Law and Conversation

February 23, 2011

Passion and probate law: 3 biographies

Earlier this week I recommended Sally Bedell Smith’s “Reflected Glory:  The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman,” an especially good biography for those who love both probate law and good stories.

Here are three more biographies sure to fascinate probate lawyers and anyone who loves stories filled with passion and intrigue:

1) “Little Gloria…Happy At Last,” by Barbara Goldsmith.  A fine researcher and writer, Goldsmith tells the sad story of the 1934 court fight between Gloria Vanderbilt’s mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, over custody of the child Gloria and control of her inheritance. Goldsmith also wrote “Johnson v. Johnson” and has written pieces for The Daily Beast on inherited wealth.

2) “The Last of the Duchess,” by Caroline Blackwood.  Not a biography in the strict sense, Blackwood’s book is, instead, the story of how Maitre Suzanne Blum, Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson Windsor’s French lawyer, companion, and guardian in the last years of her life, thwarted Blackwood’s effort to carry out her assignment from the British Sunday Times to see the Duchess of Windsor and write an article about her. Blackwood never did get to see the duchess, who was evidently bedridden and suffering from dementia in her opulent Paris home.  Though Blum’s actions are susceptible of more than one interpretation, Blackwood leaves no doubt of her view of Blum:  “a malignant old spider” who kept the duchess “under despotic surveillance” and refused to allow not only Blackwood but even the duchess’s close friends to see her. For a comparison of two other books about the duchess, see Peter Kurth’s article here. (Blackwood herself lived quite an interesting life, as Nancy Schoenberger recounts in “Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood.” Blackwood’s youngest daughter, Ivana Lowell, also wrote about her mother in her recently published memoir, “Why Not Say What Happened?”)

3) “Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds,” by Lyndall Gordon.  Among other matters, Gordon describes how a passionate and adulterous affair between the poet’s brother, Austin Dickinson, a solid Amherst lawyer, and Mabel Loomis Todd, who ended up editing Emily’s works after her death, split the Dickinson family, reverberated in the courts decades after Emily’s death, and still influences Dickinson scholarship.  You can listen to a great interview Ramona Koval did with Gordon on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “The Book Show” here.

Professor Gerry W. Beyer of Texas Tech University School of Law blogs about probate law in the popular and academic press at the Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog.  As I’ve previously noted, he’s also been kind enough to provide me with great commentary for a number of articles for the Illinois Bar Journal.  If you practice or have any interest in probate law, check out his blog, which received a well-deserved spot on the ABA Journal Blawg 100 for 2010, and follow him on Twitter for timely updates.

What biographies do you recommend?

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February 21, 2011

Read This: biography, probate law, & scandal – Pamela Churchill Harriman

One of the greatest reading pleasures is a nice, meaty biography.  If some of the material’s scandalous, so much the better, as long as it’s clearly and thoroughly documented.

Far from being dusty and dull, probate matters may arise from every bit as much passion and scandal as divorces.  So a well-researched biography of a subject with both probate and divorce matters in her life is practically guaranteed to be a fascinating story.

The obituary of Kathleen Harriman Mortimer the other day in the New York Times reminded me that her stepmother’s life included multiple divorces and probate issues, all of which are documented and explained in Sally Bedell Smith‘s impeccably researched biography, “Reflected Glory:  The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman.”

More thoroughly, that would be Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman.  (To be fair to Bedell Smith and her publisher, there was only so much space on the book’s dust jacket for its subject’s name along with her charming photo.)

Check this book out if you have any interest in 20th century history and government, or Winston Churchill, or social climbers and high society, or scandal, or probate law. Bedell Smith’s subject, who was Churchill’s daughter-in-law throughout World War II and U.S. ambassador to France in he 1990s, at the end of her life, was on intimate terms with many prominent and wealthy movers and shakers in business and politics, as Bedell Smith describes and documents.

Kathleen Harriman Mortimer became chums with Pamela Churchill in London during the war.  As Smith recounts, Pamela, who was around the same age as Kathleen, embarked on an affair with Kathleen’s father, Averell Harriman, a few months after her husband, Randolph Churchill, went off to war and a few more months after giving birth to their son, named Winston in honor of Pamela’s father-in-law.

After a divorce from Randolph, many more affairs, another marriage, and thirty more years, Pamela and Averell reunited, rekindled their affair, and finally married.  His death in 1985 made her fabulously rich.  In 1994, Kathleen and other Harriman heirs sued Pamela for mismanaging their inheritance.  Bedell Smith meticulously describes the fascinating personal and legal background for that suit.

Mortimer herself married into another well-connected family.  An article on the Mortimer family from the New York Observer reminded me of the ancient and intricate web of alliances among Europe’s royal families and of the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Do stop by again on Wednesday, when I’ll have three recommendations for other biographies touching on or suggesting probate law issues.  In the meantime, I’d love to see comments on biographies that you’ve enjoyed.

September 15, 2010

The Schumanns and the law

Filed under: biography,composers,Law,mental health,Music,piano — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:39 am
Tags: ,

Monday’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor reminds us that Clara Wieck Schumann was born on that day, September 13, 1819.  Clara vied with Franz Liszt for the title of preeminent concert pianist of the 19th century, though her role as wife of composer Robert Schumann and mother of their eight children required her to cut back on performing for a time as well as to leave off composing.

Legal issues permeated the Schumanns’ lives.  To marry, they had to file a lawsuit, for Clara’s controlling and grasping father/teacher/agent/producer opposed their relationship.  After their marriage, Clara writes in her diary and correspondence of further legal disputes with her father over her earnings and property.  And Clara eventually had to commit Robert to an institution because of his insanity, the result of his syphilis.

The Schumanns’ lives show that truth is far stranger and more complex than fiction!  For more, you can read “The Marriage Diaries of Robert and Clara Schumann” as well as your choice of several juicy biographies.

Who are your favorite musicians?  For enthralling reading, what biographies do you recommend?

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