An American Beauty: A Novel of the Gilded Age Inspired by the True Story of Arabella Huntington Who Became the Richest Woman in the Country
A beautiful woman with a sordid past, Arabella Yarrington began her ascent into the highest levels of society from the depths of a ramshackle cabin in Alabama where she lived with her widowed mother and a brood of siblings. The Yarringtons had no money but lots of debt and going to bed hungry was the norm, not unique. Her mother saw her young daughter’s loveliness as a ticket for a better life for all of them. And so she sent Belle to work as a Champagne girl and piano player in a Richmond, Virginia, gambling parlor run by the handsome and sinister Johnny Worsham.
It was under those circumstances that she met Collis Porter Huntington who was almost 50. But Huntington was obscenely rich—a railroad tycoon—and Belle was very hungry in many ways, her family dependent on the money she could give them. Belle was also very bright. It was a fair trade—her beauty and youth for Collis’s wealth and a way out of the grinding poverty that threatens to overwhelm her family. But theirs turned out to be more than just a passing affair.
The story of Arabella Huntington’s rise would be considered unbelievably melodramatic if it weren’t for the fact that it is true.
Author Shana Abé fictionalizes the life of this fascinating woman while keeping true to the facts of the arc of her life in her latest novel, An American Beauty. Abé, an award-winning New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, delves deep into the life of this remarkable woman including her long—and well-known—affair and how it impacted New York society in the late 1800s.
And a scandal it was. Huntington inconveniently was still married and loathe to divorce. That meant waiting until his wife passed away. But Belle got the prize, becoming his wife in a marriage that lasted until he died. She would go on to marry again, to Huntington’s nephew, who was also very wealthy.
Belle was not some frivolous woman, interested only in clothes, jewels, and home design. At one point the richest woman in America, she learned about investments and securities and collected art. Many of her paintings can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Huntington Library. She also donated money to help fund the first cancer research center in the country which became the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
But the deprivations and cruelties of her early impoverished childhood never completely left her.
“Last night I had the nightmare again, the one I loathe,” Belle recorded in her diary. “The one where I have a little soft rabbit of my own, a sweet small thing nestled in my arms. Something to kiss and love and cherish.
“You cannot keep it, mother tells me, coming close from the dark. Her face is penciled in anguished, stark and stern. Another mouth to feed, in these times! Of course you cannot keep it.
“I protest that I love it, that it comforts me, but she is unrelenting. She takes the rabbit from my arms and breaks its neck.
“Collis shook me awake to tell me that I had been crying in my sleep. As he held me, I mumbled that the nightmare was nothing, that it was gone. Already forgotten.”