Saturday, December 22, 2007

Christmas in England

Have tripped down the rabbit hole. Here in England for Christmas, and spent first jet-lagged weekend at a free party, properly sprinkled with happy fairy dust and ear-scorching techno beats.

Oh, you ask, do they still throw these free-party raves in London, then?

Yes, love, they do. And they go something like this, just as they did 5-10 years ago: yer mate tells you there's a party planned for Saturday, wait for details, you'll get a text. And then the organisers send word that they've busted into an abandoned Sunbeam Corp. plant in Acton, and the mob descends on the empty industrial building, hoodies, dreads, floppy jeans, girls n boys n boys n girls, no commercials, no branding, no cameras, no bouncers, and a minimum of security at the door, not a single cheap authority figure's jacket in sight, no sticks, no tasers.

The sound has assaulted your ears, painfully, even before you've entered Sunbeam, but in the main hall there's a crowd round the sound deck and speakers because this is where the party is, and off your head as you is, you want to be near the sound. In the center of the light and the smoke, and never mind the dark hooded boys wandering in the back of the cavernous space, don't really want to know what they're doing and you just want to be near the light, the music, the party & the people & the light, the light, the light.

You take a break, drift upstairs and past heaving faces in the stairwell, oh the humanity, descending into a Hieronymous Bosch hell or is it heaven, but not sure that you should seek eye contact considering the state you're in. Christ this place is dirty, and keep your eyes closed when you go to the toilets. For a change, it's lovely to see drug deals conducted so openly, which slakes one's curious thirst, but still you do make friends on the dance floor, Virginie the beautiful French girl and Kojo from Ghana, who are also there for the light and the music.

It may just be that you're feeling all loved up, but these are two of the most beautiful people you've ever met, and you're lit up by Virginie's devil nostrils and freshwater pearly teeth, and Kojo's tender nature so clearly above the brooding darkness of this transient squatters' ball. Two of the most gorgeous people you've ever met, and then you go and lose the freakin' phone number for Virginie, don't you?, that she's scribbled on a scrap of paper and you shoved in your graywool coat pocket. And now they're lost to you forever and you can only fantasise about them, Virginie's swaying moves and slouchy jumper on the dance floor, Kojo's gentle touch as he wipes the soot off a drunk boy's puss, and in return, headed back to Glen's flat near Hackney at noon, all sleeping on the train, you suddenly wake up at Bethnal Green and dash out of the car without a goodbye to him, asleep beside you.

Back at the flat, you sleep for 16 hours, eat a good meal with some lager from the off-licence, and you catch a cold.

On to the next stop, a sane and civilised place in the English countryside, where little girls decorate Christmas trees and men in tweed caps take their dogs for a walk.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Best Costume for Today

I'm a lazy cow, posting the second You Tube video in a row on my blog. I should just drop out of the writing game altogether and watch movies all day. Starting with this, a snippet from Grey Gardens, that 1975 documentary about Little Edie Bouvier Beale and her mother living in that old wreck of a mansion on East Hampton. It's a riveting film, and yet nothing happens.

You've seen it, haven't you? Tell me you've seen it. Well, I'll admit, I watched it for the first time last night, and now I'm simply mad about Edie. Did you know she's first cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis? Both girls attended Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, which explains their shared East Coast, patrician vocal intonation.

I'd like to apologize to the Kennedy family right now for showing this clip on Bad Girl Blog because Edie herself was a very good girl indeed. She refused a marriage proposal from the richest man in the world, J. Paul Getty, most likely because he was a womanizing cad who got married five times, and Edie only ever cared about three things: swimming, dancing and the Catholic Church.

Still, Edie had some bad-girl backbone when it came to family matters. "You see, in dealing with me, the relatives didn't know that they were dealing with a staunch character," she says in another scene in the film. "And I tell you if there's anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman... S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There's nothing worse, I'm telling you. They don't weaken, no matter what."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Janis Joplin Meets Gloria Swanson

This You Tube video is a beauty.

It's a meeting of two Bad Girl greats--Janis Joplin and Gloria Swanson--in the 1970s on Dick Cavett's talk show. Janis has an amazing laugh, Gloria is charmingly youthful, and Dick Cavett does a magnificent job of keeping his compusure.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


When I'm having nice sex, my mind tends to wander. For example, the other night I was making love with my baby, a wee bit high we were, as you do, and I was feeling so gorgeous and stretched out and free that my head floated off to somewhere else. I was all loved up, the music was playing, the lights were low, and there I was, back at the Frick Collection, 1 E. 70th St., NY NY 10021, which I had visited earlier in the day.

Images of the paintings I'd seen floated past my closed eyes in the dark, this man in particular:
Not much is known about "Portrait of a Man," Hans Memling, Netherlands, c. 1470-1475, though Memling frequently painted religious subjects and this may be the portrait of a cleric. A very intelligent and noble cleric, according to the Frick's description that appeared alongside the painting. I didn't see that. I was more interested in the stubble in his beard and the depth in his eyes. He's really very sexy. See the manly lines around his mouth and his big Gallic-looking nose? He reminds me of a French ski instructor I met a long time ago in the Alps.

There was something of a transference that night as his face floated into my head and briefly replaced the man in my bed. Mmmmm....

And then we were joined by a lady, who also came floating into my head:

"Lady Hamilton as Nature," to be specific, painted in 1782 by the English painter George Romney, who painted Emma Hamilton's portrait dozens of times at the height of her popularity in the 1780s.

Emma Hamilton was a full-on bad girl. A blacksmith's daughter born in 1761, she took full advantage of her youth and beauty to transform herself from a common brothel prostitute into a mistress for a few select men from London's high society.

Emma and the Honorable Charles Francis Greville were deeply in love, but when Charles started to look for a rich wife, he sent Emma to Italy to be the mistress of his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples. Sir William liked Emma so much that he married her, and she became a party-throwing trendsetter with a love of gambling.

She also had a love of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, a one-armed, toothless sailor whose mild brain damage didn't prevent him from leading the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805, when the British defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet in the most significant naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Don't ask me for any more details than that, because military history makes my mind go numb.

"Their affair seems to have been tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, by the elderly Sir William, who showed nothing but admiration and respect for Nelson," according to the Wikipedia entry on Lady Hamilton. "Emma gave birth to Nelson's daughter Horatia on January 31, 1801, at Sir William's rented home in Clarges Street, Piccadilly, London. By the autumn of the same year, Nelson bought Merton Place, a small ramshackle house on the outskirts of modern day Wimbledon. There he lived openly with Emma, and Sir William (along with Emma's mother) in a menage a trois that fascinated the public."

Within four years, Sir William died, Nelson died at Trafalgar, and Emma spent the money she had inherited from both of them on gambling and lavish living. After a year spent in debtor's prison, she moved to France, where she died in poverty of alcoholism-induced liver failure at the age of 54.

On a happier note, the wildly rich American industrialist Henry Clay Frick, 1849-1919, had a pash for Lady Hamilton. (I examined the book titles in his mansion's library, and he clearly had an Anglophilic turn of mind.) After buying Romney's portrait, he hung it over the foot of his bed so Emma's was the first face he saw every morning. That's a nicely circular way for me to end this story. Surely, Mr. Frick was a man who would have appreciated the painterly visitations that came into my head as I made love to my sweetie.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part 7: An Awful American Ending

Born and raised in the 20th-century Western world, I find it very difficult to understand why two people who love each other can't find a way to stay together, even if their families disapprove. I say that, and yet I once had a six-month-long love affair with a younger man who phoned me the Sunday after I met his family at a Thanksgiving weekend to say that I was too old for him. He tried to ease the blow by explaining that he was happy to have me as his lover, but that I just shouldn't get my hopes up for anything more because he could never marry me. I responded by saying that I never wanted to see him again.

I thought of this disastrous phone call when I read of Lord Hartington's offer to Skittles for the down payment on a house and a yearly allowance rather than marriage. It's a shame when two people who are well suited temperamentally and sexually and who share many interests stop seeing each other out of fear of what other people might think. According to the histories I found, an obsession with class distinction was one of Hartington's greatest weaknesses. This is what led him to tell Skittles: "Sometimes I think that it would be better for you if you could forget me because you are too good to be left in the world all alone so much, and some day you ought to find someone who will take care of you for the rest of your life…which I am afraid I shall never be able to do."

Uh, excuse me, Lord Hartington? To hell with you.

Skittles seems to have responded with wild anger, and she taunted Lord Hartington with stories of her bad behavior. Unfortunately, her side of the argument has been lost to time; the 8th Duke of Devonshire's heirs have his letters but not hers. But we do know that Hartington answered: “How unhappy it has made me this last year to think that you have been going all wrong.” At this point, I can imagine myself as Skittles, and I can see that the whole act of girlishly pleasing Harty Tarty is useless. So I might as well shock him instead.

"Good," I would say. "Let's see just how much more unhappy I can make you when I tell you all about the sex, fun and adventure I've been having without you." An innocent like Harty Tarty, with his sheltered upbringing, would have never understood the tough independence at Skittles' core. If it came to an end, she would steel herself to get over him more easily than he ever imagined. And in the meantime, she could try to make his life miserable.

When not furious with Hartington's obtuse self-righteousness, the 20-something girl from the Liverpool docks more than likely focused on the charms of staying right where she was, enjoying her courtesan's life in London. She couldn’t have relished the idea of socializing with Hartington’s boring set of country squires. Along with vaguely romantic thoughts of marriage, Skittles may not really have known what she wanted from Hartington, just that she wanted him. The dreamy gentleness of his character appealed to her, and I'm sure it frustrated her to find that he wasn't so easily bossed around.

In 1861, Skittles told Hartington that she might be pregnant. (Can't you just smell the desperation?) Though an actual birth or miscarriage was never mentioned in his letters, for a time he did accept the pregnancy as real. He wrote to her tenderly, suggesting that he was preparing himself to become a father even if he wasn’t willing to marry the mother of his child. “Mind you don’t squeeze yourself in too much,” he advised her on her corsets. “You must take great care of the little one, you know.”

Probably on the advice of family, in the autumn of 1862 Hartington escaped Skittles by going off on a six-month tour of North America. His stated reason for going was to visit his brother and see the Civil War at close range. But wasn't it lucky that the trip put so much distance between him and his darling little Skitsy?

As for Skitsy, a girl with an unusually robust constitution, she escaped to take the waters in Ems, Germany, which was the popular thing to do back then for people in fragile health. If she thought a sudden illness would bring Hartington back to her, it didn’t work. Lord Hartington sent Skittles a letter saying: “My poor child I trust you are better now, and that even if you have thought me very hard-hearted…you will begin to see that it must have been done some day and that putting it off only made it harder to both of us every day.”

Her answer was to follow Hartington to America. And I'll break in right now to say: "Skittles, don't do it!" Don't you just want to do a girlfriend intervention on her, and tell her she's making a big mistake?

It gets worse. Skittles had company, of course, choosing as her traveling companion a raffish young Irishman named Aubrey de Vere Beauclerk, a young man who had abandoned his wife in Ems to run off with Skittles. An inexperienced lover, Beauclerk was the sort who nevertheless bragged of his sexual exploits. Why Skittles would have chosen such a hot-tempered fop is a mystery, unless it was simply that he was there to flatter her vanity when she needed distraction--and he served as backup to her wounded ego, which might have needed even more backing up after she saw Hartington.

Skittles was young still, just 23, and fully capable of foolish behavior. (Then again, I don't think foolishness is age-specific. We've all heard stories of old fools.) Beauclerk, meanwhile, congratulated himself on winning Skittles as his prize, and then he became smitten. As you do. Skittles was such a lovely, entrancing girl, winning him over with her natural sympathy and sexual skill. They traveled first to Italy, leaving Beauclerk’s wife to find her own way home, before heading to America. If Skittles had to give up Lord Hartington, she wouldn't let him go without a fight.

Now, you could say this episode is the tiniest of moments in the history of Victorian England. But at the same time, it reveals so much about star-crossed lovers and the end of an affair that I'm going to stretch out each excruciating moment.

So here's the end of Skittles and Lord Hartington, without apology:

Thinking to surprise Hartington, and anticipating his look of delight, Skittles showed up unannounced one day at his New York hotel. He was stunned to see her there. Though he gave her a kindly reception as best he could, Hartington kept the meeting brief. His thoughts were turned to the Civil War, politics back home and the Duchess of Manchester’s place in his life. Skittles was a mistake of his waning youth.

In an anguished conversation, a conversation that Hartington had been hoping to avoid, he made it clear that Skittles needed him more than he needed her.

I'll invent what they said:

"My God, Skitsy, here you are in New York! I never expected to see you here, my darling girl."

"Harty, my sweet, I just had to look at your face. I've missed you so much."

"But dear girl, can't you see? This is just not on. Really, you must go back home."

"Is that all you have to say to me, after I've come this far? Oh, how I hate you!"

Corny, isn't it? These conversations always sound so corny when you're not in them. At any rate, Hartington knew with utter finality that when it came to love, he would never stray again from his class.

And Skittles? She resolved that no man would ever break her heart again. Her trip to America was the worst episode in her emotional life, and she returned to England determined to lead the full-on courtesan's life. (As for Beauclerk, the little weasel, he resolved to reconcile with his wife, and the happy ending there was that Skittles never heard from him again.)

Stayed tuned for Part 8, when Skittles runs off to Paris to put Harty Tarty behind her forever--and to properly learn the artful ways of the courtesan.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Meet Me for Bellydancing at Le Souk

I'm going tomorrow to see oriental belly dance by Princess Farhana and the lovely Leela. Won't you please come? No cover, and only a $15 food/drink minimum. I've reserved a table--for me and YOU? Email me to RSVP. Click the "View my profile" link to the right and it will bring you to my email contact. Last time I went to a belly dance club, the audience danced after the show!

8 p.m., Oct. 30, Le Souk, 47 Ave. B, between E. 3rd & 4th Streets, NYC. Live Arabic music featuring Maurice Chedid and Ensemble, plus a sneak preview of "Tumbao" and experimental fusion dance by Nadia Moussa Dance Theater.

Bad Girls Found Partying in Brooklyn

Here I am, bangin' on again about Mae West, but this time it's not my fault. Mae went to the same Halloween party I attended on Saturday night.

Here's Mae with Brooklyn's own "Found in Brooklyn" blogger, styling a rakish 1890s mini hat (all photos by David Kaplan):
"Found in Brooklyn" recently featured me as a guest blogger! Check it out: Gleaning Pebbles in Kensington.

A few other bad girls made an appearance on Saturday night. Here's Amy Winehouse and Billie Holiday (a.k.a. Nichelle Newsletter blogger):

There's me, dancing like a fool on the right and ignoring the shameless bad girl cop who's drinkin' a beer and dancing with the prisoner she's supposed to be guarding:
And here's that same cop dancing with Billie:
Finally, here's Amy again, with the Mad Hatter and a Harajuku girl. To be honest, I don't know if Harajuku girls are bad girls, because I've never been to Japan. But I'm adding this picture here because all three of these party people are so extremely good-looking!

Friday, October 19, 2007

You Decide: Paris Hilton or Mae West?

I've pretty well established by now that I've got a big crush on the bad girls of history, women like Mae West and Catherine the Great. But that raises the question of who's a bad girl today.

The automatic response, of course, would be that Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan are modern bad girls. But are they?

Here's what Paris Hilton had to say for herself on "Larry King Live" after she was released from jail earlier this year: "It was one of the happiest days of my life. Like -- it's hard to even describe. It was so exciting even just being in the fresh air and looking up at the sky and the stars and being outside and then it was just pandemonium and then as soon as I saw my mom I just ran to her to give her a hug."

Paris Hilton, booking photo:

And here's what Mae West (who also served a few weeks of jail time in the 1920s, on obscenity charges for writing a play called Sex) had to say about being a bad girl, in an interview with The Guardian in 1979, just a year before she died: "I was a bad girl with a good heart. I don't think things have changed so much. It's still a man's world, with men making the rules that suit them best....You've gotta have plenty of self-esteem, nerve, and be bold in life. I've been liberated all my life. I always did what I wanted to do. I was an original."

Mae West, 1927 jailbird:

OK, I think Mae West could have shown Paris Hilton a thing or two about being a bad girl. But, dear reader, I'm interested in your comments. What is a bad girl, exactly? And who's the bigger bad girl, Paris or Mae?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Craigslist Courtesan Seeks SW$M

Right around the time I was writing Reviving Skittles, Part 6, a friend sent me the following exchange between two anonymous writers on, New York. I think it's disturbing and funny, especially in light of what I wrote in Part 6 about Lord Hartington's offer to Skittles, proposing a financial transaction rather than marriage. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought courtesans were a thing of the past. Looks like I was wrong.

The anonymous Craigslist courtesan wrote:

Okay, I'm tired of beating around the bush. I'm a beautiful (spectacularly
beautiful) 25 year old girl. I'm articulate and classy.
I'm not from New York. I'm looking to get married to a guy who makes at
least half a million a year. I know how that sounds, but keep in mind that
a million a year is middle class in New York City, so I don't think I'm
overreaching at all.

Are there any guys who make 500K or more on this board? Any wives? Could
you send me some tips? I dated a business man who makes average around 200
- 250. But that's where I seem to hit a roadblock. 250,000 won't get me to
central park west. I know a woman in my yoga class who was married to an
investment banker and lives in Tribeca, and she's not as pretty as I am,
nor is she a great genius. So what is she doing right? How do I get to her

Here are my questions specifically:

- Where do you single rich men hang out? Give me specifics- bars,
restaurants, gyms

-What are you looking for in a mate? Be honest guys, you won't hurt my

-Is there an age range I should be targeting (I'm 25)?

- Why are some of the women living lavish lifestyles on the upper east side
so plain? I've seen really 'plain jane' boring types who have nothing to
offer married to incredibly wealthy guys. I've seen drop dead gorgeous
girls in singles bars in the east village. What's the story there?

- Jobs I should look out for? Everyone knows - lawyer, investment banker,
doctor. How much do those guys really make? And where do they hang out?
Where do the hedge fund guys hang out?

- How you decide marriage vs. just a girlfriend? I am looking for MARRIAGE

Please hold your insults - I'm putting myself out there in an honest way.
Most beautiful women are superficial; at least I'm being up front about it.
I wouldn't be searching for these kind of guys if I wasn't able to match
them - in looks, culture, sophistication, and keeping a nice home and

it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial
PostingID: 432279810

And here's the answer she received:
Dear Pers-431649184:

I read your posting with great interest and have thought meaningfully about
your dilemma. I offer the following analysis of your predicament.
Firstly, I'm not wasting your time, I qualify as a guy who fits your bill;
that is I make more than $500K per year. That said here's how I see it.

Your offer, from the prospective of a guy like me, is plain and simple a
crappy business deal. Here's why. Cutting through all the B.S., what you
suggest is a simple trade: you bring your looks to the party and I bring my
money. Fine, simple. But here's the rub, your looks will fade and my money
will likely continue into fact, it is very likely that my
income increases but it is an absolute certainty that you won't be getting
any more beautiful!

So, in economic terms you are a depreciating asset and I am an earning
asset. Not only are you a depreciating asset, your depreciation
accelerates! Let me explain, you're 25 now and will likely stay pretty hot
for the next 5 years, but less so each year. Then the fade begins in
earnest. By 35 stick a fork in you!

So in Wall Street terms, we would call you a trading position, not a buy
and hold...hence the rub...marriage. It doesn't make good business sense to
"buy you" (which is what you're asking) so I'd rather lease. In case you
think I'm being cruel, I would say the following. If my money were to go
away, so would you, so when your beauty fades I need an out. It's as simple
as that. So a deal that makes sense is dating, not marriage.

Separately, I was taught early in my career about efficient markets. So, I
wonder why a girl as "articulate, classy and spectacularly beautiful"
as you has been unable to find your sugar daddy. I find it hard to believe
that if you are as gorgeous as you say you are that the $500K hasn't found
you, if not only for a tryout.

By the way, you could always find a way to make your own money and then we
wouldn't need to have this difficult conversation.

With all that said, I must say you're going about it the right way.
Classic "pump and dump."
I hope this is helpful, and if you want to enter into some sort of lease,
let me know.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part 6: An Unsuitable Attachment

Catherine Walters may have been Victorian London's most sought-after courtesan, but the greatest love of her life was a man out of reach. It was a question of class: Spencer Compton Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, later the 8th Duke of Devonshire, believed from the start that a public life with Skittles would have been social suicide for him, and he never changed his opinion about that, no matter how much he loved her.

I couldn't find any hard evidence of how Skittles and Lord Hartington met, but my guess is that because they were both horse lovers, they probably met at a hunt or on Rotten Row one day when Skittles was out riding. And I can further conjecture that Skittles was openly flirtatious with Hartington, which felt deliciously unfamiliar to him, and that he fell for her quickly because she was a beautiful and fun girl, unlike any woman from the aristocratic and repressed circle who shared his privileged background. Skittles’ open coquetry combined with a mysterious sense of hidden secrets, creating a seductive tension that was hard to resist, and Hartington didn’t.

In turn, Skittles liked Harty Tarty, as his friends called him, because he was so different from the dockworkers and sailors she knew from her early Liverpool days. He was a shy and shuffling bachelor politician of 26 when they met, very sweet in private, and his fear of other people's opinions might have seemed of little importance at the start, and certainly not a fatal flaw.

In addition to being a lumbering and well-read Englishman, very much of his time and place, Lord Hartington was a man who hid his more delicate sensibilities beneath a gravely impenetrable exterior. His portrait shows him to have a long face with a narrow and sensuous nose, thoughtful eyes that droop at the corners, and a surprisingly lush lower lip peaking out from his full Victorian beard. Educated at Holker Hall, the family’s lonely house in the northern county of Cumbria, and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, he entered Parliament in 1857 and was destined to hold a variety of posts including Lord of the Admiralty and chief secretary for Ireland before becoming leader of the Liberal opposition in 1875.

In short, Hartington was a cultured man with an impressive pedigree, and Skittles fell in love with him. And he, in his own way, fell in love with her. She got under his skin, making him excited and confused whenever he saw her. He might resolve to be cool and controlled before one of their trysts, but then there she would be, smiling up at him, and he looking down into her bright upturned face and feeling a sudden surge of passion.

Queen Victoria believed that Hartington's calm nature had a stabilizing influence on her fast-living son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, but more familiarly known as Bertie. What the queen didn’t know was that Hartington, like many Victorian men expected to display a virtuous purity they could hardly bear, had his down-and-dirty side, and it was Harty Tarty himself who first took Bertie round to Skittles’ Mayfair salon in the 1860s, when she was generally accepted as the queen of her profession. She numbered quite a few royals and several princes among her lovers, including the crown prince of Germany, a Russian prince who gave her a miniature phaeton and a matching pair of Viennese chestnut ponies, and so of course she welcomed the 20-year-old Prince of Wales, who became a frequent visitor to her Sunday afternoon parties of baccarat, an illegal yet popular card game. Skittles played her part well--she was a professional, after all, and knew just how to act the perfect sex kitten--and there was something in Hartington's animal nature that made him proud to share his girlfriend with Bertie.

Hartington was Skittles’ first big affair when she was young, however, and despite her party girl ways, she had vague hopes that it would end in marriage. Those hopes rose when her lover took her to balls, parties and the Derby Day horse races. He also provided for her, paying for her house off Grosvenor Square. Surely, her tender affection and gaiety would bring him around, and she knew he felt protective of her. He worried about the life she led, about the emotional risks she took on by being with so many men.

But Hartington's affair with Skittles was only one small part of his life. They rarely spoke of politics, for example, a subject he much preferred to talk about with his other mistress, Lottie, the Duchess of Manchester, who was very much interested in Hartington’s political career even though she was married to someone else. Her marital status did not trouble Hartington, as his previous romantic relationship had been with another married woman, the Countess of Waldegrave.

Indeed, according to historian Patrick Jackson, who winnowed through some 200 letters from Hartington to Skittles, while Skittles spent most of her time in London, Hartington traveled often. “His annual itinerary was the traditional one of his class: London in the spring season, living at Devonshire House in Piccadilly; shooting on the Bolton Abbey estates in Yorkshire in August and September; and during the rest of the year extended visits to the family houses at Chatsworth, Hardwick, Holker Hall in what is now Cumbria, where Hartington had spent a secluded childhood, and Lismore in Ireland,” Jackson writes.

With two women in his life, Hartington felt no qualms about Skittles’ other relationships, though she revealed them to him in detail. If anyone was jealous, it was Skittles. In one letter, Hartington wrote, “There are a lot of people here but I don’t look at any of them because Skits says I mustn’t.” If anything, Hartington encouraged Skittles to pursue other men. In another letter, he wrote, “It is very nice of you to say you are so fond of me but you know there is somebody you like better. Have you seen him lately?”

She was his “darling little Skitsy” or “poor little darling child,” and he spoke to her like she was his baby girl--“Cav loves oo and nobody else”--and he was her big daddy. As she worked with a governess to improve her English, he praised her efforts with this: “I am sure you will learn very quick if you take pains, for you are a clever little child when you like.”

Not only was Skittles his baby girl, she was also a prostitute by trade, and beneath Hartington's social class. True, he found her hard to resist, and they stayed together for years. But he would never marry her.

Instead, he offered her a down payment of £2,500 for a house and an allowance of £400 a year. In late 1861, he wrote, “Sometimes I think that it would be better for you if you could forget me because you are too good to be left in the world all alone so much, and some day you ought to find someone who will take care of you for the rest of your life…which I am afraid I shall never be able to do.”

Coming soon: In Part 7, Skittles gets angry at Huntington for dumping her and chases him down, with disastrous consequences.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Exiting the Rat Race

My position with the Very Large American Corporation (VLAC) was eliminated last week, for the most cliche of reasons: what's left of my job was moved to India in a great globalization scheme. But speaking of India, I'm a practicer of yoga, and I had a wise teacher once who told our class: "Find something to enjoy in the position." In my case, I'm finding plenty to enjoy in the VLAC position elimination.

Goodbye to all this:

and this:

I am free, free of the NYC rat race!

I've got big plans now: to write more, to freelance, to work part time for the anarchist cafe down the street, to volunteer for a good cause, to garden, to practice yoga and belly dance more, to be a housewife for the first time in my life, to cook dinner at home for friends cuz I'll be too broke to go out to NYC restaurants. I'll have more time now to pet my cats. And read so many books! It will be lovely.

However, I will not become a dirty hippie. Last night, as Dave and I ate one of my world-famous home-cooked dinners, we watched a NetFlix movie, "Alice's Restaurant," that Arlo Guthrie movie based on his song where he and his dirty hippie friends throw a bunch of post-Thanksgiving trash over a wooded cliff in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It was made in 1969 by the same guy who directed "Bonnie and Clyde," starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.
Anyway, there we were, eating my fabulous wheatberry/chickpea/roast onion concoction that I love, plus a green salad, as we watched these horrible, self-indulgent, dirty man hippies riding around on their motorcycles and trashing an old church that one of them had bought for a song so they could amuse themselves by desecrating a place of worship and think they were changing the world by smoking pot and balling chicks. Yuck. I can understand why women joined consciousness-raising groups in the '70s, and also why the Conservative Right despises that old-timey '60s hippie culture. Did I really ever think it was cool? I mean, it was groovy that Arlo was a Vietnam War draft dodger, but the people he hung around with just looked like a bunch of substance-abusing losers who were going nowhere and had no philosophy.

On the plus side, it did get me thinking that the U.S. government really should reinstate the draft so there would be a bigger anti-Iraq War movement and we could get out of there faster.
But I digress. The thing is, I'm careful about balancing my checkbook, for example. There's $20 unaccounted for right now in my current balance, and it's annoying me. I can't ever imagine myself throwing money cares to the wind, dirty hippie style. No way, no day. I enjoy regular showers (and yet being careful of water use due to global warming concerns and this planet's limited natural resources, etc., because I am not a dirty hippie who thinks it's revolutionary to throw trash over a wooded cliff) and bikini waxes too much. So you better believe that if I ever run out of money--and I'll admit, I'm doing OK for now thanks to my annual bonuses and paychecks saved from VLAC--I'll be looking for an entrance right back into the rat race.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Crazy Daisy

I've always loved daisies. The daisy is such a bright, happy little flower. And of course, you can pull its petals and play the "he loves me, he loves me not" game with a daisy.
When I joined my co-op's gardening committee, I decided I was going to be the flower lady on the committee. Not the kind of lady who wears a fancy hat and speaks at luncheons about beautifying America, but the kind who gets her hands dirty digging up weeds and planting seeds in front of her Brooklyn apartment building.

In late spring, I did the ladylike thing and rode my bicycle over to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden so I could see the tulips blooming. And then I went to the BBG's gift shop and bought several packets of seeds, including shasta daisies:

and black-eyed susans:

Or so I thought.

I planted the seeds in the round beds on either side of the front walkway and waited for them to grow. It seemed to take forever, weeks and weeks. Finally, in late June, a few little seedlings started to pop up, and the next day more popped up, and the day after that even more. It seemed that every seed I planted was starting to come up! I checked on their progress daily, and I could see the seedlings were really taking to the soil--like weeds, practically, they were so strong and healthy. It seemed that only one of the varieties had taken--I wasn't sure whether it was the daisies or the susans--but no matter. Something was growing.

Within a month the flower beds were full of this lush, verdant growth. On walks around my neighborhood, Kensington, I compared the daisies and susans in other people's gardens to mine. Hmm. Something wasn't right. Why didn't my leaves look like theirs? Why did I not see any buds, let alone blossoms, on my plants when everybody else's were in full bloom? Oh, there was something blooming, all right, but it was a crazy, brushy thing that looked exactly like this:
Still, if you've given birth to the ugliest baby in town, that baby is yours and you planted its seed, so you're going to love it no matter how ugly it is, right? That's why I was so upset when I came home from work one evening, checked my flower beds as usual, and saw to my horror that more than half of my big ugly babies had been ripped right off their stalks and disappeared. Why, why, oh why would anybody want to attack my flowers? I felt sick and violated.

The gossip started to spread. I asked my fellow gardening committee members if they knew what had happened, and I talked to other neighbors in our building, who talked to other neighbors on our street. Kensington has a diverse population of people who come from many lands: Park Slope, Williamsburg, Chicagoland (that would be me), Poland, Russia, Uzbekistan, Albania, Israel, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mexico and the Caribbean. It's a lively mix of immigrants, but we don't always understand each other. There's lots of gossip (but don't just take my word for it--there's a good sampling of local gossip on Kensington Blog.)

Finally, I talked to our super, Willie, who has lived in the neighborhood for years and years.

"Joyce, do you know what callaloo is?"


"Callaloo. It's a plant from the West Indies, and they make soup out of it. There were some ladies come by the other night and they took some of your plants to make soup."

Willie and I looked at each other, and we laughed.

I went home and googled "callaloo," of course, and here's what I learned from wikipedia: "Callaloo (sometimes calaloo) is a Caribbean dish that is most popular in Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, and Trinidad & Tobago. Jamaicans are known to use callaloo in a plethora of dishes. The main ingredient is a leaf vegetable, traditionally either amaranth (known by many local names including callaloo or bhaji), or taro or Xanthosoma species (both known by many local names including callaloo, coco, tannia, or dasheen bush). Because the leaf vegetable used in some regions may be locally called 'callaloo' or 'callaloo bush,' some confusion can arise among the different vegetables and with the dish itself."

Oh, there was confusion, all right. Mine. How the hell did my daisy seeds from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden give spawn to callaloo? Once I understood the misunderstanding, though, I went from feeling violated to highly amused, especially after my first-floor neighbor, I'll call her Velma, told me that she saw those West Indian ladies sneak into our flower beds late one night to take the food I'd been growing. Velma and her dog are the self-designated eyes and ears of our building.

Velma called out to the ladies to ask what they were doing, and they explained that it was harvest time. They had been watching the callaloo's growth, too, and figured they should collect some before the leaves and stalks got too tough. Velma chased them off anyway, saying they had no right to steal our plants--and they hadn't even used scissors to cut them, they were just using their bare hands and pulling any old which way. She last saw the West Indian ladies running down the street, callaloo stalks in hand, their heads surely filled with plans for the pepper pot soup they were going to make. Here's a recipe for it on the Jamaica Me Krazy web site: pepper pot soup

I just hope those ladies were wearing fancy hats when they stole my callaloo.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

My New Look

I've always wanted to do a glamorous photo shoot starring myself. With hair & makeup and a professional photographer who encouraged me to be myself and just have fun!! at 40 images per digital roll with retouching and airbrushing of all minor flaws. So that's what we did the other day, me and Jovanka of Bauwerks Studio in Chicago, where I spent a week running around seeing friends and family earlier this month.

Here's my new look (photography by
Cheeky, innit?

Actually, what I would really love to do is dress up as all of my bad girls and try to mimic them. Try to become them. Though it might be really bad form for me to do Bessie Smith in black face. But I'd love to look like a Hollywood movie star from the 1930s, like Mae West. Here she is:
And here I am:

Is that a bit Mae West? Or is it more Louise Brooks?
I highly recommend doing a glamour photo shoot of oneself. If I can do it, anybody can. I'm nowhere near this perfect looking in real life. You should see me now as I write this in my underpants, glasses and scrunchied hair!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part 5: Rotten Row

Sorry about Part 4. It was really dirty. I'm going to try to regain my dignity here in Part 5 by illustrating it with black-and-white period images and by saying that I discovered Skittles while doing research for my Bad Girls Project at the British Library in London. There's nothing quite like spending days and days and weeks and weeks wandering around a grand library in search of the lost secrets of history.

I'm currently reading The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson's bestselling history of the World Columbian about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, where he combines the biographies of the fair's main architect and a local doctor who became a notorious serial killer. In his notes section, Larson says that he didn't conduct any primary research using the Internet. "I need physical contact with my sources," he writes, "and there's only one way to get it. To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story. There are always little moments on such trips when the past flares to life, like a match in the darkness."

With my discovery of Skittles, my match in the darkness was the glimpse I got in the library's Rare Book Room of what life in Victorian London must have really been like. The era's suffocating stuffiness was matched by the amoral decadence that all that repression inevitably created. When Skittles arrived in London in the late 1850s, its population numbered about 2 million people, approximately 100,000 of whom were prostitutes. The Industrial Revolution was well underway, and poor rural folk were crowding into city slums to work for the factory owners so despised by Dickens and Marx. Other thinkers, Darwin especially, were producing ideas that challenged the era’s stern religious values. Men were expected to be all-wise providers, and women to meekly obey their husbands. Etiquette was an elaborate art form unto itself, and doing one’s duty to God and family was an act of patriotism. In short, Victorian London was a place of terrible social rigidity, and people found ways to resist. Women sought the right to vote and other escapes from their over-furnished houses, while upstanding men prowled the nightly haunts of the demi-monde. All these factors produced an ideal climate where courtesans could flourish.

Oops. I've just started to bore myself as a storyteller. That stuff about factory owners and Darwin may be true, but it sounds like blah, blah, blah to me. I've spent my entire professional life as a journalist and editor seeking a distanced objectivity from my subject. I'm tired of it. Now I want to rip everything up and start from scratch. I want to talk about my personal relationship with Skittles. I want to say how I feel about her.

How did Skittles become a shining prize to Victorian gentlemen? She was very nice to look at, of course, but 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. I can feel myself falling in love with her. She was light and fun, and all those words tumbling from the sweet mouth of a stylish girl made a man feel deliciously free. Oh, how I wish I could have met Skittles and heard her speak.

I admire Skittles for her passionate desire to get ahead in life. She was never vulgar in the early days of her London career, yet her bad manners and unschooled speech were apparent, and she knew it. 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.

So there she is in the late 1850s, just starting out as a courtesan, and spending her nights at the Haymarket, the gaslight-illuminated center of London’s bawdier night life, with its French restaurants, oyster bars, Turkish dens and night spots like the Picadilly Saloon. Kate Hamilton’s, a subterranean club of plush and gilt, brings together high-end prostitutes and low-diving gentlemen in a swirl of noisy laughter and the hunt for pleasure. I imagine Skittles was right in the middle of it, enjoying herself.

She meets the owner of a livery stable near Berkeley Square, a man looking for a pretty prostitute to advertise his wares by driving his pony traps around town. Already, Skittles has kept up her riding skills with races at the Cremorne Gardens. Now, driving the liveryman’s hacks and open phaetons, she makes a name for herself among the high society people who ride in Hyde Park’s Rotten Row and Ladies’ Mile, at Ascot, and at Queen Victoria’s staghound meets.

Skittles became a popular London figure. Her photo appeared in shop windows, women copied the styles she created, and letters to newspapers commented on her public appearances. In July of 1862, a cheeky letter from a young man calling himself "H." appeared in The Times. It was a sly complaint about a Hyde Park roadway choked with fashionable carriages filled with snobs vying for a glimpse of a girl he calls "Anonyma." Clearly, Anonyma is Skittles.

"Last year," H. writes, "she avoided crowds, and affected unfrequented roads, where she could more freely exhibit her ponies’ marvelous action, and talk to her male acquaintances with becoming privacy. But as the fame of her beauty and her equipage spread, this privacy became impossible to her. The fashionable world eagerly migrated in search of her from the Ladies Mile to Kensington Road. The highest ladies in the land enlisted themselves as her disciples. Driving became the rage. If she wore a pork pie hat, they wore pork pie hats;
if her paletot was made by Poole, their paletots were made by Poole. If she reverted to more feminine attire, they reverted to it also. Where she drove, they followed; and I must confess none of them sit, dress, drive, or look as well as she does; nor can any of them procure for money such ponies as Anonyma contrives to get—-for love."

In Part 6, a very feeling part, we'll learn about the biggest love of Skittles' life and why he broke her heart.

Friday, June 22, 2007

This Is Not A Food Blog

We all know about those beautifully illustrated food blogs written by relaxed Californians who live around Napa Valley and spend their luxuriously unlimited free time buying organic produce at the farmer's market and dreaming up new and artistic ways to prepare it. This is not one of those blogs.

Here's how my Brooklyn kitchen typically looks:

Get off the kitchen table, Donna. Donna, get down!

Once again, the dishes need washing up, especially the big dirty pot from last night's dinner, and I haven't swept the floor yet. I saw a cockroach this morning. Again.

This is just one example of how I'm always falling behind in life. Also left undone are the overdue phone call to my moms, the unanswered emails, friends unseen, books unread, writing projects postponed. Plus, I'm always running about ten minutes late for my day job. It's enough to make you mental.

There was a time in the summer of 2000 when I spent several months living in the Cevennes Mountains of France. I keep trying to get back to that time, only do it here in Brooklyn. A time of silence, hours to write, leisurely morning coffee while reading a novel, an hour of stretching and breathing, no computer, no phone, no television. Most of the time, I only had two other people for company, and we ate home-cooked dinners every night.I taught myself how to make chocolate mousse with just three ingredients: bittersweet dark chocolate, cream and egg whites.

That's my ideal. Having said that, I was practically celibate that summer, and now I'm having loads of sex, so there's something to be said for a fast-paced life.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part 4: Victorians vs Ludacris in TKO!

In Liverpool in days gone by,
For ha’pence and her wittles,
A little girl, by no means shy,
Was settin’ up the skittles.

If you could hear the words above, set to music, you’d know that’s the way they used to sing back in those old-timey days. Our bad girl Skittles’ time. Huh. Those suggestive words were meant to shock people. Are you shocked? I’m trying to imagine the modern-day equivalent.

How about Ludacris' “One Minute Man:”
A hard head make a soft ass, but a hard d**k make the sex last
I jump in pools and make a big splash
Water overflowin, so get your head right
Enough with tips and advice and thangs
I`m big dog, havin women seein stripes and thangs
They go to sleep, start snorin, countin sheep and s**t
They so wet, that they body start to leak and sh**t

The old-timey song was written in tribute to how Skittles got her name because when she was a teenager, Catherine Walters apparently had a job setting up nine-pins in the back alley of a pub near the Mersey River docks of Liverpool. The customers were men only, so Skittles was a very popular girl. So popular that she earned extra money on the side turning tricks. Well, that’s what I imagine, anyway. I couldn’t find anything about the mechanics of her sex life in the few biographies I found on Skittles. Nothing about how her body started to leak and s**t.

And isn’t that a shame? Here I am, a serious student of history’s bad girls, and yet I can tell you it was dismayingly hard if not impossible to find any smut or porn related to them. And trust me, I’ve spent hours looking for the dirty parts in old books. As a result of my fruitless labor, I find that I’ve had to make stuff up just to keep the stories entertaining.

For example, let’s talk about Skittles’ sex life. Sometime in her teen years, Skittles lost her virginity for the right price. Why do I know this? Because Liverpool at the time had “beer brothels” with private rooms for prostitutes and their customers. And Skittles was a poor serving wench. And she had a drunk party animal for a dad who didn’t care about her chastity. And a weak mother. And Skittles was very, very sassy and bold, liked men better than women, etc. It says in one of those old books that Skittles earned the devotion of a gang of drunken soldiers when she warned them: “If you don’t hold your bloody row, I’ll knock you down like a row of skittles.”

So here’s the story: Skittles was a modern girl who didn’t value her virginity, and she forgot her first time easily because she just wanted to get it over with. Who was her first? One of the drunk soldiers, let’s say, and he was a terrible lover. Like a fermented frat boy on spring break. But Skittles did like sex, oh yes she did. How do I know this? Because she had other income to support herself, i.e., serving beer and setting up skittles. Clearly, she chose when to prostitute herself, and this allowed her to choose only men she was attracted to--good training for a proper courtesan. Sometimes, I’ve decided, if she liked a chap who had no money, she gave it away for free, and the ones she was most drawn to were her opposite, gentle and shy. Skittles may have been tough, but she was a genuinely feeling girl, and the gentle lovers brought out her sympathetic understanding. With the sensitive poets, unlike with the drunk soldiers, she could let down her guard and be girlish.

As a lover, Skittles was not easily forgotten. She was no innocent, but her simple sweetness shone from her dark-lashed eyes. As much as men might tease her and talk dirty about her fine figure and delicate features, they were powerfully attracted to her and thus protective. And considering the degree to which she was comfortable in her father’s company, each one of her men got the feeling that he was the special one. Naturally, this would provoke jealous scenes (good for business), and around the same time she lost her virginity, Skittles learned about men’s vulnerability.

Versions of Skittles’ young life vary because few people really knew where she came from, and with her steely core of dignity, Catherine Walters preferred it that way. Nobody really knows how she got her nickname, for example. The stories about the nine-pins and the drunk soldiers were made up by now-dead "biographers." My favorite story comes from A Biography of a Fascinating Woman, attributed to William Stephen Hayward, London: George Vickers, 1864.

In this version of events, a dandified London aristocrat named Trevellian walks into the “Merseyside pothouse” where Kitty is setting up skittles. Trevellian is enchanted by the girl's clever impudence, and she is equally taken with his foppish sophistication.

“Ah! My little Skittles,” he says, upon hearing her speak. “I wasn’t aware that you could talk decent English.”

“My name’s not Skittles; and I daresay I can talk as well as you any day in the year,” she responds.

Trevellian invites Skittles to run off with him to London, and she accepts. Taking on the role of mentor, he warns her: “Publichouse ways, my child, are not my ways, nor should they be yours; and your allusion to mixing it rather stiff is evidently more calculated to please a tap-room audience than myself, or those in whose society you ought to, and will most probably move [and s**t].”

So how did Skittles really get to London? Considering her tough self-confidence, chances are that she left Liverpool on her own strength and refined her publichouse ways on her own terms. She would have come across many Trevellians in the early days. And she was never in such desperate straits that she would have been forced to be a common prostitute. More likely, she was set up as the mistress of some kindly yet forgettable gentleman, who provided her with comfortable room and board while she learned to navigate London society.

If you really want to know the mechanics of sex in Victorian England, you must read The Pearl, a filthy, smutty book if ever there was one. I found it on somebody's bookshelf one day years ago, and oh boy, was I shocked! (And titillated.) Here’s a taste, from a poem titled "A PROLOGUE. Spoke by Miss Bella de Lancy, on her retiring from the Stage
to open a Fashionable Bawdy House. (Written by S. Johnson, LL.D.)"

When c**t first triumphed (as the learned suppose)
O'er failing pr**ks, Immortal Dildo rose,
From f**ks unnumbered, still erect he drew,
Exhausted c**ts, and then demanded new;

Dame Nature saw him spurn her bounded reign,
And panting pr**ks toiled after him in vain;
The laxest folds, the deepest depths he filled;
The juiciest drained; the toughest hymens drilled.

Our story has only just begun. Find out in the next episode just how Skittles became the most fashionable whore to ride a horse on Hyde Park's Rotten Row.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part 3: Living with Drunks

In our story thus far, we've met Catherine Walters, or "Skittles," Victorian London's favourite courtesan, and we've learned that she liked to outrage the bourgeoisie at their fox hunts and that her finest accomplishments were the men who loved her. These included at least one nobleman, a politician and a poet. We also learned that I have a big crush on Skittles, even though she probably would have hated me. She preferred men; women just got in the way. Here, in Part 3, we learn about drunk fathers, drunk husbands and just what it was in Skittles' formative years that made her become a bad girl.

Born in Liverpool on June 13, 1839, two years after Queen Victoria claimed the throne, Catherine Walters actually managed to live through her early childhood years. This was a good sign that she was tough enough to survive Victoria's England, whose city slums suffered shamelessly high rates of disease and infant mortality.

I know this because I read a book on the subject: Blyth, Henry. Skittles: The Last Victorian Courtesan. The Life and Times of Catherine Walters. London: Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd, 1970. I mention Blyth's biography because I'm going to quote him now. I love quoting other people's books! I often feel they have an authority that I don't have. Take, for example, Blyth's description of the circumstances of Skittles' early years: “Beauty does not flower readily amidst squalid surroundings, and a young girl does not long retain a good figure, a clear eye, a fresh complexion and pearly teeth ...where malnutrition, inadequate ventilation, lack of even the most elementary medical attention, dirt, disease, ignorance...combine together to drag her down. If she escaped a disfiguring or crippling disease, and if she avoided at least one unwanted pregnancy she was lucky indeed; and luckier still if she could retain whatever prettiness and gaiety that she had enjoyed in youth after she had reached womanhood.”

See? I would never talk about pearly teeth and gaiety.

The point is, Catherine Walters, who also went by the nicknames Kitty, Skittles and Skitsie, was indeed a lucky girl. Part of her good fortune came from having a relatively intact family. Her father, Edward, was a customs officer who became a captain in the merchant navy, and he earned a reliable living, even if he was a drunk. He was a functioning alcoholic, as they say in AA.

Not much is known about Skittles’ mother, Mary Ann. Though again, if you read the AA literature on living with an alcoholic, you can probably guess what she was all about: "In the years of active drinking, the wives of compulsive drinkers have to take on many extra responsibilities. They have to provide for the care of the children, take care of the home and get the meals. Wives of compulsive drinkers often have to work to supplement the skimpy budget or do without many necessities, as well as doing the man's chores around the house."

I imagine that Edward Walters also had an eye for the ladies, and that he and his wife had a non-existent sex life.

My guess is that Skittles watched all this going on at home, and she learned that: 1) men have more fun than women; 2) women are doomed if they get married and have kids; and 3) a woman's best bet is to retain her financial independence and shun alcohol personally but to hang around with men, drunk or sober, because they're fun.

We know that Skittles' mother was not buried next to Skittles’ father, and one biographer conjectures that she died in childbirth. Another suggests that the couple eventually separated because the marriage was an unhappy one and that Mary Ann died by the time Skittles was a teenager. Regardless, when Catherine was young the Roman Catholic family of five children were clothed, fed and educated to some degree.

Edward Walters is believed to have eventually left the merchant navy to keep an inn in Cheshire, where young Kitty took up an interest in hounds, hunting and horses. She loved to follow the hounds as they chased after foxes in the English countryside, and when the day’s excitement was finished, she served the huntsmen and their grooms in the inn parlor and heard their tales of the hunt. It was the perfect training for a courtesan.

Catherine’s relationship with her father also provided excellent training. 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 didn't fear outrageous behavior. If 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. Life was better when it was uncomplicated.

I don't think I've mentioned it on this blog before, but my first husband was an out-of-control drunk, not a fun drunk, but a classic dysfunctional AA grade drunk. An out-of-control drunk with anger issues. Now, I grew up as a child of divorce, so my home life wasn't perfect, but I didn't grow up around drunks, so living with one as his wife really freaked me out. I never learned to see the fun in it, so eventually I ran away forever.

Plus, the drunk in my life wasn't like Skittles' dad, I'm sure. And we weren't living in Liverpool in the 19th century, either, and my frame of reference as a nice, educated late-20th century girl from the suburbs of Chicago didn't help. My idea of "fun" is going for bicycle rides in the park, petting my cats, reading and enjoying a civilized gin and tonic with lime at sunset before sitting down to a home-cooked meal.

That previous statement doesn't do much to establish my own Bad Girl credentials, but the point is that I'm trying to enjoy life more, as Skittles did. I'm a work in progress.

Next time, in Reviving Skittles, Part 4, we'll learn the lyrics of a street ballad from Skittles’ heyday and what her initial forays into prostitution were like.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

I Invent the World

Did you know that you can take a picture with your new digital camera, download it immediately to your laptop computer and then post it on your blog in a matter of seconds? Here's a sample of my new invention, showing a nearly real-time picture of my desk:

Dave spotted the desk in the basement of our building after a neighbor had thrown it away, and we scavenged it. The Peters World Map above my laptop represents countries accurately according to their surface areas. My coffee has gone lukewarm. I'm reading Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman and listening to You Are Here, a Banco de Gaia CD. The poster in the top left corner is a picture of Christo's wrapped bridge in Paris, and the picture taped to the wall is of me, Dave and our cat Henrik. Scattered about is all the stuff I haven't done yet: ideas for blog posts, articles, people I want to contact, more photos for posting.

What a mind-blowing new invention! I have even more work to do now.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

King Fish

I learned how to snorkel in Mexico. It's easy. You just put on the fins, walk backward into the sea, spit into your mask, rinse, put it on your face, snuggle the snorkel into your mouth, and off you go.

It's so easy that one day I decided to snorkel into the sea alone, heading southeast a few hundred meters from shore along the coral reef. I was looking for schools of little fish, coral fans and other plant life.

As I swam out, I noticed that the sea floor was growing farther from me. Lovely. I now had a panoramic view of all sorts of colorful fish, busily streaming around the coral banks. The steady sound of my breath flowing in and out of the snorkel tube was musical accompaniment to the tropical kingdom laid out below me.

And then I spied something to the right in my peripheral vision. What was it? Whatever it was, it was floating along with me, on my level. I took a closer look. Could it be? Yes, wow. A big silver fish. A long long...maybe two, the hell long was this fish? Four feet? Five? And why was it swimming up near the water's surface with me, when it should have been down there with the cute little fishes on the sea floor? Why was he (I'm sure it was a he) staring at me with those big, gaping fish eyes? Why was his snout so pointy?

"What are you looking at?" I seemed to hear him say as I spied him from the corner of my eye. I think he was smoking a cigarette, but I was too afraid to make direct eye contact.

"Glub blug," I burbled through the snorkel. Something wasn't right about this. "I have to leave now," I said.

I turned tail and swam. Swim swim swim. Suck suck suck, sucking air through my snorkel, headed as fast as I could go toward shore. Thank god I was wearing fins. Puff puff pant pant, drinking in seawater. There was something not right about this.

I poked my head above the water's surface. Damn. Damn damn damn. Still a couple hundred meters to shore. I turned my head to the left, to see if I'd lost the fish yet.

"Goin' somewhere?" he sneered.

Oh help. Surely I would have outrun him by now? But here I was, swimming like the panic-stricken fool that I was, and this evil-minded silver fish was traveling alongside me, with plenty of breath to spare and laughing in his sinister, fishlike way. What had I ever done to him?

"What have I ever done to you?" I said. Well, would have said, if I wasn't flailing my arms and legs as I hyperventilated and slurped up saltwater at a dangerous rate.

"You're in over your head, estupida gringa," he said. "Go back home to your subways and Chinese restaurants that deliver."

"I'm trying to go back home," I sobbed in a glubbing sort of way. "Or back to my little cabaña, anyway, where I can lie on the swing bed and sip a rum y coca con limón."

His menacing laughter sloshed around in my ears as I swam. Swim swim. Pant pant. Swim swim swim. Pant pant pant. I needed air and tore the estupido snorkel from my mouth. What's the onomatopoeia for "hyperventilate"? Har har har? GHARGHie GHARGHie gargle snorf snorf...huck huck huck...

I looked back. Fish still there. Still silver, still four feet long, same gaping eyes and long pointy snout. He kept up with me so easily I thought I was standing still.

Eventually, as you may have guessed, seeing as how I'm writing about it now at leisure, I did make it to dry land. And obviously, at some point, I did manage to lose the fish, probably as I got closer to the shallower, warmer waters just off shore. Having swum to land in a direct line, I landed on jagged rocks and slippery sea grass rather than soft sand, but I didn't care.

I may be amused now in the telling of my tale, but at the time, my panic was so fresh and pure that I could barely think. Strangely, though, even then there was a little corner of my brain, the distant observer, that was watching me and finding this scene very funny. I was laughing at myself along with the fish. I hope I also have that laughing distant observer with me at the moment of my death, helping lessen the pain of my demise.

Later, at the bar, a guy from Florida said it sounded like my fish was a kingfish.


I googled kingfish when I got back to Brooklyn, and learned that its habitat includes both Florida and the Caribbean coast of Mexico. The kingish is a type of mackerel that can grow up to five feet long, weigh up to 150 lbs, and swim at speeds up to 60 mph. Oh, and another thing: "King mackerel are constantly feeding carnivores that can attack with high speed, powerful jaws and razor-like teeth. They feed on all and any available food but favor jacks, sea trout, sardine like fishes, ribbonfish, herring, shrimp and squid."

What about human limbs? I bet human limbs are on the list of favorite foods, too.

Now I keep expecting the kingfish to visit me in my dreams, but I haven't seen him yet. Or maybe it was a her--a bad-girl fish, since kingfish can also be female.

Or maybe my fish was a wahoo, also called a queenfish, which enjoys eating flying fish, bonito, squid, tuna, and again, possibly human limbs. According to the website: "A common feeding tactic when taking larger fish is to shear off the tail, then return to gulp down the head as the bleeding fish spirals downward."

Huh. That could have been me, rubber fins snapped off cleanly with the queenfish's razor-like teeth, spiraling downward into the briny deep and the queenfish's open, glittering jaws.

Friday, May 18, 2007

How to Eat a Mango

The etiquette books won't tell you this, but the best way to eat a mango is to go to Tulum on the Caribbean coast of Mexico and find a little cabaña to stay in. Once you're a bit sunburnt and have sand in your hair, take a taxi into town, 40 pesos plus 2 to 5 pesos tip, and ask the driver to drop you off in front of the frutería that has a mural of Adam and Eve painted out front.

Pick one or two of the nicest, ripest mangos you can find. The flesh should give in generously to your thumb when you press it, and the color should be a blushing orangey apricot. A bruise here or there is a mark of character and will do no harm to your experience.

Once you've made your way back to your cabaña, find a sandy spot in the sun or shade, as you prefer, but close to the water so you can hear and see the waves. Be sure to wear a swimsuit or less.

Then take any kind of knife that comes to hand—the Swiss army knife that always travels with you, or a sharp chef's knife or a dull-edged butter knife you stole from the last hotel you stayed in—and plunge it into the point where the mango has been snapped from its stem. Run the blade all around the fruit's circumference, creating two halves, and cut into it deeply enough so you make contact with the pit of the mango. Allow the juice to cover your hands and drip down your arms into the sand, where a little family of ants awaits any bits of pulp you might share with them.

In whatever sloppy way you can manage, split the mango in two and give one half to a friend so you can laugh at how messy your faces have become as you suck up the sweet mango flesh. Scrape up any remaining flesh on the inside peel with your teeth and never mind if long stringy bitrs get caught between your teeth. When finished, pat your hair back into place with your sticky fingers, walk to the water's edge and dive in.

Friday, May 11, 2007

¡Losing My Mind in Mexico!

¡Hola! de Mexico. I{ve got about four minutes left on the clock in this internets cafe so am typing as fast as possible. can{t rwrite, can only type. am in travel head and don{t remembver hgow to think anytmore. might buy beer today, and now husband is pestering me over mty shoulder, reminding nme that i{m running out of time and money on tulum road. have nothing to say, am in travel head. wish i couold attache piux pero no es possible aqui''no have el desktop con >jpegs. much love, joyce. one minute 15 seconds remiaining, must >[publicar<

Monday, April 30, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part 2: On Becoming a Courtesan

The Quorn Hunt looked something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 20, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part I: Fantasia on a Victorian Courtesan

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

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

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

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

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

She sounds exactly like this:

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

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

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

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

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