Imagine a world of Gatsby-esque glamor, opulence, and cultural prestige, of exclusive parties and elegant dinners, of literary luminaries including Somerset Maugham, Daphne du Maurier, Irving Stone, and Theodore Roethke, of Manhattan townhouses and country estates. This is a world where children are raised by nannies, tutors, chauffeurs, gardeners, butlers, maids, and assorted staff, sent off to private schools—and largely ignored by their parents.
Publishing magnate Nelson Doubleday’s daughter, Neltje, was raised to assume her place as a society matron. But beneath a seemingly idyllic childhood, darker currents ran: a colorful but alcoholic father whose absences left holes, a mother incapable of love, a family divided by money and power struggles, and a secret that drove the young woman into emotional isolation.
North of Crazy is her story—written with the same fierce passion, wit, and emotion that drove her off the conventional path to reconstruct her life from base zero. She became an artist, cattle rancher, and entrepreneur.
Neltje, an artist, philanthropist and member of the Doubleday publishing family (her full name is Neltje Doubleday Kings), remembers a full life, if not a well-examined one. Neltje and her brother, Nelson, were born into a patriarchal family of alcoholics and raised by a succession of caretakers. She makes her escape by marrying young, only to find herself in an unhappy, emotionally distant marriage. After 12 years, she leaves for Wyoming with her married lover and her two children (whom she had with her husband, John Turner Sargent, president and CEO of Doubleday, 1963 1978) to take advantage of the state's divorce laws, and she ends up staying, trading the life of an Eastern socialite for that of a Western artist. Like Sallie Bingham, Neltje develops feminist consciousness in parallel with her attempts to wrest control over a trust that treated her as a second-class citizen; when she describes these struggles, her emotions are raw. She glosses lightly over other events (such as being molested by a family acquaintance at age nine), spending more time describing her clothing for the march in Selma in 1965 than on the legacy of her family's racism. She follows her whims and her lovers, but her often repeated fears over imitating her mother's self-absorbed parenting are superficial. "My doubts," she says, "resurfaced and vanished." She was once told that her abstract paintings made people uncomfortable; "they scared me, too," she writes, "they were so in-your-face painful." Unfortunately, she's less successful at describing that pain with words.