Diliberto, Gioia 1950-

views updated

Diliberto, Gioia 1950-


Given name is pronounced "Joy-a"; born June 7, 1950, in Washington, DC; daughter of Joseph (an engineer) and Josephine (a teacher) Diliberto; married Richard Babcock (an editor and writer), September 13, 1980; children: Joseph. Education: DePauw University, B.A., 1972; University of Maryland, M.A., 1975.


Home—New York, NY. Agent—Rhoda Weyr, 216 Vance St., Chapel Hill, NC 27514.


Assistant editor of People, New York, NY; freelance writer.


Debutante: The Story of Brenda Frazier, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.

Hadley, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1992.

A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams, Scribner (New York, NY), 1999.

I Am Madame X (novel), Scribner (New York, NY), 2003.

The Collection (novel), Scribner (New York, NY), 2007.


In Debutante: The Story of Brenda Frazier Gioia Diliberto chronicles the life of Brenda Diana Duff Frazier, a grain and banking heiress who soared to celebrity during the 1930s, when a Depression-weary America fell captive to her youth and glamour. She appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1938 as debutante of the year, and her young adulthood was celebrated in words and pictures and followed in the tabloid press and New York gossip columns. As she faded from the public eye by World War II, Frazier was unable to come to terms with her new anonymity; she grew reclusive, became addicted to pills and alcohol, and was ravaged by anorexia, bulimia, and multiple suicide attempts. The millionairess finally succumbed, alone, to bone cancer at the age of sixty.

Reviewing Debutante for People, Margot Dougherty described it as "poignant … a fascinating study of a social casualty." Critic Judy Bass wrote in the Chicago Tribune that "celebrity is sadly ephemeral and bedevils those who find it indispensable." The reviewer continued, "Diliberto has transmitted a resounding and pertinent moral message encased in a haunting narrative." Washington Post Book World reviewer Jonathan Yardley, too, called the book "a cautionary tale about the price that meaningless celebrity ultimately exacts"; still, the critic found it "difficult to work up as much pity as one might like for a woman who had too little strength of character to order her own life and therefore placed her fate in the hands of others." He felt that the allure of this "poor-little-rich-girl" drama is, instead, "the comforting reminder that for the rich as for the poor, in the end it is ashes to ashes and dust to dust." Remarked New York Times Book Review writer Leo Braudy: "The book primarily serves the democratic desire for simultaneous admiration of and revenge on those who have done nothing to merit their money and fame"; he also judged Frazier "a person who has nothing to recommend her." "Both the public and the private aspects of Brenda's story are basically trivial," he decided. "In the history of media fame, Brenda Frazier isn't even one of the more interesting victims."

But whatever their opinions of Frazier's life, reviewers had little but praise for the socialite's biographer. "Diliberto has found the right tone for her book—reasonably sympathetic, a little astringent, free from any trace of gloating," observed John Gross in the New York Times. "She has also conducted some very thorough research, including more than 300 interviews, and she shows commendable skill in piecing together the whole sad story." The critic also admired Diliberto's "lively account of the debutante industry as it had taken shape by the 1930's, and of the journalists who serviced it." Yardley similarly related that "her book is sympathetic, straightforward and unexploitive…. She has resisted the temptation to write a sensational book." Detailing how the author "straightforwardly weaves myriad bits of information culled from newspaper clips, Brenda's diary, and interviews—including one with the victim's daughter," Dougherty remarked: "Most poignant of all are Brenda's own reflections, scattered throughout."

Diliberto's next biographical subject was Hadley Richardson, the St. Louis woman who met Ernest Hemingway in 1920 and became his first wife. In Hadley, Diliberto focuses mainly on her subject's life with the iconic writer, though, as New York Times Book Review contributor Julia Just pointed out, the marriage endured for only five years and Hadley went on to live a long life after her divorce. In Just's assessment, the biography convincingly shows how Hemingway drew on his relationship with Hadley in his writing, but it does not reveal enough about the inner life of Hadley herself.

A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams recounts the life and achievements of the social reformer and activist who founded Chicago's Hull House in 1899. Addams (1860-1935) was born into a wealthy and Puritanical family in rural Illinois. She excelled in school and hoped to study medicine, but after her father's sudden death she suffered a debilitating back ailment and an emotional collapse. While traveling in England she was shocked at the slum conditions she saw in London's East End, and she returned to Chicago with a sense of mission toward the American poor. With her close friend Ellen Gates she created Hull House, one of the country's first settlement houses; it offered kindergarten classes, night classes for adults, clubs, a community kitchen, a gymnasium and swimming pool, and many other social services to poor residents of the city. Hull House was, according to New York Times Book Review contributor Michael Kazin, "the most far-reaching experiment in social reform American cities had ever seen."

Kazin praised the "finely attuned historical ear" with which Diliberto writes about Addams in A Useful Woman, pointing out that though the biography does not uncover new material about the reformer, it is nevertheless "an engaging guide to the progress of this troubled, compassionate pilgrim." The critic respected Diliberto's sensitive analysis of Addams's feelings for Mary Rozet Smith but found her insights into Addams's urge to reform the world less satisfying.

Continuing her interest in strong female characters, Diliberto turned to fiction in I Am Madame X. Inspired by John Singer Sargent's provocative painting "Portrait of Madame X," which shocked the Paris art establishment when it was shown there in 1884, the novel imagines the life of Sargent's model, Virginie Gatreau. In Diliberto's story, Virginie flees Louisiana at age six during the Civil War and settles in Paris with her mother and sister, eventually becoming a professional beauty whose life revolves around affairs, scandals, and an unhappy marriage. A writer for Publishers Weekly described the book as a "fast scroll through history" that evokes the era but leaves Virginie only a shadowy character. Lisa Porter, writing on the Book Page Web site, found Diliberto's Virginie an "unabashed, powerful woman" whose story is told in a "stunning work of fiction."

Fashion designer Coco Chanel was the inspiration for Diliberto's second novel, The Collection, which follows the adventures of Isabelle Varlet, a fictional seamstress who leaves her French village after World War I to find work in Paris. Reviewers enjoyed the book's wealth of detail and inside glimpses into the world of couture. As Washington Post Book World reviewer Caroline Weber observed, one of the book's particular pleasures is its "meticulously researched account of life in a Parisian atelier: the complicated pecking order, the nasty internecine rivalries, the technical intricacies of assembling couture garments, the at times overwhelming pressures of creating beauty on a deadline." Diliberto, Weber added, "seems to have a genuine love for clothing as craft. She is at her best not so much when providing details of Chanel's actual styles … as when emphasizing the workmanship that gave them their allure." While a contributor to Publishers Weekly considered Isabelle a rather bland character, the reviewer observed that "each moment [Chanel]'s on the page is sheer pleasure."



Booklist, November 15, 2002, Meredith Parets, review of I Am Madame X, p. 571; July 1, 2007, Elizabeth Dickie, review of The Collection, p. 25.

Chicago Tribune, May 15, 1987, Judy Bass, review of Debutante: The Story of Brenda Frazier.

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2002, review of I Am Madame X, p. 1715; June 15, 2007, review of The Collection.

Library Journal, November 1, 2002, Caroline Hallsworth, review of I Am Madame X, p. 128; July 1, 2007, Amy Ford, review of The Collection, p. 74.

New Yorker, September 1, 2003, "Rated X," p. 15.

New York Times, May 15, 1987, John Gross, review of Debutante.

New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1987, Leo Braudy, review of Debutante; April 12, 1992, Julia Just, review of Hadley; September 26, 1999, Michael Kazin, "Addams Family Values."

People, August 3, 1987, Margot Dougherty, review of Debutante.

Publishers Weekly, November 18, 2002, review of I Am Madame X, p. 40; June 18, 2007, review of The Collection, p. 31.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 30, 2003, Peter S. Temes, review of I Am Madame X.

Washington Post Book World, June 17, 1987, Jonathan Yardley, review of Debutante; November 18, 2007, Caroline Weber, "Madame Chic," p. 7.


BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (March 3, 2008), Lisa Porter, review of I Am Madame X.

Daily Home Online,http://www.dailyhome.com/ (March 3, 2008), Marianne Moates, review of I Am Madame X.

Gioia Diliberto Home page,http://www.gioiadiliberto.com (March 3, 2008).