Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Book Review: A Race to Splendor by Ciji Ware

A Race to Splendor
Author:  Ciji Ware
Publisher:  Sourcebooks
Pub Date: April 2011

Synopsis: Inspired by female architect Julia Morgan, this is the riveting tale of a race against time to rebuild two luxury hotels after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed 400 city blocks and left 250,000 homeless. Morgan's fictional protegee Amelia Bradshaw and client J.D. Thayer will sacrifice anything to see the city they love rise from the ashes; in the process, they can't help but lose their hearts.

My thoughts:  I have a been a longtime fan of Ciji Ware's contemporary and historical fiction, so when I was offered the chance to review her first novel in ten years I jumped at the chance.  Not only was the book set in San Francisco, a city that I feel is criminally underused in historical fiction but the story is set against the aftermath of the great earthquake of 1906.  I've only been to San Francisco once, for the RWA Conference in 2008, but I've long been fascinated by the city by the bay.

Unfortunately I found myself underwhelmed by the book, despite the glowing reviews that I've read. Perhaps my expectations were just too high. The book starts out with a bang as it were as Amelia Hunter Bradshaw arrives in San Franciso after years abroad only to find out that her alcoholic gambler father has lost the famiily hotel The Bayview to James Diaz Thayer.  Amelia valiantly tries to regain the hotel but is thwarted by the legal system which is corrupt. She manages to obtain work at Julia Morgan's architecture firm but discovers that working for her friend and mentor is not what she expected.  Before too long, the reader and Amelia is jolted by the tremors of the San Francisco earthquake. For me, this was the best part of the book.  Ware's descriptions of the earthquake and the horrific fire that followed in the aftermath are wonderfully evocative as thousands of residents are left homeless by the destruction.

What follows next is a race to see who can rebuild fastest, The Fairmont Hotel (which still exists) which was due to open before the earthquake or the fictional Bay View.  Amelia's employer Julia Morgan is hired to build both hotels which means that Amelia finds herself having to help her enemy rebuild her family's legacy.  I found Amelia to be an appealing heroine. She is stubborn, optimistic, strong-willed, and independent. She's not without her flaw, she's quick to judge and seems to try to avoid confrontation if possible.  A graduate of the University of Berkeley with a degree in Engineering, Amelia has spent several years in Paris studying architecture, becoming the second woman after Julia Morgan to earn a degree.  I wanted to know more about her experiences in Europe, as well as her struggles as an architect in San Francisco.  Her relationship with Julia Morgan takes a backseat to her burgeoning romance with J.D. Thayer.

I was not quite as enamored of James Diaz Thayer as I was of Amelia.  He's a gambler who sets out deliberately to exploit the weaknesses of Amelia's father in order to gain ownership of the hotel.  He has a strained relationship with his father, but what bothered me even more was that he abandoned his mother at the age of 15, knowing that his father was emotionally as well as physically abusive to her, plying her with drugs to keep her compliant as he siphoned off her money. Yes, J.D. is remarkably free of prejudices.  Like Amelia he befriends the Chinese workers who come to help remove the rubble from his destroyed gambling club, a club he knew was put up shoddily. I just couldn't warm to him.

When the book focused on the building of the Bay View hotel, I was riveted.  Watching Amelia ply her craft was a joy.  And the depiction of the Chinese in San Francisco at the turn of the century and people like Donaldina Cameron who were working to gain them freedom from the sweatshops, brothels and opium dens was fascinating.  When the story veered in to the tentative romance between J.D. and Amelia, I was less interested. J.D. has a rival for Amelia's affections, in the doctor Angus McClure but courtship takes place offstage, we hear about Angus and Amelia having dinner and his proposals but we never really see it. 

The two biggest weaknesses in the book, in my opinion, are the villains Ezra Kemp and 'Big Jim' Thayer who seemed to have wandered in from a Victorian melodrama.  Ezra Kemp in particular seems one step away from twirling his moustache and tying Amelia to the railroad tracks.  Neither villain has any redeeming qualities whatsoever.  They are both horrible human beings, who hate the Chinese and basically every ethnic group that aren't White Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, and both are lousy fathers who treat their children like commodities. Oh, and they both own brothels and opium dens too boot, exploiting the Chinese workers. Ezra Kemp pushes asides other victims of the earthquake to make his escape from the city on one of the last ferries.

The other thing that bothered me was that the book seems to rely on too many coincidences. When the hotel seems to be destroyed after a boiler explosion, J.D. manages to get his father to agree not to block his getting more funds.  When J.D. runs out money again, another miracle occurs and the funds miraculously are found.  Kemp tries to blackmail J.D., but he brushes it off as it were just another day at the office. I never really felt that Kemp was that much of a threat to J.D. or to the hotel.  His thugs seem like something out of a cartoon, twice Amelia manages to overcome a threat to her person with seeming ease. Just before the hotel opens, Amelia finds evidence that her father had managed to gain back the hotel, just in time for the grand opening.

Verdict:  Recommended. If you are looking for a historical romance set against an interesting backdrop with a heroine with an usual occupation then this book is for you.  Those readers looking for a meatier historical fiction novel will be disappointed.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Love Goddess and the Prince

"Men fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me." - Rita Hayworth

Movie star Rita Hayworth (1918 - 1987) was at a personal and professional crossroads in her life when she took off for Europe in the summer of 1948. She was feuding with Columbia studio boss Harry Cohen. After short-lived affairs with David Niven and Howard Hughes, she had realized that she was still in love with her estranged husband Orson Welles. But Orson had moved on, he'd fallen in love with a fiery Italian actress. This time there would be no reconciliation. Heartbroken, Rita wasn't interested when society hostess Elsa Maxwell begged her to attend a party at the Summer Casino in Cannes. Elsa insisted that she just had to attend, urging Rita to buy a new dress, preferably white, and to arrive fashionably late. A real life Prince would be amongst the guests.

The Prince in question was 37 year old Aly Khan, son of the Aga Khan III, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam, and a direct descendent from the prophet Mohammed. Playboy, racecar driver, soldier, horse breeder and religious leader, the Prince had been fascinated with Hayworth ever since he had seen her film BLOOD AND SAND, where she played the tempestous Dona Sol, while serving in Egypt. Since then, he had been determined to meet her, biding his time until the right moment. He was soon to get his wish at Elsa Maxwell's party.

It wasn't an immediate slam dunk. While Rita was flattered by Aly's attentions, she wasn't in the mood for a serious romance. Still Aly persisted, sending huge bouquets of rose, so many that her suite began to look like a florist shop. He took her out to candle-lit dinners at small intimate places high in the hills, and dancing in out-of-the way nightclubs so they could have some privacy. Rita couldn't help but be flattered by his attentions both in and out of the bedroom. The prince's prowess in the boudoir was considered legendary. Rumor had it that he had learned an ancient technique that allowed him to make love to a woman not just for hours but for days before reaching a climax himself. Rita responded to the wounded little boy in Aly, who had never been able to please his difficult and demanding father. He aroused all her maternal instincts. He whisked her off to Biarritz, France, piloting his private plane Avenger. Then they traveled by car, in a shiny new Cadillac ordered from Paris, to Spain and Portugal. Rita assumed at first that Aly was toying with her, but she soon realized just how serious he was. Rita, however, was just not ready for another serious relationship. She soon fled to stay with friends for a few days to get her bearings. A fortune teller who had been hired as a lark to entertain at a private party changed Rita's mind. She predicted that Rita was about to embark on the greatest romance of her life. The man in question was someone that she knew who she had foolishly resisted.

That was all Rita needed to throw herself headlone into the relationship. Before long, Aly had offered the sanctuary of his nearby Chateau de l'Horizon to keep his new love safe from the prying eyes of the paparazzi. Despite the fortune teller's prediction, the romance was rocky from the start. Now that he had won his prize, Aly reverted from the devoted prince who lavished hours of attention on his new love, to the bon vivant playboy that he really was. Aly was gregarious by nature, loving nothing more than to be surrounded by people. He had an open door policy at all his lavish homes for his friends and assorted hangers-on. Rita immediately felt out of place amongst his jet-setting friends who spoke several languages, and all knew each other from the watering holes of Europe or from the elite boarding schools they had attended. Although she was an international sex symbol, Rita was painfully shy and had been since childhood. She much preferred to sit quietly in a corner, or small gatherings with a just a few friends. In spite of having worked with stars like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Tyrone Power, Rita was easily intimidated. She felt keenly her lack of education, having been forced to drop out of school at the age of 12 to in order to tour as her father's dancing partner in the casinos and hotels of Tijuana, Mexico.

There was also the problem of Aly's wandering eye. Women were drawn to him like catnip, and he certainly felt no urge to turn their invitations down. Rita threw jealous tantrums, which only served to inflame Aly. The prince also lived a rootless, hedonistic lifestyle which was the antithesis of the home, family and security that Rita craved. They fought passionately and made-up the same way. Gossip columnists were tickled pink at the news of Rita's new romance. Who could resist the story of the American movie star and the foreign prince even if no one knew exactly what he was prince of. Conservatives were incensed at the idea of Rita cavorting openly with a married man. She was labeled a bad mother amongst other things. Racism also reared its ugly head, Aly might have been a prince but he was still the wrong color. The Aga Khan was incensed by all the publicity surrounding the affair. He gave his son an ultimatum, either get a divorce and marry Rita or end the relationship for good. When he finally met Rita, he was won over by her modesty and charm.

Studio boss Harry Cohn was furious that Rita was still off gallivanting in Europe instead of back where she belonged, making movies for Columbia Pictures. The gossip about her relationship with Aly could ruin all the time and money that Cohn had invested in his auburn-haired asset. The furor against her relationship just served to make Rita more determined to continue seeing Aly. He followed Rita to Los Angeles. Although he moved into a house close by, he spent most of his nights at Rita's. He now endeared himself to Rita by the way he treated her little daughter Rebecca Welles who had been virtually ignored by her father since her birth. He supported Rita when she refused to film Lona Hansen without a script. Rita began to feel that perhaps Aly would be the protector that she had been looking for after all.

They were married on May 27, 1949 at the town hall of Cannes, France. Aly's father The Aga Khan and Aly’s stepmother, the Begum, attended conferring their approval on the match. Afterwards a lavish reception was held at Chateau de l’Horizon. The bride wore a long-sleeved ice blue dress by Jacques Fath, with a floppy blue hat.. The marriage was doomed from the beginning. Although she had agreed to the wedding, Rita still hoped that Orson Welles would swoop down and rescue her. At the wedding, "500 guests from the United States and Europe feasted on 50 pounds of caviar, 600 bottles of Champagne and other gourmet delights around a swimming pool scented with 200 gallons of eau de Cologne." In the swimming pool, white carnations formed 2 enormous interlocking 12 foot letters A for Aly, M for Margarita (Hayworth's birth name was Margarita Carmen Cansino)The reception went on for 6 hours, exhausting the bride who was two months pregnant. The next day, the couple were married by a pair of Muslim priests from the Paris mosque in a religious ceremony. The Catholic Church howled at Rita's decision not only to marry a Muslim but also to bring up her children in the faith.

After the wedding, Aly hired an etiquette teacher, a Georgian prince named Gregory Eristoff to initiate her in the mysteries of being a princess, all the protocal she would need to meet the dignitaries and other royalty in her new role. In the beginning, Rita forced herself to please Aly, to make him proud of her. The lessons must have brought back painful memories though of the dance lessons with her father, that often ended in physical and emotional abuse. But the traveling was a constant strain as the couple moved from one race meeting to another. In December, Rita gave birth to her second daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan in Switzerland. Aly was delighted to have a daughter, to join his two sons by his first wife. For three months, after Aly broke his leg skiing, the couple lived the kind of life that Rita longed for, but soon Aly was restless again. Rita began spending more and more time in her room, drinking and dancing to the Spanish records that she loved instead of entertaining Aly's guests. Aly encouraged her to go back to making films, not just to give her something to do, but because they needed the cash. The Aga Khan kept his son on a tight financial leash, so Aly began spending her money. This was not the life that Rita wanted or envisioned.

It was a trip to Africa to visit the various Ismaili communties there that was the final straw in the marriage. Aly had promised Rita that they would go on a romantic safari but after he ignored her all night at a New Year's Eve party in Nairobi, Rita said au revoir. The marriage had lasted less than two years. Rita filed for divorce in 1951 on the grounds of "extreme cruelty, entirely mental in nature." but dropped the suit in 1952 after Aly pleaded for a reconciliation. Eventually, however, the couple were divorced in April 1953, due his infidelities. During the custody fight over their daughter Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, Prince Khan said he wanted her raised as a Muslim; whereas Hayworth (who had been raised a Roman Catholic) wanted the child to be a Christian. The settlement was increased to $1.5 million in 1954, which included trust-fund payments of $100,000 a year for 14 years for Princess Yasmin, plus $8,000 a year maintenance.

After several high profile romances with Joan Fontaine and Gene Tierney, Aly seemed to settle down.  He was chosen as the Pakistan delegate to the UN and took his duties seriously. Aly Khan died in a car accident in 1960. After two more marriages that ended in divorce, and public embarrassment when she was accused of neglecting her two daughters,  Rita was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer's in her later years. She spent the last years of her life being taken care of by her daughter Princess Yasmin, who created a foundation to find a cure for the disease.

On paper, it was a storybook romance, the lovely flame-haired movie star and her handsome prince, but neither Rita nor Aly were emotionally equipped to sustain a long-term relationship.  Rita had a deep emotional hole in her that couldn't be filled, no matter how the man she loved reassured her of his devotion.  She needed constant attention, not just because as a movie star she was used to it, but because her own childhood had been so devastating. An alcoholic mother, a father who emotionally and physically abused her, forcing her to project a sexual allure at very young age, completely messed her. Aly spent his life trying to please his notoriously prickly father. But their romance has gone down in the history books as one for the ages.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Scandalous Women welcomes Sarah Bower, author of SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA

Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome historical fiction author Sarah Bower to the blog. Sarah is the author of the new novel SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA, which was published by Sourcebooks Landmark earlier this month.  What perfect timing with Showtimes new series The Borgias premiering next month. SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA is one of the best historical fiction novels that I've read this year. It is a meaty character study of the Borgia's seen through the eyes of an outsider, a young jewish woman named Esther who converts to Christianity. Here are what the critics are saying:

The sheer grandeur of the papal and Ferrara courts, and the spectacle of the Borgia and Ferrara siblings' rivalries and revenges form a glittering take on one of the most notorious families of the Italian Renaissance. (Publishers Weekly )

Bower brilliantly merges history with politics and convincing characters to draw readers into a lush and colorful tapestry of Renaissance life... This powerful piece of fiction ranks with some of the finest of the genre. 4 1/2 Stars, Top Pick of the Month

When I heard you had kindly invited me to guest on your blog, I naturally took a look at it and your headline quote from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that ‘well behaved women don’t make history’ set me thinking about the two women who play central roles in my new novel, SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA. Violante, the narrator, is a largely fictional character, though she was inspired by a real lady-in-waiting to Lucrezia Borgia who is described as a conversa, a converted Jewess. Lucrezia herself is, of course, a major historical figure, and one notorious for her bad behaviour, although whether or not this made history is open to question and depends on how you define ‘making history’.

There are those whose actions directly affect the course of history, for example Lucrezia’s contemporary, Caterina Sforza. From the time of her first marriage, Caterina was surrounded by ineffectual men, but she didn’t let them keep her down, taking up the command of her own troops in defence of her cities of Imola and Forli against a series of attackers, including Lucrezia’s dangerous brother, Cesare. She held out against Cesare longer than any others on whose states he had designs; even when he threatened to kill her children, who were in his ‘protective custody’, she responded by climbing on to her battlements, hiking her skirts up to her waist and shouting at the much younger and possibly disconcerted Cesare that he could go right ahead as she had the wherewithal to make more children. (He didn’t, you will be relieved to hear but did, briefly, become her lover. No children ensued.) Defiant to the last, she later attempted to poison Cesare and Lucrezia’s father, Pope Alexander VI, by sending him a letter which had been laid against the body of a plague victim in order to impregnate it with plague bacilli. The attempt was discovered and Caterina was exiled to Florence.

For others, however, like Violante and Lucrezia herself, defying convention is more a matter of survival, and it is that survival which alters history’s course. Violante’s history, in my novel, stands for that of many thousands of Spanish Jews who chose to convert to Christianity rather than lose everything when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. Perhaps, to us, this looks like a cowardly compromise, but that is both to underestimate the depth of hostility to the Jews in the Catholic Europe of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and also to misunderstand the nature of many of these conversions. Many of the conversi paid only lip service to their adopted religion, and kept up their Jewish practices in secret. So deep did this compromise run that, when I was researching SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA, I spoke to people of Sephardic descent who had been brought up as Roman Catholics yet observed customs such as lighting candles on Friday night, without knowing why they did this until they discovered their families’ origins in the Spanish Jewish diaspora. The notorious Spanish Inquisition was originally established in order to root out these ‘fake’ conversions, even though its remit ran much wider in later years.

The women who presided over converso households were ‘behaving badly’ whichever way you look at it. On the one hand, they had publicly renounced their faith and ethnicity. On the other, they were secretly upholding traditions which were against the law. Yet, without their courage and ingenuity in navigating a course between the demands of the Christian state and their traditional religious and cultural observance, the Sephardic culture, with its Ladino music and glorious cuisine, would have been lost to us and our lives today would have been the poorer for it.

With her third husband, Alfonso d’Este, Lucrezia Borgia had five children who lived to adulthood, including Cardinal Ippolito d’Este II, the architect of the great Villa d’Este and its gardens in Tivoli, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Alfonso and Lucrezia were, if not in love, contentedly married for seventeen years.

When her father died suddenly in 1503, and Cesare, himself dangerously ill at the time, lost his powerbase in the Romagna and was sent to Spain to answer charges of murder, Lucrezia’s own position was precarious. As she knew only too well, inconvenient spouses could be disposed of in a variety of ways, from divorce to murder to execution for adultery, yet, after a famously misspent youth, she ensured her survival, and her contribution to history, by behaving well. By sheer force of will, she transformed herself from the bastard daughter of a Pope with a reputation of her own for sexual depravity, into a revered and respected duchess.

Visiting Ferrara during my research, I was struck by the contrast between the Lucrezia of legend, of Victor Hugo’s play and Donizetti’s opera, and the plump, motherly woman whose image, accompanied by her children, is everywhere in that city. In Ferrara she is remembered as a devoted wife and mother, a distinguished patron of, among others, Ariosto and Pietro Bembo, and as a gallant defender of her adopted home from an army led by Pope Julius II during the War of the League of Cambrai. She helped to organise troops and artillery, and at one stage pawned her jewellery in order to purchase ammunition for the city’s cannon. On many occasions she was left in charge of Ferrara while her husband was away on business in Venice and France, and gained a reputation as an efficient administrator and a wise and compassionate dispenser of justice.

What sets Lucrezia apart from well behaved women who fail to leave their mark on history is the fact that her conduct was not, it seems to me, determined by subservience to her husband but by her shrewd political intelligence and the courage she displayed in carrying on when she had lost everyone she loved. The Borgias were not one of the great traditional Roman dynasties such as the Orsini or the Visconti. They were minor Catalan gentry who emigrated to Italy, rose rapidly and fell just as fast. They were self-made people and Lucrezia was, perhaps, the most successfully self-made of all. Cesare proved unable to reinvent himself and died as he had lived, recklessly and violently, but his sister was a woman for all seasons, whose capacity to adapt and survive helped her to leave a lasting mark on posterity.

Thanks so much for stopping by Sarah.  You can find out more about Sarah at or purchase SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA at or

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Scandalous Women Blog Tour

So to promote Scandalous Women, I've been on a bit of a blog tour.  Today I'm over at Historical Tapestry talking about Books of a Lifetime.  Stop by and let me know what are your Books of a Lifetime.  For further stops on the tour, please check out the Events page on the blog or the sidebar.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Scandalous Women on Film: Diane (1956)

Diane (1956)
Produced by: MGM
Directed by:  David Miller
Screenplay: Christopher Isherwood based on a story by John Erskine.


Lana Turner - Diane de Poitiers
Pedro Armendáriz - King Francis I of France
Roger Moore - Prince Henri (later King Henry II)
Marisa Pavan - Catherine de' Medici
Sir Cedric Hardwicke - Ruggieri
Torin Thatcher - Count de Brèze
Taina Elg - Alys
John Lupton - Regnault
Henry Daniell - Gondi
Ronald Green - The Dauphin
Sean McClory - Count Montgomery
Geoffrey Toone - Duke of Savoy
Michael Ansara - Count Ridolfi
Melville Cooper - Court Physician

Synopsis (from Wikipedia): The action is set in 16th century France. Diane de Poitiers (Lana Turner), mistress of Prince Henri (Roger Moore), the future King Henry II, rises to a position of absolute power through her manipulation of the men in her life. Those men include King Francis I (Pedro Armendariz) and Diane's husband, the Count de Brèze (Torin Thatcher). Diane's principal foe is the scheming Catherine de' Medici (Marisa Pavan), who for the first time in her life has met her match.

My thoughts:  God bless TCM! I had never heard of this movie before I saw it in the March program guide. As soon as I saw that Lana Turner was playing Diane de Poitiers, I knew that I had to watch it. I had no idea what I was going to be getting.  The film was produced by MGM, known for its lavish musicals, not really for historical dramas.  And Lana Turner wasn't exactly known for her acting skills during her Hollywood career.  Still I was intrigued a) by the idea that anyone in Hollywood had heard of Diane de Poitiers and b) that Christopher Isherwood wrote the screenplay.  For those who don't know, the musical Cabaret is based on short stories that Isherwood wrote about his time in Berlin between the wars.

Don't be fooled by the synopsis from Wikipedia, Diane manipulates no one in this movie.  Catherine de Medici yes, but not Diane. The film is somewhat historically accurate although it condenses Henri and Diane's 25 year affair into just a few years.  When Diane meets Henri in the film, he's an adult.  In reality, Henri was 12 and just been returned to France after being held hostage in Italy.  Francis I wanted Diane to teach Henri how to be a Prince exactly as she does in the film, although I'm pretty sure that she wasn't teaching him French.  The film opens with Diane's husband the Comte de Breze being interested for his involvement with Charles de Bourbon (which everyone in the film pronounces like the whiskey). Historically, it was Diane's father who was arrested for his involvement, and Diane pleaded with Francis I for his release.  The film Diane has no children, while the historical Diane had two children. The Dauphin in the film actually becomes King after Francis I dies for all of about 5 minutes before he dies of suspected poisoning. Historically the Dauphin was suspected of being poisoned, but he died when he was 18, long before Francis I.

I wouldn't say the Diane in this film rises to absolute power either.  Because the movie was made in the 1950's, the affair between Henri and Diane is particulary unsexy.  They declare their love, she runs off after he marries Catherine de Medici, is brought back to court when Henri becomes King, but apart from one scene in her bedroom where she's in a nightgown and Henri is fully clothed (both feet on the floor), the audience has to infer that she and Henri are going at it like bunnies. The film also skips 7 years, during which Catherine de Medici bares 3 sons (no mention of the other 7 children she gave birth too) and then we come to the climatic joust where Henri is killed.  In this film, Catherine's family, the Medici's plot Henri's death, to avenge Catherine for the way he has been treating her, and for the decision to make a treaty with Savoy. Because the film is only about 2 hours, the audience really doesn't get much of a sense of how Diane influenced Henri, the fact that he gave her the magnificent chateau of Chenonceau is skipped over, as well as their monogram that was everywhere.  There is a moment at the end where Henri makes her Queen of the Lists for the joust, and she chastizes him for it, where you get a minute sense of how powerful she might have been, but its quickly glossed over.

What can one say about the acting?  Well, Lana Turner looked lovely in her costmes and that's about it. Roger Moore, wow, I had no idea that he was making movies in the 1950's in Hollywood.  Seriously, the former Saint/James Bond was quite dishy when he was younger. He looks gorgeous in this film, and certainly they make sure to show off his legs as much as possible. His acting? Well he's better than Lana Turner and the actor who plays Francis I who recites all his dialogue as if reading it off of cue cards.  The most intriguing character in the film is of course Catherine de Medici played by Marisa Pavan, who is much prettier than the real Catherine but perfectly captures the Italian princess who falls in love with Henri and suffers because of his love for Diane.  Catherine has an astrologer who predicts that she will have 3 sons who will become King and that she will rule through them, and that Henri will be killed during a joust (the information is kept from her).  The scene where she finds out that she will be the mother of Kings is magnificent as is the scene where she spies on Henri and Diane and learns of their love.  A more painful scene is at the end where her son (Francis II) is happy to see his 'Aunt Diane' and wants to know when she is coming back.  The look of anguish and jealousy on Pavan's face is priceless.

The chances of there being another mini-series about Diane seems to be slim to none unless the French get cracking, so for the moment all we historical fiction lovers have is this movie.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Guest Blogger Leanna Renee Hieber on Clara Lemlich

To commerate the 100th anniversary of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome Guest blogger Leanna Renee Hieber to talk about Clara Lemlich. I had never heard of Clara until Leanna told me about her, and I'm so glad that she was able to take the time to stop by and share a little of her story with us.

Born March 26, 1886 in Gorodok Ukraine to a Jewish family, Clara Lemlich was one of America’s most influential women of the Union movement in the early 1900s. Her family came to New York in 1903 after a pogrom (an anti-Jewish riot) in Kishinev. Clara quickly found work in the garment industry, which had intensified in hours and in danger with the advent of industrial sewing machines.

In November 1909, her rousing speech at the Cooper Union (despite nursing broken ribs from rough treatment by the New York Police Department breaking up Union protesters) called for a general strike. She led the Uprising of the 20,000 in which 20,000 of New York City’s 32,000 garment workers, nearly all young immigrant women, went on strike for fair, humane treatment. All this long before women had the vote. In February 1910 many companies agreed to Union concessions for higher wages, more reasonable hours and safer workplaces. One of the companies that did not agree to Union protocols was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which suffered a horrific fire on March 25, 1911, in which 146 people, mostly teenaged girls, were either burned to death or jumped from the top floors to their deaths, causing waves of outrage that would lead to laws mandating safe work spaces.

Clara was directly involved with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and countless other Union and consumer activist boards. She was blacklisted for her union work but never wavered from her passion for organizing labor movements and advocacy groups. She died July 25th, 1982. In her final years at a nursing home, she helped organize the staff.
With love and solidarity on this centennial anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire,
Leanna Renee Hieber graduated with a BFA in Theatre, a focus in the Victorian Era and a scholarship to study in London. Having adapted works of 19th Century literature for the stage, her one-act plays have been produced around the country. The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, first in the Strangely Beautiful quartet of Gothic Victorian Fantasy novels, hit Barnes & Noble’s bestseller lists, won 2010 Prism Awards for Best Fantasy and Best First Book and the rights have been sold for adaptation into a musical theatre production currently in development. In addition to new Strangely Beautiful releases, she's launching a new Gothic Paranormal series set in 1880s New York City, releasing 11/11 from Sourcebooks Fire. A member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Romance Writers of America and International Thriller Writers, she was honoured to have been named RWA NYC’s 2010 Author of the Year. A member of actors unions AEA, SAG and AFTRA, Leanna works often in film and television. When not writing or on set, she's a devotee of ghost stories and Goth clubs, adventuring about NYC, where she resides with her real-life hero and beloved rescued lab rabbit Persebunny. Visit her at and on Twitter @LeannaRenee

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Scandalous Women on Film: Joanapalooza on TCM

Tomorrow from 8 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., TCM has programmed 4 movies about Joan of Arc, which I'm calling Joanapalooza. After spending time researching Joan of Arc for SCANDALOUS WOMEN, I'm eager to see at least 2 of these films (I don't know if I have the stamina to watch all 4!).  I was familiar with George Bernard Shaw's play St. Joan and the French playwright Jean Anouilh's play The Lark, but I have never seen any of these four films.

First up at 8:00 p.m. is the 1948 film Joan of Arc, directed by Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, GWTW) and starring Ingrid Bergman as Joan and Jose Ferrer as the Dauphin.  The film is based on the Maxwell Anderson play which was in blank verse like several of his other plays including Anne of the Thousand Days. This was one of the last Hollywood films that Ingrid Bergman did until 1956, due to her scandalous love affair with director Roberto Rossellini, while she was still married to her first husband. She was actually denounced on the floor of Congress for giving birth out of wedlock to her first child by Rossellini, Robertino. She didn't make another Hollywood film until Anastasia. For years, the film was overshadowed by Bergman's personal life, and while not a financial failure, it didn't do nearly as well as it might have been.  Bergman was 33 when she made the film, which is almost twice the age that Joan was in real life.

Next up at 10:30 p.m. is the 1957 Otto Preminger film St. Joan starring Jean Seberg with Richard Widmark and Richard Todd. I'm curious about this one too because Jean Seberg has never had much of a reputation as an actress, but I think she was hand-picked by Preminger out of nowhere for this role, and she was really young at the time, probably no more than 19 which is the age Joan was when she was executed.

At 12:30 a.m. is a silent film, 1928's The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer who I have heard of and starring several actors that I haven't. The film stars Renée Jeanne Falconetti,as Joan, this was her second film and her last. According to Wikipedia, it is widely regarded as a landmark of cinema,especially for its production, its direction and Falconetti's performance, which has been described as being among the finest in cinema history.  The film was also considered revolutionary because Dreyer shot a large number of close-ups of the actors, so that audiences could really see their facial expressions. and he discouraged them from wearing make-up.  The film was thought lost after a fire destroyed the original negative, and the poor director tried to reconstruct it from outtakes. However, an original copy of the film was found in a janitor's closet in an Oslo mental institution. Seriously, you can't make stuff like this up. This is the print that will be shown on TCM. You can see the original poster for the film on the right. I don't know it looks kind of creepy with the flames, not quite as heroic as the Ingrid Bergman portrait.

The final film at 2:00 a.m. is Le Process de Jeanne D'Arc, a 1962 French film, which like The Passion of Joan of Arc, was taken from the trial transcripts.

So, has anyone seen these films before or the plays? If you have, what did like or didn't like about them? I'm really curious to hear what people think.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Enchantress: Emma, Lady Hamilton at The Grolier Club

Yesterday, I went with my friend, the lovely and talented Hope Tarr, to The Grolier Club here in New York to see the new exhibit, The Enchantress: Emma, Lady Hamilton. Founded in 1884, The Grolier Club is a private club for bibliophiles and enthusiasts of the graphic arts.  It is America's oldest and largest club of its kind. To be a member, you have to be nominated, that just shows you how exclusive it is.  Still the exibitions are open to the public and more importantly they are free.

Since I wrote about Emma in Scandalous Women, I was eager to see the exhibition. Although the exibit is small, it is lovely.  The exhibition features the collection of Jean Kislak who has spent years collecting manuscripts, books and art related to Emma and her era, including the events that shaped her life as well as the men who loved her, her husband Sir William Hamilton and her lover Lord Nelson.

Among the many amazing items in the exhibit are oil paintings of Emma by Romney and Sir Thomas Lawrence, as well as the earliest known letter from Lord Nelson to Emma, written aboard HMS Vanguard just before the Battle of the Nile. Although Nelson had asked Emma to burn his letters to her (he had burned hers to him) she kept them.  The Kislak has 11 of those letters.  There's something about seeing original letters in the handwriting of a historial person to make them seem oh, so real. They are no longer just the inanimate object in a dusty book, but real, living breathing people.  There's a portrait that I've never seen of Emma in her wedding dress, and what I found most fascinating of all, their daugher Horatia's crib. I can't imagine how Jean Kislak managed to find that.

According to the information sheet, Jean Kislak has spent more than 25 years putting together this collection. In addition to the letters which are numerous, not just between Emma and Lord Nelson, but from Sir William Hamilton to his nephew Charles Greville, Emma's previous lover. There's also a portfolio of prints of Emma in theatrical poses, first editions of what was reported to be her memoirs, her financial papers, and a silver pill box with Nelson's portrait in cameo.  I could have spent hours in that room just staring at the objects. I've never felt closer to Emma than I did in that room. Her story breaks my heart, no matter how many biographies that I read.

Even more touching was that Jean Kislak paid for a memorial to be put up in Calais where Emma died and was buried. Her grave unfortunately is lost to history but admirers of Emma can now have some place to go just as Nelson fans can go to St. Paul's Cathedral to see his tomb. I wish I had known about the exhibition sooner because Flora Fraser, one of Emma's biographers gave a talk in February.  There is an illustrated catalog available for the exhibition, it's $35 for non-members but totally worth it.

The exhibition will be at The Grolier Club through April 30th.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

And the Winner Is.......

The winner of the Scandalous Women giveaway is....

Miz Waller

Congratulations! I will be sending you an email to get your address. Thanks to everyone who entered, or tweeted, or posted the details about the giveaway. I really appreciate it.  There will be other opportunties to win a copy of the book as I continue by blog tour in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I hope you all will keep following the book because I have some exciting posts coming up, about some very interesting women!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Eating Scandalously in New York

In New York, you have to take your history where you can find it.  The city has changed so much over it's 400 years of existence and much has been lost, particularly when it comes to Scandalous Women.  The building where Evelyn Nesbit spent on Stanford White's red velvet swing collapsed a few years ago, the original Madison Square Garden no longer exists, and the Vanderbilt and Astor mansions have long since been torn down for high rise buildings. However, one thing you can do is eat scandalously. The following eateries pay homage to some of the Scandalous Women that I have written about in the past.

The photo above is the Lillie Langtry room at Keen's Steakhouse which is located a stone's throw away from Macy's Department store.  Keen's has been around since 1885, which makes it one of the oldest restaurants in NYC and one of the few that still exist from the 19th century.  Lillie Langtry was the first woman customer at Keen's and in honor of her, they named this absolutely lovely room after her.  I don't eat meat but I still love to go to Keen's to soak in the historic atmosphere.  If you have dinner there, take a note of the pipes on the ceiling.

Another restaurant also pays home to Lillie Langtry, appropriately enough named Lillie's near Union Square.  I just happened to stumble upon this place one day, and now it's one of my favorite place's in the city.  It has a distinctly Victorian feeling and I love that they have a copy of Millais' famous painting of Lillie. The food is Irish-American which is funny considering that Lillie was from the island of Jersey and her heritage was more English and French than Irish, although her husband Edward Langtry was Irish.  Truthfully the food is not amazing, but the appetizers are great, and the restaurant serves wine from the winery that Lillie used to own in California.

Of course, one cannot write a post about eating scandalously in New York without mentioning Chez Josephine. This restaurant opened 25 years ago on 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, began when it was no man's land. People thought Jean-Claude Baker was crazy but its exactly the type of thing that Josephine Baker would have done.  The restaurant is an homage not just to Josephine Baker but also to the club that she opened in Paris in the 1930's.  I have yet to go there but I plan on having dinner there sometime in the future, bearing a copy of my book!

The newest eatery on the block is Mary Queen of Scots.   The restaurant is not only named after the Queen of that name but also after one of the owners whose name is Mary (of course) and she's from Scotland.  The restaurant, located on the lower East Side, has only been open a few months but it's already creating buzz.  I had dinner there last Wednesday and the food was sublime, particularly the fried Brussell Sprouts.  The food, befitting Mary Queen of Scots is French/Scottish and the decor is simply beautiful.  Take particular notice of the drinks menu which has drinks named after Darnley, Walsingham and the Auld Alliance.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Book of the Month: The Tin Ticket

THE TIN TICKET:  The Heroic Journey of Australia's Convict Women
AUTHOR:  Deborah J. Swiss
PUBLISHER:  Berkeley Publishing
PUB DATE:  October 2010

This month's Book of the Month is THE TIN TICKET: The Heroic Journey of Australia's Convict Women.  Since March is Women's History Month, and the theme this year is Survivors, I thought it more than appropriate.  The only convict's story that I was familiar with before reading this book was Mary Bryant's, a young Cornish woman, who managed to escape the penal colony and make her way back to the UK. These are the untold stories of the women who were not able to do that.You can find out more at the author's website:

Synopsis:  Historian Deborah J. Swiss tells the heartbreaking, horrifying, and ultimately triumphant story of the women exiled from the British Isles and forced into slavery and savagery-who created the most liberated society of their time.

Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston were convicted for shoplifting. Bridget Mulligan stole a bucket of milk; Widow Ludlow Tedder, eleven spoons. For their crimes, they would be sent not to jail, but to ships teeming with other female convicts. Tin tickets, stamped with numbers, were hung around the women's necks, and the ships set out to carry them to their new home: Van Diemen's Land, later known as Tasmania, part of the British Empire's crown jewel, Australia. Men outnumbered women nine to one there, and few "proper" citizens were interested in emigrating. The deportation of thousands of petty criminals-the vast majority nonviolent first offenders-provided a convenient solution for the government.

Crossing Shark-infested waters, some died in shipwrecks during the four-month journey, or succumbed to infections and were sent to a watery grave. Others were impregnated against their will by their captors. They arrived as nothing more than property. But incredibly, as the years passed, they managed not only to endure their privation and pain but to thrive on their own terms, breaking the chains of bondage, and forging a society that treated women as equals and led the world in women's rights.

The Tin Ticket takes us to the dawn of the nineteenth century and into the lives of Agnes McMillan, whose defiance and resilience carried her to a far more dramatic rebellion; Agnes's best friend Janet Houston, who rescued her from the Glasgow wynds and was also transported to Van Diemen's Land; Ludlow Tedder, forced to choose just one of her four children to accompany her to the other side of the world; Bridget Mulligan, who gave birth to a line of powerful women stretching to the present day. It also tells the tale of Elizabeth Gurney Fry, a Quaker reformer who touched all their lives. Ultimately, it is the story of women discarded by their homeland and forgotten by history-who, by sheer force of will, become the heart and soul of a new nation.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Happy Release Day!

Today is the release day for Scandalous Women, and I'm tremendously excited. It's been a year and a half since I sold the book in August 2009, and it's been a long journey from blog to book. Seven months of writing, and three months of revisions to produce the finished book. But at long last it's here and in a bookstore near you!

And I'm very happy to announce that the book has been chosen as RT Book Reviews Non-Fiction pick of the month in the April issue.  I'm working on trying to scan the article into my computer but until then the issue is at your local Barnes and Noble or Borders Bookstore.  I'm also pretty chuffed that the blog was also chosen as one of the Top 50 History Blogs by Zen College Life.  The book has also gotten rave reviews from BookPage as well as The Trades. Please check out the News and Reviews page to read them.

In honor of the release, I'm giving away an autographed copy of Scandalous Women to one lucky winner.

Here are the rules for the giveaway. Sorry, this is only for Canadian and American readers! The contest runs from today through Monday, March 7th.

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