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.