Saturday, November 27, 2010

Scandalous Women in Fashion: Chanel and Isabella Blow

I picked up the following two books recently at the bookstore.  One is a new biography of Chanel entitled, COCO CHANEL: The legend and the Life by Justine Picardie. Everyone knows who Gabrille 'Coco' Chanel was, or at least they know the name of her fashion house, even if they don't know who she was.  This book is expensive, $40.00 (although right now you can buy it at for $22), but it is filled with amazing photographs. I spent the first few days that I had the book just looking at the photographs, without even reading the text.  As a biography, Picardie doesn't reveal much new information about Chanel, but it is an entertaining read. I particularly enjoyed the description at the beginning of the book of her visit to Chanel's apartment. I would put this on my shelf next to my Axel Madsen biography.

The other new book I picked up recently is one of three new biographies of the late stylist, beauty editor and fashion muse, Isabella Blow.  One of the other books is a biography written by her late husband which should be interesting to read, considering that he wasn't much involved in her life in the last years. The book is entitled Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion, and has an arresting photograph of Isabella on the cover. If you are not really a fashionista, you might not have heard of Isabella Blow.  She discovered and promoted both hat designer Philip Treacy and the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

Since I knew less about Isabella Blow than I did Chanel, I found this book fascinating. I had read the article in Vanity Fair after her death, but I had no idea what an interesting life she had lead. Isabella was born Isabella Delves Broughton on November 19, 1958.  Her grandfather Sir Jock Delves Broughton had been accused of killing Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Errol in Kenya in 1941, because Hay had been having an affair with his wife Diana (The book and film White Mischief are about the case). While Jock was acquitted, he was ruined in Kenyan society. He had already gone through most of the Delves Broughton fortune, selling of 3/4 of the estate.  Depressed he committed suicide in 1943.

Isabella grew up in the shadow of Doddington Hall, the family seat which had gone unoccupied since before the Second World War, there was simply not enough money to run the house and the family had contemplated selling it on numerous occasions. Because of that Isabella felt that she had been cheated out of a certain kind of life, and she worried constantly about money, that she would be left destitute. It was recurring them in her life, although she had no idea how to manage money.  Like most girls of her generation, she wasn't raised to have any kind of real career or to go to university.  Her father believed that only lesbians went to college. Instead, she went to secretarial schools and did odd jobs like cleaning houses, and selling scones.

It wasn't until she moved to the United States with her first husband that she stumbled on the idea of a career in fashion. She talked her way into a job as one of  Anna Wintour's assistant's at Vogue.  She was crap at the job, but it allowed her to see behind the scenes, eventually she moved on to work for Andre Leon Talley before heading back to the UK where she got a job at Tatler helping out with the photo shoots.  Isabella was now in her element, coming up with crazy ideas for fashion shoots, and roping her aristocratic friends into posing.  She's always had an unusual eye and an ecletic taste in clothes, she thought nothing of wearing priests vestments as an outfit.  For her wedding, she wore a medieval dress with a gold horned helmet designed by Philip Treacy.

After meeting both Treacy and Alexander McQueen at their graduate fashion shows, she did everything she could to promote their careers, introducing them to important people in the business, using their clothes in fashion shoots, encouraging her friends to buy their stuff.  She even got her relatives and friends into modeling, including Honor Fraser, Sophie Dahl and Stella Tennant.  Isabella lived and breathed fashion, she would encourage designers to take their work to the limit, forgetting about practical things like wearability. For her fashion was like art.

What was intriguing about this book was the sense of fun and cheekiness that comes across in the pages.  Isabella was outrageous, not afraid to take her clothes off in public, to say incredibly forward things. She would often show up late at dinner parties and annouce that it was because her husband wanted a quick shag and then show the guests the grass stains on her clothing. She pushed the envelope on what was accepted in fashion shoots, helping Toby Young facilitate the 'Cool Britannia' photo shoot at Vanity Fair that basically saved his job.

Over time Isabella became famous for her work, MAC even created a lipstick named after her, but it didn't assuage the nagging sense of insecurity and inadequacy that she felt. She and her husband Detmar were unable to have a child, and she turned to her work as a substitute for the family that she didn't have. Contributing to her depression was the sense that she hadn't gotten the recognition that she deserved for her work, that what she did somehow didn't matter in the long run compared to the designer, and photographers that she worked with. Still despite her depressions, which became darker and darker as time went on, she still kept her wicked sense of humor until the end. Unfortunately Isabella was unable or unwilling to do the work that she needed to do to manage her depressions, apart from taking medication.  She ended up taking her life at the age of 48 in 2007.

Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion is a slight book but Lauren Goldstein Crowe manages to convey the essence of her subject in its pages. I would recommen both books for those interested in reading about fashion.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Winner of the AFTER THE FALLS giveaway

The winner of the AFTER THE FALLS giveaway is:


Katie, I will be emailing you to get your snailmail address so that I can send you the book.  Thanks to everyone who left a comment, and Have a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Q&A with Catherine Gildiner, author of AFTER THE FALLS and Giveaway

Welcome to Scandalous Women, Catherine! I can’t tell you how excited I was to read your new memoir AFTER THE FALLS. But I have to ask, how does a clinical psychologist suddenly become a bestselling author? Tell us about this metamorphosis.

I am not so sure that it was a metamorphosis—it was more of an accident. I didn’t start writing until I was 50 years old. (I did write a psychological column for a magazine but it was not creative writing.) I had been a psychologist for 25 years. I was at a dinner party and a guest said that she felt sorry for her sixteen year old daughter who had to get a job and lose her childhood. I said that sixteen year old kids should be working. You can’t be a child forever. I worked at four years of age and it was good for me. On our way home from the dinner party my husband informed me that we would never be invited there again.

The next morning the hostess of the party called me and said the story of my childhood working with the black delivery car driver was interesting and she thought I should write it up as a short story and send it in to a literary competition. I tried to write it as fiction but kept falling back on the memoir genre with me as the first person. I decided to send it to a publisher as a memoir book proposal. He sent back an advance check that had a yellow post-it note on it that said “finish it!” So I could either send back the advance check or make it into a whole book. I chose the latter. Then I was published and on the best seller’s lists for a long time and I was launched as a writer.

Do you feel that your professional life as a psychologist has helped you in any way become a better writer?

Yes it helped me in several ways. I had very little fear of sounding ‘strange’ to others because after listening to other people’s problems, which are after all, their stories I realized that almost everyone has the same feelings. They may find different ways of expressing them, but at our core we are remarkably similar. I learned that the search for fitting in and longing for love is universal. I also learned that everyone feels they don’t fit in –no matter what are their actual circumstances.

I also learned a great deal about human nature when I worked in forensic psychiatry (combination of criminality and psychiatric disorder) before I went into private practice. There I learned that you had to have empathy for everyone. If you didn’t you were bad at the job. We were all babies who wanted love. It is the job of the psychologist to find out what went wrong and where it happened. That job made me realize that everyone is really the same and we just get launched on a good or bad path.

AFTER THE FALLS is your second memoir. Was it an easy decision to write about your youth in these two books, and did you have to change a few names or events to protect the innocent?

I had no intention of writing about my teenage years. My family moved, Roy was gone, the drug store had been sold and my life was very different. I went on to write another book after TOO CLOSE TO THE FALLS called SEDUCTION, a thriller novel about Darwin and Freud. Unfortunately it never came out in the States due to a threatened law-suit. It has been a hit in Germany and was chosen by the magazine Der Spiegal as one of the thrillers of the year. It was also on the Canadian best seller’s list. However I had hundreds of readers of TOO CLOSE TO THE FALLS who wrote to me over the years wanting to know what happened after TOO CLOSE TO THE FALLS. So I decided to write about my teenage years.

In the first memoir TOO CLOSE TO THE FALLS I didn’t change everyone’s name because it was my first book and I was naïve. When I wrote AFTER THE FALLS I realized that I should change everyone’s name. I was also legally advised to do so. Memory is a fallible. What I remember is not what another person may remember of the same incident. If you have siblings how often have you fought over how something happened in the past? Memory is a way that our mind constructs the past. It is subject to repression and other defense mechanisms of the unconscious. Aside from the possibility of memories being inaccurate, there is also the problem that people many not want to be in my memoir. If I choose to use someone’s life it was not their choice to be in my book. The best way around these problems is to camouflage the character and give them another name.

Growing up in the 60's, your teenage years as described in AFTER THE FALLS were pretty turbulent, filled with some incredible highs but also some amazing lows. How do you look back at the 60's now?

I look back upon the 60’s with fondness. I have a few regrets such as I wish I had been kinder to my father and had been more tolerant of others, but teenage years are a learning period. We were all trying on adult clothes before they really fit. I have learned to cut myself some slack. On the whole I felt proud of what I did with civil rights. I was only a tiny part of it, but more civil rights legislation was passed in the 60’s than any other time in history. Feminism hit in the late 60’s and I was again on board for that. I demonstrated in Chicago and still think it was for a good cause. My most fond memories of the 60’s were working and planning with others for a future we honestly felt we could change. Of course in retrospect that was overly optimistic and we were naïve, however it was a great feeling to be planning a better future. There were some personal tragedies along the way but then all teenage years have some tragedy. You grow through tragedy and learn from mistakes. How else do you grow up?

In your author’s note, you share “In many ways the trajectory of my life during that time mirrored what was happening in the sixties across North America. Residual fifties conservatism evolved into riots in the streets, all in a few years – and in my own life I experienced just as radical and tumultuous a transformation.” Do you think that your transformation was inevitable, regardless of the societal changes?

I have no way of knowing that. I know I really didn’t fit in the 50’s and I didn’t feel so alone in the 60’s. I think I would have had much the same transformation emotionally no matter what the politics of the era. Maybe if the 60’s hadn’t happened I would have still dressed in collegiate golf attire but my psyche would have developed along the same lines no matter what the sociology of the era. I have always been a scrapper. As my father used to say “I was born with my dukes up.” I enacted the lawn jockey caper where the police were on my tail well before the radical 60’s revolution hit.

Going to the HoJo’s in Kingston was big part of my growing up so I was fascinated to read that you actually met the real Howard Johnson. What was that like and did it have an influence on your life?

Howard Johnson was a hard worker and he did everything scientifically. I really liked that about him. Each serving was measured out so you never gave anyone too much or too little. He had his own scoop for ice cream with a point so the amount looked larger than it was. He fought the Coke and Pepsi cartel and won and served Ho-Jo cola. He had a system for everything and traveled incognito to the restaurants and dined to see how they were run. In person he was unassuming. When he asked me about Salisbury steak I said I’d rather eat sawdust and then I recommended the steak. He was happy I was up-selling him when really I just hated the Salisbury steak. He was really the first fast food restaurant dressed up to look a little fancier. The orange roof was another brilliant touch so that you could see it from great distances. I learned an enormous amount about business while working there—especially when I ran my own business. Have procedures for everything in writing and work hard yourself and you will be successful.

You had a pretty atypical childhood for the period, going to work at your father’s drugstore at the age of 4. How hard was it for you when you moved to Buffalo, not to have that structure anymore?

It was really hard. I think I went a bit off the rails. I got in all kinds of trouble much of it has been cut from the book since the reader would have never left high school. My parents realized that I had no idea what to do with unstructured time. It seemed to hang too heavy on my hands. They wisely channeled me back into work. I worked at the donut store from 4:30 in the morning at 14 and then when I worked at Howard Johnson’s at 16 and 17, I would get home at 1:30 in the morning. I learned to replicate my childhood work habits since that worked best for me. My teacher Mother Agnese was spot on when she said “The phrase ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop’ was made up for Catherine McClure”.

You had a social conscience from an early age, starting with your attempt to get rid of the black lawn jockeys. Where did that awareness come from? Was it your parent’s influence or your friendship with Roy? Or a little bit of both?

Social conscience is usually based on role modeling from parents. I think it would mostly have been my father. He would not ever allow any racist statement or unkind statement to be said by anyone in the store. He rarely got angry but one of the few times I saw him angry was when ‘Warty’, who had had neurofibromatosis, the elephant man’s disease, was mistreated. He would also become angry if the cosmetician would refuse to sell cosmetics to the prostitutes and told her to remember ‘We are all God’s children.”

Roy never once said a bad thing about anyone. Strangely, in all the years I delivered medicine with him I never heard one racist word about him. Everyone invited us in for a drink and fruit cake, etc. I had no idea at the time that Lewiston was to be commended for that. I thought it was normal. That is why I was so shocked when I went to college and I heard all of the racist statements in sororities, etc. I must have lived in a great town who was accepting of most people. I was shocked the rest of America didn’t follow suit.

You managed to end up on the FBI suspect list for various reasons which is not an experience many of us have had. Do you think that they are still keeping tabs on you?

I doubt it very much. First of all I have not lived in America for forty years. When I did live there I think I was a bit player in the 60’s. The FBI was really interested in Laurie as he was a black radical in the 60’s and a group leader. They wanted to find out what I could tell them about him. Every minor and major leader in the civil rights movement in the 60’s was investigated by the FBI including Martin Luther King. I don’t think the FBI was interested in Splits’ murder. They were just trying to find out more about Laurie. When they investigated me they had all of my hundreds of letters to Laurie. When they talked to me they didn’t even put on another record or tape for the second part of the interview. I don’t think they saw my file as anything of importance.

Music plays a large role in the descriptions of events throughout the book. Does music still play as significant a role in your daily life now as it did then?

Music stopped for me in the 60’s. I moved to Canada, was immersed in Grad school, and child rearing and I couldn’t tell you what was on the hit parade. I never even listen to the radio today and I haven’t bought music in 40 years. Yet I had one of the best 60’s collections around. My lack of interest in music is odd because Roy loved music and we listened to the black station all day long and sang duets together and I can to this day remember all of the words. (I did Ella Fitzgerald to his Louis Armstrong.)

Lyrics of the 60’s were very powerful for me. It seemed that the music was just a little ahead of the current zeitgeist. I remember feeling that I did not fit in and then I got a letter from my good friend Kip from Vietnam who told me what a fiasco was going on over there. I felt like I was shedding my skin – I wasn’t who I thought I was. Suddenly I realized I was not alone when I heard the lines from the Buffalo Springfield:

There’s something happening here.
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Telling me I got to beware.
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down.

When I was totally ostracized in Ohio without one friend, due to my relationship with Laurie, I remember listening to Morrison: “When you’re strange and no one remembers your name.”

When Kip was killed in Vietnam we all listened to Dylan scream ;

Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Teenagers are notoriously inarticulate and the lyrics of the era expressed so perfectly how we all felt. I never found lyrics of the later decades to express my feelings.

Throughout this book there are stories of great sadness, anger and frustration. How does has humor contributed to your storytelling, even during sadder times?

I think that Irish Catholics use humour to express their sadness or frustration. Whining and complaining never help anyone and as we learned in Catholic school, ‘Offer up your sufferings for those less fortunate.’ You can get away with a lot of complaining if you do it with humour. People are entertained and yet they still hear you. I think humour has always been my main way of expressing myself and getting love from others. I worked in the store and I had to be able to contribute at coffee break even as a little kid—so I offered humour. My mother was a quiet woman who lived on the periphery and whenever I came home she would ask “What funny things happened on the road?” Tragedy is going to happen no matter what you do so you might as well see the humour in it. My mother and I were the queens of black humour – that was the glue of our relationship.
After everything that happened in AFTER THE FALLS, how did you end up in Toronto instead of say New York?

Well that is the big question in the third volume called THE LONG WAY HOME which I am now finishing. The short answer is a professor at Oxford said if I wanted to do a PhD on Coleridge then the world’s authority was at University of Toronto.
Will there be a third memoir concerning the life and times of Catherine McClure Gildiner? Were the 70's just as eventful for you?

Yes there is a third volume and the 70’s were equally eventful – and far less tragic. I take the reader through my schooling in Oxford, England, where I have hilarious antics trying to fit in among the English. The second part is when I teach in the Hough area of Cleveland during the riots of the 6o’s and we are escorted to school by our the national guard . The last third of the book takes place in Canada when I move to Toronto in 1970 to go to Graduate school during the Canadian War measures Act. Believe it or not I get involved in that from my home in Rochdale College.
Who or what do you like to read for fun?

I am now re reading Dickens so that I can better understand character. I am almost finished now but I’m having a bit of trouble with OUR MUTUAL FRIEND. I have a rule that I read one classic and then one contemporary novel. I just re-read Charlotte Bronte’s first novel Villette. You can see that she was just learning to write. The main character is too passive to hold the interest of the reader. I just finished LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN by Colum McCann. He is an Irishman who now lives in New York who wrote a great book using the literary device of tying together characters who watch the tightrope walker who walks between the twin towers. Like so many Irish writers he makes writing sound as easy as telling a story. Yet the book is mesmerizing and profound.

What's next in store for Catherine McClure Gildiner?

I hope to write a non-fiction book about bravery. I think bravery has been wrongly defined as a ‘great testosterone moment’ where someone acts suddenly to save others. I think real bravery is based on those who get up every day and try to deal with their painful lives. I saw many people in therapy never gave up despite horrific circumstances and tried to live their lives or stayed with abusive parents to take care of their younger siblings. Bravery should be measured over time—years not minutes. I am going to describe several cases of bravery and then hopefully we can look at expanding the term brave.

Here are the rules for the giveaway. Sorry, this is only for Canadian and American readers! The contest runs from today through Wednesday, November 24h.

1. Leave your name and email in the comments. Email is very important so that I can contact you for your address.
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.
Good luck!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Scandalous Women in Fiction: The Princess of Nowhere

THE PRINCESS OF NOWHERE: A novel of Pauline Borghese, sister of Napoleon - Prince Lorenzo Borghese
Harper Collins/Avon A
December 7, 2010

From the back cover:  Princess Pauline Borghese was one of the most fascinating women of her day. Now her story is unforgettably told by one of her descendants....

The sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, Pauline knows that her sole purpose has always been to make an advantageous marriage to further her ambitious brother's goals. But her joie de vivre cannot be contained—much to the dismay of her new husband, Prince Camillo Borghese. Pauline and Camillo's relationship is tempestuous at best, with Pauline constantly seeking the attention of other men—especially after a heartbreaking loss leaves her devastated, desperate for attention, and searching for answers. Yet despite everything, the love that brought Pauline and Camillo together, as imperfect as it might be, can never truly be stifled.
As seen through the eyes of the young woman who served as Pauline's lady-in-waiting and surrogate daughter, The Princess of Nowhere is an unforgettable tale of a remarkable life that was a study in the excesses of the time and of the power of a woman strong enough to defy expectations.

When I first heard about this book, I was skeptical. I had watched Prince Lorenzo Borghese when he was The Bachelor back in 2006, and to be perfectly blunt, I thought he was a douche. So I was prepared to find his first effort at historical fiction to be lightweight at best.  Well color me surprised! This just goes to show you that one shouldn't be so quick to judge.  THE PRINCESS OF NOWHERE is a promising historical debut from the Prince. It is a fast paced lively romp, detailing the scandalous life of Napoleon's favorite sister, Pauline Bonaparte Borghese.  I read this book in one night. The Prince has a personal connection to the story, his great-great-great uncle Camillo Borghese was married to Pauline.

The story is narrated partly by a fictional characater Sophie LeClerc, the cousin of Pauline's late first husband Emmanuel LeClerc.  Sophie comes to live with Pauline as her ward at the tender age of 10. She's lost her mother, and she falls under Pauline's spell immediately.  When Pauline is courted by Camillo Borghese, Sophie is jealous that the Prince gets to spend more time with her idol than she does.  The book is also narrated in part by Camillo, who is proud, a bit of a prude, uncomfortable in Paris because he doesn't speak the language. He too falls under Pauline's spell, but he has doubts about the marriage from the beginning, having heard of Pauline's reputation.  It is only when he comes across Pauline, unbeknownst to her, while she is asleep after spending hours taking care of a sick Sophie, that his last doubts are melted away.

I have read a great deal about Pauline Bonaparte, and Prince Lorenzo captures her capricious, spoiled nature perfectly.  Pauline is not always likeable but she is endlessly fascinating as she constantly disarms the reader, who thinks that they know exactly who she is.  She admits that she is not a good wife, but she is a loyal and loving sister to all her brothers not just Napoleon.  The Emperor is largely kept off canvas, but his presence looms large in the novel.  While Sophie has the longest journey in the book, growing from a shy, insecure girl who hero worships Pauline to woman who has learned that her idol has feet of clay yet can still find it in her heart to love and forgive her, I found Borghese's characterization of his ancestor Camillo to be the most fascinating. Camillo is often seen in biographies as something of a buffoon or a boor.  There were rumors during his lifetime that his relationship with Pauline floundered because he either impotent or gay.  Borghese gives us a portrait of a traditional man bound by the conventions of his class who is mesmerized by a woman who is so different from the women that he is used to dealing with.  At one point, Camillo remarks that Pauline should have been his mistress, and the Duchess Lante della Rovere (who became his mistress) should have been his wife. 

In THE PRINCESS OF NOWHERE,  Borghese writes Pauline and Camillo's story as a beautiful and tragic love story.  I'm sure historians will quibble at that interpretation but he makes a compelling argument in the book that it was so. That despite the fact that it was something of an arranged marriage, that Camillo and Pauline could have had a happy life if trust and communication had been part of the bargain. The reconciliation scenes leading up to Pauline's death are beautifully written.

Verdict:  A promising historical fiction debut that has made the reviewer eat her words. Hopefully we will be seeing more from Prince Lorenzo Borghese and that this wasn't a one off. Historical fiction lovers and those interested in Napoleon will gobble up this book.  The real Pauline Bonaparte Borghese would be as pleased with her fictional depiction as I'm sure she was pleased with Canova's sculpture of her.

Note:  The book's website has some wonderful photos of the real locations in the book.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Around the Blogosphere

I don't often have a chance to read other blogs but recently I have found a few that are so interesting I thought I would share them with you all.

The first is called Murder by Gaslight, a fascinating blog devoted to crime in the 19th century.  I love true crime particularly when there is a historical element to it Recent posts included news about a new PBS documentary on Lizzie Borden as well as posts on Bill the Butcher (made famous by the Martin Scorcese film Gangs of New York).  I could spend hours going through all the past posts.

Another fascinating blog is The Elizabeth Files. Created by Claire Ridgway as a companion to her popular site The Anne Boleyn Files, the Elizabeth Files is exactly what you would expect to be, chock a block full of interesting articles about Anne's daughter Elizabeth I.

Another interesting Tudor blog is On The Tudor Trail. Natalie has some wonderful posts and interviews with authors like Tracy Borham, author of Elizabeth's Women. One London One is a great blog which features posts on Regency and Victorian England. The blog is named after the address of The Duke of Wellington's London home.  And the final blog that I want to share with you is The Virtual Victorian. I"m convinced that I lived and loved during the Victorian era, so I love anything that has  do with that era, and this blog is full of wonderful posts, most recently on WWI poet Wilfred Owen.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On the Bookshelf - After the Falls

AFTER THE FALLS: Coming of Age in the Sixties
Catherine Gildiner
October 28, 2010, 368 pages Viking Adult

From the back cover:

It's 1960 and twelve-year-old Cathy McClure has just been thrown out of Catholic school for-among other transgressions-filling the holy water fount with vodka. In the hopes of giving Cathy a fresh start away from their small town, the McClures leave behind Niagara Falls and the family pharmacy to start over in suburban Buffalo. But life in a subdivision and a school filled with "pubescent cheddar" holds little appeal for a girl who began working at four and smoking at nine. As the quaint world of 1950s America recedes into history, Cathy dives headfirst into the 1960s. Along the way, she adopts many personas with gusto-vandal, HoJo hostess, FBI suspect, civil rights demonstrator- but when tragedy strikes at home, Cathy must take on her most challenging role yet. As candid and compelling as Mary Karr's The Liars' Club and Jeanette Walls's The Glass Castle, After the Falls is an irresistible account of one girl's comingof-age during a tumultuous era and the moving tale of a rebellious spirit learning what it means to be a daughter.

My thoughts:  There are several kinds of memoirs, those written by celebrities or people who have slept with celebrities, people who do crazy things like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel or trying to jump the Grand Canyoon.  There are rehab memoirs, memoirs by former criminals and then there are memoirs like Catherine Gildiner's, what I like to call 'Slice of Life' memoirs.  These are my favorite kinds of memoirs.  They say that everyone has a story within them, and the former Cathy McClure's story is one that everyone can relate to, even if they didn't grow up in Upstate New York as the 60's were starting.

I devoured this book in one sitting, I couldn't put it down. I felt as I'd found a 'sister from another mother.'  I totally identified with Cathy's struggles to fit in, her clashes with her parents, her sarcasm, and her burgeoning activism. While I never set a donut shop on fire, I did struggle with not 'fulfilling my potential' in school which is another way of saying that I was just as bored as Cathy in my high school. I enjoyed reading about how Cathy 'faked it until she made it' with the popular kids and cringed as she must have when she discovered that she didn't make senior varsity cheerleader because of her complexion.  Who hasn't heard something they shouldn't have or learned something that they were better off not knowing in high school.  It may not be the sixties but some rights of passage never change. One of my favorite stories in the book is when Cathy and her mother wrote anonymous letters to try and get rid of all the black lawn jockey's that littered the front lawn's in Buffalo, and what she did, when the town didn't respond quite the way that she hoped.

When Cathy leaves home to go to college, hoping that she will finally find her niche, only to discover that college might not be as different as high school after all, I was right with her. At college, she finally falls in love, but Cathy being Cathy, it is not with anyone that she might be expected to fall in love with. She finally finds good use for her 'bossy and brassiness,' with her summer jobs working for the Department of Welfare. What I found refreshing about this book was Gildiner's unflinching honesty about her life.  She doesn't spare anyone, least of all herself, for the mistakes that she made, the things that she wishes that she could have done differently. I responded to her sarcasm, and the way that she not only skewers life in Upstate New York but also the foibles of grown-ups.

There are so many fascinating and endearing stories in this book, but what will ultimately grab you by the heart and wring it dry, is the story of Cathy's relationship with her father and his subsequent illness. Anyone who has ever dealt with the realities of having a parent fall ill, will immediately know exactly what Cathy is going through. I can't say enough good things about this book. Cathy's experiences are unique, laugh out loud funny, charming, exasperating, but she's also every woman who has ever struggled with conformity and accepting her differences, and learning to see her parents as people and not just as parents. That I think is one of the hardest things about growing up, learning to seperate from your parents, yet still trying to keep that connection.

Verdict:  A heartwarming and heartbreaking look at one young woman's journey through the rocky road of the 1960's.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Winners of The Bad Queen Giveaway are.....

I am happy to announce that the winners of Carolyn Meyers book The Bad Queen are

Seat 3B


Donna Marie

Ladies, I will be emailing you in the next few days for your snail mail addresses to send the books. I'd also like to thank everyone that entered the Marie Antoinette giveaway this month. If you are a new follower, I hope that you stick around.  There will be more reviews of books and films about Scandalous Women as well as new profiles over the next few weeks as we lead up to the end of the year.  Also, if you are on Facebook, please join the Scandalous Women fan page.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Scandalous Women on Film: Marie Antoinette (1938)

Marie Antoinette (1938)
Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Written by: Donald Ogden Stewart, Ernest Vajda, Claudine West (based on the biography by Stefan Zweig)


Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette
Tyrone Power as Count Axel von Fersen
John Barrymore as King Louis XV
Robert Morley as King Louis XVI
Anita Louise as Princesse de Lamballe
Joseph Schildkraut as Duc de Orleans
Gladys George as Madame du Barry
Henry Stephenson as Count Mercey
Cora Witherspoon as Countess De Noailles
Barnett Parker as Prince de Rohan
Ruth Hussey as Duchess de Polignac
When I was a kid, I had a book called The Great Romantic Films by Lawrence Quirk which detailed a list of about 35 films up to about 1973.  I used to flip through the book constantly, marking off all the films as I saw them at the old Regency theater in New York and on television. One of the films listed  in the book was the 1938 film of Marie Antoinette starring Norma Shearer as the doomed Queen. For some reason or another, I had never gotten around to seeing the film until last week.
Just a little background on the film.  Norma Shearer had been Queen of the MGM lot during the late 1920's and '30's due to her beauty and talent but also to the fact that she was married to the head of production Irving Thalberg.  Marie Antoinette was the last project that he worked on before he died in 1936, while it was in the planning stage. Shearer became determined to make the film, even though her interest in her film career was waning. William Randolph Hearst had wanted to produce the film for his mistress Marion Davies (which would have been a disaster), but he clashed with Louis B. Mayer so he and Marion packed up their trailer and hightailed it over to Warner Brothers.
According to Wikipedia, the costumer designer Adrian studied the paintings of Marie Antoinette, even using a microscope to see the details. Some of Norma Shearers gowns combined weighed over 1,768 pounds.  The gowns exist to this day, although I'm not sure where they are being kept. Fabrcis were specially woven, and the fur on one of Shearers costumes was dyed to match her eyes, even though the film eventually ended up being shot in black and white.  The costumes are lavish and overdone (who knew they used so many sequins in the 18th century?). The film cost $2.9 million and it was not shot in color because it would have added to the budget which is shame because I'm sure it would have been stunning to see some of those costumes in color. Although the film was shot on the MGM lot, some scenes were shot on location at Versailles.  Apparently the film was the first time a film crew was allowed to film on the grounds of the palace.
My thoughts:  The film opens in Vienna, when the 15 year old Marie Antoinette is informed by her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa that she is to be wed to the Dauphin in France. Over the course of the film, Marie Antoinette must learn to negotiate the tight rope of the French Court,  as well as forge a marriage with a man she has just met who is indifferent to her.  When the King's mistress, Madame du Barry sends the Dauphine a cradle on her second wedding anniversary as an insult to the childless couple, Marie Antoinette becomes determined to become a party princess, spending more time shopping, dancing, and gambling to fill the deep hole in her life.  After she insults Madame du Barry, after agreeing to speak with her at a ball (to be fair du Barry started insulting her first), the King decides to have her marriage to the Dauphin annulled. Before the annullment can take place, the King dies of small pox and Marie Antoinette and her husband are King and Queen. As Queen, she becomes a well-meaning but out of touch humanitarian, trying to steer her husband through the minefield of French politics.  During the last half of the film, Marie Anoinette finally 'achieved greatness" according to Zweig's biography when the family are imprisoned. The final scene shows Marie Anoinette, hair shorn and gray, on her way to the guillotine, as the audience hears the voice-over of the young princess who was so excited at the idea of being Queen of France.
While Sofia Coppola's film may be more historically accurate in terms of depicting Marie Antoinette's early struggles, including the scene where she is stripped of her Austrian clothing and dressed in the French fashions, and the claustrophobia of the court and the constantly being on display, I much preferred this version. The film runs through Marie Antoinette's entire life, including the Affair of the Necklace which seems shoved in without any real context, clocking it at a whopping 2 1/2 hours. There is a grandeur to the film which is missing in the Coppola version and any sense of pathos. Even though Norma Shearer is pushing 40 at the time the picture was made, making her less credible in the early scenes when Marie Antoinette was a teenager, she grows over the course of the film as the character grows and changes from an immature teenager to the mature Queen facing her death with dignity. She looks absolutely stunning in the gowns, but it is the final scenes where she chose to forgo make-up to look as haggard and exhausted as possible that you understand why all the fascination with Marie for the past two hundred odd years.
The most heartbreaking scenes in the film are the final supper that Louis XVI has with his family before his execution, I defy anyone not to cry when the Dauphin asks his father to fix his toy soldier for him, and Louis promises to bring it back to him the next day, and the scene the next day where the Dauphin is tore from Marie Antoinette's arms, as she begs and pleads for more time.  Finally she pulls herself together for her son's sake so that he'll be less frightened.
The film certainly lives up to its inclusion in The Great Romantic Films.  The jury is still out on the exact nature of Marie Antoinette's relationship with Axel Fersen, most historians are evenly divided on whether they actually had an affair or not, but the scenes in the film are wonderfully romantic. Tyrone Power is at the peak of his handsomeness in this film, and one can certainly understand why Shearer's Marie would fall in love with him.  Their first meeting in the film is not historically accurate, here Marie Antoinette is at a gambling den, when she spies him from a window, and convinces him to pretend to be a Russian soldier.  The scene goes on for way too long but Power looks dashing in his first scene.  In reality, Fersen and Marie met at a masked ball, and he didn't know that he was talking to the Dauphine of France until she finally removed her mask.

There is a scene in the film where he comes to her and tells her that he had fallen in love wih her before he even knew her that just makes your heart melt, as does Marie's as she falls into his arms. Again, the final scene of the film just is crushing as the camera pans to Fersen hearing the crowd roar as the guillotine falls, kissing the ring that Marie gave him.  Robert Morley is wonderful as the awkward, child-like, and strange Dauphin, who seems to have been dropped on his head as a child. Throughout the course of the film, the audience gets to see their relationship grow into mutual love and respect.  Joseph Shildkraut plays a machievellian and oily, Philippe Duc D'Orleans who would sell out his own family.  The film implies that there was some kind of flirtation between the two of them that ends when it looks like Marie is on a fast coach back to Vienna. John Barrymore has only a few scenes as Louis XV but he makes the most out of them, and he even gets to say in English, 'Apres moi, Le Deluge.'
Of course,since the film was filmed in 1937, the nature of the reason why the marriage between Louis and Marie was not consummated is danced around.  Louis never says why he can't until after the King dies, and he suddenly announces that things are all right downstairs. The love affair between Marie and Fersen is truncated by her becoming Queen and then the whole being in prison thing.  The film includes a scene between the two of them when Marie is days away from the guillotine. Of course, it never happened but it makes for a romantic and tragic scene.
Verdict:  This film is well worth renting from Netflix or your local library.  Even after 70 years, it stands up. If you have time, make it a double feature with the Sofia Coppola version.  It's interesting to contrast, not only the different styles of film making but also the acting.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Happy Birthday Marie Antoinette and Giveaway

Happy Birthday to Marie Antoinette who was born today (as well as myself and Leah Marie Brown!).  To celebrate Marie's birthday (and mine), I am giving away 2 copies of Carolyn Meyer's YA novel THE BAD QUEEN.  Here is a sneak peek:

History paints her as a shallow party girl, a spoiled fashionista, a callous ruler. Perhaps no other royal has been so maligned—and so misunderstood—as Marie-Antoinette. From the moment she was betrothed to the dauphin of France at age fourteen, perfection was demanded of Marie-Antoinette. She tried to please everyone—courtiers, her young husband, the king, the French people—but often fell short of their expectations. Desperate for affection and subjected to constant scrutiny, this spirited young woman can’t help but want to let loose with elaborate parties, scandalous fashions, and unimaginable luxuries. But as Marie-Antoinette’s lifestyle gets ever-more recklessly extravagant, the peasants of France are suffering from increasing poverty—and becoming outraged. They want to make the queen pay.

In this latest installment of her acclaimed Young Royals series, Carolyn Meyer reveals the dizzying rise and horrific downfall of the last queen of France. Includes historical notes, an author’s note, and a bibliography.

Here are the rules for the giveaway. Sorry, this is only for Canadian and American readers! The contest runs from today through Monday, November 8th. 

1. Leave your name and email in the comments.  Email is very important so that I can contact you for your address.
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.
Good luck!

Monday, November 1, 2010

They Spoke with the Dead: The Lives of Kate and Maggie Fox

"Let them step forward and solve this mystery, if they can." - E.E. Lewis, author of A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County.

The year 1848 was a momentous one in New York State. It was the year the first Women's Rights Convention as held in Seneca Falls; John Humphrey Noyes established a commune in Oneida, NY that was based on Biblical communism ad 'Complex Marriage," a man named Orson Fowler built a 60 room octagonal mansion in Fishkill, NY.  But it was the events in tiny Hydesville, NY that would have profound effects on the nation and the world at large. Two adolescent girls Margaretta (Maggie) and her younger sister Catherine (Kate) Fox soon became the focus for the new spiritualism movement which became a major interest not only to Americans but around the world.  To this day, there is a question about whether or not the Fox sisters were genuine mediums or whether or not they were talented charlatans who managed not only to fool newspaper editor Horace Greeley but also the President of the United States, Franklin Pierce and his wife. Was it an April Fool's joke that just got out of hand and the girls didn't know how to stop it? All three sisters, Kate, Maggie and their older sister suffered from severe migraines, did that have something to do with it? Nobody knows for sure, which is why the story of the Fox Sister's has kept its hold on the imagination since 1848.

It was the coldest winter ever experienced in western New York.  The Fox family had just moved into a house in Hydesville, NY.  It was supposed to be a temporary move as their own house was still in the process of being built. That winter, to the delight of the two youngest Fox daughters Maggie who was about 15 and Kate, aged twelve, strange rapping sounds had turned their house into the Hydesville Horror. The sounds came not only at night but during the day as well,  from the floors, the walls, the furniture, in fact everywhere the girls happened to be. The reaction in the Fox household was mixed, John Fox who was a devout Methodist was skeptical of the sounds, while their mother Margaret was frightened at the idea that spirits had invaded their home.  One night, Kate called out, "Here Mr. Split-foot (a common nickname for the devil) do as I do."  She rapped several times on the floor and the spirit seemed to respond with the same number of raps.  Over time, the two girls and their mother worked out a system of communication with the spirits, using one rap for no, two raps for yes, etc.  Soon an interesting story emerged.  It appeared that the spirit in the house was a peddlar named Charles Rosma who claimed that he had been murdered by one of the previous occupants of the house Joseph Bell, and buried in the cellar.  Later investigations turned up what appeared to be human bones and hair.

Nothing is secret in a small town, and soon word had spread of the mysterious rappings at the Fox house.  People came from miles around to communicate with the Spirit who seemed to know so many intimate details of their lives.  It got so crowded that there was almost no room in the house for the people that lived there.  No one seemed to be able to figure out where the rappings were coming from, despite efforts made by skeptics to prove that the girls were faking.  Soon the eldest daughter of the Fox family, Leah Fish appeared on the scene and whisked her two younger sisters and their mother back with her to Rochester, NY.  It wasn't long before the two girls were giving private sessions for people.  There is speculation that Leah, a shrewd woman who had married at 15 and been abandoned, saw a good business opportunity to make some money that would be more lucrative than giving piano lessons.  Others see Leah's actions as her way of protecting her sisters from others who might exploit them.  Later in life both Maggie and Kate would view their older sisters actions with less affection and more bitterness.  Whatever Leah's motives, she was soon in control of what became known as seances.

The Fox sisters were helped by gaining the support of stalwart members of the community like Isaac and Amy Post, Quakers who were also part of the burgeoning abolitionist movement in Rochester.  Also, western New York had long been known as 'The Burned-Over District' for the number of religious movements that had taken root there including the visit to Joseph Smith by the Angel Moroni in 1828 in Palmyra, NY which gave rise to the new Mormon religion.  Andrew Jackson Davis in Poughkeepsie, NY helped prepare the way along with the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Swedish philosopher whose ideas were taking root in the US, along with the rise of mesmerism and phrenology.  The invention of the telegraph strangely enough contributed to the growth of Spiritualism, if messages could be conveyed by electricity, why couldn't they be conveyed by a spiritual telegraph i.e. a medium?

A year after the mysterious rappings were first heard, the Fox sisters faced their first real test.  Leah announced that the spirits wanted the sisters to go public.  Leah, along with her sisters, had now begun receiving spirit messages. While Kate was away visiting friends in Auburn, Leah and Maggie rented Corinthian Hall, the largest auditorium in the city. They charged a quarter for admission, and were sold out for the entire 4 nights.  Before they appeared on stage, Eliab Capron, a supporter, would lecture on what the audience was about to see.  Maggie and Leah also submitted to 'examinations' by different committees who were determined to prove that the women were frauds.  The two sisters were manhandled, their skirts tied around their ankles so they couldn't move, made to stand on glass plates, even had their lungs listened to with stethoscopes to make sure they weren't making the rapping sounds by ventriloquism.  At one point, the women were strip-searched by a committee of women to make sure they weren't hiding anything in their corsets or petticoats that would contribute to the sounds.  Throughout these investigations, rapping sounds were still heard on floors, doors and walls.  On the 4th night, an angry mob stormed the auditorium and Leah and Maggie had to be escorted out under police protection.  Still, their ordeal proved to be worth it, all the various committees acquitted the sisters of fraud.

Soon the Fox sisters were living in New York City and conducting seances for the likes of Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, and James Fenimore Cooper.  Horace Greeley's wife Mary took a particular liking to Kate who ended up living with her for a year, conversing with the spirit of the Greeley's dead son Pickie.  All three sisters were charismatic but Kate in particular seemed to be more fragile than the other two, more eager to please, and more apt to be distraught if it looked like she had failed.  By the 1850's the Fox sisters were not the only mediums around.  The Claflin sisters, Victoria and her sister Tennessee were touring the mid-west along with their mother Roxie.  In Auburn, NY alone, there were more than 100 mediums.  Spiritualism was big business.  Soon the Fox sisters added levitating tables, phosporescent clouds, automatic writing and drawing to their repertoire.  The sister began channeling messages from luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and recently deceased South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun. When Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind came to New York, the one person she most wanted to meet was Kate Fox. 

While the sisters had their supporters, they also had their detractors.  Not just the usual skeptics, but also those on the religious right who believed that the sisters were actually channeling the devil.  Many debunkers believed that the sisters were creating the rapping sounds by cracking their toes or other joints.  Someone even wrote a book that was basically Spirtualism for Dummies. Despite the naysayers, the sisters fame continued to grow.  But like all good things, it soon became apparent that things couldn't continue the way they were.  In 1852, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, a renowned Artic explorer from a well-do Philadelphia family met Maggie at a seance she was a conducting at a Philadelphia Hotel.  The attraction between the two was immediate, both Kane and Maggie had broken away from the strictures of Victorian America, Kane in his exploring and Maggie with spiritualism.  However, Kane yearned to play Pygmalion to Maggie, to turn her into a more proper prospect, one that his family might approve of.  While Kane was initially attracted to what made Maggie different from proper girls, being a medium was hardly a suitable mate.  The erotic atmosphere of the seance, with its darkened rooms and chances for forbidden touching, was not what Kane wanted.  He convinced Maggie to give up the spirit world and to go to finishing school.

While Maggie was living with friends of Kane, and trying to turn herself into a proper Victorian matron, Kane went off on a two year voyage.  She was miserable, and would take any opportunity to escape to the bright lights of New York or Philadelphia.  When he returned, Kane tried to get Maggie to deny in writing that they had ever had a relationship. Crushed, Maggie did what he asked only to have him turn around and rip up the paper. They resumed their relationship, unofficially engaged.  Unfortunately for Maggie, there was no happy ending.  Kane died in 1857.  Maggie insisted that she and Kane had been married in a private ceremony, and that he had left her a modest inheritance.  His family denied the relationshp, claiming that he never felt anything for her but fraternal affection.  She converted to Catholicism, claiming it was what Kane had wanted, and withdrew from public life as a medium.  After threatening to publish their letters, his family agreed to pay her a small annuity.  When that ended due to financial reversals, Maggie published their letters but the publication only served to damage her reputation.  Disheartened, she began to drink heavily.

By the end of the 1850's only Kate was still actively working as a medium.  Leah had married for the third time to a rich Quaker named Daniel Underhill, and no longer held seances for pay, instead settling into the life of an upper-class matron.  She proved to be incredibly unsympathetic to both her younger sisters problems with alcoholism.  Only Katie was still highly visible, she spend most of the war years  holding seances.  By the end of the Civil War, both parents had died leaving Kate and Maggie distraught and unable to cope. When Katie began to suffer the effects of alcoholism, her friends sent her to the 19th century equivalent of rehab.  Soon she was feeling better and holding seances for the head of the sanitarium Dr. George Taylor and his wife. In 1871, hoping to beat her addiction, Kate traveled to England.  At the age of 35, she met and married Henry D. Jencken, a widower with two children.  They had two sons Ferdinand and Henry Jr. 

By the 1880's, Kate was a widow.  Although Henry had made a good-living as a barrister, he left only 200 pounds when he died of a stroke.  Kate had no choice but to back to being a medium. When she returned to the States in 1885, she fell off the wagon. It got so bad, that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to children stepped in and tried to take away her sons. When Leah published a memoir to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the rappings in Hydesville, Maggie had enough. Years of disappointment and bitterness flowed forth. She gave an interview where she confessed that everything had been a fraud.  Seven months later, she went on stage at the Academy of Music and repeated her confession. To prove her point, she took of her shoe and demonstrated how the raps had been made by cracking her big toe.  She accused Leah of exploiting and abusing the two sisters for profit. While skeptics rejoiced, those in the Spiritualist movement moved to distance themselves from the sisters. 

A year later, Maggie had a change of heart and took back her recantation.  She said that she had been pressured by the Catholic Church and by powerful people who had used her need for money.  In 1890, Leah died and is buried in the Underhill mausoleum in Green-Wood cemetary.  Kate died in 1892, alcoholic and forgotten.  Maggie followed her sister the next year in 1893.  Both sisters are buried together in Cypress Hills cemetary in New York.  By the time of their death, interest in spiritualism in the United States had waned, although interest remained strong in Britain.  It would be revived in the 20th during World War I, helped by the support of Arthur Conan Doyle, a fervent spiritualist.

In 1916, the house the Foxes lived in was moved from Hydesville to Lily Dale, a town near Buffalo that is devoted to spiritualism.  The house was inhabited by a medium until it burned down in the 1950's. A decade later, a replica was built in Hydesville but it too burned down.  However, there is a memorial garden in Lily Dale dedicated to the two sisters. Of Kate's two sons, Henry died in his teens, and Ferdie died in his thirties after suffering from the same alcoholism that plagued his mother and aunt.

Now over 150 years after the initial rappings in Hydesville, interest in talking to the dead has premeated American society, from mediums like John Edwards to TV shows like The Ghost Whisperer and Medium, and the plethora of paranormal fiction that flies off the bookshelves.  Belief in Angels, spirits is at an all time high. Still the questions remain, were the sisters just good fakers, or at some point did they come to believe in what they were doing? Some psychologists believe that the onset of adolescence may have brought on a manifestation of pyschic powers. Whether or not they were real or not, the sisters managed to live adventurous lives that were far beyond the norm that was allowed to women in America in the 19th century.  They made their own money, living seperately from family members and traveled widely.  They were known not only across the country but also in Europe.  Spiritualism gave them the means and the ability to live independent lives, to become famous, hobnobbing with celebrities. It took a heavy toll on both Maggie and Kate who were forced onto a treadmill of appearances and seances in order to survive. Neither made a great deal of money from being a medium, but it was one of the few professions that was open to women besides teaching and prostitution.


Talking to the Dead:  Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism - Barbara Weisberg, Harper San Francisco, 2004
The Haunting of America: From the Salem Witch Trials to Harry Houdini - William J. Birnes and Joel Martin, Forge Books, 2009