Saturday, November 08, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #11 (Mae West)

We move to New York City—me, Dave and our cat—and a new adventure begins. By now, I’ve become well versed in the ways of the bad girls. I’m tougher and stand up for myself, but with a joyful sense of self-confidence. Like a true bad girl, I’ve learned to roll with the punches and look for the pleasure in any situation.

My new role model these days is Mae West, that blonde siren of the silver screen, who brimmed with pure self-love until the day she died. More than any of the other bad girls I’ve researched, Mae is absolute self-invention. And it wasn’t until she was a grown woman of thirty-nine that she arrived in Hollywood to take her first film test. I adore Mae’s wit, heat and toughness. Plus, she was a Brooklyn girl, which is what I’ve become since I started living here.

Mae lived on her own terms, and she willfully ignored her critics and the bad news they delivered. The story goes that during the filming of her first role, a smaller part in Night After Night with George Raft, Mae rewrote all her lines and insisted that the camera pacing give her ample time to work what she called her “extraordinary sex-personality.”

Early in her career, when she was preparing for a show she had written called Sex, the director Edward Elsner slowed her down enough to analyze her style. Stopping Mae in mid-stride, he made her repeat movements to help her understand the ironic comedy her body was producing. He told Mae that her star power came from the way she used her body and voice, that she exuded a strange and amusing charm he had never seen before.
“You have a definite sexual quality, gay and unrepressed. It even mocks you personally,” he said.

“A self-mocking sex quality?” Mae responded. “I mean, does it overshadow the part?”
“You reek with it,” he said. “You have it all over you.”

“Mae,” I say. “Talk to me. Tell me it’s all good. Give me some wisdom to cope.”

And Mae says: “I have never wanted to be anyone other than me. Why would I when half the world was trying to imitate me? There was the time when my fans, from eight to eighty, tried to look like me, to walk like me, act like me, even feel like me. Too bad everybody just can’t be themselves and be happy about it. I am. Remember that once popular song, ‘I love me, I love me’? Baby, that’s me.”

Here I am in New York, the center of the universe. I’ve got my man, my friends and my neighbors all around me. Unlike Mae, though, I’m a simple girl. I carry my groceries home on foot because we don’t own a car, and I’m on the gardening committee of our co-op building. I don't sleep on pink satin sheets.

Yes, life is good. And now I’m learning how to belly dance. I'm shimmying. I would love to have seen Mae do the “Shimmy Shawobble” live. I would have loved to shimmy with her. The soft and fluid sensuality of belly dancing suits me much better than the dramatic stamping of Lola Montez’s flamenco. Like Mae, I know how good it is to be firmly embedded in the skin you’re wriggling around in and loving it.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #10 (Victoria Woodhull)

I have sworn never to marry again, and Dave doesn’t believe in marriage.

Still, he proposes to me, reasoning that we love each other and want to be together, and the only way we can live in the same country is if we’re married.

I say no. I’ve been studying Victoria Woodhull, notorious in the Victorian era for her free love views, and she helps me remember what slavery marriage can be.

For two months Dave keeps proposing, every time we talk during our tearful trans-Atlantic phone conversations, and I keep saying no, lecturing him on what slavery marriage can be, quoting Victoria: “I am a Free Lover! I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please! And with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere!”

Noting that Victoria was a clairvoyant with a close personal relationship to the powers of the air, I also go looking for answers with a visit to a gypsy fortuneteller on Rush Street. The woman gives me the once-over--I'm fortyish, with no wedding ring—-and she charges me for a ten-dollar palm reading.

“You have a difficult time with men," she says.

“Oh, that is so true,” I say. "That is so true,” and I start to weep.

“You have good luck from God,” she says, “but bad luck from people. You need someone to pray for you, someone who knows the right prayers. I can do it for you weekly for six months, fifty dollars each visit.”

I get out of there as fast as I can, and Dave snorts derisively when I phone him up and tell him about the gypsy.

“She wanted you to pay her to pray? What, you don’t have any family who can pray for you? Why don’t you pay her to go to church for you? And then when you die, you’ll go to heaven because you paid her,” he says. “You have to decide for yourself whether you want to marry me.”

So. I tell Dave yes, I do want to marry him, because I love him (similarly, Victoria said yes to an Englishman after saying she was against marriage), and as I say yes I wonder what the hell I’m doing.

We apply for Dave’s fiancé visa, he packs up his worldly possessions, flies to Chicago, and within five days of his arrival we marry. Our marriage is surprisingly convincing and our friends and family say we make a cute couple.

Bella even says that Dave and I look alike. We’re both short, we wear glasses, we hold hands on the bus and shop at the dollar store. After sleeping in other people’s beds for so long, it’s fantastic to finally be together and play house in a home of our own.

You could say that my story ends here, because I have found love and happiness. And yet, I’m still drawn to the Bad Girls Project. It doesn’t feel finished to me. Now that I have the basics, I want to achieve the big stuff, like higher spirituality, creative meaning and more money. I go back to studying the life of Victoria Woodhull in the hopes of learning some important lessons I can apply to my own life.

A suffragette psychic and a former prostitute, Victoria in 1870 ran for US President on a platform of vegetarianism, labor reform, spiritualism, liberal divorce laws, legalized prostitution and free love. She was a kook, basically, a kook with a strong belief in herself, and she never held back on speaking her mind, to the point where she was thrown into jail on obscenity charges.

Victoria was all about mastery of self. She saw that New York was a city on the make, full of people striving for fame and riches, and shortly after arriving there in 1868, she and her sister Tennessee Celeste took a carriage ride to the Washington Place mansion of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the wealthiest man in America, where they presented their calling cards and announced that they were lady miracle-healers newly arrived in New York. Taken by the young ladies’ good looks, and in accordance with his policy of allowing any spiritualist to cross his threshold, he welcomed the sisters into his home and became a classic sugar daddy to the girls.

Tennessee, a juicy sensualist, practiced the magnetic-healing arts on him, laying her hands all over his body and manipulating his prostate. He doted on her enema-administering ways, and in short order Tennie became Vanderbilt’s mistress. As for Vickie, she began to commune regularly with the spirit of Vanderbilt’s dead mother, who gave him stock advice and also told him to give Vickie the $7,500 she needed to start up the Woodhull, Claflin & Co. brokerage house on Wall Street.

Hmm, interesting. I can see a lesson for me in this: for a kooky free spirit, Victoria did very well for herself. She took risks, not always sure of their outcome, and was always reinventing herself.

And so when a Wall Street investment bank comes knocking on my door, offering me an editorial job in New York City with a Wall Street-size annual bonus package and all relocation costs fully paid by the company, I consult with the unseen powers of the air and Dave, and accept the position.

Cornelius Vanderbilt was Vickie’s Gilded Age sugar daddy, and J.P. Morgan is mine in this modern age of multinational corporate capitalism.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bellydancers for Obama

If the crazies are correct, Barack Obama is a Muslim Arab. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Why, just last night I attended a "Bellydancers for Obama" fundraiser at the Je"Bon Noodle House on St. Marks Place. The music and dancing were fantastic, and we did our part in filling Obama's campaign coffers!

"Because you know he needs the support a bunch of bellydancers!" said our hostess, Leela Corman. Bellydancers For Obama

Dancers include Nadia Moussa, Thalia, Ranya, Andrea Mistress of Bioluminosity, Alura, Amantha, Mark Balahadia, Leela, Melissa Voodoo, Tandava, Najla, Amy, Zahira, and Anarkali.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #9 (Catherine the Great)

Catherine the Great had a taste for handsome young men. She called her boyfriends “favorites,” and she had quite a few of them. The sweetest one of all was a twenty-one-year-old soldier in the royal guard, Alexander Lanskoi, who fell desperately in love with the fifty-year-old empress. She was in love with him, too, though she didn’t take him seriously at first because he was so young.

As for me, I’m forty-one and the boy I met on the dance floor, Dave, is twenty-five. “I’m not so sure I should see him again,” I tell Denise. “I just want to live in the moment, and last night was a moment that has passed.”

“Oh, that’s not right, Joyce,” she says. “That’s not in the spirit of the free-party movement. You have to call Dave because you felt a connection with him.”

So. I call Dave, and we arrange to meet again in Leicester, where he lives. During the journey there I wonder what I’m doing. A few days later, on the third anniversary of my marriage to Jack, I’m still with Dave, lying under a thin duvet on a lumpy, sheet-free mattress.

Kent is concerned. The Bad Girls Project was his idea, but my interest in Dave is a sign that I’ve gone overboard. I’m so immersed in the bad girls that they’re always with me now, like brushing my teeth or thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch.
“I’m worried about you, Joycie,” he says. “Who is this Dancefloor Dave character, anyway?”

“He’s my guy, that’s who. He likes football, music and people.”

“Isn’t he a bit too young for you?”

My answer is that Catherine the Great liked younger man—and I want to spend as much time as possible with Dave. He’s fun. It’s uncomplicated. And Dave feels so familiar, like I’ve known him forever. There’s no explaining it, and Dave isn’t a big talker. When he does talk, his blunt honesty makes me laugh.

“I’ve never met another kisser who matches me so well,” I gush.

“Oh, is it a long list?”

Sadly, my time in London is coming to a close because Kent won’t fund my bad-girls research anymore. Is he jealous of Dave? Wonderfully, I don’t particularly care; I can well take care of myself.

One night, as Dave and I are lying around in Kent’s bed on Elgin Crescent, we get an unexpected phone call. Kent has just returned from a trip, is driving home from the airport, and wants us to be out of the flat. We throw our bags together, spend a few weeks at a trashy hotel in Bayswater, and then we say goodbye. Dave’s heading off for a year of travel in Southeast Asia and New Zealand.

He asks me to come with him, but I can’t because I’m broke. And very sad. I go back to Chicago to look for a job, and Dave promises to come see me there in nine months’ time. I don’t believe him.

I throw myself back into my research, focusing on Catherine the Great. Her first marriage was not for love, but for the good of the empire, which was fine for Russia, but not for Catherine. Yes, she was a power-hungry monarch with a brilliant political career, but I’m more interested in her love for a much younger man who simply made her happy.

Catherine couldn’t quite believe that Alexander Lanskoi was seriously in love with her, and because she thought she was in control of the situation, she went off on a dating binge in search of a new favorite. When Alexander got wind of it, he freaked out and showed up at her chambers, sobbing. She let him in reluctantly, and he told her he couldn't believe she could just walk away from a love that made them both so happy. How could she do that to him, to them? Stunned and amazed, Catherine took her baby back into her arms, loving him for the rest of his short life.

I go off on a dating binge of my own in Chicago, trying to forget Dave by going out with guys who remind me of him: a British man, a few younger men and a dancer who’s having a fight with his girlfriend. Time passes, one of the younger blokes becomes my boyfriend, I email Dave to tell him the news, and I get a phone call from Australia.

“I can't believe that you could love somebody else the way you love me,” Dave sobs.

“You can’t just walk away from our love. When I’m with you, I feel normal.”

“But you disappeared on me for nine months,” I sob back. “What was I supposed to think? I had to get on with my life.”

“I can get on a plane tonight, and I’ll see you in Chicago in two days.”

“Oh, god.”

“I’m going to book the ticket today.”

“Oh, god.”

Dave comes to Chicago, we remember why we love each other, we decide that being together could never work, we break up, Dave leaves, we miss each other, he returns, we break up, we spend a holiday in France, we go to England, we break up. In between, we call each other and have phone sex and cry. For a year we go on like this.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #8 (Empress Theodora of Constantinople)

A beautiful girl steps onto center stage. She strips off her clothes and stands nude in front of her audience, wearing nothing but a look of bold defiance on her face. The audience has come from miles around to witness this 16-year-old’s sensational act at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. They watch, bewitched, as she artfully arranges herself in a spread-eagle position on the floor.

A drum sounds. Servants appear from both sides of the stage and sprinkle barley grains over her naughty bits. The servants retire to the wings, leaving the girl exposed and alone. She claps her hands. Cages of hungry geese are rolled out onto the stage and released. The audience roars as the birds flock round her body and devour the grains one by one from her young flesh. She laughs, twisting with pleasure, until every grain is gone. Then she stands proudly, her eyes impassive, her laughter subsiding to just the trace of a smile. The crowd cheers her wantonness and she takes a bow.

Summer is over, the “art colony” is on hiatus, and I’m back in London. This city is a dark and nervously contained place. Why do London men shave their heads? They’re so oppressively Anglo-Saxon, avoiding eye contact. They can’t see my shimmering French sparkle, my long hair, my tan, my sandals, my chiffon harem pants. I feel too sunny for this town, so I dim the lights and don something dark, choosing the Empress Theodora of Constantinople as my new bad girl guide. Her strangely distant past is vague, with the only history written about her a “secret history” by the Byzantine court historian Procopius, who suggests that she was nothing more than an insatiable nymphomaniac.

According to Procopius, Theodora often went to parties with ten or more sex-obsessed men, all at the peak of their physical powers, and she would spend the night screwing them in every conceivable position. When she had thoroughly exhausted her lovers, she would turn her attention to the thirty or so servants in the room and have sex with them, too. “But not even so could she satisfy her lust,” Procopius writes. “Though she brought three bodily apertures into service, she often found fault with Nature, grumbling that Nature had not made the openings in her nipples wider than is normal, so that she could devise another variety of intercourse in that region. Naturally she was frequently pregnant, but by using all the tricks of the trade she was able to induce immediate abortion.”

Procopius’ moralizing is pretty hilarious. Clearly, he hated Theodora for enjoying herself and getting Emperor Justinian to marry her even though she was a big Byzantine whore. He claimed that she was much given to black magic, and that it was through love philtres and the diabolic arts that she kept Justinian enslaved. Theodora’s boudoir was covered in dozens of bearskins, upon which she luxuriated sensuously as she entertained her customers. Her jokes were lewd, she wiggled her hips a lot, and the money poured in. “Never was anyone so completely given up to unlimited self-indulgence.”

Too right. I start to visit Denise, the office manager at Kent’s music studio. Denise is a living bad girl with purple dreadlocks and a huge love of techno music, and I start to live my own secret history in a time of dancing, rebellion and London night life.

I hang out with Denise and her friends in a scene that’s all new to me: techno music, free parties in abandoned warehouses, late nights that carry into the next afternoon and cat-and-mouse games with the police officers who are attempting to enforce the latest, free-party-killing version of the UK Criminal Justice Act. Every weekend and sometimes during the week, Denise plays big mama to the squatters, anarchists, crusties and ex-junkies who come round to her flat in Finsbury Park.

Some day, Denise tells me, she will buy a fine rig so she can become a deejay diva and get busy blasting underground sounds to the free-party nation. Denise drives us one night to an ugly funk show in a club near Elephant and Castle, where I meet a sweet and smiling boy named Dave. One look at his beaming face from across the dance floor tells me that he’s nothing like the scowling, shaven-headed men of London. “That boy’s not from around here,” I say to myself just before we meet and spend the next five hours dancing.

Friday, September 26, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ninon de Lenclos was a prostitute, Joyce.”

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 06, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“May I buy you another drink, please.”

“Please, miss.”

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

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

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

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

“Is that some kind of racist remark?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joycie, do you really think you have bad girl potential? Could you really be that bad?” Kent asks in the lord of the manor style that he developed to compensate for being an American when he arrived on English shores twenty years ago. Kent is such a dandy. He wears bespoke suits around the house and gets his hair colored by a stylist, which he started doing back when he was in a New Romantics rock band.

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

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

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

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #3 (Isabelle Eberhardt)

A Russian Jew who converted to Islam, Isabelle Eberhardt ran off to the Sahara Desert in 1899 when she was 22, served as a war correspondent for an Algerian newspaper, dressed as a man and called herself Si Mahmoud, slept with Arab boys, routinely smoked kif, and drank absinthe and chartreuse until she fell asleep on the dirt floor of whatever random café she happened to be passing through.

“I detest cultivated green country full of crops,” she wrote in a journal entry during her travels. “Why do I have this morbid craving for a barren land and desert wastes? Why do I prefer nomads to villagers, beggars to rich people? Aie yie yie! For me, unhappiness is a sort of spice.”

Isabelle is incomprehensibly foreign to me, which is why she’s my new bad girl as I start life over again in a strange place. I’m in London, reflecting on what has brought me to this point in my life and why I’m here. Sure, I could blame Jack for causing my life crisis, but that would be the easy way out. There’s a reason why I chose him, something in me that wanted his drama and our failure. Maybe I didn’t really want to be in a traditional marriage, and by marrying Jack I guaranteed that would never happen.

Maybe I’m a bad girl myself, which is why the Bad Girls Project resonates so strongly with me. Now I’m free to enjoy the travel experience with Isabelle Eberhardt, and I can spend hours daydreaming of a trip through the Sahara with her. We go on a desert fantasia, riding over the desert dunes on her horse Souf as we discuss love and happiness. She tells me how much she loves her husband, Slimène, a soldier who lets her come and go as she pleases with no expectations, no demands.
Isabelle loved many men in her life, and one of them, a highly spiritual man named Abdallah, attacked her viciously with a sword because he believed that God wanted him to kill her. During Isabelle’s six-week recuperation in a French military hospital, her injured head burned and her badly wounded arm felt uncomfortably heavy. And yet, she says, try as she might to feel hatred for her attacker, she could not find any in her heart.

“What I do feel for him is curious: whenever I stop to think about it, I have the feeling that I am in the presence of a mystery which may well hold the key to the entire meaning of my life. As long as I do not fathom that enigma—and will I ever! God alone can tell—I shall not know who I am, nor the reason for my curious life.”

As for me, I’m trying to be more spiritual and life-loving, but I’m not quite feeling the sheer happiness and gratitude that come from being free. I’ve started to get a sense of extending past my limitations, but I need constant reminding, so I buy a used paperback edition of Isabelle’s journal and carry it around with me. I want her with me all the time, and I scribble feverish, urgent notes to myself all along the margins: “…thoughts of a blissful future, double life, making a home, rootless—searching for direction—the artistic struggle, the passion of religious belief, I like Isabelle…”

Isabelle always put her hopes, wishes and fantasies first—to such an extreme that her nomadic life left her half-starved, penniless and alone. But her mad spirituality and desert wanderings brought her an intense joy that left her ready for death at the age of 27 in a flash flood in the Sahara.

During her desert sojourns, Isabelle made frequent trips to Aїn Sefra, an Algerian village on the edge of the Sahara, where she made a little money by reporting on tribal skirmishes for El Akhbar. On October 2, 1904, she checked herself into the hillside military hospital there for treatment of malaria and syphilis.

She was a wreck but as happy as she’d ever be, deep in the land where she belonged and looking forward to being together again with Slimène, who was coming to see her after an eight-month absence. A few weeks passed, and Isabelle checked herself out of the hospital, against doctor’s orders, and walked downhill to the poor part of town, where she had rented a little clay house on the bank of a dry riverbed for her reunion with Slimène.

The day was mild, Isabelle felt stronger, and soon she was in her soulmate’s arms. Slimène welcomed her home, they smoked kif to their heart’s content, and spent a happy night together. In the morning, under a strangely clear and sunny sky, an unexpected flashflood swept through the riverbed, and water poured into the lowland floodplain. The clay houses in the bottom half of the desert town melted in the flood, and Isabelle was among the dozens who were drowned or carried off. When the waters receded, Slimène was found alive though in shock and Isabelle’s lifeless body was discovered in their little love nest, crushed under a fallen beam beneath the staircase, with her waterlogged writings scattered about, some stored in an urn found in the wreckage.

Isabelle Eberhardt struggled to find the reason for her curious life, and I think that by the end she found it in the Sahara Desert. Can she help me find the reason for mine? What would Isabelle do if she were me? I ask myself on my daily walks through Holland Park. “Isabelle, are you out there?” I say out loud, scaring myself, one day as I look down from the window into the enclosed garden square at Elgin Crescent. It’s a quiet day, unusually sunny, and I hear a whisper in my ear: Seek your spirituality…

Oh, boy. What am I going to do with that advice? Ever since my Protestant parents started sending me to happy-clappy churches in the suburbs, I’ve never been very good at being religious. Church is the last place I would look for God. But on Good Friday, shortly after my arrival in London, I put on a dark skirt and attend St. John’s Notting Hill, a church at the top of a high knoll on Lansdowne Crescent. It feels exotic to me; something like what an Algiers mosque would have felt to Isabelle.

Sitting on a hard wooden pew among the Anglicans, a pilgrim alone in a foreign city, I weep and I weep during the readings from the Passion of St. John, and the readers’ formal diction only increases the beauty of the solemn prayers.

My God my God, why have you forsaken me: Why are you so far from helping me and from the words of my groaning? My God I cry to you by day but you do not answer: and by night also—I take no rest…All those that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out their lips at me and wag their heads…

I sit in the pew and begin praying to the spirit of Isabelle, seeking consolation from her as we continue our desert fantasia together and talk about motherhood, childlessness, solitude, getting old and love. Being here now in this strange place, with so much distance between me and Tearful Valley, I feel safer than I did in my own home.

And I am so grateful that I have the strength and freedom to look after myself, alone, without a husband to get in my way. I can feel myself getting to the core of something essential: I have the rest of my life now to explore the meaning of love, creativity and everything else that’s good, and never again will I fall in line with somebody else’s idea of happiness. Yet again, Isabelle and all the other bad girls out there are beckoning me.

I’m still thinking of Isabelle as I leave the church and walk home, contemplating the poetry of her death. She saw glamour in suicidal thinking, but she didn’t really want to die. Her tragedy was that she ran out of time. As for me, I’m hungry for more time, because I’m only just beginning the long struggle to reinvent myself.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #2 (Lola Montez)

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?

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 un-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.

Here was a wanton harlot 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, she died of syphilis in a New York poorhouse at age forty-three and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Green Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.

Like me, Lola married the wrong man and ended up running away from him, a decision that proved to be the defining moment that put her on the path toward becoming a bad girl. “Runaway matches, like runaway horses, are almost sure to end in a smash-up,” Lola wrote. “My advice to all young girls who contemplate taking such a step is that they had better hang or drown themselves just one hour before they start.”

Lola didn’t follow her own advice, of course. Far from killing herself, she eloped for the hell of it, and when that didn’t work out she reinvented herself as a Spanish dancer. She hired a dancing-master in London, who over the course of four months taught her some steps while she perfected a phony Spanish accent. Then she spent six months in Spain, where she acquired a haughty and unsmiling “atmosphere” and invented a new name for herself. Goodbye, Eliza Gilbert. Hello, Lola Montez. Finally ready for her debut, she returned to London and booked her first theater engagement, which eventually led to other theaters in other cities and many lovers and husbands along the way, punctuated by the occasional bull-whipping or stiletto-stabbing when Lola’s mood turned foul.

As a woman who made a glorious mess of her life, Lola appeals to me enormously. From time to time, everything would fall apart and she would have to start over again in a new place with new people. I know what that’s like, things falling apart. Images of life with Jack flash through my mind: the desperate phone calls pleading with him to come home, his panic attacks late at night, the flooded basement where our wedding china sat in unopened boxes, my final decision to walk out on him one night when he was drunk and ranting.

Out of sympathy with Lola I start to ask myself, “What would Lola do?” For example, she sold her jewels once when she desperately needed the money, so I do the same and sell a diamond bracelet that Jack gave me.

She died at an early age, though, and all I want to do now is live.

By the late 1850s, Lola Montez was exhausted, ill and dispirited, and she knew her life had gone terribly wrong. She had strength for just one more adventure, and it would be a spiritual one. After spending a lifetime mocking religion and the church, Lola’s last great love was Jesus Christ. “How many, many years of my life have been sacrificed to Satan, and my own love of sin!” she wrote in a spiritual diary she kept in 1859.

On the last day of Lola’s life, January 17, 1861, an Episcopal minister sat by her side and told her again and again of Christ’s love and forgiveness. When Lola could no longer speak, he asked her to let him know by a sign whether her soul was at peace, and whether she still felt that Jesus would save her. “She fixed her eyes on mine and nodded her head affirmatively,” he wrote in a pamphlet titled The Story of a Penitent.

So finally, I have to ask myself: Was Lola Montez a bad girl? I haven’t yet defined to my satisfaction what a bad girl is, but yes, I can see it in her. I stare at the photos and try my best to love Lola, but it isn't easy. If I put my arms around her to give her a hug, I’m pretty sure she would flinch and push me away, glaring in anger and itching for a fight.

I’ve spent all this time with her, but I still don’t understand her. I don’t think Lola understood herself, either, though I do think she was the perfect bad girl for her time, and she was a champion of all women, whether they knew it or not. She had thrown aside the bonds of oppression all across Europe, worn a public face, participated in history and loved fully if not well.

After a week of obsessing over Lola, I go to sleep one night on the guest bed in my sister’s cold, cold basement and wake up suddenly, filled with a sense of dread. It’s the same feeling I had as a kid when I would have a bad dream and wake up in the middle of the night convinced there was a monster under the bed. I open my eyes, and it’s very dark, but I think I can spy a shadowy figure seated in the corner at the other end of the room.

A dark angel. She wears a voluminous skirt, I think, the sort of tight-bodiced, full-skirted crinoline gown that women of the 19th century wore. I can’t close my eyes. I lie there, my mind racing with Lola’s life, the photos of her that scare me, her anger, her passion. I’m afraid she’s going to enter my mind. A phrase from the spiritual diary Lola kept before she died turns around in my head. How did it go? I want to look it up but I’m too afraid to move.

Maybe Lola has come for me because she has recognized me as her familiar. Willful, self-pitying, grandiose me. I have no right to blame anyone but myself for my unhappiness when it was I who chose each turning of the path that brought me to the negative emptiness of my life.

Terrible and fearful…terrible and fearful…Oh, how did that phrase go? My mind is jumbled up, I know I’m not thinking right, this dark and lonely hour is not a time for positive reflection.

…What would I not give to have my terrible and fearful experiences given as an awful warning to such natures as my own! I drift…blackness.

In the morning I wake up, laughing. I have my whole life ahead of me. Lola Montez was my first bad girl, but she won’t be my last.

I send an email to Kent.

“Of course I’ll come to London,” I say. “This is an opportunity I can’t pass up.”

“Great,” Kent answers. “Let’s go. Check into plane tickets. Probably open ended, but I think you’ll need a return portion to get through immigration. Tell them you’re here to travel the country and they’ll give you a six-month tourist visa. As for the research, I think you should be historical but with a focus on fun and excitement. Welcome on board. Got to go. Love K.”

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #1

I've been blogging about bad girls for about two years now, so I thought I'd go back to the beginning and remember why the wildest women in history (and modern times) became my lifeline.

It starts like this:

One fine summer day in 1852, a chronic alcoholic and morphine abuser named Canning Woodhull visited the Mount Gilead, Ohio, home of Victoria Claflin. A fourteen-year-old girl with a calm and thoughtful demeanor, Vickie had taken to her bed so she could speak at leisure to the unseen powers of the air who regularly visited her.

Though weak, Victoria radiated loveliness, and the 28-year-old doctor prescribed a cure of fresh air and marriage. Vickie accepted, happy to leave the house where her father regularly beat and starved her when she resisted appearing as a clairvoyant in his traveling medicine show. “My marriage was an escape,” she later said. It was also a foolish indiscretion that permanently changed the direction of Victoria Woodhull’s life. Only a few days after the couple wed, Dr. Woodhull went on an all-night bender at a whorehouse, the first of many.

A few years and a couple of children later, Victoria finally came to her senses, asked herself “why should I any longer live with this man?” and answered the question with a trip to divorce court. The same powers of the air who had visited Vickie in her youth remained by her side throughout her life, telling her she was destined to become the ruler of the world. And indeed, after leaving her husband, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to open a Wall Street stock brokerage, the first woman to publish an American newspaper and, in 1871, the first woman to run for US President. She was also an outrageous proponent of free love who shocked America with her libertine views.

Wow, I thought the first time I read about Vickie, this woman’s marriage sounds a lot like mine. I, too, had gone off and gotten married in an attempt to start a new chapter in my life, but my husband, I'll call him Jack, had turned out to be a rageaholic drunk and our marriage was not only no fun, it was a disaster. A disaster that took me a couple of years to get into, a year to recognize for what it was, and yet another year to escape.

Although my marriage to Jack was the biggest mistake of my life, exiting it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’d always been too nice for my own good and too afraid of hurting people.

I’d met Jack on a business trip to small-town Pennsylvania, and moved to a place I now call “Tearful Valley,” but my marriage, my hoped-for bucolic ideal, slowly turned into a series of broken promises, silent anger and empty bottles of beer and vodka. I thought I was staying in the marriage to make an effort to fix it, but the truth was that feelings of guilt, pity and failure prevented me from leaving.

Looking back now, this is the part I hate to think about: Jack’s constant verbal abuse chipped away at my self-esteem and kept me down in the emotional muck right alongside him. I had no strength to resist because I was unfamiliar with the person I’d become, and it took the strength of my friends, family, marriage counselor and Al Anon (my equivalent of the powers of the air) to give me the courage to save money, secretly store my belongings and meet with a divorce lawyer. In short, I was preparing for the awful moment when, like Vickie, I could ask “why should I any longer live with this man?” and answer the question by leaving him.

It was no accident that I read up on Victoria Woodhull shortly after leaving Jack. I was, in fact, on a quest to find women like her, a quest that began when I received a phone call from my rich and somewhat eccentric cousin Kent in London. I had only recently loaded my belongings in my car, driven away from Pennsylvania, and gone home to family in Chicago. But I was unsure about my next move.

Cocooning with the people I loved best, pleasantly numb and returned to a childlike state, I was doing little more than spending hours on the phone with friends, watching television, sitting in coffee shops reading, and looking for a job with such apathy that I might not have known what to do if one was offered. In other words, I’d stopped crying and was, in a strange way, beginning to enjoy myself, but to a rational observer I was still a confused mess.

Naturally, I assumed that Kent was making a sympathy call when he began our conversation by telling me about a notorious woman from the Byzantine era. I didn’t know why Kent mentioned her, but I played along—our conversations have always covered a lot of territory.

“Joycie, have you ever heard about Empress Theodora of Constantinople?” Kent asked me. “I learned about her at a dinner party. She started out as a prostitute in the circus and ended up marrying an emperor. She would go onstage and they would sprinkle birdseed on her privates, and a flock of geese would peck at them until she climaxed.”
I laughed. “No, I didn’t know about Theodora. But Mae West—now there was a sex goddess for the ages. She’s kind of weird but very luscious in her movies.”

“And what about Catherine the Great,” Kent said. “She was outrageous.”

“Do you really believe that story about how she died underneath a horse when she was having sex with it?” I said. “I wonder if that’s really true.”

“Joycie,” Kent said, and from his tone of voice I sensed that our conversation was shifting into new territory. I realized that it wasn’t just because he felt sorry for me that Kent was calling, and he was leading me there. “Joycie, how are you anyway? What’s going on with you right now?”

“Oh, you know, the usual. No man, no baby, no job, no home, no life. I’m screwed.”

“Are you really getting a divorce? Where are you going to live? Do you have any plans?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m trying to figure it out. I’m probably going to stay in Chicago so I can be near family.”

The other end of the line went quiet, and I could tell that Kent was not best pleased with this idea. He thought staying in Chicago would be a bore.

“Joycie, why don’t you come to London instead? Why don’t you come here and study bad girls for awhile? Bad girls like Theodora. I’m working on a project about them, and I need someone to do the research,” he said. “I want it to be you. Seriously, I want you to think about it.”

This is where the logic broke down and my life got interesting. Kent wanted to know about bad girls, for some complicated reason that involved him getting his heart broken and wanting to sublimate it into an art project, but he didn’t have time to spend digging through dusty old tomes in the British Library. That would be my job. He knew I was a writer and would have the patience to read tons of books. Plus, he thought it would be good for me to get away from America and think about life for awhile. And bad girls. Think about life and bad girls and go out drinking together.

Kent had a flat in Notting Hill, where I could live as I studied Empress Theodora, Catherine the Great, Mae West and anyone else who interested me. He would pay my expenses, and I could hang out with him when he wasn’t busy and tell him about all the bad girls I was discovering. In the summer, he added, I could go to France and stay at his villa in the Cévennes Mountains, where he wanted to create something like an art colony or a commune with posh overtones.

I would have been a fool to refuse, so of course I said yes to Kent’s crazy proposal, and this is how our Bad Girls Project began. Why not? It sounded like fun. People have gone off on all sorts of weird expeditions for even less reason. And I had nothing to lose at that point in my life. But I was less certain about how much time I wanted to spend on the project, imagining that at some point my real life, whatever that was, would have to begin again.

Before I left the States, I decided to do a little research so I could better understand what I was getting myself into, and this led me to my first bad girl, a dark angel who cajoled me to follow my destiny as surely as the powers of the air had cajoled Vickie to follow hers. She was soon followed by others.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Vegas Girls! Girls! Girls!

I have been to Las Vegas.
Las Vegas! Woot! They've got a crazy fake Eiffel Tower there.
And a crazy fake New York City.
But most of all, after gambling, they're crazy about girls there.
There's a Pussycat Dolls casino with Pussycat Dolls slot machines. Grrr!
At the cheesiest, most fabulously over-the-top casino of all, Caesar's Palace, they luuuuurrrve the ladies, from old-school naked chicks
to modern-day girls like Cher, Bette Midler and Elton John

Even the Venus de Milo gets a shout-out:

And in the streets, too, the girls cum straight 2 U:
Blonde girls
Bride girls
Babe girls

drinkin' booze out of plastic refillable cocktail bongs

Like I said, they love them some girls in Vegas.

Dancing girls

burlesque girls

It was fabulous. So why did it all seem so exhausting after awhile? Why did I get depressed by the third day? Why was I so happy to go home? Is there something wrong with me that I can't just enjoy the total fabulousness of it all? Gambling, booze and girls girls girls. Somebody's idea of what girls are.

Sex sells! Woot!

The Buddha says that even in the midst of happiness, there is loss and decay. "Nothing in time and space, nothing in the world lasts or can be acquired, however great our desire for things to be other than what they are."
All is impermanence in Las Vegas. Still, I got my picture taken with a showgirl.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bad Girls Aren't What You Think

I was having drinks with a neighbor last night--a neighbor who reads my blog--and she asked me, "Do you think you have to have sex to be a bad girl?"

I had to stop and think. I write a lot about bad girls and sex because it's interesting and, let's face it, titillating. Titty-lating. In my wild woman research, I like my bad girls to be independent, strong-headed, vain, eccentric and promiscuous. I'm drawn to that personality type. Sexy women are fun.

But celibate nuns can be wild bad girls, too. Of course they can, if they've got a rebellious spirit. In fact, all kinds of women these days have a bit of the bad girl in them, and they're not necessarily polyamorous bisexual babes like Pixie.

Under the influence

I'm not even sure anymore if I know what a bad girl is. We're living in an excellent era for women now in our industrialized world, with so many of us free to run around and do crazy things, things that not too long ago would have marked us as unhinged. Also last night, I watched the 1974 John Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence and was reminded that back then, women who didn't behave themselves were locked up in nuthouses, shot full of thorazine and given so many electroshock treatments that all the sex, fight and talk was blasted right out of them. And it was their own family and friends who were committing them.

Now, women can do whatever the hell they want. And it's not just about the sex. Me, for example, I'm enjoying a lot of travel without Dave this year. I went to Greece in May with a girlfriend, am going to Las Vegas for a long weekend this month with another bunch of girlfriends, and am planning a solo yoga and surf retreat in Morocco in September. When I tell family and friends about my travels without my man, they're a bit incredulous yet amused. "Where's Dave?"

I know another woman--a kind and decent sixty-something woman who used to work as a dinner lady at her sons' Catholic school--who plans to take up karate lessons this summer: "The lady who runs the karate class said, 'Don't worry, I'll take care of you,' so I said, 'Righty-o, I'll give it a go for a few weeks and see if I think it's fun." I imagine she'll be smashing bricks in half soon.

And another woman I know abandoned her husband and children for six weeks this summer so she could travel alone in Portugal and Spain. (OK, she's a Spanish teacher, and working on improving her language skills but still...six weeks! I'm a bit incredulous yet amused.)

She emailed me her thoughts:
"Being a writer, you might appreciate the number of authors I have met on this trip.

"It started in Lisbon. I was standing in front of a clothing store, looking at the display and a woman approached me. She smelled heavily of tobacco smoke. She asked me, in Portuguese, 'Do you appreciate poetry?' 'Yes,' I replied. She then told me that she was a poet and that she survived by selling her poetry, and asked if she could recite a poem for two Euros. So I said sure, and she recited the poem and then gave me a copy of it, which she signed.

"In Spain, one of my professors has published a number of books, one on brujeria (witchcraft) in Spain and the history of people's memories of it, and how the Inquisition accused certain women of it. He has also published a collection of short stories that he says took him twelve years to write.

"One of my classmates is a man from the Dominican Republic, Jose, now living and teaching in New Jersey. I was talking to him one day, and I told him about my stay in DR and the nuns I work with. We talked a little about Trujillo, the dictator/sex addict/murderer who ruled the Dominican Republic for over 30 years. Several days later, Jose casually mentioned that he was invited to the Dominican Republic for the release of his collected poetry, and that he also has two books coming out in the fall about Trujillo.

"OK, number four: One of my companions here is a Puerto Rican woman named Ada, who lives in Indianapolis. She got divorced about five years ago, and about a year ago, a woman she works with fixed her up with her widowed Mexican father. Herman has also published poetry and participated in poetry slams.

"And, last, but not least, number five: I was in the cafeteria one morning having breakfast. I was joined by a Canadian couple, and the husband told me the story of the book he spent ten years researching, a nonfiction account of the Trekkers, exploited workers in Western Canada during the Great Depression. He has promised to send me a copy of the book when it comes out, and I shall have a nice surprise for my husband."

Although my friend says she feels like her life is out of a Hemingway novel this summer, she also says she misses home. "Even though it's been very rich and rewarding, and I know that my teaching will benefit greatly from what I've learned here, it's been difficult--lonely, I suppose. But I am a freak for the insight I get upon re-entry--and I think this one is going to be a doozy."

Friday, July 04, 2008

Pixie: Skittles' Historical Re-Enacter

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