Sunday, July 10, 2016

July Book of the Month: Lucie Aubrac

The next few months mark the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of France by Allied troops, which makes it a perfect time to be talking about Lucie Aubrac and other members of the French resistance who fought their Nazi occupiers for years until the Allies arrived. As one of the founders and leaders of Libération-Sud, Aubrac not only helped to distribute the underground newspaper Libération during World War II but also served as a courier, arms carrier, and saboteur. Her time under the Vichy regime was like something from a John Le Carré novel, involving disguises, swapped suitcases, and clues left in crosswords. Aubrac, working under the last name Montet, even managed to fool SS officer Klaus Barbie, infamously known as the “Butcher of Lyon,” to help her husband skirt certain death. British and American propaganda turned her exploits into the stuff of legend, and she was revered in her country for decades, but it all nearly ended in 1983, when she and her husband found themselves accused of secretly aiding their most-hated enemies. Lucie Aubrac helps parse out exactly what the couple’s actions and motivations were during the war while offering a thrilling portrait of a brave, resourceful woman who went to extraordinary lengths for love and country.

Here is a short excerpt from the book:

As a founder and leader of Libération-Sud, an arm of the French Resistance during World War II, Lucie Aubrac ran guns and messages, committed acts of sabotage, and multiple times faked her identity to helped others escape from Nazi POW camps. In the first half of her new book, Lucie Aubrac: The French Resistance Heroine Who Outwitted the Gestapo, Siân Rees details these exploits, including the two different times that Lucie rescued her own husband, Raymond. Below is an excerpt from the book detailing the first rescue operation, when Lucie (operating under the last name Samuel) traveled to Sarrebourg with a plan to get Raymond sick enough to be sent from prison to a hospital—from which she could sneak him away.

Still in Vannes, Lucie Samuel had had no news of her husband for weeks. She passed her first birthday as a married woman as she had done her first Christmas: alone and frightened, not knowing where her husband was, or even if he was still alive. Her parents-in-law knew no more than she did; it seemed nobody had information about their men. Some semblance of ordinary life had to continue, nevertheless, as millions of people waited for news. However bewildered and frightened teachers and pupils were with foreign soldiers in the streets and fathers, brothers, and husbands who had vanished, the girls and boys who had been working toward their baccalauréat had to sit their examination.

Bravely, Lucie contacted the German authorities in Vannes, persuading them to release four French officers from the nearest internment camp to form the examination jury. She was enraged when all four refused to seize the opportunity to escape; had they no courage, no principled determination to resist defeat? Term had ended by the time she finally received a card from the Red Cross at the end of July, with a note that her husband was confined to a barracks in Sarrebourg, converted to a prisoner-of-war camp. He had written the card on her birthday:

Nothing is more monotonous, my love, than life in camp. More than the lack of comforts and the terrible food, it is the false and contradictory reports which weigh on the thousands of poor blokes who are here and who see no hope on the horizon. . . . When I leave here, I will go to Dijon, and I will find you, and we will choose what must be done, won’t we. I hope you are very well, and ready for our future life. And this evening, your birthday, my thoughts will be entirely with you. Raymond.

With most of France lapsing into the stunned inactivity known as attentisme—waiting to see what would happen—Lucie Samuel went into action. She had no more faith than her husband that the Nazis would soon let their French prisoners go home, and she knew that if Raymond were transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany his Jewishness would put him in terrible danger. He had to escape immediately, and Lucie was not a woman who waited for other people to step in and take care of things. She would rescue him herself.

Once again she crossed France, traveling in even more dangerous circumstances than she had done the previous November, for the roads were blocked not only by refugees but also by the German troops fanning out across a traumatized country, ramming home the fact of their victory as they entered town after town in sleek, gray-green, seemingly endless processions. Single-minded in her determination to rescue Raymond, Lucie had come up with a simple plan: she would engineer her husband’s transfer from barracks to hospital, then smuggle in a disguise to facilitate his escape. In Champagne, she stopped off to find Raymond’s brother, Yvon, in the military hospital to which he had been posted. Yvon provided her with a drug guaranteed to provoke fever, and on she went, against the current, traveling east as everyone else traveled west, until she reached Sarrebourg and begged permission to see her husband. There was a brief, charged contact between prisoner and visitor—it was the first time they had seen each other since Paris in May—the drug was passed from one to another, time was called, and a couple of days later a heavily sweating Raymond was transferred to the hospital. Visiting as the anxious wife, Lucie produced the cap and suit of workman’s blue overalls in which he would escape. If it was a simple plan, it was also a terrifying one for Raymond, who was more frightened than he had ever been in his life—hiding next to the garden fence was easy enough, but he was all too aware that if the nearby guards saw him during the moment it would take to haul himself over, their bullets would not miss. After what seemed like hours of gut-cramping hesitation, he pulled himself up, threw himself over the top, and fell into the street below, where Lucie was waiting.

Excerpted from Lucie Aubrac: The French Resistance Heroine Who Outwitted the Gestapo, by Siân Rees, with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright (c) 2016, all rights reserved.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Guest Post: Isabella Bird: A Lady’s Life Breaking Boundaries




The nineteenth century was a fantastic decade for scandalous women, as more and more strong-minded, early feminists were stepping out of their male counterpart’s shadows to make their own names on the world’s stage.

In literature, this decade saw Mary Shelly galvanize readers with her controversial thriller, “Frankenstein,” and the Bronte sisters tear at the heartstrings of many—albeit not under their own names. However, one female writer from the 1800s overstepped so many of her
assigned gender roles at the time that publishing under her own name was probably one of the least controversial of her actions.

Isabella Bird was one of the most outspoken and daring adventuresses of her time, and although her first book was published anonymously, her age-old classic “A Ladies Life In the Rocky Mountains” proudly bore her birth name in all its feminine glory.

Early Outcry

Born Isabella Lucy Bird in 1831 to a devout Reverend in a small town in Yorkshire, she was known from an early age as having a smart mouth and quick wit. Reports have surfaced of an eager young Bird, fearlessly questioning an MP during his campaign trail, "Did you tell my father my sister was so pretty because you wanted his vote?”

It was this genuine interest and curiosity in the ways of the world that propelled her forward with eager drive and soon became her defining feature after long-term poor health brought complications to her life that she could have never imagined.

In reality, this illness was a pivotal moment for Bird, as the family doctor recommended fresh air as a cure for her ailments. Leading to the beginning of her traveling life, this instigated several summers spent in Scotland, followed by a trip to America, which was pre-empted by a sizable donation from her father and a weary warning to not come back until it was spent. It seemed her sharp intelligence and opened minded nature was all too much for her humble evangelical home life.


Overcoming Obstacles

Early accounts of Bird’s poor health described her as frail, a chronic insomniac, sufferer of stress headaches and several problems with her spine. Later on, a tumor was removed from around this area but her health problems still continued into later life.

Despite the fact that traveling with these constant discomforts must have taken its toll, the wandering adventuress had been bitten by the travel bug, and from here on, things were only set to become more epic.

Her next solo voyage took her to Australia, before quickly returning stateside to visit the tropical island of Hawaii. Here, she wrote her second book “The Hawaiian Archipelago” and spent her time hiking some of the greatest mountains in the area. It wasn’t until she heard that the air in Colorado, then a newly formed state, was incredibly healing for the sick and infirmed that she packed her bags again and set off on perhaps the most prominent adventures of her life.


The Rocky Mountains Years

One of the most notable images of Bird depicts her in practical, male influenced clothing, straddling a horse, with no shred of consideration for this being improper or unladylike. For most, this is a beautiful metaphor of the strength, character and delightfully controversial nature of this poignant early feminist.

Her time in the Rocky Mountains was documented, and later published, via a series of letters between her and her sister. Her tone in the writing is one of pragmatic wonder, describing her surroundings with enthusiasm and poetic vigor. Her recounts of the problems she faced along the way are tackled with levelheaded sensibilities, and her lovingly open-minded descriptions of the now-famed mountain man, Jim, is a testimony to the true uniqueness of Bird’s character and her wonderfully free perspectives on all that she encountered.

 
 
Her Scandalous Later Life

After her adventures in the Rockies, Bird was not done. She traveled to Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, never once letting man nor mind slow down her global gallivants. It wasn’t until the heart-breaking death of her beloved sister, Henrietta, that Bird finally succumbed to one of her many suitors and married Dr. John Bishop.

From this point, her health took a dramatic turn for the worse, and she was indefinitely grounded, until the death of her husband and subsequent heritage fund seemed to be enough to inspire her to pack a suitcase and tie up her traveling boots for once last time.

It’s hard to say whether the conditions of her marriage had been holding her health back, but one thing is undeniably clear: she was never a woman who was meant to be held down. Free, once again and back on the road, Bird visited India, Tibet, Persia, Kurdistan and Turkey before her swan song journey to Morocco. During these excursions, she set up a hospital, named after and
in memory of her late husband. If nothing else, this shows that the man did hold a special place in Bird’s otherwise wild and independent heart.

On the return from Morocco, her health finally got the better of her, and after seeing most of the world, writing a plethora of classic books and setting up missions and other charitable projects globally, Bird’s inspirational life came to an end in the comfort of her own home in England in 1904.
 Get Her Work

Amazingly, Kindle owners can download all of Bird’s works for no charge from the Amazon-based store. However, for users living in the Middle East or some of the world's more conservative countries, the titles may be blocked as some of their content can be viewed as controversial. Kindle Fire users can get around this by installing installing a VPN such as IPVanish on their device, which is a handy bit of software that allows you to gain access to all content, no matter where in the world you are.

If you're don't own a Kindle, then paperback copies are also available from Amazon, or you can download the PDF for free from
this site.

 About the Author: Isa is an entertainment blogger and an avid reader and passionate feminist. She loves the inspiring women of the nineteenth century and the way they paved the way for the modern world!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Was Aemilia Bassano Lanier Shakespeare’s Dark Lady? - Guest Post by Mary Sharratt

Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome author Mary Sharratt to the blog today to talk about Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the heroine of her new novel The Dark Lady's Mask, 


Born in 1569, Aemilia Bassano Lanier (also spelled Lanyer) was the highly cultured daughter of an Italian court musician—a man thought to have been a Marrano, a secret Jew living under the guise of a Christian convert.

After her father’s death, seven-year-old Aemilia was fostered by Susan Bertie, the Dowager Countess of Kent, who gave her young charge the kind of humanist education generally reserved for boys in that era. Later, after Bertie remarried and moved to the Netherlands, Aemilia became the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth. As Carey’s paramour, Aemilia Bassano enjoyed a few years of glory in the royal court—an idyll that came to an abrupt and inglorious end when she found herself pregnant with Carey’s child. She was then shunted off into an unhappy arranged marriage with Alfonso Lanier, a court musician and scheming adventurer who wasted her money. So began her long decline into obscurity and genteel poverty, yet she triumphed to become a ground-breaking woman of letters. 

Aemilia Bassano Lanier was the first English woman to aspire to a career as a professional poet by actively seeking a circle of eminent female patrons to support her. She praises these women in the dedicatory verses to her epic poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, a vindication of the rights of women couched in religious verse and published in 1611.

But was Lanier also the mysterious Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, as the late A. L. Rowse famously proclaimed?  


Is this Aemilia Bassano Lanier? Miniature by Nicholas Hilliard.

Shakespeare’s Dark Lady Sonnet Sequence (sonnets 127-152) describes a woman with an “exotic” dark beauty that sets her apart from the pale English roses. Musically gifted, she plays the virginals like a virtuosa, winning the poet’s heart. She is also of tarnished reputation—a woman of bastard birth and a married woman who lures the likewise married Shakespeare into a shameful, doubly-adulterous affair. Alas, the lady proves capricious and unfaithful, and the bitter end of their affair leaves her poet-lover roiling with disgust. Shakespeare describes her as “my female evil.”


William Shakespeare

Over the centuries Shakespearean scholars have tried to deduce the Dark Lady’s identity. Candidates include Lucy Morgan, a London brothel owner of African ancestry; and Sara Fitton, lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth I.

Aemilia Bassano Lanier herself seems to fit the bill. A woman of Italian-Jewish heritage, it’s plausible that she had raven-black hair and an olive complexion. Her parents’ common-law marriage meant that she was officially classed as a bastard. The illegitimate son she had with the Lord Chamberlain did nothing to shore up her reputation. As a court musician’s daughter and later another court musician’s unwilling wife, it’s likely that she was musically accomplished and a deft hand at the virginals. After being jilted by the Lord Chamberlain and thrust into a forced marriage with a man she detested, she may well have been tempted to look for love elsewhere. The Lord Chamberlain, interestingly enough, was also Shakespeare’s patron, the money behind his theatre company, Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

However, none of this proves that Lanier was the Dark Lady, or even that there was a Dark Lady. Academic scholars will point out that we don’t even know if Shakespeare’s sonnets were autobiographical. Lanier scholars in particular find the Dark Lady question an unwelcome detraction from Lanier’s own considerable literary achievements.

Having established these facts, I must confess that as a novelist I could not resist the allure of the Dark Lady myth. As Kate Chedgzoy points out in her essay “Remembering Aemilia Lanyer” in the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, this myth endures because it draws on “our continuing cultural investment in a fantasy of a female Shakespeare.”

My intention was to write a novel that married the playful comedy of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love to the unflinching feminism of Virginia Woolf’s meditations on Shakespeare’s sister in A Room of One’s Own. How many more obstacles would an educated and gifted Renaissance woman poet face compared with her ambitious male counterpart? 

In The Dark Lady’s Mask, I explore what happens when a struggling young Shakespeare meets a struggling young woman poet of equal genius and passion. If Lanier and Shakespeare were lovers, would this explain how Shakespeare made the leap from his history plays to his Italian comedies and romances—the turning point of his career? Lanier, after all, was an Anglo-Italian trapped in a miserable arranged marriage. The names Aemilia, Emilia, Emelia, and Bassanio all appear in Shakespeare’s plays. His Italian comedies are set in Veneto, Lanier’s ancestral homeland. What if Shakespeare’s early comedies were the fruit of an active collaboration between him and Lanier?

I find it fascinating how the strong, outspoken women of Shakespeare’s early Italian comedies, such as the crossdressing Rosalind in As You Like It and the spirited Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, gave way to much weaker heroines and misogynistic portraits of women in Shakespeare’s great tragedies, such as frail, mad Ophelia in Hamlet. This change in tack leads me to wonder if the historical Shakespeare actually did have a bittersweet affair with a mysterious, unknown woman that cast a shadow over his later life and work.

Most intriguingly, Lanier’s own proto-feminist Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum was published in the wake of Shakespeare’s sonnets bitterly mocking his Dark Lady. If she and Shakespeare were estranged lovers, was this her spirited riposte to his defamation of her character? Did the woman Shakespeare maligned as his “female evil” pick up her pen in her own defense and in defense of all women? 

These two poets had such radically different character arcs. We all know about Shakespeare’s rise to the glory that would enshrine him as an enduring cultural icon. But there was no meteoric rise for Lanier. Though she eventually triumphed to become a published poet, she died in obscurity and has only recently been rediscovered by scholars.

In my novel I wanted to redress the balance by writing Aemilia Bassano Lanier back into history. Her life and work stand in direct opposition to Virginia Woolf’s pronouncement in “A Room of One’s Own” that “it would have been . . . completely and entirely impossible, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.” Although Lanier may not have been a playwright, her achievement as a poet speaks for itself. Whether or not she was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, muse, lover, or collaborator, she has certainly earned her place in history as Shakespeare’s peer.


Mary Sharratt’s novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Visit her website: www.marysharratt.com.

Monday, May 16, 2016

May Books of the Month: Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie and Marlene by C.W. Gortner

I know I have been neglecting this blog shamelessly. This summer, I hope to endeavor to do better. In my defense, I have been working on multiple writing projects, several non-fiction proposals that I’m hoping to sell as well as some fiction.  Nothing concrete, meaning nothing has been signed, but it has been occupying a great deal of my time.  I’ve also had a difficult job situation this year, I’ve had to leave a job that I loved, since my new boss decided she needed someone with more experience and fundraising, and my boss at my new temp assignment just quit. So 2016 has been a bitch so far, not to mention losing Prince, David Bowie, Ken Howard and Alan Rickman. I dread picking up the paper to see who else we have lost. In my few hours of down time, I have been reading a great deal of historical fiction lately, and I have two books that I absolutely have to recommend.

Rivals of VersaillesSally Christie
Published by:  Atria Books
Pub Date:  April 5, 2016
How Acquired:  TLC Book Tours

The Rivals of Versailles continues the story of King Louis XV and his lady loves, this time focusing on the fabulous Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, the Marquise de Pompadour, a little girl from the middle classes who rose to become the virtual Queen of France.  Jeanne's voice and story are balanced against a few of her many rivals. Pompadour remained by Louis' side for almost two decades, and as the king continued his descent into pure libertinage, she was along for the ride.​​

I read and reviewed Christie’s first book last year The Sisters of Versailles about the de Mailly sisters, all of whom at one point mistresses of a young Louis XV.  I adored the book and couldn’t wait to read the sequel, Rivals of Versailles.  I was not disappointed in the slightest.  If anything, Christie has topped herself with this novel. I was captivated from the first sentence, meeting the young Jeanne de Poisson. I thought I knew who Madame Pompadour was, having seen her images in paintings over the years, but I realized that I only knew the tip of the iceberg.  What a remarkable woman.  I have to say after reading both novels that I no longer envy the life of a royal mistress, particularly at Versailles.  Charles II’s court seems like a walk in the park compared to the back-stabbing and jockeying for position that went on at Versailles. I supposed that is why reading about Louis XV’s court is so intriguing.  By this time in the UK, the British were stuck with the Georges, I and II, neither of whom had very interesting mistresses.

Pompadour loves the King, but he’s wearing her out with his sexual demands, which don’t seem to diminish with age (Damn those Bourbons!), and the courtiers who are constantly pushing forward their candidates to replace her. I admire the way that Jeanne continued to educate herself to make herself worthy of being a royal mistress.  Knowing that she couldn’t keep up with him sexually, Jeanne made herself indispensable as a confidante and an advisor.  That was the one thing that her rivals didn’t count on, that the King kept her around because he couldn’t do without her advice.

One of the fantastic things about this novel is that we get to meet women who are less well known than Madame de Pompadour, each sort of representing a different phase in the King’s life. Christie does a remarkable job of making each woman so individual that you almost don’t miss Pompadour.  One of my favorites is Marie Louise O'Murphy (Morphise) a young prostitute who also modeled for the painter Boucher.  Marie Louise has been on the game since she was a young girl of about ten.  Concerned about losing the favor of the King, Pompadour has one of his men choosing women and setting them up in a house for the King to visit, like a private brothel for one. Seriously, can you imagine loving someone that much that you are willing to help pimp for him? Mary Louise’s time with the King is short but her section of the book is amongst the most vivid in the novel as is her backstory.  I don’t want to spoil anything but I could easily have read a whole book just about her life. Both Marie-Louise and Pompadour had a great deal in common, both rose from humble origins to great heights.

I also enjoyed the fact that the reader is introduced to two of the King’s daughters, Henriette and Adelaide who is destined to be a main character in the last book of the trilogy, as well as to the Dauphin and Dauphine.  I highly recommend this book, particularly if you enjoy reading about royal shenanigans and are suffering from Tudor fatigue. To me, it is a more fully realized book than the first one.  If you are a fan of Outlander, you should definitely pick up this book because the second season of the series is set in Paris at Louis XV’s court.  

Marlene – C.W. Gortner
Published by:  William Morrow
How Acquired:  Edelweiss
Pub Date:  May 24, 2016

What is about:  From the gender-bending cabarets of Weimar Berlin to the tyrannical movie studios of Los Angeles, this sweeping story of passion, glamour, art, and war is a lush, dramatic novel of one of the most alluring legends of Hollywood’s golden age: Marlene Dietrich. Raised in genteel poverty after the First World War, Maria Magdalena Dietrich dreams of a life on the stage. With her sultry beauty, smoky voice, and androgynous tailored suits, Marlene performs to packed houses and conducts a series of stormy love affairs that push the boundaries of social convention until she finds overnight success in the scandalous movie The Blue Angel. For Marlene, neither fame nor marriage and motherhood can cure her wanderlust. As Hitler rises to power, she sets sail for America to become a rival to MGM’s queen, Greta Garbo.
An enthralling account of this extraordinary legend, MARLENE reveals the inner life of a woman of grit and ambition who defied convention, seduced the world, and forged her own path.

I’m always looking for interesting historical fiction to read, particularly about women and time periods that I know very little about.  Two reasons, the less I know about a period, the more enjoyable I find the book (the more I know about a time period, the pickier I get with writers), and I love discovering new things.  Now, Marlene Dietrich was not unknown to me, I have seen several of films and frankly I think she’s an underrated as a film actress.  But I only knew the bare bones about her life before she made it to Hollywood.  I’ve raved before about Gortner’s books. He has an uncanny ability to get deep inside his female characters so that the novel reads as if Marlene is confiding in the reader, telling him or her secrets that she has never revealed before.  The novel is told in the first person, in an almost intimate tone. At times it almost felt too personal, as if Marlene were peeling herself like an onion for the reader.

I have to admit that my favorite part of the book is the first section, Marlene’s early years, living in genteel poverty with her mother and sister, trying to keep up appearances, her first stirrings of attraction and love for both men and women, her early forays into show business, living in Berlin during the Weimar Republic where almost anything goes.  There are faint echoes of Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, although that novel is set a bit later. The entire book could have been about Marlene’s early years and ended with her leaving for Hollywood and I would have been a happy girl.  The section of the book dealing with Marlene’s early Hollywood years tends to fall a bit flat, more a catalogue of the films she made and the stars that she slept with.  The book gets a jolt of energy and pizazz dealing with the years that Marlene spent entertaining the troops during World War II, insisting on being at the front, and the aftermath of the war, attempting to find her family and learning how they survived after she left Berlin, the disillusionment.

I also found Marlene’s relationship with her mother, older sister and her daughter to be intriguing although, her relationship with her daughter isn’t fully fleshed out. That maybe because Marlene wasn’t really interested in being a mother, not full-time anyway.  She went through the motions but her heart wasn’t really in it.  In a certain way, she was as indifferent to her daughter as her mother was to her. In the end, I didn’t find Marlene as satisfying a read as I did Gortner’s Mademoiselle Chanel.  But if you are dying to read a novel filled with glitz, glamour, and danger, then pick up a copy of Marlene when it comes out next week. 


Friday, March 11, 2016

Downton Abbey – Why Lady Edith is the true Heroine of the Series


This Sunday marked the final episode of Downton Abbey. I’m not ashamed to admit that I bawled through most of this episode even though I had seen it already (I bought the DVD weeks ago). Oh, I have had my issues with this series over the years, the almost too fast pace, the arrests of both Anna and Mr. Bates, Mary’s romantical problems (I was rooting for Charles Blake), the waste of Tom Branson’s character in the last two series, and Barrow’s evil schemes.  But who would have thought when this series began six years ago that Lady Edith Crawley would emerge as the show’s true heroine, the underdog who finally triumphs?

If you asked most viewers, they would probably say that Lady Mary was the main heroine of the series. She certainly is Julian Fellowes favorite character.  Don’t get me wrong, I can see why so many people love Lady Mary.  All her life she has been considered the most beautiful, the most promising, the achiever, and the strongest one.  Lady Mary is one of those women who go sailing serenely through life like stately ocean liner, they may hit rough waters, but life will always turn out all right for them. Sure, Mary endures tragedy, but Mary is also wealthy, chic, and constantly pursued by scores of handsome suitors. Mary has also proven herself to have been throughout Downton Abbey to be at times an unremittent snob, imperious, cruel, vindictive, and lacking in compassion and cold.  Let’s face it while, we all like to pretend that we are Lady Mary, most of us have felt like Lady Edith at some point in our lives. 

The Lady Edith Crawley viewers were introduced to in series one was petulant, unpleasant and unlikeable.  Sandwiched between Lady Mary, an imperious beauty and Lady Sybil, the youngest, was a rebellious beauty who was more impulsive and socially adept than the others. As the middle sister, Edith was the awkward child, often said to be the "forgotten" one or “poor, old Edith.” She wasn’t as pretty or witty as Mary and she was less daring and passionate than Sybil.  And it was clear that while Lord Grantham favored Mary, Cora favored Sybil, leaving Edith out in the cold. Consider this lovely little exchange early on between Robert and Cora.

Robert: “Poor old Edith. We never seem to talk about her.”
Cora: “I’m afraid Edith will be the one taking care of us in our old age.”
Robert: “Oh, what a ghastly prospect!”


Basically, Lady Edith was Downton Abbey’s Jan Brady. Instead of ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,’ Edith had to listen to ‘Mary, Mary, Mary,’ all the time. It’s a wonder that Edith didn’t smother Mary in her sleep. Edith seemed so pathetic and unappealing that SNL referred to her in their parody as ‘the other one,’ and on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, she was played by a man. For the longest time it seemed as if Julian Fellowes had it out for poor Edith.  You can read the list of every miserable thing that has happened to Edith here on Vulture, but suffice to say, she’s had more than her share of heartbreak but as Cora once told her, whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger and that’s certainly true with Edith. The Edith of the first series would never have dared to confront her sister as she did in the final season.  Every time she’s been knocked down, and there have been plenty, she manages to pick herself up and dust herself off, because like the song says, she’s got “High Hopes.”

From the beginning, her rivalry with Mary has dominated the series.  During the first series, it seemed that everything Mary had, Edith wanted, whether it was Matthew or even poor Sir Anthony Strallen (Mary later ruined things between the two by insinuating that Edith wasn’t serious about him). It’s no wonder that Edith maliciously revealed her sister’s murderous tryst with Kemal Pamuk to the Turkish Embassy. But even that was forgivable to a certain extent since it was Mary’s actions that set Edith off on her quest for revenge, insulting Edith behind her back not knowing that Edith had overheard.

By the second series, Edith slowly began to change, throwing herself into the war effort.  She learned to drive a car and wound up managing non-medical patient care when Downton became a convalescent home for officers.  The viewers slowly began to see that Edith had a genuinely good heart and an amiable personality.  Yes, Edith still had bad luck with men, falling for a married farmer and a con-artist, but at least her heart was still open to the possibility of finding love.  But it was getting jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony that was the best thing that ever happened to Edith. After some tough love by the Dowager Countess (“You’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do!”), Edith dried her tears, pulled herself up by her dainties and got on with it. A single letter to the Times of London regarding votes for women led to an offer of a column in the Sketch newspaper. Soon Edith began to make a life for herself away from Downton, hobnobbing with the Bohemian set in London. 

And finally she met a man who pursued her instead of the other way around. Michael Gregson was her boss and a married man, but the two fell in love. After suffering so much loss, including the death of her sister, Edith learned to carpe diem. She didn’t wait for Michael to get his divorce before spending the night in his arms. It was a risk that she was willing to take.  And when Edith found herself in the family way she chose not to have an abortion.  And though it could be considered selfish, Edith found herself unable to give up her daughter Marigold to strangers. It was a huge risk not only to bring her to Downton to have the Drewes raise her, but to bring her to live at the Abbey under the guise of being the family ward.  After Gregson’s death, Edith managed to pull herself together, throwing herself into dealing with his media empire. Even Lord Grantham, who had been opposed to Edith’s writing initially, has come to admire her resilience over the course of the series. He was even willing to accept Marigold as his grandchild and to love her along with George and Sybbie.

This final season of Downton feels as if Lord Fellowes has listened to Edith’s fans and scripted a happy ending. Although I loved her not only ending up with a kind and loving man but also outranking her family, for me it was enough that Edith finally confronted her sister over the terrible way she’s been treated over the years.  Mary telling Bertie the truth about Marigold was just the latest in a long series of thinly veiled insults and utter contempt. After Sybil’s death, Edith reached out an olive branch to Mary and was flatly rebuffed.  Watching Edith storm out of the Abbey was extremely satisfying. And when she came back for Mary’s wedding, it was after realizing that in the end, when everyone is gone she and Mary are going to be the only ones who will remember the way things used to be.  It was lovely to see Edith make plans for her future, moving to London, sending Marigold to a proper school. She would have been happy, even if Bertie hadn’t come crawling back thanks to Mary. This is Edith is a far cry from the young woman in series three who practically brow-beat Sir Anthony into marrying her because she didn’t want to be the only Crawley that was single.  And she’s managed to forge strong relationships with both of her brothers-in-law, Tom and Henry (who calls her Edie!).


While Edith has moved beyond Downton, Lady Mary has ended up exactly where she was at the beginning of the series.  Yes, she’s known tragedy and come into her own as she holds the reins of Downton for George, but her marriage to Henry is no different than her marriage to Matthew. You could argue that Downton is actually Mary’s true love, not Matthew or Henry. We saw that in the first series when Mary angrily railed against the entailment that kept her from inheriting. She was willing to marry a man she didn’t love for Downton.  And while she and Matthew were truly in love, the fact that he was the heir didn’t hurt. And didn’t it hurt in series two to know that Lavinia Swire would be the Countess of Grantham while Mary had to settle for Sir Richard and a bought estate! After rejecting suitors such as Tony Gillingham and Charles Blake, men who had estates of their own that would need to be managed, Mary has married a former race-car driver who is quite content to live on his wife’s family estate. I imagine as the years pass, Lady Mary’s focus will be increasingly on preserving Downton for George. Henry will be bored without the rush of racecar driving, and start drinking heavily. When he’ll spend most of his time in London, visiting his mistress, leaving Tom to do the bulk of the work at the car dealership.


In the end, Edith has proven to be the strongest of the three Crawley sisters, the one who has truly changed and evolved over the series, the one most capable of taking care of herself no matter what the situation.  Edith started out the series as the archetype of the waif, the damsel in distress, who bends with the wind.  But instead, she amazed everyone by turningto have a tremendous strength of will. In the end, She's become a thoroughly modern woman of the 20th century. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Scarlet Woman: The Life of Diana Vreeland


Trailer for Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel

 'She had this taste for the extraordinary...she took the mundane and the mediocre and she made it ravishing, and she made it OK for women to be ambitious, for women to be outlandish and extraordinary and for women to garner attention.' - Anjelica Houston


I’ve been asked what criteria I use to determine whether or not someone is a “Scandalous Woman?”  Most of the women that I have written about were either Scandalous for their love lives or because they operated outside the normal boundaries of society as they were dictated by the mores of the time.  For example, Elizabeth Blackwell would be considered scandalous because she dared to apply to medical school to become a doctor in the 1840’s, at a time when women were barely educated apart from reading, writing, and a little light math. Exploring the sciences considered beyond a women’s intelligence.

So why Diana Vreeland one might ask? Why write about her? Most people, if they think of Vreeland of all, have an image of a woman with helmet like black hair, wearing a great deal of rouge, making pronouncements like ‘Pink is the navy blue of India.’ Recently I took a documentary out of the library entitled ‘Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel’ directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, her granddaughter-in-law.  Watching the film, seeing how Vreeland reinvented herself over the years, moving from Harper’s Bazaar to Vogue as editor-in-chief at an age when most people are retiring, I was inspired by her joie-de-vivre, by her ability to look ahead when others were looking back.  For a woman who was largely self-educated, what she accomplished in her lifetime was quite remarkable. Like many Scandalous Women, Vreeland was her greatest creation.


By the time of her death in 1989 at the age of 85, Vreeland was a cultural icon. She’d inspired a one-woman Off-Broadway show starring Mary Louise Wilson, she was the inspiration for Kay Thompson’s character in the film Funny Face.  In the 1941 musical Lady in the Dark by Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin the character of Alison Du Bois was based on Vreeland. She even advised Jackie Kennedy on what to wear when she became First Lady helping to connect her with designers such as Oleg Cassini. Not many magazine editors become celebrities in their own right, Vreeland was one of the first. She appeared on TV talk shows, talking about fashion, that it was an important part of history. Whippet thin, she was instantly recognizable with her jet black hair, scarlet fingernails and rouged cheeks and ears. Red was her signature color from her nails, lips, cheeks to her the living room in her Park Avenue apartment which she had designed to look like ‘a garden in hell.’

Diana Vreeland went to work, at a time when women of her social class spent most of their time doing charity work, those ‘ladies who lunch,’ when they weren’t playing tennis at the country club. While living in London, she opened a lingerie shop.  When she and her husband moved back to the states, she went to work as an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, moving from writing a column entitled ‘Why Don’t You?” to becoming the fashion editor for the magazine for 26 years. How did she get the job? Well Carmel Snow, the legendary editor of Harper’s Bazaar, saw Vreeland dancing at the St. Regis hotel, wearing a white Chanel lace dress with a bolero, roses in her dark hair. Snow was struck by Vreeland’s innate sense of style and offered her a job. It came at the perfect time, although her husband was lucky enough to have a job during the Great Depression, the couple were going through money like an alcoholic goes through vodka.  Money was incredibly important to her and she made no secret of it. Vreeland worked for a living until she was too ill to be productive.




Some of her suggestions for her column are hilarious, for example dressing a child like a Spanish Infanta for a fancy-dress party or wearing 12 diamond roses but the message was clear. Why be dull when you can be interesting? It was a mantra that Vreeland lived by.  As a child, she was told by her mother Emily, “It’s too bad that you have such a beautiful sister and that you are so extremely ugly and so terribly jealous of her. This, of course, is why you are so impossible to deal with.” Awesome parenting skills there Mom! You know that old saying ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Diana and her American debutante mother had a contentious relationship although it turns out, they had a lot in common. Her mother was a free-spirited woman who hung out with a bohemian crowd, and was involved in a divorce scandal. All her life, Diana Vreeland was looking for someone to idealize, to look up to, but never found her. Instead, she turned herself into someone that others could idealize and look up to! How clever is that? To become the thing that you were looking for? Like the Duchess of Windsor, Diana realized that dressing well was the best revenge. She might not be the most beautiful woman but she would be the best dressed woman.

On the other hand, Diana worshipped her handsome father Frederick Dalziel who she resembled. Although he came from a middle-class background in England, her father successfully cultivated an upper-class mien which went over well when her parents moved from Paris to New York soon after she was born. Although she later wrote that she grew up in Paris, in a home where Diaghilev and Nijinsky were regular visitors, she actually grew up in New York. Paris, however, would always be her spiritual home. Her husband Reed Vreeland, a handsome, impeccably dressed Yale graduate who worked as a banker, had many of the same qualities as her father, along with one additional one, an inability to be faithful. Still they remained married for 43 years until his death in 1966 from cancer. His love gave her the self-assurance that she was lacking. True to her nature, instead of wearing black for mourning, she wore red. Their two sons were something of an afterthought in their parents’ mad, social whirl. While she may have been a distant mother, she was a warm and generous grandmother and great-grandmother in her later years.

Vreeland redefined the role of fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Fashion shoots no longer featured society types wearing the latest fashions.  Vreeland used professional models, including Lauren Bacall who was featured on the cover of the magazine.  “Today only personality counts…I do not believe we should put in the magazine so-called society, as it is démodé and practically doesn’t exist….but ravishing personalities are the most riveting things in the world.” While at Bazaar, Vreeland popularized the turtleneck and the bikini which scandalized America. Vreeland later featured a photo of Mick Jagger in Vogue magazine before the Rolling Stones were a huge success simply because she liked his look.  She had her finger in every aspect of the photo shoot, she oversaw the photography and worked with the models to create the look that she was going for. Diana and her husband also entertained all the European emigres at their apartment on Park Avenue and their country home in Westchester.

When Carmel Snow retired, Vreeland was passed over as editor-in-chief of the magazine (apparently Snow thought Vreeland didn’t have what it takes for the top job), the job went Snow’s niece Nancy White instead. Vreeland stuck it out for a few more years before Vogue (now owned by the Newhouse family) snapped her up after she charmed Mitzi Newhouse. Despite publicly stating that she wouldn’t change anything in the magazine, Vreeland swept in and changed everything! It was the swinging sixties and Vreeland, at the age of 60, embraced all that was new particularly the fashions, models and photographers coming out of Great Britain. Vreeland also pushed for models who weren’t perfect or were unusual like Twiggy, Penelope Tree, Edie Sedgwick, Anjelica Houston, Veruschka and Lauren Hutton. She didn’t want cookie cutter blondes or brunettes, she wanted individuals with personality who turned their flaws into assets the way that she had. "If you had a bump on your nose, it made no difference so long as you had a marvelous body and good carriage." What’s amazing as that she managed to accomplish so much despite never arriving at the office before noon! (She made up for by staying at the office sometimes ‘til midnight, fortifying herself with a peanut butter and honey sandwich, a glass of scotch and a shot of B-12 at lunch.)  

Vreeland lasted only 8 years at Vogue done in by the expensive photo shoots (Vreeland thought nothing of sending a photographer to photograph white tigers in India and then not using the photos in the magazine) and the changing times. Vreeland’s Vogue was all about fantasy and not the reality of women’s lives in the 1970’s. Vreeland always had her detractors, while many found her visionary, others found her erratic, impossible, abrasive and clueless. After she was fired from Vogue, she went to work as a consultant for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curating the annual fashion exhibition for the Costume Institute. It was a job that she initially thought she wasn’t right for since she didn’t come from an academic background but she was just what the museum needed. She had an eye for what would draw people to the museum. From her first show on Balenciaga in 1973 until 1987, Vreeland put on 15 exhibitions and put the Costume Institute on the map.  Shows on Costume in Film, La Belle Époque, the 18th Century Woman, and Russian Costume, the exhibitions were incredibly popular. Although it’s now called the Anna Wintour Costume Institute, it really should be named after Vreeland who put the institute on the map. Or at least have a gallery named after her (that’s my humble and cranky opinion).

Vreeland was true American original, forward thinking, but eccentric individual. She’s a reminder that there not only second acts in life but also third and fourth. They don’t make them like her anymore and it’s a damn shame. 

Further reading:

Alexander Vreeland (editor): Diana Vreeland: The Modern Woman: The Bazaar Years, 1936-1962, Rizzoli, 2015
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart: Empress of Fashion - A Life of Diana Vreeland, Harper 2012
Diana Vreeland: D.V., Knopf, 1984

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book Review: Melanie Benjamin's The Swans of Fifth Avenue

The Swans of Fifth AvenueMelanie Benjamin
  • Print Length: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press (January 26, 2016)
  • Publication Date: January 26, 2016
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
How Acquired:  Net Galley

What's it about:  Of all the glamorous stars of New York high society, none blazes brighter than Babe Paley. Her flawless face regularly graces the pages of Vogue, and she is celebrated and adored for her ineffable style and exquisite taste, especially among her friends—the alluring socialite Swans Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill. By all appearances, Babe has it all: money, beauty, glamour, jewels, influential friends, a high-profile husband, and gorgeous homes. But beneath this elegantly composed exterior dwells a passionate woman—a woman desperately longing for true love and connection.

Enter Truman Capote. This diminutive golden-haired genius with a larger-than-life personality explodes onto the scene, setting Babe and her circle of Swans aflutter. Through Babe, Truman gains an unlikely entrée into the enviable lives of Manhattan's elite, along with unparalleled access to the scandal and gossip of Babe's powerful circle. Sure of the loyalty of the man she calls "True Heart," Babe never imagines the destruction Truman will leave in his wake. But once a storyteller, always a storyteller—even when the stories aren't his to tell.

Truman's fame is at its peak when such notable celebrities as Frank and Mia Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, and Rose Kennedy converge on his glittering Black and White Ball. But all too soon, he'll ignite a literary scandal whose repercussions echo through the years. The Swans of Fifth Avenue will seduce and startle readers as it opens the door onto one of America's most sumptuous eras.

My thoughts: Sometimes a book comes along that seems as if it were written just for you.  As if the author had gotten inside your head, read your thoughts, and tailored a book that so neatly dovetailed with the things that you love, that you can’t even believe that it exists. The Swans of Fifth Avenue is that book for me.  The minute that I heard about the book, I instinctively knew that I was going to love it.  A book about Truman Capote and the women in his life, his swans, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith, CZ Guest, and Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman? Done! I eagerly downloaded a copy from Net Galley, happily spending two nights devouring the book as if it were a particularly delicious box of macarons.

Like the author, I was first introduced to Truman Capote via the 1970’s Neil Simon film Murder by Death, a spoof about mysteries and their authors.  Later in 8th grade, I read his short story A Christmas Memory for English class.  It was hard for me to connect the dots between the caricature he had become on late night television with the beautiful and sensitive writer of Breakfast at Tiffany and In Cold Blood.  I’m also a little obsessed with not only with murder amongst the rich and famous but also the post-war New York era when women and dressed up to go to dinner, the theater or even grocery shopping.  I devoured The Two Mrs. Grenvilles when it came out, Dominick Dunne was my spirit animal.  For my 16th birthday, I convinced my parents to take me to dinner to at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center.  Reading about the glamourous lives of movie stars and socialites took me far away from the gritty streets of 1970’s and early 80’s New York where porn theaters outnumbered legitimate ones in Times Square.

But enough about me, how about the book? Did it live up to my expectations? It exceeded my expectations.  This book is an intimate portrait of a world that has disappeared like Avalon in the mist.  Benjamin’s prose lures you in from the very first paragraph.  It’s almost as if she had hidden in the bushes and recorded the personal and intimate conversations of these women and Capote. The dialogue and the emotions are just so real that it’s hard to believe that they came out of one woman’s imagination, that’s how closely she’s captured this particular man and women, and the era in which they lived.  I’ve read a great deal over the years about Capote, Babe Paley, and the others, and there isn’t a false note anywhere.  And believe me I looked, waiting for that ‘Aha’ moment where I could point and say ‘this couldn’t be possibly have happened,’ or ‘he couldn’t possibly have said that.’

Truman Capote and Babe Paley were unlikely soul-mates. Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley, along with her two sisters, was raised to marry a rich man, to be a sort of upper class geisha. She was expected to be perfect, to hide her emotions behind a calm, smiling façade. Capote’s parents were too concerned about their own wants to pay too much attention to their son.  He was dropped off with relatives as a child, after an early childhood spent locked in hotel rooms while his parents were off partying. Truman learned early on to entertain, to tell stories to combat the loneliness. These two people came together because they recognized that they could only ever be their true selves when they were either alone or with each other.  There is a beautiful moment in the book when Truman gets Babe to take off her make-up in front of him, revealing the faint scars left over from a horrific car accident.

Even you are a subscriber to Vanity Fair or New York Magazine, then you know that Truman caused a scandal when Esquire magazine published an excerpt from what was supposed to be his follow-up to In Cold Blood. Entitled ‘La Cote Basque 1965’ this excerpt and the one following revealed, in fictional form, not only the intimate secrets that Truman’s swans had revealed over the years but also those of Ann Woodward who famously shot her husband when she allegedly mistook him for a burglar. While Woodward committed suicide, the consensus was that Capote had committed professional suicide. His swans, apart from Lee Radziwill and CZ Guest, abandoned him.  This is the saddest part of the book, Capote’s decline after the triumph of In Cold Blood and his Black and White Ball.

I’ve always found it interesting that Capote referred to his special female friends as swans.  While they are beautiful and elegant birds, they are also some of the meanest birds on the planet, capable of breaking a man’s arm with a whap of their wings.  Did he sense that they would eventually turn on him? While in the final stages of cancer, Babe Paley points out to Slim Keith, that while Truman betrayed them, they also betrayed him by not loving him unconditionally.


My verdict:  Fans of vintage New York glamour who loved books such as Dominick Dunne’s The Two Mrs. Grenvilles will delight in the chance to experience vicariously the highs and lows of 1950’s and 60’s society. Benjamin’s novel highlights that old adage ‘Be Careful what you wish for, you just might get it’. You will sigh with regret when you turn the last page, wishing that you could linger just a minute longer in the scandalous, delicious but ultimately artificial world of Truman and his wans. Highly recommended.