cover image Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies

Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies

Laura Thompson. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-20273-4

Biographer Thompson (Six Girls) unearths secrets and scandals in this entertaining group portrait of women, mainly British and American and from the 19th and 20th centuries, who inherited vast wealth. Claiming that “it really is different for girls,” Thompson notes that until the late 19th century in England, a wife’s identity was “legally subsumed into that of her husband,” and he was entitled to her property and income. Later, when a woman’s money was “legally and incontestably” her own, many heiresses were still intensely vulnerable and led “godawful lives,” while others saw their wealth “as a responsibility worth having.” Thompson recounts the stories of Mary Davies, who lost control of her London estate after her husband’s death in 1700; Winnaretta Singer, daughter of sewing machine manufacturer Isaac Singer, who “inhabit[ed] the iconoclastic milieu of the avant garde” in late 19th-century Paris; and baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, who partnered with Charles Dickens to rehabilitate impoverished schools and neighborhoods in Victorian England. Other profile subjects include kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, and Winnaretta Singer’s niece Daisy Fellowes, who “lived as a pure and unrepentant hedonist.” Skillfully evoking disparate social milieus and generational divides, Thompson packs the narrative full of juicy gossip without resorting to caricature. Readers will be enthralled. Agent: Georgina Capel, Georgina Capel Assoc. (Feb.)