Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: Madame Picasso

Publication Date: August 26, 2014
Publisher:  Harlequin MIRA
Formats: eBook, Paperback

Genre: Historical Fiction
Acquired:  Through Historical Fiction Virtual Tours 

When Eva Gouel moves to Paris from the countryside, she is full of ambition and dreams of stardom. Though young and inexperienced, she manages to find work as a costumer at the famous Moulin Rouge, and it is here that she first catches the attention of Pablo Picasso, a rising star in the art world.  A brilliant but eccentric artist, Picasso sets his sights on Eva, and Eva can’t help but be drawn into his web. But what starts as a torrid affair soon evolves into what will become the first great love of Picasso’s life. 

Praise for Madame Picasso

“Early twentieth century Paris and Picasso’s lost love come to enchanted, vivid life in Madame Picasso. With a deft eye for detail and deep understanding for her protagonists, Anne Girard captures the earnest young woman who enthralled the famous artist and became his unsung muse.” – C.W. Gortner, bestselling author of THE QUEEN’S VOW

About the Author:

Anne Girard was born with writing in her blood. The daughter of a hard-driving Chicago newsman, she has always had the same passion for storytelling that fueled his lifelong career. She hand-wrote her first novel (admittedly, not a very good one) at the age of fourteen, and never stopped imagining characters and their stories. Writing only ever took a backseat to her love of reading.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature from UCLA and a Master’s degree in psychology from Pepperdine University, a chance meeting with the acclaimed author, Irving Stone, sharply focused her ambition onto telling great stories from history with detailed research. “Live where your characters lived, see the things they saw,” he said, “only then can you truly bring them to life for your readers.” Anne took that advice to heart. After Stone’s encouragement twenty years ago, she sold her first novel. When she is not traveling the world researching her stories, Anne and her family make their home in Southern California. When she is not traveling or writing, she is reading fiction.

Anne also writes historical fiction under the name Diane Haeger. For more information, visit You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

My thoughts:  You didn't think that I wasn't going to actually review the book did you? I want to thank Amy Bruno from Passages to the Past and HFVBT for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for this fantastic book.  When I received the email from Amy, my first thought was "I'm not really fond of Picasso as an artist or as a person," but I've read Anne's previous books written under the name Diane Haeger and enjoyed them. She was even kind enough to be interviewed during the early days of the blog, so I thought 'why not?' I adore Paris and this book takes place in an intriguing time in the city's history, just before the start of WWI.  Mata Hari and Isadora Duncan were taking the city by storm with their innovative dance performances.  And the book involved scenes at the Moulin Rouge with a young Maurice Chevalier.  Sold!

I was charmed from the very first paragraph when Eva shows up late for her appointment at the Moulin Rouge but manages to talk her way into a job working as a wardrobe assistant.  I wasn't sure that I was going to like Eva, at first she seems a bit timid and uncertain of herself but Paris begins to work its magic on her, and she slowly grows as a person and as a character. She changes her name from Eva Gouel to Marcelle Humbert to sound more Parisian, to leave behind the provincial girl from the provinces. Almost immediately she meets a charismatic artist who turns out to be Picasso.  

I confess that some of my feelings about Picasso stem from the Merchant-Ivory movie starring Anthony Hopkins hamming it up as a middle-aged Picasso.  That Picasso was at the height of his fame and was a total asshole, especially to women. Girard gives us a glimpse at the young Picasso, just about to turn thirty, who after years of hardship is finally making a name for himself as an artist.  This Picasso has just begun experimenting with Cubism. I liked this Picasso, he's still in touch with his roots in Spain, but he's known tragedy.  His younger sister and his best friend have died, and he feels their loss keenly. 

What I liked about this story was that both characters were flawed.  Eva is feisty but she's also a bit of a martyr.  At first I thought that she was going to be a totally passive character who just allows things to happen to her, who gets swept away in a grand romance with Picasso. I liked the fact that she tried to respect Picasso's relationship with Fernande Olivier, even though the passion between her and Picasso was so strong. I also liked the fact that Picasso, although he loved Eva, still had the decency to not want to hurt Fernande even though the relationship was dying. He didn't just chuck her out, he had moments where he reflected on how much they had gone through together. 

In Girard's hands, the world of the Moulin Rouge and the South of France come alive in vivid colors like one of Picasso's paintings.  Seriously, after reading this book, all I wanted to do was hop on a place to Paris to walk in Picasso and Eva's footsteps. Reading this book was like taking a master class in historical fiction.  She doesn't overload the reader with details about the clothes or furniture, she focuses more on the emotions of the characters and how they react to having a new dress or moving into new flat. The experience of getting into a motorcar for the first time. Of course, all the usual suspects are here, Gertrude Stein and her life partner Alice B. Toklas (who actually comes alive in this book and is not just wallpaper or an appendage to Stein), Mistinguett, Matisse and Guillaume Appolinaire.  

Books about real people can be tricky. Particularly when the real-life person has so many famous friends. It can sometimes feel like dropping names into a story. For the most part Girard avoids that trap. There was a moment at Gertrude Stein's apartment where it felt a little name-droppy but that couldn't be helped. The best parts of the book are of course the intimate scenes between Picasso and Eva.  I don't know if Eva really was the love of Picasso's life, but Girard certainly made me feel as if she was.  Eva seemed to understand him in a way that Fernande Olivier didn't. Particularly in the last 1/3 of the book. Girard even made me feel for Olivier who could have come across as just the scorned girlfriend or a bitch, but Girard reveals the layers beneath the surface. Girard points out that life wasn't plain sailing for Eva and Picasso, that their relationship had consequences, friendships were lost. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I was sad when I finished it. I could have cheerfully spend more time with Eva and Picasso.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: Daisy Goodwin's The Fortune Hunter

Author:  Daisy Goodwin
Publisher:  St. Martin's Press
Pub Date:  July 29, 2014
How acquired:  New York Public Library

What it's about:  Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, is the Princess Diana of nineteenth-century Europe. Famously beautiful, as captured in a portrait with diamond stars in her hair, she is unfulfilled in her marriage to the older Emperor Franz Joseph. Sisi has spent years evading the stifling formality of royal life on her private train or yacht or, whenever she can, on the back of a horse.
Captain Bay Middleton is dashing, young, and the finest horseman in England. He is also impoverished, with no hope of buying the horse needed to win the Grand National—until he meets Charlotte Baird. A clever, plainspoken heiress whose money gives her a choice among suitors, Charlotte falls in love with Bay, the first man to really notice her, for his vulnerability as well as his glamour. When Sisi joins the legendary hunt organized by Earl Spencer in England, Bay is asked to guide her on the treacherous course. Their shared passion for riding leads to an infatuation that jeopardizes the growing bond between Bay and Charlotte, and threatens all of their futures.
The Fortune Hunter, a brilliant new novel by Daisy Goodwin, is a lush, irresistible story of the public lives and private longings of grand historical figures.

My thoughts: I had read Daisy Goodwin's previous novel, The American Heiress, about the 19th Century American 'dollar princesses' who took England by storm, many of them marrying titles. So I was intrigued when I heard the author say, at the Historical Novel Society conference, that her next book would be about the Empress Elisabeth of Austria.  I have long had a fascination for Sisi ever since I first saw the Winterhalter portrait, and I previously wrote about her several years ago.  What would Goodwin make of the Empress who was famous for not wanting to be photographed, who shared the 21st century mania for preserving her looks as long as possible?

For the most part I enjoyed this novel immensely.  Goodwin has a keen eye for the manners and mores of the 19th century.  Charlotte is an intriguing heroine, who is incredibly self-aware, yet still has romantic dreams of marrying for love.  She knows that she is not a beauty, she doesn't excel at small talk, but she is an heiress. I liked the fact that the author gives her a keen interest in photography which was just starting to take hold amongst the middle and upper classes. In many ways, Charlotte's camera reveals things to the reader and to Charlotte that cannot be articulated. 

Goodwin also does an excellent job portraying the Empress, her loneliness, her obsession with her looks, with her need to escape the boredom and frustration with her life and the imperial court in Vienna. Elisabeth (or Elizabeth as she's called in the novel) is also selfish, and self-absorbed, incapable for the most part of seeing outside herself, and her own needs. She's willful and capricious, but also captivating, able to charm when she needs to. Both Sisi and Charlotte fall in love with Bay Middleton, the Fortune Hunter of the title. Bay is a Calvary officer of limited means, who also happens to be an expert horseman. His abilities with horses are what bring him into the orbit of the Empress. 

One of the things that I really enjoyed about the book was the way that Goodwin conveyed the difficult choices faced by both Charlotte and Bay.  While Charlotte is an heiress, and has more choices than other woman of her class who smaller or no dowries, she is still bound by the rules of Victorian England, no matter how much they may chafe. Until she reaches her majority, she can't marry without her brother's permission, nor can she pursue a career as a professional photographer. She must use her own intuition to discover whether or not her suitors are interested in her or her fortune.  She believes that in Bay Middleton, she has found someone who genuinely cares for her. I loved that Charlotte took action, instead just observing or having things happen to her. Bay, on the other hand, has to survive by his wits and his ability with horses. As a Calvary officer in regiment that has the Prince of Wales as colonel-in-chief, he would have to keep up appearances. Being an officer cost money.  

Now to what I didn't like. (SPOILER ALERT)  I'm not sure why it was necessary to anglicize the Empress's name from Elisabeth.  And Bay's given name for some reason is given as John instead of William George. Also the book condenses the five year relationship between Bay and the Empress to one hunting season. In reality, Bay and Charlotte became engaged in 1875 and didn't marry until 1882. The book opens with Bay reeling from the end of his love affair with Blanche Hozier, and the knowledge that she's pregnant with his child, the future Clementine Churchill.  However, in real life not fiction, Clementine wasn't born until 1884, during his marriage to Charlotte. 

I didn't have a problem with the condensing of the timeline of Bay's relationship with Sisi. I get that the author probably had a word count, and that it was much easier to give the essence of their relationship in a short time span. What bothered me the most was the ending of the novel. It felt like the ending of a romantic film, you could almost hear the music swelling, and novel rushed towards its climax.  It just felt wrong, and unearned, at least by Bay.  It also felt a little cliched. I felt let down after, what had been up until the last two or three chapters, a excellent example of the best kind of historical fiction. One that sweeps you up wholeheartedly into the world that the characters live in. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

August Book of the Month: Women Heroes of World War I

Title:  Women Heroes of World War I - 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies and Medics

Author:  Kathryn J. Atwood

Publisher:  Chicago Review Press (June 1, 2014)

Pages:  254

From the back cover:  A commemoration of brave yet largely forgotten women who served in the First World War

In time for the 2014 centennial of the start of the Great War, this book brings to life the brave and often surprising exploits of 16 fascinating women from around the world who served their countries at a time when most of them didn’t even have the right to vote. Readers meet 17-year-old Frenchwoman Emilienne Moreau, who assisted the Allies as a guide and set up a first-aid post in her home to attend to the wounded; Russian peasant Maria Bochkareva, who joined the Imperial Russian Army by securing the personal permission of Tsar Nicholas II, was twice wounded in battle and decorated for bravery, and created and led the all-women combat unit the “Women’s Battalion of Death” on the eastern front; and American journalist Madeleine Zabriskie Doty, who risked her life to travel twice to Germany during the war in order to report back the truth, whatever the cost. These and other suspense-filled stories of brave girls and women are told through the use of engaging narrative, dialogue, direct quotes, and document and diary excerpts to lend authenticity and immediacy. Introductory material opens each section to provide solid historical context, and each profile includes informative sidebars and “Learn More” lists of relevant books and websites, making this a fabulous resource for students, teachers, parents, libraries, and homeschoolers.

My thoughts:  I picked up a copy of this book at the library and devoured it in one night.  It's the perfect book for young readers or even adults who want to know about more WWI through a woman's perspective.  Most of these women I had never heard of apart from Edith Cavell and Mata Hari (who I wrote about on the blog as well as in Scandalous Women). These women are fascinating.  Thanks to the publishers at Chicago Review Press for their series Women of Action, of which this book is part of. The book also has a handy bibliography in the back for further reading. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Headmistress and the Diet Doc

The year 1980 was not turning out so well for Jean Harris. Her job as headmistress at the Madeira School, an expensive, prestigious boarding school for the rich and privileged was turning into more of a nightmare than the dream job she had hoped it would be.  Her recent decision to expel four seniors for smoking marijuana on campus had provoked a mini-riot amongst the parents and students,  one of whom considered the decision to be hypocritical given that marijuana use was endemic at the school. Harris refused to budge in her decision.  The whole situation left Harris depressed and exhausted.  At the age of 57, she worried that her job was in jeopardy.  She hadn’t been the first choice for the job and a commissioned report had suggested firing her.  Her savings meager, Jean felt that she was too old to start over again at another school.  She had also run out of the medication that had been prescribed to combat her depression. And then there was her fourteen year relationship with Dr. Herman Tarnower.

Her lover was now famous for his book, The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet which had recently spent several months at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List.  Jean had hated the idea, believing diet books to be tacky and trite.  The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet had become a national bestseller, selling 750,000 in hardcover and over two million in paperback.  Tarnower was in demand as a guest on TV talk shows.  A one page mimeographed sheet that he had been giving away to his heart patients for years was now making him millions. For several years now, Tarnower had also been having an affair with his office assistant Lynne Tryforos, but Jean had been under the impression or at least hoped that she meant more to Tarnower than her younger, blonder rival.  Until Tarnower had told her that Lynne would be sitting next to him at his upcoming 70th birthday party, not Jean.  She would be placed at a different table.  Jean could feel him slipping away from her and she was frantic.  

She wrote Tarnower a long, rambling, ten page letter detailing all the wrongs she felt he had done her, and begging him to treat her differently. To make sure that he got it, she sent it by registered mail.  Although she was expected at an important dinner on the night of March 10, 1980, Jean was determined to see Tarnower, even if it meant driving the five hours from Virginia to Westchester. Before she left, she fetched her gun, a Harrington & Richardson 32-caliber revolver which was still in the box.  She filled it with bullets before dropping it back in the box.  Before leaving, she’d updated her will, and left notes scattered around her house that she had no intention of returning to.  Dressed in a black suit, she got into her blue and white Chrysler and took off for Tarnower’s house in the pouring rain.

Although Herman Tarnower had agreed to see her, he was not happy to see her when she arrived that night. He was already dressed for bed in his pajamas.  The couple argued.  When she was questioned by the police later, Jean claimed that she had come to Westchester not to kill Tarnower, but to ask him to kill her.  If had refused, she then planned on doing the deed herself. The two struggled for the gun.  When the police arrived, Tarnower was lying on the floor with four bullets in him.  Jean stood by distraught, her black suit sodden from the rain.  The headmistress was booked for Murder Two.  What made this petite, genteel, 56 year-old Smith graduate finally snap?  Was it an accident or murder?  Was she justified? Public debate raged. Harris evoked vastly different thoughts and feelings about women, love, fidelity and aggression. To some women, Jean Harris was a modern-day Anna Karenina, to others, a pathetic masochist.

Jean met Herman Tarnower soon after her divorce in 1966, introduced by mutual friends.  Jean had just turned 43, and had recently moved to Philadelphia to take a job as the director of the middle school at the Springside Academy.  Tarnower was 13 years older, a well-respected cardiologist and internist with a practice in Westchester.  He was also a committed bachelor married to his job.  From the beginning the attraction was immediate. Tarnower, who was used to women chasing him, did the pursuing this time. He was the complete opposite of her ex-husband Jim Harris who was handsome, easy-going and not terribly ambitious.  Tarnower was more like her father, aloof, exuding strength and ambition. Jean, who was used to making decisions at work and as a single mother, loved having a man take charge for a change.  He was also sophisticated, well-dressed, erudite knowledgeable about wines, food, and well-traveled.  Usually tightfisted when it came to money, Tarnower sprang for flowers and expensive gifts for his new inamorata. Before long they were spending nights on the town, dining at fine restaurants and dancing at the Pierre.

Within months, Tarnower had proposed marriage to Jean, even going so far as to buy her an engagement ring.  Initially Jean had wanted to postpone the wedding; she had just uprooted her sons to Philadelphia from Detroit and was reluctant to uproot them again to move to New York.  The decision gave Tarnower time to think and he began to get cold feet.  Although he tried to break it up off, insisting that Jean deserved a man who could offer her marriage, but Jean was too much in love.  She wrote him a letter insisting that she was fine with continuing the relationship on his terms, that she loved him too much to leave him, marriage or no marriage.  It was a decision that she would later learn to regret.  Tarnower took this letter to mean that he was free to go back to his days of womanizing.  Jean tried to ignore the other women, focusing on the fact that it was she that Tarnower took on expensive trips around the world, who dined with his powerful friends, and graced his dinner parties.

Jean was also struggling in her professional life. Although she loved teaching, she had moved into administration because it paid better.  It wasn’t a natural fit for her.  She was too outspoken and honest, seemed to lack tact when dealing with parents and the trustees.  All the bureaucracy began to weigh her down. When she was passed over as headmistress at the Springtime Academy, she became depressed.  She moved on to the Thomas School in Connecticut which had the advantage of placing her closer to Tarnower, but the school struggled to stay open and eventually merged with a boy's school.  Jean then decided to try the corporate world, working as the manager of sales administration for Allied Maintenance, a job which paid her more than she had made in school administration.   It was around this time that Tarnower began to prescribe Desoxyn, a powerful methamphetamine for Jean which made her hyper, but also gave her insomnia.  To combat the insomnia, she began to take sleeping pills.  Over the ten years that Tarnower prescribed the medication, he continued to up the dosage as Jean developed a tolerance to the drug.

 She was also addicted to Tarnower, believing that he was her life-line, that if he ended the relationship, she had nothing left to live for.  She seemed helpless to leave him, despite her friends’ best efforts to convince her otherwise.  Also like many women, instead of blaming Tarnower for cheating her on her, she blamed the other woman.  In this case, Lynne Tryforos who had started working for Tarnower as a receptionist four years before his relationship began with Jean Harris. Like Jean, Lynne was a divorcée with two children. She was also a good thirty years younger than the good doctor. Unlike Jean, Lynne only had a high school education. Snob that she was, Jean didn't mean that Lynne was sophisticated or cultured enough for Tarnower.

Although both women worshipped Tarnower, Lynn was on the ground so to speak. She managed the doctor’s professional life and increasingly his home life as well. While Jean could come across as a terrible snob sometimes, Lynn was much more down to earth, more openly adoring of the great doctor.  His friends felt that she relaxed him. While Jean argued and challenged Herman, Lynne was supportive.  As Tarnower aged, nearing retirement age, he began to prefer Lynne’s uncomplicated company.  Then there were the anonymous phone calls that both women claimed to receive.  Both women complained to Tarnower that the other was harassing her.  Jean also complained that two dresses that she had left at Tarnower’s were ruined by Lynne.  Was Jean lying about the calls, did she ruin the dresses herself and blame Lynne for them? Or did the housekeeper, Suzanne Van der Vreken, who disliked Jean, ruin the clothes? (This is my personal theory).

The trial lasted three months in 1981 and became a national soap opera. Many people expected that Jean Harris would be acquitted or at least receive a lighter sentence.  And she might have been, if she had pleaded guilty by reason of temporary insanity, or if she had agreed to a plea bargain. Joel Aurnou, her lawyer, so believed in his client’s innocence that he refused to entertain anything other than an absolute acquittal.  They decided to put their faith in the justice system, to believe that a jury would hear her story and believe her to be innocent.
And they might have if not for several things.  First the prosecution claimed that Jean had shot the doctor while he was sleeping, the bullet wound in his hand was a defensive wound. Meanwhile the defense argued that the doctor was wounded when he tried to wrest the gun from Jean’s hand. Most sides had expert witnesses who testified to promote their theories.  Another witness was a patient who had been in the office that morning of Tarnower’s death when Jean had called.  When Tarnower went into another room to take the call, he left the phone off the hook, so Mrs. Edwards could hear parts of the conversation including Tarnower telling Jean to leave him alone.  Unlike OJ at his trial, Jean testified in her own defense. On the stand, she came across as alternately depressed, agitated, snobbish and sad. But it was the infamous ‘Scarsdale Letter,’ that Jean had sent Tarnower that did the most damage to her defense.   Her lawyers had managed to retrieve the letter before the prosecution could get their hands on it. However once Jean admitted to the letter under cross-examination, the prosecution could get it admitted in to evidence.  

The letter gave a different picture to the one painted by the defense.  The letter was filled with vindictive prose about Lynne Tryforos, a woman that Jean had claimed not to be jealous of.  Instead of a fragile, emotionally distraught and suicidal woman, the letter made her look like a woman scorned determined to make her lover pay for humiliating her. Jurors later stated that they couldn't believe that a woman as dignified as Jean had used such language, calling Tryforos a ‘psychotic whore’ amongst other things. Unfortunately none of the mental health professionals who had treated Jean since the arrest were called to testify in her defense, nor was her addiction to the drug Desoxyn mentioned either.

The jury deliberated for 8 days.  When the jury came in with a guilty verdict, even the prosecution was surprised.  Many people thought she would get off.  After all, she wouldn't be the first upper-class woman to shoot her husband or lover and get away with it. When the guilty verdict came in, the prosecutor assigned to the case, George Bolen maintained that the case proved that there was no double-standard under the law. Rich and poor were treated alike. Harris was sentenced to 15 years in the penitentiary with possibility for parole or time-off for good behavior.  Her lawyers appealed the verdict 3 times but lost. In prison, Harris wrote several books, spending most of her time working in the prison’s children center and helping to give parenting classes to inmate moms. After serving twelve years, and suffering two heart attacks, Governor Cuomo finally granted her clemency on the grounds of ill health in 1992. Released in 1993, Harris spent the rest of her life raising money for the education of the children of inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.  She passed away at the age of 89 in 2012. 

Further reading:

Shana Alexander:  Very Much A Lady:  The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower, Gallery Books, 2006

Diana Trilling:  Mrs Harris - The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor, Harcourt, October 1981

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

July Books of the Month: Everything's Coming up Romanov

This month on Scandalous Women, we have not one but two books recently published about the Romanov's.  First up is Michael Farquhar's book new book Secret Lives of the Tsar's. 

From the back cover:

Scandal! Intrigue! Cossacks! Here the world’s most engaging royal historian chronicles the world’s most fascinating imperial dynasty: the Romanovs, whose three-hundred-year reign was remarkable for its shocking violence, spectacular excess, and unimaginable venality. In this incredibly entertaining history, Michael Farquhar collects the best, most captivating true tales of Romanov iniquity. We meet Catherine the Great, with her endless parade of virile young lovers (none of them of the equine variety); her unhinged son, Paul I, who ordered the bones of one of his mother’s paramours dug out of its grave and tossed into a gorge; and Grigori Rasputin, the “Mad Monk,” whose mesmeric domination of the last of the Romanov tsars helped lead to the monarchy’s undoing. From Peter the Great’s penchant for personally beheading his recalcitrant subjects (he kept the severed head of one of his mistresses pickled in alcohol) to Nicholas and Alexandra’s brutal demise at the hands of the Bolsheviks, Secret Lives of the Tsars captures all the splendor and infamy that was Imperial Russia.

Michael is also the author of Behind the Palace Doors and A Treasury of Royal Scandals. Both of these books are on my keeper shelf and I refer to them whenever I write anything about royalty.

Next up is Helen Rappaport's The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra.

From the back cover:

They were the Princess Dianas of their day—perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. The four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses—Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov—were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle.

Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it.

The Romanov Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. Helen Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.

I started reading The Romanov Sisters but I had to put it down for awhile because I always feel an overwhelming sadness whenever I read about the Tsar's daughters. However, from what I've read so far, the book is excellent and well worth purchasing.  Rappaport knows her Russian history intimately, and there is a wealth of detail in the books that you probably won't find elsewhere. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Becoming Jane

Recently on a Saturday night, I watched Jane Fonda receive the AFI Life Achievement on TNT.  She’d been off the grid for a few years, but recently in the past seven or eight years, she’s slowly been making a comeback in not only film but theater as well ( I had the chance to see her in 33 Variations on Broadway a few years back).  Not bad for a woman who will celebrate her 77th birthday this coming December.  I had forgotten how much I've enjoyed her performances over the years. There is a direct link between the tough but tender women portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford to Jane Fonda.  Gloria In They Shoot Horses Don’t They, Bree Daniels in Klute, Lillian Hellman in Julia. There would be no Angelina Jolie if Jane Fonda hadn't paved the way.  What other actress could go from Barbarella to winning an Academy Award in just a few short years? It was heartwarming to hear actress such as Sally Field and Meryl Streep acknowledge the debt that they owe her.

Watching the clips of her movies and hearing her story once again, it brought home to me just how many times she has reinvented herself over the years.  There was ingénue Jane, Barbarella Jane, serious actress Jane, the infamous Hanoi Jane, workout Jane, and trophy wife Jane.  Now she’s in her third or maybe fifth act? A born again Christian, an activist for women and children, and once again a serious actress.  She’s shed personas the way a snake sheds skins, all the while searching for the real Jane Fonda. There are more than three faces of Jane Fonda.

I haven’t read Fonda’s biography but I did recently finish reading Patricia Bosworth’s excellent biographyFriends since their Actor’s Studio days, Bosworth seems to have been the ideal person to write Fonda’s biography. What I mean by that is that she has no ax to grind, no agenda, other than telling Fonda’s story as honestly as possible.  It’s kind of refreshing no?  Back in my acting days, I used to devour biographies and autobiographies of actors, as if they had some secret that I could divine between their pages.  So Jane Fonda’s story was somewhat familiar to me before I started reading the biography. 

So many people focus on her political activism during the 1970’s, in particular her infamous trip to North Vietnam.  Recently, I think it was Michelle Obama, said that they admired Jane Fonda and the vitriol that was spewed on Facebook was unbelievable.  People still haven’t forgiven her for visiting ‘the enemy’ and taking a photo sitting on stop of a gun.  No many how many times, she’s apologized and blamed her actions of being politically naïve, there are people who still believe that she’s some kind of communist plant.  They believe that she betrayed the POW’s that she met, despite the fact that those men claimed it never happened. For me that was the most fascinating aspect of her story.  We’re so used to actors being political nowadays, that it’s hard to remember a time when it was still a new thing for actors to express a political opinion.  It was one thing to march for civil rights, but the opposition to the Vietnam War is a whole other animal.

And it wasn't just her anti-war stance; she was also a big supporter of the Black Panther party, and fought for Native American rights, not very popular causes in the 1970’s.  She faced endless harassment by the FBI for over a decade, was accused of smuggling drugs when in reality she was just carrying bottles of vitamins, and arrested repeatedly.  Not many actors were so committed to their causes that they spent all their money bankrolling them!

I used to be really hard on Fonda for being willing to change herself so completely for the men in her life.  Her decisions took an incredible toll on her kids.  At one point in the book, Fonda asks her daughter Vanessa for help putting together a video of her life for her 60th birthday.  Her daughter told her ‘why don’t you just get a chameleon and let him crawl across the screen.” Harsh but true.  I now have more sympathy for Fonda.  It can’t have been easy not only growing up as the daughter of a screen legend, but Jane also had to deal with a mother who was mentally ill.  

She was born Lady Jayne Seymour Fonda in 1937. Her mother Frances Seymour Brokaw always claimed that they were related to Edward Seymour and his family.  While her mother could claim aristocratic roots, Fonda’s family originally came to this country from Italy.  From the beginning, Jane was a daddy’s girl, she wanted to be like him, dress like him, talk like him.  Her father, however, was uncomfortable with expressing emotion. He had that Midwestern stoicism that was great for characters like Tom Joad in Grapes of Wrath, not so much at home.  Her mother on the hand favored Jane’s little brother Peter.  She’d had a daughter from her first marriage, and was less keen on having a second. A great deal of Jane’s subsequent actions can be seen as trying to get her father’s attention.  If being good didn't work, then she’d do the exact opposite to gain his attention.  Still despite their tortured relationship, Jane found On Golden Pond and produced it, believing that this film would finally garner her father the Academy Award that she felt that he so richly deserved. And it did!  I wept reading the parts of the book where both Jane and her brother Peter went out of their way towards the end of his life to repeatedly tell him that they loved him, even if he couldn't quite say it back.

Her mother had also been diagnosed as suffering from manic depression, what we now call bipolar disease.  The preferred treatment in the 1940’s was electroshock therapy.  When Jane was 11, her mother committed suicide while an in-patient at a sanatorium.  She and her brother were told that her mother had actually died of a heart attack.  Jane didn’t find out the truth until she saw it in a movie magazine that a friend was reading while at boarding school. She was not only devastated but there was also the worry that perhaps she had inherited her mother’s mental instability. To the outside world, Jane and her brother Peter lived a life of privilege, boarding schools (Emma Willard for Jane) and elite colleges (Jane went to Vassar for two years).  The reality was far different.

Even before her mother committed suicide, her father had fallen in love with a much younger woman whom he eventually married.  Two other marriages would eventually follow.  Jane suffered from bulimia; she would gorge herself with food and then purge it.  Instead of eating, she would take tons of vitamins to replace the nutrients she was throwing up. When she wasn’t bingeing and purging, she was exercising compulsively. Her work-out empire can be seen as a direct result of her bulimia, although by the time she opened the first Jane Fonda Work-Out studio, she had gone cold-turkey with her bulimia.

Jane has admitted that the men she fell in love with were all variations of her father, cold, remote, and dismissive.  Ted Turner even shared the same illness that her mother did, and his father had committed suicide like her mother.  It was nice to see that even she had reservations about dating him, although he put on the full court press.  I imagine even I would find it hard to turn down a man who not only has a private jet but 27 different ranches! Out of all her husbands Ted Turner was the only one who was as famous as she was, and even he had to deal with being treated like ‘Mr. Fonda’ at times during their relationship. It’s to Fonda’s credit that she managed to have cordial relationships with all her exes (Apparently Ted Turner’s 3 mistresses call her up for her advice on how to deal with the Mouth from the South).

While reading this book I lamented the roles that Jane Fonda didn’t play, either because she turned them down or in the case of The Music Box the director thought she was too old.  You guys, she didn’t make a movie for like 15 years and when she finally did, it was Monster-in-Law with Jennifer Lopez, all because freaking Ted Turner hated to be alone, and if she’d left him to make a movie, he’d have moved like 8 mistresses into his various houses.  She even admitted that she did Monster-in-Law on purpose because she hoped people would see the movie because of JLo but come out of it thinking about Jane Fonda. Which I totally did by the way. That ain't no lie.

I hurt for this one woman who had such low self-esteem that she agreed to threesomes with her husband Roger Vadim just to keep him. The woman who poured bazillions of dollars into her second husband Tom Hayden’s political campaigns and projects, even though he basically treated her like dirt. The woman who decorated all of Ted Turner’s 27 ranches, treated his kids like they were her own, and drank heavily to deal with his infidelities.  I have to give her credit because each time, she thought the relationship was going to last forever, and she certainly gave it the old college try.  These weren't fly-by-night relationships (6 years married to Vadim, 15 to Tom Hayden and 9 to Ted Turner which is like 81 years for normal people).

I was gratified to read at the end of the book that she had finally learned to stop compromising herself for a man, that she’s made family a priority (she’s even still close to Turner’s kids), as well as her career.  I loved seeing her on stage in 33 Variations. It made me realize that life doesn't stop until you are well into the ground.  That it’s important to keep engaged, informed, connected to not just places but people as well. And to have a sense of humor about yourself and your past mistakes and to forgive yourself for them. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Scandalous Royal Romance: King Carol II of Romania and Magda Lupescu

The story of how King Edward VIII of Great Britain abdicated the throne for the ‘Woman I Love,’ the thrice-divorced Wallis Warfield Simpson is well known.  Countless books have been written; TV and miniseries have been produced about what many people consider to be one of the greatest and most scandalous royal love affairs in history.  While the love story of King Carol of Romania and his mistress Magda Lupescu is nothing more than a footnote to history.  Like Edward, Carol refused to give up his flame-haired Pompadour.  However, unlike King Edward VIII, Carol actually managed to regain his throne, ruling for almost ten years before the coming war and his own autocratic style forced him into exile.
He was born on October 15, 1893 in Peles Castle to Crown Princess Marie (born Princess Marie of Edinburgh) and Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania. Soon after Carol was born, his care and education was taken over by Queen Elisabeth and King Carol.  Marie was allowed no say in the education of her children, and her husband did little to support her against the King and Queen. Marie was an adoring but ineffectual parent. She found it difficult to even scold them at times, thus failing to properly supervise them. Consequently, Carol grew up wilful, spoilt by everyone.  He was convinced that he knew right about everything. Finally he was sent to Potsdam, to his father’s old regiment. Outwardly his behavior improved. The discipline and regimen of the army suited his love of rules and protocol.

The prince grew into a striking young man, over 6 feet tall, with blond hair and blue eyes. Once he became of age, his parents cast around for a suitable bride for him, finally settling on the Grand Duchess Olga of Russia.  While the couple met, there was no interest on either side.  Prince Carol had already cast his eyes elsewhere.  The object of his desire was a young Romanian woman named Zizi Lambrino.  Although Zizi was related by marriage to an aristocrat, she was both Romanian and a commoner and it was an unspoken rule that members of the royal family could not marry commoners.  As a film director famously once said, ‘the heart wants what the heart wants,’ and Carol was determined to marry Zizi.  The couple eloped in the fall of 1918.

Because he had deserted his post, Carol faced the possibility of being court-martialed. His parents were understandably upset at his actions. Marie, in particular, considered Zizi to be nothing more than an adventuress.   Carol was sentenced to 75 days in prison for desertion and pressure was put on him to have the marriage annulled.  Although they were no longer married, the affair continued, leading to the birth of Carol and Zizi’s son Mircea in 1920. Hoping to take his mind off of his love life, his parents decided to send him on 8 month tour around the world. Although he continued to write to Zizi, his feelings eventually petered out.

His parents breathed a sigh of relief when Carol eventually proposed to Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark. Finally their son had made an appropriate match. Known as ‘Sitta’ Helen was tall, fine-boned and slim.  Her father, King Constantine I, gave his consent only after he was assured the affair with Zizi was over.  The royal couple was married on March 10, 1921 in Athens.  The couple honeymooned at Tatoi before sailing for Bucharest to start their married life.The marriage was at first happy, but soon soured. After the first euphoria, they realized that they had very little in common.  Carol was intellectually curious, while Helen preferred shopping and interior design.  He spent hours on his stamp collection, hating it when Helen would interrupt by sitting on this lap.  

On 25 October 1921, Helen and Carol's first and only child Mihai (Romanian for Michael) was born. There were complications and for a while neither mother nor child were expected to pull through. The baby was rumored to have been born premature (he was born only seven and a half months after his parents' wedding), but the fact that he weighed nine pounds at birth fueled speculation that Helen had become pregnant before the wedding.  To recover her strength, Helen took her baby son and went to stay with her parents in Athens for four months. By the time that Helen fully recovered from the difficult birth, her husband had moved on.  He had met the second woman who would shape and some say destroy his life.  Her name was Elena Lupescu.  She has been called an adventuress, a home wrecker, a femme fatale, and one of Europe’s last great courtesans.  Even her date of birth is shrouded in mystery.  

She was born in either 1896 or 1899, in Moldavia.  Both of her parents, although born Jewish, had converted to Christianity. Her father changed the family name from Grunberg to the less Semitic Lupescu.  Even how she received her nickname is up for grabs.  She herself said that she was given the nickname by an Italian journalist but there are others who say that ‘Magda’ was Bucharest slang for prostitute.  There were rumors when the family moved to port town of Sulina on the Black Sea, Elena’s mother ‘entertained’ the naval officers nearby while her father played cards.

Elena was well-educated, sent to a Roman Catholic convent in Bucharest run by German nuns, learning to speak fluent French and German.  What they called a ‘pocket Venus’, Elena was striking rather than beautiful with pale skin, flaming red hair, green eyes, and an hour glass figure.  She was flirtatious, possessing a bawdy sense of humor, which made her a great favorite with soldiers.  After Bucharest was invaded by German troops during WWI, Elena decamped to the new capital of Jassy where she would join the crowd of young people who paraded up and down the main street.  None of her flirtations were serious until she met an army officer named Ion Tampeanu. Obsessed with her, he pursued her relentlessly until she eventually capitulated and agreed to marry him in 1916. But it was a misalliance from the beginning. Elena had no intention of changing her ways now that she was married.  She grew bored with garrison life, and indulged in several affairs. When her husband could no longer keep in her in the luxurious lifestyle that she wanted, she left him after four years of marriage.

The couple met at a charity gala that Elena had finagled an invitation to.  Bold as brass, she arranged a seat within his sightlines, and spent the entire evening gazing at Carol without once averting her gaze.  The Prince was curious to meet this woman who stared at him so boldly.  Finding out her name, Crown Prince Carol persuaded a friend to throw a party and invite her along. At the party, Elena changed tactics. Wearing a virginal white dress, she let the Prince do all the talking, while she stared at him with limpid eyes.  At the end of the party, he offered to drive her home, but she demurred claiming that it wouldn’t do for her to be seen with a married Prince. The Prince’s friend, Captain Tautu, became alarmed at what was going on. He knew Elena and may even have been one of her mother’s special friends.   When he called her a ‘dirty whore’, Elena asked if there was anyone who would defend her against such slander.  The Prince gallantly came to her aid, sweeping her out of the party but into his life.

Soon after meeting Elena, Carol stopped sleeping with his wife completely, and barely saw his toddler son.  He told his friends that his wife’s slim frame repulsed him compared to more voluptuous body of his mistress. Still he kept the affair a secret for two years, until he finally told his parents that he loathed Helen. His parents were incredibly disappointed, this was the second their son had failed in what they considered his royal duty.  And this time it involved a royal princess, the mother of the heir to the throne, not a commoner who could be bought off with an annuity. Helen, of course, was devastated. Although his parents tried to convince him to give up Elena, he refused.  Not only did she make him feel independent and more like a man, but she also mothered him at the same time. His relationship with his parents became increasingly strained.  His father famously compared to him to Swiss cheese.  His mother tried to use her influence to try and get rid of her.
The affair came to light when Elena met the Prince in Paris after his trip to England for Queen Alexandra’s funeral.  The couple then traveled openly together to Italy. For the first time the affair was reported in the Romanian press.  Although the Prince was ordered to come home, he refused. Instead, he offered to fake his own death, so that he could disappear without a trace.  He was now given a choice, either give up Elena or renounce his right to the throne.  He chose the latter course.  He was no longer Crown Prince Carol of Romania but plain Mr. Carol Caraiman, condemned to permanent exile.  His son, Michael, was now proclaimed the heir apparent.  Like Wallis Simpson after her, Elena claimed that she had nothing to do with Carol’s decision. While that might be true, he would never have taken the course of action if he hadn’t met her. Soon after Carol signed the papers, he began to regret his decision.

Although not broke, Carol no longer was able to afford the luxurious lifestyle that he was used too. He had a legacy from his Great-Uncle which would support the couple, but there would be no royal palaces. Instead they settled into a modest 10 bedroom villa in Neuilly, just outside of Paris.  They lived a very frugal if indolent lifestyle. Carol spent his time to his hobby of stamp-collecting (like his cousin George V), playing bridge with friends, talking walks in the Bois de Boulogne, and going to the cinema.  Magda prided herself on being an efficient housekeeper, although they had a hard time keeping any staff.

In 1927, his father King Ferdinand died, and Carol’s son Michael was crowned King of Romania.  Carol chafed to be back in his home country occupying the throne that he felt was rightfully his.  It took him 3 years, and one aborted coup, before he set foot back in Romania. In the intervening years, Carol and Helen were divorced. Things in Romania were turning in Carol’s favor, his son was still a minor, and the regency was proving ineffective. Carol was so desperate to return that he agreed to give up Elena, let his son keep the crown, and try and repair his marriage to Helen.
Once he returned to Romania, he reneged on all his promises.  First up, he deposed his son.  He then tried to convince Helen to reconcile but she was having none of it. Since the reconciliation with his ex-wife was a no-go, Carol told his Prime Minister that he couldn't live without Elena.  Elena meanwhile slipped anonymously into the country.  During the 10 years of King Carol II’s reign, they were amazingly discreet about their relationship. She never accompanied him to official functions, and she lived in a house on her own, although she visited the King at the palace nightly. However, she didn't exactly keep a low profile.  Elena threw raucous all-night parties that attracted bohemians and sycophants. Carol and his wife began a tug of war over their son Michael.  While the King hoped that his son would soon accept Elena, Helen tried to turn her son against her.  In the end, the King banished her from Romania.  She moved to Italy where her son was allowed to visit her twice a month.

Carol became increasingly autocratic and paranoid.  He spied on everything, including his mother Queen Marie. He alienated members of his family, who refused to obey his edict that they have nothing to do with his ex-wife. For the next decade he sought to influence the course of Romanian political life, first through manipulation of the rival Peasant and Liberal parties and anti-Semitic factions, and subsequently with a constitution reserving ultimate power to the Crown. Of course, every miss-step that he made was blamed on Elena. As if he were incapable of making stupid decisions on his own.  She was a convenient scapegoat for his enemies who delighted in his every misstep and his supporters who couldn't believe he could make so many mistakes.  People couldn't understand the attraction.  Elena often treated Carol with contempt, and it was clear, that he was cowed by her violent temper.   Slowly those who had supported Carol turned against him. First the aristocracy, who were turned off by the people he surrounded himself with. Then there was the Iron Guard, the Romanian equivalent of the Nazi party or the Italian fascists. Although Carol gave the impression that he approved of their policies, he knew that they were financed by the Nazis who thought that he was weak.

Carol tried to steer a neutral path between Hitler and Stalin. The two regimes threatened the territories that Romania had gained after World War I.  Carol threw the leader of the Iron Guard and his top henchman into prison, promising to ensure their safety, in return for Germany support in the event of another world war.  Unfortunately for Carol, the men were killed under suspicious circumstances and the King was thought to be behind their deaths.  To appease Hitler, Carol appointed a pro-German, anti-Semitic Prime Minister named Ion Antonescu.  Instead of supporting the King, he tried to strip him of his executive powers.  Carol refused, and the Prime Minister pressured him to abdicate.  Carol abdicated a day later in favor of his 18 year old son Michael.

Carol and Elena fled, first to Yugoslavia and then to Portugal.  Their belongings filled 9 railway carriages. They grabbed everything they could of value, including several El Greco paintings and allegedly the crown jewels.  The couple didn’t stay long in Portugal.  Fearing for their lives in Europe, they set sail for Cuba and then Mexico where they spent several years.  However, the climate didn’t agree with Elena. They tried South America where Elena took to her sickbed, suffering from what turned out to be anemia.  Fearful that his companion of 24 years might die, Carol married Elena in a civil ceremony at their hotel in Rio in 1947. She was now Her Royal Highness Princess Elena von Hohenzollern.

Now that the war in Europe was over, Carol and Elena returned to Europe, settling down once again in Portugal. The couple lived relatively quietly, spending their time going to the movies.  Carol puttered around in his garden, and worked on his stamp collections.  Elena still treated her husband like dirt, embarrassing him in public.  He would accuse her of overspending, threatening divorce.  Still, he proved his devotion to her by marrying her a second time in the church. In 1953, King Carol II died of a heart attack  in Portugal.  His wife outlived him by 24 years, finally passing away in 1977.  In 2003, their remains were brought back to Romania at the request and expense of the government. They were interred in the Curtea de Argeş Monastery complex, the traditional burial ground of Romanian royalty; but, not being of royal blood, Elena was buried in the monastery’s cemetery, rather than in the Royal Chapel.

To this day, people wonder if Elena Lupescu was the adventuress she was painted to be or if she really loved the King.