Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Doomed Lovers of the Gilded Age: Author Donna Lucey Presents 'Archie and Amélie' at Washington College

Chestertown, MD — Author Donna M. Lucey will discuss sex, drugs, insanity and a tempestuous, ill-fated marriage at the turn of the 20th century when she presents "Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age" at Washington College's Rose O'Neill Literary House on Wednesday, February 25, at 4:30 p.m.

The lecture is presented by the Literary House in conjunction with the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

In her dual biography Archie and Amélie, Lucey uncovers the real-life story of two Gilded Age celebrities who were the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald of their day. Archie Chanler, heir to the Astor fortune, was an eccentric (some said insane) millionaire; Amélie Rives was a bestselling novelist who scandalized society with her evocations of feminine passion.

Their marriage began with a "secret" wedding that found its way onto the front page of The New York Times, to the dismay of Archie's relatives and Amélie's many gentleman friends. To the world, the couple appeared charmed, rich and famous; they moved in social circles that included Oscar Wilde, Teddy Roosevelt and Stanford White. But although their love was undeniable, their private life was troubled from the start.

A celebrated couple too dramatic and unconventional to last, their tumultuous story had largely been forgotten until the recent publication of Lucey's acclaimed book, which brings back to life these extraordinary lovers and their sweeping, tragic romance.

Lucey is an award-winning writer and photo editor whose previous books include Photographing Montana, 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron and I Dwell in Possibility: Women Build a Nation, 1600-1920. She is currently residing in Chestertown with her husband, historian Henry Wiencek, who is here for a one-year residency as Washington College's first-ever Patrick Henry Fellow. Lucey and Wiencek hail from Charlottesville, Virginia—where the fascinating, stranger-than-fiction story of Archie and Amélie first captivated Lucey.

"In the Virginia hunt country ... where I live, the older people still tell stories of a strange couple who died some two generations ago," Lucey wrote. "The stories involve ghosts, the mysterious burning of a church, a murder at a millionaire's house, a sensational lunacy trial, and a beautiful, scantily clad young woman prowling her gardens at night as if she were searching for something or someone—or trying to walk off the effects of the morphine that was deranging her. I was inclined to dismiss all of this as tall tales Virginians love to spin out; but when I looked into these yarns I found proof that they were true...."

The New York Times hailed Archie and Amélie as "an irresistible account ... of a combustible couple's torrid descent amid opulence.... Ms. Lucey tells it beautifully.... [Her] success with the book also owes much to its subjects. When a man can (as Archie did) enjoy a breakfast of roast duck and vanilla ice cream while wearing leather pajamas and sitting near a fresh corpse, he certainly holds up his end of the story."

Admission to "Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age" is free and open to the public.

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