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.

As children, Dodo and her sister Hope spent every summer with their parents, Elinor Dorrance Hill and Nathaniel Peter Hill, a banker, at Bois Doré (“Golden Woods”), roaming its 36 rooms of formal French decor. Before settling there, “Mother and Daddy rented all up and down Bellevue Avenue to see how far the fog would come up, because it ruined her hairdo,” Mrs. H. recalls. Forget Depression and war — the 1930s and ’40s were a heady time in Newport. The massive houses, later turned into tourist attractions, were still in family hands, the site of all-summer-long parties. They included Rough Point, the home of Doris Duke, and Marble House, the Vanderbilt estate. (William Vanderbilt built it for his wife Alva’s 39th birthday, but she divorced him anyway, then moved down the street to her new husband’s place.) Other neighbors included Vincent Astor at Beechwood, the Firestone family at Ocean Lawn, and more exotic summer residents straight out of a Preston Sturges movie, such as Countess László Széchenyi (born Gladys Moore Vanderbilt), who held court at the Breakers. Most of the Newport girls went to Foxcroft, the Virginia boarding school that Dodo attended.

In winter, the Hills moved to rambling duplex 10B at 740 Park Avenue, where their neighbors, as told in Michael Gross’s 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building, included the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts and the Chryslers. In the book, Dodo and six-years-younger Hope describe an old-world childhood where their best friends were their doorman and the cook, and their parents threw grand dinner parties at the 24-seat Louis XIV dining room table. Every weekend, fall through spring, the family would board the train for the trip out to Woodcrest, the Hill mansion in Radnor where Dodo’s grandparents lived. It was there, on the Main Line, that young Dodo absorbed her Grandmother Dorrance’s passion for flowers and gardening. “There was always a pony to fool around with there,” says Mrs. H. fondly of the house, now the main building at Cabrini College.

“Dad’s sister, when they were at Foxcroft together, introduced Dad to Mom,” says Matt Hamilton. Sam Hamilton’s blood also ran blue: He’d been raised by his grandfather, who headed the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone. After Choate and Penn, Sam became a stockbroker at what is now Janney Montgomery Scott; he and Dodo married in 1950, Dodo looking very Katharine Hepburn in white satin, with the reception at 740 Park. The couple then moved to the Main Line and had their first child, daughter Margaret. Mrs. H., of course, did her social duty even when giving birth. “I got pregnant as soon as I was married, and my aunt said, ‘You have to go have your baby at Jefferson. There’s a group of us on the Women’s Board, and we’ve all stopped having babies, so you have to have yours there,’” she recalls, deadpan, adding, “I was hoping to go somewhere more convenient, like Bryn Mawr.” But Jefferson it was, leading to a lifelong association with the hospital. Mrs. H. co-founded the hospital’s Penny Wise Thrift Shop, still going strong in Ardmore.

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