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What I’m Reading: Clare Sauro

July 16, 2013

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Clare Sauro, curator of the Drexel Historic Costume Collection, has long been interested in the influence of popular culture on fashion, especially during the early 1900s. That’s why the assistant teaching professor who specializes in the history of the late 19th and early 20th century dress chose “Gold Digger: The Outrageous Life and Times of Peggy Hopkins Joyce” by Constance Rosenblum for her mid-summer read. 

Why did you choose this book?

This book is a biography of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, a now-forgotten celebrity of the late teens and early ’20s. She was famous for her beauty, multiple love affairs and marriages and spectacular collection of jewels and furs. She had no real discernible talent but was a staple of the gossip columns of the period. She was allegedly the inspiration for the character of Lorelei Lee in “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” (one of my favorite books!) and was mentioned in lyrics by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. She was strongly identified with the “jazz age” culture of the ’20s—her celebrity waned once the Depression hit. The influence of popular culture on fashion during the 1910s to 1930s has long been an interest of mine—I thought this book sounded like the perfect hybrid between research and a trashy summer read!

What do you find particularly enjoyable/important about this book?

The author has relied heavily on primary sources—press clippings, letters and diary entries—for her research. This makes the book very entertaining (so far) and very evocative of the period—the speech patterns, etc., are all intact. This makes it a fun and easy read. The parallels between Peggy Hopkins Joyce and today’s reality TV celebrities like Kim Kardashian are very interesting—she managed to parlay her beauty and sexual notoriety into a successful stage and film career complete with fashion and cosmetic endorsements. The book really highlights how much history repeats itself and how fickle fame is.

So far, has it lived up to your expectations?

Yes and no. I love the reliance on those primary sources but I have seen a few misspelled names and other minor flubs that make me a little wary of trusting the information inside. It sometimes feels a little repetitive (Another husband! Another affair! More diamonds!) and I think a little more insight into celebrity culture during the ’20s would be helpful to the reader. I can fill in the blanks but Rosenblum is assuming a lot.

Is there a quote or passage that you find particularly interesting?

No particular quote but I think it is fascinating that she was the original owner of the 127-carat “Portuguese Diamond” now in the collection of the Smithsonian. She had it fashioned into a dramatic choker-style necklace by jewelers Black, Starr & Frost in 1928. Despite her gold-digger reputation, she paid for it herself by trading in a pearl necklace worth $350,000 and an additional $23,000 in cash.