Bibi Gaston

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Bibi's grandmother, Rosamond Pinchot, as The Nun, 1923.

Although Bibi Gaston works as a landscape architect she decided to try her hand at writing after the death of her father, when she was given a mysterious cardboard box filled with the pages of a diary written by a grandmother she never knew. The result, ‘The Loveliest Woman in America’, weaves together the tragic story of the actress, Rosamond Pinchot, who was the toast of Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s, and the author’s own quest to find herself in the glamorous, turbulent family from which she was distanced most of her life.

Bibi Gaston, granddaughter of Rosamond Pinchot and author of The Loveliest Woman in America.

It’s clear that you had to immerse yourself in the life of Rosamond Pinchot – in the way that the book fuses her story with your own, it’s almost as if she has became a kind of avatar for you. Would you agree that’s a fair thing to say?

Well I think I’ve channeled her life for, I would say, for the last five to seven years. I’ve been on a kind of a mission to discover who this woman was, in part to understand what has motivated my life, at a time when women are becoming so influential and instrumental in shaping policy and moving the world forward. It became almost essential for me to go back in order to go forward.

What difference has it made to you?

I understand my ‘aliveliness’ better.

Is ‘aliveliness’ a euphemism for something?

I think ‘aliveliness’ is just a desire to live …

What’s the difference between that and vitality?

I would say they’re almost the same – I love that word ‘vitality’. Through understanding Rosamond, I’ve really gotten a hold of … myself. For example, I come from this family that truly cared about the environment on every level. The sort of leaders that you find up and down Fifth Avenue had a connection to their landscapes. They cared about their front yards, they cared about Central Park – and they still do … this kind of connection between private ideals and public welfare.

L. to r.: Rosamond Pinchot’s childhood home at 9 east 81st street.; Looking across the south garden of the Metropolitan Museum garden planned by Bibi for the Central Park Conservancy.

I’m sure you’re right but my impression of the era you evoked in your book was that it was a rather brutal era, particularly towards women. They were desirable only because of their looks when they were young, and then when the looks were gone, they were nothing. This seems central to the book.

That’s very true. But it’s not ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in America’ it’s ‘The Loveliest Woman in America’. Lovely doesn’t necessarily describe physical beauty.

I think ‘loveliest’ connotes a wholesomeness that connotes mind, body, spirit. I think Rosamond was before her time in her physicality – she was of the land. But on top of that she was physically stunning!

L. to r.: Amos Pinchot and Gifford Pinchot.; Amos Pinchot. Esq. Rosamond’s father.
L. to r.: Big Bill Gaston, the author’s grandfather.; Big Bill Gaston and Rosamond, Maine.
L. to r.: Bibi Gaston, Rosamond’s granddaughter, 1961Tangier, 1961.; Bibi Gaston, at the Alhambra, 1963.
L. to r.: William Gaston, “Big Bill,” North Haven Maine.; Director Josef von Sternberg and producer Jed Harris.
L. to r.: William, Isabelle and Bibi Gaston at Grey Towers, 1963.; William Gaston Jr., the author’s father, Tangier, 1950.

Being an actress in that era seemed even worse than it is now – they were chewed up by the huge machine and then spat out very early on.

And she was too. She felt she was old by 33. By 34 she was done.

And then there is shocking quote, at least to 21st century ears, where Isabel Wilder [sister of Thornton Wilder] says to her: ‘You have two children, don’t you?’ and Rosamond answers: ‘Yes. I hate them.’ What did you make of that?

That was quote from Isabel Wilder. Now we can’t completely trust Isabel Wilder [who was not so kindly disposed towards Rosamond]. I included it simply because I found it to be a measure of the times.

What do you think her relationship with your father was like?

I think she was a very distant mother. I don’t think that all women are cut out to be mothers.

L. to r.: Elizabeth Marbury, Rosamond’s friend.; Francesca Braggiotti, Rosamond’s best friend.
L. to r.: George Cukor; Rosamond and her cousin Toni Frissell; Lady Diana Manners (Cooper), circa 1923; George Cukor and Rosamond.
Advertisement, 1929.
L. to r.: Clipping, Newport. ; Clipping, January 1938.

I think the era you evoke is one of endless interest to people – it does seem to have a particular quality of glamour that holds people. Why do you think that is?

I think one of the reasons is that people don’t speak as candidly as we do today.

Oh, I don’t agree! I think their candor is shocking, particularly when I read excerpts from her diary and the things she says people said. As a result their conversation is so much more interesting.

Nobody knew that Rosamond kept a diary. Not even her best friends knew. I think the kind of candor you see in the diary – she never talks about sex in the diaries …

L. to r.: Rosamond and Nicolette, Salzburg, 1925.; Gifford Pinchot II, Gifford Pinchot and Rosamond Pinchot, circa 1907.

L. to r.: Gertrude Minturn Pinchot, Rosamond’s mother by S’Ora.; Rosamond and Gifford Pinchot II with their mother Gertrude Minturn Pinchot, circa 1912.
Gaston Island, Maine.

That isn’t real candor, talking about sex, it’s the things they say about people, their observations. They didn’t seem to mind making enemies … nowadays we’re so careful, we edit so carefully.

We are cautious … but things get broadcast immediately.

I was fascinated by her diaries – the writing just leaps out. It’s got this fabulous, brittle intelligence to it, like this hybrid between Nancy Mitford and Edith Wharton. It must have astounded you when you read them.

It did, particularly [her writing] on nature.

Rosamond; Rosamond and Fleuret; The Marx Brothers with Rosamond.
L. to r.: Rosamond as Bathsheba in Max Reinhardt’s Eternal Road.; Rosamond’s sister, Mary Pinchot Meyer and Cord Meyer.
The Nuns and Sub Nuns of The Miracle.
L. to r.: Program for The Miracle.; Program, Our Town, from the Scrapbook.

I thought her description of interiors were always spot on, that Noel Coward rapier-like eye for things.

Yes, she had this tremendous sense of humor and bitchiness that I loved.

I loved her description of Katherine Hepburn: ‘She remembered me and put out a wiry hand in greeting … the mouth was scarlet and spread half across her face, huge but rather thin-lipped … she spoke in that valuable and synthetic way that is typical of actresses.’

I’m so glad you enjoyed that! There was so much in the diaries.

L. to r.: Rosamond by Cecil Beaton.; Rosamond and William Gaston Jr. 1929.
L. to r.: Rosamond and the boys, New York City, circa 1933.; Rosamond, Town and Country magazine.
The Old Mill in RIngoes NJ, the author’s childhood home, prior to renovation, circa 1900.
Rosamond in a yoga pose at the Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg; Rosamond, 2nd from left, aboard the Conte Grand; Rosamond, Vinalhaven, Maine.

Who gave you the diaries?

My father had died, my mother had died and my so-called love of my life, the Irishman had left and I was distributing the ashes at Milford, at the estate of Grey Towers, and I had never spent the night there before. I woke up one morning and the diaries were on my bed. My cousin basically said, ‘You may want to see these … these are the diaries of your grandmother.’

Click cover to order.

And you had never spoken about this grandmother. Why was that?

Because I don’t think people like to talk about suicide. They don’t have the context in which to place this tragedy. Even two generations later, there’s all sorts of gyrations that occur in a family. Since I’ve written the book, the Pinchots are talking a lot about how this suicide affects them today.

Do you think it marks you?

Well, I’ve done enough sort of ‘work’ on myself and also, I have such great girlfriends – we talk about everything. So I have no fear of any subject.

Are you a Buddhist? I saw in the publicity notes that you talked about Buddhism several times.

Yes. In fact, after this great debacle with my mother and father dying, I enrolled at a Buddhist divinity school but I received the diaries at the same time. So I thought [holding her hands out as if weighing two things] ‘Lives of the Saints’ … ‘Lives of my Grandmother’ … ‘Lives of the Saints’ … ‘Lives of My Grandmother!’ [laughs] I didn’t want to spend five years reading the ‘Lives of the Saints’ and so I embarked on this!

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