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The ten great dames in this glorious collection are outstanding women of the twentieth century. They were lady like warriors, armed with optimism and a keen sense of discipline, who did not underestimate the power of a gracious entrance, a witty aside, an admiring word. They were women of aspiration, who lived through the Great Depression and a world war, yet persevered, undimmed by circumstance. They starred on Broadway and in Washington; they caused a stir in the courtroom, the publishing house, the cocktail party. They captivated with their glamour, and learned to keep their own counsel in the unhappy times. They kept their blades on the ice, and they dressed up the world. This guide will help direct your reading group's discussion of Marie Brenner's great dames and their extraordinary lives.
1. Time and again in Great Dames, we see women reinventing themselves to transcend adverse circumstances and fulfill their own sense of destiny. Marietta Tree wriggled her way into the Democratic political sphere through sheer determination; Diana Trilling became a biographer in her seventies; Pamela Harriman shifted from European aristocratic politics to the inner workings of Broadway show business with a shift in husbands. Do these reinventions contribute meaningfully to the great dames' self-advancement? Or are they signs of discontent, and a grasping for an elusive fulfillment? In which portraits do we find women repeating mistakes or recreating unhealthy relationship patterns from their pasts?
1. Time and again in Great Dames, we see women reinventing themselves to transcend adverse circumstances and fulfill their own sense of destiny. Marietta Tree wriggled her way into the Democratic political sphere through sheer determination; Diana Trilling became a biographer in her seventies; Pamela Harriman shifted from European aristocratic politics to the inner workings of Broadway show business with a shift in husbands. Do these reinventions contribute meaningfully to the great dames’ self-advancement? Or are they signs of discontent, and a grasping for an elusive fulfillment? In which portraits do we find women repeating mistakes or recreating unhealthy relationship patterns from their pasts?
2. Marie Brenner’s generation of Baby Boomers, with its paradigm-altering wave of feminism, tended to criticize and dismiss the ways of the generation that preceded theirs. Brenner, a feminist, has come to realize that in such judgmental thinking, she and her contemporaries may have “thrown some smashing babe qualities out with the bathwater” (Los Angeles Times). Do you think the great dames laid the groundwork that made feminism a viable movement for their daughters? If so, in what ways did they do this? Why did the 1960s feminists find it so crucial to eschew the “put together” stockings-and-pearls look and the gracious-hostess routine the great dames espoused?
3. Marie Brenner has said that the most difficult story to write for Great Dames was the one she wrote last: the chapter on her mother. Why do you think she was compelled to include her mother in this collection? How much was Thelma Brenner’s unhappiness in her marriage a factor in giving her great dame status? Do you think prevailing over an impediment, whether in love or
in career, is a necessary component in the makeup of a great dame?
4. Much has been made of the fact that Constance Baker Motley, the day before her first case in a segregated courtroom in Jackson, Mississippi, spent the afternoon in Lord & Taylor, shopping for the perfect dress. What did appearance symbolize for this young Legal Defense Fund trial lawyer, as well as for her audience?
5. One of the most charming anecdotes in Great Dames is that of Kitty Carlisle Hart smiling at herself in the bathroom mirror each morning and assuring herself, “Kitty, I forgive you!” How does this wiping-clean of the slate sum up a key survival technique employed by each of the great dames in her own way? In an age of complaint television, with its wildly bitter talk show guests and fraught courtroom dramas, and in a time when psychotherapy is so common that language about repression and parent-blaming is tossed around thoughtlessly, is the great dame technique of whistling in the dark gone for good?
6. . In several instances in Great Dames, we see women who are tireless, accommodating companions to their men and their social set, yet are notably absent from their children’s’ lives. Marietta Tree was an emotionally distant matriarch; Pamela Harriman often parked her son with caretakers while the drama of her life played out; and Clare Boothe Luce realized after her daughter’s death that she had not spent enough time with her. Why do these dames have this trait in common? What kind of restrictions did children imply in their lives?
7. Were the great dames who used their husbands’ power, wealth, or good name to advance their own causes falling victim to a sexist system, or outsmarting it?
8. There has been a resurgence of dame-like behavior in turn-of-the-millennium pop culture. Fashion magazines are touting high heels and clutch bags, people are marrying younger, and there is evidence of a rejection of the Baby Boomer compulsion to have it all. (“They do not want to run their houses and children from a cell phone. They have learned from our stressed-out example,” said Marie Brenner in an interview.) Is this recent trend dame-hood in appearance only? Do the formative experiences of today’s women differ from those the great dames contended with? To what extent is this recent trend a function of prosperous and peaceful times in our country?
9. After eavesdropping on her mother’s close circle of female friends for years, Marie Brenner concluded that they were “hardwired communicators, Olympic listeners.” Is it fair to generalize that most women share this description? If so, what historical realities have encouraged these traits?
10. A sense of personal detachment, or a certain lack of introspection, seems to be a theme in many of the Great Dames’ private lives. About her husband’s possible homosexuality, Kitty Carlisle Hart said, “I never gave it another thought.” About a perverse piece of hate mail, Constance Baker Motley commented that she “could hardly remember receiving it.” And Luise Rainer insisted, “I was never aware that I was anybody,” despite her 240 pages of unpublished memoirs. What does this phenomenon suggest? Do you believe the great dames when they claim such detachment from the potentially painful business of living, or do you think they are supreme actresses with carefully maintained facades?
11. “To understand history, you must understand people,” Thelma Brenner once told her daughter. Do you think this is a perspective particularly informed by female-ness? How did the relentless analysis of “behavior, feelings, and appearance” in which Thelma Brenner and her friends engaged give them a certain amount of power within their limited sphere as housewives?
12. If you had to choose one word to define what the great dames’ lives represent, would it be–as Brenner has suggested–bravery? Why or why not? What preconceived notions, if any, do you have to let go of in order to view their actions as courageous?
13. In her introduction to Great Dames, Marie Brenner worries that “we may be running out of great dames.” Do you think this is the case? Is Hillary Clinton a modern great dame? Dame Judy Dench? Judith Jamison? Donna Karan? Madeleine Albright?
Marie Brenner is the author of four books, including House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville. “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” her investigation of the life of Big Tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, inspired the Michael Mann movie The Insider, starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. Her numerous articles have been published in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, where she is writer-at-large.