Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Review: The Woman Before Wallis

Title:  The Woman Before Wallis

Author:  Bryn Turnbull

Publisher:  Mira Books

Pub Date:  7/21/2020

How Acquired:  Edelweiss

Synopsis: Before Edward, Prince of Wales famously abdicated his throne for American divorcee Wallis Simpson, he loved another American woman: Thelma Morgan Furness, sister to the first Gloria Vanderbilt. This is her story.

The daughters of an American diplomat, Thelma and Gloria Morgan were stars of New York social scene in the early 1920s, dubbed “the magnificent Morgans.” Both would marry into wealth and privilege beyond their imaginations, Gloria to Reggie Vanderbilt, and Thelma to a viscount. Thelma begins an affair with Edward, the dashing Prince of Wales, that will last nearly five years.

Then, in 1934, Thelma's life is upended by her sister Gloria's custody trial — a headline-grabbing drama known as The Matter of Vanderbilt, which dominates global news for months and raises the bar for tabloid sensationalism. Back in New York, sued by members of her late husband's family on charges of negligence, unfit parenting and homosexuality, Gloria needs her twin's support more than ever. But as her sister gains international notoriety, Thelma fears that her own fall from grace might not be far behind.

My thoughts: I was interested to read this novel because I thought this was an interesting take on the whole Wallis Simpson/Edward VIII story that we have seen so many times in both fiction and non-fiction. I first learned about Thelma and her relationship with the Prince of Wales from watching Edward & Mrs. Simpson (by far the best TV/film version of the story ever done) and then reading Barbara Goldsmith's Little Gloria Happy at Last.

There were many things that I liked about this novel, the writing is superb, but I didn't find Thelma as compelling a character compared to her sister Gloria, Nada Milford-Haven or even Wallis. She seemed curiously passive. Things happened to her for the most part. Marmaduke Furness sort of falls into her lap in Paris, the same with the Prince of Wales. Even Aly Khan shows up when she's feeling a bit down.

The book shifts between 1934 when she arrives in New York for the custody trial between her sister and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and scenes from her earlier life starting with her divorce from her 1st husband. This keeps the time frame relatively tight but I felt that story lacked something because we don't really get to see her early years with her mother and father growing up in Europe.

I found it easy to put the book down at times, it wasn't compelling enough for me. And I found that the author pulled her punches a bit with the relationship between the Prince of Wales and Thelma. There was nothing in the book about how she once pushed him around in a pram.

I think that this book will be devoured by readers who either don't know enough about the Prince of Wales or who are interested in the time period.

Monday, December 31, 2018

SEDUCTION: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood

Title: SEDUCTION Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood
Author: Karina Longworth
Publisher: Custom House
How obtained:  through the publisher

What it's about: In this riveting popular history, the creator of You Must Remember This probes the inner workings of Hollywood’s glamorous golden age through the stories of some of the dozens of actresses pursued by Howard Hughes, to reveal how the millionaire mogul’s obsessions with sex, power and publicity trapped, abused, or benefitted women who dreamt of screen stardom.

My thoughts: It's been awhile since I've blogged for which I apologize. 2018 has been a difficult year in many ways for me, as well as a busy one. I started a new job which has been time-consuming as well as working on the Historical Novel Society conference which takes place this coming June in National Harbor, MD. I've also been traveling a great deal which has meant that blogging has fallen to the wayside. Reading, which has normally been one of life's pleasures for me, has become more of a chore at times.

However, one of the delights of this year, has been getting the chance to read Karina Longworth's new book SEDUCTION: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood. If you are not familiar with Karina Longworth, she is the host, producer and writer of one of the best podcasts around You Must Remember This about classic Hollywood. If you haven't listened to the podcast, and you love old Hollywood films, I suggest you give it a try immediately. You will find it hard to stop listening once you start. When I heard that Longworth was writing a book about Howard Hughes, and specifically his time in Hollywood, I couldn't wait to get my grabby hands on it. I was fortunate enough that the good people at Harper Collins sent me an ARC over the summer but I decided to save it until just before my birthday to read.

Once I started, I couldn't put it down. What makes the book so fascinating is that Longworth examines Hughes life through the women in his life, Katherine Hepburn, Ida Lupino, Jane Russell, Terry Moore and Jean Peters among many others. It gives the reader a much different perspective on Hughes and movie history, than just a warts and all, cradle to grave biography of Hughes. What this book shows clearly is that powerful men have long been exploiting women in Hollywood. For every Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers or Jane Powell who managed to come out of their relationships with Hughes relatively unscathed, there are scores of other women who came to Hollywood, ended up scooped up by Hughes, and their careers went nowhere. If you have seen the Warren Beatty film RULES DON'T APPLY you have some idea of who Hughes or his cronies would find vulnerable, young girls, set them up in apartments, send them to classes, and then nothing. And then there are the women who made the mistake of falling in love with Hughes whose careers never got off the ground. This book flips the narrative, offering a different perspective. 

What becomes clear in the book is how Hughes used his money and power to sexually harass and coerce women, objectifying and sexualizing them on screen in ways that audiences hadn't seen before. In the beginning Hughes gravitated towards smart, talented, career women such as Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, actresses who had careers before and after Hughes. But eventually Hughes decided that he wanted to find women that he could mold. Hughes comes across not only as a smart man but also one who grew increasingly paranoid as time went on, hiring private investigators, security personnel and informers to rat on the women in his life. He went through a form of marriage ceremony with Terry Moore before eventually legally marrying actress Jean Peters. 

Longworth gives the reader a good idea of what life was like for women living in Hollywood from the 1920's through the 1950's and what sacrifices some women had to make it order to make it. It might be hard for contemporary readers to understand exactly why some of these women stayed with Hughes, especially after his promises to make them a star didn't pan out. Longworth does a good job of illustrating how charming Hughes could be when he wanted, and how he controlled women through money and the promise of fame. Also, many of these women were drawn to Hughes because he seemed like a lost lamb. He'd lost his parents at an early age, become a millionaire before he was barely out of his teens and suffered several, horrific accidents. 

The other thing that is fascinating is that Hughes eventually ended up running RKO, the studio that he bought, basically into the ground. He had no real instinct for film-making, although it fascinated him greatly. Longworth also explodes the myth that Hughes was a publicity-shy man who loathed being famous. Hughes comes into sharp focus in this book. 

One of the most fascinating chapters in the book involve Ida Lupino who was one of the few actress/directors working in Hollywood during the so-called Golden Age. I knew of Lupino as an actress but not as a director. Lupino's dealings in Hollywood when she was working not only as a director but also as an independent filmmaker should be required reading for any film student. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interesting in a well-researched book on the Golden Age of Hollywood and one of it's most intriguing and least understood movie moguls.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Scandalous Review: The Favourite

The Favourite – starring Olivia Colman (Queen Anne), Emma Stone (Abigail Hill Masham), and Rachel Weisz as Sarah Marlborough.

I had totally forgotten that The Favourite was playing at the New York Film Festival until I saw it mentioned in Time Out magazine. So of course, I decided immediately that I needed to see it now and not when it comes out next month. All 8 showings were sold out, but I managed to get a stand-by ticket to the 7:00 pm showing. The film is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos who directed films such as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, neither of which I had seen. I read a brief blurb about the film which said that this is probably the most mainstream film he’s ever directed, so take that as you will.

The plot:  Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne's ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen's companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfill her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.

So, what did I think of the film? I can say unequivocally that I really liked it. I can’t say that I loved it unabashedly. The film is sort of an 18th century version of All About Eve, Abigail is taken in by her cousin Sarah but is relegated to the kitchens as a scullery maid until she manages to help soothe the Queen’s gout. Only then does Sarah promote her cousin to the slightly higher status of her personal maid. Abigail seizes her chance to stop being a door mat, to better herself and score a hot, aristocratic husband at the same time. What made the film for me were the performances, especially Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. To me she is the heart of the film. Colman captures the aching loneliness and bewilderment of a woman who never thought she would be Queen, and who has no idea how to cope or who to trust. She puts all her faith in Sarah Marlborough who treats her with a mix of affection and disdain. The scene where she tells Abigail about her seventeen pregnancies (yes, Anne was pregnant seventeen times) and how none of her children survived is heartbreaking. Emma Stone impressed me with her performance as Abigail Hill.  Her Abigail at first just wants to rise from the kitchen, slowly as the movie progresses the audience sees her grow more and more Machiavellian as her star rises at court and she manages to her oust her cousin from her position as the favorite of Queen Anne.  It was fascinating to watch her realize who she can use others to get what she wants.

Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Marlborough, Abigail’s cousin and the Queen’s current favorite. The Queen and Sarah are so close that they call each other Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman. Sarah can take liberties with the Queen that other courtiers do not. Her performance for me was the weakest link but that had more with the script. Her Sarah isn’t allowed to have as many shades of gray as the other characters in the film. I think it was a mistake not to have at least one scene with her and her husband Marlborough (played by Mark Gatniss). The two of them could be considered an 18th century power couple. Weisz captures Sarah’s overwhelming ambition and casual cruelty, but we see little of any genuine affection for the Queen. Weisz’s performance as Sarah perfectly captures the old adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

SPOILER ALERT:  The film leans heavily into the notion that Queen Anne was a lesbian and that her relationships with her two favorites were sexual. Of course, one can never really know for sure what went on behind closed doors, but it is clear from surviving letters that her affection for Sarah at least went beyond friendship. No doubt Sarah took advantage of that affection for her own purposes.
What the film does best is capture the almost claustrophobic nature of the court, and how the Whigs and the Tories were constantly jockeying for the Queen’s favor to push forward their own agenda. While the Whigs (favored by the Marlboroughs) are in power, the Tories led by Lord Harley spend their time scheming how they can control the government, using Abigail Hill for leverage.  One of the weaknesses of the film is that the audience has no idea of the time frame, although it is clearly during the War of the Spanish Succession. Normally, if you know anything about fashion you can tell by the costumes, but in this case it’s extremely hard.  Also, the male characters, particularly Samuel Marsham are very thinly drawn compared to the main female characters of the film. They are beside the point, which is actually kind of nice for a change!

How does the film measure up to history? Well, Abigail was part of Anne’s household before she became Queen. The historical Sarah Marlborough treated Abigail with a bit more kindness than the movie Sarah. For example, she certainly didn’t make her scrub floors! The real Lord Harley was also related to Abigail, and considerably older during the events portrayed in the film.  Nicholas Hoult is about 20 years too young for the role. Also, Abigail was in her thirties during the reign of Queen Anne and was older than her husband by several years.  There is no surviving portrait of Abigail Masham but her contemporaries wrote that she was considered quite plain.

Sandy Powell’s costumes are gorgeous by the way, she sticks to a mainly black and white palate for the women.

Despite the historical inaccuracies, I highly recommend this film. It’s rare that an audience gets to such a female-centric film and Olivia Colman’s performance is just breath-taking, she certainly deserved the best actress award that she received at the Venice Film Festival.

Anyone interested in reading more about the period, should pick up these books.

Susan Holloway Scott – The Duchess (about Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough)
Jean Plaidy – Courting Her Highness: The Story of Queen Anne (A Novel of the Stuarts)

Ophelia Field - The Favourite: The Life of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough
Anne Somerset – Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Winner of the Royal Wedding Giveaway

This post was supposed to go up yesterday but I'm telling you, I have a wicked case of jet lag! I will also write up a post later about the Royal Wedding and my trip to London, but for now, can I have a drum roll please: the winner of the Royal Wedding Giveaway is:


Wanda, I will be emailing you off line to get your address and to let you know when you can expect your goodies.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Royal Wedding Giveaway

Hello everyone! I know it has been a long time since I have blogged but I have an exciting giveaway that I couldn't wait to share with you. May 19th is the Royal Wedding, and I will be heading to Windsor to celebrate. Yes, I'm going to the Royal Wedding, well kind of. I will be amongst the throng of people lining the long walk in order to get a glimpse of this historic couple, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Being there is kind of like full circle for me. My first trip to London was the summer that Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer, and I vividly remember all the excitement around the upcoming nuptials. The day after the wedding, the tour group that I was with, headed up to Scotland and a copy of Diana's dress was already in the window of a department store in Edinburgh!

So in honor of the Royal Wedding, I am doing a giveaway. Some of the items in the giveaway include:

  • A copy of American Princess: The Love Story of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry by Leslie Carroll
  • A copy of The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
  • A Harry and Meghan Royal Wedding Mug
  • A tin of Harney & Sons Royal Wedding Tea
  • Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Paper Dolls
  • Mini-scones baking kit
Plus surprise items bought on my trip to London

This giveaway is only open to US residents.  Contest ends on May 22nd at noon.

Here are the rules:

1) Leave your name and email address in the comments section
2) If you tweet about the giveaway, and let me know, you get an extra entry.
3) If you are not a follower of the blog, and become one, you get an extra entry.
4) If you like the Scandalous Women Facebook page, you also get an extra entry.

The winner will be announced on May 23rd!

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Nellie Bly: Daredevil Reporter

“I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall."
Nellie Bly, The Evening-Journal; January 8, 1922

The young woman who helped launch a new kind of investigative journalism was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864. Her father’s death when she was 6 changed her life irrevocably. He left no will so all his assets were sold and the money divided amongst his fourteen children. In the blink of an eye, her family went from living in the largest house in town to having to live in straitened circumstances. Her mother remarried but the marriage was not successful. When her mother took the unusual step of filing for divorce from her second husband, Nellie testified in court about her step-father’s abuse. The experience left her determined to be self-reliant. Forced to leave school when money ran out, she moved with her mother to Pittsburgh, where they ran a boarding house.
Her journalistic juices were piqued in 1885 when she  read a newspaper column entitled “What Girls are Good For” in the Pittsburgh Dispatch which implied that girls were only good for two things: having children and keeping house. Incensed by the sexist comments, she off a fiery rebuttal. The managing editor was so impressed that he demanded to know who she really was—and offered her a job!
The newly rechristened Nellie Bly cut her teeth writing hard-hitting investigative pieces about working women who held traditionally male jobs. While not a trained journalist, Nellie was a good interviewer, able to get anyone to talk. But she soon found herself relegated to the women’s pages writing about fashion and parties. Increasingly frustrated, Nellie decided on a bold and risky move. Despite not knowing any Spanish, she headed to Mexico to work as a freelance journalist. But Nellie soon found herself in hot water when she criticized the Mexican government. Threatened with arrest, she fled the country.
In 1887 deciding that Pittsburgh was too small for her ambitions, she left this note for her editors: "I am off for New York. Look out for me." But few newspaper editors in New York took her seriously. After four months of pounding the pavement, she finally managed to talk her way into the offices of one of the biggest newspapers in the country, The New York World. Her first assignment: posing as a mental patient to expose the conditions at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. When Nellie asked her editor how he planned on getting her out, he told her not to worry!
She spent hours in front of the mirror practicing to convincingly play a woman suffering from mental illness. Calling herself Nellie Brown, she checked into a women’s shelter where she refused to sleep, and told anyone who spoke to her that her trunks had disappeared. Sent to Bellevue Hospital, she claimed to be from Cuba and pretended to be confused when questioned. Diagnosed as demented, she was taken by boat across to Blackwell’s Island. For ten days, Nellie experienced firsthand the filthy conditions, spoiled food, and the physical abuse suffered by the inmates. Her series of articles made her a household name at the age of 23 and led to a grand jury investigation into conditions at the asylum. New York leaders voted to increase in funds for the insane and more thorough examinations so that only the seriously ill were sent to the asylum.
But Nellie was just getting started. She proposed the ultimate story to her editor: she would journey solo around the world (just under 25,000 miles) in 72 days to beat the record Jules Verne wrote about in his famous novel and turn fiction into fact. Packing light, Nellie took only the dress she was wearing, an overcoat, underwear and a small toiletry bag. Thanks to the electric telegraph, Nellie was able to send short dispatches about her trip to The New York World with details of her progress.  She finally arrived back in New Jersey beating Phineas Fogg by more than a week, a world’s record at the time. The feat and the subsequent book made her a household name.
Bly would continue to champion the rights of laborers and women in her articles over the next few years. After her marriage to wealthy businessman forty years her senior, Nellie retired from journalism. She turned her talents to working for her husband’s company which made steel containers. For a time, she was one of the leading women industrialists in the United States, receiving multiple patents for her inventions. When the business went bankrupt, Nellie went back to her first love journalism, covering World War I and the suffrage movement.
Bly died of pneumonia at the age of 57 but her legacy as a pioneering female journalist continues, inspiring other women to pursue their own journalist ambitions.

Nellie Bly “Fun facts” and inspirational quotes

·         Childhood nickname was “Pink” because her mother dressed her in that color to stand out; it then became Nellie’s credo to stand out from the pack!
·         When most female reporters (and there were few) were paid around $15/week, Nellie was earning $200/week.
·         Met Jules Verne, author of Around the World in 80 Days during her record-breaking circumnavigation of the globe.
·         Her editor chose her pen name Nellie Bly from the title character in the popular song by Stephen Foster.
·         During her round-the-world journey, Nellie bought a pet monkey in Singapore, which she named McGinty.
·         McLouglin Brothers issued a board game that followed the day-by-day progress of her trip.
·         Bly received multiple patents for her inventions which included an oil drum and a stackable trash can.
·         First woman to file eyewitness reports from the Eastern front in WWI.

Nellie’s route around the world:
Hoboken to London to Calais to Brindisi to Port Said to Ismailia to Suez to Aden to Colombo to Penang to Singapore to Hong Kong to Yokohama to San Francisco to Jersey City (and then  by ferry to NYC and to the offices of The World)

Inspirational quotes:
 “Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.” (said to be NB’s motto/maxim)
 “If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?”

  • Goodman, Matthew (2013). Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World.
  • Kroeger, Brooke (1994). Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Three Rivers Press. 
  • Noyes, Deborah. Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original "Girl" Reporter, Nellie Bly Viking Books for Young Readers (February 23, 2016)

Monday, April 9, 2018

April Book of the Month - Ecstasy by Mary Sharratt

Title:  Ecstasy:  A Novel
Author:  Mary Sharratt
Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 10, 2018)
How acquired:  Edelweiss

What’s it about? In the glittering hotbed of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna, one woman’s life would define and defy an era

Gustav Klimt gave Alma her first kiss. Gustav Mahler fell in love with her at first sight and proposed only a few weeks later. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius abandoned all reason to pursue her. Poet and novelist Franz Werfel described her as “one of the very few magical women that exist.” But who was this woman who brought these most eminent of men to their knees?
Coming of age in the midst of a creative and cultural whirlwind, young, beautiful Alma Schindler yearns to make her mark as a composer. A brand-new era of possibility for women is dawning and she is determined to make the most of it. But Alma loses her heart to the great composer Gustav Mahler, nearly twenty years her senior. He demands that she give up her music as a condition for their marriage. Torn by her love and in awe of his genius, how will she remain true to herself and her artistic passion?

 Part cautionary tale, part triumph of the feminist spirit, Ecstasy reveals the true Alma Mahler: composer, author, daughter, sister, mother, wife, lover, and muse.

My take:  I was first introduced to the story of Alma Schindler in the 2001 film Bride of the Wind starring Jonathan Pryce as Mahler and Australian actress Sarah Wynter.  Frankly the movie was not very good.  The film takes its title from the painting by Oskar Kokoschka which he dedicated to Alma. Alma is a cipher in this film; she wanders wanly through with men throwing themselves at her and then going crazy with jealously as she tosses them aside. The movie can’t decide whether she’s a femme fatale or a woman with thoughts, feelings, or ambitions of her own. For years, I thought that this was an accurate depiction of Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel. Thankfully, Mary Sharratt has written Ecstasy: A Novel which does a great deal to rescue Alma’s reputation as some kind of Helen of Troy leading men to their doom.

The novel doesn’t seek to tell a cradle to grave story of Alma’s life. It concentrates on the years 1899 when Alma is 19 years old and ends with Mahler’s death in 1911. This is Alma is on the brink of womanhood. She’s impulsive and naïve but filled with ambition, she wants to be a great composer like her idol Wagner. Unfortunately for Alma, her mother doesn’t share the same ambition for her; a marriage to a respectable man with a good income is more what she wants for Alma. And unfortunately, there were very few role models for Alma to follow.  Her mother warns her about becoming one of ‘Third Sex’ women who are unmarriageable because they’ve gone to University or stepped outside societal norms. Alma is bowled over by the attentions of the painter Gustav Klimt who awakens her burgeoning sexuality only to have her hopes dashed by her mother who opens her eyes to what Klimt is really like. Alma is full of passion but she has no idea where to direct it. Her dreams of composing are thwarted not only by her mother but also by her teacher.  

She falls in love with another young composer who she wants to marry, until she is swept away by meeting Gustav Mahler. But marrying Mahler means giving up her dreams to support Mahler.  At first she is happy to help the great man achieve, but she soon realizes what a devil’s bargain she has made.  Mahler is selfish, capricious, demanding but also tender and loving at times. Alma's job was to arrange the world so that nothing interfered with Mahler's creative life. Mary Sharratt has painted a very realistic picture of the toll this "job" takes on Alma. At times, the book is frustrating just as Alma is frustrated in her attempts to have any semblance of a life that doesn’t revolve around her husband.  She’s part housewife, nursemaid, hostess, stenographer, lover, mother and muse.  The novel accurately depicts how women’s lives in this era were controlled and crushed by men. Throughout the book Alma is torn between the what society wants and expects of women, and her own desires and ambitions. Throughout her journey Alma meets women who she longs to emulate but it's almost as if she's afraid to take the risk to be those women.

The novel has a tendency to get a bit repetitive at times, Alma yearns for a creative outlet, she suffers from depression, Mahler composes and conducts, careens from triumph to tragedy.  Some of the transitions between scenes are a bit abrupt but that just may be the way that the ARC I received was formatted.  Alma and Mahler suffer a great loss but instead of it bringing them together, it pulls them apart.  One of the best scenes comes late in the book when her mother admits that she made a mistake keeping Alma from attending a music conservatory as well as a scene where Alma and her mother have a frank conversation about marriage and the toll that it takes on women, particularly those married to a genius.  Alma pours so much of herself into Mahler and his work, that when she finally sits down at the piano later in the book to compose, she finds that she has nothing to say. Ecstasy lets Alma step out of the shadows of Mahler and into a spotlight of her own.

Anyone who is interested in Fin-de-siècle Vienna, the world of Klimt, and Schnitzler should pick up a copy of this novel. It gives a vibrant portrait of the bohemian, artistic world and the sacrifices that artists have to make to get ahead (Mahler converted from Judaism to Catholicism).  The novel also offers a glimpse of what life was like in New York in the early 20th century, a snapshot of the Metropolitan Opera and the nascent New York Philharmonic.  Ecstasy is a thoroughly enjoyable, impeccably researched book.