The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Unfit Heiress
The Unfit Heiress
The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt
by Audrey Farley

Hardcover (20 Apr 2021), 304 pages.
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
ISBN-13: 9781538753354

For readers of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Phantom of Fifth Avenue, a page-turning drama of fortunes, eugenics and women's reproductive rights framed by the sordid court battle between Ann Cooper Hewitt and her socialite mother.

At the turn of the twentieth century, American women began to reject Victorian propriety in favor of passion and livelihood outside the home. This alarmed authorities, who feared certain "over-sexed" women could destroy civilization if allowed to reproduce and pass on their defects. Set against this backdrop, The Unfit Heiress chronicles the fight for inheritance, both genetic and monetary, between Ann Cooper Hewitt and her mother Maryon.

In 1934, aided by a California eugenics law, the socialite Maryon Cooper Hewitt had her "promiscuous" daughter declared feebleminded and sterilized without her knowledge. She did this to deprive Ann of millions of dollars from her father's estate, which contained a child-bearing stipulation. When a sensational court case ensued, the American public was captivated. So were eugenicists, who saw an opportunity to restrict reproductive rights in America for decades to come.

This riveting story unfolds through the brilliant research of Audrey Clare Farley, who captures the interior lives of these women on the pages and poses questions that remain relevant today: What does it mean to be "unfit" for motherhood? In the battle for reproductive rights, can we forgive the women who side against us? And can we forgive our mothers if they are the ones who inflict the deepest wounds?



Bulbs flashed as the socialite, sporting rouge and fur, took her seat alongside her attorney, who had called a press conference in his San Francisco office. The image of the solemn-faced, perfectly coiffed twenty-one-year-old would appear in newspapers across the country. Some, like the New York Times, would print nearly fifty stories detailing the woman's private life—her childhood, romantic relationships, spending habits, even the lingerie she was wearing. (It was imported from France.) It was January 1936, and heiress Ann Cooper Hewitt was suing her mother, Maryon Cooper Hewitt, in court for half a million dollars. The plaintiff claimed that her mother paid two doctors to "unsex" her during a scheduled appendectomy in order to deprive her of an inheritance from her millionaire father's estate.

Ann's father was Peter Cooper Hewitt, whose invention of the mercury-vapor lamp in 1901 earned him more than $1 million. The money from this creation supplemented an already sizable bank account, as Ann's father was also the grandson of an even more famous engineer—Peter Cooper. Cooper was behind a slew of inventions in the nineteenth century, including gelatin dessert and the steam locomotive. His ingenuity, coupled with investments in real estate, railroads, and the insurance industry, made him one of the richest men in New York City before his death in 1883. Cooper's children and grandchildren dutifully expanded the family wealth with their own business enterprises. When Ann's father died in 1921, his estate was worth over $4 million (the equivalent of $59 million today).

Peter Cooper Hewitt's will stipulated that two-thirds of his estate was to go to Ann and one-third to his wife, Ann's mother, after his death. The will also stipulated that Ann's share reverted back to her mother if she died childless. Knowing this, Ann asserted in her civil complaint, her mother had secretly paid two California doctors to remove her fallopian tubes. Mrs. Cooper Hewitt had done this with money obtained from Ann's trust fund eleven months before her twenty-first birthday—the point at which the woman would have no further say in her daughter's medical care.

The plot was set in motion in August 1934, when Ann and her mother were at the Coronado beachside resort outside San Diego. Over lunch, Ann talked of becoming an adult and finding a man to marry when she was suddenly struck with stomach pains. Their driver rushed them back to San Francisco, where Ann's private physician, Dr. Tilton Tillman, was waiting for her at Dante Sanatorium on Broadway. "Well, Ann, I understand you have appendicitis," said Tillman, upon her arrival at the hospital.

According to the plaintiff, Tillman never examined her abdomen. Instead, he led her to another room, where an alienist (an early-twentieth-century term for a psychologist) named Mary Scally began to ask her civics questions: Why did the Pilgrims come to America? What is the duration of a presidential term? What is the longest river in the United States? When was the Battle of Hastings fought?

"I didn't pay much attention or know what it was about," Ann recalled at the press conference. "Four days later, I returned to the hospital for my appendectomy, which was performed by Dr. Samuel Boyd. No one told me anything else."

The heiress reported that she stayed at the hospital for several weeks to recover from the procedure. During this time, she overheard a few staff members asking her nurse how the "idiot patient" was doing. Ann also heard her nurse make several phone calls to Dr. Tillman assuring him that his patient "didn't suspect a thing."

"I learned then that my mother and Dr. Tillman had told everyone that I was a mental case," Ann testified. "I discovered that I had undergone a salpingectomy, having my tubes removed along with my appendix."

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Unfit Heiress by Audrey Farley. Copyright © 2021 by Audrey Farley. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A socialite sues her mother for sterilizing her, and the world is stunned.

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During the American eugenics movement (see Beyond the Book), involuntary sterilization was used to keep poor people, sick people and Black people from reproducing. While there have been scant reparations to victims, most of these incidents have gone unnoticed by the general public. However, when a white daughter of wealth, Ann Cooper Hewitt, was sterilized against her will at the age of 20, the world was stunned. Doctors had been duped by Ann's mother Maryon into believing that Ann was "feeble-minded," which was considered grounds for eugenic sterilization. When Ann, who underwent the procedure without knowledge or consent, discovered what had happened to her, she was livid and sued her mother for half a million dollars in compensation. The city of San Francisco put the doctors on trial and the press went into a frenzy writing about Ann and this very odd case.

The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt centers the events that unfolded amidst a patriarchal era. Women's bodies were sliced open, often without their consent; fallopian tubes were cut or pulled out. While eugenics now is often associated with the likes of Adolf Hitler, the Nazis were influenced by American involuntary sterilization practices, which were at one time adopted by 30 states and upheld by the Supreme Court.

In 1910, decades before Ann was involuntarily sterilized, biologist Charles Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. He believed that criminality, hypersexuality, poverty and poor intelligence were genetic traits that could be erased by controlling the population through sterilization. He was horrified by the "unfit," a category that included immigrants, freed slaves, the indigent and anguished, the unwell and uneducated. Davenport hired field workers to collect data on families to form the basis for his opinions about epileptics, alcoholics, prostitutes and others he considered morally deviant. The findings were presented to politicians and government agencies to promote sterilization programs.

While the growing culture of eugenics and selective breeding programs was feared by the underclass, it also gave socialite Maryon Cooper Hewitt the loathsome idea to have her own daughter sterilized. Maryon lacked a moral compass but excelled at finding rich husbands to bankroll her lifestyle. Peter Cooper Hewitt, Ann's father, was a prominent scientist and inventor who helped Thomas Edison perfect the electric storage battery. Nerdy Peter was delighted that Maryon took an interest in him while he and his wife Lucy were estranged. However, he eventually became lukewarm towards Maryon. And then Ann was born. Everything Maryon hated about Ann, Peter adored. He divorced Lucy to be closer to his daughter, while only tolerating Maryon. Until his sudden death, which netted Ann a substantial portion of his estate, valued at over $4 million, Peter only had eyes for his daughter, and she for him.

The money Peter left Ann reverted to her mother if Ann died childless. This was all the motivation Maryon needed. She arranged for doctors to sterilize Ann while she was undergoing a supposedly necessary appendectomy. Ann never would have known what had happened if she hadn't overheard nurses speaking about the "idiot patient" and whispers about her not suspecting a thing.

In her telling of these events, Audrey Clare Farley doesn't choose sides. She respects the reader's intelligence, expecting they will come to their own conclusions about fairness, abuse and trauma. A talented historical storyteller, Farley intermingles Ann's suffering and Maryon's hedonism with cultural details that frame the eugenics era; I imagine most readers will be as enlightened by the specifics of this unspoken time in American history as I was and feel contempt for those who let the trauma continue. However, there are flaws with this strategy. By steering the sterilization trauma lens away from Ann and onto other victims and the men behind eugenics, she alienates readers who have just gotten comfortable with the mother-daughter story. The interruptions are unnecessary.

Still, I loved the meat and potatoes of the story in all of its forms: historical trauma, petty revenge, social climbing, racist motivations, legal gamesmanship. I can imagine a Netflix series with Maryon as the villain. Many will dislike Farley's portrayal of her, but I appreciated the way she was written, with convincing authenticity and consistency. Maryon stole men's fortunes through marriage. She stole Ann's womb through lies. She trampled on women's rights. She was worse than the Greek character Medea. Medea was pained by the thought of hurting her own children while Maryon seemed oblivious to such thoughts.

After her sterilization, Maryon locked Ann in a room and forced her to stay there for days as a way of silencing her. Upon release, Ann enjoyed having the power to make her mother squirm by threatening her financial solvency with a lawsuit. Ann was the wolf now and Maryon the lamb. This was a significant feminist moment because it stressed the importance of a woman's right to defend her bodily autonomy. But it was a sad moment as well, because it had to come to this. In the words of Toni Morrison, Ann was "ancient with sorrow." Readers won't wish for another hundred pages of the events of Ann's life but they will appreciate Farley's telling of her evolution from neglected child to justice seeker. They may even find in her story something to emulate, as it shows how righting a wrong can save both the soul and the species.

Reviewed by Valerie Morales

Town and Country
In Audrey Clare Farley's book, the fascinating and unsettling case—and the worldwide media sensation it caused—is carefully revisited to expose what it meant to be considered an unfit parent and how easily family can become foes.

Ms. Magazine
This well-researched and endlessly readable book is centered on the sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt, deemed too promiscuous by her mother to receive her father’s inheritance. Part biography and part history of eugenics, this one is intriguing and terrifying.

New York Post
The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt by Audrey Clare Farley, tells the sad and shocking tale of Cooper Hewitt, the daughter of famed engineer and inventor Peter Cooper Hewitt, and how her case reflected a time when eugenics was not only frighteningly common, but widely accepted in the US.

Kirkus Reviews
[S]hocking..., the eye-opening story of the family is a concrete example of lamentable policies that continue to shape the reproductive rights of women. A disturbing yet thought-provoking tale of family strife and ethically unsound medical practice.

Publishers Weekly
Historian Farley debuts with an intriguing account of socialite Ann Cooper Hewitt, who filed a $500,000 lawsuit against her mother in 1936 for having her sterilized in order to deprive her of her inheritance...This is an eye-opening portrait of an obscure yet fascinating case.

Library Journal
Expertly blending biography and history, and using the life of Ann Cooper Hewitt as a backdrop, Farley has created an absorbing biography effectively explaining how the legacy of eugenics still persists today. Hewitt's story will engage anyone interested in women's history.

Booklist (starred review)
This book is as timely as ever. A gripping tale about the atrocity of systematic reproductive control.

Author Blurb Susannah Cahalan, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Brain on Fire
The Unfit Heiress is a sensational story told with nuance and humanity with clear reverberations to the present. Historian Audrey Clare Farley's writing jumps off the page, as Ann Cooper Hewitt, once a one-dimensional tabloid fixation, is brought into full relief as a complicated victim of her time, standing in the crosshairs of the growing eugenics movement and the emergence of a 'over-sexed' and 'dangerous' New Woman. But most importantly, this book is a necessary call to remember the high stakes and terrible history of the longstanding fight for control over women's bodies.

Author Blurb Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Appetites
The Unfit Heiress is not only a fascinating look at a wildly dysfunctional high society family, it's also a compulsively readable account of the reproductive myths and bigotry-driven pseudoscience that still shape our world today.

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Sterilization or Genocide? Eugenics in North Carolina

In The Unfit Heiress, Audrey Clare Farley sets the case of San Francisco socialite Ann Cooper Hewitt against the backdrop of the American eugenics movement. In the age of eugenics, which lasted approximately from the 1920s to the 1940s, 30 states embraced laws allowing involuntary sterilization. North Carolina was one of the worst, partly because it continued its eugenics program into the 1970s, while eugenics had fallen out of favor in most states after World War II. The state sterilized over 7,000 people, including rape and incest victims, Black girls and poor white ones.

Latoya Adams, whose aunt, Deborah Blackmon, became a victim of sterilization in 1972, observed, "These people were dehumanized. They treated them like animals." The documents in Blackmon's file read: "Final diagnoses: Mental retardation, severe. Eugenic sterilization. Total abdominal hysterectomy." Blackmon was only 14 years old at the time.

In the late 1920s, when eugenic sterilizations began in North Carolina, support for the procedures was widespread. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that it was "better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind."

The North Carolina Eugenics Board was staffed by health and political professionals, including the state attorney general and the director of public health. The objective was layered: Sterilize to control welfare costs. Sterilize as a poverty management system. Sterilize to reduce Black families.

William Darity Jr., Gregory N. Price and Rhonda V. Sharpe co-authored a report about the racial motivations of sterilization focusing on the years 1958-1968: "Did North Carolina Economically Breed-Out Blacks During its Historical Eugenic Sterilization Campaign?" The paper explains that sterilizations increased as a control mechanism to eliminate certain populations. Darity Jr., Price and Sharpe were interested in "surplus populations," those dependent on the state. They found that sterilizations increased within surplus populations but only if those populations were Black.

The United Nations' definition of genocide includes imposing measures to prevent births within a group. Darity Jr., Price and Sharpe stated that "for blacks, eugenic sterilizations were authorized and administered with the aim of reducing their numbers in the future population—genocide by any other name."

Early in the sterilization program, Black women were protected because of their absence from state institutions and welfare benefits, a consequence of Jim Crow. Social workers didn't seek them out. But by the 1960s almost all the sterilized were Black women. Rutgers University historian Johanna Schoen, who studied records in North Carolina, said, "The North Carolina program reached into people's homes like no other." Schoen found cases of families moving away to avoid social workers' intrusiveness, and cases of children being hidden so the social workers wouldn't know the accurate size of a family.

Mecklenburg County sterilized three times more people than any other North Carolina county, a total of 465 from the years 1946-1968. Some of them technically gave permission for the procedure, but were coerced into doing so, including an illiterate woman who was told her welfare food supply would be cut off if she didn't sign an X on the sterilization form for her granddaughter, a rape victim.

In 2010, the North Carolina Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims was established to compensate victims with payment, but filing a claim requires documentation that not all victims may have access to. Additionally, reparations has been a sore subject within the state because many are resistant to opening the door to reparations for slavery.

Sterilization was a system of infantilization. Choices were taken away; adults were treated as children. North Carolina's sterilization system stopped in 1977 after a 40+ year history, but the scars and the trauma remain. A new century hasn't watered down the sins of the past in this Southern state, where women's biological futures were stolen from them.

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Valerie Morales

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