Bad Girls: Kiki de Montparnasse

brancusi-rosso-man-ray-05I first learned about Alice Prin, aka Kiki de Montparnasse, while reading Laurie R. King’s novel, The Bones of Paris, a mystery set in 1920’s Paris. Kiki’s story is an intriguing one. She was born in Burgundy in 1901, raised in poverty and poorly educated. She arrived in Paris at age 12, when her mother moved there to find work. Kiki herself worked at a bakery and as a dishwasher, gradually becoming an artists’ model, through which, she said, she had found her “real milieu”. Of Montparnasse she wrote, “People are broadminded and where what would be crime elsewhere is just a pecadillo”. Kiki was no thin little waif; there was meat on her bones and  she was never shy about showing off her face or body. More accurately, it seems, Kiki was never shy about anything; she once landed in jail for slugging a cafe owner and a policeman. She modeled for and provided inspiration todozens of well known artists, and when she became Man Ray’s muse and lover, she quickly became celebrated as a symbol of bohemian Paris.

kiki5b45dWhat makes Kiki a “bad girl” is her refusal to be just another artists’ model, instead deciding for herself what her public persona would be. She performed in short, experimental movies, some of them deemed shocking, and sang risque songs in music halls. She demanded the same sexual freedoms that were granted to men, and celebrated her sexuality. In the hundreds of photos that were taken of her, she stares directly out at the viewer. One of her closest friends was Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the introduction to her memoirs, which were considered so scandalous that her books were banned in the U.S. Hanging out with so many major talents inspired Kiki to develop her own creative abilities, and when her paintings were exhibited at Galerie au Sacre du Printemps, they sold out on opening night.

As the era of the 1920’s drew to a close, Kiki fell into a long downward spiral, during which substance abuse and addiction would destroy her health. She died in 1953 at the age of 53. As the “Queen of Montparnasse”,  she was a trailblazer in the quest for women’s freedom to live their lives on their own terms.


Biography: Insubordinate Spirit, by Missy Wolfe

Insubordinate Spirit: A True Story of Life and Loss in Earliest America 1610-1665
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this study is a bit misleading. Yes, there is information on the life of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, but there is much more info on the 17th century Puritan experience in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York (Amsterdam). With respect to Elizabeth, there is a dearth of evidence about her day to day existence, and Missy Wolfe has unearthed a bit more with a few interesting personal letters and diaries written by “Bess” and her family, especially her eldest daughter. Especially elucidating are their exchanges with John Winthrop, Jr. who, as Ms. Wolfe described him, was a true “renaissance man”, scientist, medical specialist, political innovator, and man of reason. There are sections on the founding and development of Greenwich and Stamford, which came about only following lengthy wrangling between the English and Dutch over the borderlands between their respective colonies. In and amongst these sections, Wolfe manages to establish Elizabeth as an independent thinker who had the courage to resist conformity regardless of the personal hardships that the Puritan government visited upon her as a result.

Missy Wolfe is an amateur historian, and as such, she sometimes uses anachronistic language and repeats timeworn myths. Elizabeth, for example, didn’t “date”, and colonial women did not turn into torches because their home fires ignited their clothing as they worked over the flames. Still, there are things to be gleaned from this narrative, particularly in the many details about the Native Americans living in the Greenwich area during Elizabeth’s time there; Ms. Wolfe also provides information about some of the names in the town of today that are directly related to them. Pinpointing the location of her last dwelling site, on a promontory that stood above Hell Gate, is interesting as well. The author also fleshes out the personality of John Underhill, infamous for his part in the Pequot massacre. At the end of the book, she reports what is known about the lives of the descendants of the key figures in her narrative.

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Esther Williams Meacham: The Redeemed Captive

On the bitter cold night of Feb. 29, 1704, the little town of Deerfield, MA, an English outpost on the western fringes of the Bay Colony, once again found itself in the cross-hairs of the imperial feud being waged between France and Great Britain for the dominance of the North American continent. The armed conflicts of the 18th century between the English colonies in North America and the French settlements that stretched into Canada were fought with the support of Native American allies.

In 1704, Mohawk Indians, converted to Catholicism by Jesuit missionaries, allied with the French settlers in Canada, attacked the frontier village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, killing 50 of the very young and old and kidnapping 112 more. They then marched the prisoners to Canada, killing 20 more women and several children along the way as acts of mercy, including the wife and infant son of John Williams, a Puritan minister and a prize hostage. While he and his surviving sons were ultimately released, his daughter, Eunice, who was seven at the time of her capture, remained with her captors, converted to Catholicism, and at the age of 16 married an Indian, with whose people she chose to spend the rest of her life. A fuller account of Eunice’s saga can be found here:


The opinions expressed in the linked article are not necessarily my own.

The gravestone pictured above is located in the Nathan Hale Cemetery in Coventry, CT, and it marks the burial site of the sister of Eunice Williams. Esther Williams Meacham was one of the Deerfield captives who was released and returned to her life among the Puritans. Esther married a minister and relocated from Mass. to Connecticut, and local accounts tell of Eunice’s infrequent visits to her sister’s household, during which she refused to stay inside the house, preferring to pitch her own shelter on the village green.

Esther Meacham’s gravestone contains a summary of her ordeal among the Mohawk:

Here lies what was Mortal of

Mrs. Esther Meacham ye Pru

dent Pious & virtuous

Consort of ye Revd Joseph

Meacham she was ye Daugh

of ye Venerable John Will

iams of Deerfield & was

Carried Capture to Canada

with her Father & his Family

was wonderfully preserved

& Redeemed & lived an

Eminent Example of what

was amiable in a wife a

Mother a Friend & a Christian

Slept in Jesus March 12th

1751 in ye 60th Year of her Age.

Esther’s marker was carved by a local Coventry craftsman, Gershom Bartlett. Follow up to Eunice’s story:



Lorenzo Dow Raises the Devil

Quoted from Legendary Connecticut by David E. Phillips

Once there was this crazy preacher named Lorenzo Dow who was travelling in the northern part of Vermont, when he got caught in a terrible snowstorm. He managed to make his way to the only light he could see. After repeated knocking at the door of the humble log house, a woman opened it. He asked if he could stay the night. She told Dow her husband was not home and she could not take in a stranger. But he pleaded with her and she reluctantly let him in. He immediately went to bed, without removing his clothing, in a corner of the room separated from the main living quarters only by a rude partition with many cracks in it.

After he had slept for just a short time, the preacher was awakened by the sounds of giggling and whispering from the main room. Peering through a crack in the partition, he saw that his hostess was entertaining a man not her husband! No sooner had he taken this in, when Dow heard a man’s drunken voice shouting and cursing outside the front door, and demanding to be let in. Before admitting her husband (for it was he, returned unexpectedly), the wife motioned her lover to hide in the barrel of tow, a coarse flax ready for spinning, beside the fireplace. Once inside, the suspicious husband quickly sensed that his wife had not been alone, and demanded to know who else was in the house. When the quick-witted wife told him about the Rev. Dow, sleeping in the corner, he was not satisfied. After all, he was not so drunk that he would take his wife’s word for the identity of the houseguest.

“Well, now,” roared the husband, “I hear tell that parson Dow can raise the devil. I think I’d like to see him do it — right here and now.” Before the devil could shut up her boisterous husband, he had pulled the famous preacher from his bed, where he had pretended to be sound asleep. “Rev’rend,” he bellowed, “I want you to raise the devil. I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Seeing that he would have to perform, Lorenzo finally said, “Well, if you insist, I will do it, but when he comes, it will be in a flaming fire. You must open the door wide so he will have plenty of room.” The husband opened the door. Then, taking a burning coal from the fire with the tongs, Dow dropped it into the tow cask. Instantly the oily contents burst into flame. Howling in pain from the fire which engulfed him, the flaming figure of the man hidden in the barrel leaped out onto the floor and, just as quickly, darted out the open door, trailing ashes and smoke. He ran down the snowy road as if pursued by demons. It is said that the sight of all this not only sobered the drunken husband immediately, but permanently cured his taste for booze. And that was certainly one of the Rev. Dow’s major miracles!

Bad Girls: Yoko Ono

It’s difficult to grasp the fact that Yoko Ono Lennon is 80 years old. Born in Tokyo in 1933, she and her parents moved between Asia and the US as demanded by the dictates of her father’s banking job. They were in Japan during WWII and suffered the deprivations common during war. In the early 1950’s, the Onos settled in Scarsdale, NY. Yoko attended Sarah Lawrence College, and to the dismay of her parents, embarked on a “Bohemian” life style as an artist. Yoko married a composer and attempted suicide after the marriage failed. In 1962, she married again, giving birth to a daughter, and despite marital strife, stayed with her husband for several more years, pursuing her career and leaving child care responsibilities to him.

In 1969, everything changed for Yoko when she met John Lennon, who attended one of her art exhibits. Lennon was attracted to her avant garde attitude towards both art and life, but their relationship did not heat up for a couple of years. When their affair finally began, and Lennon divorced his wife, public outrage was enormous. John and Yoko married in 1969, at the height of the peace/love/drugs movement, and became the most famous couple in the world, demonstrating for their beliefs with flamboyance, via a bed-in, naked photos, appearing in public wearing bags, and other in-your-face antics. The Lennons were flattered by their inclusion on President Nixon’s infamous anti-American list. Lennon insisted that Yoko participate in his music, though she was not especially gifted in that area, and when the Beatles ultimately broke up, disappointed fans held Yoko responsible. The couple was widely criticized for their treatment of Julian, Lennon’s son from his first marriage. Yoko’s former husband, believing that Lennon was a harmful influence on his daughter, kidnapped her from Yoko’s custody and refused to permit any contact. Attempts were being made to deport Lennon for drug use, and for a time, the marriage foundered.

The following year, Yoko and John reconciled, and their only child, Sean Lennon, was born. Shortly after the release of a joint album, John was murdered in front of their apartment at the Dakota in NYC.

For years, animosity toward Yoko continued, but she never gave up her artistic and social endeavors. She created a memorial to John Lennon in Central Park, Strawberry Fields, and the John Lennon Museum in Japan. Yoko recently has instituted a $50,000 Peace Prize for Palestinian and Israeli artists. Now 75, Yoko Ono has finally been given credit and recognition for her artistic and political contributions, and has reconciled with her daughter. It’s tempting to wonder what her reception might have been had she been Caucasian and beautiful.

Bad Girls: Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Sayre was born in Alabama in 1900, 6th child of a prominent Southern family. She was an active child who studied ballet, was a bright but indifferent student, and in high school developed a reputation as a “speed”, the antithesis of the demure belle she was expected to be.

In 1918, Zelda performed “Dance of the Hours” for the crowd at her country club, among whom was a 21-year-old first lieutenant, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was stationed nearby. Fitzgerald asked her to dance, and they were immediately entranced with one another. He began to call her daily, visiting on his days off. Lt. Fitzgerald talked of his plans to be famous, and sent her a chapter of a book he was working on, telling her “the heroine does resemble you in more ways than four.” He was not the only man courting Zelda, and the competition only drove him to want her more. The following year, Fitzgerald was discharged from the service and moved to New York City to establish himself as a writer.Zelda and Scott corresponded by mail, and in March, they became engaged, against the wishes of her family. Among their objections to Scott was his religion (Catholic) and his excessive drinking. Zelda continued to flirt with other men, and, accidentally, she was to claim, she mailed to Scott a gift she meant to return to one of her other suitors. The engagement was broken, but only for a time. The couple married in April, 1920.

Zelda was now expected to be the witty and charming wife of an up-and-coming writer. After the publication of This Side of Paradise, the media focused attention upon the couple’s flamboyant life style. Zelda became jealous of her husband’s success, and Scott of the male attention directed toward his wife. Their drinking often caused their arguments to get out of hand. Their partying affected their health as well as their relationship, and they spent as much money as Scott could earn.

The birth of their only child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald in 1921 did little to change their lives, and although Zelda was fond of her daughter and wrote to her frequently, Scottie was cared for by nannies. The following year, The Beautiful and the Damned was published, and Zelda accused Scott in print of plagiarizing material that she herself had written. Zelda had a strong desire to develop her own talents. She wrote a number of short stories, several of which were published in Scott’s name. As Zelda’s discontent grew, she encouraged the attentions of other men. She also became obsessed with ballet, practicing 8 hours a day, which Scott considered a waste of time.

As Fitzgerald’s literary fame increased to international proportions, they moved to Paris, where they socialized with such celebrities as Ernest Hemingway and Isadora Duncan. The attention Scott devoted to his friends increased Zelda’s sense of isolation and envy. Her dancing fixation contributed to her exhaustion, and she began to exhibit signs of obsessive-compulsive and bipolar disorders. She was admitted to a hospital in France, where she was ultimately diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Returning to America, Zelda continued to receive psychiatric treatment. While in the hospital, she wrote a novel of her own, submitting it to Scott’s publisher. The book was a semiautobiographical account of their marriage, and Scott was incensed, as he planned to use the same material in his upcoming Tender is the Night. He forced Zelda to revise her text, which was published in 1932 to little notice. Scott deeply wounded her by calling her work third rate.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was mentally ill for the rest of her life, although she did outlive her husband. Scott did not remarry, although he had a love affair with columnist Sheila Graham while working on a screenplay in Hollywood. Zelda died in North Carolina in a hospital fire in 1948.

The Fitzgeralds are buried together in his family plot in Rockville, MD. The closing line from The Great Gatsby is carved on their stone: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Remarkable American Women: Sarah Josepha Hale, Founder of Our National Thanksgiving

This week I posted an article about the authorship of Mary Had a Little Lamb, (link) attributed to of Sarah Josepha Hale. Today I read another article about her crusade to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday, to be celebrated annually on the same day by all the states. In a campaign that lasted  two decades, Hale wrote countless letters and editorials to congressmen, governors, and five sitting Presidents. At last, in October, 1863, Abraham Lincoln became convinced by her argument that a new national holiday would help to unify the country in the aftermath of the Civil War. Until then, the only other holidays celebrated across America were Independence Day and Washington’s birthday. Lincoln set the new Thanksgiving event on the last Thursday of every November. This date held until 1939, when President Roosevelt, in order to extend the Christmas shopping season, changed it to the second to last Thursday in November. Ultimately, in 1941, Congress made the change official.

by James Reid Lambdin, 1831

Mrs Hale also wrote editorials proposing a menu containing foods available at the original Plymouth Thanksgiving dinner. But her exceptional career was influential in many other realms. Born in 1788, she rose to become one of America’s first woman writers of note.  Northwood: Life North and South, one of the first successful books to deal with slavery as an integral part of its plot, was published in 1852. She produced numerous recipe books and poetry compilations, and served as editor of the widely popular magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, for forty years. Hale advocated for education, physical fitness, women’s rights,  the preservation of Mt. Vernon, and the building of the Bunker Hill Monument, for which she raised $30,000.

The remarkable Sarah Josepha Hale, a woman far ahead of her time,  died at the age of 91, in 1879.

Historical Fiction: Illuminations, by Mary Sharratt

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Few of us today understand the lives of anchorites, individuals who for religious reasons chose to live in a sealed room, with only a hatch providing contact with the world at large. In Illuminations, Mary Sharratt presents a fictionalized biography of one of the most famous anchorites of all time, Hildegard von Bingen. As a child growing up in early medieval Germany, Hildegard experienced frequent visions, a dangerous trait in the eyes of church and society. As a result, her mother “tithed” her to the church as companion to Jutta von Sponheim, a girl from a noble family who chose to become not merely a nun, but an anchorite.

Sharratt chronicles the stages of Hildegard’s life, from those miserable early years of forced confinement, to her fight for the opportunity to live as a normal nun, to her founding of her own religious community. In the process, her visions continued and grew in intensity, to the point that they dictated her choices and created her reputation as a genuine and revered mystic. Sharratt’s prose, at times luminous and at times decidedly down to earth. She has managed to convey a sharp sense of Hildegard’s personality and spirit, relying upon primary sources, especially the brilliantly illuminated manuscript in which she recorded her visions. Her Hildegard is humble, yet not afraid to employ flamboyance to achieve her goals. She did not hestitate to criticize hypocrisy and abuses of the church to which her life was bound, which caused her enormous difficulty. But she remained unbowed, and in her more peaceful, contemplative periods, she composed exquisite music to accompany the divine office.

Today, Hildegard is often regarded as a proto-feminist, but as portrayed in this book, she is more a proponent of self-actualization and justice. She is also called St. Hildegard, but her canonization has not yet taken place; that will occur October 7, 2012. I’m not certain exactly what she did to earn that title (it has been speculated that her visions were manifestations of migraine aura), but her life was extraordinary and her story deserves to be told as eloquently as Sharratt has done.

Historical Fiction: Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies (Wolf Hall, #2)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hilary Mantel opened her trilogy about the life and times of Thomas Cromwell with Wolf Hall, winner of the Man Booker Prize. Now it continues, seamlessly, with Bring Up the Bodies. It is to her great credit that she breathed sympathetic life into the much maligned Cromwell, who emerges in this series as a humane, decent, and capable individual who might actually be interesting to know. To read these books is to plunge into the world of Henry VIII and his courtiers, who showed remarkable courage – along with naive optimism – as they served this king in his descent into megalomania. Anyone of your colleagues in this world, where survival is the name of the game could, and probably would, become your enemy should the need arise. Thomas is a self-made man, abused by his father and determined to make his way in the world. He seems as surprised as anyone that he, the blacksmith’s boy, could become privy councillor to the king. But the comments that the nobles constantly make about his humble origins do rankle. He must refer to a chart to untangle all the aristocratic family alliances, but luckily, Cromwell possesses a long, prodigious memory to bolster his drive to survive. When Henry tires of Anne Boleyn, it falls to Cromwell to bring her down to make way for Jane Seymour. Not an easy task, but Thomas must accomplish it, and who is to complain if he finds that those who had a hand in corrupting La Boleyn are also those who belittled him? It is here that Cromwell’s ruthless, brutal side comes to the fore, but Anne’s imprisonment and execution are treated with sympathy.

Should you choose to read Bring Up the Bodies, pay close attention to the detail in the book’s first half, because it’s of vast importance to the action in the second. Cromwell did what he had to, by his own lights and those of Henry VIII. We don’t have to like or admire it, but to understand it is fascinating and edifying

Historical Fiction: Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin

Alice I Have BeenThe Looking Glass

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On now legendary “golden afternoon” during the summer of 1862, Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll) escorted the ten year old Alice Liddell and two of her sisters a rowing excursion on the Isis. The tale he spun for the girls that day became the timeless classic “Alice in Wonderland.” Dodgson and Alice shared a “particular” friendship, during which he freqently visited her family and made photographs of her in various exotic poses. Because she was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, the Oxford community paid particular attention to that relationship.

Alice, of course, could not remain in Wonderland, for she had to grow up, and in adulthood, the friendship came to an end. Since that time, much has been made of Dodgson’s attraction to young girls and the nature of the photos in which they were featured. Now Melanie Benjamin relates a version of the real Alice’s life and “adventures”, told from Alice’s own perspective. This is a somewhat erotic tale, though very much understated, one that ultimately becomes a journey of self discovery. The gossip surrounding her and Dodgson was pervasive, and until she was quite elderly, Alice, now the widow of Reginald Hargreaves, she resisted discussing that relationship with anyone. As the reader follows Alice through her life, many of the lesser known facets are brought to light. But always, the looking glass reflects back to her that now misty early period.

Keeping in mind that this is a work of historical fiction, take this opportunity to accompany the real Alice, who had dark hair, not blond, down the famous rabbit hole.

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