Excerpt from A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Well-Behaved Woman

A Novel of the Vanderbilts

by Therese Anne Fowler

A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler X
A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler
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  • Published:
    Oct 2018, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan

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I

WHEN THEY ASKED her about the Vanderbilts and Belmonts, about their celebrations and depredations, the mansions and balls, the lawsuits, the betrayals, the rifts—when they asked why she did the extreme things she'd done, Alva said it all began quite simply: Once there was a desperate young woman whose mother was dead and whose father was dying almost as quickly as his money was running out. It was 1874. Summertime. She was twenty-one years old, ripened unpicked fruit rotting on the branch.

* * *

"Stay together now, girls," Mrs. Harmon called as eight young ladies, cautiously clad in plain day dresses and untrimmed hats, left the safety of two carriages and gathered like ducklings in front of the tenement. The buildings were crowded and close here, the narrow street's bricks caked with horse dung, pungent in the afternoon heat. Soiled, torn mattresses and broken furniture and rusting cans littered the alleys. Coal smoke hung in the stagnant air. Limp laundry drooped on lines strung from one windowsill to the next along and across the entire block from Broome Street to Grand. The buildings themselves seemed to sag.

"Stay together?" Alva's sister Armide said. "Where does she imagine we'd go?"

"To the devil, surely," one of the other girls replied. "Like everyone here."

The speaker was Miss Lydia Roosevelt of the Oyster Bay Roosevelts, a cousin or niece (Alva couldn't remember which) of one of the charity group's founders. She would tell every Roosevelt ancestral detail if asked. Alva wouldn't ask.

Among the "everyone" here were numerous haggard, bundle-laden girls and women moving to and from doorways; a few old men propped on stoops or reclined against walls; and the dirtiest assortment of children Alva had ever seen—barefooted, most of them—playing in the street.

Miss Roosevelt's act-alike friend Miss Hadley Berg said, "To be fair, what else can you expect? These people are born inferior."

"You don't really believe that," Alva said.

"I don't believe what?" Miss Berg asked, adjusting her hat to keep her face in shadow. "That they're inferior?" She pointed to a little boy with greasy hair and scabbed knees who picked his teeth while he watched them. "That their poverty is natural?"

"Yes," Armide said. "Certainly circumstances play a role."

Alva glanced at her. The two of them knew this well. If their circumstances didn't improve dramatically and soon, they and their two younger sisters might be the ones living in a single room with no running water, doing their business in a dim alley or open courtyard where everyone could see. Already they were rationing food, restricting their entertainments, managing with two servants when they'd once had nine—and disguising these truths as best they could.

The group waited while Mrs. Harmon directed the coachmen to unload their baskets, each of which held twenty muslin bags tied with twine. Every bag contained a small sewing kit of two needles, thread, pins, and a thimble; a bar of soap; a short book of simple, uplifting poems; a lollipop; and four pennies. They'd spent the morning assembling the kits and now were to hand them out to some of Manhattan's poorest children—foundlings, runaways, immigrants, orphans, street urchins, what have you. Mrs. Harmon said that once able to sew, a highly skilled person could earn as much as ten dollars a week. Even the younger ones could earn twenty cents in a day, which might make all the difference.

Miss Roosevelt said, "You can clean up the white ones and send them to school, but it's not as though the boys will become gentlemen. They can't. It's not how God made them."

Miss Berg added, "If this sort could resist going for the bottle when difficulties come—"

"That's just it," said Miss Roosevelt. "The Irish are practically born drunk, and their men—why, drink is a part of everything they do. Even the women are susceptible. We had to fire a maid for it last week. My mother caught her roaring drunk and stuffing silverware into her pockets!"

Excerpted from A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Fowler. Copyright © 2018 by Therese Fowler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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