This is a transcription of A Sneaky Socialite and Two New Books — 07 July 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a novel that’s just the kind of book I think of when I think ‘summer read.’
David: A new book from one of my favorite authors of this season.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: Imagine if a haunted house and a roller coaster were mashed together and then turned into a novel. That’s what author Riley Sager’s books are like. They’re a thrill ride from beginning to end with twists, turns, and interesting characters, and they leave you kind of breathless when they’re over.
Melissa: He’s written seven novels with fun, spooky setups, and they tend to be released just in time for summer. He’s done a riff on the Amityville Horror story, a take on the final girl trope, and a gothic twist on Manhattan apartment life.
Melissa: His new book The Only One Left is inspired by the legend of Lizzie Borden. In case you’re not familiar… in 1892, an American girl named Lizzie Borden was accused of killing her father and stepmother with an axe. She was acquitted, but she never lost her creepy reputation. There’s even a creepy rhyme about her that goes: Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.
Melissa: In this novel, it’s 1983, and a home caregiver named Kit has been hired to tend to Lenora Hope. Lenora is 71 years old and lives in her family’s isolated mansion on a cliff overlooking the sea in Maine. She’s frail and paralyzed and can’t speak… and when she was 17, back in 1929, she was accused of brutally murdering her father, mother, and sister. As Kit, the caregiver, gets to know the elderly lady, secrets about both of them are revealed in spectacular fashion. One of my favorite parts is that Riley Sager created a spooky rhyme about Lenora’s crimes. It’s so good.
Melissa: I devoured this book in about 36 hours. It’s SUPER fun with plot twists that are surprising but also are well-earned and make perfect sense when they’re revealed. Toward the last third of the book, I felt like I was speeding toward the ending — and the ending is AWESOME. This, to me, is a perfect summer read. It’s The Only One Left by Riley Sager.
David: My book is The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession” by Michael Finkel. Michael Finkel is the author of The Stranger in the Woods, a book I talked about in our Maine episode. That’s about the man who lived alone in the woods for 27 years. … For the record, I’m still not over that premise. I would have picked up Michael Finkel’s next book based on how much I enjoyed that. But also.
David: The Art Thief is about another man living far outside the norm. His name is Stéphane Breitwieser. According to many, he’s the most prolific art thief alive, and maybe ever. And, unlike most art thieves, Breitwieser was not in it for the money; he did it for the love. He has stolen over 300 objects — and then he put those in a pair of secret rooms at his home — so he could look at them. And his career as an art thief was going just fine, until one day, in a solid act of hubris, it all came tumbling down.
David: The New Yorker said this book, quote: ‘like its title character, has confidence, elan, and a great sense of timing.’ I’m very excited to see what this is all about. It just came out last week. It’s The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel.
David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
David: Today I want to tell you the sad, somewhat gothic story of Ida Wood. Ida was a New York socialite in the mid-1800s. She came to New York City in 1857 at 19 as Ida Mayfield. She quickly became interested in Benjamin Wood, who, at the time, ran a newspaper. At the time she met him, Benjamin was married. That did not stop Ida from pursuing him.
David: In May of 1857 — a few months after she got to town — she wrote him a letter that said:
‘Having heard of you often // I venture to address you // from hearing a young lady, one of your ‘former loves,’ speak of you. She says you are fond of ‘new faces.’ I fancy that as I am new in the city // and in ‘affairs de coeur’ // that I might contract an agreeable intimacy with you; of as long duration as you saw fit to have it. I believe that I am not extremely bad looking, nor disagreeable. Perhaps not quite as handsome as the lady with you at present, but I know a little more, // and there is an old saying — ‘Knowledge is power.’ If you would wish an interview // address a letter to No. Broadway P O New York stating what time we may meet.’
David: Which was pretty hot for 1857. They met. Ida was, in fact, not extremely bad looking. Many of the descriptions of her talk about her ivory skin, beautiful profile, and sad but mysterious eyes. She introduced herself as the daughter of a Louisiana sugar baron and a descendant of an Earl. Benjamin was entranced, and Ida became his mistress — for the next ten years. Until his wife died. And then Ida and Benjamin married. At the time, people looked the other way about their daughter, Emma, who was born before they wed.
David: Ida led a high-octane life for the next thirty years or so. Benjamin was elected to Congress. His brother became mayor of New York. Ida hosted fancy balls and took long trips to Europe. She wore the most fashionable clothes and jewelry. She had access to New York’s social and cultural elite. She danced with the Prince of Wales. She met Abraham Lincoln. And she went for a carriage ride with Benjamin every afternoon around four o’clock along Fifth Avenue.
David: At one point, she even bought an interest in his paper. She became one of the first female publishers of a large metropolitan newspaper. And she was not just the money. She involved herself in the day-to-day operations and wrote many editorials. And all was well until about 1900, when Benjamin died.
David: And then two things happened. First, she inherited his money. It was about a million dollars, or 21 million in today’s money. And second, it all got to be too much. In 1907, at the age of 69, Ida declared she was ‘tired of everything.’ She checked into a suite at the Herald Square Hotel with her sister Mary, and her daughter Emma. And they erased themselves from the narrative. The three of them lived there as recluses for many, many years – rarely, if ever, leaving the room. The daughter died in a hospital in 1928, but that was the first time she had been out of the hotel in years. She was 71. And sister Mary died in the room in 1931, 24 years after they had all checked in.
David: When Mary died, the hotel physician called his lawyer friend to investigate the scene. The lawyer, Morgan O’Brien Jr., arrived and spoke to the hotel manager. The manager said he’d never seen the women. O’Brien talked to the floor maid. She said — in the years she’d been there — she’d only twice slipped the ladies clean sheets and towels. But the bellhop — the bellhop said that for many years, he knocked on their door once a day. The women always requested the same items: evaporated milk, crackers, coffee, bacon, and eggs. And occasionally, they’d ask for fish, snuff, Havana cigars, and jars of petroleum jelly. Ida always tipped a dime, saying it was the last money she had in the world.
David: Ida died the following year. She had been lying to the bellhop; she had a good deal of money. They turned up three-quarters of a million dollars in bills in her room. They found a diamond necklace in an old box of crackers. She had 54 trunks of stuff in the hotel’s basement and an uptown warehouse. Investigators found lace and gowns, tiaras, gold certificates, and a letter to her husband from Charles Dickens.
David: There was also a will in which Ida left her estate to her daughter and her sister, who were both dead. There was a court case about the wealth she had left behind. Eleven hundred people made a claim to her fortune, producing all kinds of details about how they were relatives. And then we get to the third and final act of Ida Wood’s life. She was not who she claimed to be. She was born Ellen Walsh. There was no Louisiana plantation in her life. She was not the descendant of an Earl. Her parents were immigrants from Ireland. Her dad was a peddler. Ida had never even been to New Orleans. And Emma — the woman Benjamin and Ida had claimed was their daughter — was Ida’s sister.
David: To this day, it is unclear how much Benjamin knew about his wife. Whether he was in on the story and didn’t care and took it to his grave, or if he was married to a woman for 33 years without knowing who she really was. In any case, she had been dead for six months before her story caught up with her.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more about the books we discussed and the amazing Ida Wood.
David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Une Soirée by Jean Béraud.
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