book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Vanderbilt-adjacent books

As I mentioned in yesterday’s BotW post, you may well come away from reading Vanderbilt wanting to know more about some of the people and situations in it. And I can help with that because this is not my first rodeo with this family or with American High Society in the Gilded age. So for today’s recommendsday, I’ve got a selection of books that tie-in in some way with some of the events or people that feature in Anderson Cooper’s book.

Lets start with the non-fiction, because that’s probably the short of the two lists. First of all is Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clarke Newell. I talked about this in my non-fiction Rich People problems post a couple of years ago. It’s the investigation into the life of a reclusive heiress, who wasn’t photographed for decades and who lived in a hospital for twenty years, despite owning mansions on both coasts of the US. Huguette Clark isn’t a Vanderbilt, but her family money was made at the same sort of time, she moved in the same circles and her family also had a penchant for building giant mansions. It’s mind boggling and she only died a couple of years back. Also mentioned in that 2019 post is The Unfinished Palazzo by Judith Mackerell, which features as one of its leading characters Peggy Guggenheim. Again, not a Vanderbilt, but another one of those big American families that you may well have heard of. Off the back of reading Vanderbilt, I’ve ordered myself Anne de Courcy’s The Husband Hunters, which is about the thirty year period where the British aristocracy looked across the pond to replenish their family coffers with American money by marrying American heiresses. I shall report back, but in the interim, may I suggest the tangentially related The Fishing Fleet, also by Anne de Courcy about the women sent out from Britain to India to try and snag a husband. Lastly, you can read Consuelo Vanderbilt’s own memoir – The Gitter and the Gold but I slogged through it last year, so you don’t have to. It’s a fascinating story, but she (and her ghost writer) aren’t the best at telling it and I definitely don’t suggest you read it first, because she doesn’t give you a lot of context about who the people are that she’s talking about, so you may well find yourself utterly lost or googling every few pages!

Let’s move on to fiction – and more particularly fictionalised real-lives, a corner of fiction that I really enjoy. In the later stages of the book, we see more of Anderson Cooper’s mother’s life. Gloria Vanderbilt was the subject of a notorious custody case when she was a child, but as an adult she was part of the group of women who Truman Capote called his Swans. I’ve read a couple of novels about this group – which probably means there are a stack more that I don’t know about. I read The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin back in 2016, before I knew much more about Truman Capote than you can get from the film Capote. And that fact made the reveal of how that little group blew up work really well although I was somewhat hazy about where the real life stuff ended and the fiction began! I read Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott a couple of years later – about the same group and the same events – and that was a BotW. In Swan Song you know what Truman has done quite early and you really see the consequences of his actions for the women concerned – you just need to stick with it beyond the initial few chapters which are a bit confounding until you figure out what is going on.

Downton Abbey prompted a surge of books set in the Gilded Age or featuring American heiresses, both in historical fiction and straight up historical romances. In the former category I’ve read My Last Duchess (known in the US as The American Heiress) by Daisy Godwin who is the writer behind the TV series Victoria. Cora Cash is American heiress whose marriage is going really quite badly and who is also having to navigate British High Society with very little help and a lot of people willing her to fail. I preferred The Fortune Hunter which she wrote a couple of years later and which is about Sisi, the Empress of Austria, but that doesn’t really fit this post does it? And then there’s Theresa Anne Fowler’s A Well-Behaved Woman, which is about Alva Vanderbilt and her quest to be queen of society. I found it tricky because everyone in it is really quite unlikeable – and it doesn’t have the humour that can make reading about horrible people fun, but I know that other people enjoyed it more than I did.

On the romance front, Eloisa James’s My American Duchess was one of the first to hit this trend – it came out in 2016 and I reviewed it for Novelicious back in the day. It’s got a heroine who has already jilted two fiancés and a hero who wants to marry a Proper English woman. You know where this is going, except that it’s more than just the fish-out-of-water, comedy of manners, forbidden love novel that you expect from the blurb. I haven’t reread it since, but at the time I said that it wouldn’t be a bad place to start if you want to dip your toe into the historical romance genre, and I would stand by that, because Eloisa James in this period was one of the most consistent of the romance genre. Joanna Shupe has written a couple of series set in Gilded Age New York, but my mileage with her varies a little – she tends towards more melodrama than I like and her characters tend to do abrupt about faces that annoyment. But I did quite like Baron, from the Knickerbocker Club series, which features a fake medium who needs to seduce a railroad millionaire in order to stop him from exposing her latest scheme and also Prince of Broadway from the Uptown Girls series which has a casino owner and the daughter of a family he is trying to ruin financially. More recently there’s Maya Rodale’s An Heiress to Remember (published in 2020) which sees an American heiress return to New York after her divorce to try and claim her family’s department store for herself. Only trouble is that it’s being run by the man whose heart she broke when she married a duke. It’s the third in a series – but I haven’t read the others, so I can’t speak to whether they work as well as this one did (for me at least).

And finally, there have also been a couple of murder mystery series set in and around the mansions that the Vanderbilts and their rivals built in Newport, Rhode Island. Of the ones that I’ve read, the best was Murder at Beachwood by Alyssa Maxwell, which is a historical mystery set in 1896 with a debutant heroine who is a fictional cousin of the Vanderbilts (an actual Vanderbilt connection! yay me!) who ends up trying to solve a murder after a baby is abandoned on her doorstep. It’s bit meladramatic – but that works with the time setting. It’s also the third in a series, and writing this has reminded me that I haven’t read the other two and I’m not sure enough of the Anderson Cooper book is set in Rhode Island for me to be able to use it for the state if I do the 50 states challenge again this year.

So there you are, a monster Recommendsday post with – hopefully – something for everyone. Happy reading!

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