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.

The farm is a perfect distillation of the push-pull, diverse interests of its benefactress. “My mother loves to preserve gardens, she loves to preserve structures,” says Matt Hamilton. But as Mrs. H., whose husband Sam passed away in 1997, says, “I’m so curious about the future.” Hence the Austin Powers-ish interiors of the buildings, where tanks full of liquid nitrogen keep farm-animal embryos frozen. “Everything I think is luck in life,” she adds, explaining how her goats landed in this paradise of a spot. “I met at a cocktail party a woman from Tufts veterinary school.” She gets a mischievous look in her eye as she describes confabbing with the vets about her preservation project. “The vets said, ‘You don’t have enough room for herds, but have you ever thought of freezing semen and embryos?’ And of course, I hadn’t.”

Semen aside, Mrs. H. takes her business affairs seriously. Her Campbell Soup interests are managed by others; the extended Dorrance clan owns about half the company’s shares, the main source of Mrs. H.’s estimated $1 billion wealth. But Mrs. H. runs the show at the Spread Eagle Village shopping center in Wayne, and at the Little House Shop and Valley Forge Flowers, all three of which she owns. Then there’s the boutique hotel she’s thinking about building on the Newport waterfront, where she’s just opened a marina restaurant called Forty 1˚ North. “She loves projects,” says her friend Jane Pepper, the head of the Horticultural Society. “I think she’s thought very carefully about what she wants to do with her resources.”

“I’m one of the new people — I’ve only been with her 25, 26 years,” laughs Barbara King, who started working with Mrs. H. when she was 18 and now manages Valley Forge Flowers. “When I was having kids, I was thinking, ‘I won’t be able to come to the house and do the parties with these little babies.’ She said, ‘Bring them!’ So I would do the flowers, and she would be holding my sons and feeding them.” Once you’re in with Mrs. H., you’re in for life. Her Wayne housekeeper, Fannie, has worked for her for almost 50 years; Mrs. H. jaunts to the North Carolina furniture shows regularly with Toby Charrington, who runs the Little House Shop and has helped her decorate and renovate her homes. “I was a tutor for Matt and his brother Peter,” says Charrington, who met Mrs. H. some 40 years ago and never left her life. “She’s very loyal. And her friends are very loyal to her, too. She does a lot for people that she doesn’t even talk about.”

Loyalty is so big with her that even at her public low point — she was an investor in Pier 34 on the Delaware River, which collapsed, tragically, in 2000 — she still professed her support of one of its operators, longtime friend Eli Karetny. Karetny had been in the restaurant business with her late husband, and Mrs. H. stated — publicly, at his trial — that she still trusted him. (While Dorrance Hamilton funded the project, she didn’t face criminal charges as Karetny did, since she wasn’t involved in the daily operations of Pier 34.)

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  • Anonymous

    I ENJOYED READING THIS ARTICLE, IT’S SO NICE TO READ ABOUT DOWN TO EARTH WEALTH..I LOVED GOING TO AUNT ETHEL’S HOME WHEN I WAS YOUNG..I STILL CAN PICTURE MOST OF THE ROOMS AND REMEMBER RIDING TOYS ON THE TERRACE !! THIS ARTICLE BROUGHT BACK MANY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES !!

  • w

    HER new hotel BLOCKED MY VIEW of the Water, and All that it had to offer……18 years. I’ve had that view !!!!!!!!!!!!!……….a purely SELFISH ACT !!!!!!!

  • Rita

    My grandmother (English)was a servant on the estate for years. My grandfather was a chauffeur. Their day off was Wednesdays, which was when we saw them. My grandmother “retired” in the 1950s. What a life they both had.

  • Rebecca Stetson

    I was in an awed state of warm rememberence when I came across this article about Dorrance Hamilton. I grew up in Newport, R.I, and attended Carey Elementary School (a hop,skip and a jump from Hamiltons Newport summer abode) in the mid 1980’s. At the time, my mother wa involved in a romantic relationship with her seasonal “care taker”. He lived in the servants quarters of her Newport mansion during off-season and watched over and maintained her home and property until she returned every summer. My mother and I both resided at Wildacre during this time and were lucky enough to experience this beautiful mansion and grounds first hand. It was absolutely amazing and grandoius, and the whole experience lingers in my dreams to this very day!

  • http://None elizabeth ready

    I have been with Campbell’s 32 years and have never lost the prestige, perfection of a lady like way, beautiful by example.. For love of those behind the scenes beautifully done and making a difference for others. Beth Ready 609-217-6996.

  • wildroses

    OK but it IS pretentious and extravagant to raise mink to make fur coats out of them and to say there’s something delicious about goldfish in your pond succumbing to being eaten by the mink you let proliferate once mink coats began to bore you. Money is intoxicating isn’t it? If you’re born into it often times you remain a slave to it, I suppose… and it marks who you ate and how people respond to you rich and poor alike.