The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 29 May 1998

The Architect of Desire

Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family

by Suzannah Lessard

Around the turn of the 20th century, Stanford White was an inspired member of the noted architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. As a member of this firm, White was responsible for a number of beautiful mansions for Gilded Age eminences, as well as for a number of landmarks in New York City, including the Washington Square arch, and the now-demolished Madison Square Garden. White was also infamous for the way he died. Suzannah Lessard is the great-grandaughter of Stanford White, and in this compelling memoir, she retells White's tragedy, and relates how the manner of his death has cast a long shadow over generations of her family. White was murdered by Harry Thaw, the husband of Evelyn Nesbit, the showgirl and artist's-model with whom he had had an illicit and only barely private affair. Within the news sensation that surrounded his death, however, details of an incredibly decadent lifestyle came to light. White had many lovers, and led a life of total amorality. In contrast to his remarkable beaux-arts architecture, he cuts a figure of controversy and brilliance. In this book, though, Lessard also details other characters in the family. Stanford's murder was a pinnacle of the family's troubles, but also betokened a broad pattern visible in earlier as well as later generations. Lessard tells a deeply personal story that clarifies the sensation of the Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, but also details her own personal history of darkness and abuse. The book is highly ambitious. It is part history, part architecture, part memoir, and part expose. It does all very well. Lessard's writing style attempts to express emotions and history that are nearly impossible to put into words. It is sometimes difficult to read. It is also sometimes repetitive. But it is a compelling and dark experience.

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See also: [American Eve by Paula Uruburu]

[Other Architecture and Building]

[Other Books by Women Authors]

[Other History and Biography]