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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