Portrait of Another Lady: The Latest Grande Dame Bio

No Regrets: The Life of Marietta Tree , by Caroline Seebohm. Simon & Schuster, 447 pages, $27.50.

If we are to believe book publishers, American readers are lining up at bookstores, wallets in hand, ravenously hungry for fat books about ladies from high society; whether the women scrambled there by romantic liaison or marriage or were born into monogrammed sheets doesn’t seem to matter. In the past four years, there have been memoirs, autobiographies, biographies, social histories, reminiscences and other literary exercises about Slim Keith, Pamela Harriman, Evalyn Walsh McLean, Clare Boothe Luce and the Cushing sisters, three Massachusetts girls who collected among them the choice surnames Mortimer, Paley, Roosevelt, Whitney and Astor. (Coming soon: biographies of Isabella Stewart Gardner and Lady Caroline Blackwood.) Sure, they all seemed to be married to Leland Hayward at one time or another.

Sure, some of them are worth the pulp, the printing, the binding. But should we care each and every time a woman is born into a well-positioned family and then proves how down-to-earth she is by (a) holding down a job or (b) doing something more than picking out china patterns for the rest of her natural life? For, in fact, behaving like the rest of humanity? And does Vanity Fair have to excerpt each and every one? The latest offering is a 447-pager titled No Regrets: The Life of Marietta Tree , a fleetingly intriguing but ultimately frustrating biography of the American socialite and political activist.

Marietta Tree was born in 1917 into what author Caroline Seebohm describes as the famously frigid Peabody family of Massachusetts. Ms. Seebohm cites a 1934 cartoon in The New Yorker that pretty much sums up the genes: “I never knew your mother very well, son,” says a father. “You see, she was a Peabody.” Marietta’s grandfather was the very upright headmaster of Groton, and her father, Malcolm, an Episcopalian minister and a withdrawn parent. As a child, she was taught the golden social rule of her clan: Never use the “d” words-death, disease or domestics-in conversation. Unfortunately, because Marietta’s parents spent so much time ministering to their Philadelphia Main Line flock, the children found the parental warmth and affection they lacked in the very same “domestics” they weren’t allowed to mention in conversation. Ms. Seebohm-also the author of The Man Who Was ‘Vogue': The Life and Times of Condé Nast and other, fluffier fare like English Country and The Last Romantics -doesn’t throw a lot of Freudian kerfuffle into the mix, but it might have been useful in interpreting Marietta’s insecurities and later lack of bonding with her siblings, children and husbands.

After a classic East Coast WASP upbringing (boarding schools, debutante parties, Maine summers, a year of finishing in Italy), Marietta married Desmond FitzGerald (who later helped to found the C.I.A.) and gave birth to Frances FitzGerald, who went on to become a distinguished war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for her book about Vietnam, Fire in the Lake ). But Desie went off to World War II, and the striking, tall Marietta-in between her job as a researcher at Life and a hyperactive social life that involved Rockefellers, Warburgs, Paleys and full-time cooks and nannies-fell in love with John Huston. When the hapless Desie returned, he discovered that not only had his beautiful young wife given away some of his clothes, but she announced that she was leaving him for the director John Huston. Desie suggested counseling. She conceded. He asked her to quit her job. She resisted. They struggled along for a few months until she did eventually leave him, though not for Huston. Ronald Tree was a conservative Anglo-American and former Conservative member of the English Parliament who presided over a huge estate Over There. Needless to say, Tree was loaded.

Marietta married Ronald and his millions and moved, with 4-year-old daughter Frankie in tow, to England to become the chatelaine of Ditchley, a drafty, formal place that had been arduously decorated by his former wife of 25 years, Nancy. Marietta and Ronald had a child, Penelope, who grew up to be a splashy teenage supermodel.

Eventually, in between dinners with Winston Churchill and Princess Margaret and failed attempts at fitting in with conservative British society, Marietta lost interest in Ronald. At heart, she was a born-and-bred Yankee limousine liberal; she encouraged Ronald to move back to New York. They kept a fully staffed estate in Barbados and a town house on East 79th Street. She began an affair with Adlai Stevenson while working on his unsuccessful Presidential bids, a relationship for which she was rewarded with the position of U.S. delegate to the Human Rights Commission for the United Nations in 1961. She campaigned for civil rights; even her upright mother sat in protest at segregated lunch counters in the South and was arrested. (Marietta called the Governor of Florida and asked him to treat her mother nicely in prison.)

Ronald, desperate for affection after his wife snubbed him so publicly for so long with her paramour Stevenson, took up with a young man, Michael Teague, and traveled with him around the world. Marietta and Ronald’s marriage mended slightly only after Stevenson’s death. After Ronald’s death in 1976, she became intimate with Richard Llewelyn-Davies, an architect and urban planner, and worked closely with him until her death from cancer in 1991.

Because of her sparkling personality and wit-and doubtless because she was a presentable, intelligent woman-she was in heavy demand as a board member (serving CBS and Pan American Airways, among others) and was a consulting editor for Architectural Digest ; Ms. Seebohm tries to use these positions as evidence of Marietta’s status as a sort of protofeminist. She doesn’t succeed. What set Marietta apart from other women of her era and class is that she did work-as a researcher, as a U.N. delegate, as an urban planner, but that just isn’t enough anymore. Much like Pamela Harriman, with whom she was often compared, Marietta defined herself too often through the men she was intimate with, slipping without question into the politically conservative English landscape with Conservative Ronald, or dabbling in politics with the liberal Stevenson.

Ms. Seebohm’s dutiful prose sometimes wanders off into a la-la land of metaphors and similes. For example, she writes about Marietta’s affair with Stevenson that Marietta “stocked the Stevenson refrigerator, organized his social life. Thus did domesticity arise like a soufflé between them, embracing them in its frothy warmth.” But, gee, who will take the soufflé out of the oven , you might think to yourself as you read, and when will it fall?

Ms. Seebohm informs us in her breathless introduction that Marietta’s life was about sex, class and death. But she writes often throughout the book that Marietta was not a sensual person, that because of her chilly upbringing, she was not comfortable being sexual or emotional, even in love letters. As far as the issue of class goes, it was a nonissue: Marietta was born into the stolid bulwarks of the upper middle class, a roost from which she did not budge during her lifetime. And she died alone, refusing to reveal the serious nature of her cancer to anyone: “She was not going to go out lying on pink, fluffed up pillows, receiving the bouquets of acquaintances and the tears of relatives and old beaux. Such sentiment was not for her.” Her death was not stoic so much as it was sad.

But the book’s biggest problem is its title. No Regrets ? Marietta was a woman who rued not spending enough time with her children; who never received enough affection from her parents; who never married the man-or men-we are told she truly loved; whose second husband, literally starving for her love, carried on a public relationship with a man; who traveled incessantly during her later life to ward off fears of stagnancy; who was too ashamed to reveal, even to her closest friends, the true gravity of her final illness. If Ms. Seebohm were honest with her readers, she might have called this book With Regrets . But that probably doesn’t sell very many Vanity Fair excerpts.