The Last Great Lady
Matt Hamilton already knew that his mother was one of your more independent billionaire heiresses. But even he wasn’t quite prepared for the Bermuda trip. It was 1997, and his mother, Dorrance “Dodo” Hill Hamilton, then age 69, had a tradition of taking each of her grandchildren on vacation when they turned 13. “It was Charlotte’s turn,” says Hamilton of his niece, “and she and Mom went. My mom went double-parasailing with Charlotte behind a speedboat.” He sighs. “After that, nothing surprised me.”
That’s Mrs. Hamilton for you. (When you’re a billionairess, people call you “Mrs.”) With her elegant suits and trademark wide-brimmed hats, she might look the part of the classic old-school socialite, but Dorrance Hill Hamilton (“Dodo” was a nickname inherited from her mother) puts her own stamp on everything she does. This past summer, her clan joined her in Newport, Rhode Island, to celebrate her 80th birthday at a full-on ball at the Newport Country Club — just around the corner from her summer estate, a splendid 1901 mansion called Wildacre — that featured, among other things, face-painting and an ice sculpture in the shape of a dodo bird. Along with her blue satin dress and emeralds, the guest of honor wore a tiny red hat in the shape of a birthday cake.
Three days post-party, she’s still in residence at Wildacre. Standing at the door of that stone-and-shingle estate is her constant companion, Louie Hamilton, looking rather proud: It’s Tuesday, and he’s still recovering from the glorious birthday weekend, which was covered by Bill Cunningham in the New York Times Sunday Styles. Louie’s whole family was pictured, looking gorgeous and festive in their long gowns and jewelry. Now, appearing ever so slightly debauched, Louie’s still wearing his bow tie.
Of course, Louie’s been summering in Newport his whole life. Wildacre’s Japanese teahouse, its acres of pillowy hydrangeas and borders of heavenly peonies, the yachts bobbing by on serene Price’s Neck Cove — darling, that’s Louie’s backyard. That is, when he’s not at home at the Hamilton house in Wayne, or in Florida over the winter. One wouldn’t want to say that Louie looks smug up there on the porch, but he does look extremely self-satisfied as Phil, Mrs. Hamilton’s houseman, opens the door. And then Louie does something very un-Newport. He barks.
“Lou-ie,” Mrs. Hamilton says, in a gently scolding tone. Mrs. H., as Phil and the other staff call her (when you’re a particularly lovely billionairess, people call you “Mrs.” plus your initial), smiles from under her white straw hat and scoops up Louie, a long-haired, snow-colored four-pound Maltese with bulging black eyes. Mrs. H. tucks him under her arm and heads into her sunroom.
“There was a full moon, and the humidity was gone. It was perfect,” Mrs. H., who has wide hazel eyes and a big, vivacious smile, is saying about her birthday party. There were flowers all around, and jazzy big-band music was piped into every room, including the muted living room and her pretty red library. “You can’t beat friends and family, food and booze. Well, wine, since people don’t drink anymore.”
Dorrance Hamilton was born to the role of socialite, of course — she is, famously, the granddaughter of Dr. John T. Dorrance, who invented the condensing process for soup and became the president of the Campbell Soup company in 1914. But while she has led a rarefied life, she is much more invested in carefully distributing her wealth, making sure that the money she bestows so generously is working properly. Recent gifts include $25 million to Thomas Jefferson Hospital; $5 million to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; $5 million to the Kimmel Center; $1 million to the costume collection at the Art Museum’s Perelman Building; and quietly dispersed millions to education causes all over the city, including several parochial schools in West Philly. In essence, she is CEO of what might be called Dorrance Hamilton, Inc., juggling businesses, charities, real estate projects and foundations.
But more telling, Mrs. H. is one of a vanishing breed of American royalty, the heirs whose finishing schools and Social Register childhoods shaped them into admired members of this country’s landed gentry. She is a woman who conveys both grandeur and a frank unpretentiousness rare in these days of vulgar displays of wealth. With Hope and Bobby Scott now gone, she is the last social icon of the old Main Line. If she is aware of this, she doesn’t dwell on it. Mrs. H. isn’t overly sentimental. She brushes off projected wistfulness briskly.
This morning Mrs. H. is heading off to visit her SVF Foundation, a mile up the road. It’s a project devoted to preserving the genetic diversity of endangered domestic animals. In a quintessentially Mrs. H. move, this venture put a sheep, goat and chicken farm squarely in the middle of one of the nation’s most opulent old-money enclaves. It raised a few eyebrows when Mrs. H. first launched it in 1999, but these days the SVF is quite popular in Newport — especially since it saved 36 acres of rolling farmland from being developed.
In Newport as in Philadelphia, Dodo Hamilton is a society stalwart, so if she wants to save goats, so be it. In her no-nonsense way, she details her interest in helping prevent livestock from being overly inbred. (Insert inbreeding-in-Newport joke here.) “We’re developing in this country cows that produce gallons of milk, but they don’t eat grass, they can’t take care of their babies,” she explains, sitting overlooking her three-acre gardens, where a flag printed with a ladle of tomato soup flies over an infinity pool.
Louie is barking again, waiting impatiently in the immaculate pebble driveway while Mrs. H. gets her chic Goyard handbag and heads to her rented car, a sporty little black Mercedes. On our way we stop in the Japanese garden, with its fern-lined pathways, maples, azaleas and wisteria-covered teahouse. Mrs. H. lingers at the koi pond, layered with water lilies the size of dinner plates. She smiles ruefully.
“We have mink coming to eat the fish in the pond,” she says with a laugh. “My mother and father had friends in the ’40s who were raising mink for pelts on Aquidneck Island, and they got bored with it, so they let them go wild.” So Newport, to have mink roaming the yard. “I always think it’s sort of glamorous to have your fish eaten by mink,” she says.
“I OWN A small travel company out in Berwyn,” Matt Hamilton tells me, “and about a year ago, Mom said, ‘Find me a boat. I want to go up and down the Dalmatian Coast. I’ve never been there.’”
Mrs. H. has a rare combination of natural charm mixed with authority, so what she wants, she generally gets. The boat Matt found turned out to be a cruise ship, and last July, Mrs. H. and her clan took a European jaunt — a pre-birthday warm-up, you might say, for the Newport bash — with family and some 50 friends gliding down the Adriatic for a week on the luxury yacht Seadream. “It was marvelously wonderful,” says Mrs. H.
That’s the glamorous part of being Dorrance Hill Hamilton, Socialite, who grew up in Newport and at 740 Park Avenue with “thousands of staff,” as her sister Hope van Beuren once described. But you’re actually more likely to find Mrs. H. off the Adriatic, visiting the new medical education building at Jefferson that she funded, or the gardens she supports through the Horticultural Society, or running her annual Community Clothes Charity sale, where she personally welcomes every shopper and takes their admission fees while wearing an apron.
“When I was a little girl, we were allowed to drive through the farm on Sundays between two and four,” Mrs H. says as she motors past hilltop mansions into the quirky former Swiss Village farm, now the site of her SVF Foundation. “The staff wore lederhosen and dirndls then.” Swiss Village was built in 1916 by wealthy Newporter Arthur Curtis James as a surprise gift for his wife; its collection of adorable low stone buildings and cottages is modeled to look exactly like a particular village in Switzerland. As Mrs. H. steers the Mercedes through the front gates, it’s suddenly as if we’re in the movie Heidi, mixed with a dash of The Sound of Music. We breeze past rolling hills full of wildflowers, a pond, and an honest-to-goodness European village; goats pause from munching a hillside to gaze at us through disinterested yellow eyeballs. It’s all very edelweiss, and absolutely gorgeous. A nearby parcel was once the fields of Hammersmith Farm, Jacqueline Kennedy’s childhood home and the site of her wedding to JFK.
Mrs. H. parks and hikes up to the farm’s office, mud on her sensible Merrell suede shoes. She’s in a white polo shirt and trousers, a pale blue sweater tied over her shoulders. With her signature hat shielding her from the sun, she looks, actually, like a lady who gardens a lot, which she is — Mrs. H. has a huge greenhouse on her 10-acre property in Wayne. She’s grown hundreds of prize-winning flowers exhibited at the iconic, august Philadelphia Flower Show.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Even now, at 80, Mrs. H. is possessed of a rather remarkable energy and spontaneity. Last year, she decided to help design a Rose Bowl float — and attend the parade in Pasadena. “Our crew here said the Rose Bowl parade would be a fun thing to do,” says Barbara King, the flower-shop manager. “Before I knew it, she had a trip planned with all of us, 15 designers, and we all spent a week out there. The first night we got there, she said, ‘Let’s go to Malibu!’”
FORTY 1˚ NORTH, Mrs. H.’s other Newport project, turns out to be as different from the nostalgic-looking Swiss Village as Mrs. H. is from what passes for modern-day socialites. Though the wharf is in a historic part of Newport’s waterfront, her restaurant is sleek, with metal tables, Philippe Starck-style chairs, lush plants, trendy outdoor lounge furniture, and appropriately nouvelle food. Mrs. H., though, always orders the same thing. “I made them put the reuben on the menu,” she says, waving away a waiter offering said menu and taking a seat overlooking the water.
Some have compared her to the late Brooke Astor, who died last year at age 105. The two shared a love of philanthropy (and both knew the power of a pretty hat). Astor, like Mrs. H., followed the money after she gave it, making sure it was doing exactly what she hoped it would. And she realized the importance of playing her role well. “If I go to Harlem or down to Sixth Street, and I’m not dressed up or I’m not wearing my jewelry, then people feel I’m talking down to them,” Astor once told the New York Times. “People expect to see Mrs. Astor, not some dowdy old lady.”
After her reuben, Mrs. H. orders passion-fruit cheesecake for dessert. She points out where she’s considering constructing that new boutique hotel. Like Mrs. Astor, she’s all in favor of tasteful modernization. Not quite as restrained is an absolutely and absurdly huge chartered yacht docked at Forty 1˚ North today called the Aquasition, which at 147 feet is your basic floating hotel.
Docked right next to it is Mrs. H.’s boat, which appears a lot like her: quaint and delightful. It’s an old-fashioned little wood-sided cruiser, perfect for taking her grandchildren out for a spin. Or maybe double-parasailing.
Published in the November 2008 issue of Philadelphia magazine.