Book review / Voluptuary and pervert dies the death of a dog

The Architect of Desire by Suzannah Lessard, Weidenfeld, pounds 18.99
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Suzannah Lessard's great-grandfather, Stanford White, was the most flamboyant partner of McKim, Mead and White, architects to the plutocracy during New York's "Gilded Age". A figure of boundless energy and appetites, White lived in enormous style and ran up even more enormous debts. By 1906 his health and finances were equally depleted, and although only 53, he would probably have died soon of natural causes had not a millionaire called Harry K Thaw shot him dead at Madison Square Garden, a building White designed. Thaw announced he was avenging his wife, a young woman called Evelyn Nesbit who as a 16-year-old had been drugged and seduced by the architect. Vanity Fair reported the case under the headline: "Stanford White, Voluptuary and Pervert, Dies the Death of a Dog".

Lessard grew up on the family estate designed by White on Long Island, so that although his name was rarely mentioned his presence was always felt. "In the beautiful environment of the family past," she writes, "there was a magnificent figure who had gone out of control in a way destructive to those on his course - including his family - and ultimately to himself. Behind my memories of a blissful childhood in a beautiful place, there were also destructive forces that were blind and out of control, but unacknowledged. Yet to this inner truth and all its ramifications I had no access. This was the great role of family history to me."

This is family history as catharsis. Lessard has a fascinating story to tell, and at times she does this with great skill, notably in the chapter about "The Astor Orphans", an engagingly batty clutch of aunts and uncles. If the whole book had been written with this stylish clarity it would deserve the accolades heaped upon it in America, but a sentence beginning "When I became literary ..." unwittingly signals what has gone wrong.

What becoming literary means is demonstrated by the subsequent passage, in which Lessard describes the moment in her thirties when she suddenly became aware of her beloved grandmother's mortality: "I began to harvest her presence as though it were a field of flax, and I were gathering it into baskets, retting it, combing it, spinning it, and weaving it, until I felt I had something I could hold, and take away with me, like the pillow that I was embroidering. There was safety for me within the atmosphere of serene crashing. I found grounding in that dizzying environment of orbiting things: it was safe, but it wasn't, but it was. But it was." Lessard frequently elaborates images and ideas into this sort of incantatory muzziness.

Her ingenious notion of relating Stanford White's architecture to his moral character is similarly spoiled by overemphasis. His remodelling of a sham Norman castle involved extensive use of "lush pink marble", a material of which Lessard became uncomfortably aware when she attended the Catholic woman's college which subsequently occupied the building. The marble "embarrassed" the students, she claims, "because it was so unrestrainedly sensuous, so soft-seeming, with an alternately swirling and mottled grain". The "voluptuary pink" of this "quasi-bordello environment" may have seemed inappropriate for nuns, but then White had designed it not for a religious order but a newspaper editor.

Lessard suggests that White's buildings "seduce", "ensnare", are "powerfully sensual": "Behind the aesthetic sophistication of a Stanford White interior is the blindly voracious, irresponsible force, both personal and that of a whole class, a whole nation out of control." You could equally well stand inside one of his buildings and primarily be aware of order and proportion. It depends what you are looking for.

Lessard reveals that she was repeatedly fondled by an uncle and that she and her sisters were molested by her father, while another family member was raped by a cousin during a party. She contends that this incidence of sexual irregularity is somehow related to Stanford White's compulsive preying on under-age women. But her father, after all, was not a White descendant, but had married into the family.

The book ends with an unusual "moment of grace", when the family silence is breached during what amounts to a group-therapy session at which Lessard and her sisters confront the past and achieve adulthood.

Mirabella magazine, to which the author is a contributing editor, said of this book that it is "so crushingly elegant that the act of reading was like running your cheek across a velvet nap". Anyone who recognises a distinction between literature and a party-frock will be less easily impressed.