Lola Montez features in the first chapter of my memoir. Called “A Mistress of Self-Invention,” the chapter shows how I’m at a turning point in my life. Even as I resist change, I can feel myself climbing out of the depths of misery with the promise of learning about bad girls. Over Christmas and into New Year 2000, I endure periodic, despairing phone conversations with The Ex-Husband Who Must Not Be Named, but I find that I’ve stopped obsessing over our failed marriage as my mind turns to thoughts of the wicked women I’ll be studying in England and France.
The questions come bubbling up: What is a bad girl? How does she become one? Are there any personality traits that all bad girls share? Who were the most outrageous bad girls of all time?
Chapter One details my fledgling efforts to discover the bad girl persona before I leave Chicago. Everyone I tell about the bad girls project throws out names I should look into. Marilyn Monroe (too much of a victim, I decide). Lucrezia Borgia (too violent). George Sand (too neurotic). Calamity Jane (too not sexy).
And then one day in a bookstore, I come across a name and a story that intrigue me: Lola Montez, whip-cracking virago of the 19th century.
“She has the evil eye and will bring bad luck to whoever links his destiny with hers,” the French novelist Alexandre Dumas Sr. wrote of Lola, and that feels right to me. Lola was a sex goddess with a penchant for self-invention, a frivolous bit of fluff who was deadly serious about her limited talents and over-reaching ambition. After mad affairs with virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria as well as several ugly marriages and a mediocre dancing career on four continents, Lola Montez died of syphilis in a New York poorhouse at age 43 and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn.
As a woman who made a glorious mess of her life, Lola appeals to me enormously. She feels like the start of my journey. I take perverse pleasure in learning that she, too, was a nice girl who married the wrong man because she thought it was a good idea at the time. For Lola, that rash decision ended in a scandalous divorce which forced her to reinvent herself in the 19th century, a time when divorce turned a woman into damaged goods.
Chapter One doesn't actually exist yet. I'm currently gathering my resources and courage to start writing it. This involves not only reviewing my notes on Lola, but digging through my thoughts and feelings, present and past, of what is and what could have been. Ugh.
Before sitting down to blog this morning, I went through a trunkful of memories that I've held onto for years and usually avoid like the plague. Datebooks, letters, postcards, journals. I'm trying to reconstruct my life as part of the process of writing a memoir. It's all so cringingly personal and SELF-INVOLVED to see what I felt and thought when I was younger. I was boy crazy--that's immediately apparent--but now I see, or am trying to see, the entertainment value in how earnestly and passionately I lived as I went from one love failure to the next.
I've got plenty of raw data here. I'm the main character in this novelistic memoir I'm writing. If the book becomes a publishing failure, then I hope the value of it will be that I finally understand my life and how I got this way.
For example, I just came across a certificate of achievement that I earned when I was 14, an "Award of Terpsichore." Here's what it says: "This is to certify that Joyce Hanson has successfully completed eighth grade requirements in Contemporary Social Dancing at the Woman's Club of Evanston this 17th day of March."
Girls were expected to wear white gloves at Social Dancing, which was taught by Sally Ann and Eric Stromer, the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire of the Evanston Woman's Club. They were so glamourous and elegantly turned out, fox-trotting across the floor as we eighth graders snickered at them behind their bravely well-postured backs. Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Stromer, where are you today?
If I had ever come across a certificate like this when I was researching one of my bad girls, it would have felt like a little victory of understanding, and its significance in her development would have been immediately apparent to me. But now that I'm the subject, it's more complicated. I remember the pain of rejection I felt every time a boy I had a crush on (and there were many, so many) would pass me by and ask another girl to dance.