Fact Meets Fiction in AN AMERICAN BEAUTY, Part 2

by Shana Abe

Continue to learn about the historical figures and from Shana Abe’s An American Beauty!

  • Belle, as Mrs. Worsham, accompanied Collis (and some of his “family members”) to Yosemite in 1878, along a senator and his wife, and they all toured the area together, including a stay at the Yosemite Falls Hotel. I don’t know if Edward Huntington (Belle’s second husband and Collis’s nephew) really joined them on that journey, but it’s not improbable. As it was unclear to me if Belle had interacted much with Edward before that, I decided that this particular trip, taking place in such a powerful and dramatic location, would make a powerful and dramatic first encounter for them both.
  • Belle loved fine art, no question, and during her lifetime spent millions and millions building up one of the foremost collections to be found. The bidding war scene in An American Beauty for Bouguereau’s Mother and Child at Leavitt’s Art Rooms actually happened, and Collis did indeed win the painting to give to Belle so she could display it in her home. I was unable, however, to find out if it was Belle or someone else who subsequently changed the name of the painting to Temptation…but it fit the storyline so beautifully that I had Belle do it.
  • In real life, as in the story, Belle reclaimed her son once and for all in 1882, and celebrated by touring England and France with him, where she paid celebrated portraitist Alexandre Cabanel probably a lot of money to paint her in a lushly layered red gown while holding a saucy red fan. If you look closely at the portrait, you can see her false wedding ring on her left hand.
  • Collis and Belle were wed in her glamourous New York brownstone by the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, who was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both Belle and Collis were abolitionists, and their choice of the reverend was not happenstance.
  • J. D. Rockefeller purchased Belle’s brownstone after her marriage, and apparently liked the décor so much he kept it nearly exactly as it was. After his death, the “Worsham-Rockefeller Bedroom” was donated to the Museum of the City of New York. It can now be viewed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. (Belle really loved red and gold, it seems!)
  • Belle had a terrific green thumb. She commissioned immense, elaborate greenhouses and gardens at the Homestead, her retreat in Throggs Neck, New York. She was especially proud of the violets she grew there, and was known to give away pots of the plants to her favorite visitors. She loved nature and horticulture, and in particular her violets…so much so that she reportedly said that if she lost all of her money, she thought she could thrive by running a violet farm.
  • Oh, those Gilded Age elites! They did love to throw themselves parties, and for a long while the Patriarchs’ Ball was the fanciest and most exclusive of them all, brainchild of Lina Astor (the Mrs. Astor) and her minion, Ward McAllister. Under ordinary circumstances, Arabella and Collis, as former illicit lovers, could never hope to attend. But apparently one year they did. (This is another story that I read about but was unable to definitively confirm, but it was just so juicy I had to include it.) Well, they sort of attended it! The actual Ball that Belle and Collis walked away from (or were kicked out of, depending on your point of view) would have been around 1893 or ’94. I set mine in 1887 because it fit the timing of the story better. The décor, music and menu for the event described in the book were taken from a period New York Times article I found about the Ball. So! Many! Flowers! So! Much! French! Food!
  • Colonel William Mann was a scoundrel, and more or less the inventor of the tabloid scandal sheets. Real-life author of Fads and Fancies of Representative Americans at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century: Being a Portrayal of Their Tastes, Diversions, and Achievements, he was a known blackmailer of the rich. Belle paid a ridiculous amount of money to purchase Mann’s Fads and Fancies book (featuring a sanitized profile on Collis), but that wasn’t enough for him. He went back to her (and her family) again and again, asking for more money. It seems he discovered Arabella’s pivotal weakness: her willingness to do practically anything to disguise the truth of her past, and protect the ones she loved. That book is still out there somewhere today, filled with the rosy lies about the Huntingtons that Belle paid for dearly. I am sure she thought it was worth it.

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 . . .