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Isabel Pell was a handsome, heroic, cruel and athletic woman who once owned 40 pairs of riding boots, seduced the women of New York, New England and France, and played a heroic but controversial role in World War II. She also remained a skeleton in the closet of Eve Pell’s upper-crust family — until the author was inspired to rediscover her, warts and all.
One morning 15 years ago, I received a phone call from Honor Moore, a writer in Connecticut and friend of a friend. “What do you know about Isabel Pell?” she inquired.
“Nothing,” I replied, other than that Isabel was my distant cousin. “Why?”
“Isabel was lovers with my grandmother, Margarett Sargent, a painter. I’m writing a biography of her.”
I could barely believe what Moore was telling me. A lesbian, in our old-school WASP family! I nearly fell off my chair. Honor chatted on:
As a child, she had called this frequent visitor to her grandmother’s house “Cousin Pell.” She recalled curious details: that Isabel had been the first woman she ever saw who wore pajamas — in beige or periwinkle silk, cut like a man’s. She was also the first woman Honor saw wearing slacks, always perfectly tailored. Isabel’s honey-colored hair was cut short, with two little curls that turned up in the front, and she wore a musky perfume, Tabac Blanc. She was slim, tanned and, in the words of a contemporary, “handsome, wonderfully handsome.”
“We children loved her,” said Honor. “She liked to sing ‘There’s a Small Hotel, With a Wishing Well.’ But Isabel and my grandmother were equally cruel, and Isabel was a terrible liar.”
Several years after Honor’s call, I became interested in researching family history myself. So I went to see Honor at her old, whimsical white house in Connecticut, where she was finishing up The White Blackbird (Viking Adult, 1996), the memoir about her grandmother. She had amassed a thick file about Cousin Pell, which she generously passed on to me. As I added my own research, a portrait emerged of a glamorous, tough woman who defied society’s rules one after another.
She was born into New York City’s upper crust. Her father, real estate speculator S. Osgood Pell, was “quite conspicuous in society,” according to The New York Times. His marriage to a young Manhattan belle named Isabel Townsend was a notable social event of 1899, but, as the Times put it, “[T]heir married happiness was of short duration.”
Evidently the bride discovered that her husband was carrying on affairs, so at the age of 19 she obtained a divorce — highly unusual in those days. She and her infant daughter, also named Isabel, moved in with her parents.
Osgood Pell paid scant attention to his daughter. As a young child, Isabel wrote him sad letters pleading for money. “Please send the cheque or I will not be able to come to you,” she wrote. She begged for a pony: “All the other girls have one. I am the only one who doesn’t, and they make fun of me.” She asked him for $35 for a bicycle and pleaded for more support.
And then, apparently having decided that the problem lay with her gender, she took a different tack. The little girl started signing her letters, “from your loving boy, Osgood Pell.” Perhaps she thought her father might respond better to a son and namesake.
The letters don’t indicate whether the feckless father sent the money or not. Although Osgood Pell ran up debts, he maintained his membership in New York clubs and his connections with the very rich. He died young in a spectacular crash when his car was hit by a train at a railroad crossing. Isabel was left penniless.
But Osgood Pell’s brother Stephen, who had married a nickel heiress, stepped in. A generous man who had hoped to have a daughter, Uncle Stephen invited Isabel to spend a lot of time at his summer residence at Fort Ticonderoga, sent her to the fashionable Holton Arms School in Washington, D.C., and gave her a coming-out party. Younger girls had crushes on “ Pelly,” as she was called, and admired her for being athletic and outspoken.
In an interview many years later, Isabel explained why she took a job in a dress shop the year after her debut in 1920 — rather a shocking thing for a lady of her social position.
“Life had grown stupid,” she said. “I was very bored with it all. I had done all the usual things a girl does after she is ‘out,’ and I am very tired of it.”
A year later, she “gave society a jolt” when she quit her job to take a small part in a play, intending to have a career in the theater. Joining a set of artistic women who had affairs with each other, she developed a reputation as an aggressive pursuer of women.
Though Isabel became briefly engaged in 1924, she never married. Her photograph appeared in the society pages, showing her practicing for a tennis tournament, or with Honor’s grandmother and their terriers, standing about in fashionable clothes at a dog show.
A younger relative remembers Isabel as all glamour, with her striking face, bobbed hair, tailored clothes and cigarette, very much in the style of Katharine Hepburn. Margarett Sargent painted several portraits of her, showing a serious woman with brown eyes and dark brows. In one likeness, Isabel’s large hands hold a small dog in her lap.
Honor’s book about her grandmother also shows the artist’s narcissistic, cruel side: One of Sargent’s children complained that if the house were burning and her mother had a choice between rescuing a Renoir painting or a child, she would certainly have grabbed the painting.
Similarly, a friend of Sargent’s characterized Isabel as “wicked,” and Isabel developed a reputation for being dominating and duplicitous. The two deserved each other, the friend concluded. After a while, the relationship ended.
At the time, such affairs were spoken of privately, in whispers. Isabel stood out in that unlike almost all the other women in her set, she had neither a marriage nor a fortune to shield her. But despite being single and not rich, Isabel was invited to parties and treated like the other “ladies.” Her charm and courage seem to have outweighed her faults.
In her memoir Here Lies the Heart, playwright Mercedes de Acosta (who romanced Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and other famous women) called Isabel “a lovable person” and describes how Isabel helped her get through a terrible depression. “[S]he always made me believe in myself…she sent me a gardenia every morning with some absurd things written on the card, and she often came for me in a chic white Sunbeam and drove me to the country.”
In 1933, Isabel made the papers again, this time in the news section. She was plucked from the North Atlantic by a German freighter after the small plane in which she and her companion were flying spiraled down into the icy water. She and Mrs. Henry T. Fleitmann, an attractive brunette “habituée of London’s Mayfair equally with Long Island’s Hamptons,” had been drifting for hours. The Times concluded, “Mr. Fleitmann could not be reached yesterday….”
Isabel continued to make conquests among New York’s women. When a charismatic Hungarian sculptor named Rene Praha was honored at a party in New York, several women courted her — but Praha went home with Isabel. Later on, however, Isabel had to leave New York as a consequence of a very public affair with a soprano at the Metropolitan Opera.
She fled to Paris, where she became part of what Honor calls “a little subculture of women who all knew each other.” Some had been married “for five minutes,” according to Honor, then divorced but remained Madame So-and-So. After that, they did just what they wanted, which they had the money to do.
Soon Isabel was ensconced in France, living in a lovely mill in the town of Auribeau near her new love, Claire, the Marquise de Forbin. High up in the hills overlooking Grasse, the house had a view of the Mediterranean. An old woman from the town remembers Isabel as a strong-willed, philanthropic person who was particularly kind to children.
The two women must have made an interesting couple: the vital, energetic American, always described as tall, lean and handsome, paired with the fragile, delicate and petite French aristocrat. But they seem to have shared the same passion for adventure.
When the Nazis occupied France in 1940, Isabel and her marquise joined the French Resistance. A remarkable Associated Press story from September 1944, datelined Southern France, detailed Isabel’s wartime exploits. She used her home as a center for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda, it said, and when Axis agents discovered hidden weapons and a radio in a search of her mill, they arrested her.
Along with her maid, she was kept under house arrest for a couple of months in the mountain town of Puget-Thénier. Permitted by her Axis keepers to take walks in the daytime, she somehow made contact with the Maquis (Free French) and organized an underground cell inside the prison. When Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, the guards left the prison and Isabel went free.
Immediately, she sent word to the Maquis that she was a good shot and wanted to join them. Disguising themselves as peasants, she and the marquise hiked into the hills to meet with an underground Resistance leader named Joseph (her underground name was Fredericka). She took dangerous assignments from Joseph until he was discovered and slain by the Gestapo.
Isabel, who had developed a pale streak in her brown hair, was known as “la femme à la mèche blonde,” or “the woman with the blond streak.” In August 1944, as the Allies were retaking France, a contingent of American soldiers found themselves surrounded by Germans in the small town of Tanaron.
Suddenly, AP reported, the townspeople of Tanaron began to shout, and the beleaguered American sergeant saw a tall, lean woman striding toward him down the main street, wearing the tricolor badge of the Free French.
“She stood a moment, tears rolling down her smiling face…. ‘Okay, kid,’ she said. ‘It’s all right now.’” And Isabel led the men through the German lines to safety.
Pelliana, a journal published by the Pell Family Association, called Isabel “one of the great heroines of France” in its 1946 issue, and included a comic-book page titled “Fredericka of the Maquis,” complete with a heroic drawing of Isabel, streak in her hair.
Her reputation as a hero would have remained unquestioned but for a remarkable coincidence. After the war, Isabel’s younger cousin, Stephanie Pell, ended up living in the very region where Isabel had been. Believing her cousin to be a hero, Stephanie boasted of their connection, but was horrified to hear her French in-laws say they hated Isabel because they believed she had collaborated with the Nazis.
Given the complicated and dangerous situation, perhaps Isabel had played both sides for her own advantage, collaborating with the enemy to avoid retribution for her exploits with the Free French.
Nevertheless, in 1946, Stephanie invited Isabel, her only nearby relative, to be godmother at the christening of her infant son. Isabel arrived late and disheveled, but seeing that important members of the community were present, tried to borrow a curling iron. She then borrowed 2,000 francs from Stephanie’s mother-in-law and presented the money to the new parents. She never repaid the loan.
When Stephanie and her family moved back to New York, she never told her grandfather, Stephen Pell, what she had discovered. He had been so proud of Isabel’s reputation that Stephanie could not bear to break his heart.
Isabel died at the age of 51, toppling over from a chair in a New York restaurant. The newspaper account of her death gives the impression that she was drunk.
While I do not find Isabel a likable or even a particularly good person, I marvel at her relentless drive. Having experienced cruelty, Isabel could be cruel; having been betrayed, she could betray. But in a society that rewarded conformist, heterosexual, married women, she dared to be an adventurer. Certainly the neurotic, self-centered, alcoholic Isabel inhabited the same skin as the heroic femme à la mèche blonde.