Waldorf’s Birthday Present

Gabriele Annan

  • The Langhorne Sisters by James Fox
    Granta, 612 pp, £20.00, November 1998, ISBN 1 86207 071 7

By the time she got married in 1895, Irene Langhorne was 22 and had had 62 proposals. Getting proposals was what Southern belles were brought up to do. Irene was the second of the five Langhorne sisters of Richmond, Virginia. She married Dana Gibson, the inventor of the Gibson girl. Famous for her beauty from coast to coast, she never got divorced and never gave any trouble, so she doesn’t come into James Fox’s story much; and neither does the eldest Langhorne sister Lizzie. Lizzie just got on the others’ nerves and was poor. There were also three brothers, but they don’t come into the story at all. They drank a lot, as did many Southern gentlemen after the Civil War.

It isn’t difficult to connect drink with defeat, but James Fox thinks that the cult of the belle also was the result of defeat: ‘The belles became the pure white maidens of Provençal romance, antidotes to the surrounding blackness, whose honour was, literally, worth dying for ... The adulation of the belles had a direct relation to Virginia’s sense of defeat, the sense of injustice that could hardly be addressed in conversation.’ It sounds plausible, and true or not, it is an interesting notion. Fox often drops in speculations of this kind, usually with a psychological slant, and always imaginative, humane and stimulating. He doesn’t go on about them for too long but they are one of the small pleasures of this hugely pleasurable book. He is a natural storyteller (see White Mischief), and if his prose isn’t exactly elegant, it makes up for it with sparkle and an engaging irony.

The three younger Langhorne sisters all crossed the Atlantic and married Englishmen. They are not to be confused, though, with Edith Wharton’s New York ‘buccaneers’ or millionairesses like Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the Duke of Marlborough. The Langhornes despised jumped-up Yankee ‘dollar princesses’: their own blood, they knew, was blue, and it seems never to have occurred to them that they might be considered gold-diggers. Besides, both Nancy, the third sister, and Phyllis, the fourth, were divorced by the time they arrived in England. Divorce was still a disability at the turn of the century; that was why they moved on.

Nancy accumulated no more than 16 proposals; but then, she was only 17 when she accepted, and 18 when she married 24-year-old Bob Shaw. He was the playboy son of a rich Bostonian family and kept a permanent mistress. Nancy found she hated sex. She was still complaining about it after she had borne a daughter and four sons to her second husband, Waldorf Astor, and she ‘proudly’ informed them that they had been ‘conceived without pleasure, born without pain’. She also maintained that Bobbie, the child of her first marriage, was conceived only because Bob Shaw chloroformed her one night.

Phyllis Langhorne was a year younger than Nancy. On the photographs, she looks the loveliest of the five beauties, and she also sounds the nicest, and certainly the most soulful, though not without faults: she was terribly self-absorbed and self-pitying. James Fox is her grandson, but he gives her only just over two columns of entries in his index, while Nancy has four and a half, with a long section on ‘character’. It has subheadings for ‘ambition’, ‘attacks on children’ (only her own), ‘bullying’, ‘cruelty’, ‘energy’, ‘as entertainer’, ‘friendliness’, ‘generosity’, ‘inability to show affection’, ‘loyalty’, ‘possessiveness’, ‘tactlessness’, ‘as tomboy’ (she did cartwheels for Plymouth constituents while electioneering there), ‘wit’, ‘yearning for good’. The longest entry is for ‘possessiveness’, with ‘wit’ the runner-up. Nancy’s wit was in-your-face. To a man who claimed ‘that his family had never married beneath them, she replied: “I know they can’t but I never knew they realised it.” ’ Fox’s list tells you all you need to know about Nancy, but leaves out her charm, which was ‘such that we all fell easy victims’, Lord Brand wrote when he first met her. It must have been colossal to make her friends put up with some of the qualities in Fox’s inventory, not to speak of her relentless interference in their affairs.

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