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.

Matt Hamilton remembers his mom as busy, but hands-on — he says Mrs. H. is a good cook — while he was growing up, and says that while his childhood was much less formal than his mother’s, tradition continued. “It would be Thanksgiving dinner at Ravenscliff, Great-Aunt Charlotte’s house, and you’d have to have your blue blazer and tie on,” he recalls. “In Newport, we’d all have tea with Granny at four in the afternoon, wearing horrible red sandals and all that.”

Even more important was the notion of duty. Not for nothing has Mrs. H. been compared to the Queen of England: Dodo was the most responsible one of all, even more than her aunts and uncle Jack Dorrance in the generation before her. “I think there were some alcohol issues in the family, her uncle Jack had a problem with that, and that’s why Dodo doesn’t drink,” says a longtime friend. “Mom always instilled in us when we were kids that we should give back to the community,” adds Matt. “She did that through making us volunteer our services — my brother, my sister and myself — at the Penny Wise Thrift Shop, and Jefferson Hospital’s Headhouse Fair, and at her shop at the Devon Horse Show. So we try to pass that along to our kids, make them aware that we are blessed in our life, and that we should give back to the community.”

The Hamiltons spent summers in ­Newport — “Some of us would pile into Mom’s car, some into Dad’s car, and we’d all meet at the ferry at four o’clock,” Matt recalls. At home in Philly, Sam participated in horse-coaching competitions. Dodo and Sam went to Europe on trips organized by PAFA (where Sam was longtime board chair) and Winterthur. “On the Seadream, there was a little schedule every day with a picture of her in a big hat,” says Jane Pepper of July’s birthday trip, “and sometimes a picture of her and her husband dancing when they were in their 20s. What a glamorous couple that was.”

In the 1960s, Dodo’s widowed mother, Elinor, remarried, to another super-Wasp, Vice Admiral Stuart Howe Ingersoll, and continued to serve as mistress at her Newport estate. Bois Doré was the scene of a ­Hitchcock-style 1960s caper in which thieves crept up a tree, entered through a balcony, and lifted $300,000 worth of Elinor’s diamonds out of an unlocked safe. (Ah, the days of old-fashioned jewel thieves.)

After their mother passed away in 1977, Dodo and her sister Hope sold Bois Doré, and much of its contents, in a Christie’s auction. “She’s not the kind of person who would have one of those giant, big-ass mansions on Bellevue Avenue,” G. Wayne Miller, a Providence Journal writer who covers old Newport society, says of Mrs. H. “That’s definitely not her style.” She also isn’t one to live in the past, even after losing Sam. “The summer after he died, I was miserable,” Mrs. H. says. That’s when Margaret scouted around Newport and discovered Wildacre, then in a state of genteel neglect. “My daughter said, ‘You’d better buy this house,’ and took me over there,” says Mrs. H. She loved the low-key Arts and Crafts feel of the house, and spent two years renovating it. As she did, other projects — the farm, and the renovation of a Newport wharf, among others — unfolded, providing exactly what Dodo Hamilton needed: purpose.

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