Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book Review: Two New Books on Hollywood Scandals


What it's About: The Day of the Locust meets The Devil in the White City and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in this juicy, untold Hollywood story: an addictive true tale of ambition, scandal, intrigue, murder, and the creation of the modern film industry. By 1920, the movies had suddenly become America’s new favorite pastime, and one of the nation’s largest industries. Never before had a medium possessed such power to influence. Yet Hollywood’s glittering ascendency was threatened by a string of headline-grabbing tragedies—including the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, a legendary crime that has remained unsolved until now.

My thoughts:  I've been obsessed with the murder of William Desmond Taylor ever since I first read about the case in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon (a book that is much reviled by contemporary historians but which was manna from heaven to a teenager who loved classic Hollywood films).  Over the years, I've read Sidney Kirkpatrick's A Cast of Killers as well as Robert Giroux's book Deed of Death.  Both of these authors came to different conclusions about who the killer was, so I was eager to read William J. Mann's take on the case.  I've enjoyed his books in the past, in particular his biographies of Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor. 

I have to be honest, at first I was a little disappointed.  The book opens up with a bang literally, detailing the discovery of Taylor's body by his valet Henry Peavey.  The book then flashes back and gives a wealth of detail about the current state of Hollywood leading up to the murder, including the death of Olive Thomas, the arrest and trial of Fatty Arbuckle and the installment of Will Hay's as the new watchdog over Hollywood's morals (at least on film).  I wasn't quite sure where Mann was going with all this, although most of it was interesting. I admit that I skimmed through most of the stuff about Adolph Zukor.  I was more interested in Fatty Arbuckle and learning more details about Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter.  Unfortunately Mann skims over their back stories for the most part, as well as Desmond Taylor's life before he hit Hollywood.

The book really got going when Mann writes about Patricia Palmer aka Margaret Gibson or Gibby and her struggle to make it in Hollywood, and how her life dovetails and intersects with William Desmond Taylor.  I don't want to spoil it for anyone picking up the book who knows nothing about the unsolved murder of Taylor, but Mann comes up with probably the most plausible theory about of anyone who has written about the case in the last almost 100 years since Taylor was murdered.  He gives a wealth of detail about the inner workings of Hollywood at the time, not just at the major studios but also on Poverty Row, the studios who cranked out the low-low budget films.  He also details the excesses and drug use that was prevalent in Hollywood at the time which might come as a revelation to some who believe that no one was doing drugs until the 1960's and 1970's like my dad. 

I won't lie, this book clocks in at a whopping almost 500 pages but once I got started reading, I couldn't put it down. I actually stayed up late on Sunday to finish the book, because I had to know what Mann's conclusion was. 

Title: Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema

Author:  Anne Helen Petersen 
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Plume (September 30, 2014)
  • How Acquired:  Net Galley

What it's About:  Gossip meets history—a compulsively readable collection of Hollywood's most notorious clashes and controversies in the spirit of Hollywood Babylon. Believe it or not, America's fascination with celebrity culture was thriving well before the days of TMZ, Perez Hilton, Charlie Sheen's breakdown and allegations against Woody Allen. And the stars of yesteryear? They weren’t always the saints that we make them out to be. BuzzFeed columnist Anne Helen Petersen is here to set the record straight with Scandals of Classic Hollywood.

My thoughts:  This was a fun, interesting read that is more about the reaction of Hollywood and the nation to the various scandals and less about the scandals themselves. Anne Helen Petersen has clearly done her research, admittedly spending hours reading the original reports on the scandals in the movie magazines of the period.  She gives a good overview of the reasons why the scandals were so potent and the damage that was done to the stars because of the scandal.  I quibble a bit with her conclusion in the Clara Bow chapter, she seems to be dismissive of the struggles that Bow went through in her early childhood and her mental illness.

I found it fascinating to read the chapters on Dorothy Dandridge and Montgomery Clift in particular, although I wasn't really sure why she was included in the book.  Her career demise seemed to say more about the lack of roles for black actresses in the 1950's, particularly for a woman like Dandridge who was seen as more of a sex symbol due to her role in Carmen Jones. Clift's life didn't seem to contain much scandal either apart from his having to hide his homosexuality like many other Hollywood stars like Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter.  Clift's career was derailed by his drug and alcohol abuse. 

I was intrigued by the scandals she left out (although perhaps she's saving them for book 2?) such as Loretta Young, Lana Turner, Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplin's penchant for young girls, Ingrid Bergman etc. The book is slightly schizophrenic as it veers uneasily between a juicy, gossipy take and a more academic tone (Petersen has a PhD). There's also a dearth of photographs in the book.  Now I know from experience that photographs are expensive, which is why I only have about 15 of them in my own book rather than 35) but it would have helped to have some photos apart from the ones on the cover. 

Still for newbies to old Hollywood (and that includes pretty much anyone under the age of 35) this is a great book to start with.  Hopefully readers who purchase this book will then go on to purchase full length biographies of the subjects in the book.




Thursday, September 25, 2014

Scandalous Romance: The Love Story of Edith Bolling Galt (1872-1961) and Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

“I turned a corner and met my fate,” Edith Bolling Galt Wilson

“I need you, as a boy needs his sweetheart, and a strong man his helpmate and heart’s comrade,” Woodrow Wilson to Edith Bolling Galt during their courtship.

What did Mrs. Galt do when President Wilson proposed to her?
She fell out of bed. – Popular joke in 1915

This is the tale of one of the most romantic love stories in White House history.  No, I’m not talking about Olivia Pope and Fitzgerald Grant from Scandal.  I’m talking about the love story between Edith Bolling Galt and Woodrow Wilson. Their story is not only one of the most romantic in American history, but also one of the most scandalous and intriguing.  It encompasses death, grief, forbidden romance, , passion, politics, war, and a cover-up perpetrated by the First Lady of the United States.  At a time when women couldn’t vote on a national level, rarely held jobs other than domestic or schoolteacher, for a brief time a woman ran the White House and the Executive Branch.

Our story starts in the fall of 1914. Ellen Wilson, Woodrow’s first wife and the mother of his three daughters, dies suddenly of kidney disease. Wilson is devastated, and lost.  Apparently underneath the president’s dour demeanor, beat the heart of a true and passionate romantic.  Wilson preferred the company of women, particularly if they were charming and good conversationalists.  His friends and family are worried about him now that he’s alone.  They try to cheer him up by encouraging him to get out more, to play golf, anything to help him over his depression.

Flash forward to March of 1915.  Wilson is out driving with his personal physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, when he spies a woman out walking. “Who is that beautiful woman?” he asked. The woman in question was Edith Bolling Galt, a wealthy forty-something childless widow, who hailed from his home state of Virginia.  Lucky for Wilson, not only does Dr. Grayson know exactly who she was but so does Wilson’s cousin and sometime White House hostess Helen Bones.  Helen and Edith have recently become friends thanks to Dr. Grayson who introduced him. Who needs Tinder or Match.com when you have friends to introduce you to eligible heads of state? One afternoon Helen invited Edith back to the White House after they’d taken a walk in Rock Creek Park.  The doors to the White House elevator opened and there stood the President of the United States.  As she later described in her memoirs, Edith was wearing a smart, black tailored suit that Worth had made for her in Paris, and a tricot hat. The President was instantly smitten with the charming vivacious woman.  Before too long, the couple was dining regularly together at The White House or at Edith’s home.  Wilson was so in love that he was observed singing ‘Oh you beautiful, you great big beautiful doll,” after leaving Edith’s house near Dupont Circle one night.

It was easy to see what Wilson saw in Edith.  She was tall for a woman, five foot nine, buxom with dark hair and deep blue eyes.  Combining the qualities of a traditional Southern belle with that of a sophisticated, well-traveled woman, Edith even drove her own little electric car around Washington.  She was also impulsive, jealous, self-indulgent, seemingly fearless and enthusiastic. Wilson, on the other hand, was dour, austere, serious, and as thin as a rake. He was a scholar who loved books (he’d not only taught at several universities but had also been President of Princeton as well as Governor of New Jersey). Edith loved fashion and travel.  Although she’d lived either in or near Washington most of her life, she thought politics was a ‘bore.’ What the two had in common was that they were both from Virginia, and had a romantic view of the antebellum South.

Wilson wooed Edith with her favorite flowers, orchids, and sent her passionate love letters almost daily.  He even had a direct phone line installed between her house and his office so that they could circumvent the White House switchboard.  They would go out driving together and there were rumors that they would park and make-out like teenagers (I bet the Secret Service loved having to watch that!).  After only two months of knowing each other, Wilson proposed to his new love. Shocked, Edith wisely told Wilson that it is too soon for him to be making such declarations.  His wife hadn’t been dead for even a year! Widowed for seven years, Edith also had to think about whether or not she was ready to give up her independence. 

Undeterred by her refusal, Wilson began to lean on Edith for comfort and advice. He made Edith feel that she shared the burden of the office.  He began confiding about his woes, telling her intimate details about his work, sending her envelopes of state documents for her to read and comment on. Soon Edith was just as enthralled by the political partnership they were forging as by the emotional one. He made Edith feel needed and cherished. Wilson began to feel like a new man, revitalized, able to take on new challenges. Before long, Edith succumbed to Wilson’s passionate courtship, and they became secretly engaged in Mid-August of 1915.

Not everyone was thrilled by the President’s new relationship. Scandalized White House staffers referred sarcastically to the relationship as ‘The President and Pocahontas’ (Edith was a direct descendant of Pocahontas and John Rolfe).  Rumors flew in Washington that Wilson had cheated on his first wife, and that Edith and Wilson had conspired to murder Ellen. His political cronies were appalled that Wilson had gotten engaged to another woman when his wife had been dead for less than a year.  A hasty remarriage might damage his chances at winning a second term.  His son-in-law, William Gibbs McAdoo, Colonel House and the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels were drafted to warn Wilson against an early remarriage.

McAdoo flat out lied to him and told him that the Republicans were threatening to go public with the letters that he had sent Mary Hulbert Peck, a married woman who Wilson had met during his yearly trips to Bermuda.  Smitten, Wilson had sent several indiscreet letters to Mary over the years and had recently loaned her son $7,500 to pay off some debts. Distressed, Wilson told Edith the truth about his relationship with Peck, telling her that he would understand if she changed her mind about marrying him.  Edith told him that she would stand by him, but they postponed their wedding until December of 1915. From that point on Colonel House, Daniels and McAdoo were on Edith’s hit list.  She would slowly freeze them out as Wilson’s advisors. The happy couple was married on December 18, 1915 at her house in Washington, DC.  The wedding was attended by 40 guests. Though there were still public murmurs of disapproval, Wilson's three daughters welcomed Edith into the family, firm in their belief that their mother Ellen would have approved. They knew how lonely and depressed their father had been, how much he relied and needed female companionship.

Although she was now the First Lady, Edith preferred not to be called by that title.  Mrs. Woodrow Wilson was good enough for her.  In her mind, she served her husband, not the country. Once they were in the White House, Wilson turned more and more to his most trusted advisor, his wife.  Not only did Edith code and encode cables for Wilson, but she was also soon sitting in on his meetings.  The Ambassador to Germany remembers Edith as asking pertinent questions about foreign policy. 1916 was Wilson’s most productive year as President, workmen’s compensation; child labor laws and the eight-hour day were part of his daring leadership.  With the slogan ‘He kept us out of the war,’ he narrowly won re-election in November of 1916. Edith became was the first First Lady not only ride in the presidential motorcade, but also the first to stand beside her husband as he took the oath of office. 

Although she loved the ceremonial aspect of being First Lady, she disliked the day to day aspect, particularly if it kept her away from Wilson. As First Lady during the austerity of World War I, Edith could get away with dispensing some of the more onerous duties.  She observed gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays, and wheat less Wednesdays to set an example to the nation.  She also set sheep to graze on the White House lawn rather than waste manpower to cut the lawn, auctioning off the wool for the benefit of the Red Cross. She also passed out cigarettes and chewing gum to thousands of soldiers at Washington's Union Station. Edith managed to get rid of any of her husband’s associates that she felt didn’t have his best interests at heart.  She submerged her own life into her husband’s, to try and keep him fit under the tremendous strain that he was under as a war time President. 

In September of 1919, the President set out on a 10,000-mile tour of the United States. He was determined to create a nationwide outpouring of support for the League of Nations. Both Edith and Dr. Grayson begged him not to go. The trip was the worst thing that he could have done. After 5,000 miles of travel and speeches in 16 cities, Wilson once again began to suffer severe headaches. He had suffered from ill-health all his life.  While President of Princeton, he was also diagnosed with high blood pressure and urged to retire. He’d refused. During the peace talks in Paris in early 1919, Wilson came down with influenza.  In hindsight the warning signs had been there all along. Both the First Lady and Dr. Grayson had urged him to relax and to exercise more. In October of 1914, he suffered a stroke so severe that it left him paralyzed on his left side.
               
After his stroke, the second left him permanently paralyzed on his left side, Edith became like a mother lion protecting her cub.  The press was told that the President was suffering from nervous exhaustion. Only Edith and his doctors really knew how ill he was. If you watch Scandal, you might remember the episode where Mellie forged the President’s signature to make it seem like he was recovering, when he really wasn’t? All to keep the Vice-President from seizing office? Well something similar happened when Wilson had his stroke. "I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators," she wrote later of her role, "and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband." Edith later stated in her memoirs that she considered what she was doing was a ‘stewardship of office.’ She also declared that a prominent physician told her that if Wilson had been forced to resign it would have impeded his recovery.  Because Wilson made statesmanship seems so easy, and because he had involved her so intimately in the administration, Edith thought that she could handle things.  However, she had neither the education nor the experience for the role.

In the first 30 days after Wilson’s stroke, Congress passed 28 bills that became law by default because the President failed to respond. While Wilson has been credited with vetoing the Volstead Act (Prohibition), in reality a presidential aid wrote the veto message with Edith’s approval.  It’s possible that Wilson never saw the bill. Rumors were rife in Washington that the President’s signature had been forged on bills. Edith served as the only conduit to the president. White House usher Ike Hoover recalled, "If there were some papers requiring his attention, they would be read to him -- but only those that Mrs. Wilson thought should be read to him. Likewise, word of any decision the president had made would be passed back through the same channels."


Edith Wilson, in her zeal to be a good wife, shielded the President’s true condition not only from the nation but also from Congress and basically ran the country. No First Lady has ever yielded such power during a presidency.  But her actions had consequences that she could not have foreseen at the time. Edith was most definitely not a feminist, she didn’t believe that women needed the vote; she was decidedly old-fashioned when it came to the roles of men and women.  She had no desire for power; she only wanted to protect her husband and to protect his presidency.  What’s amazing is that Edith was able to get away with it.  It wasn’t until the final months of his presidency in 1920 that the press began to report on the extent of her power.  No one, including his wife, his physician or personal assistant was willing to take upon themselves responsibility for the certification, required by the Constitution, of his "inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office." 

Six weeks after the stroke, Wilson's ability to speak returned. But he was still unable to write or walk. As the White House cover-up continued, Republicans became suspicious that the President was not fit for office. They designated two Senators, a Republican and a Democrat, to go see the President. Edith and Dr. Grayson carefully prepared for the visit. They concealed his paralyzed left arm under a blanket, and lit the room so that the President was in a deep shadow. "We're praying for you, Mr. Wilson," Republican Senator Albert Fall declared. "Which way, Senator?" Wilson grimly retorted, "Which way?"  The President passed the test. The New York Times reported that the meeting "silenced for good the many wild and often unfriendly rumors of Presidential disability." The public would never know the full extent of Wilson's illness. But his political health could not be stage managed so easily. After a few months, Wilson was finally able to make it to cabinet meetings but only for a brief stretch of time.  He tired easily, had a hard time with his attention span.

Wilson’s illness exacerbated his more negative qualities of stubbornness and his need to be right.  He absolutely refused to compromise on the Versailles treaty to get it through Congress.  Wilson was so far out of the loop due to his illness that he didn’t comprehend the extent of the opposition in the Senate and that the only way to get the treaty passed was with Henry Cabot Lodge’s reservations.  Edith tried to convince him to change his mind. Because of his unwillingness, the Democrats didn’t have enough votes to ratify the treaty, and the United States ended up not joining the League of Nations.  Had Wilson resigned at the outset of his illness when he had suggested it, and Vice President Marshall succeeded as President, or at least assumed the role until Wilson was better, a compromise would have been reached with Lodge and the treaty would have passed.  The United States would have joined the League of Nations and played an active role in the international peace organization in the years leading up to World War II.  If Edith had put the nation’s needs ahead of her husband, Wilson’s dream of America playing a significant role on the international stage would have come to fruition.  As it was, his successor Warren Harding took America back to its isolationist stance.

Edith and her Woodrow only had a few more years together before he passed away in 1924. She devoted the rest of her life to managing Wilson’s legacy. She held the literary rights to all of her husband's papers in a time before presidential papers were seen as public documents, and she denied access to anyone whose motives she did not trust and granted access to those who proved their loyalty to her. Edith outlived Wilson by almost 40 years, living long enough to attend the inauguration of JFK who was born during the years that she was First Lady of the United States.  She died at the age of 89 on December 28, 1961 on what would have been her husband’s 105th birthday.

Sources: 

Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach, PhD. One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
Kati Marton. Hidden Power:  Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History, Pantheon Books, 2001
Kristie Miller. Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies, University Press of Kansas, 2010

Cormac O’Brien. Secret Lives of the First Ladies: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the Women of the White House, Quirk Books, 2009

Monday, September 8, 2014

Jacqueline Susann and Me

“Yeah, I think I’ll be remembered as the voice of the 60’s…Andy Warhol, the Beatles, and me!” – Jacqueline Susann.

I was first introduced to Jacqueline Susann by my father of all people. Oh, he didn’t mean to.  One summer he took my niece and me to the movies in Rosendale, the little town near our house upstate.  Back then, movies took a long time before they played the cinema in Rosendale.  The only movie playing was the movie version of the Susann novel Once is not Enough.  Apparently my father didn’t check the rating on this movie, so he had no idea that it was rated R. Not exactly the type of movie that you want to take a 10 or an 11 year old to but my niece and I were riveted at the story of January Wayne (played by Deborah Raffin) and her obsession/Electra complex with her father Mike Wayne (played Kurt Douglas).  I’m not sure how much of it we understood, although I do remember Brenda Vaccaro talking about all the plastic surgery her character had had, and the love scene between Melina Mercouri and Alexis Smith which was tame by today’s standards.  After the movie was over, my father apologized profusely to us, he was so embarrassed. 

A few years later, I caught Valley of the Dolls on late night TV, and fell in love all over again (Funnily enough Susann initially hated the movie version, she thought it was too campy).  I had already discovered Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins thanks to cable and network miniseries.  Now at the age of 14, I was ready to tackle Valley of the Dolls. I also read The Bell Jar that summer but it was Valley of the Dolls that stayed with me.  The story of Anne Welles, Neely O’Hara and Jennifer North was filled with backstage gossip, sex, and drugs. Just the type of thing that a mother doesn’t want her 14 year old reading about, particularly a 14 year old who had already decided that she would be an actress/writer/producer.  Susann took the young women in New York theme first introduced by Rona Jaffe in THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, and ramped it up to 11. This novel is so enduring that two TV series have been made from it, one in the 1980’s starring Catherine Hicks as Anne and Lisa Hartman Black as Neely O’Hara, and another version that was filmed and shown on late night television in 1994.  There was also a sequel to the film written by none other than Roger Ebert, and directed Russ Meyer, that so incensed Jacqueline Susann that she spent the last years of her life suing the producers.

Although I enjoyed her books, I didn’t know that much about Jacqueline Susann. I grew up in the era before the Internet and Google, an age where information was literally at your fingertips.  Susann had died just as PEOPLE magazine arrived on the scene. It wasn’t until years later that the world rediscovered Jacqueline Susann.  Out of nowhere, two competing biopics came out about her life, no doubt fueled by Michael Korda’s recollections of being her editor on her second novel THE LOVE MACHINE.  And a biography LOVELY ME written by author Barbara Seaman was reissued in 1996.

Susann was one of the pioneers of the glitz and glamour novels that were so prevalent in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  There would be no Judith Krantz or Jackie Collins, if Susann hadn’t paved the way.  While Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon also wrote books with similar themes, Susann wrote from the woman’s POV. According to Wikipedia, “Valley of the Dolls was an instant success when it was first published and became the bestselling book of 1966. Since then it has sold more than 30 million copies, making it one of the bestselling books of all time. As the first roman à clef by a female author to achieve this level of sales in America, it led the way for other authors such as Jackie Collins to depict the private lives of the real-life rich and famous under a veneer of fiction.”

Susann was in her forties when her first book ‘Every Night, Josephine!’ which was based on her life with her poodle, Josephine, was published in 1963.  She’d spent years trying to make it as an actress, but never quite succeeding.  Oh, she appeared on Broadway and on television but the parts never led to anything bigger.  She was a has-been or a ‘never quite been’ to be more accurate.  She’d won a beauty contest in Philadelphia when she was 18 (no doubt helped by the fact that her father was one of the judges). One of the prizes was a screen test with Warner Brothers.  Unfortunately Jackie was told by both the make-up artist and the cameraman that she would never make it in film because she had ‘big pores.’

Susann was born in Philadelphia on August 20, 1918. Her father, Robert, was a highly successful portrait painter.  Her parents seemed to have been a miss-match, Robert was an unrepentant womanizer.  They argued and made-up frequently.  It was her mother who added the extra ‘n’ to the Sephardic Jewish family name while her father kept the original spelling. Young Jacqueline adored and idolized her handsome father who took her to the theatre and to the movies.  She had a rockier relationship with her perfectionist school teacher mother Rose who thought Jackie should spend more time studying and less time daydreaming and reading movie magazines.  Like me, Jackie was an indifferent student in school, although she had a high I.Q.  No doubt she was bored, and already planning her escape to New York. Jackie auditioned repeatedly for a local radio show The Children’s Hour until they finally gave in and let her occasionally do skits on the air which she wrote herself. Despite her mother’s pleas, Jackie refused to even consider college.  As soon she graduated high school, she was off to New York, living in Kenmore Hall, a women’s residence, pounding the pavement, looking for work. It was at Kenmore Hall that Jackie met a young actress named Elfie who would later be the prototype for Nelly O'Hara in Valley of the Dolls.

She managed to score the role of a French maid in Clare Booth Luce’s new play The Women, but she was fired during rehearsals.  No matter, Jackie just hung around the theatre backstage during the run of the show until she eventually got hired for a bit part as a lingerie model, making her Broadway debut on June 2, 1937.  She met her husband Irving Mansfield, a press agent, when she answered the phone at Walgreen’s and it turned out to be for him.  He was instantly smitten and used his clout to get her name mentioned in the theatrical and gossip columns in the New York papers.  Although she liked Irving, she wasn’t in love with him when they married in 1939. It was a practical decision, Irving had a good job, and she figured that he could do a lot for her career.

Despite Irving’s devotion to Jackie, she was never faithful to him during their marriage.  She had affairs with several men including the comedians Joe E. Lewis and Eddie Cantor. "Jackie was simply crazy for Jewish comics," her friend Maxine Stewart once said.   Jackie often had crushes on women as well and may have been bisexual (there were rumors that Jackie made a pass at Ethel Merman and was rejected. Supposedly she later got back at Merman when she created the character of Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls). but sex was not a driving factor in her life.  I think in some ways, she was replicating her parent’s relationship, only with the roles reversed.  In 1946, Jackie gave birth to her only child, a son named Guy.  By the time he was three years old, he was diagnosed as autistic. Autism was still a relatively new diagnosis, doctors suggested that electroshock therapy might help, but it only made the little boy worse.  Both Jackie and Irving felt that there only choice was to put him in an institution.  Ashamed and embarrassed, they told people that he was at a special school in Arizona for children with severe asthma.  Jackie’s main goal, besides becoming famous, was to make enough money to ensure that her son was taken care of during his lifetime. 

It was a diagnosis of breast cancer that spurred Jackie to take out her typewriter to try and write a novel. She’d already written two failed plays, and wrote most of the copy for her Schiffli Lace commercials as well as produced them. She had a mastectomy in 1962, but she kept the news of her illness the same way that she had kept Guy’s a secret.  After her diagnosis, she bargained with God, that if he would just give her ten more years, she would really make something of her life (her husband Irving once said that she treated God like the William Morris office.) And she took her new career as a novelist seriously.  It took her a year and a half to write Valley of the Dolls. Each of her books from Valley of the Dolls through Once Is Not Enough went through at least 5 drafts (each one on different colored paper) before she turned into to her editor. She wrote every day from 10-5 pm.  Even then, there was still more work to be done.  Jackie surprised her editors by not being a prima donna when it came to making changes.  She listened to their suggestions, some she agreed with, some she didn’t. She knew that her strength lay in her ear for dialogue and her characters, not so much the plot, although she diagrammed her plots on a blackboard. After reading a Harold Robbins novel and tearing it apart, Jackie decided that secret formula was giving a set of characters a common denominator. In the Valley of the Dolls, it was pills. In The Love Machine, it was television and the main character Robin Stone, for whom all the female characters fell hopelessly in love despite the fact that he was a total bastard to them.

One of the most amazing things about Jackie Susann was her resilience.  Life kept giving her hard knocks but she kept on going. And it was rough.  Anyone who has a passion or a talent that they don’t feel is appreciated knows what Jackie went through during her years as an actress.  It was literally one step forward and eight steps back.  But yet she kept on.  She was one of the first to do confrontational interviews on television.  Of course, Mike Wallace later became famous for his hard-nosed questions, but because Jackie was a woman, she never got enough credit for it.

She also didn’t get enough credit during her lifetime for her writing.  Jackie knew that no one would compare her writing to Flaubert or Philip Roth, but she knew what the average reader wanted after a hard day at some blue collar job. Although some people called her novels 'literary trash,' Jackie was a storyteller.  She knew how to enthrall a reader.  They wanted to be entertained; they wanted to feel as if their lives were ultimately better than the rich and famous. And Jackie provided that.  She knew what people wanted because she had been that girl with her nose pressed against the glass for years, trying to get into the swanky parties, hob-nobbing with the rich and famous. Valley of the Dolls (dolls are slang for pills) in some ways was probably her most autobiographical novel. Both Jackie and Irving had taken pills for years, sleeping pills to get to sleep, amphetamines to wake-up, diet pills to stay slim. For Jackie, the pills were away to numb the pain.  When things were going great, she would ease off the pills, a setback would send her straight back to them.

And she worked damn hard at her writing and ultimately at promoting her books.  Jackie researched her books thoroughly, she made lists of the things that she didn’t know that she needed to either look up or find out from friends who might know. During the writing of The Love Machine, she claimed to have interviewed men to make sure that her portrait of the main character Robin Stone was authentic.  She kept detailed notes on everyone that she met while promoting her books, and send them handwritten notes.  Now managing his wife's career full-time, Irving managed to find out the names of the 125 bookstores that The New York Times polled when compiling its best seller list. He recruited friends and acquaintances for a little strategic book-buying campaign, making sure that books were bought at every single one of the 125 bookstores.  Nowadays, authors’ giveaway books, tchotchkes, bookmarks, key chains etc. but no one was doing that in the 1960’s before Jackie. When The Love Machine came out, she had gold ankhs made up, and gave them away to every one. During her publicity tour for 'Every Night Josephine,' she dressed herself and her dog in matching leopard-patterned pillbox hats and coats for TV appearances. Nothing and no one was too small for her to pay attention to when it came to selling her books. Susann had an unmistakable look, long dark hair augmented by falls, heavy eye make-up, and Pucci dresses. I still covet Pucci dresses because of her. Jackie knew that she was her own best pitch-woman for her books. But Jackie's books succeeded not just because of the publicity because she had empathy for the female emotional experience.

Although she was only paid $3,000 for the rights to Valley of the Dolls, the paperback rights were sold to Bantam for $200,000, the movie rights went for about the same amount. Not bad for a newbie writer! For The Love Machine, Jackie's advance from Simon & Schuster climbed to $200,000, with a $250,000 promotional budget.  The Mansfields managed to forge separate agreement with Bantam for the paperback rights which gave them 100% royalties, unheard of at the time. When the book debuted, it toppled Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint from the top spot on the best seller list.

Jacqueline Susann was the first author ever to have 3 books catapult to the number one spot on the New York Times best-selling list. Not bad for a woman who only had a high-school education! I admire many things about Jacqueline Susann but I think it’s her chutzpah and her ability to keep going, even through adversity.  No matter how many doors slammed in her face, Jackie kept on knocking until one opened. She was determined to make her mark, whether through acting or writing, and she succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. One of the things that Jackie worried about when she was dying was that she would be forgotten, but she was so wrong. All you have to do is look at the list of people she influenced or references to Valley of the Dolls in pop culture on Wikipedia to see that.  If Jacqueline Susann was alive today, not only would she have a Facebook page, but she would have taken to Twitter like a duck to water.

Unfortunately Susann didn’t live to see her books reissued by Grove in 1997 or the two biopics that were made from her life story (suck on that Harold Robbins!) starring Bette Midler and Michelle Lee.  In early 1973, Susann went into the hospital for a persistent cough.  The news was not good, her cancer had returned, and this time it had spread to her lungs. Susann was only given months to live, but she persisted on promoting her final book Once Is Not Enough. She passed away on September 21st, 1973 at the age of 56.

Bibliography:

Barbara Seaman Lovely Me: The Life of Jacqueline Susann, Seven Stories Press. 1996 (2nd Edition)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

10 Questions with Leslie Carroll

Today is the release date for author Leslie Carroll's 6th book of non-fiction entitled Inglorious Royal Marriages. Scandalous Women is happy to welcome Leslie once again to the blog.


About the book:

Why does it seem that the marriages of so many monarchs are often made in hell? And yet we can’t stop reading about them! To satisfy your schadenfreude, INGLORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES offers a panoply of the most spectacular mismatches in five hundred years of royal history….some of which are mentioned below.

When her monkish husband, England’s Lancastrian Henry VI, became completely catatonic, the unpopular French-born Margaret of Anjou led his army against the troops of their enemy, the Duke of York.

Margaret Tudor, her niece Mary I, and Catherine of Braganza were desperately in love with chronically unfaithful husbands—but at least they weren’t murdered by them, as were two of the Medici princesses.

King Charles II’s beautiful, high-spirited sister “Minette” wed Louis XIV’s younger brother, who wore more makeup and perfume than she did.

Compelled by her mother to wed her boring, jug-eared cousin Ferdinand, Marie of Roumania—a granddaughter of Queen Victoria—emerged as a heroine of World War I by using her prodigious personal charm to regain massive amounts of land during the peace talks at Versailles. Marie’s younger sister Victoria Melita wed two of her first-cousins: both marriages ultimately scandalized the courts of Europe.


Brimming with outrageous real-life stories of royal marriages gone wrong, this is an entertaining, unforgettable book of dubious matches doomed from the start.

      1.       This is your 6th book about royalty.  What is about royalty that we Americans find so fascinating?

It’s axiomatic about human nature that we seem to want what we don’t have. And Americans are fascinated by the glamour and glitz of royalty—the external trappings, such as the palaces and coaches and tiaras and bling. And of course we’re not the taxpayers funding these monarchies, which in Western Europe (my literary bailiwick, for the most part) are now largely constitutional, with primarily ceremonial duties nowadays. For Americans, royalty is fantasy. Even though we fought a war not to be ruled by a monarchy, what we like about royalty is not the governmental aspect of it, but the fairy tale. For example, the nuptials of Charles and Diana, and William and Kate are so often described by our media as “fairy tale weddings.” However, in my books about royalty, I humanize the royals. After all, they were, and are, actual people, however iconographic some of them became—with foibles and flaws and frailties and failures, just like other mortals—except they have better jewelry, larger homes, and nicer clothes than most of us.

2. What prompted you to write about Inglorious Royal Marriages? 

In a word, schadenfreude: the vicarious thrill derived from the misfortunes of others. My books about royal relationships tend to be the most popular, and my last book was titled ROYAL ROMANCES, so I decided to do a 180-degree turn and write about some royal mismatches and matrimonial debacles. There really isn’t a shortage of those, because so many royal marriages were arranged. There is only a shortage of research material on some of them.

3. Out of all the royal couples that you have written about who is your favorite and why? Which Royal Couple was the most surprising to you?
\
I have favorites from each of my books: in ROYAL AFFAIRS, I’ve always had a fondness for Nell Gwyn (she was a feisty redheaded actress who really was in love with Charles II and not solely in it for the money). In NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, I remain fascinated by the hellacious union of George I of England and Sophia Dorothea of Celle, because both took lovers, but George openly sparred with Sophia Dorothea; her lover was brutally murdered and his body mysteriously disposed of; and she was exiled, shut in a tower for the remainder of her days, divorced from George, never again permitted to see their kids, and all acknowledgments of her were expunged from the Hanoverian court. When George became king of England, his two mistresses (The “Elephant” and the “Maypole”) were his hostesses because there was no queen.  In ROYAL PAINS, I just adore Princess Margaret, the wild child and younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II. She’s someone who lived during my childhood, so I kept up with her glamorous antics in the tabloids; and my mother told me all about her doomed relationship with Group Capt. Peter Townsend because it was a huge news item of her young womanhood as well. And in ROYAL ROMANCES, my favorites are a tie between the twenty-plus-year affair of Louis XIV and Mme. de Montespan, the blond voluptuary who bore the king several children and earned the title “the real queen of France” (plus there were all those scandalous accusations of poisoning), and that of Catherine the Great and Potemkin (what an incredibly sexy couple they must have been—SO tempestuous!).

As for a favorite from the new book, INGLORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, it’s tough to beat the dysfunctional unions between a pair of gorgeous Medici cousins and their adulterous, macho, wife-beating husbands who decided that their wives were too flamboyant and needed killing. The double murders, which occurred within two weeks of each other during the Italian Renaissance, were pretty much swept under the rug by the women’s own relative in his capacity as Grand Duke of Tuscany. I know that seems to be a “spoiler,” but one has to read the chapter to get the horrors of it all. 

4.     Are there any couples who didn’t make it into the book and why?

The marriages that I selected for the book are all interrelated in that a royal in each subsequent chapter is a relative or descendent of someone profiled in a previous chapter—so there’s a deliberate through-line in this book that there wasn’t in the previous books. I did have more couples in my original draft table of contents. Some were eliminated as I began my research process because there just wasn’t enough research available to tell a juicy story (such as Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, and her husband John Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll). With the two of them, the chapter would have had a lot of traipsing across Canada: he loved it, she didn’t. Not a lot of excitement there, except for an auto accident. He was rumored to be gay. Okay, some potentially good stuff, but they were, well, Victorians, so it’s almost impossible to find credible anecdotal information to back up those allegations. You can’t write nonfiction based on rumor. So after reading a few bios on both of them, I had to scrap the chapter. I couldn’t use Louis XV and Marie Leszczyńzka because so little is available on their marriage in the English language, and what is there shows that they were not ideally mated, but wouldn’t have qualified the marriage as “inglorious.” I also considered a chapter on Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark, but ran out of space, so they were set aside because of word/page count criteria. 

5.  What does your writing and research process look like? Do you research as you write?

It depends on whether the books I need have arrived by the time I need to do the research. I will get my table of contents approved by my editor before I begin to research and then order the books I need. More often than not, these books are out of print and/or not available in my local libraries. Because of deadline constraints, interlibrary loans aren’t usually helpful because (a) sometimes the books I need are not available anywhere; and (b) I have no idea when the books will arrive and how long it will take me to read them and take copious notes on them (which I do in longhand in violet fine point Pilot marker on notebook paper, marking the name of the book by author and title and page number when I use a quote, so that I know where it was sourced.) My editor demands hard photocopies of the pages I used for quote sources so that the copyeditor can check them to make sure I typed them correctly in my manuscript. Photocopying every page with a quote source is very time consuming and is another reason I end up purchasing the research books I need, so I can keep everything for as long as I want. Also, that way, I can write my chapters in any order. For INGLORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, all the books I needed had arrived by the time I began to write, or had at least arrived by the time I needed them for the requisite chapter, so I wrote the chapters in chronological order. 

6.  You’ve also written several historical fiction novels about some famous and fascinating women such as Helen of Troy, Emma Hamilton, Mary Robinson and Marie Antoinette.  What are the differences you find between writing non-fiction and fiction? Which do you prefer?

I find that one genre feeds the other. I get ideas for my historical fiction from my nonfiction.  For example, my (Juliet Grey’s) HF trilogy on the life of Marie Antoinette was inspired by the chapter I wrote in NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES on her marriage to Louis XVI. I read so much about their lives and realized that they had been so traduced by history that someone needed to tell their story in a richly detailed way, which for once told the truth instead of continuing to promulgate the propaganda found in the history books and in many biographies of the past 225 years or so. As for the differences, of course you can’t “make stuff up” in nonfiction! With historical fiction the author is free to embellish and embroider between the historical events. Some HF authors really play fast and loose and “never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” as the saying goes, but in that case, why write about real people? In historical fiction I am firmly committed to the historical record, because it does a disservice to my characters to make stuff up when the truth/facts are usually much juicier than anything a novelist can invent. That said, a novelist can, and should, do what a historian can’t—which is to get under the figure’s skin and inside their psyche and help readers understand what made them tick, what made their hearts beat so quickly, how they felt about the actions they took. A novelist gets to have an opinion about the events that shaped her character’s lives, and about her characters themselves. By telling a well-known story from their point of view, she can depict them sympathetically, illuminating their world from their perspective, as, for example, Hilary Mantel did so brilliantly with Thomas Cromwell in WOLF HALL. Without too much monkeying around with historical events, Mantel put us inside (the usually villainous) Cromwell’s head and almost made us sympathize with Henry’s hatchet man, his Karl Rove, if you will.  

7. You’re a native New Yorker, and now you live in our nation’s capital.  What is your favorite historical place in Washington, DC?

If you have never visited Hillwood, which is the home of General Foods founder (and Dina Merrill’s mother) Marjorie Merriweather Post, you are in for a treat! This home museum tucked away in NW DC is a gem. If you’re a flower person, she collected rare species of orchids, which are in a greenhouse on the grounds. If you are a Russophile or Francophile, she amassed all sorts of artifacts belonging to those royal and imperial families. If you want to see Romanov memorabilia, Hillwood is the place to go. They have many lectures and exhibits throughout the year. And every July they have an 18th c. style festival on the grounds with costumed participants.  

8.  I just watched the first episode of Outlander on Starz this past weekend.  If you could time-travel to any period in history, where it would it be, and why?

I think the Restoration Court of Charles II would be my first choice. Although mid-18th c. France might be pretty cool as well.  I need an era when women’s wit was prized. And where I would look smashing in the clothes. 

9. What are your favorite things to do in your downtime?

I never seem to get much down time, but I find that it’s important to recharge my creative batteries by visiting museums, walking by the river, poring over issues of Architectural Digest and reimagining interior spaces, cooking or baking; and, if I am not currently writing historical fiction, reading my colleagues’ novels. I don’t like to read in a genre that I am writing in, unless it’s for research.

10.   What are you working on now? What is your next project?

I am currently writing a novel; historical fiction set during the mid-twentieth century. That’s all I’ll say about it for now. And I have been recording audio books this summer, another aspect of my career that I branched into a few years ago. It’s a performance skill in its own that, well, gloriously marries the ones I’ve acquired over the years in my two creative professions, writing and acting. It’s a lot of fun and I love making other authors’ work come alive aurally.

Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for inviting me, and for the opportunity to speak to your readers! As always, it’s been a pleasure!

About the author:

Leslie Carroll is the author of several works of historical nonfiction, women’s fiction, and, under the pen names Juliet Grey and Amanda Elyot, is a multipublished author of historical fiction. Her nonfiction titles include Royal Romances, Royal Pains, Royal Affairs, and Notorious Royal Marriages. She is also a classically trained professional actress with numerous portrayals of virgins, vixens, and villainesses to her credit, and is an award-winning audio book narrator.

A frequent commentator on royal romances and relationships, Leslie has been interviewed by numerous publications, including MSNBC.com, USA Today, the Australian Broadcasting Company, and NPR, and she was a featured royalty historian on CBS nightly news in London during the royal wedding coverage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. She also appears as an expert on the love lives of Queen Victoria, Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great, and Napoleon on the television series “The Secret Life of [fill in the name of famous figure]” for Canada’s History Channel. Leslie and her husband, Scott, divide their time between New York City and Washington, D.C.


For more information please visit Leslie’s website. You can also connect with her on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

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 

Teaser
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 www.dianehaeger.com. 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.