New York Times
August 31, 2017
The Gilded Age (of white Americans), from the 1870s to about 1900, is a joy to research and write about. Crazy rich people doing, building and saying mad, impulsive, sometimes beautiful and often ridiculous things: traveling cross-country for séances; wearing leather pajamas while breakfasting next to a corpse; creating fantastical gardens and grand interpretive dance or poetry entertainments at lavish or ramshackle country homes. Mark Twain and his co-author Charles Dudley Warner are thought to have come up with the phrase for their novel of the same name, taking it from Shakespeare’s “King John”: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily ... is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”
This period of rampant industrialization produced an enormously wealthy, largely oblivious 1 percent, of which Donna M. Lucey is a most sympathetic and intelligent chronicler. In Archie and Amélie, her 2006 book about a Gilded Age couple’s childhoods, disastrous marriage and lives post-divorce, she introduced us to Amélie Rives, goddaughter of Robert E. Lee and author of the once-sizzling The Quick or the Dead?, a novel about the erotic yearnings of a widow for her late husband’s brother, something Rives then repeated in real life with a similar passion for her eccentric-verging-on-floridly-psychotic husband’s younger brother. In that book, Lucey also took us through the life and poshly hard times of Archie Chanler, who was dashing, wealthy and crazy as a coot, with no modern psychotropic drugs to contain his florid delusions (I am Napoleon). They were a glamorous, absurd, doomed couple, and Lucey did her lucid, thoughtful best by them.
In Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas, she does even more of what she does best, creating a rollicking snow globe version of an almost unimaginable world of wealth, crackpot notions of self-improvement and high-flying self-indulgence (like now; you know who you are, Goop) woven around an often passionate commitment to, deep admiration for and wide-ranging pursuit of the fine and literary arts (less like now). Lucey is a persistent detective and a bemused, sometimes amused, storyteller, attentive to interesting, hilarious, disturbing detail: Isabella Stewart Gardner’s enormous diamonds, some of which had names and which she “wore atop her head on gold spiral wires so that they’d bob and sparkle as she talked”; the teenage Elizabeth Chanler, strapped to a “long machinelike” board for two years to “cure” her limp; Sally Fairchild, after a lifetime of serving as her mother’s nurse and bodyguard, hitting her stride at 80 by seducing a 30-year-old married man. “If that young woman can’t hold her husband,” she sneered, “that’s her lookout.”