The name Vanderbilt carries a huge weight, conjuring images of mansions, robber barons, and even, in the 20th century, denim jeans. Most of us might be able to pull up “Cornelius” and more of us “Gloria,” but what do we really know about this huge and influential American family?
Therese Anne Fowler came up against this as she was looking for a follow-up to her massive 2013 bestseller, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. She faced the inevitable author dilemma: what next?
Next became A Well-Behaved Woman, the story of Alva Vanderbilt, the woman who brought the very rich but socially shunned Vanderbilts into New York society, which is set to be published in October by St. Martin’s. “It’s easier to follow up a failure than a success,” Fowler says. “After Z, the pressure I felt for the next book was all my own. I wanted it to be excellent, and I spent three years casting about for a subject.”
By accident, Fowler stumbled upon the story of the 1934 custody battle over Gloria Vanderbilt, who was then a 10-year-old heiress. “I didn’t know about it—maybe I’m a bit too young—but I was fascinated,” she says. Fowler began reading everything she could find about the Vanderbilts (“I have a shelf full of books,” she notes) and was soon “down the rabbit hole.” She started thinking about how everyone knows the Vanderbilt name, but the question for her was, who are these people, really?
Hope Dellon, Fowler’s editor at St. Martin’s (who also edited Z), notes that the trick with historical fiction is to get the right mix. “You need a subject where there’s interest, someone not too obscure, but also a subject about whom not too much is known,” Dellon says. “Therese was at a disadvantage and an advantage writing about Alva. With Zelda there was a lot of info, but with Alva, Therese had room to use more imagination.”
Early on, Fowler saw the project as big in scope, and the initial proposal was for a trilogy, with each book focusing on a different Vanderbilt woman, starting with Alva. Gertrude and then Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt (the designer’s mother) would follow, bringing the family from the Gilded Age up to the Jazz Age.
Wendy Sherman, Fowler’s longtime agent, says she always tells a writer to go with her passion, and it certainly worked when Fowler came to her with the idea for a book about Fitzgerald—a book Sherman calls one of the highlights of her career. She went out with Fowler’s planned Vanderbilt trilogy as an unfinished manuscript.
“There was a synopsis, an outline, and sample chapters, not standard for fiction, but Therese had the history behind her, and it was an easy sell,” she says. “I sent it out selectively but widely and got a great response.”
Fowler came to New York, and she and Sherman met with publishers. “It was like double-dating,” Sherman says. “I felt so good for my client—for her to have the opportunity to talk with so many people. For me, a book is the magic between an editor and a writer. There were some great conversations.”
When it came time for the inevitable auction in July 2015, all the publishers they had visited showed up. Fowler is no stranger to auctions. Her first book, Souvenir, was sold at auction in a six-figure, two-book deal to Ballantine in 2008, and Z was also sold at auction for “major” money.
But the auction for the then-unnamed trilogy (Fowler says for most of its life she referred to it as “that damn book”) wasn’t typical. “Hair-raising” is Dellon’s description.
Sherman agrees. “Everyone came to the auction,“and everyone saw the book in a different way,” she says. “Trilogy? One book? To tell you the truth, it was nerve-racking. No one was bidding on the same thing.”
Sherman says, though, that she was completely transparent. “The bidders knew what was going on—that there were different visions at play.”
Fowler knew she had to make a decision, and ultimately a “single book seemed the wisest choice.” For a substantial sum, “that damn book” went to Dellon at St. Martin’s in July 2015. “I bought it with almost nothing,” Dellon says. “Not usual, but I had worked with Fowler before so I was confident.”
So Fowler had her editor, her publisher, and her work cut out for her. In fall 2016, she handed a draft in to Dellon, who Fowler says wasn’t crazy about the “big, sweeping epic” idea. (Remember that the original thinking was for three volumes, about three women—which was now being compressed into one big book.)
Fowler says she was succinct in her reaction to Dellon’s assessment: “Oh, no!” she thought, and went back to rewriting with the goal of a more closely observed story with more intimacy.
“My initial vision had been to break the stories down,” Fowler says. “So I circled back and settled on Alva, despite the fact that at first I did not really like her and never really intended to write about her. But I realized that she was badly characterized, portrayed as a pushy, obnoxious social climber. Even though I didn’t like her, I wanted to reconcile this image with her actual life, where people had good things to say about her.”
Dellon observes that Alva learned all the rules of polite society: she was the one who created the dynasty, orchestrating the Vanderbilts’ acceptance into high society beyond their wildest dreams. Then she broke all the rules when she divorced her unfaithful husband and became a major force in the suffragette movement.
“How could one woman do all this?” Dellon wondered, while also seeing the challenge of getting the story into a single book. There was another draft in spring 2017.
Fowler, meanwhile, was ruminating on Alva’s being demonized in the media when she dared to divorce: “It made me think of Hillary Clinton, a woman who accomplished so much and was called caring by her personal people, but who was pilloried in the media. Hillary was a victim of the media just like Alva.”
Suddenly, Fowler says, it all made sense, and she spent the next nine days doing nothing but rewriting Alva’s character. “Z was quicker—a kind of desperation career-move save. This one was a lot of rewriting.”
Dellon says the tremendous difference between the last two drafts (Fowler turned in the final draft in October 2017) was surprisingly wonderful. Fowler had handed in that last draft thinking the book still was not finished. “ ‘What do you mean, it’s done?’ was my reaction,” she says.
But Dellon’s take was that “Alva sprawled to life.” She adds, “The book was fresher, more original. With historical fiction, you have to bring a new perspective, and Therese, who really wants to get things right, nailed it!”
The market plans will likely be as substantial as the advance. When Dellon and I spoke, Fowler was about to come to New York to meet with St. Martin’s marketing team.
U.K. rights went to Lisa Highton at Two Roads, and Dutch rights are with Luitingh-Sijthoff. More foreign rights are just now being sold, and Sherman anticipates that there will be many: “Z was sold in 14 territories, and I expect we will soon see a lot more for A Well-Behaved Woman.”
At the end of my conversation with Fowler, we muse about how A Well-Behaved Woman relates to the present. Alva’s time was the first Gilded Age; today is being called the second. We had the robber barons, and now we have the 1%. “Workers won protection then because of abuses, and yet today those protections are being stripped away,” Fowler says. “We learn nothing.” We agree that this conversation could go on forever and move back to business.
“I should thank Hillary,” Fowler says.
“You should send the book to Hillary,” I tell her.
Fowler doesn’t miss a beat: “My agent is on it.”