A Notorious Divorce in Early Twentieth-Century AmericaJean Elson
The bitter and public court battle waged between Nina and James Walker of Newport, Rhode Island, from 1909 to 1916 created a sensation throughout the nation, with lurid accounts of their marital troubles fueling widespread gossip. The ordeal of this high-society couple, who wed as much for status as for love, is one of the prime examples of the growing trend of women seeking divorce during the early twentieth century.
Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness—which takes its title from the charges Nina levied against James for his adultery (with the family governess) and extreme cruelty—recounts the protracted legal proceedings in juicy detail.
“Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness is a fascinating true story. Based on excellent archival work and Elson’s precise scholarship, this meticulous contextualizing of divorce from a woman’s point of view in the early twentieth century also has contemporary applications regarding gender relationships. Elson gradually reveals how women’s rights have evolved over the years and why changes in U.S. divorce laws were essential. The narrative has several twists—it reads like a contemporary detective novel—as every legal victory for each side was appealed by the other. This is a moving and captivating book.”
—Elizabeth Ettorre, Professor Emerita of Sociology in the School of Law and Social Justice at the University of Liverpool and author of Autoethnography as Feminist Method: Sensitising the Feminist “I”
"Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness chronicles the Walkers' seven-year divorce battle with meticulous research and vivid narration. Elson charts the twists and turns of the Walker divorce to illuminate some of the profound changes in gender and family expectations that occurred during the Progressive Era.... A strength of the book is its robust engagement with primary sources: court records, newspapers, and unpublished memoirs (including hundreds of personal papers found in the back of a filing cabinet of one of Walker's descendants).... Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness succeeds in immersing the reader in the Walkers' lives, so that they feel invested in the outcome of their marriage and divorce. Elson persuasively shows that the Walker divorce raised issues that were not solely personal troubles, but ones that revealed profound social changes in early twentieth-century American culture."
—History: Reviews of New Books
"(Elson) has done prodigious research into the details of the players in the marital conflict, using sources that include surviving portions of Nina’s unpublished autobiography, court records, newspapers, and interviews with descendants. The story...picks up as the courtroom drama gets under way. Elson’s main objective seems to be storytelling.... Historians interested in a variety of topics might nevertheless find intriguing threads that weave through the divorce case." — Journal of American History