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Author Bibi Gaston and Columbia Writers Series director James Finley
English professor and Columbia Writers Series director James Finley welcomes author Bibi Gaston

Past Imperfect

A writer explores her family's hidden history

When Bibi Gaston’s father passed away about five years ago, she wanted to find an appropriate place to spread his ashes. Eventually, the landscape architect decided to travel from her home in The Dalles, Oregon, to a sweeping estate in Pennsylvania that her father had visited with her and that she vaguely knew had some loose connection to her family. Afterward, she went to her aunt and uncle’s house to spend the night. When she awoke, there was a box at the end of her bed. In it, she discovered more than 1,500 pages of letters and diary entries that had belonged to her grandmother, Rosamond Gaston, about whom Bibi Gaston knew very little.

“I started reading, and I quickly realized, ‘Oh my God, there’s ‘Eleanor’—and that means Eleanor Roosevelt!’” Gaston said during her appearance in Clark College’s Columbia Writers Series in Foster Auditorium on Tuesday, February 15. “There’s ‘Franklin,’ and it’s Franklin Roosevelt.”

Bibi Gaston speaking at the podiumThe more Gaston researched her grandmother, the more she found herself fascinated by her ancestor’s glamorous and ultimately tragic life. Born into one of the country’s most illustrious political families and dubbed “the loveliest woman in America” at age 23, Rosamond Pinchot was an acclaimed actress, socialite, and sportswoman. For much of the 1920s and 1930s, she was the toast of Broadway and Hollywood.

Yet despite Rosamond’s accomplishments and fame, Gaston had been told virtually nothing about her by her father, nor anything about Rosamond’s suicide at the age of 33. Only with her father’s death did Gaston begin to learn about her illustrious family history. (That palatial estate in Pennsylvania? It was her great-uncle’s home.)

“It’s a great lesson to all of us to ask our questionswhile our parents are still alive,” Gaston said.

The results of Gaston’s research became The Loveliest Woman in America: A Tragic Actress, Her Lost Diaries, and Her Granddaughter’s Search for Home, which was a finalist for the 2009 Oregon Book Awards and is currently being reprinted in paperback by Harper Collins.

Gaston spoke about her grandmother’s glamorous and tempestuous life, illustrating her narrative with family photos, some of which included some of the most famous politicians, directors, and actorss of Rosamond’s time. “It’s a microcosm of the journey of our country,” Gaston said of her book. “Here was
this family with incredible wealth and gifts, and it just crumbled.”

Gaston is currently working on a second book, this one based on retracing her parents’ travels through Morocco.

The Columbia Writers Series has been a part of Clark College since 1988, bringing local, national and international authors to the college throughout the year. Writers who have visited Clark College through the series include Ursula Le Guin, Donald Justice, Sherman Alexie, Marvin Bell, William Stafford, Jamaica Kincaid, Roy Blount Jr., Gerald Stern, Carolyn Forché, Diane Wakoski, Monica Drake and retired Clark faculty member Larry Weirather.

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