sides. She knew fashion, politics, and birdcall. She was simple and sophisticated. She could't be packaged or contained.
So why had no one in my family ever talked about her or shared even a single detail of her life? It wasn't as if we lived in the old world where the bodies of suicides were buried at night at the crossroads where it was thought that greater traffic would keep the corpses down. Rosamond seemed to have slipped off the edge of the world. There are a thousand ways of vanishing; a family's silence is one of them.The Loveliest Woman in America. Copyright © by Bibi Gaston. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.