The great-great-great granddaughter of tobacco baron Pierre Lorillard remembers her overprivileged childhood and her involvement with the Black Panthers
We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante. State University of New York Press/Albany, 225 pp., $23.
By Janice Harayda
Eve Pell notes perceptively that there was something “curiously un-American” about the values of her parents, members of the last generation who believed that if your blood was blue enough, you didn’t have to redeem yourself through work or philanthropy. “Horatio Alger, for example, would not have been welcome in our circle,” she writes, “since we looked down on people who actually made their own money (after we did) as ‘latecomers.’”
Pell maps the damage in this memoir of her overprivileged childhood on Long Island, her work with the Black Panthers in San Francisco, and her late-life success as a world-class marathon runner. She grew up fox-hunting and hearing about prominent forebears such as the tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard, her great-great-great grandfather. One of her great-grandmothers gave seated dinners for 125 guests, “one course after another, with a footman in livery standing behind each chair”: “She never put on her own shoes – her lady’s maid did that.” And yet Pell hardly had charmed youth: Early on, her beautiful mother ran off with a lover and fought for custody of her daughter in a battle played out in the New York newspapers.
By telling her story, Pell aims show what happens to rich families when blood and money thin and, in the culture as a whole, an aristocracy of birth gives way to an aristocracy of achievement. And to some extent, she succeeds. Pell is a close observer of the mores of relatives such as an aunt who sold some of her diamonds to create and publish a version of the Bible that “excluded references to eating meat since she was a vegetarian.”
But We Used to Own the Bronx isn’t as enlightening as it could have been. Pell is better reporter than analyst and, as such, offers few insights into her world that go beyond the banalities of psychotherapy. She was in a unique position to shed light on the phenomenon known as radical chic or champagne socialism, but she makes little of it.
As a young mother, Pell became emotionally involved the Black Panther George Jackson, a prisoner at San Quentin, who was eventually shot to death while trying to escape. Why did she act in ways that might have endangered her three children? Pell says, in part, that Jackson “made me feel like a real woman.” She also says that in 1996 — when she would have been in her 60s — she was “surprised and shocked” (and “horrified” and “appalled”) to learn that a cousin felt no guilt about a nasty anti-Semitic prank in his youth. By then, she’d lived for more than six decades in a family teeming with men who belonged to private clubs that didn’t admit Jews, so it’s unclear why she was as startled by this as by her discovery that Jackson may have been a psychopath.
In such passages, Pell comes across as either naïve or sanctimonious and, in any case, lacking in self-awareness. She also shows little sense of humor about the foibles of the oddballs in her clan. Pell has tried not to allow herself to be defined by family – but she takes her clan so seriously as to leave the impression that, in many ways, she’s still in thrall to it.
Best line: “I had been raised to think that anyone who felt bad was not trying hard enough.”
Worst line: Pell writes of an ex-husband: “There were things I had to put up with. He routinely ate all the chocolate icing off the top of Sara Lee cakes and left the rest of it, stripped, in the fridge for us.” We’re supposed to sympathize with this?
Published: February 2009
Caveat lector: We Used to Own the Bronx has one of the worst titles I’ve seen on a book this year. It refers to a large tract of land once owned by the Pells, but leaves the impression that the book is about, say, the 1949 Yankees. The subtitle is fine.
About the author: Pell lives in San Francisco.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.