We Used to Own the Bronx

Memoirs of a Former Debutante

By Eve Pell

Subjects: Autobiography, Biography And Memoir, New York/regional, American Culture, Social And Cultural History
Series: Excelsior Editions
Imprint: Excelsior Editions
Paperback : 9781438424989, 243 pages, July 2010
Hardcover : 9781438424972, 243 pages, February 2009

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents

1. Deus, Amici, et Nos
2. Upstairs/Downstairs
3. Mummy and Clarry
4. These Children Don't Cry
5. Cooky and His Fathers
6. Escape from Home
7. Debutante
8. Awakenings
9. Marriage
10. 2500 Filbert Street
11. Breaking Out
12. The Comrade
13. Complications
14. On the Beach and Making It Anyway
15. My Demented Mother and I
Gallery of Photographs

An inside story of privilege, inherited wealth, and the bizarre values and customs of the American upper crust.


Finalist for the 2009 ForeWord Book of the Year in the Autobiography/Memoir Category
Award-Winning Finalist in the Autobiography/Memoirs category of the "Best Books 2010" Awards, sponsored by USA Book News

We Used to Own the Bronx tells the story of a woman born into the proprieties of an East Coast dynasty who nevertheless leaves her world of privilege for a career as an investigative reporter. Recounting her upbringing, Eve Pell offers an inside look at the bizarre values and customs of the American aristocracy, from debutante balls and the belowstairs hierarchy of the servant class to the fanatical pursuit of blood sports and private men's clubs whose members were cared for like sultans. In the patriarchal world of the upper crust, girls were expected to flatter and defer to boys and men: her scholar-athlete sister was offered a racehorse if she would refuse to attend college. A parade of eccentrics populates the book, from the cockfighting stepfather who ran away from boarding school with a false beard and a stolen motorcycle to the Brahmin great-uncle who secretly organized the servants in Tuxedo Park to vote for Teddy Roosevelt.

But as she moved beyond the narrow world she was expected to inhabit, Pell encountered people and ideas that brought her into conflict with her past. Equally unconventional are the muckrakers and revolutionaries she met in the 1960s and 1970s, and her subsequent adventures and misadventures while working with radical activists to reform the California prison system. As Pell traces her absorbing journey from debutante to working mother, from the upper crust of the East Coast to the radical activists of the West, from a life of wealth and privilege to one of trying to make ends meet, she provides exceptional insight into the prickly and complex issues of social class in America.

A journalist, grandmother, and champion age-group runner, Eve Pell has received awards for her outstanding print reporting and television documentaries. Her books include Maximum Security: Letters from Prison, as well as the award-winning The Big Chill: How the Reagan Administration, Corporate America, and Religious Conservatives are Subverting Free Speech and the Public's Right to Know. She lives in San Francisco.


"We all know what poverty can do—to individuals, to families, to societies that look the other way … But what about wealth? What can the possession of immense fortune, over time, do to us? Eve Pell knows. Eve Pell, in this riveting new memoir, tells. We should listen." — Too Much

"[Pell] tells [her] before-and-after story, briskly and with considerable flair … If you've ever pressed your nose to the chintz-covered window of Old Money and wished you were born into a great American family, this is the book you need—Pell will take you inside the mansion and share every glorious and terrible secret of the aristocracy." — HeadButler.com

"In We Used to Own the Bronx, her revealing and riveting memoir, Eve Pell defies the dictates of her social class—to be charming but not to say what she felt—and bares all. She detonates bombshells and unmasks betrayals on almost every page." — San Francisco Chronicle

"…refreshingly direct … Pell … uses her lively memoir of growing up in aristocratic style to ask a series of provocative questions: Is it possible to choke on a silver spoon? What good is a sense of entitlement? Are riches wasted on the rich? Her candid account of bristling at her birthright transcends the stereotype suggested by the subtitle to divulge the psychic pressures of living with inherited privilege in a meritocracy-mad country … To her lasting credit, We Used to Own the Bronx is a graceful object lesson in how perspective is gained not all at once but by accretion, the reward of years of methodical observation." — truthdig.com

"…first-rate … absolutely fascinating … We Used to Own the Bronx is written from a rare combination of inside and outside. Both are essential." — New York Social Diary

"…a literary treat … Pell gives us a kind of cultural anthropology of the closest thing in America to a landed gentry." — Wall Street Journal

"With cheeky wit and considerable bravery, Pell takes on her upper-crust upbringing of horseback riding and private schools … Readers fascinated by New York history and society will appreciate the entertaining stories of rich eccentrics and social movers and shakers." — Library Journal

"Eve Pell gives us a fascinating glimpse into a secret world of unfathomable wealth and privilege. Hers is an unexpected and ultimately hopeful journey of rebellion and reconciliation." — Jane Fonda

"An intriguing look at a world of arcane, white-gloved ritual and great privilege by a writer rebellious enough to leave it behind, wise enough to know that doing so is no quick and simple matter, and aware enough to know that the alternative worlds she discovers have their own moral complexities as well." — Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost and Bury the Chains