Author Marie Brenner tells a new generation about women who tackled life with unlimited courage and charm

Wednesday, June 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

When Marie Brenner's 17-year-old daughter began filling out college applications a few years back, Ms. Brenner found herself doing something she'd sworn she never would: giving advice that sounded, well, old-fashioned. Alarmingly traditional. Distinctly feminine.

"I heard myself saying exactly the things my mother had said to me in 1967 as I was going off to college," says Ms. Brenner, 50, a writer-at-large for Vanity Fair magazine. "I couldn't believe it, but all the things she had told me suddenly seemed absolutely right.

"I had rejected my mother's lessons for so long. . . . But then I recalled a quote from Adrienne Rich that's so true: She said that at age 45 you put your arm into your sleeve and your mother's arm comes out."

Ms. Brenner's realization that her mother's wisdom had finally taken root in her own heart led to her latest book, Great Dames: What I Learned From Older Women (Crown, $22).

Ms. Brenner, a San Antonio native, is also the author of House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville. Her Vanity Fair article on Jeffrey Wigand and the tobacco wars was the basis for the film The Insider, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards earlier this year. She'll visit Dallas Monday as part of her national press tour for Great Dames.

The book - drawn primarily from previously published interviews from Vanity Fair, Vogue and The New Yorker - consists of 10 essays, each focusing on a woman who fit Ms. Brenner's criteria, as outlined in her introduction.

"The great dames in this book were part of the twentieth century. They lived through the Great Depression and then the war. Circumstances did not defeat them. They were brave and intelligent, and they tried to figure out how to live."

Of all her subjects, Ms. Brenner writes, "They were women with an aura, a gift for self-presentation.

They understood the rules of the game. If they had a mantra, it would be 'Project grace notes, no matter what.' "

For the book, Ms. Brenner wrote new essays about her mother, Thelma Brenner, and the fiercely intellectual Diana Trilling, who taught at Columbia University and wrote about culture and literature.

The book also includes essays on Kitty Carlisle Hart, a champion in the fight for arts funding; former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Clare Booth Luce, a playwright, ambassador to Italy and wife of Time-Life magnate Henry Luce; Kay Thompson, who wrote the popular Eloise books; actress Luise Rainer; federal judge Constance Baker Motley; Pamela Harriman, U.S. ambassador to France; and Marietta Tree, a member of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations.

What links the women, Ms. Brenner says, is a "very specific tenacity. There's a hockey term that really says it: Keep your blades on the ice. They did that, no matter what."

Reaction to the book, in its sixth printing after only three months on the shelves, has been tremendously positive, Ms. Brenner says. "Young women seem to find it particularly inspiring - the character that was bred into these women, the immense sense of themselves, the devotion to discipline, to having a lavish regard for others, to a sense of style and flair and fun.

"They had this rather amazing combination of courage and nobility displayed in cashmere and pearls. They were warriors in high heels."

And indeed, some still are.

The eightysomething Mrs. Hart, one of three of Ms. Brenner's subjects still living (the others are Ms. Motley and Ms. Rainer) greets a reporter's questions with an undisguised ebullience that instantly confirms her reputation as a "professional charmer," as Ms. Brenner puts it in the book.

"Oh, darling, I just love the book. It's marvelous, just marvelous," Mrs. Hart says by phone from her Manhattan home. "She did a wonderful job of telling all our stories, making it sound so interesting. You know, other people's lives can be really boring, but not the way Marie told them."

Mrs. Hart, a former Metropolitan Opera singer and longtime star of the early TV program To Tell the Truth, has dedicated her later life to tireless advocacy for the arts, including a long tenure as chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts. She remains their chairwoman emeritus.

As did Ms. Brenner, Mrs. Hart found that lessons learned at her mother's vanity table came in handy. "When my mother got angry, it was monumental," Mrs. Hart recalls. "But I learned when I was about 14 that if I could amuse her, tell her an interesting story about something that had happened to me, I could turn her wrath away.

"That taught me early on that you get along much better and get what you want by being charming, not by being sullen and angry."

As an adult, Mrs. Hart used that charisma to finagle as much money for the arts as she could from grumbling lawmakers. "When you're hanging around politicians looking for money," she recalls with a girlish laugh, "you'd better be cheerful and charming, or you're out of luck."

Her daughter Catherine, now in her late 40s, is just "beginning to shape up like I did," Mrs. Hart says with a chuckle. "She's a very fine physician. And now when she goes out, she wears nice clothes, nice pearls, and I must say, everyone thinks she's awfully handsome. It used to be such fun to dress up, and I think the pendulum is swinging back to that now that the whole hippie generation has finally grown up."

The clothes and pearls harken to one of the tenets of "great dameism," as Ms. Brenner describes it in the book - the vital importance of being "put together."

"Like the term 'great dames,' 'put together' is a phrase with implication," she writes. "Loretta Young twirling into our living rooms wearing chiffon and an actressy smile. Rosalind Russell and Audrey Hepburn. 'Put together' was a metaphor of an entire generation that believed in beating back the demons by whistling in the dark."

She describes interviewing Mrs. Hart several years ago during a tour of New York cultural venues. "That day there was a massive storm. Mrs. Hart greeted me in a lavender Ultrasuede coat trimmed with fox." Mrs. Hart explained, "I always dress up. I feel that if I don't people will not give me compliments."

That dedication to dressing up, to having every hair in place, amounts to a woman's version of a "tribal mask, a woman's way of projecting her strength," Ms. Brenner says.

"What's ironic is that now great dameism has become a trend. . . . All of us are trying now to figure out how to stay home, how to be glamour girls. Many women our age feel they've been betrayed by the workplace, and now we're looking for a blueprint for a happy, productive next 30 years."

The great dames, she says, can provide that life map.

"For years, we thought these women were phonies, that all they were concerned about were good clothes and manners," she says. "But they had such a reverence for civility and character, for being graceful in your life. Were we really so naive we somehow thought we could do it better than they did?"

Still, she says, her generation has bred its share of great dames, as well: Oprah Winfrey, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Liz Smith, Peggy Noonan, Tina Brown.

Betty Prashker, Ms. Brenner's editor at Crown, says the strength of Great Dames stems from Ms. Brenner's "fabulous intuition" with her subjects. "She brings out not only the best in people, but also the hidden qualities and attributes, things that reporters don't normally see."

As a result, the book, she says, "really shows that there are many ways to achieve power and effectiveness and that these women who lived in such a different time, when the strictures against women were much greater than today, still found a way to achieve their ambitions.

"True, it's a much freer age now, and women have many more options. But there are still lessons of discipline and performance and a kind of steeliness that these women can teach. We'd all do well to follow their model."

Joy Dickinson is a free-lance writer based in Sarasota, Fla. She owns pearls, but admits with chagrin that she wasn't wearing them while writing this story.