Friday, September 26, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #7 (Ninon de Lenclos)

I was a French major in college and lived in France for two years when I was in my twenties. Now that I’m talking with Le Mazel’s guests and neighbors and dealing with bureaucrats at the post office, I’m seeing the re-emergence of the French-speaking side of my personality—the one I had forgotten when I was in New York in my thirties, swallowed up in the pursuit of a career as a journalist and the search for a suitable husband.

French people really do know how to enjoy life, it’s true. I’m certainly enjoying life more now. Every morning is fine when you don’t have to go to a job but can just spend a couple of hours eating breakfast and reading on a sunny terrace visited by fat bumblebees and butterflies. We also have a nighttime terrace where we eat snails and look at stars.

My spiritual guide during this time is Ninon de Lenclos, a 17th-century Parisian courtesan who was known for running a school of love and giving great dinner parties. Her salons at the Hotel Sagonne on the rue des Tournelles gave rise to the myth of Ninon as an enchantress, and she chose her salon guests with as much care as she chose her lovers. Some were both, of course, including Louis II de Bourbon, the Marquis de Sévigné and his son, and the Comte Gaspard de Coligny. The Comte’s wife also was a salon guest as were playwrights Jean Racine and Molière, poet Bernard de Fontenelle, painter Nicolas Mignard (who used Ninon as one of his models), writer Jean de la Fontaine and cleric François le Métel de Boisrobert. Yes, a cleric. Ninon didn’t discriminate against theologians—arguing with them amused her.
I gain strength from Ninon, a classic bad girl who never married and lived to a ripe old age pleasing herself with no apologies. She was a devoted friend, but her lovers came and went. People said she had three classes of admirers: payers, martyrs and favorites. She's still revered in France for being a brainy sexpot from the time of the Bourbon kings who wrote witty little maxims such as: “A sensible woman will consult her reason before she takes a husband, but her heart when she takes a lover.”

As for me, my summer at Le Mazel is starting to feel like my summer of love—a sometimes disastrous summer of love, but my summer of love just the same. I’ve passed the six-month mark of running away from my husband, and my hormones are starting to kick into overdrive. I need a boyfriend, and now I’m asking myself, “What would Ninon do?”

On one special weekend in late June, Denise, a techno deejay and Kent's office manager, visits us from London. During all the fun, wine and music, I start to notice Erik more and more, the only boy out there on the terrace, so his maleness is imprinted on me and I fall in love with him. Oops.

Of an evening, Erik would rather sweep the kitchen floor, dry the dishes I’ve washed, and chat amiably about intentional communities and how he and the young wife he hasn’t met yet are going to raise their someday children amidst organic goats and chickens in the European countryside. This pleasant conversing is nice, and helps me remember how nice men can be, unlike my mad drunk of a soon-to-be ex-husband. But it’s not enough.

I try to be like Ninon and just think of Erik as one of the many available, sexy men in my life. Lalala. Bella’s French boyfriend, Jean-Michel, advises me to sneak into the young Texan’s bedroom one night and jump his bones, confident courtesan-style, but I just can’t do it.

I can’t do it, Ninon or no Ninon. But that summer I also meet Nigel, one of Kent’s friends from the London music scene, and we go out together—once. It’s lovely because it’s the first time I’ve had been kissed since I ran away from Jack, but it’s also a mistake because now Nigel’s maleness has imprinted itself on me, and I can’t get him out of my head, even though he’s gone back to London. What would Ninon do? What would Ninon do?

“Bella,” I say. “I’m thinking about going down to the pay phone in Banne and calling Nigel in London.”

“Are you sure that’s such a good idea, Joyce? I mean, technically speaking, Nigel was a one-time fling.”

“Huh? One-time fling? We had a real connection. Anyway, I wasn’t just snogging Nigel. I was romancing myself, like Kent says I should do. It’s got nothing to do with Nigel. I’m just like Ninon de Lenclos. I’m empowered. I choose my own lovers.”

“Ninon de Lenclos was a prostitute, Joyce.”

“She was a courtesan! There’s a big difference.”

“You’re really under the influence, aren’t you?”

Sigh. Silence. Some summer of love this is turning out to be. Maybe it’s time for me to forget about these boys and start looking for a new bad girl.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #6 (Mai Zetterling)

I go to the Cévennes Mountains of France, where Kent has a little château in a mountaintop hamlet. Called Le Mazel, the house is an eerie and magical place, and its previous owner, a Swedish actress and film director named Mai Zetterling, still makes her presence known here even though she’s been dead for a few years.

Le Mazel is a house of many rooms built in the 1840s by a coal mine owner, but the mine shut down long ago, and the remote region of les Cévennes is now home to local montagnards, French hippies and a few passing Dutch and Parisian tourists. To get to the house, you have to travel up a winding, pine-needle-covered dirt road that seems to go on forever. It’s so beautiful and secluded that the first night I arrive at Le Mazel, when the warm wind is gently caressing the house’s stone walls and the interior is filled with candlelight, I can’t believe how lucky I am to be spending the whole summer here.

Most days at Le Mazel, it’s just me and two painters rattling around in our newly founded art colony, where we live in squalid splendor among the remains of Mai’s estate. Painter No. 1 is Bella, a longtime girlfriend of mine, and painter No. 2 is Erik, a friendly young Texan recently graduated from art school. Bella likes to travel and her boyfriend is French, so I invited her to join me here when Kent said he was looking for artists. Bella knows me so well—sometimes too well—but her presence at Le Mazel is tremendously comforting. Erik is the mystery card, but he’s young and fun and eager to learn French, so he adds life to our little party.

Mai left Le Mazel in a hurry in 1994, when she took what she thought would be a quick trip to London for treatment of cancer, but she never returned. Everything she owned—a pack of cheroots on the table, her fur coat on a chair, the table, the chair, everything—stayed in the house until Kent bought it in 1999. I’m sure her spirit resides at Le Mazel, especially since she’s buried beneath a tree in a field next to the house.

I spend the summer of 2000 cooking and eating in Mai’s kitchen, breaking more than a few of her wineglasses, writing on her desk, bathing in her enormous tub and sleeping in her bed. I can see from all the photos she left behind that Mai was a classically beautiful Scandinavian ice princess, and yet her autobiography and the short stories she wrote as well as the books in her library show that she was a classically feminist nonconformist.

She was a “wild child” as a girl, she says, eager to escape the numbing poverty and intellectual emptiness of her hometown in Sweden. Considering my own Scandinavian roots, Mai’s story fascinates me, and I feel like I have a personal connection to her thanks to our shared genetic history. I love to look at her face.

“Bella! Come here! Look at this picture of Mai I just found. Isn’t she beautiful?”

“Gorgeous. They just don’t make actresses like that anymore, do they?”

“I wish I could look so glamorous. Did I tell you about my theory that Mai and I are actually related, that she’s a long-lost member of my Swedish tribe, and that my grandmother and her mother were cousins?”

“Fascinating, Joycie. Your mind works in such mysterious ways.”

Early in her career, Mai showed great talent and starred in an Ingmar Bergman film, Music in the Dark, before moving on to a solid film career in Britain, where she acted in and directed a number of movies. Briefly in the 1950s she went to Hollywood, where she had a big love affair with Tyrone Power, but she made only one movie there because she couldn’t stomach the artificiality of the place. Her co-star, Danny Kaye, called her “refreshingly different from my usual leading ladies,” and it’s this refusal to fit in that adds to Mai’s appeal for me.

“Oh, that Mai,” I say, chuckling appreciatively, as I read select passages of her autobiography to Bella. “She really was the black sheep of the family.”

Also judging from the photos, Mai went from being a glamorous film star to a proud, independent woman who cared less and less about society and its expectations as she grew old in the Cévennes. And again, there’s that family connection—Mai looked a lot like my Swedish-born Aunt Helga in the later stages of her life. Spooky. “I have been a child, a girl, a party doll, a mistress, a wife, a mother, a professional woman, a virgin and a grandmother,” Mai wrote in 1985. “I have been a woman for more than fifty years and yet I have never been able to discover precisely what it is I am, how real I am.”

Despite Mai’s quest for authenticity, she never seemed to attain that goal because she dreamed so big. Having met her son, her ex-husband and her ex-lover, Kent has all kinds of stories about what Mai was actually like: hard on herself as well as the people around her. Mai herself admits as much in her autobiography, several copies of which are lying around Le Mazel, which Mai describes in a 1981 journal entry as “my home: a ramshackle castle, perched on an iron rock.”

Everybody who stays at the house enjoys gossiping about Mai as if she were still alive. And when we talk about my Bad Girls Project, people point out that Mai herself was a bad girl. During long, wine-drenched parties, we scare ourselves by summoning the spirit of Mai to join us at the dinner table. Erik is convinced that he’s seen Mai’s ghost, and he starts to wear her hat, robe and crystal amulet.

Mai’s presence here is strong. There’s no television, phone or computer at the house, and when I’m seeking a little entertainment, I paw through her office papers, steal the books off her shelves and snoop through her film stills and family snapshots. The more I see and read, the more I understand everybody’s point about Mai being a bad girl.

And yet I’m living under her roof and gazing at the same mountain views she saw when she lived at Le Mazel. For the first time since my studies began, I understand that bad girls were flesh-and-blood human beings whose joys and struggles were real. Maybe Mai was tough to be around, but she was so full of love that it overwhelmed her sometimes. I recognize her Scandinavian stoicism and craving for solitude, and there’s plenty of room for both here in this French villa, especially at night when all the guests have gone away.

And yet, daylight does follow. On summer mornings Le Mazel is filled with flowers. Like me, Mai had a feeling for flowers. “A large pink camellia is in flower in a bright terracotta pot; the red of the sun makes the petals shiver,” she wrote shortly after the end of her final marriage. “The first swallows have arrived and whiz past me with excited shrieks. I join them in their excitement and shout to the sky: ‘I have survived, survived, survived.’”

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #5 (Bessie Smith)

Every day, I set out with my sack lunch and a sense of serious purpose to the British Library, a safe and magnificent place, so I can learn about women behaving badly. The ones I’m attracted to are rebellious, don’t care if they shock people, are bad wives and worse mothers, control their own finances, enjoy sex, are vain and generally don’t like other women, are drawn to youth and fun, and can be seductively charming or nastily abusive depending on their mood.

And now here comes Bessie Smith, the wild and pure blues-singing diva of the 1920s who lived, loved, ate, drank and dreamed music. Bessie was six feet tall, weighed about two hundred pounds, and got into a lot of fistfights because she also had a talent for punching people. I enjoyed meeting Lola, Isabelle and Theodora, but Bessie is the uncompromisingly unapologetic bad girl I’ve been looking for.

Her voice was so loud she didn’t need to sing with a microphone, and her commitment to singing the blues was inseparable from who she was. What she loved best was to disappear for a few days, get drunk with some new friends, and then sing for them when she felt like it, when some thought crossed her mind and she had the words of a song to fit the mood. She’d lapse into a pleasant state of oblivion, take a few more sips of corn liquor or hits off a reefer, and wait for inspiration to strike again. Then in the morning, she would go to church and sing with more conviction than anyone in the choir.

Exploring Bessie gives me the opportunity to look at the issues of self-will and creativity in my own life. She was a sensitive artist, but tough. Every day, she fought to sing and be heard.

Hmm. How can I be heard? I conduct an experiment at the bar of Home House, a private club on Portman Square in Marylebone, where Kent is a member. Built as a palace of entertainment for the Countess of Home in the 18th century, it has four well-appointed drawing rooms, a grand staircase and a garden for dining al fresco, and it’s all very posh. Surely, an 18th-century Georgian countess had to have been a bit of a bad girl herself, and there are indeed loads of bedrooms upstairs for guests who stay the night.
But on the night in question, I stay at the bar to have a drink and a look around.

Ever since I left Jack, I’ve been drinking more. I don’t have to be the sober one now, which is a big relief. It’s a drag trying to balance out your partner’s crazy binges by assuming the role of a purse-lipped teetotaler when you know your body is built for moderation and you can enjoy a few drinks without turning into a chronic drunk.
The Countess of Home’s pleasure palace has turned into a stuffy club for music producers and investment bankers, a club in desperate need of a little excitement.

Hmm. What would Bessie do here? Bessie was no stranger to posh joints, where the New York swells of the Roaring Twenties would invite her to sing for their amusement. As if she was some kind of Negro freak show. Screw ‘em.

One of Bessie’s biggest fans, the music promoter Carl Van Vechten, invited her to sing in his Manhattan apartment one night, and Bessie showed up in a limousine, wearing her white ermine coat and escorted by her piano player, Porter Granger. She sang a few songs, the white folks clapped and cooed appreciatively, and all was well until Bessie started to knock back the whiskey and keep on drinking between songs.

Granger knew her drinking was cause for worry, and after playing one last song, he gently coaxed Bessie into her coat and started to steer her to the front door. They almost made it there when Van Vechten’s wife, a pretty little Russian actress named Fania Marinoff, threw her arms impulsively around Bessie’s neck and said, “Miss Smith, you’re not leaving without kissing me goodbye.”

Bessie, who was bisexual and under different circumstances might have enjoyed the little Russian’s advances, was in no mood for love. “Get the fuck away from me,” she said, pushing Marinoff flat on her ass. “I ain’t never heard of such shit.”

What would Bessie have done at Home House? Would she have talked to the bloated, middle-aged drunk sitting next to her, the drunk who looks like he still has a bit of the schoolboy in him, the drunk with the floppy blond fringe (that’s “bangs,” in American—I’ve been enriching my vocabulary here in London)?

I give him a sideways glance and he gives me one back. I turn to him.
“Hello. You’re looking quite shambolic tonight.”

“Is that a Yank accent I detect? What’s a Yank doing in Home House? Shouldn’t you be at home, planning for the next war?”

He launches into an anti-American political rant, yammering on about military buildup and the CIA, etc.—the same diatribe I’ve heard from a dozen other drunks in a dozen other pubs. I’m tired of this shit.

“Why don't you shut up before I slap you upside your head.”


“Sorry is what you’re gonna be in a minute,” I say, giving him a coy smile to make up for my harsh words.

“You’re a feisty one,” he says as his eyes light up.

He thinks I’m flirting with him. Ah, what the hell—in for a penny, in for a pound.

“You’re a naughty boy tonight, aren’t you, Clive? What’s your name, anyway? Gilbert, Chervil, Reginald? You need a proper seeing-to, don’t you, Reggie?”

“Derek, miss. May I buy you another drink?”

“May I buy you another drink, please.”

“Please, miss.”

“Yes, you may, Derek darling. And then you can...”

“Joycie, there you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.”

It’s Kent, thank god. I didn’t know where I was headed with this one.

“It’s time to go,” Kent says, ignoring the shambolic drunk with the floppy fringe. “We’re going to Black’s.”

“Is that some kind of racist remark?”

“No, baby, it’s a restaurant. Come on, let’s go. I’m hungry, and you need some food, too.”

The next morning, I’m disgusted with myself for having eaten a huge portion of steak and kidney pie with chips. It’s offset by my delight at having been so wicked with the drunk at the bar. Still, I realize that bad girls are women of substance who don’t just spend their time hanging around in bars. Wondering what else I might be capable of doing, I decide that my only way forward is to keep studying the bad girls. I’m not sure who will inspire me next, but I’m very curious to meet her.

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #4 (Elizabeth Chudleigh)

It’s springtime in London, and Kent and I run around to restaurants, pubs and private clubs, where we drink red wine, smoke cigarettes late into the night and gossip, comparing our love histories. Kent introduces me to his single friends, thus providing me an opportunity to flirt with boys, and he tells me about Ava, his long-ago muse, who inspired the Bad Girls Project.

“I worked all the time before I met her, but with Ava I felt free again,” Kent says. “She was such a free spirit, she could make anything fun. We hung out in her little flat, talking about art and life, in a world of our own.”

Kent's stories inspire me. At the moment, I’m a pleasure-seeker. It’s what I love best about London: the people I’m meeting here aren’t all hung up on morality and the work ethic. Like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, I’m living one day at a time, only the Twelve Step program I’m running for myself replaces alcoholism with me constantly worrying and obsessing over everything in my life. I’ve admitted that I’m powerless over my addiction to control, my life has become unmanageable, and a power greater than me—namely, the spirit of the Bad Girls Project—can restore me to sanity.

My pleasure seeking isn’t about dating men, however. I’m more interested in food, drink, tobacco, staying up late and cultivating dreamy little crushes on people, places and things. I dream one night of a nice man who helps me fix my car. At the flat on Elgin Crescent, a sexy, silvery gray tomcat wanders in every now and then and lets me caress him for awhile until he gets bored and leaves. I flirt with a married man until he tries to kiss me. That was fun—now go away, please. It would be nice to be in love again, but I don’t want the emotional drama that goes with it. I don’t even have the nerve to pick up the phone and call my husband.

I suppose my biggest crush of all right now is Kent.

He may be my first cousin, but he’s also my muse, and it’s not clear whether he chose me or I chose him. But I do know I’m wildly fond of him. He’s a musician and a materialist (in an artistic way), opinionated and handsome. A big man, Kent takes up a lot of space, and I don’t care if some people call him the Duke of Kent behind his back and say he likes living in England because he’s a royalist.

Being around Kent gives me a taste for the aristocracy. At the British Library, I find loads of information about the British Peerage, much of it detailing the bad behavior of the Marquess of This and the Countess of That. My favorite is Elizabeth Chudleigh, a bigamous duchess from Georgian England who was the subject of a scandalous divorce trial. I like her because she was a sloppy drunk with a gambling problem. As a maid of honour to the Princess of Wales in 1747, she rampaged all over London—drinking, betting, screwing noblemen of King George II’s court and wearing see-through dresses—after her secret marriage and pregnancy were revealed.

“Miss Chudleigh’s dress, or rather undress, was remarkable,” sniffed Mrs. Montagu, a lady in attendance at a Venetian Jubilee masqued ball held at the Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea. “She was Iphigeneia awaiting sacrifice, but so naked that the high priest might easily have inspected the entrails of his victim. The maids of honour were so offended that they would not speak to her.”

Not that the opinions of the Mmes. Montagu of the world mattered a bit to Elizabeth Chudleigh. In fact, her bad behavior won her a marriage proposal from a duke, even though she was still technically married to her first husband, and this teaches me a very important lesson about saying a big “no” to the bourgeois world of convention and respectability. I buy myself a tight, trashy leopard-print dress and sashay around London in it. I flirt with Kent’s friends—musicians, TV producers, landed gentry in Lincolnshire—especially the guys with the plummiest, most artistocratic accents.

“Joycie, do you really think you have bad girl potential? Could you really be that bad?” Kent asks in the lord of the manor style that he developed to compensate for being an American when he arrived on English shores twenty years ago. Kent is such a dandy. 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.

“I don’t know, Kent. I’m still trying to figure out what ‘bad girl’ means. You tell me. Or let me tell you about Elizabeth Chudleigh. She was super bad.”

Elizabeth Chudleigh lived as she pleased without having to pay for it in the end. Indeed, she ended her days partying with royals in Europe and throwing around the duke’s money after he died, much to his family’s chagrin. Still, she led a bit of an empty existence. And her politics were all wrong, I’m sure.

They say that the very rich and the very poor have a lot in common: amorality, promiscuity, substance abuse, disdain for education and work. With my next bad girl, I want to find a hard-scrabble streetfighter who had to invent herself from scratch.