Marietta Tree's life of pitiful advantage

October 26, 1997|By Rebecca Pepper Sinkler | Rebecca Pepper Sinkler,special to the sun

TC Regrets," by Caroline Seebohm. Simon & Shuster. 512 pages. $27.50.

If you are looking for a horror story to curl up with next Friday night, you might try "No Regrets." It's terrifying, this tale of a beautiful and vulnerable woman, who, driven by the ghosts of her puritan heritage, breaks out of the prison of family, is browbeaten by her repressive parents, morphs into a vampire, sucks on the blood of innocent men, casts them away, and then, as the music plays faster and faster, whirls, like some sorcerer's apprentice, to a gruesome death.

Don't misunderstand. That's not the way Caroline Seebohm casts this biography of Marietta Tree, a Boston Brahmin turned international doyenne. In fact, "No Regrets" is a conventional, polite rendering of the life of a remarkable 20th century woman. Born into the WASP ascendency (her grandfather, Endicott Peabody, was the founder and headmaster of the toney Massachusetts boarding-school, Groton), Marietta Tree reinvented herself as a modern woman, married well, bedded better (Adlai Stevenson, John Huston), used her talents and connections for her own pleasure and for the social good, rose to international influence, and brought grace and beauty into the lives of all who knew her (with exceptions).

Then why does the narrative have such a blistering negative force? Seebohm's own ambivalence toward her subject may be responsible. On the one hand, she is her subject's advocate, pleading Tree's defense: as the child of priggish father and a starchy, hypercritical mother, young Marietta developed crippling insecurities. Born to privilege in 1917, she had no female models for challenging paid work and independence. She married the wrong men, first the popular athlete and "club man," Desmond FitzGerald, then the British country gentleman, Ronald Tree. Both, glittery at first, proved too conservative, slow, weak. Divorce infuriated her parents, who never fully forgave her.

If, as Seebohm understates it, "both her marriages disappointed," so did motherhood. Nannies did the job for her. Later, her rivalry with her own mother doomed her to compete with her daughters: she envied the intellectual success of her firstborn, the writer Frances FitzGerald and the fame of her second, Penelope Tree, who upstaged her mom as a model and column item.

As for the public recognition Marietta craved, it too disappointed. The press branded her a "socialite" when she wanted to be taken seriously as a journalist, a social activist, a business woman. Furthermore, she never had enough money. At the height of her success, she contracted breast cancer, and, in 1991, died.

If this reads like a dreary litany, wait. Seebohm is too honest and shrewd to cast naughty Marietta as a victim. There was that other side. Marietta Peabody learned a dangerous lesson early. As the only girl on her grandfather's campus she discovered her power over the opposite sex. And she found a way to parlay that power into a glamorous, gorgeous life.

If Marietta's beauty, charm and grace propelled her into the arms of interesting men, they also provided an entree into their world. Throughout, she worked hard, craved acceptance, accommodated, occasionally took impulsive, brave stands, and continued with bouts of crippling insecurity.

The horror, of course, springs from a late-20th century feminist reading of this life. Caroline Seebohm does well to give us the full picture. When Marietta Tree dies, painfully, stoically, secretly, we are infuriated. And terrified at the vision of a powerful woman who, pitifully, never grew up.

Rebecca Pepper Sinkler is former editor of the New York Time Book Review, where she worked for 10 years. She is working on a book about a women's literary group of the 1930s.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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