News & Politics

Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women

Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women by Marie Brenner. “Fascinating” profiles of women from Pamela Harriman to Jacqueline Onassis.

There’s nothing like dame. A dame understands the importance of style as well as substance. She doesn’t let her slip show—be it satin or Freudian. She’s often ambitious, but she’s rarely seen as grasping. She seldom pursues power directly; she pursues people who have it. Author Marie Brenner quotes an admiring friend of Pamela Harriman’s: “We used to say about Pamela that if you put a blindfold on her in a crowded room, she could smell out the powerful man.”

Harriman is one of ten women Brenner profiles in this fascinating book. (Several profiles were originally written as magazine articles.) They’re all of the generation that survived the Great Depression and World War II—when vanity wasn’t a vice and independence wasn’t a virtue. “They were strange, rare birds with strong emotions,” Brenner writes, “. . . but, always, they had a patina—they were grand and they were gallant. They dressed up the world.”

Some of them lived in Washington. As you read about Harriman, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Clare Boothe Luce, the parallels with Hillary Clinton can be unnerving. All of these women hitched their stars to difficult men—often men who were blatantly unfaithful. These women defied the label “wife of” and accomplished a great deal on their own.

The difference is that the Great Dames were always charming, often clever, and they maintained their dignity. Clinton is of the generation that scoffed at womanly wiles. She could have learned a lot from the Great Dames.

Marie Brenner