The author of the bestseller White Mischief tells the story of the beautiful Langhorne sisters, who lived at the Pinnacle of high and powerful society from the end of the Civil War through the Second World War. Making their way across two continents, they left in their wakes rich husbands, fame, adoration, and scandal.
Lizzie, Irene, Nancy, Phyllis, and Nora were born in Virginia to a family impoverished by the Civil War. Their father remade his fortune by collaborating with the Yankees and building rail-roads; the sisters became southern belles and northern debutantes. James Fox draws on unpublished correspondence between the sisters and their husbands, lovers, children, and the powerful and glamorous of their day to construct a plural topography with the scope of a grand novel and the pace of a historical thriller.
At its center is the most famous sister, Nancy, who married Waldorf Astor, one of the richest men in the world. Heroic, hilarious, magnetically charming, and a bully, Lady Astor became Britain's first female MP, championing women's rights and the poor. The beautiful Irene married Charles Dana Gibson and was the model for the Gibson Girl. The author's grandmother, Phyllis, married a famous economist, one of the architects of modern Europe.
Fox has written an absorbing and spirited, intimate and sweeping account of extraordinary women at the highest reaches of society, their adventures set against the background of a tumultuous century.
Beginning in the genteel poverty of post- Civil War Richmond, Va., transformed by Langhorne pere's belated success as a railroad tycoon, the Langhorne sisters' trajectories spanned the upper reaches of Anglo-American society. The oldest, Lizzie, remained within the confines of Richmond's narrow-minded aristocracy; the next, Irene, identified by Fox without explanation as "the last great Southern Belle," married Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl; the third, Nancy, became Lady Astor and the first woman elected to the British Parliament (1919); the fourth, Phyllis, married Robert Brand, a brilliant civil servant once dubbed "the wisest man in the [British] Empire;" the fifth, Nora, a perennial embarrassment and pathological liar, nonetheless inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to sober up temporarily during the last desperate phase of his life. Ideally, their story could illuminate the strengths and limitations of the aristocratic milieu these women arose from and partly refashioned, when juxtaposed with the broadest imaginable array of outside influences they encountered, while also providing an engrossing portrait of remarkable individuals, clashing in multiple ways with norms as well as stereotypes of their times. Instead, readers are shortchanged and will be put off by an excessive focus on Lady Astor (Lizzie and Irene are almost totally ignored, Phyllis plays second fiddle and Nora left field) and an overemphasis on drearily repetitive aspects of dysfunctional family life (while crucial aspects of social context are left unexplained), as if the author, a grandson of Phyllis (and author of the bestselling White Mischief), were still trying to exorcise family ghosts. Fascinating hints abound, isolated episodes are brilliant, but repeated tragic blindness on the part of these five women, as related by Fox, readily blots out all else. Photos. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Simon & Schuster
May 01, 2001
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Excerpt from Five Sisters by James Fox
Text Excerpt 1
The Cast of Characters
CHISWELL DABNEY LANGHORNE (1843-1919), known as "Chillie," pronounced "Shilly"; patriarch of the Langhorne family; railroad entrepreneur, sometime tobacco auctioneer. Husband of Nanaire.
NANCY WITCHER KEENE LANGHORNE, "Nanaire" (1848-1903), wife of Chillie Langhorne, whom she married in 1864.
Their children in order of age:
LIZZIE (1867-1914) married Moncure Perkins in 1885; three children: Chiswell (Chillie), Nancy, Alice.
KEENE (1869-1916), married Sadie Reynolds.
IRENE (1873-1956) married the artist Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944), creator of the Gibson Girl; two children: Irene (Babs) and Langhorne.
HARRY (1874-1907) married Genevieve Peyton.
NANCY (1879-1964) married Robert Gould Shaw II of Boston (1871-1930), divorced 1903; one child: Bobbie Shaw. Married Waldorf Astor, later 2nd Viscount Astor (1879-1952); five children: Bill, Phyllis (Wissie), David, Michael, John Jacob (Jakie).
PHYLLIS (1880-1937) married Reginald (Reggie) Brooks November 1901; two children: Peter and David (Winkie); separated in 1912, divorced 1915. Married Robert Henry Brand (Bob) in 1917; three children: Virginia, Dinah, Jim.
WILLIAM (BUCK) (1886-1938) married Edith Forsyth; five children: Dabney, Phyllis, Harry, Keene, Douglas.
NORA (1889-1955) married Paul Phipps in 1909; two children: Joyce (later Grenfell) and Tommy; divorced 1931. Married Maurice Bennet Flynn ("Lefty") in 1932.
Other main characters, in the order that their names first appear in the book:
ALICE WINN (b. 1902), younger daughter of Lizzie.
BOB BRAND (ROBERT HENRY BRAND) (1878-1963), later 1st Lord Brand of Eydon. Member of Milner's Kindergarten and the Round Table, economist and banker, married Phyllis in 1917. Grandfather of the author.
BOBBIE SHAW (ROBERT GOULD SHAW) (1898-1970), only son of Nancy and Robert ("Bob") Shaw of Boston.
CHARLES DANA GIBSON (1867-1944), artist and illustrator, creator of the Gibson Girl, married Irene in 1895.
DAVID ASTOR (b. 1912), Nancy and Waldorf's second son, later editor of the Observer.
DINAH BRIDGE (1920-1998), younger daughter of Phyllis; mother of the author.
HENRY DOUGLAS PENNANT (1876-1915), the "Captain." Soldier and trophy shooter, younger son of Baron Penrhyn.
JIM BRAND (1924-1945), only son of Phyllis and Bob Brand.
LEFTY FLYNN (1880-1950), former Yale football star, silent screen actor, and Nora's second husband.
MICHAEL ASTOR (1916-1980), Nancy and Waldorf's third son, author of Tribal Feeling.
MONCURE PERKINS (1861-1914), Lizzie's husband, father of Nancy Lancaster and Alice Winn.
NANCY LANCASTER (1897-1994), Lizzie's eldest daughter, gardener and decorator, who married (1) Henry Field, (2) Ronnie Tree, and (3) Juby Lancaster.
PAUL PHIPPS (1880-1953), Nora's first husband, father of Joyce Grenfell and Tommy Phipps.
PETER BROOKS (1902-1944), eldest son of Phyllis and her first husband, Reggie Brooks.
PHILIP KERR (1882-1940), later 11th Marquis of Lothian. Member of Milner's Kindergarten and the Round Table; British Ambassador to the United States, 1939-1940.
REGGIE BROOKS (1876-1945), Phyllis's first husband; father of Peter and Winkie Brooks.
WINKIE BROOKS (1910-1936), Phyllis's second son with Reggie Brooks.
WISSIE (PHYLLIS) ASTOR, later Countess of Ancaster (1909-1975), only daughter of Nancy and Waldorf.
Text Excerpt 2
From Chapter 21: The Boy Problem
David Astor, who saw Winkie as an icon of style and fashion, also had a special insight into his predicament. David was devastated when Winkie, his family ally, left him behind at Eton and went to America. It triggered off a severe emotional crisis at the age of sixteen, whose real cause, he discovered, was the same as Bobbie's self-mocking explanation for his own condition: "As you might have guessed, it's Mother."
David suffered, along with his siblings, the indelible, and in some cases tragic, effects of what Harold Nicolson described as the "stupidity" with which Nancy brought them up. David judged that Nancy's first three children -- Bobbie, Bill, and Wissie -- were "shockingly treated" by Nancy, leaving his own scarred childhood and adolescence out of this assessment.
Nancy believed that family affection was a given fact, like blood, or tribal loyalty. It didn't need affirming or demonstrating, just, from time to time, "poking up." "Conceived without pleasure, born without pain," Nancy would say proudly to her children. "Is that why we're all so odd?" Jakie once replied. When her younger sons were in their teens, and one of the playful-but-rough verbal battles was taking place, with Nancy ahead, as always, on points and footwork, she said, "I suppose you all think you're misunderstood." Bobbie replied, "There's no question of being understood. We've given up hoping for that long ago. All we want is a bit of civility."
The closeness and warmth that Phyllis and, particularly, Nora gave to her young children were not to be had from Nancy. For the Astor children, emotional nourishment came not from their mother but from Miss Gibbons, the nanny who occupied the nursery floor, survived thirty years, and died at Cliveden, unconverted to Christian Science. She was a paragon of affection and understanding and gave praise where it was due. In this last respect, Nancy was especially lacking; it was when things were going well that her children had the least chance of attention. If they were sick, she might come, at least, and massage their head. On rare teatimes or evenings when she wasn't busy with the guests that poured through the doors of Cliveden, she would read Uncle Remus, performing the characters in their southern voices. She would invent fables from Mirador, working in the characters of her brothers Buck, Harry, and Keene, re-creating her mythological childhood world. This was the closest she would get to intimacy before restlessness would bewilderingly change her mood. She would switch to an admonitory tone; battle often followed and then tears and an order to stop crying, "an order so perplexing," wrote Michael Astor, "that it occasionally worked."
The Christian Science lessons that took place in her boudoir provided rare moments of closeness. But they were not quiet moments of instruction. There was so much talking, commanding, and telephoning that Nancy would get lost in the texts and the children would lose whatever concentration they had mustered. The "lesson," which was punctuated by Nancy's repeating the Christian Science slogans with great earnestness -- "Man is made in the image and likeness of God" -- sometimes ended in loud arguments. On one such occasion, Bobbie Shaw, who was normally excluded from these sessions, came in during a lesson that had broken down in disorder and quickly withdrew again. He was found sitting in the hall, shaking his head with mock contrition and saying, "I should have known, I should have known, when I heard a noise like a bullfight that it was the Bible lesson."
Nancy's eldest Astor son, Bill, said that in order to maintain any close relationship with her, you had first to kill your love. "Mr. Billy was frightened of her," said Rose Harrison, "he would turn white when she came in the room [a description also given by Bill's third wife, Bronwen]. When I was in the Westminster Hospital, Mr. Billy turned round to me and he said, 'You know Rose I've never had any mother's love.' I said, 'Don't you talk so silly'...I knew it was the truth. She couldn't. I don't think she ever took them in her arms and held them, kissed them or gave them any affection. It was a routine. Get up, go to bed, dress for tea...." David claimed that admiration had to be substituted for two-way love -- a quantum leap for a child -- and he often longed for his mother to be more like Nora. Nancy, however, dismissed all Nora's qualities: she thought such affection was a soppy quality in a mother, and somehow misguided and bad, like Nora herself.
Nancy's unfavorable comparisons of Bill as an infant with Bobbie, and her disappointment in him, was transmuted over the years into a form of loveless possession. Bill belonged to the early days of the marriage to Waldorf, when Nancy regarded "those Astors" as a foreign tribe that she didn't belong to, and he remained stuck with the Astor label, never wholly accepted by Nancy. He grew up when Waldorf and Nancy were in their sternest and most earnest period of Christian Science and political idealism, when it was unclear in David's view, "what they wanted their children to be." They were not able to be as generous and easygoing with these first children as they were, by comparison, with the later ones. There is a photograph of Nancy and Bill together at Henley Regatta in 1925, Bill dressed in the pale blue flannel of the Eton eight, of which he was cox, his face pinched with anxiety. What Bill chiefly remembered of that day, in which the Eton crew were beaten in the second heat, was Nancy gloomily blaming it on the fact that he hadn't been working hard enough at his Christian Science to assure victory.
A little encouragement from Nancy would have gone a long way to keeping her children off the casualty list. Instead, she would criticize, correct, and comment unfavorably on their appearances and achievements. Bobbie was fond of the warm and homely wife of the Cliveden coachman, who lived above the stables. When he was at Cliveden, he would always go and have a cup of tea with her. "He really felt at home with her," said David Astor. "Once he came back and said, 'It's very strange. When I come home Mother says "Where have you been? Look at you, look at your face, your trousers are too long. You look all wrong." But when I go and see Mrs. Brooks she says, "Oh, Mr. Bobbie you do look well. Where have you been?"' He said, 'It makes a difference, doesn't it?'"
It was at the onset of adolescence that Nancy's children began to be battered by the whirlwind of her domination. By 1924, the nursery was closed: Bill was seventeen, Wissie, fifteen, David, twelve, Michael, eight, and Jakie, six. "Never tell me that a divided household doesn't mean agony and misery for the Mother," wrote Nancy to Phyllis on the subject of Peter's departure. "It's simply laying up trouble for your old age, and Heaven knows there is enough trouble without laying it up." Nancy didn't imagine that a household could be divided when all its members were present. Neither she nor Phyllis had any notion of dealing with adolescence -- what Phyllis called "the boy problem" -- even though they gave each other much advice on the subject. A rigid -- and selfish -- idea of what they wanted their children to be, based on some view of themselves and some fear of the past, was to be the real, but invisible, layer-up of trouble. In Nancy's case, her children were her exclusive possessions to the point where even their friends were seen as a threat to her ownership.
Michael Astor remembered Nancy as a "lively, dancing, sparkling figure" in his childhood before the bitter battles for independence took over. David Astor recalled, at the age of eighty, "My mother's voice coming down stairs now would move me more than any other sound. It was as if the light was going on and everything was coming to life and I felt alive. I would have gone anywhere to spend time with my mother when I was young. I can only tell you that in spite of everything, the thought of my Ma still brings more joy and comfort and courage to me than the thought of almost anyone else -- even though the thought of her can also bring feelings of discouragement and of emotional betrayal."
Wissie, the only girl in the family -- highly strung, nervy, and beautiful -- was a main sufferer from Nancy's ruling method of blowing hot and cold, raising and demoting her favorites. She was ruthlessly put down by her mother, as if she presented some kind of competition to Nancy, and her confidence never recovered. Willing, friendly, and admiring of her mother, Wissie was nevertheless subjected to "unmerciful teasing" and "snubbing" and continuous correction. She was also "drowned" by the presence of her cousin, Alice Perkins (later Winn), Lizzie's daughter, who was treated with special favoritism by Nancy as a Langhorne, and a true Virginian, and who could never do anything wrong. As part of the family, Alice shared holidays with the Astor children, Nancy and she "speaking the same language," all of which put Wissie out on a limb. Alice was understandably unpopular with her cousins at that age and became a particular victim of Bobbie's cruelest humor. Joyce Grenfell, another cousin, brought up affectionately by Nora, was also strong and confident by comparison with Wissie, despite her own fear of Astor gatherings. Generally, Nancy liked to promote other cousins above her own children. Writing to Irene about Jim Brand, she declared, "I honestly never met a more attractive or more brilliant child. He puts my young ones in the shade."
But David, born in 1912, was Nancy's special case. Nancy was relaxed enough to make a big fuss of him in his first four years -- her letters are full of praise for him; he was a gift, a pleasant surprise. Then, confusingly, after Michael and Jakie were born in 1916 and 1918, she blew cold, scarcely bothering to visit David when he was sent away to his first prep school. He was taken instead by Mr. Lee, the butler at Cliveden, who walked him up and down and told him about the men not wanting to return to the trenches, until he was ready to go in.
David had the feeling he had been abandoned, sent into exile for no apparent misdemeanor. His trust in his mother was fractured and would never mend. By the time Nancy suddenly blew warm toward him again, in the late 1920s when he was in his teens, it was too late. She then restored him as her favorite, after Bobbie, claiming him as her property, and denying him any other important relationship. She had marked out his future and wrote mysteriously to Phyllis that he had "the makings of a Virginia Captain." He would be trained up as a Christian Science practitioner, the standard-bearer of the family faith. He belonged, in her mind now, in a trio with herself and Philip Kerr, which for David was an embarrassing relationship in any case. Despite the early damage to his self-confidence and his apparent diffidence, David was becoming the most critical and independent-minded of her children. Nancy sensed the danger: "I wish you'd been born an ugly girl," she told him, "then you couldn't leave me."
"My mother would always bring things to the point of a row. She would criticize people to the point where they'd protest. You couldn't avoid being drawn into combat. But she did it as a form of affection," said David Astor. He added, "It's very difficult to talk about my mother truthfully without making her sound hateful, which she really wasn't."
Copyright (c) 2000 by James Fox