This book left me feeling strangely uplifted. It describes the life of a unique woman who started out with very few resources. She was subjected to harms and hurts and made choices and chose paths that turned out to be brilliant and stupid. The cultural expectations worked against her most of the time and she suffered greatly because society was one of the challenges she was up against. Hannah, like most of us, wanted security. She found it. Ultimately, she lived her life the way she wanted. She was comfortable with who she was and how she got there. She was at peace with herself. How many people can say that? I very much recommend this book. Not because we should live our lives as Hannah lived hers, but because her story has lessons for us today.— Holly Hendricks
The author of the award-winning Sally Hemings now brings to life Hannah Elias, one of the richest black women in America in the early 1900s, in this mesmerizing novel swirling with atmosphere and steeped in history.
A murder and a case of mistaken identity brings the police to Hannah Elias’ glitzy, five-story, twenty-room mansion on Central Park West. This is the beginning of an odyssey that moves back and forth in time and reveals the dangerous secrets of a mysterious woman, the fortune she built, and her precipitous fall.
Born in Philadelphia in the late 1800s, Hannah Elias has done things she’s not proud of to survive. Shedding her past, Hannah slips on a new identity before relocating to New York City to become as rich as a robber baron. Hannah quietly invests in the stock market, growing her fortune with the help of businessmen. As the money pours in, Hannah hides her millions across 29 banks. Finally attaining the life she’s always dreamed, she buys a mansion on the Upper West Side and decorates it in gold and first-rate décor, inspired by her idol Cleopatra.
The unsolved murder turns Hannah’s world upside-down and threatens to destroy everything she’s built. When the truth of her identity is uncovered, thousands of protestors gather in front of her stately home. Hounded by the salacious press, the very private Mrs. Elias finds herself alone, ensnared in a scandalous trial, and accused of stealing her fortune from whites.
Packed with glamour, suspense, and drama, populated with real-life luminaries from the period, The Great Mrs. Elias brings a fascinating woman and the age she embodied to glorious, tragic life.
About the Author
Barbara Chase-Riboud is the bestselling author one biography and six historical novels, including the internationally celebrated Sally Hemings. A distinguished poet who has published three collections, she won the Carl Sandburg Poetry Prize for Best American Poet for her second collection, Portrait of a Nude Women as Cleopatra, and her first collection, Memphis & Peking was edited by Toni Morrison and released to critical acclaim. She is also a celebrated artist, and the recipient of many fellowships and prizes. She was the first African American graduate of the School of Design and Architecture at Yale University in 1960, and received a knighthood in Arts and Letters from the French government in 1996. She lives in Paris, Rome, and New York.
“Peppered with such historical figures as Lillian Russell, Granville Woods, and J.P. Morgan, and enlivened with a showstopping courtroom debacle, Chase-Riboud's biographical novel is a randy, rollicking tour of Gilded Age excess, racism, and misogyny.” — Booklist (starred review)
“In all her writing, Barbara Chase-Riboud displays an extraordinary talent for reclaiming history, passionately bringing to life characters in scenarios that readers will never forget.” — Margaret Busby, editor of New Daughters of Africa
“Hannah Elias—one of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s five historical but invisible women of color—emerges from this page-turning novel with a burning ambition propelling her from oblivion to capitalist-level wealth. Chase-Riboud dresses every single character meticulously, practically endowing clothing its own rewarding role in this intriguing novel.” — Nell Painter, author of Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over
"The Great Mrs. Elias is an entertaining, thoughtful and craftful novel that captures the reader from the first page. Barbara Chase-Riboud once again has penned a masterpiece that will enlighten and embrace the imagination of readers throughout the ages and throughout the world." — Zane, author of New York Times bestseller Addicted
“Chase-Riboud shines a literary floodlight on Hannah Elias, one of the richest Black women we never heard of, until now. Whispered secrets, historic intrigue, dashing characters, intimate details and opulent language all converge masterfully. This book’s pages demand to be breathlessly turned until the end.” — Tricia Elam Walker, author of Nana Akua Goes to School
“Barbara Chase-Riboud, the preeminent practitioner of African-American historical fiction, closes a sextet of novels based on invisible black women stronger than she began, and she began with Sally Hemmings. Love, murder, race, class, and memory collide in a mesmerizing swirl of licit and illicit desire that was old New York in the age of the robber barons across the pages of The Great Mrs. Elias. This is a delicious read that lives in profound conversation with Wharton's House of Mirth, Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby, and the earlier titles in this provocative series.” — Alice Randall, author of Black Bottom Saints
“There's a temptation to think that a life like Hannah Bessie Elias's writes itself. She was born poor, pretty and so light skinned she could (and eventually would sometimes) pass for White, in an era when Black people were figuring out how to live free in a post-Civil War America. And she rose to become one of the wealthiest Black women of her day, leveraging her earnings as a sex worker to make wise real estate investments. Sex (!), race, gender, and class are all separate lenses, the author could have chosen to filter Elias's story through, and any of them would have been powerful. But in her riveting novelization of this fascinating historic figure, Chase-Riboud chooses to widen the aperture and let all the darkness and light in. The result is a stunning portrait, developed with artistry, compassion and depth, of a woman and a society you don't want to stop staring at--one that offers a new revelation every time you look.” — Nana Brew-Hammond, author of Powder Necklace
“A 'pièce de résistance' of Gilded Age storytelling.” — History Novel Society