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Senior Correspondent

A John Singer Sargent portrait of a tall, slender, elegant couple in the Metropolitan Museum of Art caught the attention of author Jean Zimmerman, who was inspired to write this biography. The portrait is on the cover of her book, which is subtitled "A Romance of the Gilded Age." 

Edith Minton, called Edie, and I.N. Phelps Stokes, known as Newton, were born in 1867 into two of the wealthiest, most distinguished New York families of the day. They matured in the fabulous era known as the Gilded Age when vast fortunes were made and servants tended families in mansions with ballrooms, libraries, pool rooms, and showplace gardens. Parties started with a late dinner. It was a time of coming-out balls, calling cards, sumptuous gowns and jewels, and afternoon teas. (The novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton capture the era perfectly.)

Edie and Newton both had many siblings, but each was “different” from their brothers and sisters. Edie was more spirited and headstrong than her siblings; Newton was a tall, gangly, serious boy. Though their paths crossed from childhood, they were still unmarried at 28 years old.

Edie had missed “coming out” in her early 20s, when the family fortunes fell on hard times. She veered even more from convention by daring to pose for a monumental statue called The Republic, the largest plaster statue ever made in America. It graced the entrance to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1891-1893, marking the 400th year of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. About this time her family fortunes rebounded, and Edie was able to afford the gowns, jewels, and invitations of the social elite again.

Edie and Newton married at 28, far later than the average wealthy young folks of the day. Even when Edie accepted his proposal, Newton was unsure that the wedding would come off, due to his fiancée’s stubborn, headstrong nature. She brooded in her bedroom for two days before rejoining the family — awkward, because Newton was living with her family at the time.

The couple was at the forefront of a new era in which women began to get at least a fraction of privileges enjoyed by men. For instance, a bride could retain property that she brought to the marriage.

In her prologue, Zimmerman states that “theirs might be the greatest love story never told.” I expected passion and intensity, but they are curiously absent; there aren't even excerpts from letters between them. The other mystery is the title of the book. The only reference to the word "fiercely" I found was that one of Edie’s brothers nicknamed her Fiercely.

The couple pursued different paths to some fame. Edie, already well known from modeling for The Republic statue, knew philanthropy from her early years and continued good works after her marriage. She served as a school district inspector and headed a league promoting civic responsibility for women.

Newton, always interested in maps and documents of Manhattan, searched worldwide to compile his enormous three-volume iconography of Manhattan Island.

But Edie’s real preoccupation was motherhood, or a lack thereof. Eventually the couple raised a child, Helen, from a gentrified English family who needed a home.

Newton’s obsessive and costly search for materials for his book took several years, most of which he spent away from home, and that nearly doomed the marriage.

The story of the famous portrait is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. Where other noteworthy women were painted by Sargent in elegant gowns, wearing jewels and surrounded by flowers, Edith seemed to have just come in from errands around town. (True.) She wore a long, flared white linen skirt and a mannish dark jacket, with a shirtwaist blouse and bow tie. One hand clutched a straw boater.

Behind her, almost in shadow, is Newton — somber and bearded in a white linen suit. The most eye-catching feature is Edie’s fresh-faced exuberance. Singer had posed her many times in silken gowns, but did not feel he had captured her personality until this outfit. The famous portrait circulated among major museums in the east until finding its home in the Metropolitan Museum.

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