John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elsie Palmer, 1889–1890. SARGENT’S WOMEN Four Lives Behind the Canvas By Donna M. Lucey Illustrated. 311 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $29.95. The Gilded Age (of white Americans), from the 1870s to about 1900, is a joy to research and write about. Crazy rich people doing, building and saying mad, impulsive, sometimes beautiful and often ridiculous things: traveling cross-country for séances; wearing leather pajamas while breakfasting next to a corpse; creating fantastical gardens and grand interpretive dance or poetry entertainments at lavish or ramshackle country homes. Mark Twain and his co-author Charles Dudley Warner are thought to have come up with the phrase for their novel of the same name , taking it from Shakespeare’s “King John”: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily … is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” This period of rampant industrialization produced an enormously wealthy, largely oblivious 1 percent, of which Donna M. Lucey is a most sympathetic and intelligent chronicler. In “Archie and Amé lie,” her 2006 book about a Gilded Age couple’s childhoods, disastrous marriage and lives post-divorce, she introduced us to Amélie Rives, goddaughter of Robert E. Lee and author of the once-sizzling “The Quick or […]

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