A glam­orous duo, di­vorce and a de­scent into mad­ness

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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