Friday, December 19, 2014

The Mystery of Princess Louise: A Review

I've been an incredibly bad blogger lately and for that I must apologize.  Since 2011, when Scandalous Women was published, I've been working on and submitting proposals to my agent for a follow-up book, which unfortunately has yet to happen. I'm also working on some fiction projects which is also taking up the time that I spent doing research. So that's where my mindset has been over the past two years.  My goal for 2015 is to try and blog more often, at least two or three times a month. It will probably be a mix of reviews as well as new content. At least that's the plan.

One of my Christmas presents to myself this year, besides the DVD of Season Five of Downton Abbey, was Lucinda Hawksley's biography of Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Louise (1848-1939). The book was in all the English newspapers last year when I was in England because of Hawksley's belief that Princess Louise might have had a child with her brother's tutor while she was unwed.  This apparently isn't a new claim, there were rumors during Princess Louise's lifetime about her marriage and her relationships with the artists whose company she preferred including the sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm.

I enjoyed Hawksley's earlier biography of Lizzie Siddal, who I have to admit, I'm a little obsessed with. But then I've always found the Pre-Raphaelites fascinating, and their art appeals to be more than even the Impressionists. So I waited until the book was available in paperback and snapped it up on  Unfortunately the book doesn't quite live up to its hype.  Hawksley freely admits that she was unable to see any material on Princess Louise from the Royal Archives nor was she able to see any material available on Louise's husband, the future 9th Duke of Argyll. This puts any biographer at a disadvantage. The impression given is that there are secrets hidden in those archives that people want to stay hidden. So apart from what can be documented, Louise's time in Canada, all her charitable works, everything else is speculation.

Hawksley writes that Bertie believed that Louise was just as highly sexed as he was, and that may be true, but unless a biographer is actually able to get into the archives, we will never know for sure.  A previous biographer, Jehanne Wake, believes that while Princess Louise may have indulged in flirtations with Arthur Bigge, the Queen's assistant private secretary as well as with Princess Beatrice's husband, Prince Henry of Battenberg, they were chaste.  According to the notorious rake, Wilfred Scawen Blunt, Louise was not as chaste as Wake and Elizabeth Longford, another biographer, would prefer the world to believe.  Personally, I believe that Louise probably did have affairs, and probably learned how to prevent pregnancy from some of her bohemian friends. I'm on the fence about the illegitimate baby. Royal historian Carolyn Harris says no way in her review of the book. Unless one of Henry Locock's descendants is able to get the royal family to take a DNA test, which will never happen, we will never know the truth.

Princess Louise certainly was rebellious, that I will agree with.  She had an incredibly strong personality, and was not afraid to butt heads with her mother. Truthfully, the more I read about Queen Victoria, the less I like the woman.  She treated most of her other children with disdain apart from her eldest Vicky and the baby of the family, Beatrice, the only one of her children who she showed any affection to when they were little. The way that she treated Bertie was absolutely shameful. And she certainly tried her damnedest to repress Louise. Thank god, she didn't. Louise was not only the prettiest of Queen Victoria's children, she was also a talented artist. Louise's chosen medium was sculpture, although she also painted as well. In the 19th century, sculpture was considered a man's medium, it involved a lot of heavy lifting, dealing with materials such as marble and clay, messy business, not at all feminine and ladylike.

Louise also refused to marry a foreign Prince, she had no desire to spend her life abroad, ruling some small principality or kingdom.  Apparently The Princess of Wales wanted Louise to marry her brother, Crown Prince Frederick, but there were no sparks. Instead, Louise preferred to marry a British aristocrat. Her marriage to John, the Marquess of Lorne in 1871 when she was 23, was the first marriage of a royal Princess to a commoner since Princess Mary married Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk in 1515.  The Duke of York (the future James II) had married Anne Hyde in 1660 and George III's brother, the Duke of Gloucester had married Maria Walpole (who was born illegitimate) in 1766, a marriage that led to the passing of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.  Louise married Lorne partly because she was eager to get out of her mother's house and into an establishment of her own. Unlike the royal princes, Louise and her sisters were not allowed the same privilege of moving out of the house. Even a palace like Buckingham can be stifling when you are expected to be at your widowed mother's beck and call. As soon as Princess Helena married, Queen Victoria began to treat Louise like an unpaid secretary.

While members of Louise's family were not happy about the marriage, the press were.  Unfortunately the marriage was not happy.  There has been speculation over the years that Lorne may have been homosexual or perhaps bisexual.  He also didn't bathe very often, and was eccentric in the way that he dressed.  There were other tensions, Lorne was very aware that in England, his status was below his wife's. The couple soon started to spend as little time as possible together until they moved to Canada when he became Governor-General. Even then Louise would contrive reasons to spend time back in Britain. The couple were childless but Louise was much loved by her nieces and nephews. Even Kaiser Wilhelm II stated that Louise was his favorite Aunt. Later on in life, the couple seemed to get along much better before the Duke's death in 1914.

One of the biggest mysteries that Hawksley writes about concerns the death of Joseph Boehm. Initial reports stated that the Princess was with Boehm when he died.  That story changed later because of the implications, later reports were that Boehm had been found by someone else just as the Princess was arriving with her lady-in-waiting. Blunt states in his diaries that Boehm and the Princess were having sex when he died. The book actually comes alive when Hawksley sticks to detailing the charities that Louise was involved with, her artistic friendships, and her relationship with her adored younger brother Leopold.  Louise was close to all her brothers, but Leopold had a special place in her heart. They were best friends, and co-conspirators. She was devastated when he died at the age of 30.

Her relationships with her sisters were not quite as close.  Louise resented Beatrice because the Queen indulged and spoiled her. Beatrice resented Louise because once Louise married, Beatrice was expected to be her mother's companion for life. Hawksley is very effective at detailing the tensions of a large family who just happen to be royal. Louise lived a long life, she was 91 when she died. She lived through not only the Crimean War, the Boer War, but also WWI, and died just as WWII was starting. She seemed to embrace the changes that the new century brought much more so then some others in the royal family. One of the things that I enjoyed learning was that Prince Albert insisted that his children learn to be useful.  All the girls learned how to cook. sew and clean.  Apparently people were shocked to learn that Princess Louise was a good cook and liked it!

While the book didn't live up to my expectations, and as far as I know, doesn't contain any new revelations, I enjoyed it. I don't know if the book is going to be published in the States but it's available in paperback for about $15.00 from

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan

The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan
Author:  Stephanie Thornton
Publisher:  NAL Trade (November 4, 2014)
How Acquired:  From the Publisher through HFVBT

From the back cover:  In the late twelfth century, across the sweeping Mongolian grasslands, brilliant, charismatic Temujin ascends to power, declaring himself the Great, or Genghis, Khan. But it is the women who stand beside him who ensure his triumph....

 After her mother foretells an ominous future for her, gifted Borte becomes an outsider within her clan. When she seeks comfort in the arms of aristocratic traveler Jamuka, she discovers he is the blood brother of Temujin, the man who agreed to marry her and then abandoned her long before they could wed.  Temujin will return and make Borte his queen, yet it will take many women to safeguard his fragile new kingdom. Their daughter, the fierce Alaqai, will ride and shoot an arrow as well as any man. Fatima, an elegant Persian captive, will transform her desire for revenge into an unbreakable loyalty. And Sorkhokhtani, a demure widow, will position her sons to inherit the empire when it begins to fracture from within.

In a world lit by fire and ruled by the sword, the tiger queens of Genghis Khan come to depend on one another as they fight and love, scheme and sacrifice, all for the good of their family...and the greatness of the People of the Felt Walls.

About the Author

Stephanie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her next novel. “The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora” and “Daughter of the Gods: A Novel of Ancient Egypt” are available from NAL/Penguin. “The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan” will hit the shelves November 4, 2014, followed by “The Conqueror’s Wife: A Novel of Alexander the Great” in November 2015. For more information please visit Stephanie Thornton’s website and blog. You can also find her on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

My thoughts:  This review was supposed to be posted this morning, but I was up until almost one o’clock this morning finishing the book.  I have been really behind because of my birthday, writing recaps of How to Get Away with Murder for Romance at Random, and NaNoWriMo.  My apologies but I also literally couldn’t put the book down.  Every commercial break during Must See Thursday on ABC, I was dipping into the book.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been that enthralled by a work of fiction. Normally I juggle several books at once, but it’s been all The Tiger Queens, all the time the past few days. 

There has been a lot of talk on Twitter lately about diverse books and how important it is to be able to read stories about different people and different cultures.  I was thinking about that topic while I was reading The Tiger Queens.  It’s rare in either historical fiction or romance, that you get to read about people of the Far East.  For the most part it is either American historicals or European historicals (mainly England and Scotland).  The market seemed to be glutted with so many books about the Tudors, particularly Henry VIII and his six wives. So I jumped at the chance to read The Tiger Queens when Amy Bruno from HFVBT sent out the email looking for reviewers.  I knew very little about Genghis Khan, just what I remembered from social studies in grade school, that he united the tribes in Mongolia, and that he conquered much of the East as far as Iran.  There was nothing about the women in his life or how important they were in ruling the empire.

From the very first page, I was gripped by the stories of Borte, Alaqai, Fatima and Sorkhokhtani.  They are four very different women whose lives are impacted by the choices of Genghis Khan and his sons.  Borte was born with the sight, but it is both a blessing and a curse.  She knows that her marriage to Temujin, as he was first called, will lead to a war between brothers, and a rift that can only be ended with the death of one.  That’s a pretty tough burden to carry.  At first it seems as the prediction will not come true, since Temujin rides off and doesn't come back for seven years (he was only supposed to be gone a few months).  Borte meets Jamuka, and develops feelings for him only to learn that not only is he Temujin’s blood brother but then Temujin comes back ready to claim his bride.  She marries Temujin but they are ripped apart soon afterwards when Borte is taken by a rival tribe, the Merkid.  Thornton doesn’t stint on describing the brutality that Borte both witnesses and experiences at the hands of the Merkid.  It’s pretty tough reading.

The writing in The Tiger Queens is often incredibly evocative but also breath-taking. I wish I had thought to underline some of my favorite passages, but Thornton gives you a really good feeling of the sights, as well as the sounds of late twelfth century Mongolia.  My favorite parts of the book were the domestic scenes between Borte and her daughters by marriage, and her daughter Alaqai. Whether they were joking about Alaqai’s lack of domestic skills, or sharing confidences about their husbands, and their children. I tended to skim my way through all the battle scenes, mainly because violence tends to upset me, even in print. Out of all the female characters in the book, I think my favorite had to be Alaqai. I love the fact that she was a free spirit, a warrior who was not afraid to do what was necessary.  She was more of a warrior than any of Genghis Khan’s sons.  It’s a pity that she couldn’t have been chosen Khan after his death.

I’m sure others will disagree with me, but Fatima’s story was probably my least favorite section of the book. On the one hand, it was nice to see this world through the eyes of an outsider, someone who is full of revenge but who becomes a fierce loyalist to the family.  However, I also thought Fatima's section when on for far too long, and short-changed Sorkhokhtani. I just felt that she was more of a cipher compared to the other characters in the book.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I look forward to reading Thornton's next book about the women in Alexander the Great's life. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book Review: Two New Books on Hollywood Scandals

What it's About: The Day of the Locust meets The Devil in the White City and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in this juicy, untold Hollywood story: an addictive true tale of ambition, scandal, intrigue, murder, and the creation of the modern film industry. By 1920, the movies had suddenly become America’s new favorite pastime, and one of the nation’s largest industries. Never before had a medium possessed such power to influence. Yet Hollywood’s glittering ascendency was threatened by a string of headline-grabbing tragedies—including the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, a legendary crime that has remained unsolved until now.

My thoughts:  I've been obsessed with the murder of William Desmond Taylor ever since I first read about the case in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon (a book that is much reviled by contemporary historians but which was manna from heaven to a teenager who loved classic Hollywood films).  Over the years, I've read Sidney Kirkpatrick's A Cast of Killers as well as Robert Giroux's book Deed of Death.  Both of these authors came to different conclusions about who the killer was, so I was eager to read William J. Mann's take on the case.  I've enjoyed his books in the past, in particular his biographies of Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor. 

I have to be honest, at first I was a little disappointed.  The book opens up with a bang literally, detailing the discovery of Taylor's body by his valet Henry Peavey.  The book then flashes back and gives a wealth of detail about the current state of Hollywood leading up to the murder, including the death of Olive Thomas, the arrest and trial of Fatty Arbuckle and the installment of Will Hay's as the new watchdog over Hollywood's morals (at least on film).  I wasn't quite sure where Mann was going with all this, although most of it was interesting. I admit that I skimmed through most of the stuff about Adolph Zukor.  I was more interested in Fatty Arbuckle and learning more details about Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter.  Unfortunately Mann skims over their back stories for the most part, as well as Desmond Taylor's life before he hit Hollywood.

The book really got going when Mann writes about Patricia Palmer aka Margaret Gibson or Gibby and her struggle to make it in Hollywood, and how her life dovetails and intersects with William Desmond Taylor.  I don't want to spoil it for anyone picking up the book who knows nothing about the unsolved murder of Taylor, but Mann comes up with probably the most plausible theory about of anyone who has written about the case in the last almost 100 years since Taylor was murdered.  He gives a wealth of detail about the inner workings of Hollywood at the time, not just at the major studios but also on Poverty Row, the studios who cranked out the low-low budget films.  He also details the excesses and drug use that was prevalent in Hollywood at the time which might come as a revelation to some who believe that no one was doing drugs until the 1960's and 1970's like my dad. 

I won't lie, this book clocks in at a whopping almost 500 pages but once I got started reading, I couldn't put it down. I actually stayed up late on Sunday to finish the book, because I had to know what Mann's conclusion was. 

Title: Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema

Author:  Anne Helen Petersen 
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Plume (September 30, 2014)
  • How Acquired:  Net Galley

What it's About:  Gossip meets history—a compulsively readable collection of Hollywood's most notorious clashes and controversies in the spirit of Hollywood Babylon. Believe it or not, America's fascination with celebrity culture was thriving well before the days of TMZ, Perez Hilton, Charlie Sheen's breakdown and allegations against Woody Allen. And the stars of yesteryear? They weren’t always the saints that we make them out to be. BuzzFeed columnist Anne Helen Petersen is here to set the record straight with Scandals of Classic Hollywood.

My thoughts:  This was a fun, interesting read that is more about the reaction of Hollywood and the nation to the various scandals and less about the scandals themselves. Anne Helen Petersen has clearly done her research, admittedly spending hours reading the original reports on the scandals in the movie magazines of the period.  She gives a good overview of the reasons why the scandals were so potent and the damage that was done to the stars because of the scandal.  I quibble a bit with her conclusion in the Clara Bow chapter, she seems to be dismissive of the struggles that Bow went through in her early childhood and her mental illness.

I found it fascinating to read the chapters on Dorothy Dandridge and Montgomery Clift in particular, although I wasn't really sure why she was included in the book.  Her career demise seemed to say more about the lack of roles for black actresses in the 1950's, particularly for a woman like Dandridge who was seen as more of a sex symbol due to her role in Carmen Jones. Clift's life didn't seem to contain much scandal either apart from his having to hide his homosexuality like many other Hollywood stars like Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter.  Clift's career was derailed by his drug and alcohol abuse. 

I was intrigued by the scandals she left out (although perhaps she's saving them for book 2?) such as Loretta Young, Lana Turner, Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplin's penchant for young girls, Ingrid Bergman etc. The book is slightly schizophrenic as it veers uneasily between a juicy, gossipy take and a more academic tone (Petersen has a PhD). There's also a dearth of photographs in the book.  Now I know from experience that photographs are expensive, which is why I only have about 15 of them in my own book rather than 35) but it would have helped to have some photos apart from the ones on the cover. 

Still for newbies to old Hollywood (and that includes pretty much anyone under the age of 35) this is a great book to start with.  Hopefully readers who purchase this book will then go on to purchase full length biographies of the subjects in the book.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Scandalous Romance: The Love Story of Edith Bolling Galt (1872-1961) and Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

“I turned a corner and met my fate,” Edith Bolling Galt Wilson

“I need you, as a boy needs his sweetheart, and a strong man his helpmate and heart’s comrade,” Woodrow Wilson to Edith Bolling Galt during their courtship.

What did Mrs. Galt do when President Wilson proposed to her?
She fell out of bed. – Popular joke in 1915

This is the tale of one of the most romantic love stories in White House history.  No, I’m not talking about Olivia Pope and Fitzgerald Grant from Scandal.  I’m talking about the love story between Edith Bolling Galt and Woodrow Wilson. Their story is not only one of the most romantic in American history, but also one of the most scandalous and intriguing.  It encompasses death, grief, forbidden romance, , passion, politics, war, and a cover-up perpetrated by the First Lady of the United States.  At a time when women couldn’t vote on a national level, rarely held jobs other than domestic or schoolteacher, for a brief time a woman ran the White House and the Executive Branch.

Our story starts in the fall of 1914. Ellen Wilson, Woodrow’s first wife and the mother of his three daughters, dies suddenly of kidney disease. Wilson is devastated, and lost.  Apparently underneath the president’s dour demeanor, beat the heart of a true and passionate romantic.  Wilson preferred the company of women, particularly if they were charming and good conversationalists.  His friends and family are worried about him now that he’s alone.  They try to cheer him up by encouraging him to get out more, to play golf, anything to help him over his depression.

Flash forward to March of 1915.  Wilson is out driving with his personal physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, when he spies a woman out walking. “Who is that beautiful woman?” he asked. The woman in question was Edith Bolling Galt, a wealthy forty-something childless widow, who hailed from his home state of Virginia.  Lucky for Wilson, not only does Dr. Grayson know exactly who she was but so does Wilson’s cousin and sometime White House hostess Helen Bones.  Helen and Edith have recently become friends thanks to Dr. Grayson who introduced him. Who needs Tinder or when you have friends to introduce you to eligible heads of state? One afternoon Helen invited Edith back to the White House after they’d taken a walk in Rock Creek Park.  The doors to the White House elevator opened and there stood the President of the United States.  As she later described in her memoirs, Edith was wearing a smart, black tailored suit that Worth had made for her in Paris, and a tricot hat. The President was instantly smitten with the charming vivacious woman.  Before too long, the couple was dining regularly together at The White House or at Edith’s home.  Wilson was so in love that he was observed singing ‘Oh you beautiful, you great big beautiful doll,” after leaving Edith’s house near Dupont Circle one night.

It was easy to see what Wilson saw in Edith.  She was tall for a woman, five foot nine, buxom with dark hair and deep blue eyes.  Combining the qualities of a traditional Southern belle with that of a sophisticated, well-traveled woman, Edith even drove her own little electric car around Washington.  She was also impulsive, jealous, self-indulgent, seemingly fearless and enthusiastic. Wilson, on the other hand, was dour, austere, serious, and as thin as a rake. He was a scholar who loved books (he’d not only taught at several universities but had also been President of Princeton as well as Governor of New Jersey). Edith loved fashion and travel.  Although she’d lived either in or near Washington most of her life, she thought politics was a ‘bore.’ What the two had in common was that they were both from Virginia, and had a romantic view of the antebellum South.

Wilson wooed Edith with her favorite flowers, orchids, and sent her passionate love letters almost daily.  He even had a direct phone line installed between her house and his office so that they could circumvent the White House switchboard.  They would go out driving together and there were rumors that they would park and make-out like teenagers (I bet the Secret Service loved having to watch that!).  After only two months of knowing each other, Wilson proposed to his new love. Shocked, Edith wisely told Wilson that it is too soon for him to be making such declarations.  His wife hadn’t been dead for even a year! Widowed for seven years, Edith also had to think about whether or not she was ready to give up her independence. 

Undeterred by her refusal, Wilson began to lean on Edith for comfort and advice. He made Edith feel that she shared the burden of the office.  He began confiding about his woes, telling her intimate details about his work, sending her envelopes of state documents for her to read and comment on. Soon Edith was just as enthralled by the political partnership they were forging as by the emotional one. He made Edith feel needed and cherished. Wilson began to feel like a new man, revitalized, able to take on new challenges. Before long, Edith succumbed to Wilson’s passionate courtship, and they became secretly engaged in Mid-August of 1915.

Not everyone was thrilled by the President’s new relationship. Scandalized White House staffers referred sarcastically to the relationship as ‘The President and Pocahontas’ (Edith was a direct descendant of Pocahontas and John Rolfe).  Rumors flew in Washington that Wilson had cheated on his first wife, and that Edith and Wilson had conspired to murder Ellen. His political cronies were appalled that Wilson had gotten engaged to another woman when his wife had been dead for less than a year.  A hasty remarriage might damage his chances at winning a second term.  His son-in-law, William Gibbs McAdoo, Colonel House and the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels were drafted to warn Wilson against an early remarriage.

McAdoo flat out lied to him and told him that the Republicans were threatening to go public with the letters that he had sent Mary Hulbert Peck, a married woman who Wilson had met during his yearly trips to Bermuda.  Smitten, Wilson had sent several indiscreet letters to Mary over the years and had recently loaned her son $7,500 to pay off some debts. Distressed, Wilson told Edith the truth about his relationship with Peck, telling her that he would understand if she changed her mind about marrying him.  Edith told him that she would stand by him, but they postponed their wedding until December of 1915. From that point on Colonel House, Daniels and McAdoo were on Edith’s hit list.  She would slowly freeze them out as Wilson’s advisors. The happy couple was married on December 18, 1915 at her house in Washington, DC.  The wedding was attended by 40 guests. Though there were still public murmurs of disapproval, Wilson's three daughters welcomed Edith into the family, firm in their belief that their mother Ellen would have approved. They knew how lonely and depressed their father had been, how much he relied and needed female companionship.

Although she was now the First Lady, Edith preferred not to be called by that title.  Mrs. Woodrow Wilson was good enough for her.  In her mind, she served her husband, not the country. Once they were in the White House, Wilson turned more and more to his most trusted advisor, his wife.  Not only did Edith code and encode cables for Wilson, but she was also soon sitting in on his meetings.  The Ambassador to Germany remembers Edith as asking pertinent questions about foreign policy. 1916 was Wilson’s most productive year as President, workmen’s compensation; child labor laws and the eight-hour day were part of his daring leadership.  With the slogan ‘He kept us out of the war,’ he narrowly won re-election in November of 1916. Edith became was the first First Lady not only ride in the presidential motorcade, but also the first to stand beside her husband as he took the oath of office. 

Although she loved the ceremonial aspect of being First Lady, she disliked the day to day aspect, particularly if it kept her away from Wilson. As First Lady during the austerity of World War I, Edith could get away with dispensing some of the more onerous duties.  She observed gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays, and wheat less Wednesdays to set an example to the nation.  She also set sheep to graze on the White House lawn rather than waste manpower to cut the lawn, auctioning off the wool for the benefit of the Red Cross. She also passed out cigarettes and chewing gum to thousands of soldiers at Washington's Union Station. Edith managed to get rid of any of her husband’s associates that she felt didn’t have his best interests at heart.  She submerged her own life into her husband’s, to try and keep him fit under the tremendous strain that he was under as a war time President. 

In September of 1919, the President set out on a 10,000-mile tour of the United States. He was determined to create a nationwide outpouring of support for the League of Nations. Both Edith and Dr. Grayson begged him not to go. The trip was the worst thing that he could have done. After 5,000 miles of travel and speeches in 16 cities, Wilson once again began to suffer severe headaches. He had suffered from ill-health all his life.  While President of Princeton, he was also diagnosed with high blood pressure and urged to retire. He’d refused. During the peace talks in Paris in early 1919, Wilson came down with influenza.  In hindsight the warning signs had been there all along. Both the First Lady and Dr. Grayson had urged him to relax and to exercise more. In October of 1914, he suffered a stroke so severe that it left him paralyzed on his left side.
After his stroke, the second left him permanently paralyzed on his left side, Edith became like a mother lion protecting her cub.  The press was told that the President was suffering from nervous exhaustion. Only Edith and his doctors really knew how ill he was. If you watch Scandal, you might remember the episode where Mellie forged the President’s signature to make it seem like he was recovering, when he really wasn’t? All to keep the Vice-President from seizing office? Well something similar happened when Wilson had his stroke. "I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators," she wrote later of her role, "and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband." Edith later stated in her memoirs that she considered what she was doing was a ‘stewardship of office.’ She also declared that a prominent physician told her that if Wilson had been forced to resign it would have impeded his recovery.  Because Wilson made statesmanship seems so easy, and because he had involved her so intimately in the administration, Edith thought that she could handle things.  However, she had neither the education nor the experience for the role.

In the first 30 days after Wilson’s stroke, Congress passed 28 bills that became law by default because the President failed to respond. While Wilson has been credited with vetoing the Volstead Act (Prohibition), in reality a presidential aid wrote the veto message with Edith’s approval.  It’s possible that Wilson never saw the bill. Rumors were rife in Washington that the President’s signature had been forged on bills. Edith served as the only conduit to the president. White House usher Ike Hoover recalled, "If there were some papers requiring his attention, they would be read to him -- but only those that Mrs. Wilson thought should be read to him. Likewise, word of any decision the president had made would be passed back through the same channels."

Edith Wilson, in her zeal to be a good wife, shielded the President’s true condition not only from the nation but also from Congress and basically ran the country. No First Lady has ever yielded such power during a presidency.  But her actions had consequences that she could not have foreseen at the time. Edith was most definitely not a feminist, she didn’t believe that women needed the vote; she was decidedly old-fashioned when it came to the roles of men and women.  She had no desire for power; she only wanted to protect her husband and to protect his presidency.  What’s amazing is that Edith was able to get away with it.  It wasn’t until the final months of his presidency in 1920 that the press began to report on the extent of her power.  No one, including his wife, his physician or personal assistant was willing to take upon themselves responsibility for the certification, required by the Constitution, of his "inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office." 

Six weeks after the stroke, Wilson's ability to speak returned. But he was still unable to write or walk. As the White House cover-up continued, Republicans became suspicious that the President was not fit for office. They designated two Senators, a Republican and a Democrat, to go see the President. Edith and Dr. Grayson carefully prepared for the visit. They concealed his paralyzed left arm under a blanket, and lit the room so that the President was in a deep shadow. "We're praying for you, Mr. Wilson," Republican Senator Albert Fall declared. "Which way, Senator?" Wilson grimly retorted, "Which way?"  The President passed the test. The New York Times reported that the meeting "silenced for good the many wild and often unfriendly rumors of Presidential disability." The public would never know the full extent of Wilson's illness. But his political health could not be stage managed so easily. After a few months, Wilson was finally able to make it to cabinet meetings but only for a brief stretch of time.  He tired easily, had a hard time with his attention span.

Wilson’s illness exacerbated his more negative qualities of stubbornness and his need to be right.  He absolutely refused to compromise on the Versailles treaty to get it through Congress.  Wilson was so far out of the loop due to his illness that he didn’t comprehend the extent of the opposition in the Senate and that the only way to get the treaty passed was with Henry Cabot Lodge’s reservations.  Edith tried to convince him to change his mind. Because of his unwillingness, the Democrats didn’t have enough votes to ratify the treaty, and the United States ended up not joining the League of Nations.  Had Wilson resigned at the outset of his illness when he had suggested it, and Vice President Marshall succeeded as President, or at least assumed the role until Wilson was better, a compromise would have been reached with Lodge and the treaty would have passed.  The United States would have joined the League of Nations and played an active role in the international peace organization in the years leading up to World War II.  If Edith had put the nation’s needs ahead of her husband, Wilson’s dream of America playing a significant role on the international stage would have come to fruition.  As it was, his successor Warren Harding took America back to its isolationist stance.

Edith and her Woodrow only had a few more years together before he passed away in 1924. She devoted the rest of her life to managing Wilson’s legacy. She held the literary rights to all of her husband's papers in a time before presidential papers were seen as public documents, and she denied access to anyone whose motives she did not trust and granted access to those who proved their loyalty to her. Edith outlived Wilson by almost 40 years, living long enough to attend the inauguration of JFK who was born during the years that she was First Lady of the United States.  She died at the age of 89 on December 28, 1961 on what would have been her husband’s 105th birthday.


Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach, PhD. One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
Kati Marton. Hidden Power:  Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History, Pantheon Books, 2001
Kristie Miller. Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies, University Press of Kansas, 2010

Cormac O’Brien. Secret Lives of the First Ladies: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the Women of the White House, Quirk Books, 2009

Monday, September 8, 2014

Jacqueline Susann and Me

“Yeah, I think I’ll be remembered as the voice of the 60’s…Andy Warhol, the Beatles, and me!” – Jacqueline Susann.

I was first introduced to Jacqueline Susann by my father of all people. Oh, he didn’t mean to.  One summer he took my niece and me to the movies in Rosendale, the little town near our house upstate.  Back then, movies took a long time before they played the cinema in Rosendale.  The only movie playing was the movie version of the Susann novel Once is not Enough.  Apparently my father didn’t check the rating on this movie, so he had no idea that it was rated R. Not exactly the type of movie that you want to take a 10 or an 11 year old to but my niece and I were riveted at the story of January Wayne (played by Deborah Raffin) and her obsession/Electra complex with her father Mike Wayne (played Kurt Douglas).  I’m not sure how much of it we understood, although I do remember Brenda Vaccaro talking about all the plastic surgery her character had had, and the love scene between Melina Mercouri and Alexis Smith which was tame by today’s standards.  After the movie was over, my father apologized profusely to us, he was so embarrassed. 

A few years later, I caught Valley of the Dolls on late night TV, and fell in love all over again (Funnily enough Susann initially hated the movie version, she thought it was too campy).  I had already discovered Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins thanks to cable and network miniseries.  Now at the age of 14, I was ready to tackle Valley of the Dolls. I also read The Bell Jar that summer but it was Valley of the Dolls that stayed with me.  The story of Anne Welles, Neely O’Hara and Jennifer North was filled with backstage gossip, sex, and drugs. Just the type of thing that a mother doesn’t want her 14 year old reading about, particularly a 14 year old who had already decided that she would be an actress/writer/producer.  Susann took the young women in New York theme first introduced by Rona Jaffe in THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, and ramped it up to 11. This novel is so enduring that two TV series have been made from it, one in the 1980’s starring Catherine Hicks as Anne and Lisa Hartman Black as Neely O’Hara, and another version that was filmed and shown on late night television in 1994.  There was also a sequel to the film written by none other than Roger Ebert, and directed Russ Meyer, that so incensed Jacqueline Susann that she spent the last years of her life suing the producers.

Although I enjoyed her books, I didn’t know that much about Jacqueline Susann. I grew up in the era before the Internet and Google, an age where information was literally at your fingertips.  Susann had died just as PEOPLE magazine arrived on the scene. It wasn’t until years later that the world rediscovered Jacqueline Susann.  Out of nowhere, two competing biopics came out about her life, no doubt fueled by Michael Korda’s recollections of being her editor on her second novel THE LOVE MACHINE.  And a biography LOVELY ME written by author Barbara Seaman was reissued in 1996.

Susann was one of the pioneers of the glitz and glamour novels that were so prevalent in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  There would be no Judith Krantz or Jackie Collins, if Susann hadn’t paved the way.  While Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon also wrote books with similar themes, Susann wrote from the woman’s POV. According to Wikipedia, “Valley of the Dolls was an instant success when it was first published and became the bestselling book of 1966. Since then it has sold more than 30 million copies, making it one of the bestselling books of all time. As the first roman à clef by a female author to achieve this level of sales in America, it led the way for other authors such as Jackie Collins to depict the private lives of the real-life rich and famous under a veneer of fiction.”

Susann was in her forties when her first book ‘Every Night, Josephine!’ which was based on her life with her poodle, Josephine, was published in 1963.  She’d spent years trying to make it as an actress, but never quite succeeding.  Oh, she appeared on Broadway and on television but the parts never led to anything bigger.  She was a has-been or a ‘never quite been’ to be more accurate.  She’d won a beauty contest in Philadelphia when she was 18 (no doubt helped by the fact that her father was one of the judges). One of the prizes was a screen test with Warner Brothers.  Unfortunately Jackie was told by both the make-up artist and the cameraman that she would never make it in film because she had ‘big pores.’

Susann was born in Philadelphia on August 20, 1918. Her father, Robert, was a highly successful portrait painter.  Her parents seemed to have been a miss-match, Robert was an unrepentant womanizer.  They argued and made-up frequently.  It was her mother who added the extra ‘n’ to the Sephardic Jewish family name while her father kept the original spelling. Young Jacqueline adored and idolized her handsome father who took her to the theatre and to the movies.  She had a rockier relationship with her perfectionist school teacher mother Rose who thought Jackie should spend more time studying and less time daydreaming and reading movie magazines.  Like me, Jackie was an indifferent student in school, although she had a high I.Q.  No doubt she was bored, and already planning her escape to New York. Jackie auditioned repeatedly for a local radio show The Children’s Hour until they finally gave in and let her occasionally do skits on the air which she wrote herself. Despite her mother’s pleas, Jackie refused to even consider college.  As soon she graduated high school, she was off to New York, living in Kenmore Hall, a women’s residence, pounding the pavement, looking for work. It was at Kenmore Hall that Jackie met a young actress named Elfie who would later be the prototype for Nelly O'Hara in Valley of the Dolls.

She managed to score the role of a French maid in Clare Booth Luce’s new play The Women, but she was fired during rehearsals.  No matter, Jackie just hung around the theatre backstage during the run of the show until she eventually got hired for a bit part as a lingerie model, making her Broadway debut on June 2, 1937.  She met her husband Irving Mansfield, a press agent, when she answered the phone at Walgreen’s and it turned out to be for him.  He was instantly smitten and used his clout to get her name mentioned in the theatrical and gossip columns in the New York papers.  Although she liked Irving, she wasn’t in love with him when they married in 1939. It was a practical decision, Irving had a good job, and she figured that he could do a lot for her career.

Despite Irving’s devotion to Jackie, she was never faithful to him during their marriage.  She had affairs with several men including the comedians Joe E. Lewis and Eddie Cantor. "Jackie was simply crazy for Jewish comics," her friend Maxine Stewart once said.   Jackie often had crushes on women as well and may have been bisexual (there were rumors that Jackie made a pass at Ethel Merman and was rejected. Supposedly she later got back at Merman when she created the character of Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls). but sex was not a driving factor in her life.  I think in some ways, she was replicating her parent’s relationship, only with the roles reversed.  In 1946, Jackie gave birth to her only child, a son named Guy.  By the time he was three years old, he was diagnosed as autistic. Autism was still a relatively new diagnosis, doctors suggested that electroshock therapy might help, but it only made the little boy worse.  Both Jackie and Irving felt that there only choice was to put him in an institution.  Ashamed and embarrassed, they told people that he was at a special school in Arizona for children with severe asthma.  Jackie’s main goal, besides becoming famous, was to make enough money to ensure that her son was taken care of during his lifetime. 

It was a diagnosis of breast cancer that spurred Jackie to take out her typewriter to try and write a novel. She’d already written two failed plays, and wrote most of the copy for her Schiffli Lace commercials as well as produced them. She had a mastectomy in 1962, but she kept the news of her illness the same way that she had kept Guy’s a secret.  After her diagnosis, she bargained with God, that if he would just give her ten more years, she would really make something of her life (her husband Irving once said that she treated God like the William Morris office.) And she took her new career as a novelist seriously.  It took her a year and a half to write Valley of the Dolls. Each of her books from Valley of the Dolls through Once Is Not Enough went through at least 5 drafts (each one on different colored paper) before she turned into to her editor. She wrote every day from 10-5 pm.  Even then, there was still more work to be done.  Jackie surprised her editors by not being a prima donna when it came to making changes.  She listened to their suggestions, some she agreed with, some she didn’t. She knew that her strength lay in her ear for dialogue and her characters, not so much the plot, although she diagrammed her plots on a blackboard. After reading a Harold Robbins novel and tearing it apart, Jackie decided that secret formula was giving a set of characters a common denominator. In the Valley of the Dolls, it was pills. In The Love Machine, it was television and the main character Robin Stone, for whom all the female characters fell hopelessly in love despite the fact that he was a total bastard to them.

One of the most amazing things about Jackie Susann was her resilience.  Life kept giving her hard knocks but she kept on going. And it was rough.  Anyone who has a passion or a talent that they don’t feel is appreciated knows what Jackie went through during her years as an actress.  It was literally one step forward and eight steps back.  But yet she kept on.  She was one of the first to do confrontational interviews on television.  Of course, Mike Wallace later became famous for his hard-nosed questions, but because Jackie was a woman, she never got enough credit for it.

She also didn’t get enough credit during her lifetime for her writing.  Jackie knew that no one would compare her writing to Flaubert or Philip Roth, but she knew what the average reader wanted after a hard day at some blue collar job. Although some people called her novels 'literary trash,' Jackie was a storyteller.  She knew how to enthrall a reader.  They wanted to be entertained; they wanted to feel as if their lives were ultimately better than the rich and famous. And Jackie provided that.  She knew what people wanted because she had been that girl with her nose pressed against the glass for years, trying to get into the swanky parties, hob-nobbing with the rich and famous. Valley of the Dolls (dolls are slang for pills) in some ways was probably her most autobiographical novel. Both Jackie and Irving had taken pills for years, sleeping pills to get to sleep, amphetamines to wake-up, diet pills to stay slim. For Jackie, the pills were away to numb the pain.  When things were going great, she would ease off the pills, a setback would send her straight back to them.

And she worked damn hard at her writing and ultimately at promoting her books.  Jackie researched her books thoroughly, she made lists of the things that she didn’t know that she needed to either look up or find out from friends who might know. During the writing of The Love Machine, she claimed to have interviewed men to make sure that her portrait of the main character Robin Stone was authentic.  She kept detailed notes on everyone that she met while promoting her books, and send them handwritten notes.  Now managing his wife's career full-time, Irving managed to find out the names of the 125 bookstores that The New York Times polled when compiling its best seller list. He recruited friends and acquaintances for a little strategic book-buying campaign, making sure that books were bought at every single one of the 125 bookstores.  Nowadays, authors’ giveaway books, tchotchkes, bookmarks, key chains etc. but no one was doing that in the 1960’s before Jackie. When The Love Machine came out, she had gold ankhs made up, and gave them away to every one. During her publicity tour for 'Every Night Josephine,' she dressed herself and her dog in matching leopard-patterned pillbox hats and coats for TV appearances. Nothing and no one was too small for her to pay attention to when it came to selling her books. Susann had an unmistakable look, long dark hair augmented by falls, heavy eye make-up, and Pucci dresses. I still covet Pucci dresses because of her. Jackie knew that she was her own best pitch-woman for her books. But Jackie's books succeeded not just because of the publicity because she had empathy for the female emotional experience.

Although she was only paid $3,000 for the rights to Valley of the Dolls, the paperback rights were sold to Bantam for $200,000, the movie rights went for about the same amount. Not bad for a newbie writer! For The Love Machine, Jackie's advance from Simon & Schuster climbed to $200,000, with a $250,000 promotional budget.  The Mansfields managed to forge separate agreement with Bantam for the paperback rights which gave them 100% royalties, unheard of at the time. When the book debuted, it toppled Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint from the top spot on the best seller list.

Jacqueline Susann was the first author ever to have 3 books catapult to the number one spot on the New York Times best-selling list. Not bad for a woman who only had a high-school education! I admire many things about Jacqueline Susann but I think it’s her chutzpah and her ability to keep going, even through adversity.  No matter how many doors slammed in her face, Jackie kept on knocking until one opened. She was determined to make her mark, whether through acting or writing, and she succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. One of the things that Jackie worried about when she was dying was that she would be forgotten, but she was so wrong. All you have to do is look at the list of people she influenced or references to Valley of the Dolls in pop culture on Wikipedia to see that.  If Jacqueline Susann was alive today, not only would she have a Facebook page, but she would have taken to Twitter like a duck to water.

Unfortunately Susann didn’t live to see her books reissued by Grove in 1997 or the two biopics that were made from her life story (suck on that Harold Robbins!) starring Bette Midler and Michelle Lee.  In early 1973, Susann went into the hospital for a persistent cough.  The news was not good, her cancer had returned, and this time it had spread to her lungs. Susann was only given months to live, but she persisted on promoting her final book Once Is Not Enough. She passed away on September 21st, 1973 at the age of 56.


Barbara Seaman Lovely Me: The Life of Jacqueline Susann, Seven Stories Press. 1996 (2nd Edition)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

10 Questions with Leslie Carroll

Today is the release date for author Leslie Carroll's 6th book of non-fiction entitled Inglorious Royal Marriages. Scandalous Women is happy to welcome Leslie once again to the blog.

About the book:

Why does it seem that the marriages of so many monarchs are often made in hell? And yet we can’t stop reading about them! To satisfy your schadenfreude, INGLORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES offers a panoply of the most spectacular mismatches in five hundred years of royal history….some of which are mentioned below.

When her monkish husband, England’s Lancastrian Henry VI, became completely catatonic, the unpopular French-born Margaret of Anjou led his army against the troops of their enemy, the Duke of York.

Margaret Tudor, her niece Mary I, and Catherine of Braganza were desperately in love with chronically unfaithful husbands—but at least they weren’t murdered by them, as were two of the Medici princesses.

King Charles II’s beautiful, high-spirited sister “Minette” wed Louis XIV’s younger brother, who wore more makeup and perfume than she did.

Compelled by her mother to wed her boring, jug-eared cousin Ferdinand, Marie of Roumania—a granddaughter of Queen Victoria—emerged as a heroine of World War I by using her prodigious personal charm to regain massive amounts of land during the peace talks at Versailles. Marie’s younger sister Victoria Melita wed two of her first-cousins: both marriages ultimately scandalized the courts of Europe.

Brimming with outrageous real-life stories of royal marriages gone wrong, this is an entertaining, unforgettable book of dubious matches doomed from the start.

      1.       This is your 6th book about royalty.  What is about royalty that we Americans find so fascinating?

It’s axiomatic about human nature that we seem to want what we don’t have. And Americans are fascinated by the glamour and glitz of royalty—the external trappings, such as the palaces and coaches and tiaras and bling. And of course we’re not the taxpayers funding these monarchies, which in Western Europe (my literary bailiwick, for the most part) are now largely constitutional, with primarily ceremonial duties nowadays. For Americans, royalty is fantasy. Even though we fought a war not to be ruled by a monarchy, what we like about royalty is not the governmental aspect of it, but the fairy tale. For example, the nuptials of Charles and Diana, and William and Kate are so often described by our media as “fairy tale weddings.” However, in my books about royalty, I humanize the royals. After all, they were, and are, actual people, however iconographic some of them became—with foibles and flaws and frailties and failures, just like other mortals—except they have better jewelry, larger homes, and nicer clothes than most of us.

2. What prompted you to write about Inglorious Royal Marriages? 

In a word, schadenfreude: the vicarious thrill derived from the misfortunes of others. My books about royal relationships tend to be the most popular, and my last book was titled ROYAL ROMANCES, so I decided to do a 180-degree turn and write about some royal mismatches and matrimonial debacles. There really isn’t a shortage of those, because so many royal marriages were arranged. There is only a shortage of research material on some of them.

3. Out of all the royal couples that you have written about who is your favorite and why? Which Royal Couple was the most surprising to you?
I have favorites from each of my books: in ROYAL AFFAIRS, I’ve always had a fondness for Nell Gwyn (she was a feisty redheaded actress who really was in love with Charles II and not solely in it for the money). In NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, I remain fascinated by the hellacious union of George I of England and Sophia Dorothea of Celle, because both took lovers, but George openly sparred with Sophia Dorothea; her lover was brutally murdered and his body mysteriously disposed of; and she was exiled, shut in a tower for the remainder of her days, divorced from George, never again permitted to see their kids, and all acknowledgments of her were expunged from the Hanoverian court. When George became king of England, his two mistresses (The “Elephant” and the “Maypole”) were his hostesses because there was no queen.  In ROYAL PAINS, I just adore Princess Margaret, the wild child and younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II. She’s someone who lived during my childhood, so I kept up with her glamorous antics in the tabloids; and my mother told me all about her doomed relationship with Group Capt. Peter Townsend because it was a huge news item of her young womanhood as well. And in ROYAL ROMANCES, my favorites are a tie between the twenty-plus-year affair of Louis XIV and Mme. de Montespan, the blond voluptuary who bore the king several children and earned the title “the real queen of France” (plus there were all those scandalous accusations of poisoning), and that of Catherine the Great and Potemkin (what an incredibly sexy couple they must have been—SO tempestuous!).

As for a favorite from the new book, INGLORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, it’s tough to beat the dysfunctional unions between a pair of gorgeous Medici cousins and their adulterous, macho, wife-beating husbands who decided that their wives were too flamboyant and needed killing. The double murders, which occurred within two weeks of each other during the Italian Renaissance, were pretty much swept under the rug by the women’s own relative in his capacity as Grand Duke of Tuscany. I know that seems to be a “spoiler,” but one has to read the chapter to get the horrors of it all. 

4.     Are there any couples who didn’t make it into the book and why?

The marriages that I selected for the book are all interrelated in that a royal in each subsequent chapter is a relative or descendent of someone profiled in a previous chapter—so there’s a deliberate through-line in this book that there wasn’t in the previous books. I did have more couples in my original draft table of contents. Some were eliminated as I began my research process because there just wasn’t enough research available to tell a juicy story (such as Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, and her husband John Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll). With the two of them, the chapter would have had a lot of traipsing across Canada: he loved it, she didn’t. Not a lot of excitement there, except for an auto accident. He was rumored to be gay. Okay, some potentially good stuff, but they were, well, Victorians, so it’s almost impossible to find credible anecdotal information to back up those allegations. You can’t write nonfiction based on rumor. So after reading a few bios on both of them, I had to scrap the chapter. I couldn’t use Louis XV and Marie Leszczyńzka because so little is available on their marriage in the English language, and what is there shows that they were not ideally mated, but wouldn’t have qualified the marriage as “inglorious.” I also considered a chapter on Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark, but ran out of space, so they were set aside because of word/page count criteria. 

5.  What does your writing and research process look like? Do you research as you write?

It depends on whether the books I need have arrived by the time I need to do the research. I will get my table of contents approved by my editor before I begin to research and then order the books I need. More often than not, these books are out of print and/or not available in my local libraries. Because of deadline constraints, interlibrary loans aren’t usually helpful because (a) sometimes the books I need are not available anywhere; and (b) I have no idea when the books will arrive and how long it will take me to read them and take copious notes on them (which I do in longhand in violet fine point Pilot marker on notebook paper, marking the name of the book by author and title and page number when I use a quote, so that I know where it was sourced.) My editor demands hard photocopies of the pages I used for quote sources so that the copyeditor can check them to make sure I typed them correctly in my manuscript. Photocopying every page with a quote source is very time consuming and is another reason I end up purchasing the research books I need, so I can keep everything for as long as I want. Also, that way, I can write my chapters in any order. For INGLORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, all the books I needed had arrived by the time I began to write, or had at least arrived by the time I needed them for the requisite chapter, so I wrote the chapters in chronological order. 

6.  You’ve also written several historical fiction novels about some famous and fascinating women such as Helen of Troy, Emma Hamilton, Mary Robinson and Marie Antoinette.  What are the differences you find between writing non-fiction and fiction? Which do you prefer?

I find that one genre feeds the other. I get ideas for my historical fiction from my nonfiction.  For example, my (Juliet Grey’s) HF trilogy on the life of Marie Antoinette was inspired by the chapter I wrote in NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES on her marriage to Louis XVI. I read so much about their lives and realized that they had been so traduced by history that someone needed to tell their story in a richly detailed way, which for once told the truth instead of continuing to promulgate the propaganda found in the history books and in many biographies of the past 225 years or so. As for the differences, of course you can’t “make stuff up” in nonfiction! With historical fiction the author is free to embellish and embroider between the historical events. Some HF authors really play fast and loose and “never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” as the saying goes, but in that case, why write about real people? In historical fiction I am firmly committed to the historical record, because it does a disservice to my characters to make stuff up when the truth/facts are usually much juicier than anything a novelist can invent. That said, a novelist can, and should, do what a historian can’t—which is to get under the figure’s skin and inside their psyche and help readers understand what made them tick, what made their hearts beat so quickly, how they felt about the actions they took. A novelist gets to have an opinion about the events that shaped her character’s lives, and about her characters themselves. By telling a well-known story from their point of view, she can depict them sympathetically, illuminating their world from their perspective, as, for example, Hilary Mantel did so brilliantly with Thomas Cromwell in WOLF HALL. Without too much monkeying around with historical events, Mantel put us inside (the usually villainous) Cromwell’s head and almost made us sympathize with Henry’s hatchet man, his Karl Rove, if you will.  

7. You’re a native New Yorker, and now you live in our nation’s capital.  What is your favorite historical place in Washington, DC?

If you have never visited Hillwood, which is the home of General Foods founder (and Dina Merrill’s mother) Marjorie Merriweather Post, you are in for a treat! This home museum tucked away in NW DC is a gem. If you’re a flower person, she collected rare species of orchids, which are in a greenhouse on the grounds. If you are a Russophile or Francophile, she amassed all sorts of artifacts belonging to those royal and imperial families. If you want to see Romanov memorabilia, Hillwood is the place to go. They have many lectures and exhibits throughout the year. And every July they have an 18th c. style festival on the grounds with costumed participants.  

8.  I just watched the first episode of Outlander on Starz this past weekend.  If you could time-travel to any period in history, where it would it be, and why?

I think the Restoration Court of Charles II would be my first choice. Although mid-18th c. France might be pretty cool as well.  I need an era when women’s wit was prized. And where I would look smashing in the clothes. 

9. What are your favorite things to do in your downtime?

I never seem to get much down time, but I find that it’s important to recharge my creative batteries by visiting museums, walking by the river, poring over issues of Architectural Digest and reimagining interior spaces, cooking or baking; and, if I am not currently writing historical fiction, reading my colleagues’ novels. I don’t like to read in a genre that I am writing in, unless it’s for research.

10.   What are you working on now? What is your next project?

I am currently writing a novel; historical fiction set during the mid-twentieth century. That’s all I’ll say about it for now. And I have been recording audio books this summer, another aspect of my career that I branched into a few years ago. It’s a performance skill in its own that, well, gloriously marries the ones I’ve acquired over the years in my two creative professions, writing and acting. It’s a lot of fun and I love making other authors’ work come alive aurally.

Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for inviting me, and for the opportunity to speak to your readers! As always, it’s been a pleasure!

About the author:

Leslie Carroll is the author of several works of historical nonfiction, women’s fiction, and, under the pen names Juliet Grey and Amanda Elyot, is a multipublished author of historical fiction. Her nonfiction titles include Royal Romances, Royal Pains, Royal Affairs, and Notorious Royal Marriages. She is also a classically trained professional actress with numerous portrayals of virgins, vixens, and villainesses to her credit, and is an award-winning audio book narrator.

A frequent commentator on royal romances and relationships, Leslie has been interviewed by numerous publications, including, USA Today, the Australian Broadcasting Company, and NPR, and she was a featured royalty historian on CBS nightly news in London during the royal wedding coverage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. She also appears as an expert on the love lives of Queen Victoria, Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great, and Napoleon on the television series “The Secret Life of [fill in the name of famous figure]” for Canada’s History Channel. Leslie and her husband, Scott, divide their time between New York City and Washington, D.C.

For more information please visit Leslie’s website. You can also connect with her on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.