Monday, September 29, 2008

The Truth About Mata Hari - Part I

Her name is now synonymous for femme fatale, a slinky seductress luring men to their doom but who was Mata Hari exactly? Was she the treacherous spy who sent thousands of men to their death or was she used as a convenient scapegoat by not only the British, but the Germans and the French as well? In recent years, new biographies have come out that suggests just that but despite this, Mata Hari’s image as a seductive spider luring men to their doom continues to live on.

Mata Hari began life as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. Born on August 7, 1876 in a small town in northern Holland, she was the eldest child and only daughter, three younger brothers followed in quick succession. Her father Adam Zelle was a prosperous store owner in Leeuwarden, who spoiled his little princess, dressing her in silks and satins that made the other girls at her private school jealous. Margaretha even as a child had a talent for reinvention, she told them that her father was a baron and that she lived in a castle. From the very beginning, her father infected her with a feeling of superiority, when she turned six he bought her a goat cart, which caused the neighbors to talk. It was little Griet's first taste of causing a sensation.

The life that Margaretha knew came to a halt in 1889, when her father’s business failed and he declared bankruptcy. All of a sudden, she experienced the humiliation and horror of losing one’s social standing, an experience which would scar her for the rest of her life. Within a year, her parents had separated, and by the time she was fifteen her mother had passed away. Her father took off for Amsterdam, where he quickly found another woman. He eventually sent for her twin brothers but not for her, which Margaretha could never understand. More than likely her new stepmother didn’t want the competition of a younger, pretty girl vying for her husband’s attention. Margaretha never got over her father’s abandonment of her. She would spend her life seeking that attention and feeling of being special from the men in her life.

Now a sulky teenager, Margaretha went to live with her godfather with the intentions of training as a kindergarten teacher, a job she was totally unsuited for. However that plan went bust when her tutor, an older married man of fifty fell in love with her. Despite the age difference, Margaretha appeared a little too 'hot for teacher' which shocked her family. Of course, Margaretha was blamed for leading him astray, and soon she was shipped off to live with other relatives in The Hague. It was her first taste of the big city life and the men who inhabited it. After a few months, on impulse, Margaretha answered a personal ad in the paper, “Officer home from leave from Dutch East Indies would like to meet girl of pleasant character – object matrimony.” It must have seemed like an interesting adventure for Margaretha, and a chance for her to once again have a family. However she would soon learn to regret her impulsiveness.

The officer in question was no great prize. Rudolph Macleod was thirty-nine, almost twice her age, and had served in the Dutch East Indies for almost twenty years. Despite his name, he was Dutch. His family had come from Scotland to Holland in the 17th Century and had served as soldiers ever since. When Margaretha met him, he had been home on leave for two years. Bald and good-looking, he wore a uniform well. Margaretha on the other hand, was dark and sultry, standing five foot ten in her stocking feet with an hour glass figure. The one flaw were her small breasts that she later kept covered up during her ‘dancing’ career.

Unbeknownst to Margaretha, her future husband was also a drunk who suffered possibly from syphilis. He hadn’t even placed the ad in the paper himself, it had been a joke played by his friend, a journalist. Out of the sixteen responses he received from eligible ladies, it was Margaretha’s picture that attracted him. From the beginning, Margaretha and Rudolf had an almost overwhelming physical attraction. Plus, he was an officer and the young Griet was almost fatally attracted to a man in uniform. She wrote later in her life, "Those who are not officers do not interest me. An officer is another being, a sort of artist, living outdoors with sparkles on his arms in a seductive uniform."

After a two month courtship, Rudolph proposed and they were married just before she turned nineteen. Starved for affection, Margaretha had clearly hoped that her new husband would treat her like a princess, just like her absent father had done when she was a child. The marriage was a disaster from the beginning, her husband preferred drinking and whoring with his friends instead of spending time with his eager young wife, but Margaretha tried to make it work. She had no choice. She gave birth to a son Norman John in 1897 just before Macleod’s leave was up and they went out to Sumatra. Margaretha had hoped that things would be different in the East Indies, instead they were worse. Macleod, depressed the direction or non direction his military career was heading in, became not only verbally abusive but also physically abusive, attacking her with his fists and once with a whip. She gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Louise, nicknamed Non, in 1898. He humiliated her in public, screaming “Go to hell, bitch,” when the other officers paid too much attention to her. “The young lieutenants pursue me and are in love with me,” she wrote to a friend (Bentley, page. 93).

The inequality in their marriage mirrored the relationship between the Dutch and the natives of Indonesia, who the Dutch treated like little more than slaves. Tragedy struck when their two children were allegedly poisoned by either their Nanny or McLeod’s Indonesian mistress. No one was ever prosecuted, the Nanny conveniently died of cholera a week later, and no autopsy was ever performed. Pat Shipman makes a credible case that perhaps the children were being treated for syphilis, and Norman died from the treatment, which was why no criminal investigation ever took place regarding his death. Whatever the case, his parents were distraught, widening the cracks in their marriage even further. It was also the catalyst to end her marriage once and for all. Macleod resigned from the army after twenty-years when he wasn’t promoted to lieutenant-colonel and the family returned to Holland where Margaretha filed for a divorce, claiming spousal abuse. The case went forward, but Rupert refused to pay the money for support that the court ordered. Running low on funds, Margaretha bounced back and forth between relatives until she briefly reconciled with Rupert. Unable to make the marriage work, because of their mutual hatred and disgust, they separated again. This time she gave up custody of her daughter to her husband.

La Belle Époque Paris would now be her home. When she was asked by a journalist why she had chosen Paris, she replied, “I don’t know. I thought all women who ran away from their husbands went to Paris.” With no other visible means of support, Margaretha at first tried to get a job modeling for artists but with little success. She had already started turning to prostitution to earn money until she finally got a job with an equestrian circus run by Ernst Molier.

It was Molier who suggested that Margaretha turned to dance and helped her make contact with the people who might provide the entree to the right circles. And not just any dance, she would turn herself into Mata Hari, translated from Malay, it meant “the eye of the day.” While Isadora Duncan was entrancing Europe with her classical Greek dances, Margaretha turned to the sultry East for her inspiration. Her dancing, what there was of it, consisted of her striking erotic and exotic poses while slowly removing the veils from her body. Even Mata Hari admitted "I never could dance well. People came to see me because I was the first who dared to show myself naked to the public." Her costume consisted of a jeweled metallic bra, long veils, and a jewelled headress of Javanese design.

Making her debut at the home of Madame Kireevsky, a society hostess, she was an instant smash. Within a year she had given thirty performances, both public and private. She created a suitable background for this new creature, which changed from one interview to the next, but generally she said that she had learned the dances from her mother, who was a Javanese temple dancer. Like Lola Montez, after awhile, Mata Hari began to believe her own stories. Mata Hari’s dark complexion, which had given her so much trouble while living in Indonesia, had finally paid off.

The critics raved (of course they were mostly men), falling over themselves to come with new adjectives to describe her undulating arms, and swarthy complexion. The Gallic praised her as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” They bought into her exotic story, despite the fact that it changed almost daily. She also found the first of many lovers who paid the bills and kept her in the style that she had become accustomed to as a child. In Monte Carlo, she danced in the opera Le Roi de Lahore by Jules Massenet. She made a triumphant debut in Vienna at the same time as Isadora Duncan, and an American, Maud Allen, who had made a career out of playing Salome. The newspapers called it "the war of the rights." The critics lauded Mata Hari, with Duncan a close second and Maud Allen a distant third. It helped that Mata Hari also spoke fluent German and could converse without a translator to the various journalists. And everywhere she went she left a trail of admirers.

Instant fame also meant that others wanted to cash in, including her father Adam Zelle, who authored an 'autobiographical' novel about his daughter, that placed the blame squarely on Rupert McLeod for ruining his daughter's life. His first publisher withdrew his offer after consulting with McLeod and hearing his side of the story. Zelle found another publisher and The Novel of Mata Hari, Mrs. M. G. McLeod Zelle: The Biography of My Daughter and My Grievances Against Her Former Husband was published. Mata Hari found it amusing more than annoying.

Mata Hari had extravagant tastes, and was constantly in debt. One of her lovers Alfred Kiepert had given her 300,000 marks after their affair ended but her next lover Xavier Rousseau lost it all speculating on the stockmarket which led to his own bankruptcy, and forced her back on the stage. Her love of luxury eventually led to one of the worst mistakes of her life.

Come back on Thursday for Part II of the Truth About Mata Hari

Sources: Wikipedia

Sisters of Salome - Toni Bentley, Yale University Press, 2002
Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007

Friday, September 26, 2008

Scandalous Movie Review: The Duchess

Last Friday night I went to see The Duchess with one of my closest friends to cap off a pretty up and down week. I thought "hey a movie with pretty costumes, yeah!" Unfortunately there is only one word to describe this movie and that is adequate.

The plot in a nutshell involves a vibrant beauty, Lady Georgiana Spencer, who marries an older man, William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire and goes to live with him in his beautiful London mansion, Devonshire House. But she quickly learns that her husband prefers his dogs to her. She becomes a celebrity of her time and ends up trapped in an unhappy triangle with her husband and his live-in mistress. She falls passionately in love with an ambitious young politician, Charles Grey (later 2nd Earl Grey and Prime Minister, you know the one the tea is named after) and the affair causes a bitter conflict with her husband and threatens to erupt into a scandal.

Keira Knightley suffers beautifully as Georgiana but she is not given much more to do than to look hurt, and to be a clotheshorse. While she wears the costumes well, I was always conscious of how painfully thin she is, especially compared to the paintings of the real Georgiana. To her credit, she shows a hint of the charisma of the real Georgiana, and an appealing naiveté in the earlier scenes. However, at times one longs for an actress of Kate Winslet’s stature to take on Georgiana’s complex personality, a devoted mother, yet one who spent many hours gambling feverishly, a woman who could write a book at 21 satirizing the society that she lived in, yet couldn’t tear herself away from the fast element of the ton.

Ralph Fiennes managed to capture the essence of a man for whom duty and appearances were all. He acts with his entire body where as Knightley seems to act mostly with her jaw line. However, the writers have included a scene between the Duke and Duchess that I found inexplicable and hard to deal with. There is a brilliant moment towards the end of the film where husband and wife try to reach out to each other if only briefly. Hayley Atwell, as Lady Bess, is not really given much to hang her character on. Did Bess love the Duke, was she calculating, or did she have genuine affection for Georgiana? You couldn’t tell from the script or the acting.

There is no sense in the film of the jealousy that Bess must have felt towards Georgiana. Amanda Foreman writes that there was a sort of Single White Female attraction between the two women. While Bess loved Georgiana, she also wanted to be her, to be as popular, to set trends, to be universally loved. She even gave birth to a son before Georgiana did. Wouldn’t that have been a fabulous scene in the film? Bess made attempts to have the Duke place her in precedence to his wife, but the Duke refused, putting her in her place, which is the exact opposite of what occurs in the movie, when Georgiana angrily tells the Duke to get rid of Bess. There is one telling scene between the two women, where Bess and Georgiana talk about sex, that almost turns Sapphic but any hint of that is quickly abandoned. You do get the sense in the film at least that perhaps Bess was more skilled in the boudoir than Georgiana. Dominic Cooper as Charles Grey continues to prove that he is much better suited to contemporary films than he is to period pieces.

A movie of less than 2 hours can never hope to do justice to the complexities of the relationship between Georgiana, her husband, and Lady Bess Foster, nor does this movie even try. The film spends entirely too much time emphasizing the parallels between Georgiana and her however many greats niece, Lady Diana Spencer, future Princess of Wales. Hmm, let's see, both married older men who were emotionally distant, and who preferred the company of another woman, leaving the beautiful wife to flee into the arms of an adoring lover. However, Prince Charles never moved Camilla into Kensington or Buckingham Palace, forcing Diana to share living space with her rival. Nor were Camilla and Diana ever best friends the way Georgiana and Bess were. Georgiana also had fewer choices in life than Diana did.

The movie muddles up even the basic facts of the triangle. When Georgiana met Lady Bess in Bath in 1782, she had been married for about eight years, and had yet to have her first child. She had married the Duke just after her 17th birthday in 1774. It was considered a great match, uniting two great families, Spencer and the Cavendish. The fact that Georgiana had met the Duke only a handful of times didn’t matter. Her parents were quite keen on the match, and more than anything Georgiana wanted to please her parents. The Duke was 26, but while Georgiana came from a loving affectionate family, the Duke’s family was less so. Georgiana had the mistaken belief that the Duke had a similar temperament to her father, who was somewhat shy and awkward in public, but loving in private. Unfortunately she completely misjudged his character.

What the movie does get right is that Georgiana was hoping that taking the waters at Bath would help her to conceive. At the time that they met, Lady Elizabeth Foster and her sister, both separated from their husbands, were living in genteel poverty in Bath. She was daughter of the 4th Earl of Bristol, also known as the Earl Bishop because he had been a clergyman before he inherited the title (his elder brother Augustus John Hervey, 3rd Earl of Bristol was married to Elizabeth Chudleigh). The Hervey family has a history of eccentricity and pure looniness, the first Earl of Bristol's son Lord Hervey had a long affair with Stephen Fox Strangeways (Lady Victoria Hervey, sister of the current Marquess is Britain’s answer to Paris Hilton. Her late brother, the 7th Marquess, was a drug addict who went bankrupt.) When she was seventeen, Bess had married an Irish MP, John Foster. The marriage quickly went south, with infidelities on both sides. Soon the two women were bosom buddies, and Bess and the Duke were sharing long rides out in the countryside. Bess was hired initially as a governess to the Duke's illegitimate daughter Charlotte Williams, who she spent almost two years abroad with.

No one knows for sure when Lady Bess and the Duke became lovers. And Georgiana apparently didn't find out until it was revealed that Bess and the Duke had had a child together, Caroline St. Jules (who later married George Lamb, the brother-in-law of Lady Caroline Lamb). Bess seemed to fill a need in both the Duke and the Duchess. She gave Georgiana the affection and attention that she craved, and she seemed to be able to stroke the Duke's ego the way that Georgiana was incapable of doing. She was the linchpin that allowed the marriage to work between the Duke and Duchess. Instead in the movie, we never see the relationship develop between Bess and the Duke. Georgiana comes home one day and hears them in bed. When she asks Bess why, Bess explains her actions away by telling her that the Duke promised to help her gain access to her children (which for some reason the writers have given her three sons instead of two, perhaps to emphasize Georgiana's inadequacies more?). In reality, Bess's estranged husband kept her children away from her for 14 years.

The other problem with the movie is that the trio seemed to exist in a kind of bubble. The rest of Georgiana's, apart from her mother, doesn't exist in the film, nor does the Duke's. And how can they make a movie without the Prince of Wales? As a political hostess and Whig supporter, Georgiana was very close friends with the Prince of Wales, as was Charles James Fox. The Prince was an ardent Whig, primarily because his father George III loathed and despised the Whigs. Instead, the audience is introduced to Charles James Fox, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan who function as sort of lackeys to Georgiana, you know in between writing plays and governing.

There is hardly any mention of what was going on in the outside world apart from a brief mention of the Whigs supporting the Americans in the Revolution and a fleeting reference to the revolution in France. Georgiana's life as a political hostess was completely truncated; she makes one minor little speech introducing Charles Grey in the film. During her lifetime, Georgiana helped to campaign for the Whig candidates, up and down the country.

Nor does the audience get more than a glimpse of her gambling which was a serious addiction for her. During her lifetime, she was constantly fighting off her creditors, at certain points she owed over 100,000 pounds. She was also possibly anorexic or bulemic and addicted to opiates to deal with the hollowness of her life. She was also an author, who published her only novel at the age of twenty-one, as well as a poetess.

In the movie, Lord Charles Grey is depicted as her contemporary, when in reality he was 7 years her junior. When they met, she had finally given birth to two daughters, Little G and Harriet, always called Harryo, but the pressure to give birth to a son was overwhelming. Grey basically chased her, and she was flattered by his attentions. He wasn't her first affair, she'd already possibly been intimate with her good friend Charles James Fox, and she was very close to the Duke of Dorset, one of the great womanizers of the age (a man who had also had an affair with Bess). When the Duke tells Georgiana that she must end her relationship with Charles Grey because of the scandal, I had to laugh. As if living openly in a ménage a trois was not scandal enough?

What the movie does get right is the heartbreaking moment when Georgiana has to give up her child by Grey. For the one thing that Georgiana loved more than anything was her children. She was an unusual mother for the time because she insisted on breast-feeding all her children. She was such a remarkable mother, that one of her daughters writing her a letter when she was an adult and a mother herself, remarked on what an absolutely wonderful mother she was. The movie mentions almost as an afterthought that the Duke, Georgiana and Bess lived together for 25 years before the Duchess’s death in 1806. Three years after her death, Bess got her wish and became the new Duchess.

For audience members who know nothing of the real story, I'm sure this lackluster treatment will suffice. For those of us who have read Amanda Foreman's masterful biography, one longs for what might have been if the book had been given the same lavish treatment and care that John Adams and Queen Elizabeth I had been given in recent miniseries.

I can only give this film a C+

Oops I did it again!

Sorry to everyone who thought they were getting a new post yesterday, and they got a half-finished one on Mata Hari. This is what happens when you hit the wrong button by mistake!

The Truth About Mata Hari will be up and completed on Monday morning.

In the meantime, have a Scandalous weekend!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Interview with Eleanor Herman - author of "Mistress of the Vatican"

Q: Since 2004, you have published three books, the best selling Sex with the King and its follow up, Sex with Queens, and now Mistress of the Vatican. Can you tell the readers a little about your background before you were published?

I was a journalist for a variety of publications, and from 1989-2002 worked for Monch Publishing, based in Bonn, Germany. As their associate publisher of North America, I worked for their defense and political journals, especially with the embassies of Partner for Peace (former Warsaw Pact) nations. I loved the travel. During every business trip, I would take a couple of days to see the castles and museums. But I always wanted to write a book. In 2001 my mom died very suddenly, and I realized I needed to push forward with my dream before Death tapped me on the shoulder, too. I quit my job and used my inheritance to support myself while I wrote Sex with Kings.

Q: I’m a big history geek and one of the reasons I started Scandalous Women was to share the lives of these amazing women that I was reading about. Can you tell us a little bit about how you first learned about Olimpia Maidalchini? And was it a hard sell to your editor and publisher given that very few people knew her story? Or was it easier, given that your first two books were bestsellers?

A fellow at the Italian Cultural Institute clued me into Olimpia when I was working with him on a lecture on Medici mistresses. I had never heard of her before, but looked her up and was fascinated.

You are right that publishers prefer books on well-known historical characters. That’s why we keep reading about Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette over and over again, while hundreds of fascinating people who are less known get overlooked. I think the publisher bought Mistress right away because of the success of Sex with Kings and Sex with the Queen, and I think because the book was about the Vatican, which is a hot topic after The Da Vinci Code.

Q. Olimpia took a huge risk in defying her father. It could easily have turned against her, but she seemed to have had no fear. How do you think this stamped her personality?

I worked with a psychologist on Olimpia’s personality. He said that almost getting locked up in a convent stamped her personality for the rest of her life. No amount of money or power could make her feel safe enough. She was always terrified that men would try to lock her up. In acquiring money and power to protect herself, she alienated powerful men, and needed more money and power to feel safe. This became a vicious cycle.

Q. The relationship between Olimpia and her brother-in-law Giambattista Pamphili was unusual for the time. Do you think it was strictly platonic? It seems that people found it impossible to believe that the two were just friends. That the only way Olimpia could have so much influence was if they were lovers.

It’s impossible to say 100 percent. I suppose there are some relationships – either of different genders or even the same gender – where one person is dominant and the other subservient, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that sex is going on between them. Certainly their contemporaries thought Olimpia and the pope had a sexual relationship, though this, too, doesn’t necessarily mean it was true. The psychologist felt there probably was a romantic relationship. But it was Olimpia’s power – not the sex – that bothered the cardinals and ambassadors.

Q. It occurred to me while reading the book that the Catholic Church at this time seems to have much more in common with our political system, with the lobbying, the bribery, the nepotism, the stealing, than with actual faith, particularly when it came to electing the next pope. Both Innocent X and Alexander VII tried to curb some of the worst excesses of the church but with little success.

The papacy was also a monarchy, and the pope was a king of a nation stretching across the center of Italy to the Adriatic. This fact had a great influence on the kind of men who were elected pope – ambitious, corrupt, manipulative, sometimes violent. They had to be that way in order to survive, and ensure the survival of their families and the nation itself in those brutal times. I think the best thing that ever happened to the Church was when it lost its temporal dominion, and the pope could focus on spiritual matters rather than lobbing cannonballs at other Christian nations.

Q. I was struck by how Olimpia seemed to embody that old saying ‘Power corrupts and Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ She made several missteps including not cultivating her daughter-in-law the Princess of Rossano. Is it possible that in her need for security that, her judgment started to falter?

Olimpia developed a hard outer shell as a defense. She was terribly jealous of the princess, who was much younger, more beautiful, of blue blood, and highly educated. The older Olimpia should have befriended the younger one and worked against her quietly. Sometimes it’s better to have your enemy by your side so you know what they are doing. And exiling her own son and his wife made Olimpia look bad to the pope and the entire nation.

Q. The rift between Olimpia and Innocent X, after so many years of closeness, in a way seemed to be a long time coming, but do you think it could have been avoided?

Again, I think Olimpia made a tactical error by being so vocal about her displeasure. Storming into the Vatican and berating the pope just infuriated him. She should have charmed him, instead, pretending all his ideas were excellent, and then quietly worked to sabotage her enemies. She was just too straightforward with him. She learned her lesson, though. Once he brought her back from exile she smiled sweetly as she prepared her ultimate revenge on him.

Q. You mention the myth or legend of Pope Joan several times in the book. Why do you think Olimpia's riveting story has been forgotten by history while the story of Pope Joan continues to fascinate? Do you believe that the Church is still uncomfortable with the idea that a woman was that close to actually governing as Pope?

The pope after Innocent already started suppressing Olimpia’s story. He didn’t even want to bring his own sister-in-law to Rome, afraid this might awaken memories of the woman who ran the Vatican. It seems to me the Church is extremely uncomfortable about any mention of women having power, though I am not sure why. They duly quote the new Catechism that says women are honored because of the Virgin Mary, but excuse me, if you really want to honor us give us equal opportunity in the Church. They talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Female priests would give so much compassion, dedication, and warmth to the Church. Plus women rarely sexually abuse children. I am not sure why women would want to belong to a faith where they have to sit in the back of the bus, even though the theology is beautiful and the history goes straight back to Jesus.

The most devout Catholics are beside themselves that I wrote that in the first centuries of Christianity, there is evidence of female priests in various parts of the Roman Empire. But as paganism slowly became Catholicism, it makes sense that far-flung regions would have turned their pagan priestesses into Christian ones, for a while at least. Perhaps the Pope Joan legend is well-known because it is so fabulously ridiculous. Olimpia’s story is completely true, which must make the Church more uncomfortable than a blatant fable.

Q. It’s hard not to wonder what Olimpia could have become if she been born in this century instead of the 17th. What do you think she would have thought of women like Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton? Would she have been envious of their advantages?

I have often thought of what Olimpia would have been if she had been born in the mid to late twentieth century. Perhaps a Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi, or the head of a Fortune 500 company. She would not have had to fight so hard, or be so afraid. It would have been a kinder era for her, as it is for all women. I sometimes wonder if modern women understand all of our advantages, or if we take them for granted. I hope, when women read my books, they will see how far we have come.

Q. Another biographer, Amanda Foreman, wrote once that biographers are notorious for falling in love with the subjects. Did that happen with you?

Absolutely. I fell in love with Olimpia, even though she did some awful things. She was so alone in the world – her parents were eager to lock her up just because they were cheap and didn’t want to give her a decent dowry. She fought so hard, and was inwardly very fragile and afraid. She also had a tremendous earthy sense of humor, which, I think, was another way of dealing with her fear and pain. I wish I could go back in time and visit her, and put my arms around her.

Q. Where did you start in terms of research for the book? How long did it take you to write Mistress of the Vatican from research to first draft?

Research for this third book took two years, a full year longer than the first two. Much of the reading was in Italian, and seventeenth-century Italian at that. I made three research trips to Italy to dig through archives and visit her palaces. I wanted to tell her story on the vibrant stage of seventeenth-century Rome – a place of magnificent pageantry and utter wretchedness. I hoped to craft a time machine, so that the reader actually goes back there and understands what life was like, so that she can hear the horses’ hooves outside Olimpia’s door. I found a book published in 1657 by a retired butler on how to run a noble family’s Roman household – what wines to buy each month, when to order hogs’ carcasses, how to reupholster the carriage and deal with drunken servants. I also read about a hundred books on Catholic history and theology to fully understand the organization over which Olimpia wielded so much power.

Q: You have been known to wear period dress to promote your books. Was that your own idea and what do you think is the most effective way for a writer to promote his/her books?

Period dress gets attention, but each author has to be fully comfortable with how they are promoting their books. I loved it, though I have become a bit tired of corsets and now choose my costume events carefully. And yes, it was my own idea. The publisher thought people might view me as a nut, but USA Today said I was a marketing genius. I don’t know that it made a whole lot of difference, but it was fun.

Q. Having tackled the sex lives of the Kings and Queens of Europe and now the Vatican, what are you planning to work on next?

I am finishing up Murder in the Garden of God, which could be subtitled “Hamlet in the Vatican” with all the murders and intricacies of plot. It is about the family of Pope Sixtus V in the 1580s. I have never seen a plot like this, and it is all true! I found a 400-year-old Italian manuscript with all kinds of gossipy stories about Sixtus and the murder. I fell in love with Sixtus, too.

Visit Eleanor at Mistress of the Vatican

Purchase the book at Barnes and Noble or Amazon

Friday, September 19, 2008

And the Winner Is!

The Winner of
by Carlyn Beccia
Heather Carroll!

Please email with your address to claim your prize

Monday, September 15, 2008

Mistress of the Vatican

"We have just elected a female pope." —Cardinal Alessandro Bichi, 1644

A week ago I opened the mailbox for our RWA chapter and found a copy of Eleanor Herman's new biography Mistress of the Vatican. All of a sudden it was Christmas and my birthday all in one. I had read about this book on Herman's website and I couldn't wait to read it. Thanks to the good people of Harper Collins I was able to do just that.

If you have never heard of Olimpia Maidalchini, you are not the only one, and it is a damn shame. For Olimpia managed to achieve something that no woman ever has, for the 11 years of her brother-in-law Innocent X's reign as pope, Olimpia was the real power at the Vatican. Yes, there is the legend of Pope Joan, but Olimpia's story has been fully documented by the historians of the day, and now in Eleanor Herman's masterful biography.

If you have read her previous books, Sex with the King and Sex with Queens, (and if you haven't I suggest you run out and buy copies) than you know what to expect, a well researched book that doesn't stint on the more salacious aspects of her subject, and with Olimpia Maidalchini and the 17th century Catholic Church, there is much to read. Herman plunges you head first into the remarkable world of 17th Century Rome, detailing not only the remarkable life of Olimpia, but also the Inquisition, the plague, the rivalry between France and Spain, and the narrow life of women after the heady early days of the Renaissance when education was actually encouraged for women.

The basic facts of Olimpia's life are these, she was born on May 26, in 1591 (although wikipedia gives her birthdate as 1594) to a tax collector in Viterbo, Italy. Olimpia was the first child of her father Sforza Maidalchini's second marriage and a bitter disappointment, being born a girl. Two more girls followed Olimpia's birth. All her father's focus was on Olimpia's older half-brother Andrea. Like most 17th century girls, she was educated enough for her station life, meaning she learned embroidery and how to run a household. But Olimpia had a brain, she was smart and she wasn't afraid to let people know it. She was particularly gifted at math, able to do complex sums in her head.

Having three daughters that needed doweries, meant less money for his heir Andrea. So Sforza Maidalchini decided that his three daughters would join a convent. While her two younger sisters were dutiful and meekly went off, Olimpia dug in her heels and said hell no. There was no way that she was going to spend her life cloistered, away from the world. Sforza cajoled, threatened and pleaded. He even had his sister, a nun, try to convince Olimpia that her gifts would be appreciated in the convent, that she could easily rise to the position of Abbess, and wheel and deal all she wanted with convent property. Olimpia still said no. When her father had a young priest try to convince her of her duty to her father, Olimpia took matters into her own hands. Feeling betrayed, she would have her revenge on the man that was supposed to protect and care for her. She wrote a letter to the local bishop, that her father was trying to force into the convent (it was no forbidden for father's to force their daughters), and that the priest had tried to sexually molest her.

Her plan worked, the young priest's career was ruined, and her father was made a laughing stock. It worked almost too well, dimming Olimpia's marriage prospects. However, luck and a vivacious personality led Paolo Nini to ask for her hand in marriage. Not only was her groom attractive but he was rich and willing to take the piddling dowery her father scraped together. The young couple were happy, primarily because Nini let Olimpia rule the roost, but within a few years, Nini was dead along with her two children.

This time, Olimpia decided to aim higher in a husband, heading off to Rome. Armed with her deceased husband's fortune, after a suitable period of mourning, Olimpia made her way to the Eternal City. She found a second husband in Pamphilio Pamphili, a bachelor thirty years her senior, but more important she'd found her life project in his younger brother, monsignor Gianbattista Pamphili, who was thirty eight at the time. The Pamphili's were an older, noble family with papal ties (they were descended from Pope Alexander VI according to wikipedia) but broke. It was a marriage made in heaven, Olimpia's youth and money and the Pamphili pedigree.
From the beginning, Olimpia and her brother-in-law were exceedingly close, closer than most brothers and sisters-in-law. They could be seen walking together and talking for hours at a time. The future Innocent X was a dour sort, who trusted few people, and men in particular. He saw them as competition, whereas he was extremely close to his two sisters who had become nuns. Olimpia lively personality and keen mind were greatly appreciated by Gianbattista. Whether her husband felt the same, we have no idea. It wasn't long before rumors flew that the two were closer than in-laws which was not only adulterous but also incestuous. Even though there was no proof, (and there still is no proof that they were lovers), rumors flew around Rome like pigeons.

Olimpia wanted power, she never again wanted to feel the helplessness she felt when her father was trying to shove her into a convent. Since as a woman, she could hold no offices, her only hope was to latch onto to someone who could bring her that power, and church politics was the way to do it. The Catholic Church at that time was very similar to our own government. The people with the most talent aren't necessarily the ones who get ahead. Bribery, nepotism and out and out stealing were the name of the game. Foreign governments had lobbyists to the Catholic Church to put forward their interests.

Gianbattista was ambitious but he lacked the people skills to get ahead. He was also indecisive to the point of paralysis. Not only did Olimpia point out which choice she should make, she was almost always right. Olimpia had the money and the charm and she used it to push her brother-in-law all the way to the papal throne. But first she needed to get him made a papal nuncio which was like an ambassador from the Pope to foreign governments first in Naples and then in Spain which was the greater posting. Olimpia dragged her growing family to Naples and set herself up as Gianbattista's advisor, counseling him at all hours of the night (he worked best at night). When he was posted abroad, she wrote him a steady stream of letters, propping up his ego and giving him advice. While he was gone, she set about cultivating the right people, greasing the right palms to speed his way to becoming a cardinal under Pope Urban VIII.

Finally, Olimpia achieved her dream, when Gianbattista Pamphili was chosen as Pope in 1644. Now a widow in perpetual mourning, more because black was slimming then out of any great love for her husband, Olimpia was now the power behind the throne. If anyone wanted anything done, or to get through to the Pope they had to go through her. Now Olimpia had the chance to have riches beyond her wildest dreams. It was almost a given that the family of the Pope stole from the Papal treasury and Olimpia did more than her fair share, wheeling and dealing in papal offices. Not that she kept all the money for herself. She dowered many dowerless girls, and allowed gave the prostitutes of Rome her protection. She also found the priest whose career she had ruined and had him made a bishop after apologizing. A patroness of the arts, she expanded her home the Piazza Navona by buying up the houses next door, and hiring the sculptors and architectural rivals Bernini and Borromini.

From the beginning of Innocent X's reign, Donna Olimpia asserted herself, she even tried to move into the papal palace, into the rooms reserved for the Cardinal nephew. If someone broached a subject which the pope had not already discussed her, he would ask, “What will Donna Olimpia say?” Savvy diplomats were prepared to flatter and bribe her if necessary to obtain the pope’s favor. “If you cannot make a breach in the mind of the pope through our authority,” said one powerful prince to his envoy, “try to gain it through the authority of Donna Olimpia with our money.” Several times a week, Donna Olimpia would arrive at the Papal palace laden with petitions for the Pope to sign, spending hours at a time with him, locked away.

But she was also greedy. When the news came out that Innocent had been elected pope, the mob raced to Olimpia palace to steal it blind as was the custom. When they got there, Olimpia greeted them by opening the doors to the palace, but she had taken the precaution of removing all her good furniture, and replaced it with junk. She also began to make mistakes, insisting on her idiot nephew being made a cardinal, and refusing to accept the marriage of her son Camillo to the Princess of Rossano, also named Olimpia. Perhaps, Olimpia saw the younger woman as a rival to her power as First Lady of Rome. She had her son and daughter-in-law banished from Rome. Instead of being a soothing advisor, Olimpia began to harangue Innocent when she didn't get her way. Lord Powell came up with the saying "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" which could describe Olimpia. She even forced her little granddaughter into a marriage with the Barberini family to cement an alliance, despite the girl's preference for the convent, an irony that was lost on Olimpia.

Olimpia also kept list of anyone that she had felt slighted her on the way up. She made Richard Nixon and his enemies list look like child play. Despite Jesus saying to turn the other cheek, Olimpia was more likely to slap it. Chief of among them was her son Camillo. He refused an alliance with the Barberinis, the family of the previous pope, to become a cardinal. Then he botched the job of cardinal nephew, and embarked on affair with the widowed Princess of Rossano. Olimpia considered him to be an idiot, and let him know it constantly (ironically he married a woman exactly like his mother). She treated her nephew, who was made a cardinal at the tender age of seventeen, just poorly. After her son Camillo gave up being a cardinal to marry the Princess of Rossano, Olimpia decided that her nephew would make the perfect cardinal nephew, despite his lack of experience. She insisted that he live with her, where he received officials and guests, blurting out the answers that his aunt had coached him into saying. However, during the jubilee year, when he fudged his ceremonial duties, not knowing how to hold the holy hammer. When he tried to grab the jubilee medals, he ended up in a brawl with the church canons who also wanted them. The mob was furious at the cardinal, smashing him against the wal. Dropped by his aunt as a political liability, he developed a raging hatred for her.

Olimpia had now become a liability to the Pope, a hindrance instead of a help. The rumors of their having an illicit relationship continued even after his ascension. Olimpia didn't help matters by putting on plays that ridiculed the Pope and stealing the shoulder bone of the Saint Francesca for her church at San Martino. Women flocked to Rome to get a glimpse of her. The final straw came when the pope was presented with a con that had an image of Olimpia dressed like the Pope and the Pope dressed like a woman. Finally Olimpia was banished from Rome, after a particularly nasty argument with the Pope, who let fly forty years of resentment at her behavior and high-handed ways. The Princess of Rossano now took her place as First Lady of Rome. However, Innocent soon began to regret his decision. The Princess of Rossano was now Olimpia. Instead of her soothing presence, he was subjected to an almost daily barrage of greedy relatives and friends who needed taking care of. The pope and his sister-in-law eventually made up but the damage was done. Olimpia would never look at the pope the same way, he had betrayed her the way her father had. She would get her revenge at his death. In order to return, she was forced to change her will, leaving her fortune to her son, instead of her granddaughter Olimpiuccia.

Worried about what would happen after her death, Olimpia made sure to have several men who were favorable to her made cardinals before the Pope's death. At the death of Innocent X, Olimpia refused to pay the money to have him buried, she kept saying she had no money (despite the fact that she had stolen the entire papal treasury). Her son Camillo pled poverty as well. The pope's body was basically dumped into a makeshift coffin, instead of the magnificent funeral that he had deserved.

Olimpia retired to her house in San Martino where she died of the plague in 1657, only two years after the death of the Pope. After her death, her life and her influence faded into obscurity. The Catholic Encyclopedia calls her a "great blemish" on the pontificate of the "blameless" Innocent X. Shewas also referred to her in her lifetime as La Papessa (lady pope). There were rumors during her lifetime and afterward that, like the rumors around Lucrezia Borgia, she poisoned cardinals in order to have vacancies that she could fill up with her own choices. She was even once accused of murdering her elderly husband with arsenic, although it turned out to be nothing more than a huge kidney stone.

While she made mistakes, the truth is that Innocent X, would not have been pope without her, nor would he have ruled as effectively without her influence and advice. Donna Olimpia was smarter than most of the men who served the Pope and she was not afraid to show it, in fact she often rubbed their noses in it, gaining her powerful enemies. She was an upstart, from a small town, not well educated, much to the chagrin of the nobility of Rome. It was one thing for Donna Olimpia to marry into a noble family, it was another that she refused to keep to her place, to be decorative and witty. Instead she meddled in papal affairs, and even worse, she was good at it!


Mistress of the Vatican: The true story of Olimpia Maidalchini the Secret Female Pope.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

100 Awesome Blogs for History Junkies

I'm proud to announce that Scandalous Women has been included in the 100 Awesome Blogs for History Junkies!

Thanks to Jessica for creating the list! It makes all the hard work putting together the blog worthwhile. Also check out some of the other blogs that are listed. They are well worth the look including one of my favorites Chicago history.


Monday, September 8, 2008

Woman in the Shadows: The Life of Jane Boleyn

The Tudors are everywhere. From the Other Boleyn Girl and Elizabeth: The Golden Age in movie theaters to The Virgin Queen and Elizabeth I on the small screen. Not to mention the glitz and glamour of Showtime's The Tudors on cable (don't get me started on this series) where the doings of the Royal Family make Dynasty seem tame.

One only has to go to the bookstore to check out the new offerings on the front tables, to see the wealth of fiction and non-fiction that is available about England's Tudor dynasty. Books about everyone from Elizabeth's Lady in Waiting, Cat Ashley to books about Mary Boleyn, and the Katherine's (Aragon, Howard and Parr) but the most famous of course is Anne Boleyn. You could probably line up the books written about Anne Boleyn from here to California, and that's just the books written in the last few years!

But what about Jane Boleyn? She is the shadowy figure in the saga of the Boleyns and the Tudors. Was she an innocent bystander caught up in circumstances beyond her control or a cold, calculating bitch determined to punish her husband for not loving her? The accepted wisdom about Jane Boleyn for years has been that she was bitter about her marriage to George Boleyn and jealous of Anne Boleyn which led her to deliberately lie about his relationship with his sister during Anne Boleyn's trial. She pops up again during Katherine Howard's marriage to Henry VIII as sort of a royal pimp, pushing Katherine into the arms of her lover.

Now Julia Fox has written the only biography ever undertaken about Jane Boleyn. This post will be as much a review of the book as it an examination of the life of a woman who seemed to spend her life in the shadows of the Tudor Court only briefly coming out into the sun.

The known facts about Jane Boleyn are these: she was born Jane Parker in around 1505 to a wealthy and well-connected family. Her father Henry Parker was the 10th Baron Morley, descended from a family that had the misfortunate of picking the wrong side originally during the struggle between Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond and Richard III for the throne. Her father was an intellectual who was educated at Oxford. Jane and her siblings grew up in Norfolk where they were mainly raised by nannies and governesses. She was given a modicum of education, taught to read and write and more importantly how to run a large household, along with needlework, the noblewoman's chief past-time. At some point, probably around the age of twelve, Jane was sent to court to join the household of the Queen, Katherine of Aragon. She was certainly part of the retinue that went with the royal family to France for the epic Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

There is no description of Jane's appearance and no known portraits of her (nor of George Boleyn her future husband). We guess that she was probably pretty since she appeared in court masques, in particular the Chateau Vert in 1522, where she danced alongside her future sisters-in-law Mary and Anne Boleyn. Around 1524 or 1525 she was married off to George Boleyn which was considered a particularly good match. The Boleyns had risen high in the world not only by marrying well, but by being of service to the King. Thomas Boleyn was fluent in French, and he had married Elizabeth, the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, aligning himself with one of the most powerful families in England. Thomas Boleyn's mother, Lady Margaret Butler was the daughter of the Earl of Ormonde, and through her, he inherited estates in Ireland as well as England.

As Anne's fortunes rose as the King's favorite and later wife, so did the fortunes of Jane and George Boleyn. George was created Viscount Rochford, he was made a member of the Privy council, and was sent to France as a diplomat. When Anne and Henry were finally married, Jane had a place of honor at Anne's coronation, and was among her ladies in waiting at Court. Julia Fox contends that this proves that Anne and Jane were close, although it is possible that Jane owed her place more to Anne's great love of her brother than affection for Jane.

Anne's reign as Queen lasted less than three years, a thousand days. The boy that was predicted by Henry's astrologers turned out to be a girl, the future Queen Elizabeth. In her effort to keep in Henry's good favor, Anne suffered two miscarriages, the last one a boy. The stress of keeping the King happy plus the strain of the miscarriages, probably led Anne to act irrationally. The King had taken to one of her ladies, which sent Anne into a rage. Instead of placating her as he had usually done, the King told her to take care. Julia Fox believes that Anne convinced Jane to help her try and get rid of this nameless woman by provoking a fight with the woman. Instead, Jane found herself banished from court for several months.

Here's where things get a little tricky. The party line over the centuries has been that George and Jane Boleyn had a horrible marriage. That she was jealous of his relationship with his sister Jane, and his attentions to among others Mark Smeaton. But is there any historical evidence that suggests that this was true? Julia Fox believes that while the marriage between George and Jane was arranged, as most marriages were, that it was entirely possible that they got along well together. The truth is there is no evidence either way apart from the fact that Jane was questioned closely by Cromwell.

Julia Fox contends in her biography that Cromwell already had all the ammunition that he needed to help the King achieve what he wanted, which was getting rid of Anne so that he could marry Jane Seymour. The lovely Jane, whose family was equally as ambitious as the Boleyns, had taken a leaf out of Anne's playbook and was refusing to give into the King without the benefit of a ring. Unlike Anne who was intelligent, vivacious, devoted to the new religious teachings, and used to getting her own way, Jane was quiet and serene. In a way, she was a throwback to Katherine of Aragon, the King's first wife.

Cromwell still questioned Jane thoroughly, about Anne's relationship with her brother who she had been accused of committing incest, but also in particular about whether or not Anne had said that the King was impotent. If the King was impotent, it raised questions about Princess Elizabeth's paternity, and the paternity of the babes that the Queen subsequently miscarried. What Anne apparently had said was that the King was slow to rise to the occasion, but that he was still capable. Anne's slip of the tongue was the last nail that Cromwell needed. Anne and her brother George were executed in May of 1537. The King remarried less than a month later.

Jane was now a widow who had to fight her own father-in-law to receive the money that was due her. The first inkling we have of her character is the letter that she wrote to Cromwell seeking his help to secure her jointure which was due to her. Her petition was successful and Thomas Boleyn was forced to pay her the 100 pounds a year that she was due. Shortly thereafter, Jane returned to court as part of Jane Seymour's ladies. The position was not as exalted as her previous one under Anne, but she was still part of the court. Despite what her personal feelings might of been, she served Jane well.

It was when Henry took his 5th wife, Catherine Howard, that things will belly up for Jane. Catherine and Jane had both been ladies to Anne of Cleves before Henry decided to divorce her because he found her unappealing. Jane had even testified that Anne and Henry had not consummated the marriage. Jane still had her position at court but Cromwell lost his. Historians still are divided as to what caused Cromwell's fall, but the marriage to Anne of Cleves was the final straw. Henry seemed to be just as capricious with his advisors as he was with his wives.

Catherine's days as Queen of England and Henry's wife were even shorter than her cousin Anne Boleyn. While Anne had kept the King on the hook for several years before marriage and the thousand days as his wife, Catherine lasted half as long. At first things seemed hunky dory, the King was besotted with his eighteen year old bride, he couldn't keep his hands off her even in public. Things looked good for the possiblity of a second son to secure the succession. While Katherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour had been serene, and Anne vivacious, Catherine was willful and a bit silly. Still she made her 49 year old groom who was now fat with ulcerated legs happy.

It came to light that Catherine may have been unchaste before her marriage to the King. The evidence piled up about Catherine's prior relationships with Francis Dereham and Henry Manox, the music tutor while Catherine lived in her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk's home. Catherine had hoped to brazen it out, after all, this had all occured before her marriage to the King. She even tried to deny it, despite the testimony of several members of the Duchess's household and Dereham and Manox themselves.

But Jane knew better, because once the cat was out of the bag about Catherine's prior scandalous behavior, it was only a short amount of time before it came out about Catherine's infidelity after her marriage to the King, with one Thomas Culpepper and Jane's role in the affair. While the facts might be sketchy about Jane's role in the demise of her husband and sister-in-law, there is no doubt that Jane played a major role as a go-between in the affair with Thomas Culpepper. She even helped the Queen while the court was on royal progress search out places where the lovers could meet in secret and served as a look-out during their assignations.

Jane was arrested taken to the Tower of London where she appears to have had some kind of breakdown while being questioned by Cranmer about her role in the sordid affair. Then the blame game started. Catherine blamed Jane and insisted that Jane had encouraged the affair, that she would never have thought to have cheated on the King without Jane's interference. She also insisted that her relationship with Culpepper was innocent, that they never had carnal knowledge. While admitting her role in the affair, Jane insisted that for the hours that Catherine and Culpepper were together, and the Queen's behavior prior to her marriage, the idea that she was innocent was laughable. Even Culpepper blamed Jane for the affair.

Why did Jane do it? Why did she involve herself in the Queen's affair, after what had happened to her sister-in-law? Julia Fox writes in her biography that Jane couldn't refuse Catherine and that if she had gone to Henry, she would not have been believed. But Jane had other options, she could have retired from the court and not involved herself in the matter. Was it ambition? The idea that the Queen had chosen her to rely on?

In the end, both Jane and the Queen lost their lives. Jane was executed the day before Valentine's Day in 1542, almost six years after the death of her husband and sister-in-law. There is no word for word transcript of her final words before her death, she wasn't important enough for that, but Ottewell Johnson managed to reconstruct her final words. While not referring to the specific offenses that brought about her death, she admitted that she had committed sins against God and that she had offended the King. She was buried in the Tower of London alongside Catherine Howard and not far from Anne and George Boleyn.

Julia Fox's biography of Jane, while a remarkable portrait of the period, unfortunately leaves as many questions unanswered as answered. The reader is told constantly that Jane might have been at certain events or that she may have thought certain things, but there is no direct evidence. She does make a credible argument that Jane has been vilified to absolve both Henry VIII from the crime of possibly executing an innocent man and woman, and also to restore the reputation of Anne Boleyn.

The problem however with the biography is that Jane is still pretty much a cipher. Since she left no letters and she is little mentioned in histories until long after her death, there are very few contemporary chronicles that mention her accept in passing. The reader has no idea what she thought about Anne, or her husband, or indeed anything that went on. She is the perfect courtier, silent. Julia Fox gives credible reasons in her biography for why Jane never remarried, for why she returned to court. Having been at court since the age of 12, court life was all that Jane knew, a quiet life in the country away from the glitter and the glitz was not for her. Perhaps after a marriage that had raised her so high, (sister-in-law to the Queen of England) what could another man have offered her? However, it is all speculation.

It is for this reason that it has been so easy for novelists and historians to ascribe any number of motives to Jane Boleyn. Most recently in Philippa Gregory's The Boleyn Inheritance, she is one of the three narrators, and its central villain. A villainess makes a much better story, than a woman caught up in circumstances beyond her control, who may or may not have loved her husband. Far easier to see her as a ruthless and ambitious woman, frustrated by a loveless marriage, and jealous of the attention given to her sister-in-law. The fictional Jane Boleyn seems to have lived a more exciting life than the actual woman.

The truth is that we will probably never know the real truth about Jane Boleyn. She is the woman in the shadows, observing, but never revealing.


Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford - Julia Fox

Friday, September 5, 2008

Win a FREE copy of the Raucous Royals

In honor of the publication of Carlyn Beccia's fabulous new book, THE RAUCOUS ROYALS, Scandalous Women will be giving away a copy. Just leave a comment on the Jane Boleyn post by 9/18, and you will be entered in to win.

In the meantime check out her web-site here for more fun!