Posts Tagged ‘Helen Gould Shepard’

my mother in law celeste andrews seton 001My Mother-in-Law by Celeste Andrews Seton ~ 1954. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1954. Hardcover. 239 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Foreword

Jay Gould died at his home at 579 Fifth Avenue, New York, in 1892. During his lifetime he amassed one of the largest fortunes in the United States. It is estimated that at one time his ownership of stocks and bonds in railways covering 18,000 miles of track, transatlantic cables, mining, land and industrial corporations, totaled over a thousand million dollars.

This story is based on the life of Jay Gould’s eldest daughter, Helen Gould Shepard. Her four adopted children agree that this book s an emotional and spiritual image of their foster-mother. They disagree, however, about some of the facts. Helen Anna says that the sweet peas did not win a prize at the flower show – the lilies did. Finley Jay says he doesn’t remember the flower show at all. Louis will not commit himself. Olivia says she is, frankly, a little fuzzy about it, but doesn’t see what difference it makes…

Attracted by its quietly elegant spine decoration, I pulled this slender hardcover off a crowded shelf in one of Vancouver several deluxe emporiums of used tomes, Lawrence Books (on the corner of Dunbar and 41st). Raising an eyebrow slightly at the pencilled price on the inner flyleaf – this is a store that thinks very highly of its dusty treasures, few bargains to be had here – I nevertheless was charmed enough by a few moments leafing through to add it to my small pile of promising finds.

Upon arriving home, My Mother-in-Law gravitated immediately to my bedside table, providing me with several late nights of soothing diversion during a hectic week full of all sorts of frantic activity.

The daughter-in-law who has penned this loving memoir first met her prospective husband while on vacation with her mother in the Adirondacks. Celeste finds the surprisingly accomplished Louis Seton less than forthcoming about his antecedents, but as she is twenty-one and nicely independent she abandons herself to the course of true love, eventually accepting Louis’ marriage proposal in a New York taxi. Only while preparing to break the news of her betrothal to her bemused parents – “Who is this Louis Seton, and why does his name sound vaguely familiar, even though we’ve never come across his parents in our society visits?” – does Louis rather shamefacedly spill the beans.

He is the foster-son of the richest woman in the United States, Helen Gould Shepard, eldest daughter of the incredibly rich “American robber baron” Jay Gould.

All right, then.

Celeste goes to meet her prospective in-laws with more than a little apprehension, and what she finds when she goes to that first afternoon tea is just a bit unnerving. Louis’ mother is, as Louis warns Celeste, perhaps a tiny bit eccentric.  Mother Shepard not only knows her Bible inside and out, she believes in it as the Literal Truth, and is prone to discuss it at any time, and to prescribe passages to memorize, which she will later examine her visitor upon. Celeste is put on the spot and manages to trot out the 23rd Psalm, the only Bible passage she knows by heart. Mother Shepard gently approves, but her mild manner does not mask her keen eye, and Celeste realizes that she had better brush up on her Bible reading, amongst other things.

Mother Shepard approves of Herbert Hoover – there is a huge jigsaw puzzle of his profile in a state of semi-completion in the parlour – and disapproves of communism. She sadly condemns Celeste’s alma mater, Smith College, as a hotbed of communist plotting: “They have parades there. By torchlight. And they don’t believe in God. It’s too bad…”

Celeste is presented with a peacock-feather quill pen and ordered to sign the massive guest book. She is plied with tea and avocado sandwiches, and watches in wonder as Mother Shepard feeds her Pekinese dog, Chinky, as he reclines on a velvet footstool. (Later we are to learn that this Chinky is merely one of a long line of identically named pets; as each expires from the effects of unsuitable diet and lack of exercise, another takes its place; the name stays the same while the actual dogs succeed each other, victims of a benignly intended but ultimately fatal pampering.)

Upon parting Celeste is presented with a huge corsage of white orchids, grown in one of the fabulous Shepard greenhouses, and she stumbles out into the real world feeling like she has been on another planet. But a most cozy and well-upholstered one, though there is something a bit tense in the atmosphere.

Helen Gould Shepard, unable to have children of her own, had adopted four foster children and raised them in her own unique manner. Though her generosity is boundless, the now-adult children are all still just a tiny bit terrified of their benevolent mother, whose ideas on child-rearing included “punishments” of memorizing poetry and foreign languages and operatic passages. Louis is most accomplished in all of these , as Celeste has already discovered, leading her to speculate uneasily upon the “naughtiness” of his childhood…

Though his foster-mother is exceedingly wealthy, Louis himself is not an heir to the Gould fortune, as Jay Gould’s will included a clause regarding the necessity for his ancestors to be “blood-issue”, but there does appear to be a substantial trust fund, easing Celeste and Louis’ setting up housekeeping in the darkest days of the Depression.

Many visits to the various Shepard residences follow in the years to come, and Celeste, while remaining slightly bemused at her mother-in-law’s thought processes, comes to love Mother Shepard deeply and to admire her sincere urges to do good, even while realizing that occasionally Mother Shepard’s philanthropies are subject to whim and arbitrary judgement.

This is an entertaining, kindly humorous and rather unusual memoir. It presents a one-of-a-kind picture of both a unique personality and of a way of life that was exclusive to only a very tiny percentage of the American population – the wealthiest of the exceedingly wealthy – in their specific moment in history.

Gorgeous endpaper illustrations show a map of Helen Gould Shepard's favourite "home", the family country estate of Lyndhurst. Small illustrations depict incidents described in the memoir: the nighttime procession of the entire household to see the fabulous night-blooming cereus in the conservatory; grubbing up dandelions in the lawn under Mother Shepard's watchful eye; going to church en masse packed into one of the nine Shepard motorcars; swimming in the Greek-columned pool, watched over by a full-time lifeguard, whose main claim to usefulness was that he had once rescued one of the many Chinkys from a watery death!

The delightful endpaper illustrations show a map of Helen Gould Shepard’s favourite “home”, the family country estate of Lyndhurst. Small illustrations depict incidents described in the memoir: the nighttime procession of the entire household to see the fabulous night-blooming cereus in the conservatory, grubbing up dandelions in the lawn under Mother Shepard’s watchful eye, going to church en masse packed into one of the nine Shepard motorcars, and swimming in the vast Greek-columned pool, watched over by a full-time lifeguard, whose main claim to fame was that he had once rescued one of the many Chinkys from a watery death!

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