by Shana Abe
Like The Second Mrs. Astor, An American Beauty explores the life and history of a historical woman from the Gilded Ages. But, where does fact meet fiction? Here is a breakdown of the characters and history.
- Arabella Duvall Yarrington Worsham Huntington was born into poverty and obscurity, yet she rose to become the wealthiest woman in Gilded Age America. Known for her taste and her style, her beauty and her wit, she guarded her personal history with an unrelenting ferocity. Although she was definitely from the Deep South, for example, Belle lied throughout her life about exactly where she was born and when. As she aged, she actually grew younger and younger on paper; at one point she wrote a letter to her son Archer to inform him (only half joking, I suspect) that her 63rd birthday had just passed so she was now 50! Her deceptions were so entrenched that after she died, Henry Edwards Huntington, her second husband, had to write to Archer to ask him her true date of birth for the inscription on the mausoleum he was building for her.
- Speaking of lies, Belle may or may not have been Mrs. Johnny Worsham before she wed her lover, Collis Huntington, but even if she was, there’s no question that Johnny was already married to a woman named Annette, and possibly another named Mary, at the same time. Records are cloudy on who was married to whom and when, but Belle also lied about Johnny dying a few years after arriving with him in New York as a young woman. Around 1870 she began telling everyone that she was a widow, but the truth was, census records show Johnny had simply gone back to Virginia, and he didn’t die there until 1878.
- Johnny Worsham owned an illegal faro parlor in Richmond only a few blocks from Catherine Yarrington’s—Belle’s mother—boarding house, both in a fairly disreputable part of town. He’d previously owned at least one saloon in New York City (which the police eventually shut down). At one point in the story, Johnny’s place gets raided, and Belle mentions that he could get thirty-nine lashes if convicted of running a gambling parlor in Virginia. This was true, according to a private letter written about Johnny getting arrested in 1863. In that instance, however, no one could (or would, perhaps) prove he had actually “exhibited Faro” in his saloon, so he was off the hook!
- Belle ended up owning a few more houses than I included in the story before she married Collis. (And after! Forgive me, San Franciscans, for not including the Nob Hill mansion! But you know it was there, until the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed it.) Cramming every single home into the narrative cluttered up the plot. Even so, every location and address mentioned in An American Beauty were Arabella’s real residences, and some of them still exist today. For example, the Homestead in Throggs Neck is now a school, and Camp Pine Knot is now open to the public. And, of course, Belle and Edward’s magnificent spread in San Marino, California, is now the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens.
- Belle’s dream home with Collis at 2 East 57th Street was, alas, demolished after her death, although many of the murals, frescoes, carvings, etc. that decorated it were donated to Yale first. I heard a rumor that a muse in one of the murals was based on Belle, but I don’t know if it’s true. In the mural, “Allegorical Female Figure Representing Science and Electricity,” a reclining, auburn-haired beauty draped in pink and green holds up a glowing light bulb. It could be her…
- Archer! Arabella’s son supposedly weighed eleven pounds at birth, and grew up to resemble Collis to a remarkable degree. Belle was utterly devoted to her son and vice versa; their letters to each other over the course of their lifetimes prove it. Yet Archer spent years of his childhood in Texas with Belle’s sister Emma and her husband, while Belle stayed up north with Collis. Twice Archer basically vanished from Belle’s life, presumably at her behest. It made no sense to me, until I factored in Elizabeth, Collis’s wife—and her silently raging and broken heart.
- In November of 1871, Belle wrote an anguished letter to Collis, claiming that little Archer was desperately sick in Texas. She begged Collis to help her get her son and family back to New York before they starved. That letter survived, and the one in An American Beauty echoing it is based upon it. I tried to pattern the wording after Arabella’s actual style.
Amidst the opulent glamor and vicious social circles of Gilded Age New York, this stunning biographical historical novel by the New York Times bestselling author of The Second Mrs. Astor conjures the true rags-to-riches story of Arabella Huntington — a woman whose great beauty was surpassed only by her exceptional business acumen, grit, and artistic eye, and who defied the constraints of her era to become the wealthiest self-made woman in America.
1867, Richmond, Virginia: Though she wears the same low-cut purple gown that is the uniform of all the girls who work at Worsham’s gambling parlor, Arabella stands apart. It’s not merely her statuesque beauty and practiced charm. Even at seventeen, Arabella possesses an unyielding grit, and a resolve to escape her background of struggle and poverty.
Collis Huntington, railroad baron and self-made multimillionaire, is drawn to Arabella from their first meeting. Collis is married and thirty years her senior, yet they are well-matched in temperament, and flirtation rapidly escalates into an affair. With Collis’s help, Arabella eventually moves to New York, posing as a genteel, well-to-do Southern widow. Using Collis’s seed money and her own shrewd investing instincts, she begins to amass a fortune.
Their relationship is an open secret, and no one is surprised when Collis marries Arabella after his wife’s death. But “The Four Hundred”—the elite circle that includes the Astors and Vanderbilts—have their rules. Arabella must earn her place in Society—not just through her vast wealth, but with taste, style, and impeccable behavior. There are some who suspect the scandalous truth, and will blackmail her for it. And then there is another threat—an unexpected, impossible romance that will test her ambition, her loyalties, and her heart . . .