At first glance Eve Pell's memoir, We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante, appears to be the familiar narrative of a socialite woman born into the upper crust of society, who casts off its restrictions to strike out on her own. As I proceeded deeper into her life story I discovered this is something much more. Eve Pell has written a notable account of her life from horse farms in Pennsylvania, mansions in Tuxedo Park, New York, and estates on Long Island to associations with radical activists and efforts to reform the maximum security prisons of California. In just 225 pages, Pell describes the confines of a strict family and their impact on history, while acknowledging her penchant for adventure, her search for love, her compassion for the underdog, and her investigative instincts. And, I would add, her grit.
We learn about the lineage of her family in 17th century England. Her forefather purchased land from Native Americans comprising what is now the Bronx and parts of Westchester County, New York. Later, the British Crown granted her ancestor a "Manor of Pelham." We know some of this property as the present towns of Pelham, Pelham Manor, and New Rochelle.
Pell describes the wealth she was born into, the parade of servants, the private schools, the riding lessons, and the debutante balls. Her emotionally distant mother was more concerned with her horses and society gatherings than her children, and dispensed harsh criticism rather than affection. Of her upbringing Eve writes:
"There was a complicated hierarchy in our home, where parents were the thoroughbreds who gave the orders while nannies and servants were the commoners who obeyed. As children, we learned that parents were not to be disturbed; if we questioned the order of things, we risked humiliation; and if we wanted something, we should ask one of the staff."
Eve is educated in private schools, and marries a proper Yale graduate in spite of her mother's disapproval. The couple's move to California will become the first step in Eve's steering her life to dramatic changes. Beginning with her work as a researcher for a leftist writer, she earns the disdain of her far-reaching family.
Like a cat with nine lives, each chapter offers a new phase of Eve's life. After two unsuccessful marriages, she finds happiness in her seventieth year. She relates how she felt when her mother, wracked with dementia, passed away:
"I was sixty-eight when she told me that she loved me. But she was my mother, she loved me in her own way, and when, to my surprise, explosions of primal anguish seized me days later and I wept wildly, it was for her."
Like the award winning reporter she is, Eve Pell's account is well written. She details her leap from debutante to efforts at prison reform, to investigative reporting, and even marathon running.
She ends her memoir on this note:
"The years of contorting myself to fit the rigid bed of Procrustes took their toll. But I broke away from the seductive and crippling environment of privilege and dread in which I grew up. I have connected with a world that feels alive and real, have failed and succeeded, had adventures, made mistakes, spoken my mind, loved and been loved--with more intensity and passion than I had any right to expect.
And I'm not done yet."
Eve Pell is the author of Maximum Security: Letters from Prison, as well as The Big Chill: How the Reagan Administration, Corporate America, and Religious Conservatives are Subverting Free Speech and the Public's Right to Know. She has received awards for outstanding reporting in print and television documentaries. She lives in San Francisco. Visit her website.
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