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Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women

Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women

by Marie Brenner

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"Fascinating, gossipy, entertaining. . . ."
New York Times Book Review

They are ten outstanding women of the century. Each had an aura, including Thelma Brenner, the first great dame her daughter ever knew. Their lives were both gloriously individual and yet somehow universal. They were mighty warriors and social leaders, women


"Fascinating, gossipy, entertaining. . . ."
New York Times Book Review

They are ten outstanding women of the century. Each had an aura, including Thelma Brenner, the first great dame her daughter ever knew. Their lives were both gloriously individual and yet somehow universal. They were mighty warriors and social leaders, women of aspiration who persevered. They lived through the Great Depression and a world war. Circumstances did not defeat them. They played on Broadway and in Washington. They had glamour, style, and intelligence. They dressed up the world.

"Vivid, intimate portraits . . . a splendid tribute to ten of the century's grandest, most powerful women."

"These women were our geishas, whispering in our ears to influence all aspects of American life."
—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

"Delectable, classy . . . a runaway hit."
—Liz Smith

"An engrossing introduction to a way of life that's now extinct, for better or for worse."
Chicago Sun-Times

Editorial Reviews

Portraits of ten women who achieved great things without losing their personal mystique.
Susan Salter Reynolds
It's a nice idea, to give us a handful of portraits of women who bivouacked on the stern face of power and politics in the white-gloved '40s, '50s, and '60s in this country. Marie Brenner writes fondly of her Great Dames: Kitty Carlisle Hart and Constance Baker Motley (New York state senator, borough president, federal judge) and Marietta Tree and Diana Trilling and Clare Boothe Luce and Pamela Harriman, to name a few, admiring mostly how put together they are, how forceful, how well dressed and confident. These women used whatever they could to get things done: their looks, their money, their ex-lovers. "Clare Boothe Luce," Brenner writes, "was a beautiful liar". "Much of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's fame came from her looks and whom she married and from murder". "Watching Mrs. Harriman, it was easy to imagine how she had enchanted the men in her past". These women were our geishas, whispering in ears to influence all aspects of American life, from culture to civil rights to fashion, sharing what Brenner in her introduction calls "the theater of self".
Los Angeles Times
Matthea Harvey
What makes a dame great? According to Marie Brenner, a writer-at-large for Vanity Fair, beauty, ambition, perseverance and grace. What links the subjects of these admiring profiles (10 in all, including Jacqueline Onassis and Pamela Harriman) is their interest in keeping up appearances. This was certainly true of Brenner's mother, the first great dame of her life, who as a young woman skipped lunch for weeks so she could buy a cashmere sweater. Decades later, dying of cancer in the hospital, Thelma Brenner asked for a hairbrush because "they treat you better if you look good." Brenner is both baffled and impressed by the efforts these women of her mother's generation made at sustaining the "theater of self." Kay Thompson, the flamboyant author of the Eloise books, had a pug who, "like his mistress, often wore a scarf jauntily around his middle." Socialite Marietta Tree was buried with her scarlet appointment book. But Brenner's subjects weren't entirely consumed with the superficial; she tells us that they were also very savvy "hard-wired communicators" and "Olympic listeners" who survived the Great Depression and a world war and emerged undefeated. Brenner's touch is mercifully light, however. She has given us vivid, intimate portraits without sacrificing the dignity these women struggled so hard to maintain.
US Magazine
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An accomplished author (House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville) and a writer-at-large for Vanity Fair, Brenner gathers 10 skillfully drawn portraits of women "of a certain age," ranging from Jacqueline Onassis to her own mother, Thelma Brenner. Eight of the pieces were assigned by and originally ran in Vanity Fair or the New Yorker. Her subjects include Constance Baker Motley, the lawyer who argued Brown v. Board of Education; Luise Rainer, who won back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Actress in 1936 and 1937; Kay Thompson, creator of the Eloise books; Pamela Harriman, a U.S. ambassador to France and Democratic Party fund-raiser; Clare Boothe Luce, author and U.S. ambassador to Italy; intellectual and author Diana Trilling; Marietta Tree, a political hostess and society figure; and Kitty Carlisle Hart, actress and former head of the New York State Council on the Arts. Brenner lauds their courage in surviving such catastrophic events of the 20th century as the Great Depression and WWII, and admires their drive and ambition, which in that era meant marrying or having liaisons with men whose wealth or status could help them achieve their dreams. What these women have in common, Brenner argues, is an ability to maintain a public life, to guard the image they created no matter what suffering might have been borne in silence. They rose to fame in a gentler era than our own, Brenner believes; her tributes are invested with nostalgia for the gallantry her subjects displayed in what was essentially a man's world. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
In the U.S. the word "dame" used to be used as a slang word for female, but it fell out of favor when women began burning their bras. It is back in vogue, as the titles of more than five books at amazon.com indicate. Marie Brenner uses the term here in the old-fashioned way, to mean a woman of influence, one who makes a difference. The 10 women whose biographies appear here would not, with the exception of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Constance Baker Motley, be well known to the American public. Each is (or was) known for her social, political or intellectual connections (sometimes all three) and the ability to be a public person without giving in to the cult of personality that is so prevalent among younger well-known women today. All are (or have been) complicated personalities, and it is a measure of the author's talent that she is able to present the private and the public versions in a seamless story. Young people reading about the civil rights movement have surely come across Judge Motley's name; her influence has touched millions of people in the United States. Clare Booth Luce, Pamela Harriman and Marietta Tree moved in the highest political circles. Kitty Carlisle Hart, after years of being in public entertainment, now exerts direction over the public art of New York State. Diana Trilling was part of the intense New York intellectual life of the mid-20th century. Luis Rainer and Kay Thompson had quirky, colorful lives: Luis Rainer won two Oscar awards in the 1930s but fell from view with the decline of the big Hollywood studios; Kay Thompson's books about the precocious Eloise sit on library shelves everywhere. The author's last biographical essay is about her mother, whodied over 10 years ago after saying to her daughter, "Please darling, don't lose your looks over this." It is a line that other women in the book might have said. They were, or are, smart, self-contained, careful about their appearances and outwardly devoted to their husbands. Brenner says she learned from these older women—some in their 80s when she wrote about them for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. Young women may find these essays puzzling, but their message is for all ages—pay attention, keep your own counsel, and work at being interesting. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students, and adults. 2000, Random House, Three Rivers, 248p. illus., $13.00. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Penelope Power; Libn., Garrison Forest Sch., Owings Mills, MD , September 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 5)

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Crown Publishing Group
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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.

Meet the Author

MARIE BRENNER is the author of four books, including House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville. Her numerous articles have been published in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, where she is writer at large.

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