“Dangerous” is probably not the first adjective that comes to mind when perusing Susan Ronald’s minutely detailed biography of Florence Gould, A Dangerous Woman. “Determined” and “devious” would be more apt descriptors, since this professional enchantress pursued her life of pleasures less by brute force than by working harder and smarter than anyone who stood in her way.
Born in San Francisco to French-immigrant parents, Florence, her sister and her mother decamped to Paris just months after the catastrophic earthquake of 1906 laid waste to the city by the bay. Except for occasional returns to the U.S., principally for business and philanthropy, Florence remained a Parisian. Her mother’s preferred child, Florence was blessed by remarkable beauty and animated by an iron determination to marry well. This she did via her marriage in 1923 to multimillionaire Frank Gould, son of the eminent robber baron Jay Gould.
The marriage vaulted Florence into the upper layers of Parisian society and insulated her from the discomforts the general population of Paris suffered as a consequence of the Great War, the Depression and the German occupation of the city during World War II. Among the many notables who enjoyed Florence’s friendship and largesse were Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin, Estée Lauder, Maurice Chevalier, Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel. Although Florence was clearly a Nazi collaborator and trader in stolen art, she remained essentially untouched after the war and ended her life as an honored contributor to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The one element missing here is the sound of Florence’s own voice. That’s because her estate denied the author access to its archives, including Florence’s letters. So while we’re told virtually everything she did and everyone she slept with (a long list), we know precious little of how she felt as she moved full sail through her momentous life.