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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