The Magazine

Dame at Sea

Life overshadows art in Mrs. Astor's biography.

May 28, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 35 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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But back to mothers and sons. Let's say you're about to scribble that quiet coda, and along comes word that your heroine's only offspring, in his early eighties by the time he sells the Childe Hassam, isn't behaving in a manner widely considered filial. What to do? Do you delve into Mrs. Astor's past to reconsider what part, if any, she might have played in her son's life? Or what resentments he might have harbored?

As it happens, the biographer does touch on this tricky subject, and in a fairly original way, too. "It would be wrong," she writes defiantly, to say that Mrs. Astor "was a bad mother." About this she is sure. However, "at those times when Tony's life was threatened, his mother remembered just how much she loved him, but ordinarily her son's welfare was not foremost on her mind."

Then, almost at the end, comes another sure-fire conclusion: "One chooses one's friends; when it comes to family, one has no choice." But about one's book selections, one absolutely does.

Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to
Vanity Fair.