The Langhorne sisters of Virginia were notable for many reasons, not the least of which was their hell-bent determination to use their polished social skills to flee the South and the down-on-its-luck heritage that had subjected them to near poverty in the early years of their lives.
All were born between the late 1860s and the early 1880s to Chillie and Nancy Langhorne, well-off parents who lost everything in the aftermath of the Civil War. With time, Chillie rebounded and made a fortune as a railroad entrepreneur, but his success had little effect on his daughters' desire for expatriation.
Perhaps the most successful of the sisters was Nancy, who married a Boston millionaire, bore him a son, then divorced him in 1903 and moved abroad, where she married the richest man in England, Waldorf Astor, later second Viscount Astor. Lady Astor, as she was known, made history and news by becoming the first female Member of Parliament. Then there was Irene, the most beautiful of the sisters, who married Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl, which in the 1890s and early 1900s was the stand-bearer for fashion. Lizzie, the oldest sister, was the only one who married a Southerner, electing to stay in her native Virginia, a decision she probably regretted after the death of her husband in 1914 when she became increasingly dependent on her well-married sisters for financial assistance.
Nora, the youngest sister, accepted many marriage proposals, but finally married Paul Phipps, a British architect. Unfortunately, Nora possessed what today would be called a sexual addiction of prodigious proportions, and her marriage eventually crumbled in the face of a series of very public affairs. Eventually, she married a silent movie actor named Lefty Flynn.
Phyllis, the fifth sister, married well, divorced, then married Bob Brand, a British economist and intellectual considered one of the architects of modern European society. Author James Fox is the grandson of Bob and Phyllis Brand, and he undertook this history of the Langhornes after finding a trunk of letters that had been carefully preserved by his grandfather after Phyllis's untimely death. These unpublished letters are both the strength and the weakness of the book.
They are important because they include correspondence with notables such as George Bernard Shaw and because they chronicle, in great detail, the sisters' exuberant and sometimes wicked adventures. They are a weakness because Fox quotes too readily from them, thus slowing down the pace of the book. The most energetic parts of the book are those about Nancy's son from her first marriage, Bobbie. As Nancy was preparing for a well-publicized trip to Moscow with George Bernard Shaw, Bobbie was arrested for homosexual offenses and sent to prison. Five Sisters is a fascinating book, but probably not for the reasons envisioned by the author. Fox sees this book as a romantic tale of sisters who seek to better their lives by leaving the South in pursuit of marriages to men outside their culture. You get the feeling that he considers escaping the South to be every Southerner's secret dream.
Native Southerners will probably read this book with a different perspective. Most likely, they will see the Langhorne sisters as traitors to their Southern birthright, women who exchanged their affections for money and high social prominence in British society. They will see tragedy instead of nobility.
Either way this book is read, it offers insight into the pre-modern female mystique and documentation that the sexual revolution and the struggle for women's rights began long before the social upheavals of the 1920s and the 1960s. In that sense, the Langhorne sisters were ahead of their time.
James L. Dickerson is the author of Dixie's Dirty Secret and Women on Top.