What compelled Charles Tiffany to amass a great personal fortune as founder of Tiffany & Co., and what drove Hiram Bingham to disdain wealth and live a life of personal sacrifice in order to save souls as a missionary to Hawaii?

How did Charles Tiffany's heirs use their great wealth and privilege - and with what results? And how did Bingham's obsession to improve the world manifest itself in four generations of his family? These questions are at the heart of this epic family biography that covers nearly two centuries.

The story is told by Alfred Bingham, great-grandson of both millionaire Charles Tiffany and missionary Hiram Bingham. His life reflects the conflicting influences of his two forebears' legacy to him. As heir to the Tiffany fortune, he attended Groton, Yale, Yale Law School, and was raised in palatial homes built by his family, surrounded by many servants and governesses.

But Alfred Bingham developed a social conscience that moved him to devote a large part of his Tiffany fortune to helping "the other half," founding the radical political magazine Common Sense and writing books to better the conditions of blue-collar workers and farm laborers. Ultimately, he saw that improving the world was beyond him.

Bingham's grandmother and mother were both highly eligible heiresses, inheriting wealth through the Tiffany trusts, but both married penniless men. Bingham's grandfather, Alfred Mitchell, who had sought his fortune in the whaling industry in Hawaii and other businesses without success, finally found riches by marrying Charles Tiffany's daughter, Annie Olivia.

But Mitchell had contracted syphilis as a young man in the brothels of Hawaii and through his wife passed the shameful disease to his younger daughter Charly. The disease marred her life and the life of her only daughter.

Bingham's father, Hiram Bingham III, was a successful explorer and politician who discovered the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and was elected U.S. Senator from Connecticut. But his overnight transformation from a struggling, impecunious student to a man of wealth - yet still dependent on his Tiffany mother-in-law - put pressures on him that he escaped by carrying on a long clandestine affair with a congressman's wife. Eventually, he abandoned his wife and seven grown sons.

In the 1980s, the author spent a large part of his Tiffany fortune helping his youngest son, Stephen, defend himself against a murder indictment. A radical and a lawyer like his father, Steve was accused of smuggling a gun to his client, George Jackson, in San Quentin prison.

This saga is a compelling account of three prominent American families, the Tiffanys, Binghams, and Mitchells. While the Tiffany fortune proved a mighty resource, it also caused conflict in a milieu where luxury and conscience did not always easily coexist. Highlights include the author's interviews with Gandhi and Mussolini, diaries and letters from the family collection at Yale University, and portraits of such well-known family members as Louis Comfort Tiffany, the artist and glassmaker; Ik Marvel, the nineteenth-century best-sellFriday, 12 October, 2007

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