Monday, February 28, 2011

Empress of the Blues - The Turbulent Life of Bessie Smith

They called her the "Empress of the Blues." An earthy, hot-tempered, hard-drinking woman who loved wild parties, cheap hooch, and down home southern cooking. Bessie Smith didn't care a fig about what people thought about her. She worked hard and played just as hard. Bessie was black and proud; she never apologized for her color or her background. She was also fearless, at a tent performance in North Carolina in 1927, Bessie discovered that the KKK were preparing to disrupt one of her performances.  She confronted the men, cursing at them to leave. Shocked, they slunk away without doing any damage.

Born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, TN, Bessie Smith was the daughter of a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher who died before she was a baby. Before she was nine years old, Bessie had lost her mother, and a brother as well, leaving her oldest sister Viola to raise five kids on her own. To help out, Bessie and her brother Andrew began singing and dancing on the streets for change. Entertainment was a way out of the dead-end jobs of being a maid or taking in laundry for a living, jobs that made a woman old before her time. Her older brother Clarence had already left home to try and make a living as a performer. When she was 18, Clarence managed to get Bessie an audition with the Moses Stokes Minstrel Troupe as a dancer. She aced the audition, she would be making ten dollars a week in a company that included the notable blues singer Ma Rainey.

Bessie was a natural from the beginning, with a voice so powerful, she didn't need a microphone to be heard.  She sang songs of love gone wrong, unfaithful lovers, the plight of the black woman in a white man's world, poverty, loneliness, and physical abuse. She sang the blues because she lived it. Blues singer Alberta Hunter once said, "Even though Bessie was raucous and loud, she had a tear, no, not a tear, but therewas a misery in what she did." By 1915, Bessie left the Stokes Troupe to join the Theater Owners Bookers Association which was an entertainment circuit for black performers. TOBA was also known as "Tough on Black Asses" for the often brutal touring schedule, and the pittance they were paid. Still touring helped Bessie hone her talent, and helped make her name known throughout the country. By the 1920's Bessie finally hit the big time, starring with Sidney Bechet in the Broadway show How Come? The show didn't last long but it was another notch in Bessie's belt.

Around this time, Bessie met the man of her life Jack Gee, a semi-literate security guard from Yonkers, NY. They were married on June 7, 1923 just before her first recordings were released. Bessie was 28, when she entered a recording studio for the first time in February of 1923.  She was dressed to the nines in a brand new dress bought by Jack who pawned his watch to buy it, a gesture that she never forgot. Technology was still in its infancy so Bessie had to perform take after take until the producer announced they were done.  The two songs recorded that day were "T'aint Nobody's Business If I Do," and "Down Hearted Blues."  That first record sold 780,000 copies in 6 months. She eventually made 160 recordings for Columbia, accomapnied by some of the finest musicians of the day, including Louis Armstrong. Bessie's records weren't just popular with blacks but also with white listeners who discovered her music. Bessie was paid by the side, she wasn't royalties the way singers are today, if she had been, she would have raked in millions.

By all accounts, Bessie was a mesmerizing presence on stage. She stood anywhere from 5"9 to 6ft in her bare feet, weighing over 200 pounds.  She loved clothes, decking herself out in the latest fashions. "Bessie was a real woman, all woman, all the femaleness the world ever saw in one sweet package," said her friend Mezz Mezzrow, a fellow musician. She had great big dimples, and a high-voltage magnet of a personality. After the release of her first record, her fee jumped from $50 to $350 a week. A year later, she could command up to $2,000 a week. Bessie spent money as fast as she made it; buying furs and jewels, outfitting her new husband Jack in $300 suits.  She also spread her wealth around, supporting her sisters and their children, buying them houses in Philadelphia.

Bessie and Jack Gee had a turbulent relationship, fighting constantly. Bessie liked to drink, and when she got liquored up, she wasn't afraid to use her fists, or whatever weapon was handy.  Although she was never faithful, having affairs with both men and women, god forbid Jack should look at another woman.  Bessie was a binge drinker, how loved homemade corn liquor (moonshine) over fancier alcohol. No champagne or wine for her (not to mention it was Prohibition!). For days and weeks she'd be sober, but when she fell off the wagon, she might be drunk for days, miss performances or end up in a bar brawl. It wasn't uncommon for Bessie to thrown down hundred dollar bills and close down the joint so that she party privately.

To keep the gravy rolling in, Bessie had to keep touring constantly, which took a toll on her. Jack Gee would beat Bessie up to keep her in line, keep her working. Since black couldn't stay in the same hotels as whites, particularly in the South, Bessie bought a custom-made railroad car, 78 feet long, with 7 staterooms, a kitchen, bathroom and a storeroom. During the winter, she toured theaters and during the summer she did tent tours.  Soon Bessie was the highest paid entertainer of her day. As she became more famous, she didn't put on airs, she was the same down to home earthy woman. But by 1929, the good times were over, not just for Bessie but for the whole country, and so was her marriage to Jack Gee when she discovered that he was using her money to produce a show for a younger, light-skinned beauty named Gertrude Saunders. Although she left him, they were never divorced. Bessie eventually found love again, with an old friend, Richard Morgan who became her manager.

Bessie continued to work but she wasn't pulling down the fees that she made during her hey-day. In 1931, she lost her record contract with Columbia, but she still managed to tour, although she had to sell her luxurious railroad car. Music was changing as well, becoming more uptempo, like swing. Other singers were comiing up, who were more lady-like such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday. Not to be outdone, Bessie adjusted her style and her repertoire. By 1933, she was back recording for Okeh Records, produced by John Hammon. She recorded 4 sides for which she was paid $37.50 a piece.

On September 26, 1937, Bessie was critically injured in a car accident while driving along Route 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale, MS.  Her lover, Richard Morgan was driving, and it appeared that he misjudged the speed of the truck driving in front of them. Bessie was taken to Clarksdale's Afro-American Hospital, but she died the next morning. After her death, rumors began that Bessie died unattended after white hospital refused to treat her. The rumor was fueled by an article written by John Hammond in Down Beat Magazine. The story inspired a one-act play by the young Edward Albee called The Death of Bessie Smith. It wasn't until the 1972 biography by Chris Albertson that the myth was dispelled when he interviewed the doctor  who had arrived at the scene.

While her New York Times obituary was barely a paragraph long, the black community went into mourning.  An estimated 10,000 mourners filed past her coffin in the Philadelphia funeral home where she lay in state, to pay their respects.  Bessie, even in death, was dressed like an Empress, in a long silk gown and slippers that went well with the pink two tone velvet that lined her silver casket. Bessie's grave remained unmarked for 33 years while Jack Gee and her family fought over her estate. It wasn't until 1970 that Janis Joplin and the wife of an NAACP member paid for the stone.

Bessie Smith was an original, who lived a wild tempestuous life. During her lifetime, she rose higher in her profession than any black woman of her time, by totally being herself.


Chris Albertson, Bessie (revised and Expanded Edition) Yale University Press, 2003
Andrea Barnet, All Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, Algonquin Books, 2004

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Was Cleopatra Black?

While I was researching my chapter on Cleopatra for Scandalous Women, the question of whether or not she was black came up. For centuries Cleopatra was seen as an exotic femme fatale but with the rise of interest in African-American history and the black power movement over the years, there has been a rush to claim Cleopatra as a sister. I used to argue about this with my brother constantly when I was in high school and studying ancient history. He insisted that Cleopatra had to be black because she was the Pharoah of Egypt and Egypt was in Africa. I, of course, explained to him all about Alexander the Great and how after his death, his empire was divided amongst his generals, and Ptolemy ended up with Egypt. We went around like this for days before I just gave up arguing with him. Now of course, with the announcement that Angelina Jolie might be playing the role in a film adapted from Stacey Schiff's biography, the question comes up again (the fact that Angelina Jolie is much more beautiful than the real Cleopatra never seems to come up).

Unfortunately it is impossible to prove one way or another. Her father Ptolemy XII was at least half Macedonian Greek, his mother’s origins are unknown. There was a  high degree of inbreeding amongst the Ptolemies, they were notoriously xenophobic, preferring to speak Greek and to keep Greek customs. According to the chart on Wikipedia, she only had four great-grandparents and six (out of a possible 16) great-great-grandparents. I would say that means that Cleopatra was probably at least 50% Greek Macedonian. Still at some point, they needed to inject from fresh blood into the dynasty. Cleopatra’s mother is also unknown. So it is possible that she was at least part African. Although she learned Egyptian, becoming the first Ptolomeic Pharaoh to do so, Cleopatra identified herself as being Greek, even as she took on the trappings of Egyptian culture. Certainly the coins that were minted during her lifetime show a woman who looked more Greek than she did Egyptian.

A 2009 BBC documentary, Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer, looked at the reconstruction of a skull which could p ossibly from a sister of Cleopatra (Cleopatra had asked Mark Antony to have one of her remaining siblings, who was a threat to her throne, murdered) to show features which have similarities to both Semitic and Bantu skulls. Their conclusion was that Cleopatra could have had black African ancestry -- but it's not really conclusive. Another problem is that we think of as race means something different entirely from what it might have meant in Cleopatra's day. Are contemporary Eygptians black or are they Arab, or a melange of different races? Yes, they are African but if someone's parents were originally from Egypt does that make one African-American?

Still the question is still raised. Why does it matter? Well, Cleopatra was a powerful woman who ruled Egypt by herself for over 20 years before her death.  Books, plays, films, operas and poetry have been written about her. She has moved from being a historical figure into an iconic figure. Who wouldn't want to claim her as one of their own. Claiming Cleopatra as black, gives young black girls an example of a sister who was doing it for herself so to speak. No matter what race she was, she is mythic figure that continues to enthrall countless biographers and filmmakers to this day.

Unfotunately unless we find Cleopatra's grave or a time machine to send archeologists and historians back in time, we will never know for sure what Cleopatra's racial make-up is.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Madame Tussaud: A Novel About the French Revolution

Madame Tussaud: A Novel About the French Revolution
Author: Michelle Moran
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Publication Date:  February 15th, 2011

Dear Michelle,

I just finished reading your new novel MADAME TUSSAUD yesterday and I sat in silence for a few moments afterwards to catch my breath.  What you have accomplished with this novel is astounding, you have managed to make the ideas behind the French Revolution not only comprehensible, but you have also made it human by weaving in the story of the remarkable Madame Tussaud.

I first encountered Madame Tussaud's on my first trip to London when I was 16. It was a teen tour and we ran around every day for a month, visiting various attractions around London and outside the city. I'm ashamed to say that I didn't really pay too much attention to who Madame Tussaud was. I was more impressed by the Chamber of Horrors, and the Planetarium next door. I'm not even sure that I even knew that Madame Tussaud had been a real person. Years later, when I went back I was enthralled with the recreation of The Battle of Trafalgar. It was only then that I began to pay attention to the biographical note in the program.

Now having read your novel, I'm surprised that I never paid more attention to this amazing story. Marie Grosholtz as she was known then, is a smart and ambitious woman who has learned the art of wax sculpting alongside her 'uncle' from childhood.  An unusual skill at the time, but one that Marie knows will keep her from ever starving or having to rely on a man to take care of her. Although Marie lived over 200 years ago, readers will certainly related to her struggles to combine a career with the idea of marriage and children. She's forced to make choices in order to survive that most people will hopefully never have to deal with. Because of the popularity of the museum, Marie is able to not only meet most of the important figures of the day including Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette but she's also able to persuade Marie Antoinette's dressmaker to deliver a letter to the Royal Family inviting them to the museum.  Their visit not only increases the popularity of the museum but presents Marie with an amazing opportunity, to teach the King's sister Madame Elisabeth. Marie knows that she cannot refuse the request, although she is warned by the liberals who frequent her uncle's salon.

Through Marie's eyes, the reader receives a glimpse of Versaille that is different from the usual impressions.  Marie can't help not only to be impressed by Madame Elisabeth but also the Queen. Thank you Michelle for giving the reader a glimpse of Marie Antoinette that is warm, loving, and human without softening her flaws. What is remarkable about this novel is how you are able to seemlessly weave real-life events within the narrative without stopping the flow of the novel.  I never felt as if I were getting a history lesson.  The novel is gripping and filled with horrifying incidents.  I don't think I will ever be able to look at the death masks in the museum again without remembering the scenes in the novel where Marie was forced to make the masks, or be in danger of losing her own life.

The book spans the most dramatic years of Marie's life, from 1789 to 1794. There is so much attention to detail from what they wore to how they ate and slept but all of it is blended skillfully as you bring historical personages that have written about to death to life.  I felt as if I knew Robespierre, the Duc D'Orleans, and Camille Desmoulins because of how Marie felt about them.  This novel was engrossing from page 1 until the end, as I found myself biting my nails in suspense wondering if Marie was going to make it out of the Revolution alive. Of course, we all know that she did, but there were moments when I really wondered.

I feel privileged that I was able to read this novel and to review it.  I walked away from this novel with a new appreciation and understanding of this remarkable woman, her achievements and the high price she had to pay for her success.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Traveling Through History: Summer History Tours

I love history and I love to travel, being able to combine the two is the ultimate for me.  Last year, I was lucky enough to go on the first ever Anne Boleyn Experience, a trip that was put together by the amazing Claire at The Anne Boleyn Files.  This year, she has two trips planned, the Executed Queens tour in May, and the Anne Boleyn Experience in July. Both tours are unfortunately sold out, but it's never too early to plan for 2012!

Thanks to the blog Historical Tapestry for the heads up about these two tours. Historical fiction author Sharon Kay Penman will be leading an Eleanor of Aquitaine tour in June. Now this is the tour that I really wish I could go on. I adore Eleanor of Aquitaine, she's one of my favorite Scandalous Women, and I really wish I could find enough change in my sofa to go.  However, Sharon will be blogging throughout the tour so that we can all live vicariously through the experience. You can read about the tour here.

Historian Alison Weir has now set up two tours for this summer, Tudor Treasures in June, and a new one, Mary of Scotland for September. You can read more about both tours at her new website Alison Weir Tours. Both tours sound awesome but I'm leaning more towards the Mary of Scotland tour. I've just started reading Weir's book about Mary, and the murder of Lord Darnley recently. I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Mary, Queen of Scots, although one of my history teachers in high school, Sister Mary Elizabeth once said that she would have made a better housewife than a Queen!

Then there is Tudor History Tours which offers several tours of England. Here are just a few of their 2011 offerings: Elizabeth I: The Child, Lover and Warrior Queen, Henry VIII: Defender of the Realm, Finding Henry VIII, Six Wives of One King.  The tours range from 3 to 10 nights. 

NYU has two one week study programs at Christ Church College, Oxford this summer.  Week One: The Churchill Triumph 1939-1945 (July 31-August 6, 2011) and Week Two: The English Medieval Lady (August 7-August 13,2011).   You can register for one or both weeks.  Cost is $2,490 for one week or $5,180 for two weeks. If you register before March 31, the cost is $2, 490 for one week, and $4,980 for two.  All breakfasts, lunches and dinners are included, and students are accomodated in single rooms.  The program is limited to 18 students per week, so register quickly. For more information, you can read more here.

For the most part, all these tours are pretty Tudor heavy, no doubt because of the popularity of The Tudors series on Showtime, and the popularity of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in general. I would love however to see someone put together say a Duchess of Devonshire tour of England or a Marie Antoinette Tour of France (I'm talking to you Heather & Lauren, creator of the wonderful blogs The Duchess of Devonshire Gossip Guide and Marie Antoinette Gossip Guide). I'm pretty sure there must be some Jane Austen tours out there as well.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Scandalous Royal Romance of Caroline Matilda and Johann Struensee

"I would marry him I loved,  and give up my throne and my country," Caroline Matilda, Queen of Denmark (1751-1775)

The life of a royal princess is often an unhappy one, destined to be a pawn in the shifting alliances among nations, forced to leave her home, and family to live in a foreign country where she more often than not didn't know the language, isolated from anything familiar, it was a wonder more of them didn't go bonkers from the strain and tension they were under. For every Eleanor of Aquitaine, strong-willed and more capable than most men, or Catherine the Great in history, there were princesses like Catherine of Braganza and Maria Theresa of France who found their place at court usurped by a revolving door of glittering mistresses.

And then there was Caroline Mathilde, Queen of Denmark, married off to her first cousin Christian VII at the tender age of 15. Born postumously to Augusta, Princess of Wales after the unexpected death of her husband, Frederick, Prince of Wales, Caroline Matilda grew up at Kew and at Leicester House in London. Having never known her father, she didn't lack for substitutes in her four brothers. By most accounts, she had an idyllic childhood which ended abruptly with her bethrothal to Christian VII. The Danish Ambassador did quite the snow job, convincing the Princess's brother George III that Christian was a sober, amiable virtuous Prince, the model King but it didn't really matter if he barked like a dog, the marriage was to shore up the traditional ties between the two countries, the check the power of France and to strengthen the Protesant religion.  No doubt George III though that Caroline Matilda should be flattered that she would get to be a Queen, since her eldest sister Augusta had to settle for the Duke of Brunswick.

The royal couple were married by proxy in October of 1766, her brother standing in for the groom. Caroline sobbed through out the ceremony, and she sobbed all the way to Copenhagen. It would have been amazing if she had any tears left to sob when she met her husband for the first time. King Christian of Denmark was not only cuckoo for coco puffs but he didn't even want to be king. He looked like a child, slender, with hair so pale that he didn't need to powder it.

As a boy, Christian's tutors had beaten and tortured him, trying to make a man out of him.  In order to survive Christian had retreated into a fantasy world, filled with strange dreams. He had inherited the throne at the age of 17, and after a good start, he became bored by the responsibilities, leaving piles of paperwork unread for days, while and his companions spent their time playing practical jokes. At night he spent most of his time in the brothels of Copenhagen, and indulging his taste for destruction. He also was known to be violent towards women, but the courtiers at the royal court felt that he would settle down down once he got married.

Caroline Matilda had been raised far from court and had no idea how to navigate the complexities of court life.  Like Marie Antoinette a few years later, she was not allowed to bring a single lady in waiting with her from London. Only her trousseau and a letter from her brother to read, lecturing her on how to behave as she traveled on the royal yacht.  The one friend she did make, Louise van Preussen, was sent away in disgrace. The viper in the nest was Christian's step-mother Juliane-Marie, who in the incestuous ways of European royalty was the sister-in-law of Caroline Matilda's sister Princess Augusta. Juliane-Marie was a stiff-necked pious woman whose one goal in life was to see her own son on the throne. It was reported that she had even tried to poison Prince Christian as a child, but he was saved by a quick thinking maid. If Caroline Matilda had hoped to find a sympathetic mother-in-law, she was barking up the wrong tree.

At first Caroline Matilda had hope that her marriage might be a success after all. Christian, entranced by his new bride, rushed to embrace her when they first met.  His ministers breathed a sigh of relief.

But within days, Christian decided that he didn't like being married.  He went back to his old bachelor ways of hitting the hot spots with his entourage, destroying patterns and picking fights.  Caroline Matilda was unhappy and discontented, and made sure her brother knew it in her thinly veiled letters. However, she made it clear that she didn't want or need his advice, that she would rely on her own judgement. Caroline applied herself to life at court, learning Danish. Bored with being cooped up in doors all day, she took to walking the streets of Copenhagen accompanied by a footman and lady-in-waiting.  Since the Prince refused to come to her bed, she couldn't even fulfill her most basic role, giving the kingdom an heir. Caroline Matilda while not beautiful was charming and vivacious. Buxom and blonde, she had a peaches and cream complexion that was the envy of many. While her husband wasn't interested, there were plenty of men at court who were, and would have been more than happy to console the depressed Queen.

 It was only the quick thinking of Christian's ministers that saved the day.  They whispered in his ear that the lack of an heir might convince his subjects that he was impotent.  That was enough to get her husband back in her bed long enough for her to concieve the long awaited heir who was named, what else, Frederick. Still the birth of an heir did nothing to change Christian's louche ways or to stablizie his mental instability.  In fact he was getting worse.  While traveling incognito through Europe to England, Christian met a German doctor named Johann Struensee, who had been investigating mental disorders.  He seemed to have a soothing effect on the King.  Christian was so taken with him that he insisted that Struensee come along for the rest of the tour.

At 30, the King's new friend was handsome and ambitious, almost six feet tall, broad-shouldered with piercing blue eyes. Streunsee, who had been toiling in the provinces, seized his chance to make a name for himself. He had a calming effect on the young prince, mixing up hangover remedies, coaxing him to take an interest in his paperwork. His prescription of fresh air, exercise, and cutting back on the drinking which began to work wonders. Struensee affected a modest and humble demeanor but anyone who bothered to delve deeper would ntoice the raw ambition lurking in his deep blue eyes.

He won over Caroline Matilda after he treated her for what Eleanor Herman believes might have been a particularly painful venereal disease caught from her husband. He listened to her, the first person to do since Louise von Preussen. Ecstatic to have a friend, soon Caroline Matilda demanded that Struensee come visit her everyday, sometimes 3 or 4 times a day. It was a classic case of a young, romantic girl falling for an older, experienced man. Struensee was lover, teacher, and father figure all wrapped up in an alpha male body. He soon realized how he could turn the situation to his advantage to have not just the young King but also his Queen dependent on him. On Struensee's suggestion, Caroline Matilda took up riding, becoming a fearless horsewoman.  He now began phase two of his plan, to convince her to become more politically active. He told her that it was only a matter of time before Christian was no longer sane, and that it was up to her to seize the reigns of power before her enemies did.

By 1770, Struensee and Caroline Matilda were lovers. For Caroline Matilda, Streunsee must have seemed like a knight with a stethoscope. After the fumblings of her husband, to made love to by someone who knew what they were doing must have been a revelation. Happy and in love for the first time, Caroline Matilda could afford to be compassionate towards her husband. Christian, far from feeling betrayed, was quite happy that his wife had someone who could fulfill her needs. There were now three of them in the marriage, but none of them seemed to mind. Christian was comfortable in the company of his wife and physician, he became uneasy if they weren't around.  Struensee dined with the royal couple several times a week. While Caroline Matilda and Struensee saw to matters of government, the King could live in his own little world.  He only roused himself long enough to sign his name to official documents.

Matilda was so happy, she turned a blind eye to her lover's ambitions and to his other affairs. Encouraged by Struensee, she even began dressing in men's clothing, wearing buckskin breeches,  vest and coat, her hair hanging down in a braid, riding astride like a man. Christian, Matilda and Struensee moved to the secluded palace of Hirscholm, on a island not far from Copenhagen.  There Caroline Matilda gave birth to a daughter named Louise in 1771.  The pregnancy and birth was such a secret, that the people of Denmark were suprised to eventually learn they had a new princess.  No one at court however was fooled about who the father was, every one knew that it was Struensee although Louise was raised as a Danish princess.

Caroline Matilda appointed him her official reader and private secretary to the King, which made him a councilor. Streunsee was determined that Denmark be a modern up-to-date nation, able to compete with the rest of Europe. Unfortunately he alienated not only the clergy and nobility, powerful enemies who were appalled that this upstart German nobody was taking away their rights and privaleges. They found a welcome ear for their complaints in Christian's stepmother, Dowager Queen Juliana, who hoped that once she got rid of Struensee and Caroline Matilda, would rule as regent until Christian's son came of age. 

Soon Caroline began to believe that she and Struensee were another Catherine the Great and Potemkin, but she had neither Catherine's intelligence nor her political savvy.  He let power go to his head, luxuriating in the trappings of power. He made himself a privy councilor and a count, ordered a new gilded carriage, and ordered his servants to wear uniforms. Meanwhile their enemies at work, compiling evidence of the affair.  They sprinkled powder on the secret staircase between Struensee's room and Caroline's to check for footprints.

Armed with proof, Struensee and Caroline Matilda were arrested one night after a masked ball.  Christian had been forced to sign warrants when Juliana told him that a revolution was forming against Struensee and the Queen, and that the palace was about to be stormed. Caroline Matilda was kept away from her husband, to keep her from convincing him of her innocence. She was allowed to take little Princess Louise with her to her prison at Elsinore but not the Crown Prince who she never saw again.  When George III heard of his sister's adultery, he didn't lift a figure to help her. He ignored all her pleas and burned her correspondance.

Her lover meanwhile was tortured under interrogation. Struensee only confessed after being told that Caroline Matilda had been arrested and confessed.  They then went to Caroline Matilda and told her that her lover had confessed to everything.  At first she didn't believe them, until she saw his signed confession. She herself only signed a confession hoping that by doing so, Struensee's life might be spared. At her trial, she was found guilty and divorced from her husband.  Despite her divorce, both children were considered legitimate.  Struensee was executed on April 28, 1772.  Caroline Matilda was sent into exile in Hanover at Celle.

Despite her exile, she never stopped hoping that she would see her children again.  She gave card parties, did needlework and went to church.  On May 11, 1775, she died of scarlet fever at the age of 23. Hearing of her death, George III refused to let her be buried in Westminster Abbey.  Instead she's buried next to her great-great grandmother in Celle.  Her son ruled Denmark as King Frederick VI.

While Caroline Matilda deeply loved Struensee, the question remains whether he loved her or was it just ambition on his part?  The answer may life in what he said when he discovered that Matilda had confessed "The person I loved best in the world.... What have I done....disgrace....shame."


Eleanor Herman.  SEX WITH THE QUEEN, Harper Collins, 2006
Stella Tillyard. A Royal Affair: George III and his Scandalous Siblings. London: Chatto & Windus, 2006

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Scandalous Women on Film: Daphne, The Secret Life of Daphne du Maurier (2007)

Daphne: The Secret Life of Daphne du Maurier (2007)
Produced by the BBC
Directed by Cleare Beaven
Executive Producer: Kim Thomas
Written by Amy Jenkins based on Margaret Forster's 1993 biography


Daphne du Maurier:   Geraldine Sommerville
Ellen Doubleday:        Elizabeth McGovern
Gertrude Lawrence:   Janet McTeer
Nelson Doubleday:    Christopher Malcolm
Tommy Browning:      Andrew Harvill

Synopsis:  Set during the years between the "Rebecca" trial and the writing of Du Maurier's short story "The Birds", including her relationship with her husband Frederick 'Boy' Browning, and her largely unrequited infatuation with American publishing tycoon's wife Ellen Doubleday and her love affair with the actress Gertrude Lawrence.

My thoughts:  My knowledge about Daphne du Maurier was very limited. I knew of her as a novelist, author of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, Frenchman's Creek (well at least I had seen the films) as well as the short stories that the films The Birds and Don't Look Now were based on.  I also knew that her father had been a well-known actor manager Gerald du Maurier who has starred as the first Captain Hook in Peter Pan (her cousins, the sons of Sylvia du Maurier and Arthur Llewellyn Davis inspired The Lost Boys in the Play, see Finding Neverland). Just recently I found out that one of her paternal ancestors had been The Duke of York's mistress Mary Ann Clarke.  So when I found this film while wondering through Borders, I had to pick it up. The fact that it was on sale for $19.99 also probably contributed to my interest!

The film deals with the years 1946-1952.  At the start, Daphne's husband Frederick "Tommy" Browning has come back from the war.  The relationship has turned decidedly frosty and Daphne insists on having seperate bedrooms. We learn later that she had a brief affair during the war with another man. She's also suffering from a mild bout of writer's block, feeling the weight of the success of Rebecca weighing her down.  To add to her problems, she's being sued for plaigerism (according to Wikipedia, this wasn't the first time that she had been accused of lifting the plot of Rebecca from another novel, a Brazilian author also accused Daphne of plagiarism but the case never went to court).  She meets Ellen, the wife of her American publisher Nelson Doubleday on the ship, and is immediately powerfully attracted to her, so attracted that like an adolescent boy, she ignores her on board.

Ellen is played by Elizabeth McGovern (Ragtime, Downton Abbey) as a warmly maternal woman, the perfect wife and mother.  In many ways she is a cipher who Daphne projects her emotional needs on.  She makes it fairly clear early on when she realizes the nature of Daphne's feelings for her, that she cannot reciprocate.  It was no nice to see Elizabeth McGovern is something meatier than she's been given in recent years (the role of the mother in  A Room with a View), but she's not required to do much more than wear pretty clothes and look lovely, until the final scene when she's fed up with Daphne's jealousy. 

The film really kicks into gear when Janet McTeer sashays onto the screen as the actress Gertrude Lawrence.  Daphne first meets her at a party at the Doubledays on Long Island, where she's accompanied by Noel Coward.  Gertrude is filled with joie de vivre, she's naughty and fun and wears great clothes. To cope with her feelings for Ellen, Daphne has written a play called September Tide.  In the play Ellen has been transformed into middle-aged woman who falls in love with her son-in-law (Daphne) but refuses to break her daughter's heart.  Gertrude is hired to play the Ellen substitute although Daphne thinks that she's all wrong for the part, but during rehearsals Daphne finds herself increasingly drawn to Gertrude.  It helps that Gertrude returns her feelings but there is still Ellen waiting in the wings. After Nelson Doubleday dies, Daphne convinces Ellen to take a trip to Italy with her but it is a disaster, the two discover they don't travel well together.  Daphne wants Ellen all to herself but Ellen is too much of a social creature, while Daphne loves to walk everywhere, Ellen just wants to shop.  The idyll is broken, and Daphne rushes back to Gertrude.  They run off to Florida together on holiday before Gertrude goes back to her husband and her career and Daphne goes back to Cornwall.

Daphne starts writing My Cousin Rachel, imagining Gertrude as the seductive Rachel who may or may not have killed her husband. But tragedy strikes, and Gertrude becomes ill during the run of The King and I.  She's diagnosed with hepatitis but dies shortly afterwards.  Daphne is devastated at losing Gertrude. 

I found this film alternately fascinating and frustrating at the same time.  Daphne's husband Tommy Browning is barely in the film, so we get no real sense of their relationship and what made her so dissatisifed.  At the beginning of the film, Tommy finds photos of Daphne & Gertrude just as she gets the devastating news of her death, but then nothing.  According to Margaret Forster's book no one knew the true nature of their relationship at the time just that they were good friends, so his devastation makes no sense.  Geraldine Sommerville plays Daphne as a petulant, adolescent throughout most of the film which I found annoying until I read Forster's book and realized that was basically who she was.  The real Daphne du Maurier was just as selfish and heedless as the one in the film.  At one point, the film insinuates that Gertrude and Daphne's father Gerald were sexually involved which raises all kinds of psyhological questions about Daphne besides being just plain icky.  I'm mean I've heard of father and son sharing a mistress but father and daughter?

What was fascinating was  that Daphne called herself  "a boy in a box" and that meeting Ellen released that boy inside her that she had kept hidden.  As a child, Daphne had been a tomboy, wanting to be the son that her father was not shy about wanting.  In fact, she felt that she was a boy trapped inside a girl, puberty was devastating to her because it was irrefutable proof that she was a girl.  One wonders if it had been possible, if she would have contemplated a sex change? The other fascinating thing was how she explained her sexuality.  She called it being 'Venetian,' she hated the word Lesbian and refused to apply it to herself, partly because her father had been notorously homophobic and she adored her father.  If anything, she considered herself to be bisexual, the masculine in her was what was attracted to women.

My verdict:  An uneven depiction of the author Daphne du Maurier but worth it to watch the great Janet McTeer grab the screen as Gertrude Lawrence.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Pink Lady: Helen Gahagan Douglas

Politics is a dirty game, and if you're a woman it’s even twice as rough. Women in politics tend to be held to higher standards then men; they have to be tougher without seeming to lose their femininity. They are judged not only on the issues, but how they look. While their opponents may keep on the kid gloves against them, their supporters can come out swinging. Helen Gahagan Douglas (1900-1980) found that out the hard way when she ran for the United States Senate in California against future Vice-President & President of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon.

The year was 1950, World War II had been over for five years, and Harry Truman was President, having been elected in his own right in 1948. It was the beginning of the post-war baby boom, but there was a storm cloud that was hanging over the country, and that was the threat of communism. The Soviets who had been allies during the War were now being looked at as the enemy. Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin has just started his anti-communist witch-hunt, declaring that he had a list of known subversives in the US government, Klaus Fuchs had admitted to selling atomic secrets to the Russians, and the Hollywood Ten, a group of directors and screenwriters, had just been cited for contempt of congress and were facing jail time. In the US, if you wanted to be elected, you had to be anti-communist; to be otherwise was to be seen as Anti-American.

This was the climate in the country when Helen Gahagan Douglas threw her hat into the ring for the US Senate. She was in the middle of serving her third term in the House of Representatives when she decided to run. If she had won, she would have been only the 4th woman elected to the Senate. Helen was getting bored with the slow pace of the House and decided it was time to run for Senator. From the beginning she faced opposition with the Democratic Party, who wanted her to wait until at least 1958 before she ran, gaining a few more years in the House under her belt. But Helen was determined, once she made up her mind to do something, it was done. In 1950, there was only one woman in the Senate who had been elected in her own right, not been appointed to serve out her husband's term, and that was Margaret Chase Smith from Maine.

Helen's opponent Republican candidate Richard Nixon couldn't have been more different. She was glamorous, charismatic and effervescent while Nixon was intense, shy, with shifty eyes and a chip on his shoulder the size of Mt. Rushmore. From an upper middle class family who lived in a mansion in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Helen was a former actress and opera singer married to the actor Melvyn Douglas. Nixon came from a far more modest background in Whittier, CA; his father ran a grocery store. While Helen had dropped out of Barnard College to pursue her acting career, Nixon went to a small local college before attending Duke University Law School where he had his first brush with the criminality that would be his downfall (he orchestrated a break-in to find out his class standing which turned out to be third). While she had grown up in a Republican family, over the years she had become more progressively liberal. Helen was everything that Nixon despised, a rich liberal who was also a woman. As far as Nixon was concerned, women didn't belong in politics, they belonged in the home like his wife Pat.

When Helen entered Congress in 1945 she was one of 9 women out of a total of 435 members. Helen made a name for herself in the House immediately scoring a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. She wasn't demure or winsome, following the leadership of the men. Helen was smart and beautiful and not afraid to speak her mind. Passionate about civil rights, Helen broke the color barrier, when she hired an African-American woman, the daughter of one of her constituents, as a secretary. She was against the arms race, believing that the atomic bomb shouldn't have been shared with the Soviets and other countries. Nor was she for loyalty oaths or outlawing the communist party, not popular stances in the house. Although she never co-authored or sponsored any legislation while in the House, she was considered impressive enough to be thought of as a potential Vice Presidential candidate in 1948, and many thought that she was Presidential material.

During the campaign for Senate, Nixon stressed his humble roots, his pretty wife Pat and two adorable daughters Julie and Tricia, a solid middle class family. So different from Helen's life, whose husband was on tour with a play during her campaign, and her two children who were in boarding school. She was painted as an elitist East Coast liberal with a Jewish husband. Even her talent was called into question by Nixon’s supporters. Why wasn’t she a famous movie-star like her husband? For the record, Gahagan had starred in one Hollywood movie, She in 1935, playing Hash-a-Motep, queen of a lost city. The movie, based on H. Rider Haggard's novel of the same name, is perhaps best known for popularizing a phrase from the novel, "She who must be obeyed." While the film received mixed reviews, it has since become a cult classic. Finding that movie making didn’t agree with her, all that waiting around, Helen had focused more on the stage and radio.

Helen hoped to focus on the domestic issues, particularly those that pertained to Californians, Civil Rights, equal pay for equal work, the rights of the migrant workers, tax cuts for low income families, all the things that Nixon had voted against. As far as Richard Nixon was concerned there was only one important issue, fighting communism. While Helen believed that communist sympathizers weren't a threat, Nixon was responsible for putting Alger Hiss behind bars. He was tight with Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. While Nixon didn't create the climate of fear that existed in the US in 1950, he sure as hell exploited it using tactics that he sure as heck didn't learn at the knee of his Quaker mother, who no doubt was rolling over in her grave at his need to win at any cost. It was Manchester Boddy, owner and publisher of The Los Angeles Daily News, who lost the Democratic primary to Helen, who first smeared with the nickname "The Pink Lady,” claiming that she was “pink right down to her underwear.”

Nixon began alluding to her alleged Communist sympathies, pointing out that her husband had belonged to several groups that turned out to be Communist fronts. He hinted that she was a fellow traveler, citing as evidence her supposed Communist-leaning votes in Congress. He also made vaguely anti-Semitic comments referring to her as Mrs. Hesselberg (Melvyn Douglas’ real last name) Nixon’s campaign manager, Murray Chotiner, ran with the idea; he had flyers printed up on sheets of pink paper to emphasize the point. While Helen fought hard, Nixon kept her continually off balance, having to defend her record instead of being able to focus on the issues. She also had a problem raising money. Nixon was in the pocket of the big businesses of California, in particular the oil industry. Even Joseph and Robert Kennedy donated money to Nixon’s campaign. People she had counted on in the past such as Ronald Reagan had switched allegiances to the Republican Party. Helen wasn’t helped by the fact that the US had gone to war against Northern Korea or by the arrests of the Rosenbergs for passing secrets to the Soviets. Helen’s biggest mistake was in misjudging the very real fear that Americans had about a communist threat to the country.

Nixon won the election in a landslide with 59% of the vote. Helen threw in the towel on her political career. It would take more than forty years before California elected a woman to the Senate, and as if to make up for lost time, they sent two. After it was over, Helen tried to analyze what had gone wrong, before putting the whole thing in the past. She kept active, protesting against the Vietnam War (a stance which ended her friendship with Lyndon Johnson), and against the nuclear arms race. When Watergate went down in 1973, a popular bumper sticker in California at the time, read “Don’t Blame Me, I voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas.

She died in 1980 at the age of 79 from breast and lung cancer.


Sally Denton. The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas, Bloomsbury Press (2009)
Greg Mitchell. Tricky Dick and The Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas - Sexual Politics and The Red Scare (1998)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Scandalous Women in Fiction: THE IRISH PRINCESS

author: Karen Harper
Publisher: NAL, February 1, 2011

From the back cover:

Born into a first family of Ireland, with royal ties on both sides, Elizabeth Fitzgerald-known as Gera-finds her world overturned when Henry VIII imprisons her father, the Earl of Kildare, and brutally destroys her family. Torn from the home she loves, her remaining family scattered, Gera dares not deny the refuge offered her in England's glittering royal court. There she must navigate ever-shifting alliances even as she nurtures her secret desire for revenge. From County Kildare's lush green fields to London's rough-and-tumble streets and the royal court's luxurious pageantry, The Irish Princess follows the journey of a daring woman whose will cannot be tamed, and who won't be satisfied until she restores her family to its rightful place in Ireland.

My thoughts:  I first came across the name Elizabeth Fitzgerald while researching Grace O'Malley for SCANDALOUS WOMEN. And then I saw her name again while reading Tracy Borham's excellent book ELIZABETH'S WOMEN which was just published in the states this past fall. So when I heard that Karen Harper's new book was about Gera, I couldn't wait for it to be published. I grabbed my copy early Tuesday morning while browsing the front table at Barnes & Noble.  This isn't the first book by Karen Harper that I've read, I've also read THE LAST BOLEYN about Anne's older sister Mary which is excellent.  There are so many books out there set in The Tudor time period, that its almost overkill.  What I found intriguing about this book was that Gera was Irish.  The history of Ireland as I discovered while reading about Grace O'Malley is full of intriguing characters, and is virtually untapped as a setting for most historical fiction set during this time period.  Gera is the ultimate outsider at the Tudor court, her family is attainted, even though
she is half-English and related to Henry VIII through her mother Elizabeth Grey, a granddaughter of Elizabeth Woodville, she must keep a tight hold of her tongue at all times, which she often is not too successful at doing.  The novel is filled with the usual suspects, Lady Jane Grey makes an appearance, as do her parents, and Catherine Howard who is as much of a dingbat in this book as she is in the Showtime series. 

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I didn't love it, although I loved Gera who is feisty, stubborn to the point of recklessness, fiercely loyal to her family and the idea that the Geraldines will once again rule Ireland as they did successfully for the English for almost 100 years. Gera is also beautiful with red gold hair and pale skin, when she meets the young Princess Elizabeth, she feels a sense of kinship with the girl, who like her, has been buffeted about as she is in and out of favor according to her father's will.  Henry VIII in this novel, is not the handsome figure that Jonathan Rhys-Meyers cut in Showtime's THE TUDORS.  This is more the Henry VIII that most historical fiction readers have come to know. He's crotchety, cranky, morbidly obese with a disposition that can turn from hot to cold on a dime. Gera hates Henry with a passion, and spends most of the novel trying to figure out ways to destroy him.

The early part of the novel moves quickly as the young Gera Fitzgerald is forced to leave Ireland after the reckless actions of her older half-brother Thomas, nicknamed Silken Thomas. Resourceful, and fiercely Irish, Gera manages to secrete away The Red Book of Kildare out of the country so that the English don't get their hands on it.  On the boat from Ireland to England to join the rest of her family who went to England earlier, she meets Edward Clinton, the husband of Henry VIII's discarded mistress Bessie Blount.  Despite her young age (she's 13), she's immediately attracted to Clinton, even though he's English, one of her avowed enemy. But even before she gets to England, Gera learns about treachery, when she learns that her uncle by marriage, has turned her 5 uncles into the English.

The novel for me bogged down after the execution of her half-brother and uncles.  Once Gera is at court, she becomes more of an observer, than instigator of action.  While it was fascinating to see events through her eyes, at times I found my attention wandering, until Edward Clinton came back into the story, and he and Gera sparred. Their forbidden attraction, that has to be kept hidden because Clinton is married and Gera is bethrothed to Sir Anthony Browne, a man over 40 years her senior, give the novel heart.  Otherwise, it would just be a revenge story.  The book picked up again after Edward VI's death, in the struggle for the crown between Lady Jane Grey and Mary Tudor, which leads to conflict between Gera and her new husband, because his mentor is John Dudley, the father of Guildford and Robert.  Gera is plunged once again into the action, and the book is wonderfully exciting at this point.

When Gera finally returns to Ireland at the end of the book, the reader feels as if she and the main character have come full circle.  Harper was wise to end her book when she did, although Gera's life continued for another 20 or so years after the books end.

My verdict:  THE IRISH PRINCESS features a strong, powerful female protagonist that most readers will identify with.  With a strong beginning and end, only the meandering middle kept it from being a keeper for me.  Still if you are looking for something a little different, THE IRISH PRINCESS might just be your cup of tea.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

February Book of the Month: Caesar's Wives

by Annelise Freisenbruch
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster

Synopsis: In scandals and power struggles obscured by time and legend, the wives, mistresses, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the Caesars have been popularly characterized as heartless murderers, shameless adulteresses, and conniving politicians in the high dramas of the Roman court. Yet little has been known about who they really were and their true roles in the history-making schemes of imperial Rome’s ruling Caesars—indeed, how they figured in the rise, decline, and fall of the empire. Now, in Caesars’ Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire, Annelise Freisenbruch pulls back the veil on these fascinating women in Rome’s power circles, giving them the chance to speak for themselves for the first time. With impeccable scholarship and arresting storytelling, Freisenbruch brings their personalities vividly to life, from notorious Livia and scandalous Julia to Christian Helena. Starting at the year 30 BC, when Cleopatra, Octavia, and Livia stand at the cusp of Rome’s change from a republic to an autocracy, Freisenbruch relates the story of Octavian and Marc Antony’s clash over the fate of the empire—an archetypal story that has inspired a thousand retellings—in a whole new light, uncovering the crucial political roles these first "first ladies" played. From there, she takes us into the lives of the women who rose to power over the next five centuries—often amid violence, speculation, and schemes—ending in the fifth century ad, with Galla Placidia, who was captured by Goth invaders (and married to one of their kings). The politics of Rome are revealed through the stories of Julia, a wisecracking daughter who disgraced her father by getting drunk in the Roman forum and having sex with strangers on the speaker’s platform; Poppea, a vain and beautiful mistress who persuaded the emperor to kill his mother so that they could marry; Domitia, a wife who had a flagrant affair with an actor before conspiring in her husband’s assassination; and Fausta, a stepmother who tried to seduce her own stepson and then engineered his execution—afterward she was boiled to death as punishment.

If you spent time like I did during the '80's watching I CLAUDIUS with Derek Jacobi and Sian Philips, or the more recent HBO miniseries ROME (which should have lasted more than two seasons frankly) then you will want to run out and buy a copy of this book. Friesenbruch details the lives of a whole host of Scandalous Roman women, not only Messalina, but also Livia and Claudius' last wife Agrippina, mother of Nero, along with a host of other wives that have been lost to history until now. I found this book fascinating, dipping my toes into its pages, over the past several months, getting to know these women.  There's also even a little bit about Fulvia, one of Marc Antony's wives, who is an incredibly fascinating character. The author, Annelise Freisenbruch is a Latin teacher at a middle school in Dorset. Frankly if I had had this book when I was taking Latin in junior high and high school I might actually have enjoyed it more!  The book is much more than just a biography of these women, it is only a social history of what life was like for upper class Roman women during the years of the Republic and the Empire. I'm frankly surprised that no one had thought to write about these women before, but I'm very glad that Freisenbruch did.