The Last Great Lady

Campbell Soup heiress Dorrance “Dodo” Hamilton has enjoyed a life of wealth and glamour: a debutante coming-out splashed in the “New York Times”, summers in Newport, and years as the face (and hat!) of the Main Line. In the waning days of Philly high society, we need “Mrs. H.” more than ever.

Dorrance Hamilton was born to the role of socialite, of course — she is, famously, the granddaughter of Dr. John T. Dorrance, who invented the condensing process for soup and became the president of the Campbell Soup company in 1914. But while she has led a rarefied life, she is much more invested in carefully distributing her wealth, making sure that the money she bestows so generously is working properly. Recent gifts include $25 million to Thomas Jefferson Hospital; $5 million to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; $5 million to the Kimmel Center; $1 million to the costume collection at the Art Museum’s Perelman Building; and quietly dispersed millions to education causes all over the city, including several parochial schools in West Philly. In essence, she is CEO of what might be called Dorrance Hamilton, Inc., juggling businesses, charities, real estate projects and foundations.

But more telling, Mrs. H. is one of a vanishing breed of American royalty, the heirs whose finishing schools and Social Register childhoods shaped them into admired members of this country’s landed gentry. She is a woman who conveys both grandeur and a frank unpretentiousness rare in these days of vulgar displays of wealth. With Hope and Bobby Scott now gone, she is the last social icon of the old Main Line. If she is aware of this, she doesn’t dwell on it. Mrs. H. isn’t overly sentimental. She brushes off projected wistfulness briskly.

This morning Mrs. H. is heading off to visit her SVF Foundation, a mile up the road. It’s a project devoted to preserving the genetic diversity of endangered domestic animals. In a quintessentially Mrs. H. move, this venture put a sheep, goat and chicken farm squarely in the middle of one of the nation’s most opulent old-money enclaves. It raised a few eyebrows when Mrs. H. first launched it in 1999, but these days the SVF is quite popular in Newport — especially since it saved 36 acres of rolling farmland from being developed.

In Newport as in Philadelphia, Dodo Hamilton is a society stalwart, so if she wants to save goats, so be it. In her no-nonsense way, she details her interest in helping prevent livestock from being overly inbred. (Insert inbreeding-in-Newport joke here.) “We’re developing in this country cows that produce gallons of milk, but they don’t eat grass, they can’t take care of their babies,” she explains, sitting overlooking her three-acre gardens, where a flag printed with a ladle of tomato soup flies over an infinity pool.

Louie is barking again, waiting impatiently in the immaculate pebble driveway while Mrs. H. gets her chic Goyard handbag and heads to her rented car, a sporty little black Mercedes. On our way we stop in the Japanese garden, with its fern-lined pathways, maples, azaleas and wisteria-covered teahouse. Mrs. H. lingers at the koi pond, layered with water lilies the size of dinner plates. She smiles ruefully.

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