Book review: “The American Princess” by A van der Zijl

While researching a biography, about Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Dutch author Annejet van der Zijl came across one of his aunts. Not a real aunt, but an “adopted” one. The aunt became godmother to his eldest daughter, Beatrix. The aunt was American.

Ms van der Zijl discovered the American woman had spent her last years in a seaside villa near Cap-d’Ail in France. After her death and a very nasty court case over the inheritance, a step-daughter had inherited this villa. So Ms van der Zijl travelled to France, chatted to the step-daughter and filed her American away for the time being.

American Princess 01Yet the American woman remained in her thoughts. So in the end, Ms van der Zijl’s biography on this American princess was published in the Netherlands in 2015. From the first day it appeared, this biography was a run-away success. It was translated in German and an English translation will appear.

But then: Allene Tew‘s life has all the ingredients an author dreams of. It is a rags-to-riches story. It contains love, drama, tragedies – yet the heroine refuses to be daunted. Ms van der Zijl’s sixth biography is well written and an easy, absorbing read.

This does not mean the biography is perfect. In some chapters, it merely skims Allene Tew’s life. Do not expect deep reflections; psychological explanations for choices; citations from private diaries, letters, original documents. The Dutch hard back version tells Allene’s turbulent life in 280 pages. The book contains maps, photos, notes, a family tree. The latter is very handy, for Allene married several times.

Allene was born in Janesville in 1872. The family was affluent but not extremely rich. When she grew up, the area came to life during a short summer season. During one of these summers, Allene fell pregnant. Her lover belonged to one of America’s rich and powerful families. Tod Hostetter married Allene. His family tried to freeze the bride out of their circle – and failed.

Through this first marriage, Allene enjoyed the life of the upper classes during America’s Gilded Age. Her first marriage started happily enough and the couple had three children. But one of their children died and Tod turned out to be a gambler – and worse. After a few years, Allene and Tod were living apart. He died unexpectedly and Allene inherited his debts.

She picked up the pieces and married again. Perhaps too soon, for a year later, she divorced her second husband. By then, she already traveled abroad. In 1912, she married her third husband in London. Anson Burchard was the love of her life, but suddenly died in 1927.

Allene left for Europe to pick up the pieces – yet again. By then, she was known to be rich. She married a fourth time: a German prince. Six years later she divorced her much younger, fascist husband – just before the Second World War. The marriage had not been a happy one, yet Allene kept in touch with her stepson.

She married for a fifth and last time and became a Russian aristocrat. By then, Allene not only was related to important American families but also had a great many friends among European aristocrats. One of her friends’ sons stayed at Allene’s home while working in Paris. He was Bernard von Lippe-Biesterfeld, the future husband of the then princess Juliana.

As for Allene’s own children: her only son died during the First World War. Her second daughter succumbed to the flu epidemic which raged just after it. Yet Allene loved young people. She gave her German stepson a home and after her death, he lived at her seaside villa in Cap-d’Ail.

Allene must have been an exceptionally strong women. She had to rebuild her life so often, the biography is a lesson in resilience and endurance. The manner in which she bested her first family in law and took on US upper-class society – and won them over, shows how clever she was.

She undoubtedly was ambitious, but also very generous and a firm friend and kind step-mother. She witnessed revolutions, a Wall Street crash, two World Wars. She became rich – but happy?

“De Amerikaanse Prinses”, A. van der Zijl, Querido, 280 pp, first published 2015. German translation available; English translation of “The American Princess” expected.

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