The Affair That Split New York High Society

STRONG PASSIONS: A Scandalous Divorce in Old New York, by Barbara Weisberg

The touch of a hand from two centuries ago can spark powerful emotions in the present. Just ask any of the TikTok romantics who swoon over the passionate hand flex in the 2005 adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” — Mr. Darcy’s reaction to clasping Lizzy Bennet’s palm for the first time. In Jane Austen’s novel, their chemistry leads to marriage and the elevation of the heroine’s fortunes.

But in New York in 1860, a real-life brush of hands “ignited a fiery and forbidden passion” between members of two prominent families. Their romance wrecked a marriage, destroyed the woman’s reputation and resulted in a lurid divorce trial whose salacious details filled pages of the nation’s newspapers.

In “Strong Passions,” her riveting reconstruction of a scandal that “rocked genteel society,” Barbara Weisberg reassembles the story with the clear determination to treat both sides equally, and without leering.

She cloaks the jagged facts of the case in the soft trappings of their social backdrop to soften their impact. Nevertheless, sharp edges pierce the velvet veil — child abduction, forced abortion, allegations of manslaughter, rape, an adultery countersuit. The sordid and sometimes sinister revelations in the courtroom and from family letters and memoirs make the reader gasp. The shock comes not so much from their tawdriness as from the evidence they give of the actual behavior of 19th-century men and women — so much less decorous than fiction makes it appear. Weisberg’s humanizing context makes these real-life characters feel knowable, if not admirable.

Mary Emeline Stevens Strong was a mother of two, the wife of Peter Remsen Strong, a sportsman and versifier whose work ethic was not pronounced. Her father, John Stevens, was a wealthy, industrious bank president. Confident, high-spirited, studious and culturally engaged, Mary grew up in a big brick townhouse, where her mother hosted a “splendid annual holiday gala” for the New York bon ton.

Related Articles

Back to top button