Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Scandalous Book Review: Arsenic and Clam Chowder

When author James Livingston contacted me recently about his new book about the trial of his distant relation Mary Alice Livingston, I jumped at the chance to review it.  It had all the elements I love in a book, true crime, Gilded Age New York, and rich people acting badly. What's not to love? I'm happy to say that ARSENIC AND CLAM CHOWDER lived up to my expectations.

Imagine researching your family history and discovering that you have a relative, albeit distant, who was the centerpiece of a major murder trial? That's what happened to Jams D. Livingston. He discovered that his third cousin Mary Alice Livingston Fleming (Fleming was the name of father of her first child) had been accused of murdering her mother via a pail of clam chowder.

Mary Alice was a member of one of the most prestigious families in New York, dating back all the way to the 17th century, including several signers of The Declaration of Independence. So when she was accused of attempting to kill her mother Evelina with a pail of poisoned clam chowder during the summer of 1895 it made headlines not just in New York but around the country.  Mary Alice's alleged motive was to gain a substantial inheritance that had been left to her by her father Robert Swift Livingston who died when she was a child. It had been the source of constant conflict between Mary Alice and her mother. Mary Alice's arres immediately after attending her mother's burial added extra juice, as did the fact that the murder weapon in question had been delivered to the victim by her ten-year-old granddaughter Grace. Stirring the pot was the fact that Mary Alice was the mother of three illegitimate children, and was pregnant with the fourth when she was arrested. Her son would be born in prison while Mary Alice awaited trial.

If convicted, Mary Alice would have the dubious distinction of becoming the first female victim executed in the newly invented electric chair (In the end Ruth Snyder in the late 20's would win that award). The case became the central focus of an circulation war amongst the many New York papers who fell all over themselves to provide the most salacious headlines and coverage. There were something like 43 daily newspapers in New York at the end of the 19th century, not to mention the weekly and bi-weekly papers and the national Police Gazette. But the competition was most intense between Joseph Pulitzer's World and William Randolph Hearst's (an upstart in the New York press) Journal which would continue for years.

This is the type of story that if I were ever asked to be on Hardcover Mysteries, I would bring up. The story has everything, sex, murder, scandal, aristocratic family fallen on hard times. Mary Alice's trial was big news in the papers, particularly after the trial of Lizzie Borden in Fall River, another woman who was probably guilty but got away with murder.  What got me about this story was Mary Alice's declaration that not only had she not sent the clam chowder via her daughter to her mother but that she had never ordered clam chowder in the first place! Despite the fact that the police had in their possession the bill from the hotel that clearly stated that Mary Alice had ordered clam chowder and a piece of lemon pie all for the whopping total of 45 cents, which was apparently a fortune back then.  Mary Alice had been living at the Colonial Hotel in Harlem which was then a middle-class section of Manhattan. Her stepfather was supporting her, but he had told her that he wasn't going to be footing the bill much longer.  She had become an embarassment to the family, suing the father of her first child for breach of promise, which she won.  However, Mary Alice had also sued the father of her second child as well, which made her notorious.

James D. Livingston does an amazing job of detailing the murder trial, an intense courtroom battle between combative attorneys. Reading this section of the book is like reading about any famous trial where the attorneys become just as big of a celebrity as the person on trial.  In this case, Mary Alice's attorney was facing former colleagues.  The viciousness of the trial, particularly the attacks on the prosecution's expert witnesses was fascinating, along with the grandstanding.  Reading about this case, it could be 1995 or 2005 not 1895. The papers made much of the fact that Mary Alice laughed when people made jokes, or when she heard something that she found particularly amusing. Although she wore black to trial, slowly giving way to shades of half-mourning, she didn't appear to be particularly distraught that she was on trial. Unusually for the period, Mary Alice would write letters to the newspapers when she felt that they were getting things wrong. 

Livingston gives the reader an overview of the history of period, detailing the forces that shaped what when on during the trail. The Reformers Charles Parkhurst and Anthony Comstock make cameo appearances, and Livingston details how the recent reforms against vice, and police corruption, not to mention the political machine of Tammany Hall were transforming the city. The legal and moral issues raised in the book about capital punishment, particularly of women, the new use of the electric chair which was supposed to be more humane,  the double standards for unwed mothers and unwed fathers, and what exactly does a verdict of "beyond a reasonable doubt," mean still hold resonance today.  Mary Alice's character was as much on trial as whether or not she had killed her mother in a premeditated fashion. Livingston compares the case of Florence Maybrick who murdered her husband in the UK with arsenic with Mary Alice's, to point out how poison was considered to be a woman's weapon. Livingston paints a compelling portrait of what exactly it was like for Mary Alice in prison during the late 19th century, particuarly with a child. Since women were not allowed to serve on a jury, Mary Alice was not really judged by her peers, which was pointed out by many women.

I found it hard to sympathise with Mary Alice.  She seems to be a woman who doesn't learn from her mistakes, and has been raised to have certain expectations because of her background.  I admired her spunk, the fact that she didn't seem to have a reckless streak, and the fact that she dared to sue the father of her first child for breach of promise.  It was her sense of entitlement that put me off. Although it had to be hard to be essentially the poor relation of a family who had once been rich, killing is never a good idea.  I found it interesting that, unlike most Victorian woman either English or American, sex seems not to have been as taboo a subject. The prosecution made much of several risque drawings that were on the wall at the family home in Toms River, NJ.  The case divided the family, while Mary Alice's half-sister Florence Bliss supported her, her half-brother Henry believed that she was guilty.

While Mary Alice was acquitted, doubt still exists as to whether or not she was guilty. I applaud Livingston for letting the reader know where he stands on the issue.  I personally believe that she was guilty although I agree with Livingston that the verdict should have been 'not proven' which is a verdict that is availabe in the Scottish courts.  The prosecution was not able to prove Mary Alice's guilt due to a number of factors including the fact that the police waited weeks to examine Mary Alice's hotel room and her things which were in storage in the hotel basement and they could never adequately prove where she got the arsenic. The defense was also able to successfully keep Mary Alice's daughter of the stand, so there was only one witness who to Mary Alice asking her daughter to take the pail of clam chowder to her grandmother.  They also raised doubt because Mary Alice didn't  ask Grace  tasting the clam chowder until after her daughter returned.

In the end, the only people who benefited from the whole sordid mess were Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Mary Alice certainly didn't, although she did finally get her hands on her inheritance. Unfortunately a huge chunk had to go to pay for her defense. This book is certainly going on my keeper shelf, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in Gilded Age New York, or just anyone who enjoys a good mystery.

Here's another good review by Lidian at The Virtual Dime Museum

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Divine Sarah - The Life of Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt photographed by Nadar

On this day in 1844, the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt was born, as far as we know.  The records of her birth were destroyed during the Paris Commune, so we only have her word for it. When I was a budding young thespian, I discovered a film version of her life called The Incredible Sarah starring Glenda Jackson as Sarah Bernhardt. I was fascinated by this woman who slept in a costume, had a mad passionate affair with John Castle, and kept strange animals. I read biographies of her like I was scarfing down M & M's.  During my acting career, I had the opportunity to play one of one of her earliest roles, the beautiful but dim Gabrielle de Belle-Isle in The Great Lover by Alexandre Dumas pere. At The Players Club in New York, where I used to be a member, I had the privilege of riding in the Sarah Bernhardt elevator which was installed for her visit.  Sarah had lost her leg in 1915 when gangrene set in, the result of an earlier stage accident.  Hating the idea of wearing a wooden leg, instead she had a white satin sedan chair made, and she was carried around in it like the Queen she was. She was even able to joke about it.  There is a famous story that P.T. Barnum offered her money to exhibit the leg, but like most stories, it is a myth since Barnum had been dead for years.

I found in Sarah a role model of the type of actress I wanted to be, dramatic, intense, equally at ease in comedy and tragedy. Sarah wasn't content to spend her life as part of the ensemble at the Comedie Francaise, at the height of her career after a spectacular season in London, she left the company and spend the next forty-four years of her career on her own terms, leasing a theater, performing plays from some of the best Parisian playwrights including Sardou and Edmond Rostand.  She toured America 9 times, criss-crossing the country in a private railroad car with her menagerie of animals including at one point a lion cub. Australia, South America and Europe all witnessed her brilliance on stage. One of her greatest roles was as Marguerite in Dumas fils La Dames Aux Camellias which she played over 3,000 times.  Oscar Wilde wrote the play Salome for her in French although she never performed it.  In her fifties, she added Hamlet to her repertoire, in her seventies with just one leg, she continued to perform scenes from her plays in vaudeville theatres as well as legitimate ones.  Towards the end of her career, she played a 30 year old drug addict on stage. She even made several films, entranced with the new medium, although she realized that she would never conquer it the way that she had conquered the stage.  Her motto was 'Quand Meme' which can mean many things including 'Whatever.'

By the time of her death at the age of 79 in 1923, she had become what she had set out to be, the world's most famous actress. Almost a million people lined the streets of Paris as her coffin made its from the church of St. Francois de Sales to Pere Lachaise cemetery.  As Robert Gottlieb writes in his new biography of the actress, "whatever the reaction was to her acting and her morals, whereever she went she was first and foremost an Event, excitement about her arrival whipped up by an avalanche of publicity."

She was born illegitmate to Julie Bernardt, the daughter of a Jewish spectacle merchant, and an unknown father.  Her mother, who went by the name of Youle, was a courtesan who counted the Duc de Morny, half-brother of Napoleon III, amongst her lovers.  Sarah's given name at birth was Sara Marie Henriette Rosine Bernard, she added the h to her first and last names later.  After the fire at the Hotel de Ville which destroyed the records of her birth, Sarah created false birth records which claimed that she was the daughter of Judith van Hard and Edouard Bernardt from Le Havre.  She later claimed that her father was either a law student, an accountant or a naval officer.

Sarah's life was marked by the fact that her mother didn't particularly care for her.  It was a wound that never healed.  When Sarah later gave birth to her only child Maurice at the age of 20, she became a famously indulgent mother, paying of his gambling debts, making sure that he was well-educated and well-dressed. The only time the two of them were estranged was briefly when they were on opposite sides in The Dreyfus Affair, Maurice believed that he was guilty and Sarah believed that he was innocent.

A baby was inconvenient for Sarah's mother, so she was shuttled off to relatives, and later sent to a convent school where she thrived, at one point she considered taking vows after converting to Catholicism. Fortunately fate had other ideas.  From childhood, Sarah was intense and dramatic, throwing temper tantrums or falling ill when she was unhappy or thwarted.  When a family panel was convened to decide what to do with Sarah whens he was 15, the Duc de Morny suggested that she enroll at the Conservatoire to become an actress, an idea that hadn't occured to her before.  Sarah later claimed that she had never even seen a play before!

At the conservatoire, she threw herself into her studies, although she later rejected most of what she was taught there, considering the training to be old-fashioned.  They had too many rules and Sarah hated rules.  One of the biggest was that no actor should turn his back on the audience.  Well Sarah made that one of the features of her acting during her long career. Thanks once again to the Duc de Morny, Sarah was automatically accepted into the Comedie Francaise upon graduation. However, she was not a success. Despite making her debut in 3 roles during her first year, she was hardly noticed by the critics or the audience. She also suffered from intense stage fright that would plague her during her entire career. After she slapped a senior actress for insulting her younger sister Regine backstage, Sarah was fired.

It would be 6 long years before she made her mark on the Paris stage.  During those years in the wilderness, Sarah gave birth to her son and took up her mother's profession. She came up with a unique way to keep a roof over her head, gathering a coterie of admirers who were content to pay joint homage for her favors, sort of like a time share, but they weren't getting a condo in Boca with an ocean view for their money.  They even chipped in to buy her gifts, including the elaborate coffin from her wish list.  It was this coffin that she was once photographed in that contributed to her legend.  Sarah claimed that she slept in it to prepare her for her tragic roles.

In 1866, she signed a contract with the rival to the Comedie, the Odeon.  It was here that, Sarah really decided to become an actress, instead of coasting. Although her voice was considered beautiful and lyrical, Hugo called it her 'golden voice', it was thin, something she worked on her entire career. She was also unusual looking, with reddish gold frizzy hair, standing only about five feet tall. She was also thin, when the fashion was for more voluptuous women, giving her a gamin look. Her first big success was in a revival of Alexandre Dumas' play Kean about the English actor.  When the Empire fell after the Franco-Prussian war, and Victor Hugo was welcomed back to France, she added roles in his Ruy-Blas to her repetoire.

It wasn't just her acting that contributed to her fame.  Sarah was a fashion plate, although she wore what she liked, not what was considered fashionable.  In fact, designers tailored their clothes to her, not the other way around.  Since she was so thin, she wore body hugging clothes, and a great deal of jewelry.  However, it was her love affairs that kept tongues wagging. Sarah was a gossip columnists dream, having affairs with all her co-stars including Mounet-Sully and Lou Tellegen.  In fact it was rumored that she would seduce them in her dressing room after a performance as a sort of night-cap. France's greatest writer Victor Hugo also succumbed to her charms, as well as the artists Gustave Dore and Georges Clairin. She wasn't indifferent to royalty, adding the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII to her amorous resume. She shocked the world when she married in her forties.  Her husband was a Greek aristocrat named Aristides Damala, ten years her junior. They had to marry in London because he was Orthodox and she was Jewish/Catholic.  She tried to turn him into an actor but he prefered to spend her money and cheat on her.  The marriage collapsed and Damala eventually became dependent on morphine which killed him.

Sarah was not just a talented actress, but triple threat, writing and sculpting were amongst her other talents. She was a dedicated artist keeping a studio in Montmartre where she held court dressed in a white satin pants suit while she worked. Her work was good enough to exhibit, and she would often sell out her work.  During the Franco-Prussian war, she helped turn the Odeon into a hospital, where she added the role of nurse and fundraiser to her list of roles.  Not everyone was a fan, playwright George Bernard Shaw  and novelist Henry James were not that keen on her.  She had a long standing rivalry with the Italian actress Eleanora Duse, and another former friend Marie Colombier wrote a scathing novel about her called The Life and Memoirs of Sarah Barnum. Despite her conversion to Catholicism, Bernhardt was frequently the subject of anti-semitic attacks, caricatured in cartoons as a big-nosed Jewess. No one would ever let her forget her origins, not that Sarah ever denied it. Like Disraeli, she was proud of having been born Jewish which she considered a matter of race, not belief.

By the time she died, attitudes towards acting had changed, but Sarah kept on working.  She had become a national treasure. She is the second most famous woman in France after Joan of Arc. But as Rober Gottlieb points out, her  most enduring legacy is the number of young girls who have been scolded by their mothers, mine included, when they are being overly dramatic that "You're a regular Bernhardt."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Anne Boleyn Fatal Attractions - G.W. Bernard

Author: G.W. Bernard
Publisher: Yale University Press 2010, 192 pages.

Anne Boleyn has always been my favorite wife of Henry VIII's, ever since I was a child. I've read almost every major biography of her, including Antonia Fraser, Carolly Erickson, Joanna Denny, Eric Ives, and more recently Alison Weir.  When my editor suggested that I write a chapter on Anne Boleyn for SCANDALOUS WOMEN, I jumped at the chance to do even more research. As readers of this blog know, I even went on the first ever Anne Boleyn experience this summer. In other words, I'm biased! So it was with great trepidation that I picked up a copy of G.W. Bernard's book, but I felt that even though I am not a historian, I should read both sides of the argument.

ANNE BOLEYN FATAL ATTRACTIONS is a particularly frustrating book. It reads more like a graduate thesis or a dissertation. I found it difficult at times to get at what he was trying to say, to the point that I felt like throwing the book across the room in frustration. G.W. Bernard has mad credentials, the author teaches early modern history at the University of Southampton iin England, and he's the author of several books. In the inside of the front cover it reads, "In this groundbreaking new biography G.W. Bernard offers a fresh portrait of one of England's most captivating queens." I don't know about groundbreaking. Bernard writes in the afterward that he had no axe to grind, that he wanted to reclaim the historical Anne.  Well, after reading his book, I found her more elusive than ever.  Bernard spends a great deal of time going through sixteenth century documents with a fine tooth comb, but I question some of the conclusions that he came too.

For instance, he asserts that it was Henry who refused Anne Boleyn's advances during those seven long years until they were able to marry.  While I can certainly undetstand that after Henry had decided on a course of marriage, he would want to hold off, I have a hard time seeing Anne Boleyn throwing herself at him constantly during these years. He also asserts that Anne was not holding out for marriage.  Than what was she holding out for? I don't believe that Henry telling her that she would be his sole mistress would be enough of an incentive for her to give up her virginity, particularly after he had already slept with her sister.  Bernard writes that if Anne had said no, than Henry could just have forced her.  After all he was over six feet tall, and weighed over 200 pounds. Again, I have a hard time believing that Henry would go around forcing himself on women. Henry was wildly, passionately in love with Anne.  Also her turning him down would have been something unusual for him, the man who could have anything he wanted. It's not hard to believe that her decision to stand firm intrigued him more and led to his marriage proposal.  He was looking for away out of his marriage to Catherine even before Anne.  Why not be like his grandfather and marry a girl of good English stock?

Bernard also asserts that Anne was not an Evangelical, nor did she help Henry during the years of 'The Great Matter' by giving him books that might be useful.  He stops short of suggesting that Anne, like her sister Mary, fully partook of the looser morals of the French court. He also completely dimisses any theory that there was any conspiracy against Anne, either by the pro-Rome faction at court or by Cromwell. Interestingly he has nothing to say in his book about Anne's relationship with Elizabeth.  Most biographies assert that Anne was a devoted mother to her daughter, that she kept in constant contact with the head of Elizabeth's household.  When it gets down to the nitty gritty, the brass tacks, the reason for buying the book, it falls short.  For a book called ANNE BOLEYN, FATAL ATTRACTIONS, Bernard shows no new evidence that Anne Boleyn committed adultery.  On the contrary, the most that can remotely be concluded is that towards the end of her reign, Anne began to flirt more than was considered proper and she was indiscreet, particularly in regards to whether or not Henry was impotent.  Hardly adultery, and hardly worthy of death by execution.

At one point, Bernard talks about how the Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote about Anne and her brother George making fun of the King's clothes, that Anne was bored with the King. He writes "If that were true, then it would supplay a context in which committing adultery was thinkable, bu it hardly amounts to  proof." Now I'm not quite sure whether he mans that it supplies a context for Anne committing adultery in general or with her brother. If it is the latter, that's a pretty big leap. He writes that because Thomas Wyatt who was also arrested, was released, than that means that Anne might have committed adultery with the other men.  Only Mark Smeaton ever confession, although again Bernard doesn't believe that he was tortured, since none of the other men accused and executed were tortured, although they were high born and Smeaton as not.  They only needed one person to admit guilt to push through the trial and execution.  Bernard does admit that Anne's execution for adultery was a miscarriage of justice.

Verdict:  While Bernard does present some interesting arguments, this book is clearly for those who either have not made up their mind about Anne, believe her guilty, or serious Tudor historians.

Another review of the book can be found at the Anne Boleyn Files

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Guest Blogger Lisbeth Eng on “The Spy Who Loved Me…but was sleeping with the other guy, too”

Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome debut author Lisbeth Eng, and fellow RWA NYC member to the blog to talk about female spies and her new release IN THE ARMS OF THE ENEMY, a WWII romance set in Italy. 

Isabella Ricci, the heroine of my World War II romance novel, In the Arms of the Enemy, is devoted to her country. She has witnessed the brutal execution of her own brother by the Nazis and will do anything to defend Italy from the occupying German army. An accidental reunion with old school friend Silvia Matteo brings her to a gala party for German officers and Fascist officials. Silvia is a fun-loving party girl (that’s “party girl” as in “let’s have a good time”, not “Fascist Party” girl) and enjoys the company of good-looking, powerful men, regardless of what uniform they wear. Silvia is apolitical and doesn’t know that her friend Isabella has joined the Italian Resistance. Isabella’s commander and lover, Massimo Baricelli, persuades Isabella to attend the gala to attempt to infiltrate the enemy.

At the party Isabella meets and attracts handsome German army Captain Günter Schumann. Massimo encourages his lover to pursue a relationship with the German to see how much information she can induce him to share. When the flirtation between Isabella and Günter leads to intimacy, she is torn between her loyalty to the Resistance, which requires continuing a relationship with the enemy, and feelings of guilt over her faithlessness to Massimo, even though it is he who assigns her this mission of seduction and espionage. Her conscience is further tested when she begins to realize how affectionate and attentive the enemy officer is.

Real life female spies have been viewed throughout history as heroines, traitors and whores. Elizabeth Van Lew was an abolitionist and spy for the Union during the American Civil War. A Southerner, she was shunned by her neighbors for her pro-Union sentiments. Van Lew dressed oddly and used the persona of “Crazy Bet” to cover her activities. Never arrested for espionage, she was rewarded after the war by Ulysses S. Grant with the appointment of Postmistress of Richmond, Virginia. The Confederacy had their spies, too. Belle Boyd “La Belle Rebelle” used her female wiles to charm military information from enemy officers. She was captured, but later seduced, fell in love with, and eventually married Union Captain Samuel Hardinge.

Mata Hari, perhaps the most infamous of female spies, reportedly declared, “Harlot, yes, but traitor, never." Found guilty of espionage against France during World War I, she was executed by firing squad in 1917. And, as if being an exotic dancer and double agent isn’t enough to ruin a girl’s reputation, rumor had it she had been sleeping with high-ranking military officers on both sides of the conflict.

By comparison, Isabella, heroine of In the Arms of the Enemy, is rather tame. Yes, she is sleeping with two men (her Italian boyfriend/commander knows about the German, who remains blissfully unaware of his rival) but her motivation is noble. She sees herself as a soldier, defending her country from Nazi oppression and avenging her brother’s unjust execution. Women, historically precluded from serving in regular armies, have used their charms and their bodies to fight for their countries. Scandalous perhaps, but immoral? You be the judge.

Oh, and if you want to know which man wins Isabella’s heart in the end – Massimo or Günter – you’ll just have to read the book!

An English major in college, Lisbeth Eng has also studied Italian, German and French. Lisbeth is a native New Yorker and has worked as a registered representative in the finance industry for the past 25 years. Her first novel, In the Arms of the Enemy, is available in e-book and paperback at The Wild Rose Press. Lisbeth invites you to visit her at

Monday, October 18, 2010

Scandalous Women on Film: Portrait of a Marriage (1990)

Last night I sat down to watch the BBC Drama PORTRAIT OF A MARRIAGE starring David Haig as Harold Nicolson, Janet McTeer as Vita Sackville-West, and Cathryn Harrison (granddaughter of Rex Harrison) as Violet Trefusis.  The miniseries is based on Nigel Nicolson's biography of his parents, which also includes the diary that Vita kept at the time of her affair with Violet.  At the time the book came out, which was after the deaths of all the parties in question, Nicolson was chastized for raking over the coals of a long forgotten affair.  But Vita had wanted her diary to be published, and dutiful son that he was, Nigel saw to it.

I have written about Violet previousl on the blog and I revisited her story for SCANDALOUS WOMEN (March 2011), so it was only natural that I should want to watch the film.  I had seen it once before when it was first shown on Masterpiece Theater long before I knew anything about Violet.  I had known about Vita's later relationship with Virginia Woolf, but her relationship with Violet was a revelation.

The film opens during World War II. Vita is working in the garden with Harold, when she receives a phone call. We only hear her end of the phone conversation but it is clear that the person on the other end of the ine is stirring up powerful emotions.  As she clutches the phone, Vita flashes back to her earlier self.  We hear the childish voice of a young girl announcing that the ring that Vita wears is from a Ventian doge.  We see scenes of a young Harold and Vita courting.  Vita mentions a friend, Violet Keppel who Harold turns up his nose. Vita tells him not to be jealous, he assures her that he is not. Next Vita and her mother Victoria discuss Vita's parents marriage. It is a remarkably frank conversation between a mother and a daughter. Victoria confides that Lionel, Vita's father, was insaitiable in the boudoir but Vita's difficult birth meant that Victoria shut her door to her husband.  Next we see Harold confess to Vita that he has picked up a veneral disease but not from a prostitute from another man. While Vita is processing this new information, Violet Keppel comes to stay for a visit. It is World War I, in fact the year was 1918. Vita, with her hair won short and wearing pants, takes Violet tramping over the estate. That  night Violet confesses her feelings to Vita which are reciprocated.  The affair is off and running.

It is an affair that almost costs Vita her marriage to Harold.  While Harold is willing to be indulgent, he is not willing to be made a laughingstock or to lose Vita.  All throughout the film the audience is shown the strength of their marriage, how much they depend on each other.  At one point, when Violet asks Vita why she married Harold, Vita confesses that if it had been the other way around, if she had been the man and Harold the woman, she would have still have married him. Vita and Harold are best friends, they encourage each other,  they both love their two sons and the life they have made in the country at Long Barn.   The only thing missing is passion which Vita feels for Violet.  It is a passion that is all consuming, Vita and Violet go off to the continent together and end up staying four months. Vita even misses Christmas with her family. The two women, Vita dressed like a man, go dancing together out in pubic.  They are clearly intoxicated with each other, something that Harold and her mother don't understand.  The only person that Harold feels passionate about is Vita, his affairs with men he calls little diversions, they don't take away from his love for Vita.

But the relationship with Violet threatens the Nicolson marriage.  Janet McTeer, who is always phenomenal, is brilliant at suggesting a woman who is torn between a conventional life with husband and family, and a wildly unconventional one with Violet. David Haig portrays Harold as sweet but befuddled.  When he tries to forbid Vita to go away with Violet, he looks like a small child having a trantrum. He's trying to be the forceful man that his mother-in-law insists that he be, but it sits ill on him.  He refers to his rival as that 'swine Violet' the same epithet no doubt he would have used for a man.  Because the story is told from the Nicolson's POV, Violet is treated as the wanton seductress luring Vita to her doom.  On Violet's part, she fell in love with Vita as a child,and never fell out of love.  It means that we see Diana Fairfax playing the forceful, cosmopolitan Victoria, the glamorous, domineering woman that Vita could never live up to, we don't see Mrs. Keppel, her counterpart.  One of the things that drew Vita and Violet together was that they had similar mothers. Cathryn Harrison clearly inherited the talent of her grandfather.  She portrays Violet as seductive, needy, obsessive, and cruel.  There is a reason that Violet is one letter short of violent.

Poor Peter Birch who plays Denys Trefusis.  He just gets to suffer and be clueless just like the real Denys. I wish that the writer Penelope Mortimer had developed the relationship between Vita and Denys more.  Towards the end of the miniseries, Vita and Violet flee to Amiens, they are finally going to off together.  On the way there, Vita and Denys share the boat across the channel and end up really getting to know each other, to the point that Vita began to feel sorry for the way they were hurting Denys.  The climax of the film is filled with drama. Harold Nicolson finally arouses himself to drag his wife back to London.  He uses the information that he receives from his mother-in-law, that Denys had told her that his marriage to Violet was not platonic after all.  He uses this information to get Vita to leave Violet. The film ends with an elderly Harold returning the Venetian doge's ring to Violet after Vita's death, telling her of the fifty happy years that they spent together (sort of turning the knife in the wound).

The viewer is not told that Vita and Violet did meet during World War II briefly although they never resumed their relationship or that Violet and Denys settled in Paris.  The film is a remarkable portrait of a marriage that seemed conventional on the surface but turned out to be decidedly unconventional.  The bond between Harold and Vita turned out to be stronger than any love affair ever could be. I turned off the TV feeling rather sad. On the one hand, I was happy for Vita and Harold that they had found an arrangement that worked for them but on the other hand, I felt sorry for Vita and Violet. They loved each other passionately, so much that it blinded them to the cost of their love.

Verdict:  A vivid and compassionate depiction of the passionate and obsessive love affair between Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis, as well as the long and loving marriage of Vita and Harold Nicolson.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

On the Bookshelf - The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley

I've been dying to write about THE COUTIERS:  Splendor and Intrigue at the Georgian Court of Kensington Palace ever since I first received the email from the publicity department at Bloomsbury offering me a review copy.  Unfortunately thanks to the USPS, I didn't receive the book until sometime last month even though it was sent to me sometime in July. Seriously Pony Express would have been faster or if they had just tossed it to me across town.

THE COURTIERS by Lucy Worsley is a treasure trove of information about the Georgian Court.  Ms. Worsley knows her stuff as she would since she works at the Palace, which has to be the coolest job ever.  The book is deliciously written with seperate chapters on William Kent, the artist, who painted a gorgeous mural in the palace to poor Henrietta Howard who has the misfortune to be George II's mistress. Misfortune because George II really didn't want to have a mistress. He was madly in love with Queen Caroline but he felt that he ought to have a mistress, so he chose Henrietta who was quiet, deferential, and partially deaf.  On her part, Henrietta was escaping a horrific marriage.  Being the King's mistress and having a place at court kept her safe from her jerk of a husband. After 20 years of being barely tolerated by her lover, and having to listen to the snide remarks of the Queen, Henrietta finally had enough.

Other courtiers featured in the book are George I's mistress and his illegitimate daughter who everyone thought was his mistress, and John Hervey who married one of Queen Caroline's Maids of Honor, had a long affair with Stephen Fox, and possibly a relationship with Frederick, the Prince of Wales.  There's also a chapter on The Wild Boy of Kensington Palace who I had never heard of.  Reading this book made me long to go to Kensington Palace again on my next trip to the UK.  I've been to the Palace several times before, but I think that the next time I will appreciate what I'm seeing more thanks to this gem of a book.  I had hoped to hear Ms. Worsley speak when she was here in October on a brief publicity tour but her talk, sponsored by the Royal Oak society, was sold-out.

However, I still have the book! I've been reading it slowly since I received it because there is so much interesting information that I want to savor it. In many ways, it is a companion volume to Amanda Vickery's BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, as well as Stella Tilyards book about George III and his siblings. Reading this book reminded me of a play that I saw years ago performed by the RSC called THE ART OF SUCCESS about William Hogarth.  Queen Caroline was a character in that play, a charming woman who was much smarter than her husband, which definitely comes across in this book.  Although the book is about the courtiers at Kensington Palace, the book also provides wonderful portraits of George I, George II, and Queen Caroline.  Fillled with photographs, each chapter is also filled with interesting pencil portraits as well.

If you are interested in the Georgian era, whether as a reader or as a writer, I would suggest that you run out and buy a copy of this book immediately!

Here's a wonderful review here at The Duchess of Devonshire's Gossip Guide.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Scandalous Book Review: Desiree by Annemarie Selinko

DESIREE by Annemarie Selinko
Sourcebooks, October 1, 2010

From the back cover:  To be young, in France, and in love: fourteen year old Desiree can't believe her good fortune. Her fiance, a dashing and ambitious Napoleon Bonaparte, is poised for battlefield success, and no longer will she be just a French merchant's daughter. She could not have known the twisting path her role in history would take, nearly breaking her vibrant heart but sweeping her to a life rich in passion and desire.

A love story, but so much more, Désirée explores the landscape of a young heart torn in two, giving readers a compelling true story of an ordinary girl whose unlikely brush with history leads to a throne no one would have expected.

An epic bestseller that has earned both critical acclaim and mass adoration, Désirée is at once a novel of the rise and fall of empires, the blush and fade of love, and the heart and soul of a woman.

My thoughts:  It somehow seems fitting that Sourcebooks would be re-releasing Annemarie Selinko's epic novel of Napoleon's first love this year, since it is the 200th anniversary of the Bernadotte Dynasty in Sweden. In 1810, the Swedish Parliament elected Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte to be the Crown Prince and future King of Sweden as Karl XIV Johan.  His wife was Désirée Clary, whose sister Julie married Napoleon's brother Joseph.  I first read this book when I was about 15 years old.  One of my best friends in high school loaned me a copy that she'd found in a used paperback book stores.  I knew very little about Napoleon apart from the Battle of Waterloo and the plot to assasinate him in Woody Allen's film Love and Death. I remember devouring this book and then eagerly watching the film version starring Jean Simmons as  Désirée  and Marlon Brando as Napoleon on the 4:30 movie. So when I heard that Sourcebooks was going to be re-releasing the book, I was kind of trepidatious about reading it again. Would it live up to my memories?

Yes and no.  It took awhile for me to warm up to the book again, the beginning is very slow and the story didn't really start to move for me until  Désirée  runs away from home to go to Paris to find Napoleon. She's heard rumors about his relationship with Josephine and wants to find out for herself what is going on with her fiancee. For me thats when the story really begins.  The story is told in the first person starting when Désirée is almost 15 years old.  Her brother Etienne has been arrested by accident and  Désirée and her sister-in-law go to plead for his release.   Désirée falls asleep and is awakened by Joseph Bonaparte who escorts her home.  When  Désirée impulsively invites Joseph and his brother Napoleon (or Napoleone as he was known then) it stars in motion a chain of events that ends with  Désirée  being crowned Queen of Sweden. 

If this wasn't a true story, it would be pretty unbelievable. The idea of a silk merchant's daughter falling in love with the man who became the Emperor of the French and then marrying a man who would one day become King of Sweden, it seems like an impossible dream, which is exactly what it feels like for  Désirée . She never forgets or lets anyone forget where she came from, it's part of her charm but sometimes you just want to beat her over the head with a stick. At times,  Désirée  can be charming, exasperating, child-like, naive, ignorant, compassionate, and loving. In the end, I couldn't help falling under her spell.

The book is told as if  Désirée  is writing in her diary, so alot of the narration is of events that she had no part in, that she's telling the reader either through dialogue that she hears from her sister Julie or just through straight narration.  Sometimes the story drags because of it, the reader has to wade through a lot of exposition. But then there are times when the story is just exhilirating when she talks about Napoleon and Josephine's coronation, or when she and Napoleon are acting ostensibly as chaperones for her sister and his brother, and Napoleon shares his ambitions with her.  Seeing Napoleon's family through her eyes reveals aspects of their characters that one might not get from a straight biography or if the book were narrated by another.

Désirée  makes some questionable decisions, the biggest one being leaving Sweden after only a few months to go back to Paris.  She tells her husband that she feels that she will ruin things for him because she was not raised to be a Queen,that the etiquette is too stifling for her. What is interesting is that her husband, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who comes from an even more bourgeois family, takes to Sweden and ruling like a duck to water.  She does eventually return to Sweden later on after Napoleon's final defeat, but its hard at times to sympathize with a woman who basically abandons her son for 12 years.

This is an epic novel in every sense of the word, the story sweeps from Marseille just after the deaths of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI through  Désirée  coronation in 1828.  Along the way, she meets everyone of importance, Fouche, Talleyrand, Germaine de Stael, Josephine, Pauline Bonaparte, and many others. After awhile the reader can't help but be swept away along with  Désirée  as her life changes irrevocably.

Verdict:  I would recommend this book to anyone looking for an epic story about one woman's journey from obscurity to a prominent place on the world stage. It's a sweeping love story, a novel about war and political intrigue. This book is jam-packed.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The WInner of October's Giveaway is......

Sorry that I'm a date late in posting the winner of Margaret Campbell Barnes book The Passionate Brood but I had to turn in my copyedits on Scandalous Women.  So without further ado the winner is, drumroll please:


Shannon, I will be emailing you shortly to get your address. I'd like to thank everyone who entered and also my new followers.  Hopefully you will stick around for more giveways, reviews, and stories of some of the world's most fascinating women.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Scandalous Love Affairs: Jimmy and the Duchess

(Jimmy Donahue and the Duchess of Windsor at a party in the 1950's)

"You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance." the Duchess of Windsor to a friend.
It was a relationship that baffled and mystified their friends, and entertained their enemies. She was one of the most famous women in the world, one half of 'the love story of the century.' He was a rich, handsome, high school drop-out and mama's boy twenty years younger, and gay. They were an odd couple in many ways but despite their differences, the Duchess of Windsor and Jimmy Donahue kept gossips and high society on both sides of the Atlantic agog as they danced and flirted their way from New York to Palm Beach to Europe. Wallis was so enthralled with her young swain and the lifestyle that he offered her that she actually contemplated leaving the Duke for him.

Jimmy Donahue and the Duchess of Windsor had been introduced in the early 1940's when the Duke and Duchess had traveled to Palm Beach from the Bahamas where the Duke was serving as Governor General. The Duke of Windsor's former Lord-in-Waiting, the Earl of Sefton, suggested her as a hostess to the royal visitors. Jimmy's mother Jessie Woolworth Donahue hoped that rubbing shoulders with the royal couple would boost her own social standing. Although she had inherited millions from her father F.W. Woolworth, she was still considered new money to the old guard of Palm Beach Society. Her marriage to James Donahue, whose family had made their money from fat rendering, hadn't burnished her pedigree.

For their part, the Windsors found America more congenial than Europe where the Duke's indiscret behavior, like his meeting with Hitler in Germany, embarrassed the royal family. Here the Windsor's were treated like royalty. Jessie Donahue was thrilled when the Windsors attended lunches and dinners at her palatial Cielito Lindo in Palm Beach or at her triplex in New York. As a kid Jimmy had dreamed of being the best friend of the Duke of Windsor when he was still the Prince of Wales, and now here he was sitting having tea in his mother's living room. The Windsors were equally impressed by the Donahue's money, houses, servants and lifestyle.

Everything changed in 1950, when the Duke and Duchess decided to take the RMS Queen Mary from New York to Cherbourg. It was a trip they had taken many times before but this time Jimmy Donahue was on board. It was there, on the high seas, that Wallis fell in love with Jimmy. He was an old hand at entertaining older women. His mother had often pulled him out of school to accompany her on her travels. He was a brilliant gossip, prankster and jokester. At the start of the trip, Jimmy and Wallis were just friends; by the time they disembarked they were lovers. He was thirty-four and she was fifty-four. Friends say that Wallis did the chasing, that the idea would never have occurred to Jimmy to pursue the Duchess.

By the time the Duchess and Jimmy fell in love, they were both at a cross roads in their lives. The Duchess was bored and vulnerable. It had been 14 years since the Duke had abdicated the English throne for the 'woman I love' and maintaining the love affair of the century was stifling. The Duke may have once been King of England but now he was just an ordinary man. He was needy and childlike, his love smothering. Their love life was unsatisfying, the Duke not only had a foot fetish but he liked to play 'nanny' games which infantilized him, wearing a diaper, with the Duchess punishing him for his being a 'naughty boy.' When she wasn't in the room, the Duke would visibly wilt. Wallis had also suffered her share of health problems, been diagnosed with cancer, and would soon have to have a hysterectomy. Life seemed to be passing her by; ahead of her was a long, lonely, empty road. Not even making the best-dressed list year after year made up for the slights and snubs from the Royal Family.

Her relationship with Jimmy was a diversion from the empty and meaningless life that she had been leading. He was witty and charming, and despite his sexual inclinations, an intense attraction sprang up between them. Jimmy wasn't raised to have a career; he was raised to be rich which gave him ample time to cater to the Duchesses whims. He was the archetypal postwar playboy; he spoke several languages, could fly a plane, play the piano, and had impeccable manners. He was also mischievous, loving to shock high society with his pranks. For instance, the time he dressed up as a nun, pulled up his habit and squatted in the middle of the road, defecating. And all those grand dinner parties when, according to Aileen Plunket, the Guinness heiress, he'd liven things up by unbuttoning his trousers and laying his private parts on his plate among the potatoes and gravy and sauces, "looking like some pink sausage."

Like Wallis, Jimmy was trapped. In his case, it was his wealth and the Woolworth name. He was the quintessential 'poor little rich boy' Jimmy was kept on a tight leash by his mother Jessie, who alternately smothered and neglected her favorite son. She kept such a tight leash on her money that even after her death Jimmy wouldn’t have inherited the Woolworth millions if he had outlived her. Jimmy often had to borrow money from his wealthier cousin Barbara Hutton to fund his expensive lifestyle.

But Jessie was quite willing to open the purse strings now that Jimmy was close chums with Wallis and the Duke. Jimmy treated Wallis to shopping sprees at Mainbocher and Hattie Carnegie where she bought dresses and hats as if they were going out of style. He encouraged her to acquire a substantial wardrobe of furs, which he paid for. The two would lunch together at the Colony and at Le Pavillion, their heads pressed together as they joked and gossiped. At night the trio would hit El Morocco, the Stork Club and '21 with Jimmy picking up the check. When the three of them went out, it was not uncommon for the Duke to leave Wallis and Jimmy to dance the night away while he went home to bed alone. Jimmy would whisk the couple away on pleasure jaunts, cruising the Mediterranean on a private yacht, treats they would never have been able to afford on their own. There was never a dull moment when he was around. But it wasn't just Jimmy's unlimited expense account that kept Wallis happy. According to biographer Christopher Wilson, Jimmy offered Wallis pleasure in the boudoir like she'd never experienced before which boggles the mind.

At first the Duke was pleased with Jimmy's friendship, they would play golf together, but he soon realized that he was becoming the odd man out in the little trio. When the Duke had to go to England for the deaths of his brother King George VI and his mother The Queen Mary, Wallis and Jimmy painted the town red in his absence. The Duke would place frantic phone calls trying to reach her only to be told that she was unavailable, or worse there was no answer at all. The poor Duke watched helplessly as his wife slipped away from him.

But after the idyll couldn't last. Jimmy was tired of having to address the Duke in a courtly fashion, and Wallis had become too possessive. Behind her back, Jimmy told friends, that on the pillow, her face looked like an old sailor. There was also the matter of the Windsors treating Jimmy and his mother like their own personal cash machine. The Windsors gave little in return other than themselves. On Wallis' side, she began to realize that Jimmy was limited intellectually. She was used to hobnobing with politicians, ambassadors, and generals. Friends also warned her that her association with Jimmy was ruining the couple's already tarnished reputation.

The end came while the trio were in Baden-Baden. Jimmy was bored, the atmosphere in the spa town was too full for him. At dinner that night, Wallis remarked that Jimmy reeked of garlic. Jimmy drunk after an several pre-dinner cocktails saw red. He kicked Wallis in the shin hard enough to bleed under the table. After tending to his wife, the Duke turned to Jimmy and said, "We've had enough of you. Jimmy get out."

With those words four years of friendship went down the tubes. Jessie Donahue was devastated, but the door was shut tightly in the Donahues face. The cold front lasted for almost twelve years. Finally the Windsors consented to attend a lunch with Jessie, and later visited Jimmy's house on Long Island but there was no renewal of the special bond that had existed. The relationship with Jimmy in the end brought the Duke and Duchess closer together. In the end, the Duchess realized that she had made her bed and seemed to finally settle into it.

Jimmy's life drifted on in a never ending quest to stave off the boredom in his life, drifting from relationship to relationship until his death in 1966.
Wilson, Christopher (2001), Dancing With the Devil: the Windsors and Jimmy Donahue, London: HarperCollins

Friday, October 1, 2010

October Giveaway: The Passionate Brood by Margaret Campbell Barnes

Happy October everyone! In honor of the release date of Margaret Campbell Barne's classic novel, The Passionate Brood by Sourcebooks, I'm giving away a copy to one lucky winner. Isn't the cover gorgeous?

A Spirited Retelling of King Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade

"Margaret Campbell Barnes has been one of the most reliable of England's historical novelists." -Chicago Tribune

In this compelling novel of love, loyalty, and lost chances, Margaret Campbell Barnes gives readers a new perspective on Richard the Lionheart's triumphs and tragedies. Drawing on folklore, Barnes explores what might have happened if King Richard's foster brother were none other than Robin Hood, a legendary figure more vibrant than most in authentic history. Thick as thieves as Richard builds a kingdom and marshals a crusade, the two clash when Robin Hood so provokes the king's white hot temper that Richard banishes him. The Passionate Brood is a tale of a man driven to win back the Holy Land, beset by the guilt of casting out his childhood friend, and shouldering the burden of being the lionhearted leader of the Plantagenets.

Here are the rules for the giveaway. Again this is only for Canadian and American readers! The contest runs from today through Wednesday October 6th.

1.  Just leave your name in the comments to enter.

2. If you are not a follower and become one, you get an extra entry
3. If you tweet about the giveaway, you get an extra entry.