Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Juana of Castile: Mad for Love or Political Pawn?

History has been written by men about men for centuries. So for writers of women’s history, one has to take the written record with a grain of salt, wonder if there are hidden agendas. This is especially true when it comes to the life of Juana of Castile. While most people are familiar with the story of her sister Catherine of Aragon and her marriage to Henry VIII, not many are familiar with the story of her older sister Juana. If she is known at all it is as Juana la Loca, Joanna the Mad, a woman who lost her mind after the death of her husband, the object of her obsessive love, prone to jealous rages who kept her husband’s moldy decrepit coffin nearby so that she could spent her nights talking to him. But is this true, or was Juana a political pawn, torn between her loyalty to her husband and her loyalty to Spain and her parents. Or does the truth lie somewhere in between?

Juana was the third child and second daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. While the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella helped to rid Spain finally of the Moors, Ferdinand was only the King Consort in Castile while King in his own right in Aragon. Castile was the richer, larger kingdom, and Ferdinand during his marriage to Isabella was treated like a foreign interloper by the grandees of the Cortes in Castile. From childhood each of the daughters of Ferdinand and Isabella were groomed from an early age to marry and expand their parents’ influence. Born on November 6 1479, (making her a Scorpio which explains alot!) Juana was betrothed as a baby to Philip of Flanders, the Duke of Burgundy and son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian. His sister Margaret had also been betrothed to Juana’s brother Juan. Juana was taught French, needlework and dancing, everything to make her a pleasing consort.

Married by proxy, Juana was sent to Flanders in 1496 to finally meet her groom and to marry for real. From the one moment the two set eyes on each other, it was lust at first sight. Philip lived up to his nickname ‘Philip the Handsome.’ He insisted that the two get married that night so that they could consummate the marriage immediately. While the sex was great, Philip was not too happy by his wife’s divided loyalties. Juana wasn’t too happy that her husband was only to happy to share his favors amongst the women of the court. It didn’t help that she was kept busy giving birth to six babies in nine years; healthy and happy babies who lived in an age when the infant mortality rate was extremely high. This was when the first rumors that Juana was a little bit crazy began.

Apparently she took exception to one of her husband’s many mistresses and attacked her, cutting off her hair. While most women probably wouldn’t find that behavior insane, it was definitely not the behavior of a royal princess. No doubt some of it could be contributed to post-partum depression, a condition that wasn’t diagnosed until the 20th century. While Philip was good-looking and great in the sack, he was also proud, vain, and insecure. His mother had died when Philip was young, and his father had withdrawn and left his children to be raised by governesses with very little interaction with their father. Juana’s relationship with Philip took a turn for the worse when Juana’s brother Juan died, and then her sister Maria who had married the King of Portugal and had a son Miguel who also died. This left Juana the heiress to Castile definitely. Aragon on the other hand, followed Salic law which meant that only a male could inherit the throne. It was hoped that Ferdinand could change the mind of the Cortes. In 1502, Juana was recognized as heiress to the throne of Castile and given the title Princess of Asturias, the title traditionally given to the heir to Castile (Felipe, the son of King Juan Carlos II of Spain, the current King of Spain, is titled the Prince of Asturias).

Philip however was not on board for being King Consort. He wanted to rule Spain as King. Juana was torn between her parents and her husband. Juana and Philip traveled to Spain where Juana gave birth to her son Fernando. One night Juana ran out of the castle and refused to come back inside for thirty-six hours despite the fact that it was freezing cold outside. Isabella died in 1504, leaving Juana Queen of Castile but the grandees were slow to crown her Queen. They had clearly heard the rumors that Juana was a little off her rocker, which Juana thought Philip and his advisors were spreading. Her mother's will allowed for Juana's father Ferdinand to rule if Juana was unwilling or in her absence, although he was no longer King of Castile.

Ferdinand was not a happy camper at the news. In fact he had coins struck that said Ferdinand and Juana, King and Queen of Castile. Philip, on the other hand, had coins minted with his name and Joanna's. Meanwhile behind her back, Ferdinand and Philip signed a treaty, agreeing that Juana was too mentally unstable to rule, and promising to exclude her from the government. The estrangement between Juana and her husband was unresolved because Philip died at the age of twenty-eight in 1506 of typhus, leaving her pregnant with her sixth child, a daughter that she named after her sister Catalina.

Here’s where the story gets strange. Juana, heavily pregnant, grief-stricken, became a little bit unhinged. While accompanying his body to Granada for burial, she demanded that the coffin be opened, greet his remains. She insisted that they travel at night so that women would not be tempted by him. Still, Juana was determined to rule Castile as her mother had before her. It was her birthright and Juana wanted to honor her mother and hold the kingdom until either her son Charles or her son Fernando was old enough to rule after her. Juana refused to surrender her rights as Queen of Castile.

However, the greatest betrayal was still to come, her father Ferdinand used her behavior to grab Castile from her, which he ruled until his death in 1516. He imprisoned Juana in a room in the castle at Tordesillas in 1509 where she spent the rest of her life. It appears that years of resentment of having to play second fiddle to his wife had finally spilled over. But it wasn’t just Ferdinand; many of the Castilian grandees had also resented having a woman rule Castile, and were prepared to make sure it would never happen again.

If Juana hadn’t actually been mad before, being locked up in a castle sent her round the bend. Manic-depression or bi-polar disorder as it is now called seems to have run in the Trastamara blood. Juana’s grandmother had also been considered insane and locked up for years. Karma is a bitch though. Ferdinand spent the rest of his life plagued by paranoia. He remarried to Germaine de Foix, niece of the King Louis XII of France, Spain’s traditional enemy. Germaine was also Ferdinand's great niece (ick!). Despite taking the 16th century version of Viagra, he never sired the son that he wanted.

After his death, Juana’s son Charles became Charles V of Spain. Juana was briefly released after 11 years in prison, but she had no idea what was going on, that her father had died or that her son was now king. Charles finally went to visit his mother after a twenty year absence but no one knows what the two of them talked about. According to Castilian law, Charles would not fully be recognized as King until Juana’s death, and he refused to release her from her imprisonment. He finally abdicated in 1555, retiring to a monastery, dying three years later. His son became Philip II of Spain, husband of Mary Tudor, who ushered in Spain’s Golden Age. Juana’s other son, Fernando, inherited the Holy Roman Emperor.

Juana’s youngest daughter Catalina remained at Tordesillas with her mother for sixteen. However in 1625, Catalina was stolen away in the night and married off to King Juan III of Portugal. Juana was plunged into deep despair at losing her last child. After forty-six years of captivity, Juana of Castile died at the age of seventy-six. She was buried beside her husband Philip in the cathedral in Granada, across from the tombs of her parents Ferdinand and Isabella.

In recent years, a film called Mad Love, has been released, and a new novel about Juana, called The Last Queen, by C.W. Gortner. Mad Love depicts the passionate sexual relationship between Juana and Philip and her jealousy over his attentions to other women. Although it does delve into the political context, it's a small portion of the film. The performances are stellar and it is worth viewing. Pilar López de Ayala in the title role won a Goya for her role; the film was nominated for a total of 12 Goyas. The film was directed by Vicente Aranda.It received 3 Goya awards, in the categories of Best Actress, Best Wardrobe, and Best Makeup and Hair.

While Mad Love clearly falls into the ‘Juana was one crazy bitch,’ camp, The Last Queen has to be one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in recent years. Gortner tells Juana’s story in the first person, with compassion, emphasizing her passion and her courage. The Last Queen turns Juana into a three dimensional human being. Gortner puts Juana squarely in the historical and political context of the times. Her story is both personal and political. The novel deals with the realities of royal marriages, that they were more based more on shifting alliances than compatibility. It was very interesting to see, if however briefly, what it was like for Catherine of Aragon in the years after her marriage to Prince Arthur and before her marriage to Henry VIII, and how difficult her situation must have been, being in limbo.

Was Juana sane? Mental illness seemed to run in the Trastamara/Hapsburg dynasty(along with an unfortunate tendency towards incest), Juana's own maternal grandmother was mentally ill. It's been speculated that Juana was either schizophrenic or bi-polar. It should also be noted that 'insanity' was an all purpose diagnosis used to control women who were considered out of hand, too intelligent, or dangerous. Could she have ruled her country? Historians have been debating this question for centuries. Since she never got the chance, the world will never know what Juana might have been capable of but it seems clear given how her sister Catherine fought against Henry VIII’s attempts to divorce her that the women of Castile were fighters.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Mysterious Disappearance of Agatha Christie

On December 3, 1926 Agatha Christie disappeared from her home in Sunningdale, in Berkshire. Her car was found at eight o’clock on Saturday morning, abandoned several miles away, with some of her clothes and identification scattered around inside. There were no signs of foul play but newspapers immediately reported that the car was believed to have been deliberately run down Newlands corner with its brakes off. All that weekend, the police searched for her on the North Downs. Agatha had written several confusing letters to her husband, her secretary Charlotte Fisher and others before vanishing. One, to her brother-in-law, said she was simply going for a vacation in Yorkshire; another, to the local chief constable, said she feared for her life. A quarter mile from where her car was found there was a lake called Silent Pool that she had used in one of her books; one of her characters had drowned there. The policy promptly had the lake dredged, without result. Hearing of the husband's infidelities, the police tapped his phones and followed him wherever he went. They also organized 15,000 volunteers to search the surrounding countryside.

Her husband, Colonel Archie Christie told reporters that she was suffering from a nervous breakdown, but suspicion was immediately raised that perhaps the Colonel had done away with his wife, like one of the plots in his wife’s mystery novels. For eleven days the nation was riveted as the newspapers speculated about what had happened to the author of The Mystery of Roger Ackroyd. When she was discovered at a spa in Harrogate; she claimed to been suffering from temporary amnesia. What led Agatha Christie to leave her home that cold December night? Was it a publicity stunt? Revenge against her husband? A simple misunderstanding? Even today, her biographers differ on what exactly happened during those two weeks in December 1926.

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller (1890-1976) was born in the Victorian resort of Torquay in Devon. Her father Frederick Miller was an American from New York, although he had gone to school in Switzerland. Blessed with an independent income, he lived the life of a Victorian gentleman of leisure. Like Winston Churchill, Agatha was very proud of being half-American. She even insisted on visiting her relatives’ graves in Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn on a trip to New York, even though she had never known them. The youngest of three children Agatha was raised almost as an only child. Unlike them, she had no formal education, she was taught at home by her mother and father. When she was eleven, her father did suddenly from a heart-attack leaving the family in straightened circumstances. Instead of selling the family home, her mother let servants go, and when money became tight, rented out the house while they moved to France for a year.

At the end of 1912, she met Archie Christie at a party. He was tall, lean and intense. He immediately demanded that Agatha dance as many dances as possible with him, crossing out names on her dance card and filling his in. A whirlwind courtship followed. Archie somehow found out where she lived and showed up unannounced one day. Within days, he had asked her to marry him. Soon they were engaged, but they didn’t marry until Christmas Eve 1914. Her mother Clara was suspicious of Archie. He was too good-looking, and he only had eighty pounds a year. In the army, he had trained to be a pilot, transferring to the Royal Flying Corps. Her main concern however was that Archie and Agatha were too different. While Archie was intense, Agatha was child-like and full of the zest for life. There was also the fact that Agatha was already engaged to someone else, another soldier named Reggie Lucy, although the engagement was not formal. The young couple broke up, made up, and broke up again until their sudden wedding on December 24, 1914.

During the war, Agatha worked as a nurse and then as a pharmacist where she learned all about the poisons that she would use so effectively in her mysteries. She also started her first detective novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles which she finished in 1916. However, like her short stories, the novel was rejected by several publishers. While other marriages floundered after the war was over, the Christies seemed solid. In 1919, Agatha became pregnant with their daughter Rosalind. Archie was happy that the baby was a girl, because he feared a son would be a rival for Agatha’s affections. Encouraged to submit her book to one last publisher, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was finally accepted for publication by Bodley Head in a five book deal. Agatha Christie was now a published author.

Over the next few years, Agatha published several more novels, introducing Miss Marple, and Tuppence and Tommy, and short stories, each more successful than the last. The Christies bought a house in London, and then eventually moved to a house in the suburbs. Archie left the army and went to work in the city. Everything in Agatha’s life seemed to be going perfectly. But in 1926 everything changed. It should have been the greatest year of Agatha’s life, the book that put her on the map as an author; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published. However, 1926 was also the year that her mother Clara died. Ignoring her mother’s advice to never leave Archie alone for long, Agatha went down to Torquay to go through her mother’s things, while Archie stayed in London.

Just before they were to leave for a holiday in Italy, Archie told Agatha stunning news. He had fallen in love with a woman of their acquaintance, Nancy Neele, and wanted a divorce. Agatha pleaded with Archie to give their marriage another chance, and he reluctantly agreed, but it was clear that his heart was not in it. After twelve years of marriage, the differences between their two natures had torn them apart instead of closer together. While Agatha was social, emotional, imaginative, with a zest for life and travel, Archie was taciturn, rational, and circumspect. He hated illness or any extreme emotions. Agatha had also let herself go in the looks department, she had gained a great deal of weight, and looked older than her age. Nancy Neele, on the other hand, was young and beautiful.

On that fateful day in December, Archie had told Agatha that he was going to spend the weekend with some friends, The James, and would not be coming home. Agatha realized that the other woman, Nancy Neele, was going to also be spending the weekend. It was then that Agatha put the plan in motion that would cause such a scandal. At 9:45 that Friday night, she told her secretary that she was going out, got into the car and drove to Newland Downs where she left the car. From there, she walked back into town and caught the train to London. In London, she went shopping for a winter coat and posted a letter to Archie’s brother Campbell, telling him that she was going to a spa in Yorkshire. Having set up the clues for Archie, she took a train to Harrogate and checked into the Hydro spa under the name of Theresa Neele. It was there that she planned to wait for Archie to come and find her the way that he had done fourteen years ago when they had first met.

But Archie didn’t come and meanwhile the police were looking for her, suspecting foul play. Everyday, Agatha waited at the spa in Harrogate, reading the newspapers, seeing what was being said about her. The press stories initially had been small, but as her disappearance went on, and the police were convinced that it was foul play, the stories became bigger. Even though Archie’s brother Campbell finally told the police that Agatha had said that she was at a spa in Yorkshire, his story wasn’t believed. He had unfortunately burned the letter that Agatha had sent him although he kept the envelope. Deputy Chief Constable Kenward who was in charge of her case didn’t believe his story. Even the newspapers didn’t believe it, although no one thought that perhaps Agatha was traveling under an alias. Reporters discovered that Archie had spent the weekend in the country with friends and in the company of a mysterious woman. They didn’t out and out name Nancy Neele but the speculation was enough for her family to be alarmed.

At any time, she could have ended the suspense but she didn’t. Instead she placed an advertisement in the London Times saying that Mrs. Theresa Neele was interested in getting in touch with her relatives and they could find her at the Hydro in Harrogate. It wasn’t until several of the patrons noticed the resemblance between the guest named Mrs. Neele and the pictures of Agatha in the paper that the suspense was ended. Archie arrived at the Hydro in Harrogate and issued a statement that Agatha was suffering from amnesia. Agatha was immediately whisked away from the Hydro to her sister’s house which was protected by a large iron fence to keep reporters out.

When the press got wind of the fact that Mrs. Agatha Christie was not dead in a ditch but had been enjoying herself for eleven days at spa in Yorkshire, they were livid. If anyone remembers the outcry after the Runaway Bride in Georgia was found, can imagine what it must have been like in England at the time. The press was immediately suspicious of the Christie’s story that Agatha had amnesia, whether temporary or otherwise. Not even several statements from doctors who apparently examined Agatha swayed the press and the public. The papers were out for blood, insisting that huge amounts of public funds had been wasted on a fruitless search for an author who wasn’t even missing. Even when the police issued a statement that the search had only cost less than a hundred pounds, didn’t change public opinion. Agatha, for her part, couldn't understand why people were so angry. She hadn't asked the police to look for her, in fact she had made it perfectly clear in her letter to her brother-in-law exactly where she was going.

So what really happened? Was it an elaborate publicity stunt to increase sales of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? A revenge plot to embarrass her husband? Or was it less obvious, that Agatha had simply had an emotional breakdown, and tried a last desperate attempt to save her marriage that backfired? I’m inclined to agree with the latter theory. Christie seems to have been in a fugue state while she was in Harrogate, one part of her mind was aware of what was going on in the newspapers, but another part of her clearly thought she was Mrs. Neele. No one who was thinking rationally could have come up with such a scheme. If Agatha had been plotting one of her novels, she wouldn’t have left so many holes in the plan.

Any chance that Agatha had of repairing her marriage to Archie ended once the press and the police got involved. The embarrassment and humiliation of being considered a suspect was too much for Archie. The Christies were divorced, and Archie married Nancy Neele. They had a son named Archie and lived happily until Christie’s death in 1962. Agatha Christie too remarried to an archeologist named Max Mallowan, who was fifteen years younger than her. They were married until Christie’s death in 1976. She disliked discussing what happened to her that December of 1926.

In 1979, a film called Agatha, starring Vanessa Redgrave as Agatha Christie, and Timothy Dalton as Archie, dealing with Christie’s disappearance was released. Rosalind Christie filed an injunction to try and have the film stopped, claiming emotional distress, but the motion was denied. The film, written by Kathleen Tynan based on her book, suggested that Agatha secretly planned a dark revenge against Archie Christie that could only be averted by Wally Stanton (played by Dustin Hoffman and a completely fictional character), an ambitious American journalist who falls in love with her. The film is only available on VHS.

In 2004, Agatha Christie Her Life in Pictures was shown on the BBC, another retelling of the story of how she managed to disappear for 11 days following her husband's request for a divorce in 1926. Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley of the Harry Potter films), Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Sixth Sense) and Anna Massey (Possession) portray the famed British author at three different stages of her prolific career. This movie is available on Netflix.

In 1996, a book by Jared Cade was published called Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days. It was based on a version of events told to the author by the daughter of one of Agatha's friends. The daughter, Judith, stated that Agatha had been out for revenge against Archie because of the affair. However, the daughter was only 10 at the time of Agatha's disppearance, so the story is all hearsay. Rosalind Christie Hicks vehemently denied this version of events.

Sources include:

Agatha Christie, An English Mystery: Laura Thompson, Headline Review, 2007

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Aristocrats: Ladies Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox

Ah, the BBC, nobody does it quite the way you do. For every piece of crap like the recent Merlin and the god-awful Robin Hood, they give us a sumptuous costume drama like Aristocrats. Aristocrats is a 1999 mini-series, based on the biography by Stella Tillyard about the fabulous Lennox sisters. The Lennox sisters aren't just any aristocrats, no they are the creme de la creme of aristocrats, the great-grand daughters of Charles II and his mistress Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth. Their story, spanning almost the whole of the 18th century, is one of one of the noblest families in England and the changes that they see in their life-time.

The sisters grow up in a world of immense privilege. From childhood, they are surrounded by servants, and family members. Both their parents were courtiers to George II, consequently the children grew up around the Royal Family, waiting for the time with they too will make their debut and take their place amongst the elite of the country. They are also brought up with the romantic story of how their parents arranged marriage turned into a love match. The 2nd Duke of Richmond was married to Lady Sarah Cadogan to pay off a gambling debt between their fathers. Soon after the wedding, the groom (only 18) took off on a grand tour of Europe, not to return for 3 years. When he returned, he attended the theater, and was immediately taken by a beauty sitting in one of the boxes, surrounded by admirers. Too his surprise, it turned out to be his own wife.

With this story swirling around in their brains, it was no wonder that each Lennox sister grew up to expect to have happy marriages, and to choose their own husbands, while their parents of course felt that since their own marriage was arranged, they knew best for their daughters. Caroline (played by Serena Gordon) is the first to rebel. Unmarried at twenty, and almost on the shelf, she becomes fascinated by Henry Fox (Alun Armstrong). An atheist, and a former libertine, twenty years her senior, he was no one's idea of a perfect match, certainly not Caroline's parents. Although he was a rising politician, he was impoverished. Still Caroline and Henry fell in love and eloped, leading her parents to refuse to see her.

The next sister Emily (Geraldine Somerville), the beauty of the family and the favorite daughter, is pursued by the Earl of Kildare (and future Duke of Leinster played by Ben Daniels), the leading arisocrat in Ireland. He's no more to her parents liking than Henry Fox. Their chief objection? He was Irish. However, Emily was used to getting what she wanted, and she soon managed to sway her parents to letting her marry the Earl of Kildare at the age of 15. The day after her marriage, with the consent of her husband, Emily hightails it over to her sister Caroline's house, for a reconciliation. It is only after Emily has her first child, that Caroline and her parents are reconciled, although they apparently never warm to her happy and successful marriage to Henry Fox (future Lord Holland). After bearing her first husband 19 children, Emily later scandalizes both the aristocracy and her sisters when she remarries after Leinster's death to her children's tutor, a younger Scotsman named William Ogilvie with whom she had been having an affair. Her youngest son, although acknowledged by Kildare was Ogilvy. She and Ogilvie had three children after their marriage.

Lady Sarah Lennox (Johdi May), the second youngest, has the longest road to happiness of all the sisters. She arrives back in England at the age of 14, after having spent most of her childhood in Ireland with her sisters Louisa and Cecilia after their parents' death. The future George III falls in love with her, and her family encourages the idea that a match might be made between the two. But after George becomes King, a more suitable match with the German princess Charlotte of Mecklinburg-Strelitz is arranged. Sarah feels embarrassed and humiliated at the rejection. She rushes into marriage with George Bunbury, who turns out to be indifferent and boring, stumbles into a love affair with Lord William Gordon by whom she has an illegitimate child. Ostracized by society after her husband divorces her, Sarah lives in a kind of purgatory with her brother until she finally finds happiness as the wife of a career soldier, George Napier.

The mini-series is six hours of glorious costumes and sweeping drama, narrated by Emily as played by Sian Phillips as an old woman. At the heart of the story is that of a family. The Lennox family suffers from petty quarrels, jealously, heartbreak, just like any other family, it's just they are extremely rich and privileged. The sisters fight over their parents will, and then later Emiy and Caroline are estranged for years over Lady Sarah's scandalous behavior. It also gives the viewer a good idea of what it was like for a woman of that time period, if she transgressed, and got caught. The performances are uniformly wonderful, although I found Jodhi May as the young Sarah Lennox a bit boring and bland, but I find her a particularly boring actress. I was also disappointed that George II was portrayed as a jolly Englishman, when he barely spoke English.

The final episode spends most of its time telling the story of Emily's son Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a passionate supporter of the United Irishmen, who sought to rid Ireland of the English. Unfortunately because the episode was only an hour, the story seemed truncated. A whole mini-series could be done just on Lord Edward Fitzgerald. The mini-series also never seems to address Lady Louisa's (played by Ann-Marie Duff and later Diana Quick) inability to have children, whether or not that caused her distress. She is the least interesting or knowable of the sisters. She seems to have spent her life trying to be good and doing good works, which is noble but doesn't make for interesting drama. Apparently after her husband's death, she discovered that he'd kept a mistress in another town for their entire marriage.

If you loved The Duchess, the recent movie about Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire, then you will really love this mini-series. It has all the depth that the movie, in my opinion lacked, precisely because the film-makers had six hours to detail their stories. There is also an amazing companion book to the series chock-full of photos and details about the sisters.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Scandalous Book Review: Cherie Blair's Speaking for Myself

Last November I had the chance to hear Cherie Blair (wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair) interviewed at the Times Center here in New York. I was fascinated with her story and bought the book, but life and other Scandalous Women intervened and I didn't get the chance to really finish the book until now.

With all the media attention on Michelle Obama and her role as First Lady it was nice to read about what it was like for someone on the other side of the pond. Cherie Blair never even had the honeymoon period that Michelle Obama had. From the beginning, every little decision from how she dressed to the fact that she was the first wife of the Prime Minister to continue working after the election was scrutinized. More unflattering photos were taking of Cherie Blair than I think of any wife of any world leader. Even Hillary Clinton had better press than Cherie Blair.

Cherie Booth was born in Lancashire in 1954, but raised in Liverpool. Her parents were young actors who married when Cherie's mother Gale found out she was pregnant. After giving birth to Cherie's younger sister Lindsay, her parents split up. Tony Booth continued on with his acting career, eventually winning great success in a TV sitcom called Til Death Do Us Part (playng the role that Rob Reiner played in the US remake All in the Family), and eventually fathering a whole soccer team of daughters by various women. Cherie's mother Gale, on the hand, gave up her acting career, and moved back home to Liverpool with Tony's mother, who helped to raise Cherie and her sister.

Cherie went to Catholic schools and eventually won a place at the London School of Economics and then went on to law school where she came in first after taking the bar exam. She met Tony Blair in 1976 when they were both up for the same spot in chambers. Unlike Cherie, Tony came from a more posh background than she did, something that the tabloids always made a point of mentioning. When the book first came out in England, Cherie was taken to task for being candid about the fact that when she first met Tony, she had two other boyfriends! The Blairs married in 1980 and Tony soon decided that politics was where he wanted to be. He won his first seat in 1983.

Cherie herself was an unsuccessful candidate for Parliament before deciding that one politician in the family was enough. She soon devoted herself to her career and to the Blair's three children, Euan, Nicholas and Kathryn. Like Hillary Clinton, Cherie was the breadwinner in the family. At the time MP's only made 20,000 a year. She specialized in employment, family and public law, fields that were just coming into prominence in the 1980's and 1990's. Although she used Cherie Blair privately, in her public life as a barrister, Cherie went by her maiden name of Booth just like when Hillary Clinton went by her maiden name of Rodham until convinced by politicos to take Bill Clinton's last name.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are Cherie's explanations of how the British legal system works, in particular what is called the cab-rank principal in which it is frowned upon for a barrister to turn down a case, just because he doesn't like the case, if he is available and the client can pay the fees, he or she must take the case. Can you imagine if an American lawyer couldn't turn down cases that they didn't like? While continuing her career after her husband was elected Prime Minister, Cherie writes that the powers that be constantly tried to interfere in what cases that she took, worrying that it might embarass the Prime Minister and the government.

It's also fascinating to read how differently things are run at No. 10 Downing Street compared to the White House. In the book, Cherie writes about Hillary Clinton showing her how things worked at the First Lady's office and Cherie marveling that they had volunteers just to answer Socks the cat's mail. She was inspired by her visit to have Downing Street implement an internship program that unfortunately only lasted two years. Unlike the First Lady in America, Cherie Blair had to pay for her hairdresser out of her own pocket to accompany her on foreign tours, and she had to keep it a secret that she was having help! The government also didn't provide any sort of help for the Prime Minister and his wife in terms of helping with clothing and the luggage when they traveled.

Cherie Blair comes across as very likeable in the book, one begins to suspect that the tabloid press had it in for her, precisely because she was a modern woman. However, Cherie admits that she found doing interviews nervewracking and would talk to much, which led her to make many gaffes during her years at No. 10, the first being opening the door the day after her husband first became Prime Minister to accept some flowers in her nightgown, completely forgetting that there was a host of photographers waiting outside!

She also comes across sometimes as hopelessly naive, particularly for someone whose husband was an MP for 11 years before he campaigned to be party leader. There is a moment in the book at the Labour Party conference when she realizes that her life has changed, and she can no longer wander around as freely as she did before. She seems to have forgotten in her desire to see Tony succeed, just what it would mean to her life to have him become Labour Party Leader, and potentially Prime Minister. She writes about how the tabloids got hold of nude photos of her good friend Carole Caplin and spashled them across the newspapers. Apparently she didn't realize that even their friends were fair game.

When the book came out in Britain, the tabloids had a field day with the news that her youngest son was conceived because she didn't pack her diaphragm for a trip to Balmoral in Scotland. Apparently she had been embarrassed on her last trip when the servants had unpacked her bags. As she puts in her book, the nights at Balmoral were cold and Tony Blair was so warm! She is also not very complimentary about the current Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his fractious relationship with Tony Blair during the ten years that Blair was Prime Minister. Anyone who has seen the movie The Queen will be disappointed in Cherie's description of that time, although she's not shyy about giving her opinion about Bill Clinton's indiscretion with Monica Lewinsky and what that time was like when the Blairs were on an official visit to Washington.

Still if one is interested in reading about modern British politics, and how hard it is to combine a public life, a career, and a family, you will like this book. In terms of their relationship the Blairs are much more like the Obamas than the Clintons. You get the sense that they have a real partnership, and not just a political one.
Speaking for Myself by Cherie Blair - Hachette Books, 2008

Monday, June 15, 2009

Coming soon to Scandalous Women: Author Susan Holloway Scott

On July 2 (take note of the new date), I will be posting an interview with Susan Holloway Scott, author of The French Mistress, a new historical fiction novel about Charles II's mistress Louise de Keroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth (ancestress of the current Duke of Richmond and Lennox). Susan is also the author of Royal Harlot (about Barbara Castlemaine) and The King's Favorite (about Nell Gwynn). Please plan on stopping by, because we will be giving away a copy of Susan's book.

Here is a brief description to whet your appetite:

The daughter of a poor nobleman, Louise leaves the French countryside for the court of King Louis XIV, where she must not only please the tastes of the jaded king, but serve as a spy for France. With few friends, many rivals, and ever-shifting loyalties, Louise learns the perils of her new role. Yet she is too ambitious to be a pawn in the intrigues of others. With the promise of riches, power, and even the love of a king, Louise creates her own destiny in a dance of intrigue between two monarchs—and two countries.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Art Lover: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim

Peggy Guggenheim was an American art collector who was as well known for her private life as for her art collection. She was born on August 26, 1898 in New York, the middle daughter of three and christened Marguerite. Her father Benjamin Guggenheim was one of 11 children of the wealthy Guggenheim family, but he had left the firm along with his younger brother William. Consequently, he didn't share in any of the profits of the company after 1906. Although he still had an income of over $250,000 a year, he also had an extravagant lifestyle with homes in New York and Paris, where he had several mistresses.

Peggy's mother Florette Seligman's family had looked down on the Guggenheim's. Although the Guggenheim's were wealthier, the Selgiman's had come to the United States ten years before the Guggenheim's and still considered them nouveau riche. Peggy's parents were unhappy together from the beginning. Her mother was an eccentric who sprayed Lysol on everything, and had a happy of repeating phrases 3 times. Her father Benjamin was a handsome engineer but a lousy businessman. Peggy from childhood was a Daddy's girl, she competed with her younger sister Hazel for her father's attention. After spending several years living in Paris, Benjamin had decided to come back to New York. Unfortunately he booked passage on the ill-fated Titanic and went down with the ship. Peggy and her sister Hazel spent the rest of their lives trying to find a father substitute with mixed results.

Her father's death also meant that Peggy and her sisters, while not exactly poor, had to live on a tight budget until the will could be sorted out. They had to move out of their home on the Upper East Side into a smaller apartment. Still Peggy and her sisters were brought up by governesses like most Upper Class children. Peggy didn't attend a school until she was 15 years old. Peggy was a voracious reader who was constantly trying to improve herself. She had wanted to go to college but her older sister Benita discouraged her. Although she made her debut, Peggy disliked the tight group of German-Jewish families that made up her social circle. The German Jews who came to the new world discovered that while they were no longer forced to live in ghettos, there were still invisible barriers that they could never breach. Hotels that didn't accept Jews, colleges that had 'Jewish quotas' for enrollment, firms that wouldn't hire them. Because of this, they lived in a very insular world, assimilated but only so far. Many of the German Jewish families inter-married so often that soon almost everyone was related to everyone else. While her mother Florette and her sister Benita thrived in this world, Peggy longed for the world outside the narrow confines of their social circle.

After the first World War, she took a job at an avant-garde bookstore in Greenwich Village, her salary was all the books she could read. It was her first exposure to artists such as Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keefe, and to ideas such as communism. Still Peggy longed to go to Europe. She set sail with her mother and a cousin in 1921. Apart from a few trips back, Peggy didn't return full-time to the US until 1941. At the age of 21, Peggy now had an income of $25,000 a year. Peggy loved living in Europe, particularly Paris. Paris became the place to be in the aftermath of the war, particularly for writers and artists. They could live cheaply and they could drink without worry of getting busted by the police (Prohibition had been declared in 1919). Still Peggy longed for more freedom, and the only way to achieve that was to get married.

She had met Lawrence Vail in New York and met up again with him in Paris. Lawrence was older, erudite, Oxford educated. He was a painter and a writer, whose relationship with his sister Clothilde would raise eyebrows and cause problems in his marriage. Peggy fell for him because he was the antithesis of the men in her family. However, he was no prize. He drank too much and threw tantrums if he wasn't the center of attention. Still Peggy had made up her mind to marry him in 1923. They soon had two children Michael Sindbad (always called Sindbad) and Pegeen. The marriage was a disaster. Peggy wasn't above throwing it in Lawrence's face that she held the purse strings.

While in Paris, Peggy became friendly with avant-garde writers and artists like the photographer Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. She became a regular at the salons of art patron and writer Natalie Barney. She also became aquainted with Djuna Barnes, a former lover of Lawrence Vail. She made her first tentative forays into patronage by paying Djuna $40 a month to enable her to write. She also gave money to artist Mina Loy to open a shop selling lamps. More successful was her patronage of anarchist Emma Goldman and her former lover Sasha Berkman. The two were now living in the South of France, disallusioned with life in the Soviet Union. Peggy found Emma Goldman a house and provided her with an allowance while she struggled to write her memoirs.

In 1927, Peggy's older sister Benita died in childbirth, after suffering 5 previous miscarriages. Peggy was devastated. Although she was only three years older than Peggy, Benita had been more of a mother to her than her own mother. After putting up with Lawrence's verbal and physical abuse, Peggy had had enough. She had always considered herself to be the ugly duckling of the family. Although she had a great figure, and luxuriant chestnut hair, Peggy unfortunately also inherited the Guggenheim nose. She was incredibly self-conscious of her nose, she'd tried to have it fixed in 1920, but plastic surgery was in its infancy and her doctor realized that he couldn't give her the nose she wanted. Peggy went through periods of her life where she was wildly promiscuous, using sex to buoy her self-confidence.

Constantly on the look-out for the a man to replace her father, Peggy had the worst luck with men. After leaving Vail, she fell in love with John Holms, another alcoholic who had ambitions to be a writer that were never fulfilled. Like Vail, he was handsome and intelligent, and had a messy personal life. While Vail's relationship with his sister was too close for comfort, Holms had a common-law wife. Still that didn't stop Peggy for making a play for him. John Holms left his wife and moved in with Peggy. When Peggy and Vail divorced, they had an unusual custody arrangement, Peggy got custody of Pegeen and Lawrence, Sindbad. Like her parents, Peggy was an indifferent mother. Her personal life seemed to matter more to her than her children.

Holms died of a heart attack during an operation to fix a broken wrist leaving Peggy broken-hearted and convinced that she had lost the love of her life. However she soon quickly moved on to someone else, a man named Douglas Gorman. Peggy was living in England now in the country at place called Yew cottage. Her relationship with Gorman ended when he fell in love with Communism and began to devote his life to the cause. She began an affair with the future playwright Samuel Beckett, who also had two other mistresses. Peggy was now nearing 40 and felt that her life was over. It was her friend Peggy Davos who had married her sister Hazel's ex-husband, who was the catalyst for the next phase in Peggy's life. She wrote Peggy a letter encouraging her to do some 'serious work, either in an art gallery or as a literary agent.' Peggy chose art as her life's work. She made her first purchase in 1937 of a sculpture called Tete et coquille by Jean Arps.

She also had her uncle Solomon Guggenheim as an example. Having purchased a priceless collection of Old Masters, he had now turned to the abstract art of Kandinsky and Rudolf Bauer. Peggy didn't have her uncle Solomon's money, not being rich with a capital R, so she decided to focus on modern art. She enlisted the aid of her good friend, the artist Marcel Duchamp. He became her mentor and guide for her gallery in London and later in New York. Peggy had inherited an additional $500,000 on her mother's death, which now pushed her yearly income to around $50,000 a year. Of course, out of that she was paying Djuna Barnes an allowance as well as her ex-husband Lawrence Vail and John Holms common law wife Dorothy.

Peggy gave up buying the couture clothing that she loved in order to buy art. From then on until her death, Peggy bought only 2 or 3 dresses a year, spending the rest of her money on art. In 1938, she opened a gallery in London called Guggenheim Jeune located at 30 Cork Street. During the two years that she ran the gallery, Guggenheim Jeune showcased artists such as Jean Cocteau, Jean Arps, Kandinksy (his first one man show in England), Yves Tanguy (with whom she had an affair), and Wolfgang Paalen. She also held group exhibitions of sculpture and collage. Peggy soon realized that the gallery, although a success, lost 600 pounds in the first year. She began to conceive of the idea of opening a museum of modern art in London. She set aside $40,000 for the running costs, and worked with English art historian and critic Herbert Read on the plans. The outbreak of World War II changed her plans.

Instead, Peggy used the $40,000 to go to Paris to purchase art. By the time she was done she had bought 10 Picassos (who disliked her considering her a dilletante), 40 Ernsts, 8 Miros, 4 Margrittes, 3 Man Rays, 3 Dalis, 1 Klee, 1 Chagall among others. With the Germans approaching Paris, she fled to the South of France where she worked with Varian Fry to help get several artists out of the country including Max Ernst. Arriving in New York in 1941 with her art collection intact, Peggy decided to open a new gallery in New York called The Art of This Century Gallery. Two of the three galleries were dedicated to Cubism and Surrealism, with the front room used as a commercial gallery. Peggy loved being able to help her friends as well as the whole buying and selling of art. She got as much pleasure out of selling the catalogs as she did the exhibitions.

Peggy had arrived back in New York to a different world than the one she had left. She had missed the great skyscraper boom, the great depression, and prohibition. She had also missed the flowering of American art, including the Ashcan school and artists like Edward Hopper, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Peggy's influences were a group of artists whose greatest works were behind them. She had to be convinced that artists like Jackson Pollack were worth looking at. However once she saw his work, she agreed to support Pollack by paying him $100 a month and buying many of his paintings.

She also married again, this time to the painter Max Ernst with whom she had been having an on-off affair. Ernst didn't love her, and only married her because Peggy had convinced him that he was in danger of being sent to an internment camp in the States because he was German. The marriage lasted until the end of the war. As soon as she could, Peggy decided to move back to Europe. She closed her gallery in New York in 1947 and sailed back to Paris, eventually settling in Venice, Italy. In 1948, she was invited to show her collection at the Biennale in Venice. She found an unusual palazzo just across the Grand Canal in the Duodorso called Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. Here she settled in and set up her collection. The collection was free to visit but the catalog cost $3.

By the 1960's, Peggy had stopped collecting art apart from African and primative art. Most modern art was out of her price range, and she wasn't interested in newer artists like Andy Warhol or movements like Pop-Art. She did buy a Francis Bacon, the only one she said that didn't give her nightmares. The rest of her life was devoted to figuring out what to do with her collection after her death. For awhile she was in talks with the Tate Gallery in London. But eventually, Peggy decided to keep it in the family but donating the Palazzo and the collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

As Peggy grew older, there were fewer lovers. She spent most of her time with her many Llasa Apso dogs, many of whom are buried on the grounds of the Palazzo. Her daughter Pegeen, troubled for years, and having a deeply dysfunctional relationship with her mother, died of a drug overdose. Pegeen had often suffered from depression and had attempted suicide several times. Although Peggy had been an indifferent mother, she also wanted to have a say in how Pegeen lived her life. She supported Pegeen as an artist, including her artwork in exhibitions at the Art of the Century gallery in New York. Peggy was distraught and blamed Pegeen's second husband for her death. One wall in her gallery was devoted to Pegeen's art work after her death. Her relationship with her son Sindbad was not much better. He once remarked that both Peggy and his step-mother Kay Boyle were bitches.

Peggy finally died in 1979 at the age of 81. She was cremated and buried on the grounds of the Palazzo. The museum finally opened a few years after her death. Like the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, the artwork is displayed the way she designed it.

The Peggy Guggenheim collection is one of the most important museums in Italy for European and American art of the first half of the 20th century, encompassing Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. It joins a host of Guggenheim museums around the world including Bilbao, Berlin, Las Vegas and New York. It can also be looked at as one woman's testament of her life. All of Peggy's paintings were chosen personally by her. They weren't just museums pieces, this was art that she lived with on a day to day basis. During her lifetime, she published her memoirs and was remarkably candid about her many love affairs with both men and women for which she was greatly criticized. In the end real love seemed to have eluded Peggy but it can be said that the great love of her life was never a man or a woman but her art collection.


Anton Gill - Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim

Friday, June 5, 2009

Scandalous Movie Reviiew: Elizabeth The Golden Age

Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I of England
Clive Owen as Walter Raleigh
Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis Walsingham
Abbie Cornish as Elizabeth Throckmorton
Samantha Morton as Mary, Queen of Scots
Susan Lynch as Annette - Lady-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots
Jordi Mollà as Philip II of Spain
Rhys Ifans as Robert Reston
Eddie Redmayne as Anthony Babington
Tom Hollander as Sir Amyas Paulet
David Threlfall as Dr. John Dee
Adam Godley as William Walsingham
Laurence Fox as Christopher Hatton
William Houston as Don Gerau De Spes
Christian Brassington as Archduke Charles of Austria

Directed by Shekhar Kapur

Written by William Nicolson and Michael Hirst

Produced by Working Title/Universal, 2007

'When Queen Elizabeth's reign is threatened by ruthless familial betrayal and Spain's invading army, she and her shrewd advisor must act to safeguard the lives of her people. But when a dashing seafarer, Walter Raleigh captures her heart, she is forced to make her most tragic sacrifice for the good of her country. Elizabeth: The Golden Age tells the thrilling tale of one woman's crusade to control her love, destroy her enemies, nd secure her position as a beloved icon of the western world.'

Sounds intriguing doesn't it? Too bad this film doesn't live up to the back cover copy of the DVD. I saw this film when it first came out. I had seen the first movie and loved it despite the crap history, so I was excited to see how Cate Blanchett was going to tackle playing the older queen almost thirty years into her reign. The good news is that the costumes are stunning, the production values stupendous and Cate Blanchette's performance doesn't disappoint. However, the movie is a convoluted mess. I'm no expert on Tudor history but I know a fair amount and I spent most of this movie confused.

Let's start with cramming Mary, Queen of Scots and the Spanish Armada all in one film. Pick one or the other, but not both in a two hour movie. Half the time I didn't know who anyone was supposed to be until the credits. Tom Hollander? I had no idea he was supposed to be Sir Amyas Paulet. Rhys Ifans? He's in the movie, but I don't think he even has a single line and anyway, his character doesn't exist in history. Nor does Adam Godley's as Walsingham's brother William. And why were Bess Throckmorton's cousins killed? For being Catholic? It didn't make any sense. Even the Babington plot went over my head but it apparently went over the head of the screenwriters as well (Babington never attempted to shoot the Queen by the way).

I know that Cate Blanchett is an Academy Award winning actress but she looked too good as Elizabeth in this film. In fact she'd hardly aged since the last film. Where was the white lead make-up? Elizabeth is 52 at the start of the film (It is 1585) and 55 during the Armada, but she doesn't look older than 25. There are some lovely scenes however between Elizabeth and her maids of honor as they dress her which gives you a brief glimpse into what it was like to be Queen when you had virtually no privacy. But a little versmilitude on Elizabeth's decrepitude would have been appreciated. She looked glorious at all times which is how Elizabeth pictured herself in her mind and in her portraits but wasn't reality.

Clive Owen is wasted as Sir Walter Raleigh who isn't even that significant in Elizabeth's life compared to Robert Dudley, The Earl of Leicester (the part Clive Owen should have been playing) and his step-son the Earl of Essex. Bess and Raleigh didn't secretl marry until 3 years after the Armada. Still the love triangle between Bess, Elizabeth and Raleigh never quite jells.
Again, I understand that Geoffrey Rush is an Academy Award winning actor, but Elizabeth's chief advisor during these years was William Cecil, the future Lord Burghley. And poor Sir Francis Drake gets short shrift in this film as well. The film gives the impression that Raleigh not Drake was the architect of the strategy against the Armada.
The film also makes it appear that Spain wants revenge on England for the death of Mary, Queen of Scots. When in actuality it would have benefited France more than Spain (because of the auld alliance) if the Babington Plot had succeeded and Mary had been placed on the throne of England. Frankly I found the scenes set in Spain of Philip II muttering about Elizabeth 'the whore' kind of creepy, and the little Isabella (who was actually 21 at the time) clutching her little Queen Elizabeth doll. Elizabeth's speech to the troops at Tilbury omits possibly the most famous and oft-quoted phrase of the queen's: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a King of England too."

David Starkey's documentary of Elizabeth, the Glenda Jackson miniseries of the 1970's, as well as the Ann-Marie McDuff miniseries that was shown on PBS are all worth viewing if you want a good picture of Elizabeth's reign. But the best of the lot has to be the HBO/Channel 4 miniseries Elizabeth I starring Helen Mirren as Elizabeth, Jeremy Irons as Leicester and Hugh Dancy as Essex.