Monday, April 30, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part 2: On Becoming a Courtesan

The Quorn Hunt looked something like this:

A lot of freaked-out animals--horses, dogs and foxes--with people in red jackets bossing them around. This is the hunt that is so wildly protested against these days. If Skittles were alive now, she would have no sympathy for the protesters, of course, even though she was a marginalized figure at the Quorn and knew very well that she was unwelcome by the snobs of Leicestershire.

That's what I think, anyway. Skittles was an old-fashioned girl who knew her place, and that was being a whore--Victorian London’s favorite whore. In the same way that Nell Gwynne had been the favorite whore of England’s Restoration. You know about Nell Gwynne,right? She was another courtesan who got a kick out of calling herself a whore. Nell, who lived from 1650 to 1687, was a longtime mistress of King Charles II, and of all the king’s many mistresses, Nell was the people's prostitute because she was an unpretentious girl of the streets who never forgot where she came from. There's one commonly told story about Nell Gwynne, and it goes like this: One day, she found her footman bleeding, recovering from a fight, and when she asked what it was about, the footman said: “I have been fighting, madam, with a rascal who called your ladyship a whore.” Nell responded: “Blockhead! At this rate you must fight every day of your life. Why, all the world knows it!”

Wait. Hang on. That's not the story I was thinking of. There's another one where Nell calls herself a whore that I like better. In this one she's riding through the crowded streets of London in her carriage, and she's mistaken for King Charles' wife, I think it was, who was Catholic. And Nell said, "No no, it's okay, I'm the King's Protestant whore!" I think that's how the story goes. Anyway, the punchline is definitely "I'm the Protestant whore."

Now here's me being the women's studies professor who explains all of this: Both the Victorian and Restoration ages were class-bound periods when people were expected to accept their lot in life, especially women. Respectable job options were few—nurse, teacher, seamstress. More daring women, risk-takers of special talents who had little to lose, became actresses and courtesans. The unlucky ones ended up in cheap bordellos or, worse, on street corners, while young women who succeeded usually enjoyed an unusual beauty combined with an instinctive sense of charm. Skittles and Nell Gwynne, for example, were both slum children with drunks as parents, but both had pretty faces, good figures, winning personalities and an unsentimental pragmatism that kept them from wasting their precious gifts on men who would be useless to their survival. Wealthy men were nice, of course, but so were great leaders and artists who could enhance a courtesan’s reputation with their reflected glory.

Skittles’ finest accomplishments were the men who loved her, and they included at least one nobleman, a politician and a poet. Who she became was the sum of her lovers. If she understood the aristocracy, it was because the 8th Duke of Devonshire was her first and possibly only love. If she took an interest in books and writing, it was thanks to her boyfriend the Victorian poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. (But they never called them boyfriends back in those days, did they?) If she became a refined woman of wealth, it was due to her affair with an older Frenchman, Napoleon III’s finance minister, Achille Fould.

Well, yes, that all sounds very nice, but let's face it: To live happily off the generosity of men without marrying them requires an uncommon talent, and Skittles had it. That's the big reason why I like her (even though, being a classic bad girl, I'm sure Skittles wouldn't have liked me in return). The men who knew Skittles ended up loving her more than she loved them, looking past her brassiness and seeing instead an image of a vulnerable innocent alone in the world. While this vision may have had some truth in it, Skittles was tougher than she let on. The circumstances of her birth guaranteed that.

In the next installment, watch for more on the circumstances of Skittles' birth! Can you stand the suspense? I'll be on holiday in Mexico or Belize in the next couple of weeks, but I'll try to find an Internet cafe at some point so I can do a blog post.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part I: Fantasia on a Victorian Courtesan

And so we went our way,--yes, hand in hand,
Like two lost children in some magic wood…..
Each step was an experience. Every mood
Of that fair woman a fresh gospelling,
Which spoke aloud to me and stirred my blood
To a new faith, I knew not with what sting.
One thing alone I knew or cared to know,
Her strange companionship thus strangely won.
The past, the future, all of weal or woe
In my old life was gone, for ever gone.

The snippet of poetry above comes from the 12th sonnet of “Esther, A Young Man’s Tragedy,” an epic poem by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt written in 1892 for the whore he was in love with. Catherine Walters, her name was, but everyone knew her as Skittles. And back then, she was well known by everybody who knew anything about the courtesans of Victorian London.

I bring up Skittles now because she's one of my bad girls, and I've written a mini-biography about her. And yet after all the time and attention I've devoted to this girl, I've decided to kill her off, alas. She just doesn't have a place anymore in Chasing Bad Girls: My Pursuit of Wicked Women, also known as "my book." Goodbye, Skittles.

All is not lost, though, because now I can revive her right here in this blog. Hello again, Skittles! This is going to be a new thought experiment for me. Till now, I've been a bit coy in these blog posts about sharing all the details about my bad girls, because I've been saving them for the book. But now I'm free to do whatever I want with Skittles.

So, I'll get started by revealing the opening passage I wrote for her mini-bio. And let me set the record straight right up front by saying that it's extremely embarrassing for me to share this passage with you. I have, in fact, already written a mini-bio for all of my bad girls, but now when I re-read them, they make me cringe. Who the hell is the narrator in these bios? She sure doesn't sound like me. She sounds more like a freakish combination of an earnest women's studies professor mixed in with a leering, pipe-smoking early 20th-century dimestore novelist.

She sounds exactly like this:

The Quorn Hunt, that grand English institution pitting elegant horsemen and women and their hounds against terrified foxes in the Leicestershire countryside, got its start in 1696 and had certainly reached its pinnacle of greatness by the time the Victorians came along. In bright red riding jackets and black helmets, the cream of society displayed their mastery of the rules of class as they demonstrated their horsemanship. Riding to hounds, they watched to see who was best at leaping over hedges, handling the reins and navigating the social graces. Only a superior few belonged in the Quorn.

Lord Stamford, master of the foxhounds in 1860, belonged to that elite, but his wife did not. True, before her marriage Lady Stamford had been an admirable show rider at the Cremorne Gardens, a crowded public pleasure ground also notorious as a den of vice. But her riding skills mirrored her nature, and she was a woman who handled her horse with quiet dignity. Still, Lady Stamford was a mere gamekeeper’s daughter and morally suspect—who knew what kind of company she might have kept in her youth? In short, the high society Victorian ladies thought her a trollop. They were happy to join her husband’s hunt, but they also enjoyed finding mildly gentle ways to shun and ridicule Lady Stamford.

That November, another horsewoman joined in the Quorn. Her antecedents were even more questionable than Lady Stamford’s and yet, maddeningly, she made no demure effort to win the crowd’s favour. Catherine Walters, better known as “Skittles” to Victorian London, was a courtesan of the first rank and wouldn’t pretend to be otherwise. She was also a fearless horsewoman and adored going on the best hunts, even though she was unwelcome in the homes of the aristocracy. Skittles’ lover at the time, Lord Hartington, shared her love of horses, but had written letters warning her about “the stupid people in Leicestershire” and the snobbishness of the hunting set.

Whether she was a free spirit by nature or design, Skittles didn’t care what anyone thought of her. Riding in her pink swallow-tail coat and trademark chimney-pot hat, she chattered as fast as she rode and capered off, laughing, across the fields. Rather than sympathize with Lady Stamford, which she might easily have done considering her own infamous reputation, Skittles worked harder than anyone else to put the lady in her place. A fearless rider, she cantered dangerously close to the woman, scaring her horse, and made rude comments about her dark past. She kept up her relentless bad behavior until Lord Stamford called a halt and ejected Skittles, threatening to end the hunt entirely if she persisted. At the next Quorn, Skittles showed up and started once again to harass Lady Stamford. Good to his word, Lord Stamford announced that the hunt was finished for the day. When Skittles’ friends caught wind of this, they begged her to drop out so the hunt could continue. After much grumbling, Skittles finally trotted off toward home, calling out: “Tell Lady Stamford she’s not the queen of our profession. I am.”

Oh, dear. Did I really write that? Uh, yes. I did. And the passage above indicates pretty clearly, I think, why I eventually decided to insert my own, REAL voice into the narrative when I started to write Chasing Bad Girls. Next time, I'll continue to tell Skittles story, using the mini-bio as my guide, but it's not gonna sound like a demented, pipe-smoking women's studies novelist.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Verily I Say: NYC Restaurants Do Deliver

Well, that's it. I can't stand it anymore: tonight I'm going to break my Lenten promise and meet my husband for dinner at a restaurant. (Note to atheists: Easter is tomorrow, the day Lent ends.) That's right, I gave up restaurants for Lent. Do you know how hard it is not to eat in a restaurant for 40 days and 40 nights when you live in NYC? Do you know how hard it is not to pick up a salad for lunch when you're at your day job, no deli bagels when you're on the run, no pizza takeout, no Chinese delivery, no Friday-night-meet-up-with-friends drinks and dinner at your favorite dining spot, no popcorn at the movies, which I also counted as restaurant eating, just to make myself more miserable? Well, do you?

And I was so good. I just broke my promise one other time during the 40 days of Lent, and that was when a friend invited me and a couple other friends to be her guest at a restaurant because she was celebrating her recent admission to grad school. Oh, I suppose I could have refused, but refusing would have meant punishing her with my Lent promise, as if I'm some kind of holier-than-thou Christian, which I am not. And I was already punishing enough people with it (see below), plus she was paying.

So why did I promise myself not to eat at any restaurants during Lent?
1) To see what the deprivation would feel like.
2) To explore the feeling of going without in a very specific way.
3) To make myself be more mindful of the food I was eating.
4) To cook more at home and try new recipes, which I did.
5) To lose weight, which I didn't.
6) To be part of a springtime cycle of repentance and preparing new spiritual ground. (In yoga class last night, we did springtime poses, and I imagined myself as a curled-up crocus bulb with shoots emerging out of the ground.)

Anyway, according to a religious web site I just googled, I got Lent all wrong this year. Lent began as a way for Catholics to remind themselves to repent of their sins in a similar manner to how people in the Old Testament repented in sackcloth, ashes, and fasting. However, according to the site, "the New Testament teaches us that our acts of fasting and repentance should be done in a manner that does not attract attention to ourselves," and then it goes on to quote Matthew 6:16-18:

16Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

17But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;

18That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

What a sinner I am. Here I was, whining for 40 days (OK, make that 39) to Dave and friends about how hard it was not going to restaurants and what a great sacrifice I was making, and then telling them that if they wanted to go out with me, we were going to have to do something other than eat at a restaurant, duh, which in New York City, everybody eats out all the time. I even forced my girlfriend Bella to cook dinner for me one night, for fuck's sake. And let's not even get into how much I tortured Dave. Which is why I'm going out with him tonight on a date, where we're going to have dinner and a few drinks and go listen to some live music.

Next year, I'm definitely not giving up restaurants for Lent. The bigger question is whether I give up anything at all, and if I do, whether I can just keep my big mouth shut about it.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Stranger Than Nonfiction: Meeting a Character from a Book

It may be April Fool's Day, but this is no joke: I met a character from a book the other night. He appears in Girlbomb by Janice Erlbaum, and I met him because he was a guest at the author's paperback release party last Thursday at the Bowery Poetry Club, where I met people such as la comedienne Jennifer Glick and the author herself, who wouldn't let me buy her a drink. Can't blame her; this wasn't a hard-drinking crowd, at least not on the night in question.

So, back to meeting a character from a book. Janice stood on the stage and announced to the assembled crowd that she had a special guest tonight, one of the stars of her memoir, a person she hadn't seen in twenty years. And then everyone's eyes went to a guy who was walking back to his seat at a table near the foot of the stage. The author carried on with her Girlbomb presentation, but my eyes stayed stuck for a minute on the guy sat at the table. Which character was he? I had to know.

After the presentation, I dared myself to approach him. This is where having been a newspaper reporter comes in handy--it helped me develop my skill at accosting strangers and asking them questions that should be none of my business. Although, believe it or not, I'm actually a bit shy in these situations, and daring myself to make the approach always feels like jumping off a high dive. But I had to talk to this guy because I would die if I didn't or, at the very least, live in eternal regret. As I crossed the Bowery Poetry Club's dance floor, headed toward the character's table, I had that out-of-body feeling of not really believing I was doing what I was doing and being clueless about what I was going to say.

I find that it's best in these situations to keep things simple, and it's important to be polite. So I simply put my face down toward his, smiled, introduced myself, and said: "I read Girlbomb. Would you mind telling me which character you played?"

"Sebastian," he said.

"Sebastian? Hmmm, which one was that again?"

"I was the boyfriend she moved in with..."

"Oh my god, you're Sebastian? You're a knockout! You're the best character in the book? I can't believe I'm talking to Sebastian!"

Sebastian! I couldn't believe I was talking to Sebastian! (I hope by now, dear blog reader, that I've sufficiently established that I couldn't believe that I was actually speaking to Sebastian.)

In real life, Sebastian looks like a small Norse god, a small, skateboard-carrying Norse god with a flash of a gold tooth in his mouth. His eyes are very clear, his hair is a shockingly whitish blond, cut close to his head, and his body has a lean and efficient look to it. He's striking--you can see how easy it would be for him to become a major character in a memoir.

Now here it is, on page 173 of the hardback edition of Girlbomb, how Janice met Sebastian as she was tripping on LSD in Washington Square Park on a summer's day sometime in the 1980s:

"Zing. There he was, on an opposite bench, this insanely beautiful platinum-haired guy. He stared at me frankly, and I stared back, taking in his fine cheekbones and strong nose, the phoenix tattooed on his wiry bicep. Who could this be? He sat near the rest of the skateboarders, toting a board of his own, but I'd never seen him before. I had an unerring eye for cataloging hot guys; I certainly would have remembered him.

"Our eyes met, and he raised his eyebrows slightly. I blushed.

"Someone hailed him--'Yo, Sebastian!'--and he turned away. I ducked my red face to my chest, tried to slow my pounding heart.


"Tripping or no, I had to meet him. He was like a unicorn, a fairytale creature, right there in front of me--if I didn't seize this impossible moment, I'd never see the likes of him again. I rose from my bench like a sleepwalker drawn to a dream, floated up to the outskirts of his group. My tongue was clenched like a fist in my mouth."

I'll tell you now why meeting this particular character in that particular book felt so fateful to me, personally. The thing is, I'm currently creating my own Sebastian in my own memoir, only my character is named Kent and in real life he is my flesh-and-blood first cousin. Janice has written her memoir in a really novelistic way, and she's one of my inspirations as I write Chasing Bad Girls. Like Sebastian, Kent is my rescuer of sorts, and he has a star-like, larger-than-life quality. (Sebastian now lives in Hollywood, by the way, and Kent owns a music recording studio in London, which just goes to show.)

Here's how I describe Kent when introducing him as a character in my book:

"He may be my first cousin, but he also is essentially my muse, and it’s not clear whether he chose me or I chose him. I’m wildly fond of Kent. He’s an artist and a materialist, opinionated, handsome, and one of my favorite family members. A big man, Kent takes up a lot of space, and I don’t care that some people call him the Duke of Kent behind his back and say he only moved to England because he’s a royalist.

"'Are you a bad girl, Joycie? Do you think you’re a bad girl?' Kent asks in the foppish, lord of the manor style that he began cultivating to compensate for being an American when he arrived on English shores twenty years ago. He wears bespoke suits around the house and gets his hair colored by a stylist, which he started doing back when he was in a New Romantics rock band."

Oh, dear. "Foppish, lord of the manor"--sounds a bit harsh, doesn't it? Cruel. Having met Sebastian, who is a flesh-and-blood human being in addition to a character in a book, I've realized that my description of Kent could very well hurt his feelings. I adore Kent and would never want to hurt his feelings. In re-reading that passage just now, I can see that I'm exaggerating his qualities as I try to boost him up to the level of being a star-like character in a novelistic memoir. It's tricky business writing a memoir involving people you actually know, especially when you're a hardcore people pleaser like me.

Speaking of which, it's April Fool's Day, isn't it? April 1st. Kent's birthday. Happy Birthday, Kentie! I love you!