This excellent biography takes an in-depth look at the famous, turn-of-the-century five Langhorne sisters of Virginia. The author is the grandson of one of the sisters, which gave him unprecedented access to some never-before-published letters and journals. Lizzie, Irene, and Nora take a back seat to highly visible Nancy (Lady Astor, first woman to serve in Parliament) and Phyllis, the author's grandmother. The author weaves historical and political background around the sisters' stories, which gives the book a pleasurable informational heft and weight.
They started out poor, as most Virginians were after the calamity of the Civil War. Eldest sister Lizzie was born in 1867, only two years after the war. Father, Chillie Langhorne, hit it big about twenty years later by entering into business with some Yankee railroaders. Then he was able to purchase the fabled Mirador, a perfect setting for his daughters. Chillie and mother Nemoire could have been stand-ins for Scarlett O'Hara's father and mother. Chillie was a hard-drinking charmer and a complete autocrat while Nemoire was almost saintly in her beauty and patience. They had eleven children, eight who lived, five girls and three boys. Two of the boys died young of a combination of hard drinking and tuberculosis.
Eldest Lizzie, who grew up poor and was already married living in genteel poverty in Richmond when Chillie hit it big, resented her sister's success all her life---but thought monetary gifts were her due. Irene was a true phenom, a bona fide celebrity, the last true Southern Belle who took the entire East Coast by storm with her breathtaking beauty. She married Charles Dana Gibson and was the prototype of the Gibson Girl. Irene may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she was kind (a rare trait among the Langhorne girls) and supportive all her life. Volatile, incredible Nancy who married and divorced a Boston millionaire, then married one of the richest men in the world, Waldorf Astor, almost single-handedly tore her family apart with her extreme possessiveness of both her sisters and children. Nancy looked like a beautiful, frail Edwardian lady with marvelously intense sapphire-colored eyes. Looks deceive. She was actually fiery, cruelly witty, and indomnible. Phyllis followed Nancy's footsteps marrying and divorcing an East Coast millionaire and remarrying famed British economist Robert Brand. Phyllis was soulful, the best woman rider in the country, and was a born martyr. My favorite was baby sister Nora, scatter-brained, scandalous, with a complete disregard for the truth fell in and out of love all her life. Men could not resist her. Nora's sisters had to bail her out over and over again, while Nora sincerely said she had made a "fresh start" every time. But Nora was a loving, generous person and a wonderful caring mother (her daughter was the actress Joyce Grenfell), and her nieces and nephews adored her.
"Five Sisters" is a fascinating read, well researched with an excellent index and bibliography. I recommend it highly.