A DANGEROUS WOMAN
American Beauty, Noted Philanthropist, Nazi Collaborator — The Life of Florence Gould
By Susan Ronald
Illustrated. 388 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $27.99.
It’s rarely good news when a biography is clogged with qualifying phrases like “it should be assumed” and “chances are” and “more than likely.” The subliminal message from author to reader is: This woman’s story is flat out amazing, but either because she was a compulsive liar, or never wrote anything down, or I was refused access to valuable archives, you’re just going to have to trust my own extrapolations and dot-connecting.
This is the case with “A Dangerous Woman,” Susan Ronald’s energetic biography of Florence Gould, who as the subtitle makes clear was an “American beauty, noted philanthropist, Nazi collaborator.” Gould was born to French parents in San Francisco in 1895. After the earthquake that demolished the city in 1906, she moved with her mother and sister to Paris. Florence yearned to be an opera singer, but she exaggerated her talent and training. “Whether she ever asked herself if she could have truly become a successful headline singer is doubtful — Florence’s monumental ego prevented that kind of self-analysis.” Or any other kind of self-analysis, come to that. Ronald had her work cut out for her.
Florence’s unimaginative mission in life was to marry a rich man, and after a failed starter marriage, she became the third wife of Frank Gould, son of the infamous millionaire railway tycoon Jay Gould. Eighteen years her senior, Frank Gould was the kind of guy who started drinking at 8 a.m. and tried to kill his second wife, the English showgirl Edith Maud Kelly. Florence remained undeterred.
The couple married on Feb. 10, 1923, and set about acquiring real estate, including swaths of Juan-les-Pins, a tiny fishing village between Nice and Cannes. Ronald is very good at detailing the development of luxury hotels and casinos on the French Rivera, and the Goulds’ efforts to create a holiday destination for the beau monde.
Florence was “an extremely talented businesswoman,” but aside from ordering her husband to buy more property, the only business she seemed to conduct was batting her eyelashes at men she deemed useful. During the German Occupation, many of these men were high-ranking Nazis. She headed up a network of so-called souris gris, or gray mice, who were “society women willing to prostitute themselves … in exchange for all sorts of favors besides cool cash.” She attended auctions of “degenerate” art, and gobbled up masterpieces the Germans didn’t want. After the war, when female collaborators were publicly shamed and arrested, Florence used her connections to avoid imprisonment. She reached out to “her old friend Joseph Kennedy,” who instructed his son Edward, then working as a war correspondent for The Associated Press, to write a sympathetic piece whitewashing her behavior.
Florence Gould’s story is glamorous, but static: Her sole ambition was to become ever richer and more admired, and in that regard, her story gives us a glimpse into the seemingly universal mind-set of the superaffluent. Wars that destroyed families and cities were viewed simply as fun killers; economic disasters were an exciting opportunity to snag mansions and masterpieces at fire sale prices.
“A Dangerous Woman” may fall short in exploring the complexities of a clearly captivating woman, but Ronald’s group portrait of people of great wealth — their expensive squabbles over inheritances and divorce settlements, their disinclination to pay taxes (Frank skipped out on paying federal income taxes for more than 30 years), their ability to manipulate people in power, all in the service of adding even more zeros to their bank accounts — is breathtaking and quite modern.