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 fiancĂ© 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.