Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Money + Evil = Bad Girl$

As we know, money is the root of all evil as are wicked women. This is why money and Bad Girls have always gone so well together. Bad Girls have been poor, and they've been rich, and rich is better!

When I mention this to people, it seems to make them nervous and uncomfortable, and that of course leads me to believe that I'm on to something here. Let's face it, one of the gorgeous things about having a lot of money is that it gives you an opportunity to get totally absorbed in your personal goals and become even more self-obsessed than you already are.

Plus, if you have lots of money of your very own, it buys you power, which is another way of saying freedom. Madonna is one of my all-time favorite examples of a Bad Girl who's really good around money.

And please don't call me a capitalist, when in fact I'm a left-leaning believer in a social welfare state and regulated markets. The real rich capitalists of which I am not one just love it when poor working folk stay ignorant and fearful about money matters because that way the fat cats can retain possession of the world's wealth.

I just can't stand to see women get the short end of the stick when men are left in charge of their finances. And Bad Girls are good at doing cool stuff with their money once they've got enough of it. They buy houses for their boyfriends (Catherine the Great), they milk goats (Mai Zetterling), they back heavyweight prizefighters (Mae West), they adopt unwanted children (Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker not to mention Madonna and Angelina Jolie), they tour the brothels of New York City and hand out birth control (Victoria Woodhull).

In that spirit, let me tell you about my favorite charity, which I give money to whenever I have a few extra bucks lying around. Trickle Up is a microgrant program that gives seed capital and business training to make individuals self-sufficient in Third World countries, including Africa and Brooklyn. Oh, and P.S., about 80% of the money goes to WOMEN, because they're better at handling money than their men, and these women set up little market food stalls and sewing circles and savings clubs, and the money they earn goes to cool stuff like feeding their children and educating them.

That is all. Happy hols & see you in the New Year. Love, hugs & kisses, Joyce

Sunday, December 03, 2006

My Struggle to Be Bad

Over Thanksgiving, I watched a home movie of me and my family from when I was 5 years old. The scene takes place just after a Sunday dinner in the Midwest. Our teetotaling, religious Republican farm relations are paying a visit to us suburban Chicago sinners, and Uncle Paul has gathered us all in the frontyard, where the light is strong enough for his Super 8. (On these visits from Paul and the aunties, my parents hide the liquour in the linen closet.)

In the 30-second snippet of film, I am a darling little blonde-haired girl with a pixie haircut. I stand in the background and watch my 7-year-old sister Barbara turn cartwheel after cartwheel in the frontyard of our suburban home. I wish I could watch a slo-mo blowup of this movie about 100 times so I could read every expression on my face as I watch Barb perform for the camera. Maybe then I could understand what motivates me to attempt a trick of my own, a headstand.

I try so hard to perform that headstand. First try--legs don't go high enough; second try--still not high enough; third try--too much force on the pushoff and I flip over completely. Boo! I know I nailed that headstand in gym class, but now with everyone watching I'm just too nervous.

All is captured on Uncle Paul's film. I'm trying so hard to do good, but I know he won't keep the focus on me much longer, so I give up and try to stomp out of camera range, lower lip stuck out and hands tucked under armpits as I toddle off. But Uncle Paul keeps the camera trained on me, and I imagine he's thinking I look quite cute as I sulk my way off to another corner of the yard. It's a soundless film, but you can practically hear the calls of "Come back, Joycie! Joycie, come back!" as everybody laughs at me. Eventually I'm cajoled back to the family fold, where my 14-year-old sister Peggy plays with my hair and flips it into a silly ponytail to cheer me up.

I'm still pouting, though, thinking that a) I could do a gym trick just as well as Barbara, and b) if only I'd done the headstand right I would have finally won the approval of the teetotalers, who thoroughly disapprove of my mother because she has permanently lured my father into a sinning lifestyle, with children, in the suburbs. They don't need to see the liquor bottles on display to know that something is not right on Lyons Street.

Now on this most recent Thanksgiving, the teetotalers, who admittedly are fewer in number since Uncle Paul passed away, still let us know that they didn't approve. As Barb played her own jazz-inflected arrangement of secular Christmas tunes on Peggy's piano, one of our increasingly dotty aunties told her to stop that infernal noise, which was a sure sign that she was of the devil and needed praying for. The other auntie just sighed and asked Barb for the millionth time if she had found a church home yet. And where was I? Hiding, as usual. Skulking around the edges, looking for a private corner of the yard where I could relax and be my secret self. My true self.

No wonder I'm so fucked up. I've been struggling with the notion of whether I'm a good girl or a bad girl since childhood. It's my get drunk and laid on Saturday, go to church on Sunday mentality. I don't think that will ever change. The best I can hope for is that I can fully embrace my double life and not be afraid to let my dark side shine. This is why I love my Bad Girls so much, the ones who were fearless about telling the world to go to hell if the world didn't like them.

Private thoughts: Spot on chin? Must ask former Conde Nast photo retoucher friend to correct all pictures of self posted to blog. Too much forehead shine here, and corners of mouth are saggy. Must remove/smoothe over to achieve perfect image, thus winning people's approval as well as big publishing advance.

AFTER: here I am below, retouched! Nice work, but I still don't look like Kate Winslett.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Here's Exactly What I Mean: A List of Bad Girl Traits

When I began chasing after the bad girls of history, I started to keep a list of the personality traits that appealed to me about them. Some women who are traditionally viewed as bad girls, like Marilyn Monroe or Calamity Jane, didn't feel right to me. Marilyn was sexy but a victim, and Calamity wasn't a victim but she wasn't sexy, either.

I've never claimed to be a bona fide historian or a feminist scholar. The list of traits that struck a chord with me as I searched for bad girls was completely idiosyncratic and personal to what I was going through in my life, which was getting a divorce and coming to terms with having no man, no baby, no home, no job and no money. I was pretty pissed off, yo.

I needed inspiration as I rebuilt my life, and I found it by studying Bad Girls. The idea was that having essentially been a nice girl, a "good girl," my whole life had brought me to a place of nothingness. Maybe going in the extreme opposite direction from goodness would help me find a sense of equilibrium. That said, I started to form a personality prototype of who my Ideal Bad Girl would be and I started to write down those traits, like a checklist.

And so now, I present for your delectation the raw list of bad girl traits that I jotted down as I read about the wild women of history. Here we go:

· Came from a disadvantaged background, was ambitious and struggled for success
· Youthful misfortune or indiscretion changes life’s path
· The inciting incidents: A bad and/or arranged marriage in youth (Catherine the Great, Victoria Woodhull, Mae West). Divorce (Elizabeth Chudleigh, Lola Montez) might be the inciting incident that changed her life. (Divorce was common among the bad girls, in an era when it wasn’t common at all.) The incident also might be poverty (Bessie Smith and Skittles), death (Ninon), a chaotically strange family (Isabelle Eberhardt, Empress Theodora), or too much bad sex (Empress Theodora).
· Prostitution might be the inciting incident, or the inciting incident swiftly led to it.
· Experiencing the worst fate for a woman at an early age—the sort of fate that women of her era dreaded and avoided at all costs—she lost her sense of shame when still young and learned to use this to her advantage.
· Despite these shortcomings, a Bad Girls’ big ego saved her: if she wasn’t born royal, she assumed the role, so her youthful suffering was not really an obstacle
· powerful personality with skill of persuasive speaking
· an agile mind, sharp wit, a love of gossip and figuring out the pecking order and where she fit into it—with an eye for rising in position (Empress Theodora, Elizabeth Chudleigh). Used intelligence to judge people, to climb socially
· However, some Bad Girls used their intelligence to carefully observe the social order in order to understand how to escape it. Often, these girls were writers (Mae West, Isabelle Eberhardt, Ninon de Lenclos)
· A Bad Girl could be tremendously charming when she wished.
· vain, beautiful, and if not beautiful, riveting, a face you were drawn to
· girliness: feathers, headdresses, costumes
· knew she shocked & offended people, and this only fueled her rebellion
· did not submit to authority
· lived to please herself
· liked sex
· used sex to achieve personal fulfillment
· had loads of love affairs with men and saw no harm in using them for material gain--often would remain friends when the affair was over
· enjoyed dressing like men, or decided to “live like a man”
· didn’t like other women & preferred the company of men (where the power and the sex were)
· capable of falling deeply in love, but avoided it if she could
· still, every one of these girls had One Great Love of Her Life, l’homme de sa vie
· independent, self-contained, actively resisted becoming too dependent on others
· self-discipline and work were the source of freedom,
· caused apocryphal suicides in sensitive young men, some of whom turned out to be their sons
· motherhood did not define them. Often, the bad girl never carried a child of her own & not interested in demands of motherhood. Though often she would take on nurturing roles with younger lovers and other people’s children.
· was drawn to young people and young people were drawn to her
· she had to have fun, otherwise, why bother?
· either didn’t know about or ignored feminism. made no apologies for being a woman. She was what she was, and that was it.
· Eventually made her own money – lots of it. These girls may not have been feminists, but they were practical. Having known poverty, once they got their hands on some assets, they would never turn them over to a man.
· surrounded by men yet living alone, these women inhabited overwhelmingly lush living spaces that are an extension of their personalities, like Mae West’s boudoir and Skittles’ house. In the case of Isabelle Eberhardt, the vast dunes of the Sahara became the space she inhabited.
· she often shunned alcohol: Ninon de Lenclos, Mae West
· though Bessie Smith, Isabelle Eberhardt were most certainly alcoholics. Elizabeth Chudleigh, possibly
· did not hold back her opinions & could be hurtful
· was the boss of her own show and abused her position,
· some bad girls were physically violent (Lola Montez, Bessie Smith)
· traveled extensively and restlessly,
· inspired people with her passionate nature
· finding religion – spiritual side – usually later in life, though often signs of spirituality in youth. Sexuality as spirituality.
· was preternaturally healthy even as she aged,
· the majority of bad girls live well past the life expectancy of their era, many of them dying in their 80s
· The Bad Girls outlived their critics, and in later life often became adored public figures. In most cases, a bad girl never paid for her sins.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Doin' Jail Time: Mae West's Spiritual Recovery

For years now, bad girls have overcome terrible times by reinventing themselves in strange places. Take Mae West, for example.

When the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice got Mae’s play Sex shut down on obscenity charges in 1927, she made no apologies to the “publicity-seeking blue-noses” who claimed to be offended by her performance. Her wriggling on stage, she explained at her trial, “was nothing more than an exercise involving control of my abdominal muscles, which I learned from my father when I was a child.”

The blue-noses weren’t impressed, and they saw to it that Mae was sent to jail for her unlawful wriggling. While serving a ten-day sentence on Welfare Island, Mae contemplated her fate and realized that a stint behind bars offered her the perfect opportunity to take an artistic retreat.

With the forty-one-week run of Sex now at an end, Mae thought about the career moves she would need to make to get to Hollywood. She thought about the 8:2 audience ratio of men to women at Sex and how she might draw more female ticket buyers. And as a result, she created a new character called Diamond Lil and started to write the play that would eventually become the motion picture She Done Him Wrong. The worst thing about being in jail, Mae found, was that the matron wouldn’t let her wear silk underwear.

Diamond Lil was a smash hit in New York, and within a few short years Mae West was indeed Hollywood-bound. She arrived in 1932, age thirty-nine, and was cast in a small role in Night After Night with George Raft, who later reported that in her performance, Mae “stole everything but the cameras.”

I just love this story about Mae West. Nowadays, when people feel a need to reinvent themselves, they go to spas and ashrams and whitewater rafting resorts. Hell, look at me--I reinvented myself at a freakin' villa in the south of France. But Mae West was so tough and cool (she was a Brooklyn girl, after all) that she turned the pokey into a personal retreat. That's class!

Makes me wonder where I'll next reinvent myself, now that I'm a Brooklyn girl myself. The subway? Visiting my girl Nancy? In Prospect Park? Eating a cheeseburger at the Church Avenue diner? Oh hey, I've been called up for grand jury duty on Monday. I see self-reinvention possibilties here--I'll pretend to listen to police testimony about buy-and-bust operations, but all the while I'll be thinkin' 'bout me, me, me. (Or as Mae herself once said, "Too bad everybody just can’t be themselves and be happy about it. I am. Remember that once popular song, ‘I love me, I love me’? Baby, that’s me.”)

Monday, October 30, 2006

A Conversation with Victoria Woodhull

Just after the Civil War ended, an intriguing young woman stepped into American public life. Victoria Woodhull, a 28-year-old Midwestern fortuneteller who earned her money by bringing dead souls into contact with the living, was told by "the powers of the air" in 1866 that she was destined to become the ruler of the world. So Vickie moved to New York City, of course, and within a few short years she was a household word nationwide. Not only did she run for US President in 1871, but she also became the first woman ever to open a Wall Street stock brokerage and the first woman to publish an American newspaper.

Vickie was no conservative. She favored spiritualism, magnetic healing, free love, the women’s suffrage movement, easier divorce laws, legalized prostitution, birth control, labor reform and Marxism. (Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, whose masthead read “Progress! Free Thought! Untrammeled Lives! Breaking the Way for Future Generations,” was the first American newspaper to publish Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.)

Fame preceded Vickie wherever she went, and people either loved her or hated her. She eventually was jailed on obscenity charges, lost her bid for the Presidency and was shoved back into the faceless crowd as American life steamrolled (I think steamrollers were invented by then) toward the 20th century. You've never heard of Victoria Woodhull, have you? I hadn't myself, until I started to research bad girls and came across her name in the British Public Library.

But Vickie is back here with us today, in a conversation with Bad Girl Blog!

Bad Girl Blog: Hello, Vickie. I just want to get this party started by saying that I'm a big fan of your work. Really, really big. I mean, I worship you. That's not even a joke. For example, when I'm in a bad mood, I ask myself, "What would Victorial Woodhull do?" And the right answer just comes to me, like that! It must be the powers of the air. So anyway, can we talk about sex? I hear you're a huge free lover. Is that true?

Victoria Woodhull*: Yes! I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please! And with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.

BGB: Wow, Vickie, I love you! You rock! Hey, are you bi-curious, by any chance? Sorry, that's a bit premature. But hell no, I'm not going to interfere with your natural right to love whom you may. I'm totally for it. I mean, I believe I have that natural right, too. The only thing that's keeping me back is my natural shyness. Believe it or not, when it comes to sex, I can get a little shy and (gulp) repressed.

Vickie: Some women seem to glory over the fact that they never had any sexual desire and to think that desire is vulgar.

BGB: Ha ha. You're funny. You're so intense. Did I say vulgar? No, one of my favorite things about me is my ability to feel sexual desire. It's just that sex itself can feel vulgar, if it's bad sex with a bad lover.

Vickie: What! Vulgar! The instinct that creates immortal souls vulgar?

BGB: I love the way you talk. Say more.

Vickie: Who dares stand up amid Nature, all prolific and beautiful, where pulses are ever bounding with the creative desire, and utter such sacrilege? Vulgar rather must be the mind that can conceive such blasphemy. No sexual passion, say you. Say, rather, a sexual idiot, and confess that your life is a failure.

BGB: Wait. What? All those words pouring out of you got me confused. You're not calling me a failed idiot, right? I mean, you're speaking in generalities now, right? Because I'm totally cool about sex. Sex is beautiful. It's all nakedness and touching, and we're all animals, we all love to be touched. Oh look, there's my cat, Donna, she's naked right now! And she loves to be touched--well, usually, sometimes, not always. Actually, Donna can be a real bitch when she's not in the mood. Oooo, she's stretching now. Isn't she cute? Donna for US President! Yay!!

At this point, an annoyed look crosses Victoria Woodhull's face and she disappears in a puff of mist.

BGB: No, Vickie, don't go! I'm sorry, I got silly. Can't we continue this conversation? Sorry, Donna distracted me, wait, don't go...Vickie?...That's the problem with ghosts--they're incapable of change. I know Vickie would be an animal-rights activist if she were alive today...Vickie, come back...Ms. Woodhull?...

*Vickie's quotes are taken from speeches she made and articles she published while running for President of the United States in 1871.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Idle Gossip or Malicious Slander?

I hate blog post titles that contain a question mark. They're a sure sign of an amateur. But I'm looking for your comments here. Please respond, my lovelies.

D. and I were talking the other day, speculating, as girls do, about a mutual friend's love life, home life, work life and life life as follows:

--Why doesn't B. have a boyfriend?

--She must put men off with that attitude of hers. Plus, remember her last boyfriend? She's probably off men for good reason.

--I wonder what she would think if she could hear us right now. Oh man, would we be in trouble.

--Why? Everybody talks about everybody else. You should hear what she says about you.

Oops. That was me saying the last line above. Idiot. D. then turned the spotlight on me and our friendship with each other.

--What do you mean? What were you and B. saying about me? Do you always talk about me?

I had to think fast to cover over this one and move it in a direction that wouldn't make me look so bad.

--Oh c'mon, D. We've had this conversation before. People always gossip about each other. It's not even about you--it's just human nature to talk about each other. It's some tribal instinct to ensure the survival of the species. Why do you even care what people say about you?

--Because I want to know. Wouldn't you just love to be a fly on the wall and hear what people really say about you when you're not around?

--Oh god no, that would be horrible. I don't want to know. What's the point? I'd just get more self-obsessed than I already am.

So, dear readers, what do you say? Do you want to know what people say about you or don't you? Do friends talk about each other out of love and affection or malice aforethought? Idle gossip or malicious slander?

Sunday, September 17, 2006


Eddie was my next-door neighbor in the Catskills, a man who really shouldn't be the subject of discussion on My Bad Girl Blog, even though he likes women and thinks the subject sounds interesting. But I really want to write about Eddie because I have a crush on him.

Eddie lived in the Bird House, a little cottage next to mine at the Sunny Oaks camp. He's been spending his summers there for years now and has planted flowering bushes that attract hummingbirds.

Eddie is 102. He knows all about hummingbirds and plant life because he's a horticulturalist with with a master's degree in biology. He took me on a nature walk around Lake Cynthia, a little lake at Sunny Oaks, and he pointed out colt's-foot, which the Indians used to treat bee stings, and vibernum, which the Indians used to dye their feathers a purplish blue, and a fuzzy leaf called something like "shoe flannel" because the Indians put it in their mocassins like a Dr. Scholl's footpad. I can't remember all the names Eddie told me, there were so many.

Eddie saw all kinds of things on our walk that I'd never noticed before. But he couldn't remember the name of one plant, a flower, and it bothered him. He remembers a lot, like leaving Austria in 1912 when he was 8 years old and the boat ride over, where he saw a banana for the first time in his life, and arriving at Ellis Island.

Eddie dropped out of school in the eighth grade because the American kids in Coney Island teased him about his accent. He was a butcher's son so he became a butcher. But when he was 24 years old, Eddie got a land grant from the US government to homestead in Oregon, which is where he studied biology. Eventually he became a park ranger for the Department of the Interior, and while he was working at Mount Hood he met a pretty girl who was camping there with a girlfriend. Eddie and the girl got married three months later and they stayed together for about 50 years, until she died 12 years ago.

Eddie recently had a 40-something girlfriend, but the story is that he finally broke up with her, saying, "What are you doing with a 100-year-old man?" Now another 40-something lady has been knocking at his door lately, and the weekend I met him she cooked Eddie some shrimp scampi for dinner. "I think she's lonely," Eddie told me.

On the day I left Sunny Oaks, I went to the Bird House to hug and kiss Eddie goodbye, and he told me he remembered the name of that flower. It was a tansy. T-A-N-S-Y, which has yellow buttonlike flower heads and aromatic leaves.

Friday, September 15, 2006

More on Home-Made

I forgot to mention, I was in a family-owned grocery store in Wisconsin once, and saw a hand-lettered sign in the deli department advertising "ho-made" sausages and potato salad. Gave a whole new meaning to the phrase.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Home-Made and Lopsided

Hi. I've been back in Brooklyn since last Friday, yet I haven't posted a single word to this blog. Shameful. Oh, I could easily find something to plagiarize and call my own. Everybody's doing it these days. But no, when it comes to my writing, I put together every single word with care, and it all comes out of my very own head. I guess that makes me a loser. Like somebody who bakes a cake at home, very carefully and with love, and they bring it to a party and set it next to the store-bought cake that someone else brought, and everybody wants to eat the professional, factory-made cake instead of the brave little home-made and lopsided cake with clumsily applied frosting, which tastes very good I'm sure, but just doesn't compare to the shiny allure of the store-bought cake.

I'm not sure where this metaphor is going anymore, and I think it's weak of me to compare a factory-made cake to plagiarism. The point is, I'm sorry I haven't blogged in a while, but I do like to spend extra care and time when I do post, and which I clearly haven't done this morning.

But I'm back now from the Catskills, and did a ton of writing. I can recommend it to everybody--find yourself a little cottage on a lake that has no phone and no Internet. You'll be amazed to see how much you get back in touch with yourself and the nature around you, and how quickly that starts to feel normal.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Empress Theodora in the Catskills

On Friday, I'm heading to a cottage in the Catskills, where I plan to spend an isolated week writing. It's an artist's retreat, something I've fantasized about doing ever since I moved to NYC two years ago. A week isn't long enough, of course. I need a month! Two months!! The idea is that I will write 12 hours a day, and during the time I'm not writing, I'll just do a little cooking, go for a swim, take a walk around the lake, then go back to the book.

My creative challenge is to take my personal history and wind it around the histories of my Bad Girls. I want it to feel like a natural weaving, and not like the self-important meanderings of a writer who wants to keep inserting herself into a narrative that has nothing to do with her.

I've already written biographies of my Bad Girls, which will be a tremendous help as I write. You could say that I'll be plagiarizing myself. I've done the research and laid out the stories to my satisfaction. And now as I write my memoir, it's fun to go back and read about the Bad Girls' lives. Here's the opening to Empress Theodora of Constantinople's story:

A beautiful girl steps onto centre stage. She strips off her clothes and stands nude in front of her audience, wearing only a look of bold defiance on her lovely face.
The audience has come from miles around to witness this 16-year-old’s sensational act. But tonight the spectators are unprepared for the sheer force of her personality. They watch, bewitched, as the girl artfully arranges herself in a spread-eagle position on the floor.
A drum sounds. Servants appear from both sides of the stage and sprinkle barley grains over her private parts. The servants retire to the wings, leaving the girl exposed and alone.
She claps her hands. Cages of hungry geese are rolled out onto the stage and released. The audience roars as the geese devour the grains one by one from her young flesh. She laughs, her flexible body twisting with pleasure, until every grain is gone. Then she stands proudly, her eyes impassive, her laughter subsiding to just the trace of a smile. The crowd cheers her wantonness and she takes a bow.
As the rich, fat old men file out of the Hippodrome and return to their comfortable homes in Constantinople, little do they suspect that this shameless whore will one day rule the Eastern Roman Empire.
The girl is Theodora, the year 517 A.D. Fate has decreed that in just a few years she will marry an emperor named Justinian, share his power, find religion and outlaw prostitution.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

My Chest X-Ray Results

What the hell do my chest X-ray results have to do with Bad Girls? Well, smoking's bad for you, and I smoke. That is to say, I used to smoke two cigarettes a day, and now I'm down to five or six cigarettes on the weekend. Except tonight (Thursday), when I plan to smoke one cigarette after dinner.

In other words, I'm a light smoker, but still a smoker in the medical sense. Last month, my doctor gave me a prescription for a chest X-ray, saying that because I've been smoking for such a long time (25 years, gulp), I should see if my lungs are okay.

So I went to the NYU radiology department last week and they took the dorsal and lateral views, I think you call it. When I left the hospital, flouncing past all the old wrinklies in their wheelchairs, there was a bounce in my step as I headed into the morning sunshine beaming down on First Avenue. The air smelled so good!

I felt happy to be alive, and part of my happiness had to do with a physical intuition that I am healthy. And yes, it's true. My doctor's office phoned back this week to say "Your chest X-ray results were normal." In medical speak, "normal" means fabulous, in the pink, robustly immortal!

Now that I know I am indeed going to live forever, as planned, I am full of self-justification for my light smoking habit. What's wrong with a little tobacco? The Indians smoked it and it did them no harm. Smoking is a relaxing and spiritual habit. If you smoke the way I smoke, then smoking is good for you. Just the way a little coffee, a little chocolate and a little alcohol are good for you, according to the latest research.

My Grandma Mil lived to be 96, and she was a light smoker. She officially quit when she was in her 50s, but even after that I remember the stale Kent cigarettes she kept in a pretty little blue-flowered cloisonee box on her coffee table. Every now and then, after a dinner party, Mil would light one up and you could see the pleasure she took from those few little puffs before she crushed out the half-smoked cigarette.

As for me, I keep trying to officially quit. On the days when I don't smoke, I don't miss it. On the days I do, I wonder if I'm really enjoying the cigarette. I roll my own, adding little English filters, and it's the ritual of rolling I enjoy as much as the smoke itself. Plus, I keep hearing the message that "smoking is bad for you," which in this puritanical society makes me want, perversely, to keep indulging my filthy habit.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

What It's Really Like

What it's really like to write a book is something I've been discovering over the past few years. On a good day, I wake up and start to write before I've had my coffee, before I have any awareness of the outside world. I might be deep into making a connection, revising a passage, introducing a new thought--and before I know it, an hour or two has passed. Then I can allow myself a break. Then I do my sit-ups and my stretches, I finally make that coffee and a bite of breakfast, I pet the cats, I kiss my husband good morning, and then I go back to the book. I keep at it for another two or three hours, and when it's over, I feel like I've accomplished something.

I had a day like that on Sunday, when after weeks of struggle, I finally made what felt like a breakthrough. My struggle involves recovery from the first major edit I've received from my literary agents. They are accomplished professionals, very good at what they do--with many published books to prove it--but man oh man, did they ever kick my ass. I've got a lot of rewriting to do. The recent breakthrough revealed itself to me on Sunday morning, when it felt like I had finally found the right tone of voice to tell my story. I was healing from the edits and the writing was stronger for it--that's the beauty of a tough edit. So Sunday was a good day, and when I finally stopped writing, I felt virtuous and peaceful.

But that's a good day. On a bad day, like the Saturday just before that blissful Sunday, I felt like a no-talent wreck, hopelessly dithering about as I tried to tell my very stupid story. I stared at the blank screen and cringed. Why even bother to try to find the words? No one cares about me. I'm a nobody and I've got nothing to say. The words aren't coming out right because my non-story shouldn't be told.

Sorry. Am I boring you? This is the typical writer's lament, isn't it? I know I've read it before in novels, in books about writing, in magazines, in magazines about writing....it's always the same lament. But now I know what it really feels like, which is an addiction. On Sunday, life was sunny and bright because I thought I was in control of it, but on Saturday, my addiction showed me who was really in charge. The cycle continues because you keep crawling back to it, convinced that this time you'll win.

All this to explain why my blog has been silent of late. I've been wrestling with my
real writing project, which is the book. The book the book the book. For all my complaining, I can think of no greater honor and privilege than writing a book. And when this one is written and published, I hope to punish myself again by writing and publishing a second one.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Isabelle Eberhardt: Heroic Muslim Male

I haven't told you about Isabelle Eberhardt yet. She's one of my favorite Bad Girls, a dreamy figure who devoted her short life to self-reinvention. A natural vagabond, she went wandering round North Africa in search of spirituality, sex and hashish years before the hippies of the 1960s went there for the same reasons. You could say she died for love of the image she had of herself.

Born in 1877, Isabelle Eberhardt was a Russian Jew who grew up in Switzerland in a community of anarchist nihilists--a fact that suggests the deep waters she swam in from the time she was a baby. She was passionate and troubled as a girl, and madly in love with her brother Augustin, who taught her how to smoke hashish. Her father taught her to ride horses, study languages and theology, and dress as a boy. And as she studied Arabic, history and ancient religions, Isabelle searched for herself, she searched and she searched, and she tried to understand who she was and where she fit in. She poured her anguish into the private well of her journals:

I must learn to feel more deeply, to see better, and especially, more and more, to think.

As her taste for the Middle East developed, she fell in love with a man who would come to rival Augustin's affections. He was Julien Viaud, a French lieutenant with poetic inclinations, a writer twenty-seven years older than she, who adopted the pseudonym Pierre Loti in 1876 and began publishing romantic tales of the Orient. In 1895, when Isabelle was 18, Loti's epic poem Le Désert, detailing his travels via camel from Suez to Gaza, was published in Paris. Its popularity swept across Europe and landed on the doorstep of Isabelle's family home in Geneva, an upright bourgeois town that Isabelle was desperate to abandon.

"Every morning you wake up in a different setting of the vast desert," Loti wrote. "You leave your tent and are surrounded by the splendor of the virginal morning. You stretch your arms and half-naked body in the cold pure air. Out on the sand, you wrap your turban and drape yourself in your white woolen veils. You get drunk on light and space. At the time of waking, you know the heady intoxication of just being able to breathe, just being alive . . .And then off you go, perched atop the ever-moving camel that steadily plods along until nighttime. You go along, go along, go along, and you see in front of you a hairy head decorated with shells and its long neck, cutting the air like the prow of a ship at sea."

Thus began Isabelle's love affair with Loti, and she devoured everything he wrote, including his first novel, Aziyadé, published in 1877, the year Isabelle was born. It's the story of his hero's illicit love for Aziyadé, a Turkish woman he meets while traveling on assignment in her country to pacify and colonize the Turks. Loti writes of the soldier's arrival in Istanbul and visit to a tailor who strips him of his lieutenant’s uniform and outfits him in full Turkish dress: a gold jacket with flowing sleeves, a turban, silver daggers in his belt.

The photo you see below on the left is of Loti himself. You might say, in fact, that the hero of Aziyadé is Loti himself. He slips out the tailor’s back door and into the hidden passageways of Istanbul’s bazaar and mosques, enjoying the disguise that could get him killed if his true identity were to be revealed. Veiled women pass him in the street, and he hears them say that such a handsomely dressed gentleman could only be a white Albanian. “At the end of this trail there waits the love of a Turkish woman, the wife of a Turk, a crazed passion that makes no sense considering our time and place," Loti writes. "You might say that to be capable of such an act, one must be deeply egotistical; I won’t argue with that; but I had begun to think that anything which pleases me must be a good thing and that one must always do one’s best to spice up the dull food of life.”

Here's my theory: Inspired not only by his tale of dangerous Oriental love but by his gift for disguise and self-invention, Isabelle wanted to be Loti. During those precious years of her youth when she wondered who she would become, she visited a photographer's shop and created the self-portrait you're looking at now on the right, Isabelle's Orientalist fantasia of the heroic Muslim male. In my research, I've found no evidence that Isabelle actually saw any pictures of Loti, but the striking similarities of these two images lead me to believe that she did.

And her journal entries after Loti came into her life suggest Loti had just as great an influence on her writing style. Here's a passage from Isabelle: "I detest cultivated green country full of crops. Why do I have this morbid craving for a barren land and desert wastes? Why do I prefer nomads to villagers, beggars to rich people? Aie yie yie! For me, unhappiness is a sort of spice."

Two years after reading Le Désert, Isabelle traveled to Algeria and converted to Islam, renamed herself Si Mahmoud (why not? Loti had renamed himself), dressed every day as an Arab male, and with a great sense of purpose lived like a man, especially after her initiation into the Kadriya brotherhood of Sufis. Si Mahmoud married a spahi soldier--Slimène, an Algerian man who served under the French military--and spent the rest of her (his?) life obsessed with the Sahara Desert, riding horseback over the sand dunes and coming to know the lives of villagers and nomads.

Slimène tried to make a home for them, but Si Mahmoud was restless and often preferred to live among the soldiers of the Foreign Legion. She would prowl around at night, have sex with the Arabic boys who took her fancy, smoke kif, and drink absinthe, kummel, chartreuse and cognac until she passed out on the floor of whatever random café she was drinking in. It was Isabelle Eberhardt's ambition to be a great writer, and while she did keep journals and serve as a war correspondent for the El Akhbar newspaper in the Sud Oranais, Isabelle never got very far with her ambitions. She died in a freak flood in the desert in 1904 when she was twenty-seven.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Don't Fall in Love with Lord Byron

The trouble with studying history is that you have to wade through a lot of names, places and dates--so you tend to lose the point of why you were interested in a subject in the first place. I'm thinking now of one of Lord Byron's many, many mistresses, a woman named Claire Clairmont. Today, I simply want to share a funny quote with you, something Claire said. But to get there, I've got a lot of explaining to do.

Lord Byron was a rock star of Romanticism in the 1810s and 1820s. He was extremely handsome, with a beautifully sculpted face framed by dark curly hair, and many portraitists painted his picture. Though of strong build, he walked with a slight limp, a fact which may only have increased his appeal for women, of whom there were many falling at his feet all over London, as we shall soon see.

By all accounts, Lord Byron was a cruel lover. Not only was he a vain, arrogant womanizer, but he was very famous as well--a deadly combination, as we know in our own time from the gossip that comes out of Hollywood. And he was famous for good reason, because he was the finest poet of his time. Here's a taste from "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage":

Ah! may'st thou ever be what now thou art,
Nor unbeseem the promise of thy spring,
As fair in form, as warm yet pure in heart,
Love's image upon earth without his wing,
And guileless beyond Hope's imagining!
And surely she who now so fondly rears
Thy youth, in thee, thus hourly brightening,
Beholds the rainbow of her future years,
Before whose heavenly hues all sorrow disappears.

Wow. No wonder his half sister had an incestuous relationship with Lord Byron at the same time that he had affairs with Lady Caroline Lamb and Lady Oxford before he married Annabella Milbanke then left her a month after their daughter was born.

Claire Clairmont, herself an aspiring poet, didn't have a prayer of vanquishing him with her love when they met. She was just a silly girl, smitten and speechless. And here's the quote I've been waiting to share with you, something Claire wrote to Lord Byron shortly after they met:

"Do you know I cannot talk to you when I see you? I am so awkward and only feel inclined to take a little stool and sit at your feet."

Oh Claire, Claire. Don't you know The Rules? A girl never gives a guy the upper hand. She does everything to appear unavailable--her dance card is always full, she's not at home when he comes calling.

Poor little vegetarian, atheist, free-loving Claire came to a bad end, of course. She had a daughter "out of wedlock," as they say, and Byron named the baby Allegra and then refused to see Claire ever again. He asked his half sister to raise the child as his own, which she would not do, and so he locked Allegra up in a convent, determined that his illegitimate daughter would be "a Christian and a married woman," but Allegra died in the convent of typhus when she was 5 years old.

I'm not sure what the moral of this story is. Don't fall in love with a famous man? Be damned sure to get full custody? All I know for sure is that as soon as Claire Clairmont told Lord Byron she just wanted to sit silently on a little stool at his feet, all was lost.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Belly Dancers I Have Known

In an effort to stay in touch with my inner bad girl, I've been studying belly dancing. I'm a lazy student, though, and am afraid I'll never dance as well as my enchanting teacher, Julia, Jewel of the Nile, or Leela, of the Odalisque Dance Troupe.

I met Leela at the local pub on the day she moved to my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and Leela later introduced me to Julia at a party. It was love at first sight for me, and I decided to court them both. I wanted to know them. Leela is a seriously winsome woman, and she loves to dance--she practices little moves even as she walks down the street. Julia has been belly dancing for over 20 years and teaches now. She has the mysterious allure of an artist who knows a lot but doesn't need to talk about it. As I've courted Leela and Julia, I've felt foolish at times, like a belly dance groupie. But they've been patient with me.

Leela Dances!

On my first night out with Leela, she invited me to hear Zikrayat, an Arabic ensemble of musicians who play buzuq, riqq, oud, nay and tabla, and this performance included solo dances by two women, Naraya and Dorit. The music was so gorgeous and strange as it washed over me, and as soon as Naraya and Dorit were finished, Leela got up to dance along with quite a few other women in the audience--dark, waving New York flowers, with flowing hair and discretely spangled outfits.

I was happy just to watch Leela swivel her hips and flutter her fingers, but she beckoned to me to join her on the dance floor. "Use your flamenco," she said (I've studied flamenco dance a bit), and so I did, adding in a little bit of cha-cha while trying to copy the moves of the women around me. "You dance beautifully," a man on the dance floor told me, which got me all confused. Didn't he see I was a rank amateur? Was he trying to cheer me up because he pitied me? Was he simply having a good time?

After a few songs, I returned to my seat, but Leela danced on, lost in an ecstatic haze, a sheen of sweat on her skin. The music kept going and going, obscure Egyptian film music of the 1950s, and the singer sounded like she was crying. A gray-haired man in a navy blue sweater threw a pile of money at the singer and she ignored the bills as they came fluttering to her feet.

"See?" Leela said to me afterward. "It's addictive, like crack."

A couple weeks later, I attended a solo performance by Leela in a dark basement nightclub in Manhattan. She covered herself with a veil at the start of her dance, but eventually threw it off so you could see her in all her gorgeousness. Wearing a brown velvet costume with gold spangles, Leela kept her waist bare to reveal her curves, and she had the sort of vava-voom cleavage I'll never achieve. As she danced, Leela also wore a knowing Mona Lisa smile, but was coy about not looking directly at anyone in the audience. Instead, she watched her hands and arms as they twirled and traced patterns in the air. And she did this incomprehensible and complicated twitch with her hips that reminded me of Mae West.

Julia, Jewel of the Nile

A couple of weeks later, I go to my first belly dancing class with Julia. We are ten or so women in a Brooklyn studio, wearing hip scarves with coins sewn on as we improvised to taqsims--repetitive, pulsing rhythms. Very hypnotic. I wear lipstick, bangle bracelets and my hair loose, but I'm no match for Julia's natural glamour. She has the strong presence of a silent film star, and she boosts her dramatic looks with heavy eyeliner and bangs cut straight across her forehead.

In class, Julia uses baroquely Orientalist metaphors to help us visualize what our moves should look like. We pluck grapes, we carry trays of fruit, we dance with imaginary partners. "Take off like rocket, drop back like a mummy," she says of a sinuous torso movement. She tells us to shape our bodies into creative tableaux. "Think of drawing yourself as a picture," she said. "Every woman has her line."

I've sought my line ever since, but it's not easy to find. Belly dancing is harder than it looks; it's not just about wiggling around. It's about the dance techniques of isolations, of small movements, posture and layering several movements on top of each other. Julia also teaches veil dancing, and I love throwing that sheer fabric around like a colorful, swooping cloud of mist.

Most of all, my favorite part of belly dancing is its erotic tension, because you're doing these tremendously sexy things with your body but trying to hold something back at the same time. One trick I've learned from Julia is that you should never, ever make direct eye contact with your audience; it's all about turning your focus inward, withholding, withholding--what Leela did at her solo nightclub performance. The idea is to drive the audience mad with desire.

What started out as curiosity has turned into a passion for me. I now regularly attend Julia's Wednesday night class and I've assembled a costume to wear--a cropped top, harem pants and that magic hip scarf with the gold coins attached. "I am a woman" is the mantra that runs in my mind throughout the entire class. A shame there are no men there to see me being a woman, but perhaps that's the point. I'm beginning to think the deepest expression of your gender happens when you're surrounded by your own sex.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Visit to Mai Z.'s Ghost

And now I've returned from Le Mazel, my cousin Kent's French villa in the Cevennes mountains where I spent my summer of love 2000. This time, I went with a purpose: to reacquaint myself with Mai Zetterling, the previous owner of Le Mazel. Kent and I and a group of friends formed an art colony at Le Mazel for that one brief season in 2000, and during that time we all thought about Mai Z. a lot because she died in 1994 and all her belongings remained virtually untouched for five years. She was a bit of a bad girl, and her children, ex-husbands and former lovers weren't interested in going through her affairs and settling her estate after her death.

In 1994, Mai traveled to Britain for treatment of the cancer she was battling, expecting to return a week later, but she never made it back home. In 1999, when Kent bought Le Mazel, he found a shopping list in the kitchen, a half-written letter in her cluttered office, a fur coat draped across a chair, dishes in the cabinet, a library full of books, a houseful of furniture--in short, she left behind her entire life in that house, and it remained there untouched for years, like some poor soul put under a witch's spell in a fairytale.

This is where the art colony lived for three months, among Mai's belongings, and we frequently invoked her spirit during that summer of love, making toasts to her at dinner on the terrace, speculating about her love life, and visiting her grave in a field below the house.

Mai Zetterling, born in 1925, was a famous Swedish actress who made a number of movies in Britain and just one in Hollywood (she hated the American film industry's phoniness and greed) before becoming a film director in the 1960s. She was a beautiful, passionate, headstrong woman who in her lifetime had two husbands, a string of lovers including the Hollywood star Tyrone Power, two children, and twelve abortions. It's easy to learn about Mai's secrets--all you have to do is read her autobiography, All Those Tomorrows.

I read Mai's autobiography at Le Mazel last week on a sentimental journey to my own past, the summer of love 2000 when I reinvented myself as a bad girls writer and hopeful free spirit, ready for adventure and a life full of art, happiness and satisfaction. It was three months of paradise, really, living in the mountains in France and waking up every day with a sense of peace and joy. These good feelings came close on the heels of the worst period of my life, when I had no home, no job, no money, no man, so my sense of wonder in arriving at a place like Le Mazel was especially strong.

Now, six years later, I have a life back--I returned to Le Mazel for a summer holiday with my new husband, having left behind only briefly my office job in Manhattan and my two-bedroom coop apartment in Brooklyn.

My own sense of stability gave me the space during this visit to study Mai as a subject for my book. I held meetings with Mai in her office as I read her books, went through her papers and looked at her pictures:

I communed with Mai's spirit as I bathed in her tub:

I read the original typed manuscript of All Those Tomorrows in Mai's fireplace:

I felt the spirit of Mai's ghost all around me at Le Mazel. Le Mazel is the sort of place that seeps into your skin. So much of what I remembered about it from six years ago is its physicality. The wind at night, the sound of my bare feet padding along the stone floors, the smell of the furniture. On this brief visit, I wrote feverishly in my journal every day. One morning, I wrote: "I slept poorly in paradise last night. Why can't I sleep in paradise? I left Dave [Note from Joyce: he's my husband, the man I haven't written about yet] to lie in my old bed in the corner studio where I used to sleep, next to my writing table. I lay there, reading Mai's memoir, feeling cozy with the mosquito netting pulled round the bed, and I read until I finally drifted off. An hour or two later I awoke suddenly from the cold and ran back to Dave's warmth in the faded light of dawn. Just like before, I half-feared, half-desired coming across Mai's ghost in the long hallway. So childish. And yet why not? If there is such a thing as ghosts, Mai would be here and I would meet her in the stone hallway late at night when I thought I was alone."

Mai, too, thought she might become a ghost. In a journal entry dated March 10th 1981, written at "Le Mazel, my home: a ramshackle castle, perched on an iron rock," Mai said: "Twilight all of a sudden. The sun has made streaky patterns everywhere. Soon the fog will whirl itself up the little hill and envelop me, and I shall become a ghost figure on my terrace."

At the end of her life, when her husbands, lovers and children had all left her, Mai lived all alone at Le Mazel. I can think of worse fates.

Next time, I'll talk about a slice of life in Brooklyn. Cheerio, Joyce Hanson

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Away to France

Dear Reader,

On Monday, I'm returning to Le Mazel:

It's the hamlet in the Cevennes mountains of France where I first came to know Mai Zetterling, a beautiful Swedish film actress who starred in a lot of British movies during the 1950s and 1960s:

Mai lived at Le Mazel until her death in 1994. The house stayed empty for five years until my cousin bought it, and when he took over, the place was still very much intact. Mai had left the place in a hurry because she thought she'd just be taking a quick trip to London for treatment of her cancer. She never made it back to France.

I lived at Le Mazel for three months in 2000, during my summer of love when I reinvented myself with the help of my bad girls. Needless to say, the spirit of Mai Zetterling was all around me then--I wore her hat, slept in her beds, sat in her chairs, ate off her plates, broke her wineglasses, read her books, and snooped through boxes of film stills and family snapshots in her office.

It's been several years now since I've visited Le Mazel, and I wonder how it will feel to go back there. I'll tell you more after my return to NYC on July 4. There will be no blog posts while I'm away. Part of Le Mazel's charm is that we have no computer, no phone, no television.

Cheers, Joyce Hanson

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Beautiful Lola, Scary Lola

Lola Montez was a legendary beauty of the 19th century. Unlike our photo-filled era of gossip magazines and celebrity websites, in Lola's time there were few images available, and what people saw was usually painted portraiture. Or they relied on descriptions: "She was a very lovely woman with a magnetic personality," one writer said of Lola. "Her gait and carriage were those of a duchess," said another. She was a "singular and striking beauty," said a third.

When I first started my Lola studies, I was very curious to see what she looked like, and this was the painted portrait I kept coming across in books:

Wow, what an elegant beauty, I thought. Lola herself wrote a book, The Arts of Beauty, and chapter seven was devoted to "A Beautiful Face."

"If it be true that the face is the index of the mind," she said, "the recipe for a beautiful face must be something that reaches the soul. What can be done for a human face that has a sluggish, sullen, arrogant, angry mind looking out at every feature? An habitually ill-natured, discontented mind ploughs the face with inevitable marks of its own vice....If a woman's soul is without cultivation, without taste, without refinement, without the sweetness of a happy mind, not all the mysteries of art can ever make her face beautiful."

Oh dear. Need I remind you that Lola died alone of syphilis in the poorhouse when she was 43, having lived on four continents and gone through scores of husbands and lovers? Lola knew from discontent and vice. On first reading, her thoughts about a beautiful face come across as the prim lecturing of a Victorian lady. On second reading, knowing what we know about Lola's fate, her words are a desperate plea, the negative morality of a woman who fought the world every day of her life.

And then one day, I came across a biography that provided the first photographic evidence of what she truly looked like:

My heart skipped a beat. Oh my god, Lola Montez smoked! Her face was hard, with a mouth narrow and set, eyes hooded with contempt. She looked like a tough girl who would beat me up after school. Lola scared me. Was she a bad girl? Oh, I think so.

Ever since I've seen Lola's photo, I've tried my best to love her. But it isn't easy. She's not my favorite bad girl. I get the feeling that if I tried to put my arms around her to give her a hug, she would flinch and push me away, glaring at me with arrogance and anger and just itching for a fight.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Lola Montez and Me

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.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Hello from Today

Hi. I've been so busy talking about the past on this blog that sometimes I feel stuck back there and can't return to the present. But I've broken through, and here I am in the here and now.

This is a random thought post. One thought is that I'm still trying to get a handle on what a blog is exactly, and what I want it to be for me. I thought it would be fun to just throw a bunch of crap out there, but I've started to realize that people are actually reading it! Makes me feel more accountable, and then all my typical writer's thoughts kick in: Is this what I'm really trying to say? Where am I leading the reader with this? Why am I saying what I'm saying, and am I saying it in the right way?

I've mentioned, of course, that I'm writing a memoir, Becoming a Bad Girl: My Pursuit of Wicked Women, and blogging is a great way to tell people about my book. The only problem, I'm discovering, is that a blog is an insatiable monster, and the time I could be spending writing my next chapter is getting sucked away by this voracious beast.

Like right now, when I'm trying to write about how I first met Lola Montez, the self-invented Spanish dancer of the mid-19th century, and what she taught me about myself. In other words, I need to get back to Lola, put the focus on Lola. Her presence in my life comforts me, even though she's a dark angel and a scary guide--Lola led a rollercoaster life and died of syphilis in the poorhouse when she was 43. Not everybody's idea of a great role model.

But ever since my life fell apart and I started to put the pieces back together again back in 2000 by studying bad girls, I've found that when I'm not sure of how to proceed with my life, I tell myself: "Go back to the bad girls. Keep the focus on the bad girls." I think my bad girls have become my saints, so I pray to them.

So now I'm going to focus on Lola Montez, and the next time I post on this blog, I hope it will be incidental to my chapter on Lola. It was Lola who helped to convince me to go on my big bad girls adventure in England and France, the adventure that helped me change my life forever.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Thinkin' 'bout Bessie

More from my list of bad girl traits:

*Bad girls like young people, and young people like them
*Bad girls have fun as often as possible
*Bad girls inspire people with their passionate nature

You might think that bad girls all like to get drunk, but no. Some, including Ninon de Lenclos and Mae West, shunned alcohol and didn’t like to be around drinkers. Bessie Smith, on the other hand, was a boozehound. She was also America’s Queen of the Blues in the 1920s and the highest-paid black woman of her time because people loved to hear her sing.

She spent a lot of time on the road and bought a railroad car to move her show--musicians, dancers, instruments, costumes--from one town to the next. But sometimes Bessie grew tired of being the boss and would disappear on long benders, and on those days she would arrive late or not at all for shows. She wasn't always in the mood to sing on stage. It was more fun to go out boozing with friends and sing for their entertainment when she felt like it, when some thought crossed her mind and she had the words of a song to fit the mood. Then she could sing for fun, take a few sips of corn liquor or hits off a reefer, lapse into a pleasant state of oblivion, and wait for inspiration to strike again.

The image of Bessie getting drunk and singing for the fun of it appeals to me. She’s my idea of a true artist, wild and free. No one could stop that voice from coming out. When I write, I struggle to have as much fun as I think Bessie had when she was singing.

Sex fit into Bessie's fun, of course. She had an open mind, and she liked to see what was out there. Nobody used the term “bisexual,” but everyone knew Bessie liked girls as much as boys. She liked them young, and she liked to watch what other people did. This taste brought her to the buffet flats of Detroit, where thrill-seeking onlookers and active participants could indulge in sex acts and erotic shows.

The flats were usually run out of private houses by women. Betsy immortalised one of them in a song:

There’s a lady in our neighborhood who runs a buffet flat
And when she gives a party, she knows just where she’s at.
She give a dance last Friday night that was to last ‘til one,
But when the time was almost up, the fun had just begun.

At the buffet flats, chains of people wandered up and down the staircases, peeking into rooms where gay men romped and women did obscene things with cigarettes and Coca-Cola bottles. “It was nothing but faggots and bulldykers, a real open house,” said Ruby Walker, Bessie’s niece (I’m quoting from Chris Albertson, Bessie’s biographer). “Everything went on in that house – tongue baths, you name it. They called them buffet flats because buffet means everything, everything that was in life.”

Funny to think how that was going on almost a century ago. I wasn't much of a student of history before I started to research my bad girls. With the arrogance of the living, I thought my generation invented everything outrageous. Orgasms didn't exist before my time, for example.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Ninon's Dog

Born in 1620, Ninon de Lenclos was a fantastically gifted French courtesan from the time of Kings Louis XIII and XIV. She was a modern woman, independent and sexy, who held literary salons attended by princes, poets and philosophers. Ninon’s own philosophy combined her personal blend of Epicurean thought mixed with hedonism and skepticism. I don’t know what that means exactly, but it sounds very modern, which Ninon was.

Ninon de Lenclos was a classic bad girl—-she never married, lived to please herself, and enjoyed a dual nature that craved sensuality yet embraced the idea that self-discipline and work are the source of freedom. She was a devoted friend, but her lovers came and went. People said she had three classes of admirers: payers, martyrs and favorites.

Payers, the ones who lavished the most money and praise on her, were the ones she liked least. Ninon refused their offers of jewels and other presents, telling them to just give her the cash. Somehow, she managed to avoid having sex with them. Supposedly. She also supposedly avoided sexual encounters with men she believed to be her intellectual equal. Ninon had decided when very young to live as a man, and she bored quickly of her sexual conquests. “I think I may love you for three months, and that’s an eternity for me,” she wrote to one of her lovers. Payers lasted for as long as she needed their money. Ninon had no qualms about outright prostitution, especially in the early years when she was building her fortune.

"An insane desire to burst out laughing”

As for the martyrs, the ones who sighed and lounged about hopelessly at her salons, Ninon kept them around because they boosted her public image, helping her look deliciously unattainable. And the favorites, when she actually had feelings for them, received the full force of her emotions. Even when angry, she remained intriguing. Of one love affair, she was alleged to have written: “I sometimes took it into my head to notice what we were saying, and the way we were saying it. Directly I did so, I became possessed with an insane desire to burst out laughing.”

So that’s Ninon de Lenclos, who lived to be a very old woman and met Voltaire as a boy before she died in 1706, or maybe 1703, no one’s really sure. She's still revered in France for being a brainy sexpot who wrote witty little maxims. Here's one: “A sensible woman will consult her reason before she takes a husband, but her heart when she takes a lover."

But maybe Ninon really didn’t write those maxims. It's just as likely that the writers who invented her legend wrote them because they wanted a woman like Ninon to exist. The more I’ve researched her, the more I’ve realized how much of her story was made up after she died by self-described historians. At first I was disappointed to realize just how much was made up, but then it started to fascinate me.

The big lie

As a journalist, I try to be ethical. Call me foolish, but I verify my sources, and I try to be objective in telling the truth. But when I started researching bad girls at the British Library, I saw how unimportant those petty details seemed to be in an earlier time. Back in the day, a lot of historians made up stuff entirely and would use each other as sources, confirming one another’s stories by repeating them over and over. In this way, Ninon’s so-called biographers invented her truth for all time.

And now, as I write about Ninon, I may be adding to the big lie. But it’s hard to resist, because the non-truths told about her are so entertaining. And also, I want to share what I learned about her and how I learned about it—-which ends up being my story, not Ninon’s.

As I mentioned, I researched Ninon de Lenclos at the British Library. I love that library. For almost a year, I made frequent trips there and came to love the ritual of entering the building, putting my belongings in a locker, passing inspection by the security guard to ensure that I had no pens, only pencils, to write with, and that I wasn’t secreting any documents in my small handbag, then finally gaining access to the inner circle of the reading rooms. These rooms were sacred places where you could see the thoughts circling around the readers’ heads in a fine mist. The rooms were silent and filled with so many people, each intent on a private mission of scholarship. A good library is one of the grandest things of city life.

Looking for the dirty parts

It was a strange and special place to study bad girls. My mission was to dig up old books and look for all the dirty parts. The best room for this was the Rare Book Room, where I once put in a request to read the first edition of the Kama Sutra and a librarian arrived at my desk about an hour later wheeling a cart filled with a dozen or so crumbling volumes that spoke of love and sex in Middle Eastern antiquity.

On the day I looked up Ninon de Lenclos, I came across a yellowed old text printed by Isaiah Thomas in Worcester, England, in 1804. No author was credited, and the book’s title was as follows: Eccentric Biography; or Memoirs of Remarkable Female Characters, Ancient or Modern. Including, Actresses, Adventurers, Authoresses, Fortunetellers, Gipsies, Dwarfs, Swindlers and Vagrants. Also Many Others Who Have Distinguished Themselves by Their Chastity, Dissipation, Intrepidity, Learning, Abstinence, Credulity, &c. &c. Alphabetically Arranged. Forming a Pleasing Mirror of Reflection to the Female Mind.

Yes, this was the stuff. According to the library’s online database, I would learn about Ninon de Lenclos in this book. I was hoping to find outright pornography, actual quotes from Ninon speaking about her love affairs—-the exact sexual positions, the dirty talk, the moods of the moment—-an evocation of passion that I would be able to feel, physically. To the point where I would behold a holographic image of the living, breathing Ninon before my very eyes, and she would reach out and talk to me, touch me.

Raton: a taperly dog

What I got, instead, was a description of Ninon’s dog, Raton. And now, finally, I’ve led you far enough along the path of my bad girl research so you can savor this moment, when I quote extensively from a crumbly old book that recounts a big fat lie about a now-dead whore. I quote verbatim from the text, without changing any spellings or punctuation marks:

“We learn from M. Mercier that this lady had a favorite small dog, taperly & elegantly formed with yellow hair. Wherever this celebrated lady…was invited, Raton was sure to be her constant companion. She placed him in an elegant little basket near her plate, and he was literally, her officer of health. He maintained most strictly that regimen of his mistress, which preserved her beauty, good humour, & her health, to the advanced age of nearly a hundred years. He did not suffer her to make use of coffee, of ragouts, or of liqueurs. Raton suffered quietly to pass him the soup, the bouilli, and the roti, but if his mistress seemed inclined to touch the ragouts, he growled, fixed his eyes upon her, and sternly interdicted the use of these enticing dishes….When the dessert came, however, he sprung quickly from his basket, gamboled on the cloth, paid his compliments to the ladies, and received in return for his caresses a few macaroons, of which 2 or 3 satisfied his appetite.”

As far as I’m concerned, the image of Ninon’s dog trotting across the table at a swank 17th-century French dinner party is worth all the lies and distortions that went into his creation. I’ve thought about Raton more times than I care to mention. According to Eccentric Biography, this handsome governor, so loving, and yet so austere, is stuffed at the Cabinet of Natural History. I’ve been tempted to visit the Cabinet myself, to verify Raton’s existence objectively and scientifically, but the book doesn’t mention in which city or country the Cabinet is located.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Mae West's Breasts

Mae West took an early interest in developing beautiful breasts. Starting in her teens she began to take special care, regularly massaging them with cocoa butter every night and again sometimes in the morning, then spraying them with cold water.

“This treatment made them smooth and firm, and developed muscle tone which kept them right up where they were supposed to be,” Mae wrote in her 1960 autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It. “Once the healthy structure of the bust is well established, it is not necessary to carry on the treatment too regularly.”

Mae also tells us about effective exercises for raising and developing the bust. They needn’t occupy much of your time, “but you must do them regularly to get any benefit from them,” she says. “Your bookseller or librarian can refer you to excellent books on body building and keeping fit that will show you what exercises to do and how to do them.”

To Mae I say: “You go, girl.” Mae has absolutely got the right attitude. There’s nothing wrong with a little vanity—it keeps you young and healthy. My Grandma Mil was one of the vainest women I’ve ever met, may she rest in peace, and she lived to be 96. Mil and Mae were contemporaries, in fact, both coming to full-blossoming womanhood in the 1920s and 1930s, back in the days when women were women and men were men. Wow. I’ve just had a revelation—my grandma really was a lot like Mae West. Mil liked to surround herself with nice things, her house had lots of fresh-looking pinks and whites, she was always very put together when she left the house, she had lots of special outfits and jewels, she enjoyed social events and dancing, she liked men but preferred sleeping alone, and she was clever with money and earned herself a tidy fortune in her later years. Mil knew how to take care of Mil.

But back to Mae’s breasts. By now you’ve probably figured out that vanity is one of the character traits that marks a bad girl, and the attention that Mae West lavished over her breasts is just one example of how well she loved herself. That’s what vanity is about. Oh, I know it’s one of the seven deadly sins, but isn’t vanity just another word for self-respect? Plus, vain women give other people a lot of visual pleasure, and I see no harm in that.

Mae advises women to have an arrangement of mirrors so you can see the back of your head and also a full-length mirror that allows you to see both the front and back of your dress. “Remember you aren’t always coming, you are also going away from. And often the rear view can be quite as spectacular as the front one.”

There’s more. Mae understood that beauty comes from within, and an active and positive mind is essential.

“Get that rewarding attitude of ‘I can do anything you can do, better,’” she says. “Get with the beat. Don’t say, ‘Elvis Presley is for kids.’ Say, ‘That’s for me.’ I’m sayin’, “Live, girl—all your life. Rock with the rock and roll with the roll.”

Who can argue with that?

OK, that’s all for today, but now that I’ve been digging around in my research papers to remember what Mae said about her breasts, I’ve come across some more great stuff that I want to share. Next time, I’m going to talk about Ninon de Lenclos’ dog.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Skittles the Charmer

Hi. Before I get started on today’s blog post, I want to tell everybody that over the weekend, I enabled the blogger.com set-up to allow comments from anybody. So you don’t have to have a blogger site anymore if you want to comment – and you can remain anonymous, if you prefer. I’m really curious to hear what people think about my bad girls, so I encourage comments! Then again, if what I say makes you angry, please try to control yourself and don’t swear a lot or lash out at me because I don’t deal well with anger or aggression, and I’d probably obsess over what you said all day.

OK, I keep promising to talk about charm and vanity, don’t I? Well, my bad girls had it in spades. To live happily off the generosity of men without marrying them requires an uncommon talent, and Skittles (a.k.a. Catherine Walters) had it. Skittles, remember, was Victorian London’s favourite whore. Her finest accomplishments were the men who loved her, and they included at least one nobleman, a politician and a poet. The men who knew her ended up loving her more than she loved them because she was good at creating the illusion of being a childlike, vulnerable innocent all alone in the world. As a result, quite a few gentlemen paid her a monthly income or bought property for her. Skittles was tougher than she let on—she was a barmaid in a poor part of Liverpool before earning fame and fortune as a London courtesan. But she was a skillful charmer, and this helped her enormously in life.

What exactly did she do? How was she charming? For one thing, she loved hounds, hunting and horses, and when she was a young barmaid she served the huntsmen and their grooms in her family’s inn parlor after a hunt and listened carefully to their stories. She listened, and asked questions, and showed great interest in what the men were saying. It was the perfect training for a courtesan. Not only did she share a genuine interest in the sport of gentlemen, she learned to wait on their needs and listen eagerly to their stories. I’m not necessarily suggesting that playing up to a man’s ego is what a woman should do to snag a man—I’ll leave that to the women’s magazines, which do it all the time. But let’s face it, it works. Skittles figured that out at an early age, and she used it to her advantage.

She also charmed men simply because she genuinely liked them and put them at ease. Her relationship with her father provided excellent training—they enjoyed each other’s company enormously and shared a simple view of life. Both loved a good time, both had steady and direct personalities. They didn’t shock easily and in fact liked a good joke—the dirtier the better—and getting jostled in pub brawls. Seeing her father drunk as often as she did, Skittles had no fear of outrageous behavior. When she’d had enough of his rough flamboyance, she’d slap him down with some coarse talk of her own. And the next morning all would be sunny. Skittles helps me remember that life is better and more charming when it’s uncomplicated.

In bed, Skittles wasn’t easily forgotten. She was no innocent, but she had a simple sweetness in her eyes. As much as men might tease her and talk dirty about her luscious figure and delicate features, they were powerfully attracted to her—and protective. And considering the degree to which she was comfortable in her father’s company, she knew how to make each and every man in her life feel that he was very, very special. Naturally, this would provoke jealous scenes because there were so many very special men in her life, and Skittles learned not to avoid these scenes because they revealed a man’s vulnerability and kept him—and his cash—coming back to her.

How did she ultimately become a shining prize to Victorian gentlemen? First, Skittles was very nice to look at, and once a man started looking, she started talking with an engaging combination of street wit, little stories, sudden fancies and gossip about people they both knew. It was all light and delicious, and the words flowed out of the little Cupid’s mouth of a girl with a marvelous sense of style. Skittles was never vulgar, yet her bad manners and untaught speech were apparent when she first arrived in London—but she was a great student of people and a quick learner, and within a few years she had smoothed over the roughest parts of her personality. As she made her way up the ladder of her trade, she continued to polish and refine her character, though never so much as to completely lose her natural charm. She was just rough enough to be a fun girl, but she didn’t really look or act like a whore.

And did I mention that Skittles was physically quite beautiful? I can’t say the same of all my bad girls—I’ve seen portraits of Catherine the Great, and she looks like George Washington in drag, sorry to say. But Skittles, she was a knockout. I’ve seen the pictures. She looks quite elegant, with dark eyes and a fine mouth, the trim figure and good posture of a horsewoman.

One of Skittles’ rich lovers, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, wrote a poem about her beauty and charm—a very long, Victorian poem—and here’s the part where he describes her face:

Her brow was pale, but it was lit with light,
And mirth flashed out of it, it seemed in rays.
A childish face, but wise with woman's wit
And something, too, pathetic in its gaze.

Oh, I could go on and on, but I’ve lost track of why I’m writing all this about Skittles. See, she’s charmed me, I’m thinking about her madly, and I’m in love with Skittles all over again. And all I’ve talked about was charm—I haven’t even talked about vanity yet. Though if I’m going to talk about vanity, I’m going to have to talk about Mae West next time. Watch this space….

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Bad Girls Are Not Nice

Becoming a Bad Girl is not a self-help book. I’m trying to write honestly about how I was feeling as I went through a horrible time in my life, and how studying a group of “notorious women in history,” for lack of a better term, cheered me up. But please don’t take my story as some form of inspirational self-help screed. Just about every bad girl on my list used some form of prostitution to get ahead, and I don’t want to be accused of recommending prostitution as a good method to achieve happiness.

But there it is: prostitution is a fact of life that shows up often in my bad girls’ stories. Some of them—-Ninon de Lenclos and Catherine Walters, for example—-were prostitutes, pure and simple. Catherine, who also went by the name of Skittles, made quite a successful go of whoring herself out in Victorian London, and her customers included sensitive poets, rich aristocrats and many straight-laced men who kept their wives tucked up at home when they ventured into the demi-monde of Mayfair.

What did I learn from Skittles? I learned that a smart prostitute lives to please herself and that she uses sex to achieve personal fulfillment. I hope Skittles actually liked sex-—I choose to believe she loved sex-—because it would confirm my notion that a bad girl is always in control of her destiny. (Skittles was not a literary whore, unfortunately, and she never wrote down her thoughts.) A bad girl does not submit to authority, she has loads of love affairs with men from both the upper crust and the lower castes, and she enjoys shocking people with her promiscuity. A bad girl is capable of falling deeply in love but avoids it if she can because she is more smitten with her independence.

Don’t forget, my bad girls lived in an age when many women had no property rights, so the advantage of being an unmarried whore was that you could have a home of your own that no man could ever throw you out of. Mind you, my bad girls loved men and usually preferred their company to women’s. Men had the freedom to be where the power was, they were uncomplicated and self-contained. Skittles hated other women, in fact. And quite a few of my bad girls actively chose to “live like a man”—-Ninon’s words—-and actively resisted becoming too dependent on others.

What about feminism, you ask. Were bad girls feminists? Uh, no. Sorry. They were either too rich to care about becoming feminists or too poor to pay any attention to the issue because they were too busy working for a living. Oh wait, there was one huge feminist in the bunch: Victoria Woodhull. You know, the bad girl who ran for US President in 1872 on a platform of free love, legalized prostitution, easier divorce laws, voting rights for women, vegetarianism, labor reform, magnetic healing, spiritualism, etc. Victoria was a feminist to put feminists to shame. But she was a one-off. Otherwise, my bad girls either didn’t know about feminism or simply ignored it, which I think is funny. They lived like men yet made no apologies for being women. A bad girl was what she was, and that was that.

While a bad girl might enjoy the over-the-top girliness of wearing costumes full of jewels and feathers, she would equally enjoy dressing like a man when it suited her. Isabelle Eberhardt always dressed like a man, and asked to be called by an Arabic man’s name, Si Mahmoud, because that’s what she was into. Catherine the Great dressed like a man when she rode horses—-who was going to stop her? she was the Empress of all the Russias, OK?—-and Victoria Woodhull wore trousers when she went out riding on that new invention of the 19th century, the bicycle.

So there you have it. My bad girls were not nice people. Oh, they might have made the pretense of being nice when it suited them, but still, they weren’t nice. I like that about them. Because I think I was too nice when I started my bad girls study. Men took advantage of me, friends bossed me around, and being a placating doormat for other people wasn’t making me any happier. It’s six years now since I started studying my bad girls, and I’m much happier now. I couldn’t say for sure that studying bad girls cured me of my affliction, but they were right there with me, their stories running around inside my head, as I made changes and took action that brought me to a better place in my life.

And that's not all! Yes, there's much more on my list of what makes a bad girl bad. Keep watching my blog--my next post will be about self-discipline and suicide. Oh and charm and vanity, which I think I promised in my previous post but didn't get around to this time because I was too busy talking about whoring yourself out.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Hey! Share Your Story Here...

Hello, friends. Won't you please share your own bad girl stories with me? I'd love to know about any bad girls you've known, or what qualifies you to be a bad girl yourself. I want to keep this as open-ended as possible, so if there are any men out there who want to share, please do! Just click on the Comment button below and let yourself go.

Desperately Seeking Bad Girls

All the time I’ve been studying bad girls, I’ve been asking myself if I am one. I’m still trying to find an answer. If any of my bad girls (yes, my bad girls—I’ve become possessive) were alive today, I wonder how they’d answer the question. Some, I think, would be flattered to be asked “Are you a bad girl?”, and at least a few of them would tell me to go to hell, because they wouldn’t see themselves as bad girls at all. But if you look at my list of what makes a bad girl, you might find that in some way or another, just about every woman in the world has some elements of being a bad girl.

I started to study bad girls when I was at the lowest point in my life, so it’s no coincidence that every bad girl I picked came from a disadvantaged background and had to struggle to achieve happiness. Happiness on their own terms. Bad girls are ambitious—Victoria Woodhull ran for US President fifty years before women were allowed to vote. Am I ambitious? Yes, in my own way. I’m secretive about my ambitions, though, because if I fail I don’t want anyone to know about it. Bad girls are secretive.

My bad girls, by the way, saved my life. They helped me regain my lost happiness, so I love them.

Screenwriters talk about the “inciting incident”—some event that causes everything to fall apart and sends the heroine on her journey. Balance must be restored. In my case, it was turning forty and losing my husband, my baby, my job and my home all at the same time. Clearly, I had to restore balance in my life. In the case of all of my bad girls, some misfortune or indiscretion changed their life path forever and they launched out on a quest to restore balance. Screenwriters also say that a heroine’s quest will be hampered by some evil antagonist who puts obstacles in her path. That’s a handy conceit for movie makers, because it makes the story a lot more exciting, but in my case, I wonder—in the story of my life, who is my antagonist? Is it my own sense of shame? Hopelessness? Fear? Sloth? The desire to please at the expense of what pleases me?

Here are the inciting incidents in my bad girls’ lives:

For some, it was a bad marriage when they were too young to know better. Catherine the Great, Victoria Woodhull, and Mae West married young and had to find some means of escape from their bad marriages.

“If in my youth I had found a husband whom I could have loved, I should have remained faithful to him all my life. It is my misfortune that my heart cannot rest content even for an hour, without love”—so wrote Catherine the Great, the woman who ruled for 34 years as the very powerful Empress of All the Russias, after convincing her boyfriend to kill her no-good husband in 1762. She didn’t murder Czar Peter III just for fun. She was driven to it by the terrible circumstances of her life: an innocent princess from a far-off land, she was stuck in a bad marriage to a man she didn’t love and stripped of any sense of self-worth.

For others, it was divorce. Elizabeth Chudleigh and Lola Montez sought divorces when divorce wasn’t common at all. The nicest of girls would be tarred immediately with the bad-girl brush when they sought a divorce, even if the husband in question was a monster. Years after deserting the man she had eloped with as a girl in the 1830s, Lola Montez said: “Runaway matches, like runaway horses, are almost sure to end in a smash-up. My advice to all young girls who contemplate taking such a step is, that they had better hang or drown themselves just one hour before they start.”

It’s no coincidence that I, a woman on the verge of divorce when my quest began, found ugly divorces to be an appealing trait among my bad girls.

The inciting incident in the life of a bad girl also might be poverty. Again, it was an appealing trait to me because I was broke when my quest began, and I wanted to know how other women survived being poor and went on to earn money. Bessie Smith, Skittles and Mai Zetterling were no strangers to poverty in their youth. Bessie used it to her advantage as a child, singing on street corners and collecting change from passersby, which gave her an early taste for appreciative audiences and getting paid for doing what she loved best.

Similarly, a chaotically strange family led some bad girls to their fate. Born in 1877 (the years are important to me—when I started to do the historical research, I couldn’t believe, with the arrogance of the living, that all this weird stuff was going on back then), Isabelle Eberhardt was never certain of her father’s identity since the man was a nihilistic anarchist who refused to admit his paternity because he didn’t believe in families. And yet he took a dominant role in Isabelle’s development, raising her as he did her brothers, requiring her to dress as a boy at home and in public. Isabelle eventually adopted a man’s name, Si Mahmoud, converted to Islam, and ran off to the Sahara Desert to become a hashish-smoking war correspondent with a penchant for picking up Arab boys.

In the case of Ninon de Lenclos, it was the death of a parent that turned her bad. Her father, a pleasure-loving musician and occasional pimp, deserted his family sometime in the 1630s after killing a man and only came home years later to die. When he saw that his circle of friends—writers, artists, diplomats, soldiers and aristocrats—were drawn to Ninon, he warned his daughter to be careful “only in the choice of your pleasures, never mind about the number,” then died, leaving Ninon a tidy inheritance that she used to set up shop as a courtesan. She decided at an early age never to marry.

Finally, Empress Theodora of Constantinople came from a circus family, and a circus back in 5th-century Byzantium was essentially a fancy whorehouse that put on shows with animals and prostituted children to the greasy-fingered, dirty old rich men who turned up at the Hippodrome. Are you following this? What I’m trying to say is that Empress Theodora had too much bad sex at an early age, and it turned her into a bad girl.

Whatever the inciting incident might be, my bad girls arrived at a fate that women of any era dread and avoid at all costs—they became social outcasts. I’m talking about myself here, of course. I have always sought to be liked, and when I lost everything I felt despicable and believed the whole world would shun me. From my vantage point today, I think those feelings were ridiculous and incorrect, but at the time they were very real to me and they woke me up in the middle of the night, filled with dark thoughts and worry.

It makes sense that I looked to my bad girls for guidance when I was feeling bad about myself. What I loved about them, what I wanted to believe with all my heart, was that they had abandoned any sense of shame about their misfortunes. They were angry, bold and free in a way I wanted to be. They used people, especially men, to get what they wanted because they just didn’t care about their reputations anymore. Why does this appeal to me so? The angrier and nastier a bad girl was, the more it delighted me. Why? This is what I’m trying to figure out.

Despite the huge social deficit, a bad girl’s big ego saved her. If she wasn’t born royal, she assumed a regal identity anyway—in the case of Elizabeth Chudleigh by becoming a bigamous duchess, and in the case of Bessie Smith by becoming the Queen of the Blues.

Having a powerful personality also helped. The bad girls I sought were persuasive speakers with agile minds, and the more outrageous their words, the more I liked them. Case in point: Victoria Woodhull ran for President in 1872 on a platform that favored spiritualism and free love, the women’s suffrage movement, easier divorce laws, birth control, labor reform and Marxism. “Yes! I am a Free Lover,” she shouted in one of her campaign speeches. “I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please! And with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”

Victoria faced constant storms of controversy, public scandal and several jail sentences, believing all along that she had virtue on her side. She had the courage of her political convictions, but not all of my bad girls were so heavily politicized. I also like the snarky speakers, the girls with a sharp wit, a love of gossip and an ability to quickly assess the pecking order of any social situation. For a poor girl from a disadvantaged background, there is no shame in social climbing—though for my money, I’m more interested in bad girls who use their careful observations of the social order in order to understand how to escape it. Mae West, Isabelle Eberhardt and Ninon de Lenclos were all adept at this—and, might I add, were the writers among my bunch of bad girls.

OK, now I hope you have some sense of what I’ve got in mind when I talk about what a bad girl is and where she comes from. My list of character traits is a lot longer, though, so watch for my next blog post, when I get into the fun stuff, like vanity, charm and rebellion.