New Novel Bonfire of the Vanderbilts Stirs 100-Year-Old Scandal

July 30, 2015 (PRLEAP.COM) Business News
July 30, 2105 - Here's the story of Bonfire of the Vanderbilts in brief: In 1892 Paris, Julius Stewart painted The Baptism, a Vanderbilt family scene that contains an embarrassing secret. In the present day, art historian Grace Atwood becomes obsessed with the painting and its hidden clues for reasons that have more to do with her personal ghosts. Either her doting husband is trying to make her think she's crazy, or she really is in the early stages of dementia.

The Baptism shows a christening ceremony in the drawing room of a Victorian-era mansion. There are 21 sumptuously dressed people in the scene. It's curious, though, that Stewart finished the painting fully six years after the christening, and some of the people in it look more like his family members than Vanderbilts. So the idea that the event was a Vanderbilt affair has been an unproven rumor in the art world for over a century. Jones got hooked on the mystery when he first saw the painting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA.org). "The mother in the painting looks sickly," he says, "as if she's dying and you think she might not live to see her baby grow up. The emotional pull is stunning, and it's not surprising that people who see it will think about it for days afterward. In my case, it was years."

The title of the book refers to the dispute between Vanderbilt and Morgan over what might seem an arcane tenet of Episcopal doctrine - namely, whether baptisms should be performed only in the baby's home-church sanctuary. The proudly pious Vanderbilt's potential embarrassment over public reaction to the debut of the painting at the Chicago World's Fair in 1892 was probably why the artist chose to disguise some of the key characters.

The book's title also echoes Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, and Jones's replacement of Vanities with Vanderbilts hints at the sin of self-righteousness. "This was the Gilded Age of unbridled wealth and personal privilege an era some people today claim to admire," says Jones. "When Cornelius Vanderbilt and his brother William inherited the railroad empire, they divided between them the largest personal fortune in the world. And they were unchallenged aristocrats. In his own way, the painter Julius Stewart was just as arrogant. He, too, was a rich man. His family owned sugar plantations in Cuba which still had slaves decades after the Civil War. Stewart cared not at all whether his paintings sold but he lusted after fame. And that's probably why he hoped that the gossip in New York society over the scandal in this painting would make his career."

The novel wraps the Vanderbilt historical plot in a modern-day psychological drama. Jones admits it borrows from the story of the 1944 George Cukor film Gaslight, in which a sadistic Charles Boyer tries to literally drive his suggestible wife Ingrid Bergman crazy. Jones explains, "I didn't realize until after I wrote the book that there's a modern slang term to "gaslight" someone, meaning to trick a person into doubting her own memories. Now, I'm not saying that's what Alan is doing to Grace, but it certainly feels that way to her. And in her way, like Corny and Jules, her vanity may be her downfall."

Early praise for the book has been enthusiastic from both art-world experts and historians. Carson Clark, Stewart's biographer, said, "I must say, I am impressed with your sleuthing, your imagination and your ability to weave a story. Your theory is fascinating, and I personally would be quite excited if any piece of it proved true." And Mary Sudman Donovan, historian of the Episcopal Church USA commented, "I think you've done an extraordinary job of researching and speculating on the painting. You've certainly convinced me that this was a Vanderbilt affair!"

On the September release date, Bonfire of the Vanderbilts will be available in trade paperback from booksellers worldwide. Barnes & Noble (bn.com) is accepting pre-orders. It will also be published concurrently as a Kindle ebook, available exclusively from Amazon. Jones will be reading from the book at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, CA on Sunday, August 9, at 2 p.m at an event sponsored by the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC). And he will be speaking to the Publishers Association of Los Angeles (PALA) at the Veterans Memorial Building in Culver City, CA on Wednesday, September 16 at 7:00 p.m.

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