BOOK | THE SILVER BARON’S WIFE | DONNA BAIER STEIN
Donna Baier Stein’s fictionalised account of Elizabeth ‘Baby Doe’ McCourt Tabor promises much. Here was a woman who lived an incredible life in the latter-half of the 19th century. McCourt was born to Irish immigrant parents in Wisconsin. She escaped an ordinary working life by marrying the wealthy Protestant son of a mining magnate. It is at this point that the legend of ‘Baby Doe’ first takes shape, a tale that has inspired Hollywood and even an opera by Douglas Moore first performed in 1956.
When her husband Henry was injured, Elizabeth took his place overseeing the mine bequeathed by his father Harvey Snr. She would later divorce Henry after he was caught with prostitutes and begin an affair with the married millionaire Horace Tabor. She joined Horace for his brief career in the US Senate before the loss of his fortune drove the family into poverty. In the bitter winter of 1935 Elizabeth was found frozen to death in a bare cabin.
The rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags again tale of ‘Baby Doe’ has obvious appeal. Stein’s approach is to leverage her first person narration with a dream journal written by McCourt Tabor.
Strangely, despite the potential of such a treatment, The Silver Baron’s Wife feels like a summary of actual events. From all accounts Elizabeth was a vivacious and determined young person. Her marriage to Henry Doe was not simply ended by her husband’s philandering. He was outmatched by this passionate woman, but Donna Baier Stein presents her subject as an innocent victim.
The purplish prose of the affair with Horace Tabor reduces the actions of 26-year old woman to that of a naive teen. It is in the latter half of the novel, with the fall of the McCourt Tabor family, that Stein’s plot simply dissipates. The religious mania that Elizabeth descended into is sketched by vague stream-of-consciousness passages, stumbling to a close.
The Catholic faith of the McCourts was a strong factor in Elizabeth’s childhood and some accounts have suggested her late life transformation was an attempt at penance for the extravagance of her life in Washington.
It is a shame that any sense of a person who had experienced great material comfort turning to spiritual contemplation is not properly captured here.
Publisher: Serving House Books.