Johnson on Miller, 'Baroness of Hobcaw: The Life of Belle W. Baruch'

Author: 
Mary E. Miller
Reviewer: 
Joan Johnson

Mary E. Miller. Baroness of Hobcaw: The Life of Belle W. Baruch. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. 212 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57003-655-2.

Reviewed by Joan Johnson (Department of History, Northeastern Illinois University) Published on H-SC (March, 2008)

Heiress, Pilot, Conservationist: Belle W. Baruch and Hobcaw Barony

Belle W. Baruch was a wealthy, talented woman, the daughter of one of the wealthiest American financiers in the early twentieth century, Bernard Baruch. She befriended First Lady Edith Wilson, rode horses competitively, flew planes for pleasure, and searched for German U-boats off the coast of South Carolina. She capped her adventurous life by purchasing her father's vast coastal estate and then leaving it in a public trust for research and conservation. In this book, former journalist and current spiritual director Mary E. Miller chronicles Baruch's life, with great emphasis on the time she spent in South Carolina, living at Hobcaw Barony. Written for a general audience, the book will leave historians eager for a richer analysis of Baruch's life and times.

Belle's grandfather, Simon Baruch, immigrated from Schwersenz, near Poland, in East Prussia, to Camden, South Carolina, where Mannes Baum, from the same village, employed him in his general store. Baum also paid for Simon's medical education. After his marriage to Isabelle Wolfe, Simon practiced first in Camden before moving the family to New York City. Their second eldest son, Bernard Baruch, began working on Wall Street at age nineteen and quickly made his fortune as a trader. He would soon be advising presidents. In 1897, he married Anne Wilcox, an Episcopalian whose family resisted the marriage due to Bernard's Jewish faith. Isabel (she later officially changed her name to Belle) was born two years later and spent her childhood in New York, and on the family's 17,500 acre retreat, Hobcaw Barony, near Georgetown, South Carolina. The original 12,000-acre barony, granted to John, Lord Carteret (later Earl of Granville), had forests, swamp, ponds, oceanfront, and thousands of acres of salt marsh. Wildlife was plentiful, fishing and hunting were rich, and Belle grew to love the flora and fauna.

Belle also developed a love for horses and sailing. She sailed competitively, becoming the first woman to win the Queen of the Bay Cup on Long Island. She rode horses for much of her life, competing in international show jumping at the highest levels. Educated at the Rayson School in New York, Belle came of age in the 1920s. She cut her hair short, wore pants, danced, partied, and traveled, spending months at a time in France. She also became friends with Edith Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson, acting as her traveling companion after his death. Eventually, when arthritis cut into her riding abilities, Belle took up flying planes for enjoyment.

Belle was able to continue her extravagant lifestyle in part because her father divested much of his stock just before the market crashed in 1929. His enormous wealth paid her expenses, including her travel and staff. Her relationship with her father was strong but sometimes conflicted; both were stubborn personalities with opinions on everything. Bernard was generous (giving each of his children a gift of one million dollars on his or her twenty-first birthday), but demanding. He disapproved of Belle's drinking and requested that she wear skirts to dinner parties. Although she grumbled, she did respect his wishes and wanted to please him. Bernard also trusted Belle, and when she asked him to sell her part of Hobcaw Barony, he agreed (although it appears he then made a gift to her of the purchase price). In 1936, Belle took over management of the estate, which she ran with the help of her secretary, Lois Massey. She lived there for the rest of her life, though she continued to spend time in New York and Europe whenever possible.

When Bernard purchased the barony, African American families, descended from slaves on the plantations, remained there. Though free, they had little education or opportunity. Bernard continued to employ them at low wages to work around the barony, although he never attempted any large-scale agriculture or other moneymaking venture on the land. Bernard built larger homes for them--from two to four rooms per family--although Belle's playhouse was larger than even these bigger houses. Bernard also renovated the church, built a dispensary and a school, and hired a preacher, a visiting doctor, and a teacher. Belle seemed to have inherited many of her racial views from her father. While they saw themselves as responsible for the welfare of the blacks who lived there and believed that they treated them fairly, neither Belle nor Bernard was able to transcend their paternalistic attitude. He resented African Americans when they eventually left the barony. Former workers expressed both loyalty to the family as well as feelings of humiliation in their subservient role.

Miller also chronicles Belle's love life. Although briefly engaged to two men (one of whom was a homosexual who suggested that they marry each other to placate their families and have children), Belle spent most of her life in long-term sexual relationships with women. Miller contends that the force of Belle's personality was so strong that those who knew her, even if they disapproved of her lesbianism, ignored it to remain friends with her. Her family did not approve either. They denied or ignored it, and Belle usually felt compelled to leave her girlfriends at home when she visited or dined with her parents. Only her brother explicitly acknowledged her lifestyle and openly disapproved of it, refusing to visit her home.

Miller has provided a lively portrait of Belle, one that captures the adventurous life that she led. Historians searching for a more analytical approach to the context of her experiences, however, will be disappointed. While Miller explains the Baruchs' racial attitudes, for example, further context of the historical position of African Americans in this area of South Carolina would illuminate the choices that the Baruchs made. Moreover, while Miller tells us that Belle became a suffragist, and, like other "flappers" of her day, challenged gender conventions in the way she dressed and drank, it would be interesting to understand more clearly how Belle understood gender roles as she grew older. Did she ever experience the "social claim" to affect society in a larger way that reformer Jane Addams described? Did she wear pants instead of skirts because she rode horses and fished, because she wanted to make a statement about her sexuality, or because she wanted to challenge ideas about gender? It is not clear how much her life reflected challenges that women across the state were making, or if Belle was able to get away with unorthodox behavior because her wealth and relative isolation at Hobcaw insulated her. Finally, although it is clear that Belle loved Hobcaw Barony, her growing interest in ecology is largely left unexplored, leaving her decision to establish a trust to preserve the land for research and conservation somewhat inexplicable. Such analysis would better serve the careful research that Miller conducted in Baruch's papers and interviews with those who knew her. Still, this is a valuable introduction to a fascinating woman who gave an important gift in Hobcaw Barony to conservationists, researchers, and the people of South Carolina.

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Citation: Joan Johnson. Review of Miller, Mary E., Baroness of Hobcaw: The Life of Belle W. Baruch. H-SC, H-Net Reviews. March, 2008. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=14259

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