Friday, July 11, 2014

The Headmistress and the Diet Doc

The year 1980 was not turning out so well for Jean Harris. Her job as headmistress at the Madeira School, an expensive, prestigious boarding school for the rich and privileged was turning into more of a nightmare than the dream job she had hoped it would be.  Her recent decision to expel four seniors for smoking marijuana on campus had provoked a mini-riot amongst the parents and students,  one of whom considered the decision to be hypocritical given that marijuana use was endemic at the school. Harris refused to budge in her decision.  The whole situation left Harris depressed and exhausted.  At the age of 57, she worried that her job was in jeopardy.  She hadn’t been the first choice for the job and a commissioned report had suggested firing her.  Her savings meager, Jean felt that she was too old to start over again at another school.  She had also run out of the medication that had been prescribed to combat her depression. And then there was her fourteen year relationship with Dr. Herman Tarnower.

Her lover was now famous for his book, The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet which had recently spent several months at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List.  Jean had hated the idea, believing diet books to be tacky and trite.  The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet had become a national bestseller, selling 750,000 in hardcover and over two million in paperback.  Tarnower was in demand as a guest on TV talk shows.  A one page mimeographed sheet that he had been giving away to his heart patients for years was now making him millions. For several years now, Tarnower had also been having an affair with his office assistant Lynne Tryforos, but Jean had been under the impression or at least hoped that she meant more to Tarnower than her younger, blonder rival.  Until Tarnower had told her that Lynne would be sitting next to him at his upcoming 70th birthday party, not Jean.  She would be placed at a different table.  Jean could feel him slipping away from her and she was frantic.  

She wrote Tarnower a long, rambling, ten page letter detailing all the wrongs she felt he had done her, and begging him to treat her differently. To make sure that he got it, she sent it by registered mail.  Although she was expected at an important dinner on the night of March 10, 1980, Jean was determined to see Tarnower, even if it meant driving the five hours from Virginia to Westchester. Before she left, she fetched her gun, a Harrington & Richardson 32-caliber revolver which was still in the box.  She filled it with bullets before dropping it back in the box.  Before leaving, she’d updated her will, and left notes scattered around her house that she had no intention of returning to.  Dressed in a black suit, she got into her blue and white Chrysler and took off for Tarnower’s house in the pouring rain.

Although Herman Tarnower had agreed to see her, he was not happy to see her when she arrived that night. He was already dressed for bed in his pajamas.  The couple argued.  When she was questioned by the police later, Jean claimed that she had come to Westchester not to kill Tarnower, but to ask him to kill her.  If had refused, she then planned on doing the deed herself. The two struggled for the gun.  When the police arrived, Tarnower was lying on the floor with four bullets in him.  Jean stood by distraught, her black suit sodden from the rain.  The headmistress was booked for Murder Two.  What made this petite, genteel, 56 year-old Smith graduate finally snap?  Was it an accident or murder?  Was she justified? Public debate raged. Harris evoked vastly different thoughts and feelings about women, love, fidelity and aggression. To some women, Jean Harris was a modern-day Anna Karenina, to others, a pathetic masochist.

Jean met Herman Tarnower soon after her divorce in 1966, introduced by mutual friends.  Jean had just turned 43, and had recently moved to Philadelphia to take a job as the director of the middle school at the Springside Academy.  Tarnower was 13 years older, a well-respected cardiologist and internist with a practice in Westchester.  He was also a committed bachelor married to his job.  From the beginning the attraction was immediate. Tarnower, who was used to women chasing him, did the pursuing this time. He was the complete opposite of her ex-husband Jim Harris who was handsome, easy-going and not terribly ambitious.  Tarnower was more like her father, aloof, exuding strength and ambition. Jean, who was used to making decisions at work and as a single mother, loved having a man take charge for a change.  He was also sophisticated, well-dressed, erudite knowledgeable about wines, food, and well-traveled.  Usually tightfisted when it came to money, Tarnower sprang for flowers and expensive gifts for his new inamorata. Before long they were spending nights on the town, dining at fine restaurants and dancing at the Pierre.

Within months, Tarnower had proposed marriage to Jean, even going so far as to buy her an engagement ring.  Initially Jean had wanted to postpone the wedding; she had just uprooted her sons to Philadelphia from Detroit and was reluctant to uproot them again to move to New York.  The decision gave Tarnower time to think and he began to get cold feet.  Although he tried to break it up off, insisting that Jean deserved a man who could offer her marriage, but Jean was too much in love.  She wrote him a letter insisting that she was fine with continuing the relationship on his terms, that she loved him too much to leave him, marriage or no marriage.  It was a decision that she would later learn to regret.  Tarnower took this letter to mean that he was free to go back to his days of womanizing.  Jean tried to ignore the other women, focusing on the fact that it was she that Tarnower took on expensive trips around the world, who dined with his powerful friends, and graced his dinner parties.

Jean was also struggling in her professional life. Although she loved teaching, she had moved into administration because it paid better.  It wasn’t a natural fit for her.  She was too outspoken and honest, seemed to lack tact when dealing with parents and the trustees.  All the bureaucracy began to weigh her down. When she was passed over as headmistress at the Springtime Academy, she became depressed.  She moved on to the Thomas School in Connecticut which had the advantage of placing her closer to Tarnower, but the school struggled to stay open and eventually merged with a boy's school.  Jean then decided to try the corporate world, working as the manager of sales administration for Allied Maintenance, a job which paid her more than she had made in school administration.   It was around this time that Tarnower began to prescribe Desoxyn, a powerful methamphetamine for Jean which made her hyper, but also gave her insomnia.  To combat the insomnia, she began to take sleeping pills.  Over the ten years that Tarnower prescribed the medication, he continued to up the dosage as Jean developed a tolerance to the drug.

 She was also addicted to Tarnower, believing that he was her life-line, that if he ended the relationship, she had nothing left to live for.  She seemed helpless to leave him, despite her friends’ best efforts to convince her otherwise.  Also like many women, instead of blaming Tarnower for cheating her on her, she blamed the other woman.  In this case, Lynne Tryforos who had started working for Tarnower as a receptionist four years before his relationship began with Jean Harris. Like Jean, Lynne was a divorcée with two children. She was also a good thirty years younger than the good doctor. Unlike Jean, Lynne only had a high school education. Snob that she was, Jean didn't mean that Lynne was sophisticated or cultured enough for Tarnower.

Although both women worshipped Tarnower, Lynn was on the ground so to speak. She managed the doctor’s professional life and increasingly his home life as well. While Jean could come across as a terrible snob sometimes, Lynn was much more down to earth, more openly adoring of the great doctor.  His friends felt that she relaxed him. While Jean argued and challenged Herman, Lynne was supportive.  As Tarnower aged, nearing retirement age, he began to prefer Lynne’s uncomplicated company.  Then there were the anonymous phone calls that both women claimed to receive.  Both women complained to Tarnower that the other was harassing her.  Jean also complained that two dresses that she had left at Tarnower’s were ruined by Lynne.  Was Jean lying about the calls, did she ruin the dresses herself and blame Lynne for them? Or did the housekeeper, Suzanne Van der Vreken, who disliked Jean, ruin the clothes? (This is my personal theory).

The trial lasted three months in 1981 and became a national soap opera. Many people expected that Jean Harris would be acquitted or at least receive a lighter sentence.  And she might have been, if she had pleaded guilty by reason of temporary insanity, or if she had agreed to a plea bargain. Joel Aurnou, her lawyer, so believed in his client’s innocence that he refused to entertain anything other than an absolute acquittal.  They decided to put their faith in the justice system, to believe that a jury would hear her story and believe her to be innocent.
And they might have if not for several things.  First the prosecution claimed that Jean had shot the doctor while he was sleeping, the bullet wound in his hand was a defensive wound. Meanwhile the defense argued that the doctor was wounded when he tried to wrest the gun from Jean’s hand. Most sides had expert witnesses who testified to promote their theories.  Another witness was a patient who had been in the office that morning of Tarnower’s death when Jean had called.  When Tarnower went into another room to take the call, he left the phone off the hook, so Mrs. Edwards could hear parts of the conversation including Tarnower telling Jean to leave him alone.  Unlike OJ at his trial, Jean testified in her own defense. On the stand, she came across as alternately depressed, agitated, snobbish and sad. But it was the infamous ‘Scarsdale Letter,’ that Jean had sent Tarnower that did the most damage to her defense.   Her lawyers had managed to retrieve the letter before the prosecution could get their hands on it. However once Jean admitted to the letter under cross-examination, the prosecution could get it admitted in to evidence.  

The letter gave a different picture to the one painted by the defense.  The letter was filled with vindictive prose about Lynne Tryforos, a woman that Jean had claimed not to be jealous of.  Instead of a fragile, emotionally distraught and suicidal woman, the letter made her look like a woman scorned determined to make her lover pay for humiliating her. Jurors later stated that they couldn't believe that a woman as dignified as Jean had used such language, calling Tryforos a ‘psychotic whore’ amongst other things. Unfortunately none of the mental health professionals who had treated Jean since the arrest were called to testify in her defense, nor was her addiction to the drug Desoxyn mentioned either.

The jury deliberated for 8 days.  When the jury came in with a guilty verdict, even the prosecution was surprised.  Many people thought she would get off.  After all, she wouldn't be the first upper-class woman to shoot her husband or lover and get away with it. When the guilty verdict came in, the prosecutor assigned to the case, George Bolen maintained that the case proved that there was no double-standard under the law. Rich and poor were treated alike. Harris was sentenced to 15 years in the penitentiary with possibility for parole or time-off for good behavior.  Her lawyers appealed the verdict 3 times but lost. In prison, Harris wrote several books, spending most of her time working in the prison’s children center and helping to give parenting classes to inmate moms. After serving twelve years, and suffering two heart attacks, Governor Cuomo finally granted her clemency on the grounds of ill health in 1992. Released in 1993, Harris spent the rest of her life raising money for the education of the children of inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.  She passed away at the age of 89 in 2012. 

Further reading:

Shana Alexander:  Very Much A Lady:  The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower, Gallery Books, 2006

Diana Trilling:  Mrs Harris - The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor, Harcourt, October 1981

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

July Books of the Month: Everything's Coming up Romanov

This month on Scandalous Women, we have not one but two books recently published about the Romanov's.  First up is Michael Farquhar's book new book Secret Lives of the Tsar's. 

From the back cover:

Scandal! Intrigue! Cossacks! Here the world’s most engaging royal historian chronicles the world’s most fascinating imperial dynasty: the Romanovs, whose three-hundred-year reign was remarkable for its shocking violence, spectacular excess, and unimaginable venality. In this incredibly entertaining history, Michael Farquhar collects the best, most captivating true tales of Romanov iniquity. We meet Catherine the Great, with her endless parade of virile young lovers (none of them of the equine variety); her unhinged son, Paul I, who ordered the bones of one of his mother’s paramours dug out of its grave and tossed into a gorge; and Grigori Rasputin, the “Mad Monk,” whose mesmeric domination of the last of the Romanov tsars helped lead to the monarchy’s undoing. From Peter the Great’s penchant for personally beheading his recalcitrant subjects (he kept the severed head of one of his mistresses pickled in alcohol) to Nicholas and Alexandra’s brutal demise at the hands of the Bolsheviks, Secret Lives of the Tsars captures all the splendor and infamy that was Imperial Russia.

Michael is also the author of Behind the Palace Doors and A Treasury of Royal Scandals. Both of these books are on my keeper shelf and I refer to them whenever I write anything about royalty.

Next up is Helen Rappaport's The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra.

From the back cover:

They were the Princess Dianas of their day—perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. The four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses—Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov—were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle.

Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it.

The Romanov Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. Helen Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.

I started reading The Romanov Sisters but I had to put it down for awhile because I always feel an overwhelming sadness whenever I read about the Tsar's daughters. However, from what I've read so far, the book is excellent and well worth purchasing.  Rappaport knows her Russian history intimately, and there is a wealth of detail in the books that you probably won't find elsewhere. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Becoming Jane

Recently on a Saturday night, I watched Jane Fonda receive the AFI Life Achievement on TNT.  She’d been off the grid for a few years, but recently in the past seven or eight years, she’s slowly been making a comeback in not only film but theater as well ( I had the chance to see her in 33 Variations on Broadway a few years back).  Not bad for a woman who will celebrate her 77th birthday this coming December.  I had forgotten how much I've enjoyed her performances over the years. There is a direct link between the tough but tender women portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford to Jane Fonda.  Gloria In They Shoot Horses Don’t They, Bree Daniels in Klute, Lillian Hellman in Julia. There would be no Angelina Jolie if Jane Fonda hadn't paved the way.  What other actress could go from Barbarella to winning an Academy Award in just a few short years? It was heartwarming to hear actress such as Sally Field and Meryl Streep acknowledge the debt that they owe her.

Watching the clips of her movies and hearing her story once again, it brought home to me just how many times she has reinvented herself over the years.  There was ingénue Jane, Barbarella Jane, serious actress Jane, the infamous Hanoi Jane, workout Jane, and trophy wife Jane.  Now she’s in her third or maybe fifth act? A born again Christian, an activist for women and children, and once again a serious actress.  She’s shed personas the way a snake sheds skins, all the while searching for the real Jane Fonda. There are more than three faces of Jane Fonda.

I haven’t read Fonda’s biography but I did recently finish reading Patricia Bosworth’s excellent biographyFriends since their Actor’s Studio days, Bosworth seems to have been the ideal person to write Fonda’s biography. What I mean by that is that she has no ax to grind, no agenda, other than telling Fonda’s story as honestly as possible.  It’s kind of refreshing no?  Back in my acting days, I used to devour biographies and autobiographies of actors, as if they had some secret that I could divine between their pages.  So Jane Fonda’s story was somewhat familiar to me before I started reading the biography. 

So many people focus on her political activism during the 1970’s, in particular her infamous trip to North Vietnam.  Recently, I think it was Michelle Obama, said that they admired Jane Fonda and the vitriol that was spewed on Facebook was unbelievable.  People still haven’t forgiven her for visiting ‘the enemy’ and taking a photo sitting on stop of a gun.  No many how many times, she’s apologized and blamed her actions of being politically naïve, there are people who still believe that she’s some kind of communist plant.  They believe that she betrayed the POW’s that she met, despite the fact that those men claimed it never happened. For me that was the most fascinating aspect of her story.  We’re so used to actors being political nowadays, that it’s hard to remember a time when it was still a new thing for actors to express a political opinion.  It was one thing to march for civil rights, but the opposition to the Vietnam War is a whole other animal.

And it wasn't just her anti-war stance; she was also a big supporter of the Black Panther party, and fought for Native American rights, not very popular causes in the 1970’s.  She faced endless harassment by the FBI for over a decade, was accused of smuggling drugs when in reality she was just carrying bottles of vitamins, and arrested repeatedly.  Not many actors were so committed to their causes that they spent all their money bankrolling them!

I used to be really hard on Fonda for being willing to change herself so completely for the men in her life.  Her decisions took an incredible toll on her kids.  At one point in the book, Fonda asks her daughter Vanessa for help putting together a video of her life for her 60th birthday.  Her daughter told her ‘why don’t you just get a chameleon and let him crawl across the screen.” Harsh but true.  I now have more sympathy for Fonda.  It can’t have been easy not only growing up as the daughter of a screen legend, but Jane also had to deal with a mother who was mentally ill.  

She was born Lady Jayne Seymour Fonda in 1937. Her mother Frances Seymour Brokaw always claimed that they were related to Edward Seymour and his family.  While her mother could claim aristocratic roots, Fonda’s family originally came to this country from Italy.  From the beginning, Jane was a daddy’s girl, she wanted to be like him, dress like him, talk like him.  Her father, however, was uncomfortable with expressing emotion. He had that Midwestern stoicism that was great for characters like Tom Joad in Grapes of Wrath, not so much at home.  Her mother on the hand favored Jane’s little brother Peter.  She’d had a daughter from her first marriage, and was less keen on having a second. A great deal of Jane’s subsequent actions can be seen as trying to get her father’s attention.  If being good didn't work, then she’d do the exact opposite to gain his attention.  Still despite their tortured relationship, Jane found On Golden Pond and produced it, believing that this film would finally garner her father the Academy Award that she felt that he so richly deserved. And it did!  I wept reading the parts of the book where both Jane and her brother Peter went out of their way towards the end of his life to repeatedly tell him that they loved him, even if he couldn't quite say it back.

Her mother had also been diagnosed as suffering from manic depression, what we now call bipolar disease.  The preferred treatment in the 1940’s was electroshock therapy.  When Jane was 11, her mother committed suicide while an in-patient at a sanatorium.  She and her brother were told that her mother had actually died of a heart attack.  Jane didn’t find out the truth until she saw it in a movie magazine that a friend was reading while at boarding school. She was not only devastated but there was also the worry that perhaps she had inherited her mother’s mental instability. To the outside world, Jane and her brother Peter lived a life of privilege, boarding schools (Emma Willard for Jane) and elite colleges (Jane went to Vassar for two years).  The reality was far different.

Even before her mother committed suicide, her father had fallen in love with a much younger woman whom he eventually married.  Two other marriages would eventually follow.  Jane suffered from bulimia; she would gorge herself with food and then purge it.  Instead of eating, she would take tons of vitamins to replace the nutrients she was throwing up. When she wasn’t bingeing and purging, she was exercising compulsively. Her work-out empire can be seen as a direct result of her bulimia, although by the time she opened the first Jane Fonda Work-Out studio, she had gone cold-turkey with her bulimia.

Jane has admitted that the men she fell in love with were all variations of her father, cold, remote, and dismissive.  Ted Turner even shared the same illness that her mother did, and his father had committed suicide like her mother.  It was nice to see that even she had reservations about dating him, although he put on the full court press.  I imagine even I would find it hard to turn down a man who not only has a private jet but 27 different ranches! Out of all her husbands Ted Turner was the only one who was as famous as she was, and even he had to deal with being treated like ‘Mr. Fonda’ at times during their relationship. It’s to Fonda’s credit that she managed to have cordial relationships with all her exes (Apparently Ted Turner’s 3 mistresses call her up for her advice on how to deal with the Mouth from the South).

While reading this book I lamented the roles that Jane Fonda didn’t play, either because she turned them down or in the case of The Music Box the director thought she was too old.  You guys, she didn’t make a movie for like 15 years and when she finally did, it was Monster-in-Law with Jennifer Lopez, all because freaking Ted Turner hated to be alone, and if she’d left him to make a movie, he’d have moved like 8 mistresses into his various houses.  She even admitted that she did Monster-in-Law on purpose because she hoped people would see the movie because of JLo but come out of it thinking about Jane Fonda. Which I totally did by the way. That ain't no lie.

I hurt for this one woman who had such low self-esteem that she agreed to threesomes with her husband Roger Vadim just to keep him. The woman who poured bazillions of dollars into her second husband Tom Hayden’s political campaigns and projects, even though he basically treated her like dirt. The woman who decorated all of Ted Turner’s 27 ranches, treated his kids like they were her own, and drank heavily to deal with his infidelities.  I have to give her credit because each time, she thought the relationship was going to last forever, and she certainly gave it the old college try.  These weren't fly-by-night relationships (6 years married to Vadim, 15 to Tom Hayden and 9 to Ted Turner which is like 81 years for normal people).

I was gratified to read at the end of the book that she had finally learned to stop compromising herself for a man, that she’s made family a priority (she’s even still close to Turner’s kids), as well as her career.  I loved seeing her on stage in 33 Variations. It made me realize that life doesn't stop until you are well into the ground.  That it’s important to keep engaged, informed, connected to not just places but people as well. And to have a sense of humor about yourself and your past mistakes and to forgive yourself for them. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Scandalous Royal Romance: King Carol II of Romania and Magda Lupescu

The story of how King Edward VIII of Great Britain abdicated the throne for the ‘Woman I Love,’ the thrice-divorced Wallis Warfield Simpson is well known.  Countless books have been written; TV and miniseries have been produced about what many people consider to be one of the greatest and most scandalous royal love affairs in history.  While the love story of King Carol of Romania and his mistress Magda Lupescu is nothing more than a footnote to history.  Like Edward, Carol refused to give up his flame-haired Pompadour.  However, unlike King Edward VIII, Carol actually managed to regain his throne, ruling for almost ten years before the coming war and his own autocratic style forced him into exile.
He was born on October 15, 1893 in Peles Castle to Crown Princess Marie (born Princess Marie of Edinburgh) and Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania. Soon after Carol was born, his care and education was taken over by Queen Elisabeth and King Carol.  Marie was allowed no say in the education of her children, and her husband did little to support her against the King and Queen. Marie was an adoring but ineffectual parent. She found it difficult to even scold them at times, thus failing to properly supervise them. Consequently, Carol grew up wilful, spoilt by everyone.  He was convinced that he knew right about everything. Finally he was sent to Potsdam, to his father’s old regiment. Outwardly his behavior improved. The discipline and regimen of the army suited his love of rules and protocol.

The prince grew into a striking young man, over 6 feet tall, with blond hair and blue eyes. Once he became of age, his parents cast around for a suitable bride for him, finally settling on the Grand Duchess Olga of Russia.  While the couple met, there was no interest on either side.  Prince Carol had already cast his eyes elsewhere.  The object of his desire was a young Romanian woman named Zizi Lambrino.  Although Zizi was related by marriage to an aristocrat, she was both Romanian and a commoner and it was an unspoken rule that members of the royal family could not marry commoners.  As a film director famously once said, ‘the heart wants what the heart wants,’ and Carol was determined to marry Zizi.  The couple eloped in the fall of 1918.

Because he had deserted his post, Carol faced the possibility of being court-martialed. His parents were understandably upset at his actions. Marie, in particular, considered Zizi to be nothing more than an adventuress.   Carol was sentenced to 75 days in prison for desertion and pressure was put on him to have the marriage annulled.  Although they were no longer married, the affair continued, leading to the birth of Carol and Zizi’s son Mircea in 1920. Hoping to take his mind off of his love life, his parents decided to send him on 8 month tour around the world. Although he continued to write to Zizi, his feelings eventually petered out.

His parents breathed a sigh of relief when Carol eventually proposed to Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark. Finally their son had made an appropriate match. Known as ‘Sitta’ Helen was tall, fine-boned and slim.  Her father, King Constantine I, gave his consent only after he was assured the affair with Zizi was over.  The royal couple was married on March 10, 1921 in Athens.  The couple honeymooned at Tatoi before sailing for Bucharest to start their married life.The marriage was at first happy, but soon soured. After the first euphoria, they realized that they had very little in common.  Carol was intellectually curious, while Helen preferred shopping and interior design.  He spent hours on his stamp collection, hating it when Helen would interrupt by sitting on this lap.  

On 25 October 1921, Helen and Carol's first and only child Mihai (Romanian for Michael) was born. There were complications and for a while neither mother nor child were expected to pull through. The baby was rumored to have been born premature (he was born only seven and a half months after his parents' wedding), but the fact that he weighed nine pounds at birth fueled speculation that Helen had become pregnant before the wedding.  To recover her strength, Helen took her baby son and went to stay with her parents in Athens for four months. By the time that Helen fully recovered from the difficult birth, her husband had moved on.  He had met the second woman who would shape and some say destroy his life.  Her name was Elena Lupescu.  She has been called an adventuress, a home wrecker, a femme fatale, and one of Europe’s last great courtesans.  Even her date of birth is shrouded in mystery.  

She was born in either 1896 or 1899, in Moldavia.  Both of her parents, although born Jewish, had converted to Christianity. Her father changed the family name from Grunberg to the less Semitic Lupescu.  Even how she received her nickname is up for grabs.  She herself said that she was given the nickname by an Italian journalist but there are others who say that ‘Magda’ was Bucharest slang for prostitute.  There were rumors when the family moved to port town of Sulina on the Black Sea, Elena’s mother ‘entertained’ the naval officers nearby while her father played cards.

Elena was well-educated, sent to a Roman Catholic convent in Bucharest run by German nuns, learning to speak fluent French and German.  What they called a ‘pocket Venus’, Elena was striking rather than beautiful with pale skin, flaming red hair, green eyes, and an hour glass figure.  She was flirtatious, possessing a bawdy sense of humor, which made her a great favorite with soldiers.  After Bucharest was invaded by German troops during WWI, Elena decamped to the new capital of Jassy where she would join the crowd of young people who paraded up and down the main street.  None of her flirtations were serious until she met an army officer named Ion Tampeanu. Obsessed with her, he pursued her relentlessly until she eventually capitulated and agreed to marry him in 1916. But it was a misalliance from the beginning. Elena had no intention of changing her ways now that she was married.  She grew bored with garrison life, and indulged in several affairs. When her husband could no longer keep in her in the luxurious lifestyle that she wanted, she left him after four years of marriage.

The couple met at a charity gala that Elena had finagled an invitation to.  Bold as brass, she arranged a seat within his sightlines, and spent the entire evening gazing at Carol without once averting her gaze.  The Prince was curious to meet this woman who stared at him so boldly.  Finding out her name, Crown Prince Carol persuaded a friend to throw a party and invite her along. At the party, Elena changed tactics. Wearing a virginal white dress, she let the Prince do all the talking, while she stared at him with limpid eyes.  At the end of the party, he offered to drive her home, but she demurred claiming that it wouldn’t do for her to be seen with a married Prince. The Prince’s friend, Captain Tautu, became alarmed at what was going on. He knew Elena and may even have been one of her mother’s special friends.   When he called her a ‘dirty whore’, Elena asked if there was anyone who would defend her against such slander.  The Prince gallantly came to her aid, sweeping her out of the party but into his life.

Soon after meeting Elena, Carol stopped sleeping with his wife completely, and barely saw his toddler son.  He told his friends that his wife’s slim frame repulsed him compared to more voluptuous body of his mistress. Still he kept the affair a secret for two years, until he finally told his parents that he loathed Helen. His parents were incredibly disappointed, this was the second their son had failed in what they considered his royal duty.  And this time it involved a royal princess, the mother of the heir to the throne, not a commoner who could be bought off with an annuity. Helen, of course, was devastated. Although his parents tried to convince him to give up Elena, he refused.  Not only did she make him feel independent and more like a man, but she also mothered him at the same time. His relationship with his parents became increasingly strained.  His father famously compared to him to Swiss cheese.  His mother tried to use her influence to try and get rid of her.
The affair came to light when Elena met the Prince in Paris after his trip to England for Queen Alexandra’s funeral.  The couple then traveled openly together to Italy. For the first time the affair was reported in the Romanian press.  Although the Prince was ordered to come home, he refused. Instead, he offered to fake his own death, so that he could disappear without a trace.  He was now given a choice, either give up Elena or renounce his right to the throne.  He chose the latter course.  He was no longer Crown Prince Carol of Romania but plain Mr. Carol Caraiman, condemned to permanent exile.  His son, Michael, was now proclaimed the heir apparent.  Like Wallis Simpson after her, Elena claimed that she had nothing to do with Carol’s decision. While that might be true, he would never have taken the course of action if he hadn’t met her. Soon after Carol signed the papers, he began to regret his decision.

Although not broke, Carol no longer was able to afford the luxurious lifestyle that he was used too. He had a legacy from his Great-Uncle which would support the couple, but there would be no royal palaces. Instead they settled into a modest 10 bedroom villa in Neuilly, just outside of Paris.  They lived a very frugal if indolent lifestyle. Carol spent his time to his hobby of stamp-collecting (like his cousin George V), playing bridge with friends, talking walks in the Bois de Boulogne, and going to the cinema.  Magda prided herself on being an efficient housekeeper, although they had a hard time keeping any staff.

In 1927, his father King Ferdinand died, and Carol’s son Michael was crowned King of Romania.  Carol chafed to be back in his home country occupying the throne that he felt was rightfully his.  It took him 3 years, and one aborted coup, before he set foot back in Romania. In the intervening years, Carol and Helen were divorced. Things in Romania were turning in Carol’s favor, his son was still a minor, and the regency was proving ineffective. Carol was so desperate to return that he agreed to give up Elena, let his son keep the crown, and try and repair his marriage to Helen.
Once he returned to Romania, he reneged on all his promises.  First up, he deposed his son.  He then tried to convince Helen to reconcile but she was having none of it. Since the reconciliation with his ex-wife was a no-go, Carol told his Prime Minister that he couldn't live without Elena.  Elena meanwhile slipped anonymously into the country.  During the 10 years of King Carol II’s reign, they were amazingly discreet about their relationship. She never accompanied him to official functions, and she lived in a house on her own, although she visited the King at the palace nightly. However, she didn't exactly keep a low profile.  Elena threw raucous all-night parties that attracted bohemians and sycophants. Carol and his wife began a tug of war over their son Michael.  While the King hoped that his son would soon accept Elena, Helen tried to turn her son against her.  In the end, the King banished her from Romania.  She moved to Italy where her son was allowed to visit her twice a month.

Carol became increasingly autocratic and paranoid.  He spied on everything, including his mother Queen Marie. He alienated members of his family, who refused to obey his edict that they have nothing to do with his ex-wife. For the next decade he sought to influence the course of Romanian political life, first through manipulation of the rival Peasant and Liberal parties and anti-Semitic factions, and subsequently with a constitution reserving ultimate power to the Crown. Of course, every miss-step that he made was blamed on Elena. As if he were incapable of making stupid decisions on his own.  She was a convenient scapegoat for his enemies who delighted in his every misstep and his supporters who couldn't believe he could make so many mistakes.  People couldn't understand the attraction.  Elena often treated Carol with contempt, and it was clear, that he was cowed by her violent temper.   Slowly those who had supported Carol turned against him. First the aristocracy, who were turned off by the people he surrounded himself with. Then there was the Iron Guard, the Romanian equivalent of the Nazi party or the Italian fascists. Although Carol gave the impression that he approved of their policies, he knew that they were financed by the Nazis who thought that he was weak.

Carol tried to steer a neutral path between Hitler and Stalin. The two regimes threatened the territories that Romania had gained after World War I.  Carol threw the leader of the Iron Guard and his top henchman into prison, promising to ensure their safety, in return for Germany support in the event of another world war.  Unfortunately for Carol, the men were killed under suspicious circumstances and the King was thought to be behind their deaths.  To appease Hitler, Carol appointed a pro-German, anti-Semitic Prime Minister named Ion Antonescu.  Instead of supporting the King, he tried to strip him of his executive powers.  Carol refused, and the Prime Minister pressured him to abdicate.  Carol abdicated a day later in favor of his 18 year old son Michael.

Carol and Elena fled, first to Yugoslavia and then to Portugal.  Their belongings filled 9 railway carriages. They grabbed everything they could of value, including several El Greco paintings and allegedly the crown jewels.  The couple didn’t stay long in Portugal.  Fearing for their lives in Europe, they set sail for Cuba and then Mexico where they spent several years.  However, the climate didn’t agree with Elena. They tried South America where Elena took to her sickbed, suffering from what turned out to be anemia.  Fearful that his companion of 24 years might die, Carol married Elena in a civil ceremony at their hotel in Rio in 1947. She was now Her Royal Highness Princess Elena von Hohenzollern.

Now that the war in Europe was over, Carol and Elena returned to Europe, settling down once again in Portugal. The couple lived relatively quietly, spending their time going to the movies.  Carol puttered around in his garden, and worked on his stamp collections.  Elena still treated her husband like dirt, embarrassing him in public.  He would accuse her of overspending, threatening divorce.  Still, he proved his devotion to her by marrying her a second time in the church. In 1953, King Carol II died of a heart attack  in Portugal.  His wife outlived him by 24 years, finally passing away in 1977.  In 2003, their remains were brought back to Romania at the request and expense of the government. They were interred in the Curtea de Argeş Monastery complex, the traditional burial ground of Romanian royalty; but, not being of royal blood, Elena was buried in the monastery’s cemetery, rather than in the Royal Chapel.

To this day, people wonder if Elena Lupescu was the adventuress she was painted to be or if she really loved the King. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: Diana (2013)

Diana, Princess of Wales:  Naomi Watts
Dr. Hasnat Khan:  Naveen Andrews
Dodi Fayed: Cas Anvar
Laurence Belcher as Prince William of Wales
Harry Holland as Prince Harry of Wales
Douglas Hodge as Paul Burrell
Geraldine James as Oonagh Toffolo
Charles Edwards as Patrick Jephson

I swore when this movie premiered that I would never watch this film. Does the world really need another movie about Diana, Princess of Wales? Well, never say never.  The film popped up on my Netflix front page as a recommended film.  Since I had nothing else to watch after the second season of HOUSE OF CARDS, I clicked on the poster and waited as the film downloaded to my NOOK.  Sort of like a palate cleanser after the Machiavellian shenanigans that went on in HOUSE OF CARDs.

I wish I could tell you that the film turned out to be better than I imagined, given my low expectations, but that would be a lie.  Seriously, it was like a Lifetime TV movie but with higher priced talent, and a bigger budget.  There is a reason that it only had like 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is based on Kate Snell's 2001 book Diana: Her Last Love about her relationship with the Pakistani heart surgeon, Dr. Hasnat Khan (which I haven’t read) and it plays like the worst kind of Harlequin romance novel.  The ones written in the early seventies.  The film opens with Diana getting into the elevator at the Ritz Hotel just before the car accident that takes her life.  It then flashes back to two years earlier with Diana (Naomi Watts) returning home from a royal engagement.  She quickly dismisses her staff for the evening, chucks off her shoes and turns on the radio.  After wandering aimlessly around Kensington Palace, she makes herself some beans on toast, and settles down to read her diary, practicing her lines for her interview with Martin Bashir.

Diana has a session with Oonagh Toffolo, an Irish acupuncturist, where she complains about her life.  When Oonagh’s husband has a heart attack; Diana rushes to the hospital to be with her.  Of course, she has a meet cute with Dr. Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews), the heart surgeon on the case.  Diana is all downcast eyes and blushes; the film implies that it is love at first sight for the Princess.  She quickly comes up with all sorts of reasons to see him again. Hasnat is smitten as well but he’s much more realistic about the whole situation.  We are next treated to adorable scenes of Diana smuggling Hasnat into Kensington Palace in the trunk (or boot if you’re English) of her car, and sneaking off to meet him wearing a long, dark wig.  Since Hasnat digs jazz, so they spend an evening at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in the West End.  The loved up couple don’t share anything of significance in the film, no revelations about their pasts, what they are looking for in a relationship.  You know the little things that most couples talk about in the early stages of their relationship.

No in this celluloid romance, the biggest problem is that Diana has the baggage of well, you know, being the most famous woman in the world.   There are plenty of scenes of Hasnat not being able to deal with her celebrity, watching the Panorama interview at his local pub.  When the news leaks about their relationship, Diana calls a journalist she trusts, and refutes the story which ticks of Hasnat.  Diana, however, is determined to make the relationship work.  She flies to Pakistan solely to meet Hasnat’s family (without Hasnat), his mother gives Diana a crash course in the history of Pakistan, including Mountbatten’s role in it. As if Diana is personally responsible for the partition because she was married to Mountbatten’s great-nephew.   Art Malik shows up briefly to sit in a car with Hasnat while giving him advice. Later on, while on a trip to Italy, she meets up with renowned heart surgeon Dr. Christian Barnaard, and hits him up for a job for Hasnat in Boston.  Of course, Hasnat is upset that she would go behind his back, without even asking him.
In between sweet scenes of Diana and Hasnat being loved up, we have are given scenes of Diana doing her humanitarian work,  walking through fields dotted with land minds, breast-feeding an orphaned baby (okay, I made that one up), and finally offering her dresses up for charity. Angry at Hasnat for not paying enough attention to her, she flies off to take a cruise with Dodi Fayed.  Poor Dodi Fayed, he’s barely in this movie.  We never really know whether Diana was playing him to make Hasnat jealous, whether or not she really cared for him.  We are treated to her tipping off journalists to take photos of her on the yacht. In the end, she dramatically breaks it off with Hasnat before jetting off once again to spend time with Dodi. But her heart is still with her heart surgeon (according to the film), the film intimates that Diana tried to call Hasnat from Paris. 

In the end, the film is all smoke and mirrors signifying nothing.  Naomi Watts gives a valiant performance as Diana, clearly better than the film deserves.  She nails the shy glances, the breathy voice, and the steel beneath the fragile exterior.  This Diana is slightly manipulative and needy but not to any great extent. Watts plays the role as part Marilyn Monroe, part Mother Theresa but we never really feel Diana’s pain.  Several biographers have suggested that Diana had a deep emotional hole, that she never truly felt loved, by her parents, by her husband, nor by James Hewitt.  We also never get to see her interact with Prince Charles, the young Princes, or indeed anyone of her family. Even Paul Burrell is just a bystander (so much for being her rock. Not in this film). It’s like this Diana exists in a bubble.  Naveen Andrews does his best with what I call the ‘magical brown person’ role.  His Hasnat Khan never seems to have any strong emotions, about Diana, about marrying her, about the press.  He’s just there, pretty much a cipher.  He shows the most emotion when he discovers that Diana tried to get him a job in Boston behind his back.

I believe that there is a film or a miniseries just waiting to be made about Diana, taking her from a young bride to the end of her life (preferably based on Tina Brown’s book) but this is not it. There are scenes in this film that make no sense.  For example, Diana shows up at the opera house, looking incredibly glamorous, with the paparazzi snapping photos.  Later we see her inside the opera house talking on the phone to Prince William but there is no one there. Did the call take place after the opera was over? Has no one else arrived yet? Then later on, there are scenes when Diana is traveling in Australia, where Paul Burrell is seen shepherding her through paparazzi. Umm, why would her butler be traveling with her? Even Prince Charles doesn't take his butler with him when he travels. 

If the movie comes on television, or you see it at the library, and you have nothing else to do, then take a quick glance. Otherwise, don't bother.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty

As a blogger, I receive books in the mail from publishers and publicists all the time, to review.  Unfortunately, I don't have time to review them all, not if I want to have time to pursue my own writing! However, I received a book last week that made sit up and take notice.  Helena Rubinstein: The Woman who Invented Beauty by French author Michele Fitoussi. The book was published by a new publisher in the UK called Gallic Books who are dedicated to publishing the best of French in English.  I've long been fascinated by women entrepreneurs in the beauty biz, women such as Elizabeth Arden, Mary Kay, Madame C.J. Walker, Harriet Hubbard Ayers, Estee Lauder, and the grande dame of them all Helena Rubinstein. These women essentially created the beauty business, their success proved to men that there was money to be made in lipsticks, nail polish, and facial cream.

Helena was born Chaya Rubinstein in Krakow in Poland on December 25, 1872. Like most women, before the advent of Wikipedia, she fudged her birth date as the years went by. Rubinstein was the oldest of 8 daughters born to a Jewish couple, her father Horace was a not very successful shopkeeper in Krakow.  From the very beginning, Helena dreamed of being rich and successful. She had no interest in learning the housewifely arts from her mother, instead she spent time with her father in his shop, dealing with the customers and doing the bookkeeping. When  she came of age, she infuriated her parents by refusing every suitor who offered marriage. Not that her father had managed to save any money for dowries for her and her siblings! Helena had no intention of spending her life stuck in Krakow. Fortunately for her she had sympathetic relatives who lived in Vienna and Australia where she eventually ended up at the age of 24.

It was her mother who introduced her to the beauty regiment that Helena would use to make her fortune. A local chemist had created a skin cream that her mother applied to her daughter's skin every night from childhood. Every few months she would buy a jar which she would then parcel out into little jars to make the cream last as long as possible. She impressed upon her daughters the value of washing ones skin thoroughly and giving ones hair a hundred strokes with a brush every night. In Australia, Helena discovered that the women suffered terribly from the hot Australian sun. She wrote to her mother to send her jars of the face cream which Helena then sold. When that ran out, and because it took months to get the cream from Poland, she tried to recreate for herself. Luckily there were plenty of sheep around to provide the lanolin that she needed for the cream!

Helena was also lucky because she had made some valuable contacts on the boat out to Australia, including the wife of the Premier. After working as a governess, Helena moved to Melbourne where she worked in a tearoom. There she met an admirer who was willing to put up the funds for her first beauty cream that she called Valaze (Hungarian for 'gift from heaven'). Even though the cream was inexpensive to make, Helena realized instinctively that she needed to sell the cream at a pretty price, because women would buy it if they thought it was expensive and exclusive. As she put it, "Women won't buy anything cheap. They need to have the impression they're treating themselves to something exceptional." Even the ingredients were considered exotic.  Helena claimed that they were made from rare plants from the 'Carpathian mountains.' Before long the small jars were flying off the shelves.  From the beginning, Rubinstein seemed to have a sixth sense about what would sell and how to market it. She had put a great deal of thought into the packaging and the decor of her salon.

While Rubinstein wasn't beautiful, she knew how to make the most of what she was given. Her personal mantra was 'There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.' She dressed extremely well, even when she had very little money. Although she was under five feet tall, she made up for it with her personality. Men were always drawn to her, but Helena had little interest in getting married.  Her business was her life, expanding it from Melbourne to Sydney and then eventually to London. She was now in her thirties and had never been kissed by a man. Eventually she met Edward Titus, a Polish-American journalist who she had met in Australia. He was worldly, witty, charming and sophisticated, but they also shared similar background.  In her After a long courtship, he finally convinced her to marry him in 1908. Edward was a huge help in her business, he had a knack for advertising.

Edward wanted children, so Helena dutifully provided two sons, Roy (born in 1909) and Horace (in 1912). Helena was ecstatic to have boys, after growing up with 7 other women, and she'd always gotten along better with men. But Helena was not particularly maternal, the boys were raised mainly by nannies and tutors. And the marriage was not happy, Edward was a womanizer.  The couple fought constantly, breaking up and making up. Each infidelity increased her jewelry collection, as she would buy a new piece to assuage her unhappiness. Edward also hated that he was dependent upon her for money. He dreamed of being a publisher (he eventually published D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover). Helena belittled his dreams, she would withhold money from on a whim before finally giving in.  Her business was her life, before long she'd expanded the business to Paris, and then during WWI to New York.

Helena wasn't prepared to rest on her laurels and just coast.  She worked tirelessly with chemists to create new products, kept abreast of new skin treatments, traveling widely to Europe to meet with doctors. She had her own factory in both Paris and New York to create her products. Helena was one of the first to come up with waterproof mascara and sunscreen. Ahead of the crowd, Helena also introduced the concept of 'problem' skin types, dry, oily and combination. Realizing the value of celebrity endorsements, she persuaded Margot Asquith, wife of the Prime Minister, to allow Helena to show her how to highlight her features with cosmetics. When Asquith when out in public wearing cosmetics, society ladies flocked to copy her. Like a ripple effect, soon ordinary women wanted to look like their betters, and they were soon wearing make-up!

Soon Helena Rubinstein had a rival in Elizabeth Arden.  Although the two women never met, they were fierce rivals, keeping a close eye on what the other one was doing and then trying to outdo the other one. They cultivated the same beauty editors, went to the same gala events in New York. By 1923, Rubinstein had over 70 products on the market. There were also business setbacks.  Just before the Great Depression, Helena sold her American business to Lehman Brothers for $7.3 million dollars (the equivalent of over $80 million dollars in today's money) but it was clear that they had no idea what to do with her company. When the stock market crashed, Helena bought the company back for less than $1 million dollars, making her a profit of $6 million!

Michele Fitoussi's book is a gold-mine of information about the early days of the cosmetic industry and the remarkable rise of this self-made millionaire.  You can't help but admire Helena's chutzpah even as you cringe at the mistakes that she made in her personal life.  On the one hand, she gave employment to many of her sisters and relatives, which gave them a life that would have been impossible otherwise.  On the other hand, she also treated them like dirt sometimes, playing them off against each other. She favored her youngest son Horace over her eldest Roy but undermined them both at work.  Her sons spent years in therapy trying to deal with their 'mommy' issues. While Roy became an alcoholic, Horace became a reckless driver, eventually dying in a car crash at the age of 47. Having divorced her first husband in 1938 after 30 years of marriage, she married Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia.  He was 23 years younger than his bride. Helena adored being a princess, plus it meant that she had one-upped Elizabeth Arden!

 Rubinstein was also a compulsive shopper.  Having grown up poor, Helena bought art, clothes, jewelry, real estate like it was going out of style. She had a good eye, however, and bought many artists before they became famous.  She was particularly fascinated with African and fine art. Self-educated, Helena was fascinated with what was new and interesting. Only later in life, when she got older, did her enormous energy flag and the business began to suffer. After years of being at the forefront of the beauty business, she seemed content to let men like Charles Revson and companies like Maybelline take the lion's share of the market. Anyway, Madame had always been about luxury, selling her products at her salons and at upscale department stores.  She had no interest in having her products in Woolworth's and drugstores.

Rubinstein died in 1965 at the age of 95.  Her heirs sold the company first to Colgate-Palmolive in 1973. The company is now owned by L'Oreal who still sell Helena Rubinstein products mainly in Europe and the Far East.

I highly recommend Michele Fitoussi's book if you are interested in either the early days of the cosmetics business or in reading about a woman who wasn't content to settle for the status quo or what was expected of her but had ambition to burn.  There were a few typos or things that were just not checked properly. For example, Fitoussi writes that Rubinstein found a space on 49th Avenue for her salon in New York which is somewhere in Queens.  I'm pretty sure that Rubinstein probably never set foot in Queens until she was buried there. At another point, she states that Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow were huge movie stars during the war. Garbo stopped making movies in 1941 and Jean Harlow died in 1937.  People might have still liked their old movies but they certainly weren't top box office!

In the end, while I admired Helena Rubinstein, I'm not sure that I liked her very much as a person.  As a business woman though, she was phenomenal. Without her or Elizabeth Arden, people like Bobbi Brown, Estee Lauder or Laura Mercier wouldn't exist. She showed the world that beauty was big business, and brought cosmetics into the mainstream, when previously only worn by prostitutes or actresses.  She made make-up respectable.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The First Georgians The German Kings Who Made Britain Episode 1 BBC do...

As any one who reads this blog knows, I have a bit of a girl crush on Lucy Worsley,Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, in London (the best job ever in my opinion!  I've been lucky enough, thanks to YouTube, to watch several of the programmes that she's presented including A Very British Murder, Harlots Housewives and Heroines, and my personal favorite Elegance and Decadence.  Since 2014 marks the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian ascension to the British throne, all sorts of exhibitions are going on at all the royal palaces.  And Lucy is presenting a 3 part series on the First Georgians for BB4.  You can watch the first episode below, and catch the rest of the episodes at YouTube.  I would also suggest picking up a copy of her book The Courtiers which gives a great overview of life at the court of the Georges.