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.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Winner of The Sisters at Versaille Giveaway

The Winner of The Sisters at Versaille Giveaway 


Nadine Tatum

Thanks everyone for entering and for reading the blog!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Review and Giveaway: The Sisters of Versailles

Title:  The Sisters of Versailles
Author:  Sally Christie
Pub Date:  September 1, 2015
Publisher:  Atria Books
How obtained:  Via TLC Book Tours (Edelweiss)
What is it about: Goodness, but sisters are a thing to fear.

Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters—Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne—four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail.

Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best foot—and women—forward. The King’s scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, the four sisters—sweet, naïve Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne—will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.

My Thoughts:  I first heard about the Mailly-Nesle sisters when I was researching Hortense Mancini, one of Charles II’s mistresses, for a blog post that I ended up not writing. I was intrigued to discover that Hortense’s great granddaughters had also been royal mistresses to Louis XV. Not just one great granddaughter but four of them! You don’t come across that very often while researching Scandalous Women in history! Unfortunately there wasn’t very much information about the sisters. For some reason, no one had written a biography about the sisters which seems a shame. They seem to have been overshadowed in history by Louis’s other mistresses, Madame de Pompadour and Madame de Barry.

Thank goodness, Sally Christie, decided to write The Sisters of Versailles to rescue these fascinating women from the murky depths of history.  Anyone who has read my blog over the years has heard me bitch and moan about the plethora of books set during the Tudor period in England when the court of Versailles is even more fascinating.  The rigorous adherence to court etiquette combined with the endless backstabbing and jockeying for position for power, along with the loose morals of almost everyone at Versailles should be catnip for historical fiction writers. The Sisters of Versailles gives the reader an intimate look at the French court, peeling back the curtain to show the rot underneath. Once I started this book, I couldn’t put it down, I devoured it like a particularly tasty salted caramel macaron. I stayed up until past midnight last night to finish it, and when I was done, I felt bereft. I didn’t want to leave this intriguing but dangerous world. I wanted to continue to savor this story and these women.
The book is narrated by all five sisters, using first person POV.  Christie does a masterful job at delineating each sister so that even without the heading for each chapter, the reader knows instantly who is narrating the story at any given time. It’s a remarkably accomplishment for a first time novelist. They are so vibrant, they fairly leap off the page. 

Although the sisters come from the noblest backgrounds, they start the novel of with a disadvantage, they are poor by aristocratic standards. Their father has pretty much gambled away their inheritances, each of them can only expect 7,500 livres for a dowry.  Their mother who is beautiful but feckless, spends most of her time at Versailles, leaving the sisters under the supervision of their governess. Louise, the eldest, is sweet, idealistic and naïve. 

She is married off to a distant cousin who neglects her, her mother-in-law despises her for being unable to produce an heir. Louise longs to be part of the glittering court, for her life to start. She gets her wish when she is appointed a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. When it looks like the King’s interest in the Queen is waning, Louise is pushed to become the King’s first mistress. Although she knows that she is committing a sin, Louise falls hopelessly in love with Louis. She reminds me very much of another Louise, Louise de la Valliere, the mistress of Louis XIV.  Louise de la Valliere was also pushed into the arms of Louis XIV to combat the rumors of the King’s relationship with his sister-in-law. Both women loved the King more as a man than a sovereign, and both love affairs end unhappily.

When their mother dies, the four remaining sisters are split up.  Pauline and Diane are sent to a convent and Hortense and Marie-Anne are sent to live with their Tante Mazarin. Pauline’s letters to Louise at court are hilarious as she takes every opportunity to try and convince Louise to bring her to court or to find her a husband. Pauline is ambitious for power and advancement, to make her mark on the world.  She’s also intelligent and bossy. She’s that girl in school who gets things done but who is also a pain in the ass.  What I love about Pauline is that she doesn’t really care about making friends or people liking her.  She has one goal and she achieves it, even at the expense of her sister.

The heart of the book is really about sisterhood, what do you do when the people who should have your back, your family, stab you in the back? Even before the sisters are torn apart by the deaths of their mother, there is a clear divide in the family, and how they remember their childhoods. Marie-Anne, the youngest, is a hard, glittering diamond, who will stop at nothing to achieve power when the King sets his sights on her.  And then there is poor Diane, not the sharpest tool in the shed, silly, sweet Diane who loves everyone, even the unlovable Pauline.  I think Diane was one of my favorite characters in the book, she only wants to be happy and to have lovely things to eat, to gossip and wear pretty clothes. She’s probably the most uncomplicated of the five sisters. And there is Hortense, the good one, the only one to survive to a ripe old age.

Christie offers a wealth of period detail, from the descriptions of the rooms at Versailles, to the clothing, the backstairs maneuvering, all offered in a lively, modern tone. She doesn’t try to mimic the intricate writing style of the 18th century. Instead imagine an 18th century version of Vanity Fair magazine. If you love period films or novels like Ridicule or Les Liaisons dangereuses, you will love The Sisters of Versailles.

Giveaway (US only)

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- Giveaway ends on August 26th.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Anna May Wong

Over the weekend, I went with friends to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While we were there, I took the opportunity to go through the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibit again (I discovered that I’d completely missed two whole floors of the exhibit). Once again, I was drawn to the section of the exhibit dealing with Anna May Wong (1905-1961) who was the first Chinese American movie star. Along with her costume from Limehouse Blues, the exhibit featured dresses that were inspired by dresses that Anna May had worn in her films, along with clips of several of her movies including Toll of the Sea, one of the first Technicolor films, Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich (one of her best remembered films), and Limehouse Blues where George Raft unfortunately cast as Asian.  Even with the sound off, Anna May Wong is so vibrant and alive in these clips, particularly the scenes from Toll of the Sea (1922) which is based on Madame Butterfly. The film and Anna May’s performance seem incredibly modern, not dated at all. It’s hard to believe that she was only 17 when the movie was made.

During her career she made dozens of films in Hollywood, London and Berlin. She was glamorous and sophisticated; photographers flocked to take her portrait. Despite never having graduated high school, she was worldly and articulate, with friends like Carl van Vechten, Evelyn Waugh and Paul Robeson. Yet she spent most of her career typecast either as a demure, submissive, painted doll ‘Butterfly’ roles or a scheming Dragon Lady. Some people see Anna May as a victim of Hollywood, condemned to play stereotyped Asian roles — lotus flower or dragon lady, and shouldered aside by white actors such as Luise Rainer and Myrna Loy in yellow face. Anna May Wong’s reputation has suffered over the years because of the roles that she played. The older generation blame her for playing stereotypical roles in the same way that Hattie McDaniel was condemned for playing maids. It’s hard to be the first one, whether it’s flying across the Atlantic or becoming the first Chinese-American film star. People had expectations that Anna found almost impossible to fulfill. She had no role models to look up to. And Hollywood didn’t jump at the chance to develop films for her or groom her for stardom. They just didn’t see her as leading lady material.

The newspapers and film critics in China were also harsh in their criticism of her film roles, that they were shameful. As if she were in a position to pick and choose, and she just chose the ones that had her playing prostitutes and dragon ladies. They didn’t know what to make of her, she looked Chinese but she was thoroughly American, with her western clothes and California accent. She partied hard, dancing the Charleston, the fox-trot and the tango, showing her knees.

Anna was born and raised in L.A., the daughter of a laundryman and his wife who were both second generation Chinese-American. She was given the name Wong Liu Tsong which means “yellow willow frost” on January 3, 1905.  She was the second child and second girl, eventually the family included several more children including the much longed for sons. She didn’t grow up in Chinatown but just outside it, in a neighborhood of mainly Mexican and European residents.  Initially Anna and her older sister went to a public school but after enduring racial taunts from her classmates, her parents enrolled them in a Presbyterian Chinese school. The classes were taught in English, but Anna attended a Chinese language school on the weekends. Although Anna's family had been in the United States since before the Civil War, they were still subject to intense scrutiny.  Chinese immigration had been curtailed since the 1880's.  Every time Anna made plans to travel abroad, she had to fill out paperwork detailing her plans, otherwise there was also the chance that she would not be able to return. Given her outspokenness, it wouldn't be surprising to find that the FBI kept a file on her activities. 

Like many teenage girls, Anna May dreamed of being in the movies.  She would sneak out of school, spending all the money she had saved going to the movies. But she managed to achieve her dream, first as an extra in films and then later on in featured and secondary roles.  Lucky for her that the movies had relocated from the East Coast to the sunny climate of Southern California.  Movies were being made in and around her neighborhood. From childhood, Anna May was pestering the filmmakers to get them to allow her to be in the movies. Eventually Anna May dropped out of high school to focus full-time on acting. “I was so young when I began that I knew I still had youth if I failed, so I determined to give myself 10 years to succeed as an actress.”

Despite her success, Anna May struggled her whole career to take somehow imbue the stereotypical roles she was cast in into something more.  She worked closely with the costume designers and hair and make-up artists to create her characters, often bringing in clothes from home to wear.  She lobbied hard to play the lead role in the MGM film of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth only to discover that to the producers, she “too Chinese to play Chinese”. The Chinese government also apparently advised against casting her in the role.  Anna had to see a role that she had dreamed of playing given to a white Austrian woman, Luise Rainer, who won her first Academy Award for the role.  Instead, Anna was offered the only unsympathetic role in the film.

The production code of the 1930’s stymied her career.  Interracial love was taboo. If a non-Asian actor was cast to play an Asian male, Anna could not share an on-screen kiss with him. There was only one leading Asian man in U.S. films in the silent era, Sessue Hayakawa. Until other Asian leading men could be found, Anna’s career was stifled. In interviews, she was outspoken out the dangers of typecasting.  The salary that she was paid were nowhere near comparable to what her white counterparts or even her Asian male co-stars.  For Daughter of the Dragon (1931) Wong was paid $6,000 compared to Sessue Hayakawa who was paid $10,000 or Warner Oland who made $12,000 for 23 minutes of screen time.

In Europe, Anna May found fewer casting restrictions.  In 1934’s Java Head, she actually got to kiss the white actor who played her husband on screen. She made her stage debut in play based on an Edgar Wallace novel starring a young Laurence Olivier as well as 5 films in England over the years.  Moving on to Germany, she made four films before the Nazi’s came to power.  Anna picked up languages easily, adding German and French to her repertoire.  While in Germany, she became friends with Marlene Dietrich, leading to rumors that the two women were lovers which damaged her reputation and embarrassed her family. Even in Europe, Anna was considered wonderfully foreign, there were few Chinese living in England, France or Germany.  In some ways, she was like a exotic pet at the zoo.

Throughout her career, Anna May worked diligently on her craft. When English critics complained that her voice was too American, she learned to speak with an English accent.  She took voice lessons to work on her voice so that it could be heard in the theatre.  When film roles were thin on the ground, Anna May created a cabaret act which she toured through Europe and the United States. After the disappointment of losing the role of O-Lan in the film version of The Good Earth, Anna May decided it was time to visit China.  Her father and younger siblings had all moved back to the tiny village of her ancestors. She spent a year touring China, studying Mandarin and Chinese culture.  Her plans were to eventually bring English translations of Chinese plays to the West to promote a better understanding of Chinese culture.  Unfortunately those plans never came to fruition.

Returning to Hollywood in the late 1930s, Anna May Wong starred in a series of B pictures, where she finally got play Chinese Americans in a more positive light including King of Chinatown where she portrayed a surgeon! Once America entered World War II, Wong turned her attention more towards fundraising, devoting her time and her money to helping the Chinese cause against the Japan. Post-war, Anna returned to acting, but on television rather than film. In 1951, she had her own series entitled The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which was the first U.S. television show featuring an Asian-American lead.

Her personal life was just as tumultuous as her screen career. At 17, she had an affair with the director Tod Browning who was not only older but married as well.  Most of her relationships were with white men, which Anna May kept out of the public eye. An interracial relationship would have ended her career. She was openly admitted in interviews that she would most likely never marry, claiming that Chinese and Chinese-American men found her too independent. Her sister, Mary Wong, who had also pursued a career in film, committed suicide.  Suffering on and off from depression, Anna began to drink and smoke heavily, which over the years began to take its toll on her health. Still she forged on with her career, receiving a start on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.  She was just about to start shooting Flower Drum Song in 1961, when she died suddenly of a heart attack during her sleep. She was only 56.

Further reading:

Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend, Hong Kong University Press; 1 edition (June 1, 2012)

Anne Helen Petersen, Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema, Plume (September 30, 2014)

Mark Bailey, Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling through Hollywood History, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014.

Monday, June 1, 2015

June Books of the Month

It's been awhile since I posted but also since I've done a Book of the Month post. This month I have two great books to tell you about:  Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer and Model Woman by Robert Lacey.

Hissing Cousins was published by Penguin Random House at the end of March. I've slowly been dipping into the book thanks to Net Galley.  If you watched the recent Ken Burns documentary on The Roosevelts on PBS than you will definitely want to read this book. It gives the readers a more upclose and personal view on the relationship between Eleanor and Alice and also the dynamics between the Oyster Bay Roosevelts and the Hyde Park Roosevelts.

ABOUT HISSING COUSINS: A lively and provocative double biography of first cousins Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, two extraordinary women whose tangled lives provide a sweeping look at the twentieth century. 

When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, his beautiful and flamboyant daughter was transformed into “Princess Alice,” arguably the century’s first global celebrity. Thirty-two years later, her first cousin Eleanor moved into the White House as First Lady. Born eight months and twenty blocks apart from each other in New York City, Eleanor and Alice spent a large part of their childhoods together and were far more alike than most historians acknowledge. 

But their politics and temperaments couldn’t have been more distinct. Do-gooder Eleanor was committed to social justice but hated the limelight; acid-tongued Alice, who became the wife of philandering Republican congressman Nicholas Longworth, was an opponent of big government who gained notoriety for her cutting remarks (she famously quipped that dour President Coolidge “looked like he was weaned on a pickle”). While Eleanor revolutionized the role of First Lady with her outspoken passion for human rights, Alice made the most of her insider connections to influence politics, including doing as much to defeat the League of Nations as anyone in elective office.

My second book of the month is Model Woman by Robert Lacey.  Back in olden times, also known as the 20th century, Michael Gross wrote a revealing book about the modeling industry called appropriately enough MODEL which detailed the history from its infancy all the way through the then crop of supermodels.  Robert Lacey deals in depth with the woman who really changed everything for the better and the worst, Eileen Ford. This book is not a salacious biography along the lines of say someone like Kitty Kelley or Jerry Oppenheimer.  This is a very even-handed biography of a very interesting woman.

From the back cover:

Eileen Ford, working with her husband, Jerry, created the twentieth century's largest and most successful modeling agency, representing some of the fashion world's most famous names—Suzy Parker, Carmen Dell'Orefice, Lauren Hutton, Rene Russo, Christie Brinkley, Jerry Hall, Christy Turlington, and Naomi Campbell. Her relentless ambition turned the business of modeling into one of the most glamorous and desired professions, helping to convert her stable of beautiful faces into millionaire superstars.

Model Woman chronicles the Ford Modeling Agency's meteoric rise to the top of the fashion and beauty business, and paints a vibrant portrait of the uncompromising woman at its helm in all her glittering, tyrannical brilliance. Outspoken and controversial, Ford was never afraid to offend in defense of her stringent standards. When she chose, she could deliver hauteur in the grand tradition of fashion's battle-axes, from Coco Chanel to Diana Vreeland—just ask John Casablancas or Janice Dickinson. But she was also a shrewd businesswoman with a keen eye for talent and a passion for serving her clients.

Drawing on more than four years of intensive interviews with Ford and her intimates, associates, and rivals, as well as exclusive access to agency documents and memorabilia, Robert Lacey weaves an unforgettable tale of a determined entrepreneur and the empire she built—a story of beauty, ambition, business, and popular culture as powerful and complex as the woman at its center.