Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia
by James Fox
Simon and Schuster, 496 pp., $30.00
In the early 1980s, the English writer James Fox was shown a large trunk at his grandfather’s house in Northamptonshire covered in Cunard and White Star steamship stickers. On inspection it turned out to contain thousands of letters between the Langhorne sisters, as well as other correspondence, carefully collected and preserved by his grandfather, Robert Brand, who had married one of them. It was a collection, Fox writes, made possible by two or three posts a day and the convention of returning letters to their senders “in time of grief.” That first encounter with the trunk has led to his absorbing chronicle of a Virginian family which sprang to prominence on both sides of the Atlantic at the turn of the last century, but paid a heavy price for fame and fortune in the wrecked lives of their children.
It was a clever idea to use family history to write about social and political history. James Fox is not the first to do it, but he does it differently. He does not use family history to illustrate some thesis—like the subordination of women in a patriarchal society—but to tell personal histories on which public events impinge as byproducts. The historian will be interested in how the marriage market had started to work to heal the rifts between North and South after the American Civil War and, beyond that, to create the “special relationship” between England and the United States. But this is not the focus of attention; certainly not the subject of a hypothesis.
Nor, with the partial exception of Nancy Astor, are the Langhorne sisters important public figures in their own right. It was the marriages which two of them made—Nancy to Waldorf Astor, “the richest man in the world,” and Phyllis to Robert Brand, “the Wisest Man in the Empire”—that enables Fox to write about momentous public events; for these men and their networks were close to the heart of British policymaking in the era that opened with the Boer War and closed with the Second World War. Although Nancy Astor became, unexpectedly, the first woman member of Parliament in 1919, her true genius was as a political hostess, particularly at Cliveden, the Astors’ massive country house, which became for thirty years “a hothouse of political power [and] Anglo-American intrigue.”
Had Fox merely used the Langhorne sisters as a peg on which to hang the story of the decline of the British aristocracy, or Empire, or both, it would still have been a book of remarkable interest. But what gives his chronicle its special quality is the sensitivity with which he captures the personalities and portrays the private lives and passions of the sisters. We are back in an age when adults, especially as lovers and parents, had almost no insight into their own motives, or into the effects of their behavior on others. The legacy the Langhornes bequeathed to their children was too much money, too little demonstrative love, too little to do, and torn loyalties between parents and cultures. Some of the men became serious casual-ties as a result. In tracing a three-generation trajectory from mettlesome ambition to self-destructive alcoholism James Fox has written a psychological masterpiece.
The story starts in postbellum Virginia, one of the eleven slave states which had seceded from the Union. The “Yankee” victory in the Civil War had left it devastated. Reconstruction and the railway boom restored a patchy prosperity. The latter was the key to the recovery of the Langhorne fortunes. Before the war, Chiswell Dabney Langhorne’s father had been a prosperous gentleman-farmer. When the war ended “Chillie” was destitute, a Confederate veteran of twenty-two. He spent the next twenty-five years “back and forth from the breadline” in Danville and Richmond.
His big break came in 1890 when he got a railroad contract. Three years later he bought Mirador, a colonial red brick house at the foot of the Blue Ridge, where as “Colonel” Langhorne, with his household of liberated former slaves, he lived up to the Northern myth of the “Old South,” portrayed in the novels of Thomas Nelson Page, and later epitomized in Gone with the Wind. By this time, “Chillie” and his wife, Nancy Keene (“Nanaire”), had amassed five daughters and three sons, and a considerable fortune.
It was their daughters’ marriages that made the Langhornes nationally famous. Annual coming-out balls had long been held at White Sulphur Springs, to which mothers who could afford to brought their “belles” to be hitched up to eligible local “beaux.” By the 1880s, writes Fox,
entrepreneurial money had changed The White. Harvard men were turning up, families from the North who brought a different, racier style. Lawyers and brokers came with the railroaders. And the southern girls, pushed by their mothers, were using the system to escape the menace of genteel poverty. The top ones were making good marriages outside, mostly to northerners, mostly to millionaires. The southern invasion of New York had begun.
Lizzie, the eldest daughter, had been married off at eighteen to a local squire, Moncure Perkins, too soon to enjoy the benefit of compulsory enrichment. The next daughter, Irene, possessed of the “rounded hips and the forward-weighted bosom of the classical Belle…that tapered to a twenty-inch waist,” fared better. At White Sulphur Springs, she was noticed by The New York Times, and in 1893, invited by Ward McAllister, dictator of New York’s social life, to lead the grand march at the Patriarch’s Ball. This guaranteed instant stardom. Two years later, she married Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the “Gibson Girl,” a magazine image of all-American womanhood “that taught an entire generation how to walk, talk, and dress.” Merging into a Gibson Girl herself, Irene “settled down with Dana Gibson to be immortal, fixed in the moment of her fame, as the world changed about her.”
Nancy and Phyllis, more high-spirited and intelligent—more like Gibson Girls in fact than their beautiful but dim elder sister—followed the trail North that Irene had blazed, though less productively. In 1897 Nancy, aged eighteen, married Robert Gould Shaw. Her honeymoon with the alcoholic Boston playboy “ended the marriage quite literally before it had begun,” and established in Nancy’s mind an unbreakable connection “between her sufferings and alcohol.” (Her two elder brothers, Keene and Harry, drank themselves to death.) She claimed that she had lain flat on her stomach on their three honeymoon nights, and that the later pregnancy which led to the birth of her son, Robert “Bobbie” Shaw, was the result of a chloroform rape. She obtained a judicial separation from her husband in 1901, the same year that Phyllis, having done the round of the Northern playgrounds, married Reggie Brooks, a rich wastrel from Newport, who spent his life drinking, hunting, and shooting. He called Phyllis “old man” and saw her as an addition to his hunting circle.
Nancy divorced Robert Shaw in 1903, with a handsome settlement, on the grounds of his adultery, and fled to England, feeling she had “come home.” Socially ostracized as a divorcée in Boston, she conquered the grand houses and hunting parties of the Home Counties with her striking looks, fearlessness, and wit. The fashion for marrying rich American heiresses was at its height, the Duke of Marlborough having set the trend by marrying Consuelo Vanderbilt and $1 million of railway stock. Nancy failed to catch a duke. Instead she married Waldorf Astor. Waldorf’s father, a naturalized British subject who thought that America was “not a fit place for a gentleman to live,” owned a large chunk of Manhattan, from which he drew $9 million a year in rent. His gift to the newlyweds was Cliveden, a baroque palace on the Thames, which became the grandest of Nancy’s several salons. Soon afterward he gave them New York’s Waldorf Astoria, which brought in a handy $200,000 a year.
Nancy was “sexually unallured” by Waldorf, a man of saintly, if austere, disposition. Following the death of her mother, Nanaire, in 1903, her love was lavished on her sister Phyllis and her firstborn son, Bobbie, whom she “suffocated…with adoration.” But Nancy understood that Waldorf’s wealth and connections were essential to her social ambitions, while he understood that her energy and vivacity were vital to his political projects. She turned Cliveden from a place with the sepulchral gloom of a Siena cathedral into a temple of sunny elegance, filling the house with “cut flowers mixed together in large bowls in the Virginian style.” A combination of wealth and guilt made the Astors the most lavish of the Edwardian do-gooders. Cliveden soon filled up with politicians from all parties; Waldorf, pushed by Nancy, was elected Unionist (Conservative) MP for the Sutton division of Plymouth in 1910. Canvassing for him, Nancy showed herself to be “fearless, fast on her feet, as quick-tongued as any stand-up comic.” She was appalled at the slums of the Barbican, among the worst in England, though her social philosophy amounted to little more than helping the poor with “Waldorf’s money and her own proselytizing.”
She was increasingly attracted by the “Thinker and Reformer” type. Among the “charming intellectuals” she assembled at Cliveden were Philip Kerr and Robert Brand, the first the grandson of a duke, the second of a viscount, who were both leading members of “Milner’s Kindergarten.” This was a formidably clever group of young Oxford graduates who, after the Boer War, worked in South Africa under the high commissioner, Alfred Milner, to produce the Union of South Africa “out of the unhealable antagonisms between its two white races.” Back in England, the Kindergarten stayed together, an unbreakable brotherhood, forming a liberal Conservative version of the Fabian Society, dedicated to promoting imperial federation. Without political ambition themselves, their views obtained a wide currency through their adept networking and the various journals Waldorf Astor controlled, notably The Round Table and the Observer, edited by the brilliant J.L. Garvin.
Their impractical idealism—”to govern without accountability in the pursuit of the shining idea”—perfectly fitted the Astors’ philosophy of social uplift, free from undue taint of party politics, as well as offering a way of reconciling their American and English identities. Nancy fell platonically in love with the tall, ascetic Philip Kerr, a centrist éminence grise, who was on the edges of political power until World War II. He felt personally guilty for the Treaty of Versailles, in which, as Lloyd George’s private secretary, he had written the notorious “war guilt” clause, stating that the war had been caused solely by German “aggression,” and thus justifying punitive reparations. This led him to champion appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and to involve in the appeasement cause the “Cliveden Set,” which was centered around Nancy and was widely denounced for its views.
From her new position of power and wealth, Nancy had taken charge of her sisters’ lives. She commanded Phyllis and her youngest sister, Nora, to join her. She could not bear to be parted from Phyllis, and Nora needed a safe marriage. Phyllis was glad to come. Her marriage to Reggie Brooks was falling apart. She bore him two sons, Peter in 1902 and David (“Winkie”) in 1910, but with Nancy installed at Cliveden, she began to spend more and more time in England. The artistic Nora, who accepted every proposal of marriage made to her, often several at once, and of whom it was said that she “went through the Guards like a knife through butter,” was safely, if temporarily, married off to Paul Phipps, a struggling architect and Oxford contemporary of Waldorf’s, in 1909. By this time Lizzie’s marriage to Moncure Perkins, drunk and broke, had collapsed; she had been expelled from Mirador by Chillie, who could not stand her nagging. She now turned up in Europe (she preferred France to England), unwanted and dissatisfied, to enjoy Nancy’s largesse. When Dana Gibson lost money in the New York stock exchange crash of 1906, Nancy helped Irene out as well. By 1912, she had all the sisters on her payroll.
Nancy Astor dominates the book, as she dominated her sisters, and James Fox has created an unforgettable portrait of her, as bold and sharp as the subject herself. Nancy was a monster with a heart of gold; a mother hen, for whom possession was nine tenths of love; a collector of men, who was devoid of sexual passion; a woman of deadly wit but no brain; a comedian with no sense of humor; kind of heart but cruel of tongue; an intrepid horsewoman who craved the company of intellectuals; one of the richest women in the world who never lost her fear of poverty; a Puritan with an insatiable love of jewelry and fine clothes. No feminist, she provided for her sex an example of combativeness, refusing the position of an “honorary man” when she entered the House of Commons.
She carried off these contradictions, and many more, without any sense of being off balance, combining them in a “character” and “performance” which kept all the generations on edge. “We had never met anyone like her,” wrote Bob Brand. She “broke all known rules of engagement.” She said whatever came into her head. “Why don’t you think before you speak?” she was once asked. “How do I know what I think until I’ve said it?” she shot back. She entertained her guests at Cliveden by putting on large plastic teeth, which she used to impersonate rival hostesses like Margot Asquith and Ettie Desborough. Joyce Grenfell, Nora’s daughter, used these performances as the basis for her own professional skits. In a nephew’s summary, Nancy “was by instinct a gangster who was always trying to be good.”
The key to her character was a natural fearlessness, which however could never overcome an underlying insecurity, which expressed itself in a hunger for adoration and possession. As a girl she was a wildcat and a tomboy, who competed with men rather than flirted with them. A photograph taken of her as a teenager in a lacy dress is quite unlike the conventional pose then considered suitable for marriageable maidens: her expression is focused and determined, her hands placed challengingly on her hips. She was determined to conquer her own weaknesses and the world’s. Henry James called her a “reclaimed barbarian.”
The reclamation was the work of religion. As a child she had come under the spell of a visiting preacher, with whom she rode out on his missions of mercy, tending the sick and destitute. She read the Bible from cover to cover, accepting it literally for the rest of her life, “particularly Genesis and Proverbs,” its contents “never differentiated by further study or reflection.” The habits of rich and poor alike instilled in her a lifelong hatred of alcohol: her one legislative achievement was to get the pub-drinking age raised to eighteen.
The rigid self-discipline she imposed on herself, crucial to her success, took its toll. The early days of her marriage to Astor were punctuated with prostrating illnesses, which came in combinations and lasted for weeks, and for which doctors had no diagnosis except “nervous exhaustion” and no cure but bed rest. Her son, Michael Astor, considered that in her assault on English society “she had swallowed more than she could digest.” James Fox traces her illnesses to an unresolved conflict between her overdeveloped conscience and her love of wealth and power.
One remedy, such as it was, came in the shape of Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, to which Nancy was converted by an American friend in 1914. Fox calls it “the most successful of all the American mind-over-matter, self-reliance, self-healing cults ever devised.” Its central belief was the denial of the physical world: sexual love, sickness, and death were illusions. The cure for these deceptions was “the religious euphoria produced by repe-tition…of Eddy’s texts and certainties.” Doctors were charlatans who ministered to illusions, not reality. The fashionable world’s adoption of this cult was partly a reaction to the appallingly low standard of the medical science of the day, pilloried by Bernard Shaw (another friend of Nancy’s) in his play The Doctor’s Dilemma. As the jingle went: “Lord Dawson of Penn [the King’s doctor]/Has killed many men.” In Nancy’s case the cure was certainly efficacious: she had hardly a day’s illness for the rest of her life. But, aiming to do good, she forced it on her family and friends, with less successful results. She converted Philip Kerr, on the rebound from Roman Catholicism, not soon enough to endanger his life when he developed appendicitis and was operated on, but with fatal long-term consequences. In 1940, when he was Marquess of Lothian and wartime British ambassador to Washington, he died of a kidney complaint which might easily have been cured, setting back Anglo-American relations for six months.
Nancy’s other cure was to develop her philanthropic and political activities. During World War I, Cliveden was turned into a hospital, with Nancy as its Florence Nightingale. Her methods were certainly unusual: she bet a Canadian soldier her Cartier watch that he would be dead the following day. He attributed his survival to the will she inspired in him, and pocketed the prize. When Waldorf succeeded his father as Lord Astor in 1919, Nancy took over his Plymouth seat in Parliament, which she held by a mixture of effrontery and good works for the next twenty-five years. A heroine to her constituents, her theatrical performances failed to impress the House of Commons. Her courage forced her to take on the parliamentary giants of the day, by whom she was usually worsted. “If I was your wife I’d put poison in your coffee,” she shouted at Winston Churchill. “And if I was your husband I’d drink it,” he growled back in reply. Her last medical crisis, which took a large dose of Christian Science to overcome, was the result, Fox writes, of the “almost overwhelming act of courage and will needed to stand up to the hostility—petty, persistent, and often vicious—from her male colleagues in the House of Commons.”
Phyllis was very different from Nancy. She did not feel love as a disabling emotion against which she had to armor herself. She could love and suffer; she could be loved and hurt. Nancy recognized this quality. Men “liked me but it was Phyllis they always fell in love with,” she said. Fox writes about his grandmother: “Feminine, sympathetic, there was a luminous quality to her beauty, a melancholy in her nature…a streak of introversion so foreign to her father and her siblings. She radiated some mixture of love and goodness along with the connecting Langhorne gaiety.” In particular, she inspired undying devotion from two men—the Honourable Captain Henry Douglas Pennant, son of Lord Penrhyn, and the Honourable Bob Brand.
The story of Phyllis’s doomed love for “the Captain” is straight out of a Victorian romantic novel, just as the Captain himself is a figure from Rider Haggard. It was an affair built on the briefest of encounters, and idealized pictures in both their minds of the beloved. The Captain was a big game hunter, whom Phyllis had met in 1907 while hunting herself at Melton Mowbray. The Captain was duly smitten. But being a big game hunter—in flight from the diseases of modern civilization—the Captain necessarily spent most of his time in inaccessible places like East Africa, Central Asia, Mongolia, and Siberia; while Phyllis, too, was shuttling back and forth between Reggie Brooks in America and Nancy in England.
The Captain’s adventures, much described in his letters to Phyllis, added to his romantic appeal. After he had been mauled by a leopard in Kenya, Phyllis realized she was in love with him. Nancy sniffed the dangers of another unsuitable marriage. “My goodness, don’t you want a mental superior?” she demanded of Phyllis. She proceeded to supply one in the shape of wise, balding, bespectacled Bob Brand, who too was smitten, and who wooed Phyllis from much nearer home with improving political pamphlets and books of poetry. Phyllis appreciated his attention and was moved by his persistence, but could do no better than describe him to Nancy as “the most livable sort of creature, like a cosy livable room.”
Separated, but not yet divorced, from Reggie Brooks, Phyllis was in no position to live openly with either man. In the couple of years before the war, the persistent but present Brand seemed to be gaining over the romantic but absent Captain. With the war, the balance shifted. The Captain rejoined his regiment, while Brand remained deskbound, thus reaffirming the Captain’s manly superiority. He was also, for a time, much closer to hand. In January 1915 Pennant and Phyllis spent five days together in London. “It is almost inconceivable,” Fox writes, “that they didn’t live together in these few days as man and wife.” Phyllis wrote to him:
Capt my dearest this last week must make us both feel that our affections are more sacred than ever before. I cannot describe to you what emotions of joy & tenderness come over me when Ithink of all the best in you must now be mine to march forward with this game of life.
For the Captain, the game was about to end. In March 1915, he was offered a regular army staff job which would have kept him safe. He wrote back from the trenches accepting it. “You often said,” he told Phyllis, “that you didn’t mind what sort of a job I got as long as I got something…so don’t go off to the USA….” Faced with the reality rather than the illusion of living with the Captain, Phyllis, in an “astonishing” reaction, hinted to him that she did not fancy being a soldier’s wife. The Captain was above all a gentleman. He knew where his duty lay. He turned down the staff job, led his men over the top at Neuve-Chappelle, and was instantly killed. Nancy would “never forget the pitch of the scream Phyllis let out when she was told the news.” Two years later she married Bob Brand.
Of the five sisters, Lizzie died in 1914; Irene lived on till 1956. Nora, the charmer, pursued her inconsequent journey through life and men, which included an affair with Scott Fitzgerald; Nancy traveled around the world preaching the gospel of moral improvement. (She secured a ban on opium-smoking in Hong Kong, which led to a switch to the use of heroin.) Phyllis and Bob Brand were blissfully happy. She bore him three children; he became a famous financial statesman, negotiating in 1930 the Standstill agreements that delayed further German debt payments, and then watching firsthand the “lunatic development of the Hitler craze.”
But this is not a story with a happy ending. Phyllis’s adored second son “Winkie” Brooks committed suicide in New York in 1936. “My mum thinks I’m no good,” he said. Phyllis died a year later from a pneumonia she no longer had the will to fight, Nancy in attendance with a Christian Science nurse “crying and screaming and praying.” Phyllis’s eldest son, Peter Brooks, who had started drinking heavily, also committed suicide in 1944. Only Bob Brand’s sense of duty kept him going after Phyllis’s death in 1937. Bobbie Shaw, Nancy’s “Mummy’s boy,” was cashiered from the army, and later imprisoned for homosexual acts with soldiers; he took his life a few years after his mother died. Fox’s view that these children were casualties of their mothers’ possessiveness, which stemmed from their failed first marriages and their flight from America, is too simple: weak characters and too much money played a large part in their downfall.
Nancy’s political reputation soared briefly and then crashed for good. The damage was done by the brilliant Communist journalist Claud Cockburn. In the late 1930s he targeted the “Cliveden set” as a nest of pro-Nazi sympathizers, keen to sell out to Hitler to preserve their privileges. This was to give a journalistic spin to what was undoubtedly true—that “Cliveden,” if that term is taken to exclude Bob Brand, who never had any illusions about Nazism, thought, like most pro-Chamberlain Tories, that “Communism was the serious threat—to Christianity and capitalist civilization”—and hoped that Hitler would settle down into a reliable bulwark against communism once German grievances were met. Fox writes that Philip Kerr, the high priest of the doctrine, now Marquess of Lothian, seized “on the abstract idea of justice for Germany” and confused “the grievances of Germans with Hitler’s motives.”
This fitted Nancy’s Christian Science view that all evil was correctable error. Nancy’s personal contribution to appeasement was to tell Ribbentrop, the German ambassador, to get Hitler to cut off his ridiculous mustache, which, she said, made him look like Charlie Chaplin. This led to her being put on the Nazi arrest list; but the Cliveden Set slur stuck. Although she resumed her Florence Nightingale role in the Second World War, this time in Plymouth, to which she and Waldorf had moved in 1940, performing cartwheels in the air-raid shelters to keep up morale, she never recovered from being nationally demonized. At Waldorf’s insistence, she did not run for Parliament in the 1945 general election.
Nancy never forgave Waldorf for making her relinquish Plymouth. She made him so miserable with her reproaches that he left Cliveden in 1950, spending his last two years with his son David. Before he went, his patience finally gone, he wrote her: “When you say that ‘honesty is spiritual power’ you really claim you are entitled to say exactly what you think about others regardless of their feelings.”
Nancy outlived all her sisters, dying in 1964 at the age of eighty-five. James Fox’s own memories of her in the early 1950s evoke both the charm and horror of her personality. He and his brother and sister would join many cousins for summer holidays at Rest Harrow, her house by the sea at Sandwich in Kent:
It was the cleanest house I had ever visited—the smell of polish and wax and Jeyes Fluid…on the brown linoleum of the back stairs, the flowers in the sitting rooms. Above all, there was the presence of Aunt Nancy, who controlled everybody’s lives. She was small and neat, with a sprig of lemon-scented verbena pinned to her brooch, and almost always holding a golf club. She gave out dark caramels from America (rationing was still in force) and would slip into imitations and mockeries, putting in false teeth, inventing wild games. In the morning, we would go to her bedroom to be given her version of a Christian Science lesson. Bibles were strewn about the bed, the text for the day marked and ready…. She radiated excitement and protection. She could also make you cry, quickly and brutally…. One of my playmates, introduced to Lady Astor, was lightly poked in the chest with the greeting, “I hear you’re a horrible little boy.” He turned against her forever.
From the contents of Bob Brand’s trunk, James Fox has, with consummate artistry, constructed a work that is witty and sad, affectionate but just. It is impossible to put it down. One wishes it would never end.