Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lady Penelope Deveraux

Oh those Boleyn Girls! Students of history know all about Mary Boleyn, mistress of Henry VIII, thanks to Philippa Gregory and her bestselling novel who refashioned Mary from a good-time girl who graced the beds of several men before landing in Henry's to some kind of feminist heroine. Like her great-granddaughter, Mary then defiantly married a man she loved after her husband Will Carey died, pissing off her sister Anne, who didn't think Will Stafford was aristocratic enough to marry a Boleyn. We also know plenty about her sister Anne Boleyn who replaced Mary in Henry's bed. But what about the descendents of these remarkable women?

Painting of Penelope on the right and her sister Dorothy

Well, everyone knows that Anne's daughter Elizabeth became Elizabeth I, Gloriana, one of the greatest monarchs ever in English history. Celebrated in films, television, fiction, and opera. But Anne's sister Mary descendants lives were completely entwined in the life of her sister's child.

While Mary's daughter Katherine Knollys led a virtuous and blameless life, selflessly serving her cousin, Elizabeth, Mary's granddaughter Lettice Deveraux, the Countess of Essex had the cheek to marry Elizabeth's great love, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester secretly in 1578. Rumors abounded while Lettice's husband Walter, the Earl of Essex was in Ireland, that Lettice and Leicester were lovers. Walter Deveraux had already cause to believe that Dudley was stabbing him in the back while he was off in Ireland, fighting off rebels and attempting to create a fortune for himself in Irish land. This despite the fact that Lettice and Walter's oldest son Robert was named after Dudley and Leicester stood as his godfather.

After Walter's death in 1576, Lettice honored his memory by waiting two years before marrying Leicester. While there is now proof that Lettice and Leicester were lovers before her husband's death, the fact Lettice was pregnant on their wedding day was proof that they certainly hadn't waited for the marriage vows. The marriage ceremony was conducted in secret because Elizabeth was notorious for hating it when her favorites got married. It meant that their attention was divided instead of being focused soley on her.

Many of her favorites such as Sir Walter Raleigh ended up in the Tower for marrying against her wishes. As the Queen aged, and her looks began to fade, she became more and more jealous and attached to her favorites. She may not want to marry them, but she would be damned if anyone else did. That went double when it came to Robert Dudley. Dudley had long wanted to marry Elizabeth. Unfortunately he was married to Amy Robsart, who conveniently and mysteriously died early in Elizabeth's reign. However because the death was so mysterious, Elizabeth couldn't risk marrying Dudley, not when she was still busy trying to keep her hold on the throne. Plus, Dudley was arrogant and had made many enemies at court as he flaunted his close relationship with the Queen in the faces of her courtiers and council members.

When Elizabeth found out Dudley had married, she flew into a rage, which she took out not on Dudley but on Lettice who was banished from court. It was more than ten years before Lettice was allowed to set foot at court. Lettice didn't stop there, after Leicester's death in 1588, she waited only a matter of months before taking her next husband, Sir Christopher Blount, a young courtier who was twelve years her junior. Of course, rumours abounded that Blount and Lettice were lovers before Leicester's death. Not only was Blount part of Sir Francis Walsingham's group of spies involved in the Babington plot against Mary, Queen of Scots (the Babington plot is so convoluted I suggest everyone head over to Wikipedia to read about it) but he may have also been a double agent since he was Catholic. Blount would find himself involved in his step-son's schemes and find himself on a scaffold in 1601.

Despite her enmity for her cousin, Elizabeth still doted on Lettice's children Penelope and Robert, the new Earl of Essex. Penelope was married off at the age of 18 to Robert Rich, Baron Rich. The Rich family were not only rich but known for being venal weasels. His grandfather Richard Rich had been testified against Sir Thomas More at his trial, perjuring himself. Penelope's marriage to Rich was a miss-match from the beginning. Penelope was beautiful and vivacious, with red-gold hair like her mother's and flashing dark eyes. She loved dancing, partying, and card games. Her husband came from an ultra-Protestant family that shunned the very things that gave Penelope pleasure.

Penelope would have preferred a few years of flirting at court before marrying but her guardians were insistant on her marrying Rich. While Penelope had a dowry of two thousand pounds, her father's estate was tied up in legalities and debt. Her marriage to Rich would also move her further away from the throne, which was something Elizabeth devoutly wished. She kept tabs on those family members who might have a claim to throne. Penelope was not only descended from Edward III through her father, but there was a very good chance that her grandmother had been Henry VIII's child (Sally Varlow presents a convincing case that Katherine and possibly Henry Carey were Henry VIII's children in her biography of Penelope). Marriage to Rich would also help her brother to advance at court, and Penelope was a devoted sister to Essex, even naming her second daughter after him.

Penelope was a dutiful daughter, and married Rich but in eight years of marriage, she only gave birth to three children, so either she had trouble conceiving or she found any excuse that she could not to share a bed with her husband. Her father's choice for a husband, Sir Philip Sidney had fallen madly in love with Penelope but his father was against the marriage, and he had no money as well. Instead he composed some of the most beautiful love poems in English literature to his Stella before dying bravely while England was at war in the Netherlands against Spain.

Despite her lack of love for her husband, Penelope was involved along with him and Essex in corresponding with James VI in Scotland, supporting his claim to the throne of England, should he perhaps not want to wait for Elizabeth's death to mount the throne. Despite their treasonous implications, Elizabeth forgave them their indiscretion. She was quite taken with Lord Essex, somewhere between maternal love and the romantic love.

By 1590, Penelope fallen in love with Sir Charles Blount (descended from a different branch of the same family as Sir Christopher Blount, Penelope's step-father.) Blount was very much like Penelope's father Walter, handsome, bookish, shy, scholarly, modest and reserved. The few portraits of Mountjoy show a man with a sweet face, blunt nose, and a suprised look on his face as if couldn't quite believe his luck. No knows for sure when they exactly when they became lovers, but Penelope was soon pregnant with Blount's child. She had already provided Lord Rich with the requisite heir and spare, and now she felt free to live her own life. She moved to the manor of Leighs where she spent most of her time, but Lord Rich allowed her to have unlimited access to her children.

Penelope and Sir Charles were very discreet when it came to their love affair. Elizabeth was notorious for punishing adulterers, throwing them into prison for their pains. Lord Rich surprisingly turned a blind eye to the relationship. Perhaps he thought that the affair would eventually die out. He was also very aware that his marriage had been very advantageous to him, given Penelope's closeness to the throne, and he was a strong supporter of her brother Lord Essex. She had acted as her brother's hostess since his wife Frances was shy and retiring. Essex had created his own spy network, and Penelope became good friends with the Bacon brothers and the Earl of Southampton who married her cousin Elizabeth. Accordingly, Rich accepted the five children that Penelope bore Blount as his.

The only wrinkle in her love affair with Blount came when Penelope began to have pangs of conscience about their relationship. She felt that she was doing him a disservice, keeping him from marrying and having a legitimate heir. She came into contact with a Jesuit priest named Father Gerard, who she discussed the relationship with. Penelope's friendship with Father Gerard was potentially dangerous if she had been found out. Harboring a jesuit priest could have ended up with Penelope being arrested. When Mountjoy found out that Penelope was about to make her confession and become a Catholic, ending the relationship. Mountjoy managed to convince Penelope that he had no desire to marry, and Penelope ended her flirtation with Catholicism.

It was her brother Essex who turned out to be the greatest danger. Over the years his influence with Elizabeth had waned as that of the Cecils grew. While Penelope was able to keep up a friendly pretense with both Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil, Essex couldn't contain his contempt. Essex didn't help his cause by running off in a snit whenever he felt that Elizabeth was not showing him the proper appreciation for his talents. While he was off rusticating in the country, it was left to Penelope and his supporters to keep his cause alive with Elizabeth. Both Penelope and her brother had a strong sense of their Deveraux identity, their closes ties to the Queen, as well as several other nobles houses, including the Earl of Northumberland (the second husband of their sister Dorothy) and the Earl of Southampton, as well as the Sidneys.

His unauthorized return from Ireland was the beginning of the end of Essex. He had been sent to take over as Lord Lieutenant, to try and subdue the Irish rebels Tyrone and O'Connell. Instead, he lacked the necessary men and funds to keep the fight going and he set up an unauthorized meeting with Tyrone alone with no witnesses. Gloriana was not pleased. His subsequent arrest set in motion a series of blunders that ended up with Essex on trial and his eventual death.

Penelope spent time pleading for her brother's life. A letter that she wrote the Queen, equating her father's situation in Ireland with her brothers was secretly published, ticking off the Queen. The role Penelope played in the aborted coup has long been debated. Essex himself said at this trial that Penelope actively encouraged him to raise an army against the Queen, with the notion of putting James on the throne. At her trial, Penelope's defense was that she was blinded by her love for her brother. She did hold off the Earl of Nottingham, while Essex burned as many incriminating papers as he possibly could. Her lover, now Baron Mountjoy after his brother's death, was also heavily involved in Essex's plans, but Elizabeth needed Mountjoy in Ireland where he was proving himself as one of the greatest soldiers of the Elizabethan age, so he was spared. Although Elizabeth didn't want to have Essex executed, she did nothing to save him. His death saddened her greatly.

When James VI became James I of England, Penelope and Mountjoy both enjoyed a good relationship with the new sovereign. Penelope became one of Queen Anne's lady's in waiting, and Mountjoy was made the Earl of Devonshire after his return from Ireland. Now that she and Mountjoy had such high favor from the King, Penelope decided now was the time to get rid of her husband Lord Rich. Accordingly they were divorced, although they were not allowed to marry while the other spouse was still alive. However, Penelope and Mountjoy married three months later, an act that would have serious reprecussions.

James I was furious at both Penelope and Mountjoy and refused to consider the marriage legal. There has been speculation as to why Penelope and Mountjoy took such a dangerous action. Given that Mountjoy's health had deteriorated since his return from Ireland, they probably thought it was worth the risk to finally be man and five after 15 years together. Mountjoy and Penelope were only married for a few months when Mountjoy took ill and finally died at the rather young age of 44 in April of 1606, leaving Penelope a widow with five children. He provided amply for her and their children in his will, but as soon as he was buried his relatives came out of the woodwork, demanding that the will be put aside, that Penelope had unduly pressured him to leave her his wealth, and that he was wearying of the relationship. The case dragged on for months, and Penelope had won the first round, although her reputation was dragged through the mud.

Penelope unfortunately died in July 1607, after a short illness. No one knows where her body is buried. Her mother Lettice managed to out survive them all, not just Elizabeth and James I, but all of her children. She finally died at the age of 92, buried next to Lord Leicester in St. Mary's Church in Warwick. Penelope's children from both her marriages prospered over the years. Her son Lord Rich, a puritan like his father, supported Cromwell during the Civil Wars, living to see his grandson marry Cromwell's daughter. Mountjoy Blount became the Earl of Newport in his own right.

Penelope if she is remembered at all, it is for her part in her brother's rebellion, although historians writing just after her lifetime, seemed to write her out of the life of her lover Sir Charles. No mention is made of the writers she supported during her lifetime, or the work she inspired such as Sir Philip Sidney's poetry. Nor of her place as one of the amazing Boleyn women.


The Lady Penelope - Sally Varlow, Andre Deutsch books


My Enemy, the Queen by Victoria Holt - this was my introduction to the story of Lettice and Lord Leicester, and her son Essex.

The White Devil by John Webster - this play is supposed to be partly based on the life of Lady Penelope Deveraux

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

And the winner is

The winner of a brand new copy of The King's Rose is

Avon Lady Jerrica!
Please email me off line at with your mailing address and I will pop it in the mail to you.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Welcome Guest Blogger Alisa M. Libby, author of The King's Rose

I came across Catherine’s story when I was nearly done with my first book, The Blood Confession – a historical fantasy inspired by the legend of Countess Bathory, who believed that bathing in the blood of virgins would preserve her youth and beauty for eternity. I had been working on this book for a while and I was feeling a little lost at the thought of being finished. I started casting around for some other wayward girl in history that I could write about, and that’s when I found Catherine Howard.

Catherine was a teenager when she first arrived at court, to be a part of the new queen’s household. While Henry was disappointed with his new bride, Anne of Cleves, he “cast a fantasy” to Catherine from the moment he saw her. She was young, pretty, petite, and vivacious—just Henry’s type. Less than a year after her arrival at court she was married to the King of England and awaiting her own coronation as queen. After over a year of marriage, she was accused of having an affair while married to the king. This was the same charge given to Henry’s second bride years earlier, which lead to her execution. That queen, Anne Boleyn, was Catherine’s own cousin.

Even though Catherine’s story is completely different from Countess Bathory’s, I had a similar reaction to it: “What was she thinking? Why did she do it?” These questions made me want to write about Catherine in her point of view, to come up with an internal logic to explain her illogical actions.

I found it fascinating to research Catherine and observe the different approaches to her story: she was simple-minded, greedy, whorish, and immature. Somehow I had to create empathy for her, to connect with her and find her voice. I didn’t want to make her too much a victim, especially since her bad choices are what drew me to tell her story in the first place. Certainly she was greedy, and not at all well-versed in court etiquette and politics, but at the core of her story I found her to be woefully, fatally na├»ve. And that, as I see it, lead to her downfall. The Tudor court was a fascinating but brutal place to live, filled with people each with his own agenda, and families willing to sacrifice their own young for a chance at power.

When my husband and I went to England, we visited the Tower of London on February 13, the anniversary of Catherine’s execution. She is buried in the chapel beside her infamous cousin, Anne Boleyn. A bouquet of roses was draped over Anne’s crest that day, and the guard showed us how the white stone is now discolored because of all the flowers she has received over the years. It made us feel sorry for Catherine that she never gets such attention. While she did not have nearly the impact on history that Anne did, her story is still a fascinating one. I left a small stone on her crest as a mark of our visit, and I can only hope that she knows that we came a long way specifically to visit her.

Please head on over to Alisa's web-site: more information on both her wonderful books. Also any one who leaves a comment will be eligible to win a copy of Alisa's book.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Coming Soon: Alisa M. Libby, Author of The King's Rose

Tomorrow, Alisa M. Libby will be blogging about her new historical young adult novel, The King's Rose about Henry VIII's fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Here's a sneak peek at the book:

Appointed to the queen’s household at the age of fourteen, Catherine Howard is not long at court before she catches the eye of King Henry VIII. The king is as enchanted with Catherine as he is disappointed with his newest wife — the German princess Anne of Cleves. Less than a year from her arrival at court, Catherine becomes the fifth wife of the overwhelmingly powerful, if aging, King of England.

Caught up in a dazzling whirl of elaborate celebrations, rich gowns and royal jewels, young Catherine is dizzied by the absolute power that the king wields over his subjects. But does becoming the king’s wife make her safe above all others, or put her in more danger? Catherine must navigate the conspiracies, the silent enemies, the king’s unpredictable rages, as well as contend with the ghosts of King Henry’s former wives: the abandoned Catherine of Aragon, the tragic Jane Seymour, and her own cousin, the beheaded Anne Boleyn. The more Catherine learns about court, the more she can see the circles of danger constricting around her, the threats ever more dire.

Check out the book trailer for The King's Rose!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Nancy Astor

In 1919 Nancy Astor took her seat in the House of Commons as the first woman to serve as an MP. In the 90 years since then, many more women have entered the hallowed walls of the Houses of Parliament, there's even been a woman Prime Minister, following in the footsteps of this remarkable woman. But not many people today know her name or her achievements. So here are a few facts about Nancy Astor.

1. Nancy Langhorne came into the world on May 19, 1879 in Danville Virginia, one of 11 children born to Chillie and Nanaire Langhorne. The Langhornes were not rich; the growing family lived in near poverty in a four room house in Danville. Chillie worked as an auctioneer and later with the railroads. By the time Nancy was 11, Chillie had enough money to move his family to Richmond to a grand house called Mirador.

2. Nancy wasn't the only Langhorne to make her mark on the world. Her oldest sister Irene was the first southerner to open the Patriarchs Ball in New York since the Civil War. She later married the artist Charles Dana Gibson who was known for his illustrations of the Gibson Girl. Her oldest sister Lizzie's daughter, also named Nancy, became the celebrated interior decorator Nancy Lancaster. And her youngest sister Nora's daughter became the noted British comedienne, actress, and singer-songwriter Joyce Grenfell.

3. At the age of 18, Nancy married Robert Gould Shaw, the nephew of Robert Gould Shaw who commanded the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The marriage was a disaster from the start. Although handsome and charming, Shaw was also an alcoholic and an adulterer. Nancy left him two weeks after they married but she was convinced to return by his family. They had a son Bobbie in 1898 and Nancy tried to stick out. She finally left him but wouldn't countenance a divorce until she discovered he had entered into a bigamous marriage with his mistress.

4. An Anglophile since childhood, in 1904, Nancy made the first of several trips to England for the hunting season, one of her great passions. From her first trip, she was a great success. Edwardian Society was fascinated by Nancy. On the one hand, she was witty and saucy in conversation, but on the other, she was devout and almost prudish in behavior. This confused particularly the men who had thought that she would be easy game. Nancy was once asked by an English woman, "Have you come to get our husbands?" Her unexpected response, "If you knew the trouble I had getting rid of mine."

5. Nancy’s first male conquest in England was John Baring, Lord Revelstoke head of Barings Bank, the oldest merchant bank in London until its collapse in 1995. However, Lord Revelstoke was 16 years older than her, and had been involved in a long-term love affair with a married woman. Although he was extremely rich, Nancy found banking boring. And like many Englishmen, he was inarticulate in his feelings, only able to tell Nancy on paper how he felt.

6. Instead Nancy married Waldorf Astor. The son of William Waldorf Astor, his father had moved the family to England when Waldorf was twelve and raised his children as English. They met onboard ship on one of Nancy's return trips to England in 1905. James Fox in his wonderful biography about his great aunt Nancy believes that Waldorf had his heart set on wooing Nancy and arranged to be on the same ship as she was. He used his time wisely on board spending time charming Nancy's father Chillie who put in a good word for him. However, Waldorf was only one of Nancy's many suitors.. Waldorf was also extremely rich, but he was a gentleman of leisure. He was also born on the same day as Nancy. Although he often suffered from ill-health, he balanced out Nancy's outgoingness, with a sweet and gentle nature. In other words, Nancy could manage him to her heart's content.

7. Nancy suffered bouts of ill-health until her conversion to Christian Science. Most of her illnesses were psychosomatic in origin. Although naturally gregarious and competitive by nature, the constant rounds of parties and social duties eventually took their toll. It was her sister Phyllis who gave her Mary Baker Eddy's book Science and Health. From then on it and the bible were her only reading material. The idea of mind over matter greatly appealed to a control freak like Nancy. She succeeded in converting her friend Philip Kerr, Marquess of Lothian, Waldorf, and several other relatives to the cause. Like a born-again Christian, Nancy constantly proselytized her new found religion to anyone who would listen, probably to the point of boredom. Unfortunately her religion had serious reprecussions when her daughter Wissie suffered an accident to her back. Instead of calling for a medical doctor, Nancy and Waldorf called for a Christian Science practicioner. By the time an orthopedic surgeon was called in, the damage was done. Wissie suffered from back pain for the rest of her life.

8. Nancy soon gave birth to five Astor children over the next twelve years of her marriage starting with Bill, followed by Wissie, David, Michael and Jakie. Her relationship with all her children was tempestuous. Her favorite child was her eldest Bobbie Shaw; they had were so co-dependent that Freud would have given his left arm to get the two of them on the couch. Neither one of them could be happy with or without the other. While Nancy loved all her children, she was not demonstrative. Instead she was combative and possessive,sort of an affectionate bully, not wanting the boys to get married and have lives of their own. She would tell them that they were ‘Conceived without pleasure and born without pain.” She took it for granted that they would just love her no matter what. A psychoanalyst would probably say that Nancy was verbally and emotionally abusive towards her children. Bobbie and Jakie were the two children who could dish it out as well as they could take it. Still her children loved her despite her shortcomings as a mother.

9. While Nancy could be an affectionate bully, she could also be incredibly generous. She gave freely to her sisters Irene and Phyllis. She supported other family members and others in need over the years without question. However with her sister Lizzie, Nancy insisted that any money she gave her be accounted for.

10. Nancy was not the first woman to be elected to Parliament. That distinction belongs to Constance Markiewicz, who along with the other members of the Sinn Fein party refused to take the oath. If she had, she would have been the first woman to actually take her seat. Her husband, Waldorf had been elected to Parliament from Plymouth and was well on his way to a brilliant career when his father shocked the couple by accepting a peerage, making him Viscount Astor. When his father died, Waldorf succeeded to the title, which meant that he was kicked upstairs to the House of Lords. The seat was now vacant, and it was decided that Nancy would run in the next election to take his place. Nancy took to the British method of politicking like a duck to water. Her quick wit meant that she could deal with the hecklers without losing her ladylike demeanor. Nancy won her seat by more than 5,000 votes over the other candidates.

11. In later life, Nancy told one of her sons that if she had known what being the first woman to bridge the all male club of the Houses of Parliament was going to be like, she would never have done it. The male members were not pleased to have a woman in their midst. They would debate the most disgusting subjects possible such as venereal disease, complete with graphic photos, they would refuse to give her the corner seat forcing her to climb over their legs, and direct her to the furthest bathroom possible. But Nancy stuck it out. Her saving grace was her total disregard for the rules. She interrupted when she should have been quiet, listened intently no matter what the topic, and disarmed the men with her charm. Among her early political friends were the female MPs who followed her, by the late twenties, there were at least 15 women in Parliament. Nancy later proposed creating a "Women’s Party", but the female Labour MPs thought it was a ridiculous idea because at that time their party had power. While Nancy gave in, her closeness with teh other female MPs dissipated over time.

12. Nancy had a gift for being able to mix people of different backgrounds and social classes. It was not uncommon to find members of the Tory party alongside members of the Liberal party. She was able to make everyone feel welcome and at home, keeping up a constant stream of activities and games to entertain people. Her southern charm, and wit made intimates of many of the men who graced the table at Cliveden, including Hilaire Belloc, T.E. Lawrence, and George Bernard Shaw.

13. In the late twenties, Nancy took a trip to the Soviet Union with George Bernard Shaw, where she lectured Stalin for two hours, claiming that he was acting as autocratically as the Tsars that the communists deposed. At first, her questions were not being translated into Russian until Shaw insisted that Stalin should hear what she was saying. She took a huge risk, criticizing Stalin so openly to his face. To his credit, Stalin answered her questions, although it must have galled him to be questioned that way by a woman.

14. One of Nancy’s most famous feuds were with Winston Churchill. She once said at a dinner party, “If I were your wife, I would poison your coffee,” while Churchill replied, “If I were your husband, I would drink it.” Ironically, Nancy and Waldorf had been friends with Winston and his wife Clementine in her early years in England. However, Churchill had never favored women’s suffrage, and once Nancy became MP, the relationship cooled. The relationship got downright frosty in the 1930’s when Nancy and Waldorf favored appeasement, while Churchill among others felt that Hitler was a threat. During the War, Winston and his wife went down to Plymouth to see the damage. When he wept, Nancy said, “It’s all very well to cry, Winston, but you’ve got to do something.” This did not endear Nancy to him but it got things done.

15. Nancy’s political career began to suffer in the 1930’s during the long march towards war. Because of Nancy’s antipathy towards the French who she considered immoral as well as Catholic, her sympathies lay more with Germany who was considered industrious and mainly Protestant. However, a journalist with communist leanings named Claud Cockburn wrote an article for a newsletter called The Week calling the politicians who favored appeasement with Germany, ‘The Cliveden Set.’ The idea was that the so-called ‘Cliveden Set’ spent weekends engineering a plot to sell-out to the Nazi’s to stem the real threat, which was communism. While several of Nancy and Waldorf’s friends favored appeasement, many of them didn’t. However the name stuck.

16. In 1945, Waldorf insisted that it was time for Nancy to step down as MP and not run again for re-election. Times had changed now that the war was over, and he was afraid that if she ran, she would be defeated. Nancy resented it; she wanted to run but agreed to accede to Waldorf’s wishes. The decision caused a rift in their marriage that lasted almost to his death in 1952.

17. Nancy was a life-long teetotaller. Her first husband was a drinker, as well as her brothers. While Nancy didn't mind others drinking, she herself abstained. She was completely for Prohibition in the States. Her temperance stance didn't hinder her political career, which is ironic given that she lived in a country where drinking can be a national pasttime.

Nancy died on May 2, 1964 just before her 85th birthday. She was cremated and her ashes reside with Waldorf’s at Cliveden in an 18th century Octagon Temple, just below the great lawn. A confederate flag was buried with her. Her son Bobby passed away 6 years later in 1970 from an overdose; he is buried in the temple alongside his mother.


Nancy Astor - John Griggs, Hamlyn Paperbacks, 1982
The Langhorne Sisters - James Fox, Granta Books, 1998

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Scandalous Movie Review: Grey Gardens

"My mother gave me a completely priceless life." -- "Little Edie" Beale, 1917-2002

Last night I was lucky enough to get see a screening of the new HBO film Grey Gardens starring Jessie Lange as 'Big' Edie Bouvier Beale and Drew Barrymore as 'Little' Edie. Since I don't have HBO, this was the only way that I was going to see the film until it came out on DVD.

As a native New Yorker, I was aware vaguely of the story of Jacqueline Onassis' relatives out on Long Island, and the documentary that was made about them, but I had never actually seen the film until two years ago after I had seen the Broadway musical of their live starring Christine Ebersole.

After seeing the documentary and the musical, I wasn't sure that the world needed another depiction of their lives unless it was in book form (so far there has been no real biography written about these two women apart from a book by the Mayles and reminiscences from people who worked for them). I'm glad to say that I was proved wrong after seeing this film. I was incredibly bowled over by the performances, particularly that of Drew Barrymore as 'Little' Edie. For the past six or seven years, Drew's performances have chiefly required her to be just adorable, which she is, but she's never really had an acting challenge in any of them. Grey Gardens definitely takes her out of her comfort zone. For the first time, she has lived up to the legacy of her last name, Barrymore. I think her grandfather John and her great-uncle Lionel and great-aunt Ethel would be proud of her. Jessica Lange, well one expects an amazing performance from her, and she doesn't disappoint. The two women play so well off of each other, almost as well as the real life characters that they portray.

The film starts off depicting the moment in 1973, when filmmakers Albert and David Maysles entered the strange world of "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale. The filmmakers spent six weeks with the reclusive mother and daughter who chose to live in squalor and almost total isolation in a decaying, 28-room mansion in East Hampton. Interspersed with the present day filmmaking are scenes from the past, starting in 1936 when 'Little Edie' is about to make her debut in front of her New York society at the Pierre Hotel. 'Big Edie' was the sister of 'Black Jack' Bouvier, father of Jacqueline and Lee. She is married to Phelan Beale (Ken Howard), but the marriage is showing signs of cracking apart. 'Big Edie' loves to entertain at parties, singing for her guests. Although 'Little Edie' wants to be an actress and dancer, her mother encourages her to get married instead, telling her that it is possible to have her cake and eat it too.

Director and co-writer (the film's other writer is Patricia Rozema, who wrote and directed the wretched film of Mansfield Park starring Frances O'Connor) Michael Sucsy's offers a wry, behind the scenes look at the lives of these two extraordinary and eccentric women. The film is told over the span of four decades, the film focuses on their glamorous and well-heeled lives long before the making of the documentary and on the circumstances behind their riches-to-rags story. The film depicts 'Little' Edie's affair with Julius Krug (played by Daniel Baldwin who sounds exactly like his brother Alec), a married man and member of Truman's cabinet during the years that she lived in New York at the Barbizon Hotel for Women (where Grace Kelly also lived) during the late 1940's.

After the death of her father, Edie moves back home to Grey Gardens. Krug ends their relationship, and 'Big' Edie convinces her daughter that she will have other chances for an acting career. The deterioration of these women's lives was an incredibly slow process. Some of the saddest scenes in the movie are when 'Big' Edie pretends to be a maid while answering the phone. Afte Phelan Beale leaves 'Big' Edie, she no longer has the money to keep up Grey Gardens, which eats up huge amounts of cash, but she refuses to give up the house. Slowly the two women end up living in one room, surrounded by cats and refuse. It's not until the local health inspectors threaten to evict them, and articles are written about them in The National Enquirer and New York Magazine, that Jackie and Lee come to the rescue, spending money to fix up the house from its prior disgusting appearance.

The brief scene of Jackie O (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn) visiting her Aunt and cousin after what appears to be years is priceless. The contrast between what Jackie's life became and 'Little' Edie's is captured. 'Little' Edie is eaten up by envy, she wanted to be famous and adored, and doesn't understand why it should have happened to Jackie who didn't seem to want it.

What keeps people coming back to this story is that these two women, 'Big' Edie and 'Little' Edie are every bit as much of an enigma as Jackie Onassis. Why didn't 'Big' Edie's sons do something about the house and the situation before it became an embarassment? What happened in the years during the war? Why did 'Little' Edie really leave the city and come back to Grey Gardens? Was she afraid to really go for her dreams? Was it just a guilt trip from her mother? The relationship between the two women is one of co-dependence, they can't live with each other but they can't seem to live without each other.

The film ends with the premiere of the film of Grey Gardens and 'Little' Edie's cabaret debut at Reno Sweeney's in New York. 'Big' Edie died shortly after the movie opened, and her daughter sold the house to Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post and his wife with the proviso that they had to restore the house, not tear it down. 'Little' Edie lived in Manhattan for a time, before finally retiring to Bal Harbor in Florida.

I highly recommend this film. In fact, I would suggest a double feature of the HBO film and then watching the documentary.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Scandalous Book of the Month: Mistress of the Sun

I'm very pleased to be featuring Sandra Gulland's latest novel Mistress of the Sun, as the book on the month here on Scandalous Women. Sandra is well known for her trilogy about the Empress Josephine, but Mistress of the Sun tells the story of Louis XIV's first official mistress, Louise de la Valliere.
I've always been fascinated by Louis XIV ever since I read the Angelique series as a teenager. There's something about the Sun King and life at Versailles that is just so delicious. Sandra Gulland's book did not disappoint me. If you love historical fiction, then you must pick up a copy of this book.

The book opens when Louise, called Petite, is four years old, and precocious beyond her years, already reading, and obsessed with animals. She sees a wild white horse that she names Diablo, that she convinces her fahter to buy. Petite wants to tame him but she uses measures that are forbidden by the Church. Although Diablo is successfully tamed, bad things happen, she falls from the horse while in the woods, threatened by a boar and breaks her leg, which leads to a limp, and then later on her father dies, leaving the family with no money. Petite's mother sticks her in a convent while she goes off to find a new husband. Petite is happy at the convent, and wishes the religious life but fate and circumstances have other ideas. Her mother's new husband, a marquis, secures her a post to the daughter of Gaston, the Duc D'Orleans, brother of Louis XIII and uncle of the new king. Although Louise is beautiful and shy, she has a limp and no dowery, which makes her prospects of marriage dismal.

When Princess Marguerite is sent off to marry Cosimo Medici, the Duke of Tuscany instead of her cousin Louis XIV as planned, Louise finds herself in the household of Princess Henriette, called Madame, the wife of the King's brother Philippe. Henriette and the King share a close friendship, and rumors abound that they are lovers. Henriette encourages the King to flirt with Louise, which ultimately ends up with the two involved in a passionate love affair.

Louise is shocked that the King would fall in love with her, when there are so many other women at court who are more high-born than she is, including her good friend Athenais. Although one of Louise's ancestors fought along side Jeanne D'Arc, the de la Valliere's family can't trace their ancestry back to Charlemagne which makes them minor nobility. But Louise is an excellent horsewoman and huntress, two interests that she and Louis have in common. Louise struggles with her decision to become the King's mistress, committing adultery is a sin, but she is convinced that she is doing a service to the monarchy. Still the relationship is kept secret initially and Louise's children sent out to be fostered by others. She must also suffer the disapproval of her family until Louis officially recognizes her as his mistress.

Louise must cope with loss of many kinds throughout the book, along with her many illnesses. She also learns a harsh lesson, one that many royal mistresses have learned throughout the centuries, that the love of a King can be inconstant. Yet her saving grace is always her goodness, along with her yearning for spiritual peace.

This is a fascinating look at life in 17th century France, and Sandra Gulland doesn't spare the reader details of the less savory side of life back then, along with the richness and magnificence of palace life. Reading the descriptions of the often barbaric medical treatments, the filthiness of the palaces, as well as the superstitions that ruled at the time, it made me glad to live in the 21st century. Although I would happily time travel again. This was the first book that I have read by Gulland and it won't be the last. I found it hard to put Mistress of the Sun down, although I knew how the story ended. Here's hoping that Gulland gives us more books from this period. I would love to read her take on Louis XIV's relationship with Madame de Maintenon, his morganatic wife.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Upcoming in April

Some exciting things coming up this month on Scandalous Women

  • Guest blog by historical author, Alisa M. Libby, author of The King's Rose, a new novel of Katherine Howard.

Review of Sandra Gulland's Mistress of the Sun

15 Facts about Nancy Astor

Review of the new HBO Film Grey Gardens

Penelope Deveraux

Belle da Costa Greene

Friday, April 3, 2009

Another cool Award

I just received this awesome award from Amy at Passages to the Past.

"The blogger who receives this award believes in the Tao of the zombie chicken - excellence, grace and persistence in all situations, even in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. These amazing bloggers regularly produce content so remarkable that their readers would brave a raving pack of zombie chickens just to be able to read their inspiring words. As a recipient of this world-renowned award, you now have the task of passing it on to at least 5 other worthy bloggers. Do not risk the wrath of the zombie chickens by choosing unwisely or not choosing at all..."

So I've now passing this awesome award to some other deserving bloggers:

Kwana at Kwana Writes

Megan Frampton

Leanna Renee Heiber

Hope Tarr's Sort of Blog

Eliza Knight's wonderfully informative blog History Undressed.

I also want to thank Herr Mozart and Mrs. Woffington for the awards that they gave me. I'm so sorry I've been behind in thanking everyone and posting the awards. I'm way behind researching my next post on Nancy Astor and also working on my book proposal.