We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante


An inside story of privilege, inherited wealth, and the bizarre values and customs of the American upper crust.
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An inside story of privilege, inherited wealth, and the bizarre values and customs of the American upper crust.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
But as she moved beyond the narrow world she was expected to inhabit, Pell encountered people and ideas that brought her into conflict with her past. Equally unconventional are the muckrakers and revolutionaries she met in the 1960s and 1970s, and her subsequent adventures and misadventures while working with radical activists to reform the California prison system. As Pell traces her absorbing journey from debutante to working mother, from the upper crust of the East Coast to the radical activists of the West, from a life of wealth and privilege to one of trying to make ends meet, she provides exceptional insight into the prickly and complex issues of social class in America.
Too Much

We all know what poverty can do—to individuals, to families, to societies that look the other way ... But what about wealth? What can the possession of immense fortune, over time, do to us? Eve Pell knows. Eve Pell, in this riveting new memoir, tells. We should listen.


[Pell] tells [her] before-and-after story, briskly and with considerable flair ... If you've ever pressed your nose to the chintz-covered window of Old Money and wished you were born into a great American family, this is the book you need—Pell will take you inside the mansion and share every glorious and terrible secret of the aristocracy. (HeadButler.com

San Francisco Chronicle

In We Used to Own the Bronx, her revealing and riveting memoir, Eve Pell defies the dictates of her social class—to be charming but not to say what she felt—and bares all. She detonates bombshells and unmasks betrayals on almost every page.


...refreshingly direct ... Pell ... uses her lively memoir of growing up in aristocratic style to ask a series of provocative questions: Is it possible to choke on a silver spoon? What good is a sense of entitlement? Are riches wasted on the rich? Her candid account of bristling at her birthright transcends the stereotype suggested by the subtitle to divulge the psychic pressures of living with inherited privilege in a meritocracy-mad country ... To her lasting credit, We Used to Own the Bronx is a graceful object lesson in how perspective is gained not all at once but by accretion, the reward of years of methodical observation.

New York Social Diary

...first-rate ... absolutely fascinating ... We Used to Own the Bronx is written from a rare combination of inside and outside. Both are essential.

Wall Street Journal

...a literary treat ... Pell gives us a kind of cultural anthropology of the closest thing in America to a landed gentry.

Publishers Weekly
In this self-indulgent memoir, journalist Pell recollects her privileged East Coast upbringing and her gradual break with the affluence and expectations of her dynastic clan. As a young woman, Pell rode horses, spent time at her grandparents' Tuxedo Park villa ("with two enormous round towers and a long, splendid living room that you stepped down into from a double stairway") and shopped at Bergdorfs with relatives called Cooky, Pookie, Goody and Tinkie (Pell was nicknamed Topsy). Following her debut, Pell went to college "to be interesting to my future husband and to pass the time until he showed up," and it wasn't until she graduated and moved to the West Coast that she escaped the overweening pressure to fill the family-standard "snobbish foxhunting debutante" mold. Her eventual transformation to black sheep, unfortunately, is too little too late. Though her luxurious childhood is marked by genuine emotional pain, alienation and confusion, most readers will have a hard time empathizing with her personal issues or her upper-class guilt, particularly in the present financial climate.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

With cheeky wit and considerable bravery, Pell takes on her upper-crust upbringing of horseback riding and private schools. Gradually, the silver spoon began to taste bitter, and during the turbulent Sixties she took up with leftist writers and radicals on the West Coast. Readers fascinated by New York history and society will appreciate the entertaining stories of rich eccentrics and social movers and shakers.
—Elizabeth Brinkley

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781438424989
  • Publisher: State University of New York Press
  • Publication date: 7/2/2010
  • Series: Excelsior Editions
  • Pages: 243
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

A journalist, grandmother, and champion age-group runner, Eve Pell has received awards for her outstanding print reporting and television documentaries. Her books include Maximum Security: Letters from Prison, as well as the award-winning The Big Chill: How the Reagan Administration, Corporate America, and Religious Conservatives are Subverting Free Speech and the Public’s Right to Know. She lives in San Francisco.

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Table of Contents


1. Deus, Amici, et Nos

2. Upstairs/Downstairs

3. Mummy and Clarry

4. These Children Don’t Cry

5. Cooky and His Fathers

6. Escape from Home

7. Debutante

8. Awakenings

9. Marriage

10. 2500 Filbert Street

11. Breaking Out

12. The Comrade

13. Complications

14. On the Beach and Making It Anyway

15. My Demented Mother and I

Gallery of Photographs

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 11, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A riveting narrative of one woman's tumultuous voyage through the upheaval of the 1960s

    This is a riveting narrative of one woman's tumultuous voyage through the social, cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s and the aftermath. It is both a micro-history of particular events of the time and an intimate account. It has everything one could want n a memoir: ruthless honesty, a compelling storyline, memorable personalities, drama, fine writing and the frisson of privilege confronting hard reality. Before your eyes Eve Pell transforms herself from a rather conventional- and very bright- upper class girl into a serious player, experiencing much pain along the way. She not only survives but reconciles herself to what is achievable and what is not, reaching a satisfying resolution. This is a compelling and rewarding book - whether or not you struggled through this singular decade.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 7, 2010

    A Unique Two-Part Story, Well Told

    Don't let the title fool you: Eve Pell's memoir, which features her privileged upbringing on the east coast, is also a fascinating portrait of San Francisco radical journalism during the 60s and 70s.

    Pell traces her U.S. roots to the mid-17th century, when Thomas Pell received enormous parcels of land from the British crown and local Indians. When she says they used to own the Bronx, she really means it. Remember the book (and more recent film) The Taking of Pelham 123 about the hijacked subway train? Pelham is named after them, and they still have the right to claim a fat calf annually from the city of New Rochelle.

    Over the years, the Pells have sold the land, married well, and lived very comfortably in WASPy bastions like Tuxedo Park. The family's public face has been U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, and their name still graces the student grants he cooked up in the Higher Education Act of 1965.

    The California part of the story unfolds when Pell marries an architect based in San Francisco. There she begins working for Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, who figure heavily in the development of Ramparts magazine. Her marriage dissolves when she begins to question many of the social and political conventions her family supported reflexively.

    She goes on to work in the prison movement, meets George Jackson, and is brought face-to-face with a world that couldn't be less like the one she grew up in. Later, she crosses paths with former Ramparts editor David Horowitz, who, unbeknownst to her, is tacking hard right in his political voyage. That becomes a problem when Horowitz uses her as a source to discredit the movement she labored in for years.

    I don't want to give away the whole story, which Pell tells briskly, honestly, and with a great knack for selection and emphasis. But in one up-tempo book, you get an ethnography of East Coast privilege and an insider's account of San Francisco movement journalism. That's good value.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2010

    A Remarkable Book of a Remarkable Life

    Most of us live our lives within our family's expectations, for family, functional or dysfunctional, is the safe harbor as long as we meet those expectations about education, marriage, children, career, political and religious views. To break out of this and face ostracism takes courage, as it means giving up contact, emotional and even financial support. Eve Pell was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but not any silver spoon, an antique spoon of the Pell family as close to a landed aristocracy as America has had. They were quite above those who made fortunes in oil, railways, mining. Those names adorn foundations today, but the Pell family name is on the Pell Grants which came from Claiborne Pell's clout in the Senate not Wall Street. Born to privilege, attending the most exclusive schools, making the rounds of an East Coast debutante, and then marriage to a promising San Francisco architect, children. So far living more or less to expectations. And as this is very well written and observed, we are carried along fascinated. What is more interesting than a fellow human being's life lived in a world we don't know but can experience given the skill of the writer with telling detail and marvelous anecdotes? And she has a wonderful ability to bring these very distinct characters to life on the page.
    And the bland 50's became the tumultuous 60's and, especially for a woman, the prescribed expectations were now seen as warnings to not stray from the reservation. And Eve's conscience and consciousness took her on this journey from the overclass to the underclass of American society as she became involved with prison reform, the Black Panthers, and the charismatic George Jackson. And it spiraled into tragedy as blood and murder took down the prisoners and even dedicated reformists. Eve survived, though maybe escaped, is a better word. From the vantage point of today it's hard to imagine the atmosphere of those times with the Vietnam War, government repression, and the racial turmoil at home. Again thanks to the writer's skill, we are really caught up in the intense drama of this part of the journey.
    While she was effectively disowned by some family at the time, which was very hurtful, she certainly found her true self and the love and support of her own children. And thus she was able to live life on her terms with all its normal ups and downs, and, fortunately for us the readers, have the persistence and honest self-examination to devote herself to write this compelling and fascinating memoir.

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  • Posted July 15, 2010

    A unique voyage that takes the reader from the rarified world of true upper class privilege, through the evolution of class consciousness and an enduring commitment to social justice.

    Using a conversational and intimate style of story telling, Eve Pell begins her memoir by introducing the reader to her family, and to the exclusive New York enclave, Tuxedo Park -- a world of extreme wealth and privileged WASP pedigree. As she happily comes of age in that world, she begins to perceive conflict between the circumscribed life she's expected to lead -- a college education still frowned upon for a proper woman -- and her own curiosities. With few role models, she struggles to balance the expectations of her class, with her own thirst for knowledge and desire for authentic experience of the world.

    Through Uncle Claiborne Pell, and a rare opportunity to actually work, she finds a blast of fresh air and inspiration in Washington politics and therein, perhaps, begins the discovery of a self she will be unable to shut up. With the advent of the social liberation movements of the 60's, Eve faces choices and conflicts that many of us faced in those years, but dramatically more extreme.

    From Horse Shows and blue ribbons, to Black Panthers and red diaper babies, Eve's journey is smart, committed, and evolves circuitously as she follows her own deepest values, and challenges most of what she was taught to believe. Rarely will you have an opportunity to follow a voyage of such extremes -- an american story that speaks simultaneously to the gilded roots of social class and the profound human thirst for social justice.

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    Posted January 8, 2010

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    Posted December 28, 2009

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    Posted April 24, 2010

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    Posted June 19, 2009

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