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.

“We have mink coming to eat the fish in the pond,” she says with a laugh. “My mother and father had friends in the ’40s who were raising mink for pelts on Aquidneck Island, and they got bored with it, so they let them go wild.” So Newport, to have mink roaming the yard. “I always think it’s sort of glamorous to have your fish eaten by mink,” she says.

“I OWN A small travel company out in Berwyn,” Matt Hamilton tells me, “and about a year ago, Mom said, ‘Find me a boat. I want to go up and down the Dalmatian Coast. I’ve never been there.’”

Mrs. H. has a rare combination of natural charm mixed with authority, so what she wants, she generally gets. The boat Matt found turned out to be a cruise ship, and last July, Mrs. H. and her clan took a European jaunt — a pre-birthday warm-up, you might say, for the Newport bash — with family and some 50 friends gliding down the Adriatic for a week on the luxury yacht Seadream. “It was marvelously wonderful,” says Mrs. H.

That’s the glamorous part of being Dorrance Hill Hamilton, Socialite, who grew up in Newport and at 740 Park Avenue with “thousands of staff,” as her sister Hope van Beuren once described. But you’re actually more likely to find Mrs. H. off the Adriatic, visiting the new medical education building at Jefferson that she funded, or the gardens she supports through the Horticultural Society, or running her annual Community Clothes Charity sale, where she personally welcomes every shopper and takes their admission fees while wearing an apron.

“When I was a little girl, we were allowed to drive through the farm on Sundays between two and four,” Mrs H. says as she motors past hilltop mansions into the quirky former Swiss Village farm, now the site of her SVF Foundation. “The staff wore lederhosen and dirndls then.” Swiss Village was built in 1916 by wealthy Newporter Arthur Curtis James as a surprise gift for his wife; its collection of adorable low stone buildings and cottages is modeled to look exactly like a particular village in Switzerland. As Mrs. H. steers the Mercedes through the front gates, it’s suddenly as if we’re in the movie Heidi, mixed with a dash of The Sound of Music. We breeze past rolling hills full of wildflowers, a pond, and an honest-to-goodness European village; goats pause from munching a hillside to gaze at us through disinterested yellow eyeballs. It’s all very edelweiss, and absolutely gorgeous. A nearby parcel was once the fields of Hammersmith Farm, Jacqueline Kennedy’s childhood home and the site of her wedding to JFK.

Mrs. H. parks and hikes up to the farm’s office, mud on her sensible Merrell suede shoes. She’s in a white polo shirt and trousers, a pale blue sweater tied over her shoulders. With her signature hat shielding her from the sun, she looks, actually, like a lady who gardens a lot, which she is — Mrs. H. has a huge greenhouse on her 10-acre property in Wayne. She’s grown hundreds of prize-winning flowers exhibited at the iconic, august Philadelphia Flower Show.

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