Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women

Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women

by Marie Brenner

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307556493
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 03/10/2010
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,154,711
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Marie Brenner is the author of four books, including House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville. "The Man Who Knew Too Much," her investigation of the life of Big Tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, inspired the Michael Mann movie The Insider, starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. Her numerous articles have been published in The New York Times, New York, and Vanity Fair, where she is writer-at-large.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One: Kitty Carlisle Hart

It has always been Kitty Carlisle Hart’s intention not to be defeated by circumstances. The day of our interview, when the weather forecast involves Homeric gales, she has called for her fellow board members at the New York State Council on the Arts to be outside her New York apartment at “eight a.m. sharp.” She has been brisk with me on the telephone: “You can’t ever let the weather slow you down. We have eight arts groups to visit in Brooklyn. We always leave on time.” As chairman of the Council -- a post she held for almost two decades -- Mrs. Hart often roams the state, checking on the Frederic Chopin Singing Society of Buffalo, the Iroquois Indian Museum in Schoharie County, the New York Latvian Concert Choir, Poughkeepsie’s Bardavon 1869 Opera House, the Billie Holiday Theatre in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Man Fa Center and the Cucaracha Theatre, among thirteen hundred other groups that receive money through the Council. However enervating her rounds might seem to many people, she revels in dank rehearsal halls, watching “glorious” jazz groups that spring up in crack neighborhoods. “I can’t bear to be left out of a thing,” she says.

When I arrive at her building, on the East Side, a few moments early for the arts trip, the doorman takes me upstairs to her apartment. The elevator opens directly onto her foyer, a small space with walls covered in red velvet flocked paper, Victorian in its formality. Her apartment is oddly silent; there is no early-morning bustle. Waiting for Mrs. Hart to appear, I look into her living room, an elegant jumble of books, curios, awards, and faded pastel brocade furniture in some need of repair. It is one of those rooms where time appears to have stopped. A celadon-green carpet covers the floor, a grand piano stands beside a far window, and in a bookcase are Meissen and silver pieces, CDs of many operettas she once recorded, and a youthful portrait of Mrs. Hart, her glistening dark hair in a pageboy. As one gazes at her empty living room, it is not difficult to conjure the voices and music of another era: her husband, the playwright and director Moss Hart, trading epigrams and smart remarks with Edna Ferber; Dick Rodgers playing her piano; Mrs. Hart herself rehearsing for her appearances in Die Fledermaus -- the women speaking in sculpted and perfect diction which sometimes hid their modest origins.

And then, from another room, I hear Mrs. Hart: “Halloo, darling! I’ll be right there! Oh, you are such a dear to come out on such a day!” Her voice is like a chime, the operetta singer’s voice, actressy yet not artificial, a voice that seeks to charm. For twenty-one years, from 1956 to 1977, Mrs. Hart appeared every week on To Tell the Truth, where her persona was that of a cultivated person who deigned to be on television without seeming to be a snob; she was always set apart by a certain kindness.

Mrs. Hart has a performer’s sense of timing; she walks into a room as if the Act II curtain has just gone up. Her spine is straight; her double strand of pearls is still in place; so is her hair, which is the same raven color as in her living-room portrait. Mrs. Hart has a classic oval face and a smile that gives her the expression of a delighted child. She is slim, and still has a showgirl’s beautiful legs, which she often shows off in pale hose, whatever the season. For the arts tour, she is wearing a lavender Ultrasuede coat trimmed with fox; on her feet are tiny brown suede boots, also trimmed with fur. “I always dress up. I feel that if I don’t people will not give me compliments,” she says.

She pauses a moment in the foyer. “Let me read where we are going today -- it is so interesting! We are going to Weeksville to see a restoration done of an early black community. We are going to Crown Heights to see an arts group that works with Hasidic boys and girls together. Highly unusual! Then the Brooklyn Children’s Museum -- a wonderful place! An African-American art gallery that serves a marginal neighborhood. A fast -- I repeat, fast -- lunch, which is Dutch treat. These are hard times at the Council, and we wouldn’t waste money on lunch. The experimental glass blowers. The Brooklyn Historical Society. And then Red Hook, where that marvelous principal was killed.” In the light, her face is grande damey, but underneath the mettle is a certain fragility, even pathos.

I follow her down the elevator, into the street, and into a van. “There are no frills here. My dear, we go over a six-hundred-dollar grant like you never saw. Governor Cuomo always tells me that we get more money than any other arts group in the country. We have been cut from fifty-four million dollars to twenty million. I was so angry! But this year we are back to twenty-six million dollars. There was a three-part series in the Times on arts in education, and they don’t even mention us -- and we give away two million dollars a year for arts in education. This is such a terrible time for the arts! I had lunch with Joe Papp’s organization. They need millions just to survive. Well, we can’t give it to them! I told them that they should think about getting famous stars who have been trained at the Public Theatre to support them -- give fellowships in their name. But this generation is not trained in philanthropy. They will give their time but not their money. They’ll come to a benefit, but they won’t give you ten thousand dollars. They’re not used to that kind of generosity.” The van crosses the Brooklyn Bridge and turns toward Bedford-Stuyvesant. “Has anyone seen Saint Joan at the Roundabout? It is to die! The ideas are profound.”

When we stop at the Weeksville restoration, a collection of restored nineteenth-century frame houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Mrs. Hart skitters through a torrential downpour into a small house. There the executive director, Joan Maynard -- she is the daughter of the great ventriloquist John Cooper, whose career began in Negro vaudeville -- mentions the black child and the young Hasidic scholar who were killed in Crown Heights in August of 1991, saying passionately, “Mrs. Hart, kids here need to know who they are! You wouldn’t have Gavin Cato’s and Yankel Rosenbaum’s deaths if you had pride in your history. Hundreds of schoolchildren went to the Landmarks Commission to affect our status. We can’t afford another generation who are not using their energies. Mrs. Hart -- you dear, dear lady -- if we don’t get funded again, I will just die!”

All day long, making her way in and out of lofts, studios, and museums, Mrs. Hart tries to soothe desperate curators and theater directors. On several occasions, she is recognized by admirers who remember her trilling “Alone, Alone” from the deck of an ocean liner in the Marx Brothers movie A Night at the Opera. At the end of the afternoon, we are in Red Hook, in a surprisingly upbeat school in the middle of a desolate area. By now, gales and rain have made navigating the streets a challenge, but she hardly notices, rushing into P.S. 15 in time to watch a dozen elementary school students rehearse a jazz routine to the nerve-racking pounding of an African drum. “Oh, you are too marvelous!” she says to the dancers, clapping for them, and smiling. Then she is picked up by a special car, so she can be at her apartment in time to greet seventy New York State legislators whom she has invited to a reception with a group of arts administrators, the better to persuade them to pass an increased budget for the arts. “You wonder where I get my energy? My dear, it was an absolute necessity.” She no longer smiles. “I had to survive.”

Is it unkind to report that on her next birthday Kitty Carlisle Hart will be eighty-eight years old? If she suffers the normal private despair of the human condition or physical deterioration, it rarely occurs to anyone who meets her. An almost impenetrable bloom of optimism has made her a beloved figure in the city. Her conversation is filled with enthusiasm, French phrases, and an infectious hyperbole. “Darling, I’m still in a glow!” “Too wonderful!” “We were dining a quatre.” She appears to have a nature that is permanently sunny and filled with hope. “Who wants to be around anyone who complains?” she asks. “It is so unpleasant.” Mrs. Hart came of age at a time when such resolute behavior reflected the highest standards. “I believe in denial,” she says. “Denial is a marvelous thing.” Each morning, very purposefully, Mrs. Hart dresses herself in ebullience. She gazes into her bathroom mirror -- a Hollywood-style mirror surrounded by light bulbs, which is propped against a wall covered in the same red velvet flocked wallpaper as her foyer -- and she thinks about any subtle indiscretions or cavalier behavior she might have perpetrated the day before. Then, in the silence of the bathroom, she smiles at herself and says out loud, “Kitty, I forgive you!”

Like most people who have ever encountered Mrs. Hart, I was immediately drawn to her cheerful demeanor, her way of whistling in the dark. She often speaks about her past in anecdotes, as if she had firmly shaped her memories into amusing stories, as a performer would. It is clearly her belief that her inordinate charm has enabled her to survive a complicated childhood and a complicated marriage; she relies on it in the most difficult circumstances. A few years ago, just after Marietta Tree died, I went to have tea with her. Mrs. Hart was unusually subdued. We sat in her pale-green living room. She said that she felt “betrayed” by Marietta, who had never told her that she had cancer. She was trying to reconcile their long relationship with Marietta’s intention to disguise the truth about her health. At the request of Marietta’s daughter, Frances FitzGerald, Mrs. Hart had gone to see Mrs. Tree at her apartment not long before her death. The moment she walked in, she knew that her friend was dying, but she behaved as they had always behaved with each other, pretending that nothing was amiss. Sitting by her bed, Mrs. Hart regaled Mrs. Tree with the story of how she had saved a community of a hundred houses near Jones Beach by appealing to the state attorney general and the governor. “It was the performance of a lifetime,” Frances FitzGerald told me later.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Table of Contents

They Were Outstanding1
Kitty Carlisle Hart10
Constance Baker Motley35
Marietta Tree51
Diana Trilling82
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis101
Kay Thompson121
Clare Boothe Luce145
Luise Rainer173
Pamela Harriman199
Thelma Brenner223

Reading Group Guide

1. Time and again in Great Dames, we see women reinventing themselves to transcend adverse circumstances and fulfill their own sense of destiny. Marietta Tree wriggled her way into the Democratic political sphere through sheer determination; Diana Trilling became a biographer in her seventies; Pamela Harriman shifted from European aristocratic politics to the inner workings of Broadway show business with a shift in husbands. Do these reinventions contribute meaningfully to the great dames’ self-advancement? Or are they signs of discontent, and a grasping for an elusive fulfillment? In which portraits do we find women repeating mistakes or recreating unhealthy relationship patterns from their pasts?

2. Marie Brenner’s generation of Baby Boomers, with its paradigm-altering wave of feminism, tended to criticize and dismiss the ways of the generation that preceded theirs. Brenner, a feminist, has come to realize that in such judgmental thinking, she and her contemporaries may have “thrown some smashing babe qualities out with the bathwater” (Los Angeles Times). Do you think the great dames laid the groundwork that made feminism a viable movement for their daughters? If so, in what ways did they do this? Why did the 1960s feminists find it so crucial to eschew the “put together” stockings-and-pearls look and the gracious-hostess routine the great dames espoused?

3. Marie Brenner has said that the most difficult story to write for Great Dames was the one she wrote last: the chapter on her mother. Why do you think she was compelled to include her mother in this collection? How much was Thelma Brenner’s unhappinessin her marriage a factor in giving her great dame status? Do you think prevailing over an impediment, whether in love or
in career, is a necessary component in the makeup of a great dame?

4. Much has been made of the fact that Constance Baker Motley, the day before her first case in a segregated courtroom in Jackson, Mississippi, spent the afternoon in Lord & Taylor, shopping for the perfect dress. What did appearance symbolize for this young Legal Defense Fund trial lawyer, as well as for her audience?

5. One of the most charming anecdotes in Great Dames is that of Kitty Carlisle Hart smiling at herself in the bathroom mirror each morning and assuring herself, “Kitty, I forgive you!” How does this wiping-clean of the slate sum up a key survival technique employed by each of the great dames in her own way? In an age of complaint television, with its wildly bitter talk show guests and fraught courtroom dramas, and in a time when psychotherapy is so common that language about repression and parent-blaming is tossed around thoughtlessly, is the great dame technique of whistling in the dark gone for good?

6. . In several instances in Great Dames, we see women who are tireless, accommodating companions to their men and their social set, yet are notably absent from their children’s’ lives. Marietta Tree was an emotionally distant matriarch; Pamela Harriman often parked her son with caretakers while the drama of her life played out; and Clare Boothe Luce realized after her daughter’s death that she had not spent enough time with her. Why do these dames have this trait in common? What kind of restrictions did children imply in their lives?

7. Were the great dames who used their husbands’ power, wealth, or good name to advance their own causes falling victim to a sexist system, or outsmarting it?

8. There has been a resurgence of dame-like behavior in turn-of-the-millennium pop culture. Fashion magazines are touting high heels and clutch bags, people are marrying younger, and there is evidence of a rejection of the Baby Boomer compulsion to have it all. (“They do not want to run their houses and children from a cell phone. They have learned from our stressed-out example, ” said Marie Brenner in an interview.) Is this recent trend dame-hood in appearance only? Do the formative experiences of today’s women differ from those the great dames contended with? To what extent is this recent trend a function of prosperous and peaceful times in our country?

9. After eavesdropping on her mother’s close circle of female friends for years, Marie Brenner concluded that they were “hardwired communicators, Olympic listeners.” Is it fair to generalize that most women share this description? If so, what historical realities have encouraged these traits?

10. A sense of personal detachment, or a certain lack of introspection, seems to be a theme in many of the Great Dames’ private lives. About her husband’s possible homosexuality, Kitty Carlisle Hart said, “I never gave it another thought.” About a perverse piece of hate mail, Constance Baker Motley commented that she “could hardly remember receiving it.” And Luise Rainer insisted, “I was never aware that I was anybody, ” despite her 240 pages of unpublished memoirs. What does this phenomenon suggest? Do you believe the great dames when they claim such detachment from the potentially painful business of living, or do you think they are supreme actresses with carefully maintained facades?

11. “To understand history, you must understand people, ” Thelma Brenner once told her daughter. Do you think this is a perspective particularly informed by female-ness? How did the relentless analysis of “behavior, feelings, and appearance” in which Thelma Brenner and her friends engaged give them a certain amount of power within their limited sphere as housewives?

12. If you had to choose one word to define what the great dames’ lives represent, would it be–as Brenner has suggested–bravery? Why or why not? What preconceived notions, if any, do you have to let go of in order to view their actions as courageous?

13. In her introduction to Great Dames, Marie Brenner worries that “we may be running out of great dames.” Do you think this is the case? Is Hillary Clinton a modern great dame? Dame Judy Dench? Judith Jamison? Donna Karan? Madeleine Albright?


The ten great dames in this glorious collection are outstanding women of the twentieth century. They were lady like warriors, armed with optimism and a keen sense of discipline, who did not underestimate the power of a gracious entrance, a witty aside, an admiring word. They were women of aspiration, who lived through the Great Depression and a world war, yet persevered, undimmed by circumstance. They starred on Broadway and in Washington; they caused a stir in the courtroom, the publishing house, the cocktail party. They captivated with their glamour, and learned to keep their own counsel in the unhappy times. They kept their blades on the ice, and they dressed up the world. This guide will help direct your reading group's discussion of Marie Brenner's great dames and their extraordinary lives.

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