Whirling through her Rolodex, she wangled invitations and free press tickets to $1,000-a-ticket dinners where Astor's intimates gathered. "In every room there was someone I knew," she explains. She ran into Tom Brokaw, who put her in touch with Mrs. Astor's friend Nancy Reagan, who told her, "Brooke was a huge flirt." In the drawing rooms of Park Avenue, Gordon appeared smiling, poised, pantsuited, ready to listen and take note. In January 2008, after a year of tireless letter writing and socializing, she at last persuaded Annette de la Renta to meet with her. "People who weren't returning my phone calls would change their minds about talking to me if they were introduced by someone they knew," she says. "They would think, 'Maybe I should talk to this lady.'"

Once people started talking, they couldn't stop. "They wanted to know what people were saying, because they weren't talking to anybody," says Gordon. "They weren't speaking to each other, but they were talking to me—a few people began to joke that I had become their therapist."

Over two years, Gordon obtained astonishingly frank, often heartbreaking interviews with 230 of Mrs. Astor's intimates, among them Viscount William Astor, a cousin. He spoke about his relative's 100th birthday party, where she chose to arrive on his arm, snubbing her son and his third wife, whom he described as the "ultimate coldhearted couple out of an Agatha Christie plot."

Gordon managed to capture it all. "I love being a reporter," she says. "This was so much fun—the chase, the unfolding, were so exciting." Since finishing the book, she's returned to her old journalistic habits, calling and e-mailing to arrange interviews—no thank-you notes required.


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