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.

But what sets Mrs. H. apart from your average, run-of-the-mill billionairess is how she squeezes far more into every day than she needs to — how much she cares. She kept close watch on the plans for the Samuel M.V. Hamilton building at PAFA; she’s visited interns and nurses training at the new Hamilton building at Jefferson. Mrs. H. helped pay for the Azalea Garden at the Art Museum to be replanted and helped in its design, and while she supports the Flower Show, she also enters her orchids (and they win, in blind competitions). She allows garden tours to come tromping through her properties because she knows more money will be raised for charity if Dorrance Hamilton’s acres are on view. “She’s got that beautiful combination of a passion for the arts and a creative flair with business acumen,” says Anne Ewers, the Kimmel Center head.

When one considers the young heiresses coming up behind her today, it’s hard to fathom them imbibed with the sense of restraint, elegance and manners that defines Dodo Hamilton. Imagine Paris Hilton forging animal research, growing prize-winning flowers, quietly endowing medicine, the arts, education. You can’t. “She’s very involved,” Toby Charrington says of Mrs. H. “She doesn’t just give her money and not pay attention.”

Every October, Mrs. H spends the entire month — “She literally plans her whole year around that,” says Jane ­Pepper — producing, organizing and running her four-day-long, girls-gone-­shopping-mad Community Clothes Charity sale, which benefits a different charity every year. This year, it’s the Overbrook School for the Blind. “Isn’t that sale wild?” Mrs. H. says. “People come from Chicago. We used to have a lady come from Arizona, buy the clothes, pack them up and ship them home, and then take the night flight to Paris.” The event is a must-attend for Main Line socialites (think Prada skirts and Armani sweaters with Neiman Marcus tags still on, 75 percent off!), made even better by the benevolent presence of Mrs. H. herself, wearing her hat.

Being on-site, dressing the part, surveying the results of her munificence at work — Mrs. H. does these things not because she has to, but because it’s the Right Thing To Do. She’s always done the right thing — it’s part of being the oldest grandchild of John T. Dorrance. “I’m not a pawner-offer,” she shrugs.

“NEWPORT, R.I., Dec. 1,” read the notice in the New York Times. “Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel P. Hill of Bois Doré, this city, and 740 Park Avenue, New York, have announced the engagement of their daughter, Dorrance, to Samuel M.V. Hamilton, of Broadlawn, Rosemont, PA, son of William H. Hamilton and the late Mrs. Hamilton.” It was 1949, three years after her coming-out party at Bois Doré was splashed in the pages of the Times. Dodo Hill was getting married after four years of courtship, because “we had to wait until I was 21, and until Sam had a real job,” she recalls.

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