A glamorous duo, divorce and a descent into madness
In the horse country outside Charlottesville, amid the rolling hills and historic estates, there is ancestral mansion known as Castle Hill. The drive leading to the house is bordered by boxwood 30 feet high, planted, they say, during the 18th century. The place is associated with ghosts, a murder, a sensational lunacy trial and the specter of a beautiful young woman pacing through her garden at night, trying to walk off the effects of morphine.
Proofthatallthisisnotmerelythe stuff of local legend has been captured in the wonderfully entertaining biography, “Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age,” by Donna M. Lucey.
Forthosenotsteepedinlocallore, Archie and Amelie were among the most glamorous couples of the GildedAge.Passionateandintense, they seemed made for each other. She was the descendent of an oldline Virginia family (her godfather was Robert E. Lee) of aristocratic pedigree but little cash, a brilliant author of short stories.
John Armstrong Chanler — knownasArchietohisfamily—was an heir to the Astor fortune. Rich, handsome, possessing the polish of a young British lord, this most eligible bachelor met his match in Newport during the summer of 1887, when Amelie Rives, an unknown in society,showedupintheplayground of old New York.
Archie had never met anyone quite like Amelie. With her “violet eyes, halo of ash-blond hair, and voluptuous figure” she was called (amongotherthings)“asizzlingvessel of molten lava.” Half the men in Newport instantly fell in love with her.BeforeleavingNewport,Amelie invited the mesmerized Archie to Castle Hill for the hunting season. There, behind the boxwood, Archie proposed marriage to Amelie. She turned him down — twice.
Inspired to step out on her own, she wrote “The Quick or the Dead?” — a steamy romance that became a sensation (300,000 copies sold) and made its author the pinup girl for a generation of college men. The Astor clan thought the novel “beastly . . . a most sensual piece of rot.” When Archie proposed again, Amelie finally said yes.
Two weeks after a hasty wedding (of which no one approved), Amelie was complaining of “gloom, and grief, and terror.” The very things that had drawn Archie and Amelie together were pulling them apart. Eachwasself-absorbed,moodyand controlling. Within months, the marriage began to dissolve.
To the world, the couple exuded charmandglamour.Muchtimewas spent abroad, where Amelie was the toast of Europe — celebrated by Henry James, Thomas Hardy and Oscar Wilde. Other besotted males included the artist George Curzon; the future viceroy of India, even Archie’s younger brother, Robert.
Amelie began to get incapacitating headaches, no doubt precipitated by her husband’s jealous outbursts. A doctor prescribed morphine to alleviate her pain, to which she became hopelessly addicted. Because she longed for Castle Hill, Archie, indulging his wife, rented a palace in France. Eventually, the couple returned to Virginia, where Amelie, deranged by drugs, prowled the grounds of her estate and avoided her husband, whose behavior frightened her.
To the biographer’s credit, rather than psychoanalyzing the pair she leaves readers to draw their own conclusions. If Amelie, by turns, is manipulativeandvictimized,Archie also gets his share of blame and sympathy.
Archie did not want to be yet another Gilded Age millionaire who did nothing of value. He created an art prize, with noted architect Stanford White as one of its trustees. He poured money into inventions, exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair. He invested huge amounts in a textile mill in North Carolina, which hemorrhaged vast amounts of money.
Amelie and her family continued to enjoy the benefits of Astor largesse. Thanks to Archie, prosperity had returned, and Castle Hill gleamed as it had not since the antebellum days. Even so, after seven years, the couple separated. “Amid the gilded set,” explains the author, “divorcewasstillconsideredtaboo.” Archie bought an estate nearby and namedit“theMerryMills”(though it was not so merry).
The final break came when Amelie was in Europe. Oscar Wilde decided“thetwomostbeautifulpeople in London” should meet, and introduced Amelie to Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy.TheRussiannobleman paintedherportrait,thenpresented her with an amethyst ring bearing the crest of the Romanovs. The divorce between Archie and Amelie became the buzz of society; it embarrassed the relatives. Even then, Archie could not put Amelie out of his head. When it became apparent that Prince Troubetzkoy could not support Amelie, Archie paid their bills and transferred stock in Amelie’s name.
Yet it is the story of the unfortunate Archie that turns out to be the most gripping. Soon after his divorce, he descended into paranoia and madness, becoming convinced he was Napoleon. The story takes a dramatic twist when, according to a sympatheticobserver,in“oneofthe cruelest outrages ever perpetrated byanyman’sfamily,”theAstorfamily committed Archie to Bloomingdale Asylum, “a madhouse for the rich.”
After four years of forced incarceration, Archie made a daring escape. Determined to avenge his disgrace and reclaim his fortune, Archie hired a lawyer. Affidavits from a parade of experts, including WilliamJames,declaredArchiepeculiar — but sane. (The author concludes Archie probably suffered from bipolar disorder.)
Vindicated, Archie returns to the Merry Mills. Eventually, Archie became reconciled with his relatives and spent his declining years in the Virginia countryside, where he was considered the beloved (albeit eccentric) uncle of local farmers. He lentthemmoney,paidtheirmedical bills,boughtthemautomobiles,even taught the local women how to protect themselves (he gave shooting lessons, setting up teddy bears for practice). A cow barn was transformed into a theater; silent movies were shown to whites and blacks.
Archie died of cancer in 1935. His last letter was to Amelie, wishing her and the prince happiness and good health.
Only a few miles away, Amelie continued to live in genteel poverty with her prince, who padded about in tails and barefoot (he liked the feel of grass beneath his feet). Amongthosewhocametocallwere William Faulkner, H. L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, even Katharine Hepburn (who mistook the prince for the gardener).
When the prince died, a devastated Amelie toyed with suicide, laterbecamearecluse.Sympathetic friends supported her, among them Louis Auchincloss, who was entranced by the siren’s tales of a bygoneage.Characteristically,Amelie refused to sell her beloved, now ramshackle,CastleHill.“Butwhere would I live?” she asked dramatically. “In some horrid, vulgar little apartment in Charlottesville? What would be the point of that?” She is buriedunderatombstonethatbears her own inscription: “Love is strong as death.”
This is an absorbing book, never betrayingthesweatofresearch.The romance and excess of the Gilded Age is defty drawn and the characters are vividly profiled. Hollywood should grab the story at once — but Hollywood would probably ruin it.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast” (Oxford University Press, 2005), named one of the top ten biographies for 2005-2006 by Booklist magazine.