The historical novelist Renée Rosen on “Les grâces sociales”


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Renée Rosen is the bestselling author of “Windy City Blues” and “Park Avenue Summer”. She grew up in “a very traditional Jewish family” in the Midwest. It took her seventeen years to write her first novel, “Every Crooked Pot,” a semi-autobiographical story about the coming of age of a Jewish teenager from Ohio.

His latest book, “The Social Graces”, published in April 2021, is a look at New York socialites at the turn of the 20th century. Readers are transported to a golden age filled with sumptuous masked balls and exclusive clambakes. The novel revolves around Alva Vanderbilt’s infamous rivalry with the great lady herself, Caroline Astor. Alva, a tenacious social climber, shocks everyone when she divorces her husband and marries a Jew, “a rarity in their circles.”

The Journal spoke to the author by telephone about literary themes and his creative process.

Jewish Diary: Didn’t know Alva Vanderbilt’s second marriage was to a Jewish businessman [Oliver Belmont].

Renée Rosen: Yes, she broke a lot of taboos with that. My Jewish heritage is reflected in my work. There is no doubt about it… I gravitate towards just where it is applicable. My character ends up being Jewish. As in “Park Avenue Summer”, [the protagonist] Alice, was Jewish. In “The Social Graces” the only opportunity to bring this was through the Belmonts. I’m not sure exactly why they, as a Jewish family, were allowed into society, but they were.

JJ: I appreciated the fact that you brought up the anti-Semitism of the time.

RR: Yes, it was clearly there. He’s been with us for a long, long time. Unfortunately, he is still with us.

JJ: Mother-daughter relationships are a central theme of “Les graces sociales”. Which of the characters do you think had the healthiest bond with their daughters?

RR: None of these women – Alva or Caroline – would have had the title of “Mother of the Year”. Alva definitely had an agenda for her daughter, Consuelo. She really didn’t care what Consuelo wanted. She was going to marry her to a duke. She basically sold her to a duke, so she would have a title and a place in history, even though she was going through a divorce in the middle of it, so talk about the hypocrisy there. She didn’t love her husband and wanted to get away from him, but she was going to force her daughter to marry without love.

When it comes to Caroline and her daughters, I think each of her daughters represented something different in the evolution of love and marriage. The idea of ​​a love match was a very new concept for someone like Caroline Astor. You didn’t get married for love, you got married because it made sense. They were good family, your parents agreed, and you were going to have babies and continue the lineage.

[Caroline] had a daughter who, God forbid, married “the railroad money” and mortified [her]. She had another daughter who was trying to be the obedient daughter and follow in her mother’s footsteps. Charlotte, the girl in the middle, was a real rebel. She probably didn’t want to get married at all, but was forced to marry and then created all kinds of scandals for her family because she just wasn’t happy… Then you had Carrie, who was there. younger and probably the most Caroline-like. in the fact that she was moving in a sort of calm but very determined manner. She had seen what her older sisters had been through, and she was going to do it her way. Even if that meant she had to go on a hunger strike, she was going to marry the man she wanted to marry.

I think these four girls really represented all the possible paths that a young woman could have taken at that time to find a husband. I think in the end Caroline realized after so many losses in her life that… them just being happy [was] more important than belief in society and bloodlines.

JJ: Is it true that you rewrote the entire novel three times?

RR: Yes, up and down, three times. The hardest part of this book was trying to make Caroline and Alva accessible to today’s readers because it was so easy to draw them almost like stick figures of these insanely wealthy women, who were so concerned about the company, the balls and the clothes… I really owe my editor credit… because she really held my hand through this one. Once we started to think of Caroline Astor as the CEO of a big company, which is really how she ran the company, it started to click. From there, the two women started to open up to me a bit. I started to think of them more like, “What are they like as wives and daughters and sisters? I really had to dig to find humanity in there, but they surprised me.

JJ: Why do you think the press and society are so fascinated by female rivalries?

RR: What was really interesting was that until 1880 there was no social news. The newspapers would only publish a truly meaningful wedding invitation or the announcement of a birth. But it wasn’t until 1880 that this whole story of worldly news and gossip arose. People just couldn’t get enough of it that if you were a valet or a maid, for a few bucks you’d say who was getting into brandy and canoiding in the brothels on Murray Hill.

Why [are we] still so fascinated? I do not know. Someone asked me, “Are there modern equivalents of Caroline and Alva?” And I said, “Well, I guess you sound like a Paris Hilton or the Kardashians,” but I just don’t know why we’re supposed to be fascinated by the Kardashians.

We must also take into account the fact that at the time, there were no other outlets for women. So if you have the slightest ambition, if you ever [have] no sense of ego or wanting to be in control, society was the only place you could kind of flex your muscles. So it made sense that they created – they really just designed the company. It didn’t exist before. They just needed something to do, a reason to get up in the morning. So, why not plan a nine-course dinner?

JJ: What can you tell us about your next book about Estée Lauder, the famous cosmetic mogul and daughter of Jewish immigrants?

RR: Estée Lauder’s book covers 1938 through 1946. We’ve been following her from the early days, when Estée went from being an aspiring actress to making face creams and lotions in her Upper West Side apartment. . She started her cosmetic empire peddling her wars in New York City beauty salons before landing her first major account with Saks Fifth Avenue. It was 1946, and it was the start of Estée Lauder’s incredible success. I don’t want to say too much, but rest assured that his journey has been filled with a lot of controversy over his background, his marriage, even his Judaism. There are also a lot of fun and juicy details about the cosmetics industry and Saks Fifth Avenue. I’m still looking for a title, but the novel will be published by Berkley / Penguin Random House in Spring 2023.

This interview has been edited for brevity.


Eve Rotman is a West Coast writer.

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