At the turn of the twentieth century, Amélie Rives was one of the most famous women in America. A member of Virginia’s First Families—and granddaughter of a U.S. senator, she belonged to the southern aristocracy. Considered one of the great beauties of her time, Rives leveraged both her connections and her own considerable talent to become a best-selling author and then married into the wealthy Astor family. As Jane Turner Censer makes clear in this long overdue biography, Rives’s personal story—filled with enormous triumphs and calamities—was, if anything, as fascinating as her art.

Rives’s most famous novel, The Quick or the Dead?, published when she was just twenty-four, was a sensation in its time, but soon she began to grapple with marital woes, an addiction to morphine and cocaine, and reams of unfavorable press coverage. Dramatically she took control of her celebrity: she divorced her husband and married a Russian prince, broke free of addiction, and changed her image to that of a European princess. Rives then regained her writing career, including plays produced on Broadway.

Censer draws from Rives’s early diaries, correspondence, and publications as well as the massive newspaper coverage she received during her lifetime to provide insights into the limits imposed on and actions taken by ambitious, elite young women in the late nineteenth-century South. As a trailblazer, Rives used her beauty, brains, and wayward behavior to make a splash in a manner later adopted by southern women as disparate as Zelda Fitzgerald and Tallulah Bankhead.