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Annejet van der Zijl, heralded as the queen of literary non-fiction in the Netherlands for writing about the lives of the country’s aristocracy and public, is making her English-language debut with a biography of socialite and princess, Allene Tew.
In An American Princess, van der Zijl turns her attention west to explore an American woman with a complex and untold past.
While working on a book about the Netherlands’ Prince Bernhard, van der Zijl became fascinated by his surrogate aunt, Allene Tew, who helped him marry into the title. Tew was a known figure in Dutch history, but there was little public knowledge of her life before she assisted with the prince’s marriage in 1936. In her research about Prince Bernhard, van der Zijl found an article in the German and Dutch newspapers titled ‘The Princess With the Record Number of Marriages.’ This headline alone made her want to dig deeper into Princess Allene’s life (and her five husbands).
Tew was raised by her pioneering family in Jamestown, New York. After her first husband’s death in 1902, Tew found herself in possession of a great deal of money. Her first and second husbands were both connected to America’s first generations of millionaires, with money gained from their fathers’ work in industries that led to the American Gilded Age. It was not until the end of her second marriage that Tew became a businesswoman.
“I think she had this pioneering kind of character, but also what struck me was the difference between American women at that time and European women,” van der Zijl says. “Because in Europe, women were supposed to not be heard. And those American women, they traveled the world, they took care of their own lives. They are lively and they dare to have an opinion.”
Part of what brought van der Zijl’s attention to this particular story was her interest in exploring American history.
“European history for me feels heavy.” says van der Zijl. “All those wars. People who are letting themselves be defined by history or by their own personal history. America, of course, is a completely different kind of energy. And the whole idea that you can be whatever you want. I am aware that it is not like that in America and there are a lot of problems, but the whole idea behind American society is that you can make something out of yourself.”
Tew’s story is one of constant reinvention. When her third husband, Anson Wood Burchard, and two children died, Tew moved on, determined to continue onward. She packed up her life in New York and moved away. Her third marriage, van der Zijl postulates, was the one of most significance to Tew, as she chose to be buried as ‘Widow of Anson Wood Burchard’ even though she married twice more after his death.
“She had come from a family of strong men who had little time or patience for self-pity or weakness,” writes van der Zij in An American Princess. “What’s more, she was American. And if there was one thing that was truly American, it was the belief that it is always possible to start again.”
Tew moved to Europe, changing her hair and shaving four years off her age. In Germany, she married Prince Henry XXXIII and managed to receive the title of princess in 1929. As An American Princess points out, it was a unique moment in time for European aristocracy. Europe was still in the middle of revolutionary turmoil. Wars had drained much of Europe of its resources and many monarchies had been removed from power. While the title still had meaning, the money of the Americans could not be matched.
These American/European marriages were relatively common. As van der Zijl says: “There was a trade-off really, a title and prestige for money. In Europe, we did not have enough money. And the American higher class didn’t have enough prestige.”
Through Tew’s story, readers discover a different side of world events. Her narrative is closely connected with the rise and fall of American wealth through the Gilded Age and the Great Depression. The rise of Nazism in Germany is viewed through the lens of Tew’s failing marriage, which was in part due to the shifting power dynamics in the country of Prince Henry’s birth. Her fifth marriage connected her with the Russian Revolution, as her husband was a guard to Tsar Nicholas II while he and his family were kept imprisoned in the Alexander Palace in St Petersburg.
An American Princess is a rich story of a fascinating woman and an exploration of how she dealt with grief. The loss of Tew’s third husband and her two children pushed her further out of her home than she could ever have dreamed as a young girl.
When asked if she had any concerns about how the story would translate for an American audience, van der Zijl replied: “No, I read a lot of American and British books. And I think we all understand each other. And a good story is a good story.”