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The Unfit Heiress
The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt
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NAMED A BEST TRUE CRIME BOOK OF 2021 BY CRIMEREADS
For readers of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Phantom of Fifth Avenue, "a sensational story told with nuance and humanity" (Susannah Cahalan, #1 New York Times bestselling author) about the sordid court battle between Ann Cooper Hewitt and her socialite mother.
At the turn of the twentieth century, emboldened American women began to seek passion and livelihood outside the home. This alarmed authorities, who feared "over-sexed" women could destroy civilization, either by crossing the color line or passing their evident defects on to their children. Set against this backdrop, The Unfit Heiress chronicles the fight for inheritance between Ann Cooper Hewitt and her socialite mother Maryon, who had her daughter sterilized without her knowledge. A sensational court case ensued, and powerful eugenicists saw an opportunity to restrict reproductive rights in America for decades to come.
This riveting story unfolds through the brilliant research of Audrey Clare Farley, who captures the interior lives of these women on the pages and poses questions that remain relevant today: What does it mean to be "unfit" for motherhood? How do racial anxieties continue to influence who does and does not reproduce? In the battle for reproductive rights, can we forgive those who side against us? And can we forgive our mothers if they are the ones who inflict the deepest wounds?
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THE NEW WOMAN AND THE RISE OF EUGENICS
The Sterilized Heiress
Bulbs flashed as the socialite, sporting rouge and fur, took her seat alongside her attorney, who had called a press conference in his San Francisco office. The image of the solemn-faced, perfectly coiffed twenty-one-year-old would appear in newspapers across the country. Some, like the New York Times, would print nearly fifty stories detailing the woman’s private life—her childhood, romantic relationships, spending habits, even the lingerie she was wearing. (It was imported from France.) It was January 1936, and heiress Ann Cooper Hewitt was suing her mother, Maryon Cooper Hewitt, in court for half a million dollars. The plaintiff claimed that her mother paid two doctors to “unsex” her during a scheduled appendectomy in order to deprive her of an inheritance from her millionaire father’s estate.
Ann’s father was Peter Cooper Hewitt, whose invention of the mercury-vapor lamp in 1901 earned him more than $1 million. The money from this creation supplemented an already sizable bank account, as Ann’s father was also the grandson of an even more famous engineer—Peter Cooper. Cooper was behind a slew of inventions in the nineteenth century, including gelatin dessert and the steam locomotive. His ingenuity, coupled with investments in real estate, railroads, and the insurance industry, made him one of the richest men in New York City before his death in 1883. Cooper’s children and grandchildren dutifully expanded the family wealth with their own business enterprises. When Ann’s father died in 1921, his estate was worth over $4 million (the equivalent of $59 million today).
Peter Cooper Hewitt’s will stipulated that two-thirds of his estate was to go to Ann and one-third to his wife, Ann’s mother, after his death. The will also stipulated that Ann’s share reverted back to her mother if she died childless. Knowing this, Ann asserted in her civil complaint, her mother had secretly paid two California doctors to remove her fallopian tubes. Mrs. Cooper Hewitt had done this with money obtained from Ann’s trust fund eleven months before her twenty-first birthday—the point at which the woman would have no further say in her daughter’s medical care.
The plot was set in motion in August 1934, when Ann and her mother were at the Coronado beachside resort outside San Diego. Over lunch, Ann talked of becoming an adult and finding a man to marry when she was suddenly struck with stomach pains. Their driver rushed them back to San Francisco, where Ann’s private physician, Dr. Tilton Tillman, was waiting for her at Dante Sanatorium on Broadway. “Well, Ann, I understand you have appendicitis,” said Tillman, upon her arrival at the hospital.
According to the plaintiff, Tillman never examined her abdomen. Instead, he led her to another room, where an alienist (an early-twentieth-century term for a psychologist) named Mary Scally began to ask her civics questions: Why did the Pilgrims come to America? What is the duration of a presidential term? What is the longest river in the United States? When was the Battle of Hastings fought?
“I didn’t pay much attention or know what it was about,” Ann recalled at the press conference. “Four days later, I returned to the hospital for my appendectomy, which was performed by Dr. Samuel Boyd. No one told me anything else.”
The heiress reported that she stayed at the hospital for several weeks to recover from the procedure. During this time, she overheard a few staff members asking her nurse how the “idiot patient” was doing. Ann also heard her nurse make several phone calls to Dr. Tillman assuring him that his patient “didn’t suspect a thing.”
“I learned then that my mother and Dr. Tillman had told everyone that I was a mental case,” Ann testified. “I discovered that I had undergone a salpingectomy, having my tubes removed along with my appendix.”
After her discharge, she went home and was kept a prisoner in her room. “My mother made me act as my own maid,” Ann claimed. “Not one housekeeper entered my room during my convalescence. I was forced to live with little more than the bare necessities or comforts of a poorhouse waif.”
When a reporter asked what she meant by the second statement, Ann explained that the telephone and reading lamp had been removed from her room. She couldn’t communicate with anyone or even read the newspaper after dusk—not that one had been delivered to her. At mealtime, she’d hear a knock at the door and open it to find a maid holding some paltry, unappealing dish. Perhaps a biscuit without butter or jam, or a cold leg of chicken with a few lifeless spears of asparagus. The maid would wait for her to take the plate and then re-lock the door behind her.
The reporter hurried to record these details. Only in fiction did people encounter little rich girls imprisoned and made to live a miserly existence.
The Little Princess treatment was not new, the young heiress told reporters. “I was locked up all the time,” she said. “In fact, as a baby, I was put in a crib with very tall sides. That was so I couldn’t climb out of it. We were living in Paris then.” The heiress recalled how her father, who was not yet married to her mother at the time, would visit the apartment and pick her up. “He was the only one who ever let me out of that cage. My mother never came near me. The maid would come and dress me in the morning, then leave me there for the day. I would often go to sleep in my clothes.”
“So you remember your father?” one journalist inquired. “What was he like?”
“I remember my father very well,” said Ann. “He was one of the few precious gifts of my life. He was a tall man, very kind and gentle. I think of him walking beside me, suiting his long gait to mine. It seems to me I spent all my happy times with him. He died when I was seven.”
After her father’s death, Ann related, she hardly ever left their apartment. She was forbidden from making friends or having boyfriends when she grew older. “Mother didn’t have one spark of affection for me, and she refused to permit others who did. She always called me an ‘imbecile’ and an ‘ugly duckling.’ She hated my buck teeth and my humped shoulders. And the way my eyes cross when I am tired. She sometimes struck me when she noticed my eyes were going.”
The reporters looked around in disbelief. They knew wealthy women weren’t keen on parenting, but Ann’s claims were truly extraordinary. What would Maryon have to say for herself?
Ann revealed a small scar on her forehead, where she claimed to have been cut with a wineglass. She said her mother had smashed a glass of Cabernet over her head one evening, when a gentleman did not appear for a dinner date with the two of them. “She blamed me whenever things didn’t work out with a man.”
The slight, ninety-pound heiress also revealed a burn on her forearm, where she claimed her mother had extinguished a cigarette. “That was for telling her I didn’t like one of her suitors.”
Even had it not been for Ann’s claims of abuse, some present might have turned against her mother, believing that female smoking was a sign of modern women’s depravity. Men could withstand the habit; but in women’s bodies, cigarette smoke compromised judgment, inflamed the imagination, and unleashed all sorts of profane desires. Women knew this and still puffed away.
Ann contended that, for many years of her life, she didn’t realize that her situation was extraordinary. “I thought all mothers treated their daughters the way mine treated me. Until I went to school, I thought that was the usual way people behaved.”
“You mean you’ve never had anyone else to love you? Besides your father?” a reporter asked.
“Well, most of the men my mother married were kind to me. I suppose that’s one of the few things she has done for me—seen that I had nice stepfathers,” said Ann. “I’ve also had a few people paid to take care of me who were kind. I did have this one maid, Nini, who was especially affectionate. My father hired her. She was there the night he died and comforted me when Mother sent me away from his bed.”
“Did any of the help mistreat you?” this same reporter pressed. “Perhaps because your mother told them to?”
“No one ever struck me like Mother did. Though there was one maid in Paris, Eugenie, who used to follow along when my father would take me around the city. Every time I’d turn around, she’d make faces and obscene gestures at me.”
“Why would she do such a thing?”
“I don’t know,” said Ann. “Probably because she was devoted to Mother. She used to clean my mother’s shoes with her fur coats. Ordinary rags weren’t good enough, she said.”
“Do you believe your mother hatched a plot to kill you?” another reporter asked. “Your suit claims your mother would benefit if you died without any children. But one would expect your mother to die before you. How do you explain this?”
Ann froze for a moment, then bowed her head to wipe a tear from her cheek. Her attorney, Russell P. Tyler, put his hand on her shoulder and answered the question for her. “Mrs. Cooper Hewitt has always said that her daughter is sickly,” he explained. “She has also refused to acknowledge her own aging. The woman probably presumed her life expectancy exceeded her daughter’s.”
The reporter looked to Ann to corroborate this, but the heiress refused to look up. Tyler added, “My client hasn’t seen her mother since the day she turned twenty-one. As soon as she came of age, she demanded to live independently. She contacted me to set her up financially, and that’s when I learned of this whole tragedy.”
“Before you discovered you were sterilized, had you planned to marry?” someone else asked.
“No,” Ann replied, finally raising her head.
“What you mean to say, Ann,” said Tyler, “is that you had no specific man in mind. But you did hope to marry someone someday, didn’t you?”
“Yes, that’s right,” said the heiress. “But I don’t know if anyone will have me now.”
Wanting to lighten the mood—and also to get a sense of the young woman’s intellect—another correspondent asked what book Ann was currently reading. The heiress told him that she was enjoying a title by a contemporary of William Thackeray. “It’s called Ten Thousand a-Year,” she said. “I like it so well because of the sarcasm in it. It just reveals to you what the world really is.”
“Have you read Voltaire?” the man asked.
“I peeked into Voltaire and found him insipid,” Ann replied. “One author I love is Arthur Conan Doyle. He is so real.”
“Have you read his ghost stories?”
“Yes,” said Ann.
“Do you believe them?” The other journalists looked up with raised eyebrows.
“Of course not,” Ann disappointed. “I don’t read them to believe in them. I just read them.”
“What will you do with the money if you’re awarded it?” the same reporter pressed. “Take a holiday? Buy a new wardrobe?” The fur on Ann’s coat was matted. Shortly after leaving her mother’s home with a single trunk, the heiress had purchased the coat for $1 from a laundress, along with a few other items patrons had neglected to retrieve. Ann had since re-acquired many of her belongings, but Tyler had instructed her to dress modestly. He didn’t want people to be distracted by her fancy clothes.
Before Ann could answer, Tyler interrupted to say that such a question was irrelevant and inappropriate. Ann was pursuing this lawsuit to protect others, not because the money was needed or wanted. The attorney explained that, in addition to sterilizing her daughter, Maryon had squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars from Ann’s trust fund at gambling resorts across the world, including the Villa d’Este in Italy, the Deauville in France, and the Monte Carlo in Mexico. This showed clear disregard for her daughter’s well-being, and Mrs. Cooper Hewitt now needed to compensate her daughter for the losses.
Ann elaborated that her mother had been gambling for as long as she could remember. “Mother always left me in the hotel suite with a maid when she went downstairs to roll the dice,” she recalled. “I once told her, ‘No, I’m not staying here another night. I want to come with you.’ She promised me a nice moleskin coat if I stayed. I said, ‘I don’t want that,’ and she called me a brat and slammed the door in my face.”
According to Ann, her mother promised many gifts that she never received—a rocking horse, a dollhouse, a baby pram. This was despite the fact that Maryon often made money from gambling with her daughter’s inheritance. “I always woke up when she came back to the suite, usually around two or three in the morning. If she’d done well, she’d turn on all the lights and begin to count her money, saying how clever she was.”
“And if she lost?” Ann’s attorney asked for the benefit of reporters. “What then?”
“Then she would be very angry. She’d turn over the furniture and break things. She once called her broker in the middle of the night and threatened to kill him if he didn’t make better trades. Mother always assumed he made bad deals to spite her. She suspected many people in her life of conspiring against her.”
In connection with her civil suit, Ann had demanded a full accounting of her mother’s spending for the last ten years. Though this accounting had not yet been produced, her attorney indicated that the court would be appalled by the handling of the money bequeathed to her from the Cooper family trust.
Tyler explained to the reporters present that a lawsuit was his client’s only recourse—and that lawsuit needed to be filed hastily. The statute of limitations for filing a complaint related to malpractice was one year.
The reporters peppered the attorney with questions. When these ended, Ann powdered her nose and readied herself for the cameramen again. She endured over one hundred flashes of light, prompting one photographer to observe that she couldn’t be feebleminded—she didn’t have a fit. A few approached to say how awfully sorry they were about what happened. One told her she had really lovely blue eyes. Another gave her his card, in case she wanted to talk off the record.
Ann went home feeling satisfied. After months of fretting, she’d finally told her story, and people were horrified to learn what she’d endured. It was plain to them that Maryon, not she, was the one unfit to be a mother. Ann figured it wouldn’t be long before Maryon agreed to settle the lawsuit, allowing her to move on with her life.
The heiress had no idea that her mother would respond by telling the court—and the world—about Ann’s own private life, saying Ann had given her no choice. Nor did she have a clue how dramatically her lawsuit would change her life and those of untold numbers of women for decades to come. What seemed to her a personal matter to be settled by the courts would spark a nationwide debate on the changing nature of womanhood, the purpose of sexuality, and the merits of allowing doctors to decide who did and didn’t reproduce.
You were born on an evil day,” Ann’s mother often told her, when she behaved in a way that displeased her parent. “A very evil day.”
Maryon was referring to the fact that World War I had begun on the day of Ann’s birth in Paris. No sooner had the three-and-a-half-pound, dark-haired baby come into the world than Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia, prompting other nations to take sides before troops rolled into their cities. The new mother had not been about to let this unfortunate event interfere with her postpartum convalescence. After all, Maryon used to say, the pain of giving birth to Ann had nearly killed her. However, fearing that Germans might bombard Paris from the skies, Ann’s father had pleaded with her to take the newborn out of the country. So she’d put the little girl in a reed basket and taken her to England and then to the United States until it was deemed safe for them to return.
As a child, Ann had long believed that the ill-fated day of her birth had doomed her to be a bad, sickly girl. She often thought how much she would have liked to have been born on Christmas or the Fourth of July. A little girl who shared a birthday with Jesus or the greatest nation on earth surely wouldn’t require regular trips to a sanatorium to be cured of bronchial trouble, nor a truss to straighten an unsightly double hernia.
“It’s a good thing your father left you money,” Ann’s mother began to remark after Peter’s death. “Or else I’d go bankrupt paying for your care.”
Maryon made a point of telling young Ann exactly how much she spent on private nurses, governesses, and extended trips to institutions, where physicians often looked at Ann with disgust after being told that she’d been caught with her hand in her undergarments at three years of age. Some of these professionals promised to cure Ann, only to later explain that she was beyond hope. “She has retarded growth, arrested mental development, and a disturbance of the endocrine system that has resulted in impulsive tendencies,” one doctor had told Ann’s mother. “There’s little we can do to correct these problems here. Have you tried a home for feebleminded children?”
Mrs. Cooper Hewitt had little patience for doctors like this one, often accusing them of taking her money knowing they could do nothing for Ann. But in this case, soon after her husband’s passing, she’d taken the doctor’s word and sent Ann to a place in Switzerland. It was at this facility, tucked in the Alps, that eight-year-old Ann committed a deed for which her mother would never forgive her.
After a few days at the institution, the girl found a peer her age—an English boy who made her laugh by twisting his arm and drooling the way some of the other patients did. “Look, I’m an imbecile!” he’d said. Then, turning serious, he’d asked Ann what she’d done to warrant being sent to such a place.
Not wanting to repeat what her mother had told the staff—that she had “erotic tendencies”—Ann had responded, “My mother is vacationing in the Riviera.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” the boy had asked.
“Mother says I don’t deserve to go. My French is terrible, and I don’t know my sums. It’s all because I am ornery.”
“Mm,” said the boy.
“What about you?” Ann had asked before he could press for more.
“I have fits.”
The two youngsters began to take walks and, when staff members weren’t looking, exchange notes and sketches of places they’d encountered in their reading, such as the Wild West and the Galapagos Islands. Then the boy began to weave stories about the places he’d drawn. He was a cowboy riding across the desert with a crew of bandits at his heels. A sea serpent reigning over a marine kingdom. Sometimes he dramatized these scenes for a wide-eyed Ann.
One evening, when his tale-telling was cut short by their curfew, the boy told the young heiress to find his room after the night nurse made her rounds. And that’s exactly what she did, tiptoeing down the hall to the boys’ wing in her nightgown. Her friend had already made room for her under the blankets; and after a moment’s hesitation, she slid into the bed and pulled the quilt to her chin. They lay there for a moment, imagining the rage of authorities coming across them. Then the boy resumed his story.
Not wanting to be caught, Ann stayed only an hour. But when she returned the next evening, she lingered a little longer. The evening after that, she lingered longer still. The trend continued until one night, she drifted off to sleep to the image of a lost orphan exploring an enchanted forest in search of treasure.
A nurse discovered them when she made her rounds at dawn. “You wicked, wicked girl,” she shrieked, grabbing Ann by the elbow and pulling her out of the bed. “Imagine what your mother will say. After all she has done for you!”
Ann could only hope that her mother would send a maid to fetch her, as she often did. But it was Mrs. Cooper Hewitt herself who arrived at the asylum a few days after receiving a telegram about the incident. Ann sat, flush-faced, while the director related the details of her crime, then as Maryon pulled a handkerchief from her pocket to dab her eyes. “I don’t know what to do,” Ann’s mother said. “God knows I’ve tried to set her on the right path, but there’s something terribly wrong with her.”
The director stood and approached Maryon, placing his hand on her shoulder. “See what you’ve done, Ann? See what grief you’ve caused?”
Ann bowed her head.
Mrs. Cooper Hewitt waited until they were alone in the room to reach over and slap her daughter. Though Ann’s lip began to quiver, she managed not to shed a tear.
* * *
In the early twentieth century, a “New Woman” was emerging in Europe and the United States, who inspired widespread societal panic. Though adolescent Ann hardly resembled this adult, middle-class cultural figure, she was haunted by her specter from a very young age.
The New Woman was a defiant white woman who refused to dwell at home and avoid strenuous activity, as her Victorian counterpart of the nineteenth century had. Instead she rode her bicycle around town, attended college, and worked in offices typing reports. She even began to engage in political conversations with co-workers and friends—that is, if her companions indulged her. Many worried that intense conversations endangered a woman’s health; they had long been told that the gentler sex required rest and seclusion to avoid overtaxing the nervous system.
Traditionalists narrowed their eyes at the New Woman, who had no regard for the “separate spheres” Victorians had delineated between private and public life in the previous century. A woman’s place, according to convention, was in the home. Only there could she be a guardian of virtue, raising her children to be moral, righteous, and productive members of society. A woman who spent her days in an office was apt to raise wanton, individualistic offspring, her critics believed. After all, the younger generation was prone to imitate the behaviors of their mothers. If a mother forsook her family to pursue her whims, was there any reason to believe that her children would not do the same, eventually becoming criminals, alcoholics, or other unprincipled creatures?
There was something even more disturbing about the New Woman, which physicians claimed to observe about Ann: She was over-sexed. Whereas the Victorian woman of yesteryear was prudent and passionless, blushing if a crass friend or neighbor raised the topic, the New Woman talked about sex as casually as she talked about what she was preparing for dinner on her new steel cookstove. The Victorian woman had understood that men needed to limit their marital relations, so as not to sap their virility. (If any organ overexerted itself, illness or insanity might ensue.) She’d further understood that sex was purely for procreative purposes, as too much of it endangered society. As one of her popular magazines explained, “Every man has a quantity of dynamite in him, and the frequent explosion of that dynamite is a tragic part of the world’s history.” But the New Woman didn’t see it as her job to contain the male sex’s natural barbarism. Nor did she respect the natural function of sex. Using new methods of contraception, she sought to separate sex from motherhood. As a result, the New Woman’s critics feared, she was going to unleash the male species’s baser instincts.
As far as Ann’s European physicians were concerned, a little girl caught masturbating was sure to become such a danger to men and society—that was, if she didn’t obviate the need for men altogether. “Ann is ‘man-like’ in her urges,” one physician told her mother, after hearing about her alleged fondness for self-gratification. “And if she keeps at her nasty habit, she won’t perceive any need to marry one day.”
- "A disturbing yet thought-provoking tale of family strife and ethically unsound medical practice."—Kirkus Reviews
- “THE UNFIT HEIRESS is a sensational story told with nuance and humanity with clear reverberations to the present. Historian Audrey Clare Farley's writing jumps off the page, as Ann Cooper Hewitt, once a one-dimensional tabloid fixation, is brought into full relief as a complicated victim of her time, standing in the crosshairs of the growing eugenics movement and the emergence of a "over-sexed" and "dangerous" New Woman. But most importantly, this book is a necessary call to remember the high stakes and terrible history of the longstanding fight for control over women's bodies.”—Susannah Cahalan, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Brain on Fire
- “THE UNFIT HEIRESS is the propulsive tale of a high-society scandal that triggered a high-stakes courtroom battle. It is also an illuminating exploration of America’s long, dark history of eugenics and forced sterilization. By braiding together these narrative threads, Audrey Clare Farley has accomplished the rare feat of writing a book that is as thought-provoking as it is page-turning.”—Luke Dittrich, New York Times bestselling author Patient H.M.
- “This book is as timely as ever. A gripping tale about the atrocity of systematic reproductive control.”—Booklist, starred review
- “Farley sets a brisk pace and persuasively reimagines the dynamic between Ann and Maryon. This is an eye-opening portrait of an obscure yet fascinating case.”—Publishers Weekly
- “Expertly blending biography and history, and using the life of Ann Cooper Hewitt as a backdrop, Farley has created an absorbing biography effectively explaining how the legacy of eugenics still persists today. Hewitt’s story will engage anyone interested in women’s history.”—Library Journal
- “THE UNFIT HEIRESS is not only a fascinating look at a wildly dysfunctional high society family, it’s also a compulsively readable account of the reproductive myths and bigotry-driven pseudoscience that still shape our world today.” —Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Appetites
- "THE UNFIT HEIRESS is a triumph of compassion, historical inquiry, and intellectual rigor. In her elegant telling of Ann Cooper Hewitt's story, Farley shines her bright, empathetic light on profoundly imperfect humans and the myriad, often tragic ways we grapple for fulfillment. At the same time, she renders with crystalline precision the history of American eugenics, insisting—gently, yet steadfastly—that we look where we'd rather avert our gaze. This book startled me, seized my attention, and summoned my empathy when I least expected it."—Rachel Vorona Cote, author of Too Much
- "In Audrey Clare Farley's book, the fascinating and unsettling case—and the worldwide media sensation it caused—is carefully revisited to expose what it meant to be considered an unfit parent and how easily family can become foes."—Town and Country
- “This well-researched and endlessly readable book is centered on the sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt, deemed too promiscuous by her mother to receive her father’s inheritance. Part biography and part history of eugenics, this one is intriguing and terrifying.”—Ms. Magazine
- “[Farley] keenly investigates the culture of eugenics that surrounded and pervaded both Ann’s life and court case...The most indicting feature of Farley’s book is not America’s eugenic past but America’s eugenic present.”—Lady Science
- “In her new book, The Unfit Heiress, Audrey Clare Farley untangles this dark and complex chapter of American history and shines a light on official and medical complicity in a horrifying system. Her book is exceedingly well-researched yet reads with the momentum of a thriller.”—Crimereads
- “The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt by Audrey Clare Farley, tells the sad and shocking tale of Cooper Hewitt, the daughter of famed engineer and inventor Peter Cooper Hewitt, and how her case reflected a time when eugenics was not only frighteningly common, but widely accepted in the US.”—The New York Post
- "[G]ripping, unsettling, reading."—The Progressive
- "Farley has presented an excellent case here. The book is fascinating on a variety of levels . . . not just a titillating story about greed, but one that delves further into the human mind and poor judgement, to say the least."—New York Journal of Books
- On Sale
- Apr 18, 2023
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing