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A life story, as told to a parrot

In "Letitia," Nancy Brewster Grace recounts, in novel form, her life as a grande dame of society.

Grace at the Quadrangle in Haverford, where she lives.
Grace at the Quadrangle in Haverford, where she lives.Read moreAPRIL SAUL / Inquirer Staff Photographer

Ever thought about what it would be like to have a pet as a confidant?

Nancy Brewster Grace takes the idea and runs with it as the literary device in her new book,


Grace, 97, uses a parrot named Lettie to tell the story of her life as a Philadelphia and Main Line-area divorcee.

The memoir-novel, written in spurts over 30 years, is being self-published, even as its author remains bedridden at a Haverford retirement facility, unable to get out and enjoy her success.

Born in 1910, Grace has been wife, mother, world traveler, and society grande dame. But what's little known is her enduring passion for writing.

"I like to write because I like to create scenes," she says. "I love words that people use, and I hate words that other people use. I've just always loved it."

Longtime friend and editor Sally Williams says the greatest part of Grace's gift, is, indeed, her ability to visualize scenes.

"She has the most astonishing way of communicating the scenes with so few words," says Williams, of Society Hill.

The slim novel gives readers a portrait of how the rich react when life falls apart, and how they make peace with the choices that remain.

"You know, Letitia, sometimes I hate my life," the divorcee, as Grace is referred to in the book, tells her parrot.

"I get up. I drive the boys to school. I buy things in the supermarket. I put dishes in the dishwasher. I take the dishes out. I buy new dresses. What good is all that? I want to change my life."

Married at age 22 to Charles B. Grace, an heir to the Bethlehem Steel fortune, the author produced four sons with her husband before getting divorced. Charles Grace died many years ago.

"It's funny about divorces," the divorcee confides in the parrot. "No matter how much you want one, it's always terrible all the same, I guess, when it happens."

The Grace family lived in a historic fieldstone house in Rosemont, now part of the Agnes Irwin Lower School. After the divorce, Grace and the boys moved to Ardrossan, the Radnor estate of Helen Hope Montgomery Scott that inspired the setting for the film

The Philadelphia Story.

Grace also lived in an upper-crust enclave of Coopertown, as well as in Society Hill and on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia.

But her life, as depicted in the book, has been a hardscrabble search for companionship and connection.

Separated from her boys during the summer, Grace grew lonely. She confided in female friends and had a series of parrots for company.

And she sought companionship by entertaining suitors, one of whom appears in the book as a professor named Noah Zabrinksy.

"There were many Mr. Zabrinskys in my life," she says, although she didn't remarry.

There really


a parrot named Letitia, who lived to be about 20 and thought nothing of attacking Grace's male guests, she says.

The parrot lived in an antique brass cage, but was allowed out to perch in the house.

"We had a long corridor along the edge of a swimming pool at one of our houses," the author says. "The parrot followed them down the corridor, trying to bite at their heels."

While the novel follows the thread of Grace's fortunes, its characters and setting are composites of people she has known and places she has lived, including the Grace house in Rosemont.

Born in Manila, the Philippine Islands, the former Nancy Dougherty was a military brat. Her family lived in a series of Army posts on the U.S. mainland before settling in Bethlehem, Pa., when she was 15.

There, she met Charles B. Grace, who lived two blocks away.

"He was five years older than I was. It took a long time to get acquainted," Grace says.

The author graduated from Moravian Academy in Bethlehem, and took classes at Sarah Lawrence College, although she didn't graduate.

Straight out of Sarah Lawrence, she went for aptitude testing. The examiners told Grace she had no aptitude for writing. Furious, she set out to prove them wrong.

"I wrote millions and millions of words, which were all thrown away," she says. "After years of trying, I sent a piece over the transom to Town & Country magazine. Editor Frank Zachary asked for more and more. I had a market."

Through marriage and divorce, Grace kept writing on topics such as travel and society. She did a piece about having a face lift in Paris.

"I wrote in bed, in hospitals, on trolley cars," Grace says. "It was the one constant in my life, which was going in all directions."

Williams thought Grace had the right stuff to produce a novel. Grace tried, and Williams wouldn't let her quit.

"I beat up on her unmercifully," Williams says.

Not surprisingly, Grace has written another novel,

To Paris and Back.

It's about two children who elude their nursemaid and swim to Paris. Grace is readying the novel for publication in 2008.

"I'm working on it now, and hope I can get it done before I die," Grace says.

Williams says Grace has more stories to tell. One is about a dinner party held underwater in a pool.

"She's so alive at 97," Williams says. "It's such a joyful thing. She once told her son that she can't bear to go to bed because she has to stop writing, and she can't wait to get up in the morning to get started again."

Letitia Outlets


is available at Readers' Forum, 116 N. Wayne Ave., Wayne (610-254-9040), and

Joseph Fox Bookshop, 1724 Sansom St., Philadelphia (215-563-4184). For more information, visit