Sunday, July 26, 2009

When The Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and its Deadly Wake by Brian Hicks

After reading Brian Hicks' "Ghost Ship" about the Mary Celeste and her vanishing crew, perhaps the greatest maritime mystery of all time, I had to read his account of the Morro Castle tragedy. Ever since seeing footage of Robert Ballard's discovery of the wreck of the Titanic on the evening news as a child of ten I have loved the majestic ocean liners that used to ply the seas.

For those unfamiliar with the Morro Castle, in the dark days of the Great Depression, this sleek, graceful lady used to make a weekly trip from New York to Havana, offering passengers an escape from the grim realities of breadlines and unemployment. Aboard the Morro Castle, every night was New Year's Eve, and every passenger, even those paying the reduced Depression-era rates, was a First Class passenger, the furnishings were a glamorous, glorious blend of Art Deco, Italian Renaissance, Louis XVI, and French Empire, she was touted as the safest ship afloat, and some thought of her as America's Titanic. There were masquerade balls, themed parties such as a "Balloon Dance," fine dining every night, sea spray showers on the game deck (one luxury that the Morro Castle did lack was a swimming pool), and a mini racetrack replete with toy horses with real betting to amuse the passengers. But on the night of September 8, 1934 the floating palace became a floating inferno when a fire of still indeterminate cause (accident or arson?) broke out and spread rapidly throughout the ship, quickly cutting off access to most of the lifeboats.

It was a night of horror, an ever-escalating waking nightmare, as an ill-trained crew gave full reign to their panic, and the situation quickly degenerated into sheer, unadulterated chaos, with crew members dashing through the halls banging pots and pans together and screaming to alert passengers and making no attempt to organize launching of the few accessible lifeboats. Though the Morro Castle carried more than enough lifeboats to have saved all of the 500+ persons aboard, the six that were launched carried approximately 100 crew members and only a handful of passengers. Once in the water these boats reportedly made no attempt to fish survivors out of the sea; those who lived would later tell of lifeboats filled with Morro Castle sailors floating callously by, ignoring their calls for help, and never offering to stop and render aid.

In desperation, with the fire burning the soles of their feet through the deck, most of the passengers jumped overboard, more than thirty feet down into the sea. Many were caught in the suction of the still functioning propellers and sucked into the enormous blades and certain death. Others died when, not forewarned by the crew, they did not know to hold down the bottom of their bulky lifejackets; these were fitted with thick blocks of cork which had a tendency to ride up and strike the wearer hard in the face and knock them out; some, landing face down in the water, knocked unconscious by the vests that were meant to save their lives, drowned.

Mr. Hicks book is a fair and balanced account of the disaster that attempts to correct myths, mistakes, and false assumptions. He made a study of numerous documents, including FBI files, reports of the various investigations, newspaper reports, and interviews with the survivors. He interweaves the tale of the tragedy with the stories of two new additions to the crew aboard for that final, fatal voyage: seventeen-year-old Thomas Torresson Jr., who fell in love with the ship at first sight and had sailed on her previously as a passenger when a doctor recommended the voyage as recuperation from a serious bout of pneumonia; and George White Rogers a psychopath who emerged as the hero of the hour but may in reality have been the villain.

For anyone interested in maritime history, ocean liners, or disasters at sea, "When The Dancing Stopped" is a most worthwhile read.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Back Street by Fannie Hurst

Anyone who thinks being a mistress is always glamorous should read this book.

Though largely forgotten today, Fannie Hurst was once one of America's top female novelists. Both "Back Street" and "Imitation Of Life" were big best-sellers in their day, immortalized on film more than once by Hollywood. As in the case of "Show Boat," the Edna Ferber novel I reviewed a few months ago, after many years' familiarity with the film versions, this was also a difficult book for me to read. The 1941 version of "Back Street," starring Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer, is one of my all-time favourite films; if I weren't already an insomniac I wouldn't hesitate an instant to stay up till 5:00 a.m. just to watch it if it came on TV at that time. The novel is a much harsher, grimmer story, which Hollywood greatly romanticized, particularly by making the leading man much more likable on-screen than he is in the pages of the book.

The story begins in charming, robust Cincinnati in the happy days of the 1890s. Ray Schmidt, aged 19, is the most stylish girl in town, she has a way with clothes, and the most vibrant, sunny personality, a big-heart and generous nature always ready to help out a friend, and an ear that is always willing to listen. She loves to go out and have a good time, to popular dining spots like Over-The-Rhine, and she thrills to all games of chance whether it be poker or horse-racing. She attracts admirers by the dozen, including many traveling salesmen, many of whom have a disturbing tendency to make indecent proposals which she always rejects. She also has one true, steadfast admirer, Kurt Shendler, who works in a bicycle shop but dreams of the coming day when the automobile shall reign supreme, and never stops loving Ray.

One fateful day while seeing a friend off at the train station, Ray meets Walter Saxel, an ambitious young Jewish man, engaged to the daughter of a rich family with important connections in the banking world. Though Walter is already spoken for, he begins seeing as much of Ray as possible, squiring her about town, taking her out for nice dinners, but his intentions remain ambiguous. He tells Ray he would like her to meet his mother and arranges for them to meet as if by chance by the lion cub cage at the zoo Sunday morning at 11:00. But fate intervenes, and Ray fails to keep the appointment. She will spend the rest of her life wondering if it would have made any difference if she had.

Seven years later, in New York, walking down Wall Street, Walter Saxel and Ray Schmidt meet again. Walter is now a successful banker with a wife and two children. Ray is still single and working in a dress goods shop. Two months later, Ray is living in an apartment provided by Walter; it all just seems to happen naturally, without making any ripples in the water. "I want you to feel about all this as a Frenchwoman would feel about it," Walter tells Ray. "My feelings for you and my feelings for my wife and children are things separate and apart. I can be loyal to both these feelings, because they are so different." And Ray Schmidt, unable to deny him anything, agrees, and slips as easily into the secrecy and shadows of life on the back streets of Walter Saxel's life as if it were a glove custom made to fit her hand. It is the only way she can be a part of his life; she would rather stay in the shadows of Walter Saxel's life than walk in the sun as the wife of someone else, and repeatedly rejects offers from men who would have given her love, respectability, and security.

But it isn't really easy or the idealized romance of stage and screen. Walter has a rather selfish, self-centered personality, his favourite words seem to be "I" and "Me." He wants Ray to be available all the time, he likes to talk over business matters with her, and to have her help him compose and memorize his speeches, he likes to know he can just pick up the phone and she will always be there at the other end. The saddest part of the book, I thought, was to see such a vibrant, outgoing girl, who loved going out and about so much, willingly entomb herself in solitude, afraid to step out of her apartment for fear the phone might ring and she not be there to answer it. All of her spark dies, and she becomes entirely passive, content to spend her life waiting, always waiting, for Walter to call or for the one or two evenings a week they spend together.

Walter is oblivious to Ray's wants and needs, her hopes and dreams, and any discomfort or resentment she feels. And though Ray suffers and struggles, she always suppresses her anger and frustration, and keeps silent. And despite his millions, Walter is alarmingly lacking in generosity where Ray is concerned. "If you had money you might fly away from me," he explains. In truth, Ray has no desire at all for jewels and furs and that sort of luxury, but after giving up her job to please Walter and always be available for him whenever he calls, she struggles to make ends meet on the small allowance of $100 a month that he gives her, much of which is spent on providing the hearty, home-cooked German dishes he adores so. There is a deep reticence between the couple about money; they avoid the subject as if it were the plague. Rather than broach the subject Ray tries to supplement her parsimonious allowance by taking up china painting and selling her handiwork to neighbors, who, one gets the impression, only buy out of pity. There is a porcelain figurine of a fishmonger with a basket on his back, and every month Walter silently, stealthily, puts Ray's allowance into the little man's basket, sparing them both the embarrassment of money changing hands.

This reader must admit she found it rather difficult to understand Ray's self-sacrificing, all-encompassing love for Walter, I never felt his charm or allure come off the pages, but then we don't always understand why one person loves another, otherwise we would never ask "What does she/he see in him/her?" However, as both a reader and an author myself, I feel a better, more obvious, depiction of whatever it was about this man that made Ray Love's willing prisoner until her dying day, would have rendered both characters and their situation more sympathetic and believable. In the film, for instance, Charles Boyer as Walter Saxel is able to infuse the character with charm and personality that allow the viewers to understand, but here the novel falls flat.

"Back Street" is a long novel that does not end at all happily. Skip to the next paragraph please if you do not want spoilers. Despite his promises, Walter fails to make suitable provisions for Ray in his will, he doesn't want anything indelicate to tar his memory and reputation after he is gone. So twenty-three years later when Walter Saxel dies in his wife's arms of acute indigestion Ray Schmidt is left destitute. She spends the rest of her life sliding further and further into poverty, her looks and radiant personality tarnished by time and an almost claustrophobic existence at Walter's beck and call, unable to find work, pawning her possessions until she has nothing left, and relying on her meager winnings at casinos and racetracks to keep body and soul together until she eventually starves to death.

In conclusion, for the grim realities of a kept woman's life, I don't think you can beat "Back Street," but if you want even a smidgen of believable romance to explain the characters' motivations look elsewhere, but, by all means, see the movie if you can next time it comes on Turner Classic Movies.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson

This is a charming chocolate eclair or cream puff pastry of a book, however, it may send those accustomed to facts in their historical fiction into the literary equivalent of a diabetic coma.

This novel marks popular biographer Carolly Erickson's debut in the historical fiction genre. She classifies her 18th century confection as a "historical entertainment" and makes clear in an author's note at the end that "it is not an attempt at historical reconstruction," and a good thing too just in case anyone is tempted to take up this novel instead of a biography to learn about the life of Marie Antoinette.

In October 1793, while sitting in her prison cell in the Conciergerie, the threshold of the guillotine, Marie Antoinette looks back at the journal she began as a young girl full of hope and poised on the cusp of womanhood, before she learned "how cruel the world can be." The Marie Antoinette depicted on those pages emerges as an immature young woman endowed with more compassion than commonsense. She is charming, likable, and guileless, though somewhat vain and vapid, and more interested in fashion and leading a frivolous existence than in politics, her role in the dynastic alliance between Austria and France, or anything else for that matter. Before motherhood instills some maturity, and the French Revolution ignites to destroy her world like an anarchist's bomb blast, her diary entries are as light and frothy as meringue.

The first journal entry ideally illustrates compassion versus commonsense when the thirteen-year-old Archduchess Antonia, as she is then known, sneaks a basket of food to her dying sister who is quarantined with the virulent, and always deadly, black pox. Each journal entry gives us a little window into Marie Antoinette's often self-centered world. After her betrothal to the Dauphin of France, the future Louis XVI, she lines up her fashion dolls and parades before them, imagining them as ladies of the French court bowing to their future queen. We see her share her first kiss with a handsome stablehand named Eric, and weep and wail because her future husband is no storybook Prince Charming--"He is ugly! He looks like a pig!" And through it all she impatiently waits for "General Krottendorf" (the name the Hapsburg archduchesses used to refer to their menstrual periods) to make his first appearance so she can rush out to meet her destiny in France.

In France, she finds her future husband, despite his lack of physical appeal, to be a painfully shy, socially awkward boy who is seized with terror at the thought of becoming king. But Louis' shyness and lack of grace obscure a kind heart and intelligent mind and give the false impression that he is stupid and slow-witted. In truth, Louis is a studious man, crippled by self-doubt and low self-esteem, who shuns the whirlwind social life Marie Antoinette flings herself into with such giddy abandon, preferring instead a quiet, simple life with the study of botany and lockmaking for leisure activities. He is usually in bed by eleven o'clock, sleeping like a log, while his wife's night is just beginning. Unlike other more imperious, self-centered monarchs, Louis genuinely does have a care for his subjects' welfare, but his attempts to economize are often defeated by his retiring personality, and a lack of confidence and backbone, especially when confronted with his wife's staggering dressmaker's bills. He eventually develops what he calls his "Theory of Mistaken Destiny," to explain and excuse his failure as a king. And later, when the cauldron of discontent stewing in Paris begins to boil over, he runs and hides from his ministers and foists all the responsibility of governing onto his wife's fair shoulders.

Their marriage remains unconsummated for years, and Marie Antoinette unjustly bears the blame for this. She becomes the subject of scurrilous verses, diplomatic plots to send her back to Vienna, endures a humiliating physical examination by the royal physician that reveals her hymen is still intact, and the chambermaids and laundresses gossip over her bedlinens. A courtesan is even discreetly brought in to instruct her in the arts of seduction and male arousal, but Louis' libido remains limp, and he proffers no explanation to his bewildered and frustrated young bride, though the royal physician later explains that Louis suffers from a slight and easily correctable deformity of the foreskin, but fears the surgery. With a husband who is more like a brother or a friend to her, Marie Antoinette looks to her handsome stablehand, Eric, for romantic consolation, albeit of a chaste nature. "He cannot give me the love I need," she explains when they discuss her marriage. "I need to know that your love is there, for me to think of, and rely on."

A series of bread riots are the first serious spark to indicate that all is not well in France. Marie Antoinette is momentarily disturbed--"This would never happen in Vienna, the soldiers would prevent it!"--but her pretty-as-a-French-pastry sugar-white-powdered head is still in the clouds, especially after she beholds the angelic vision of Count Axel Fersen of Sweden descending a staircase in all his white uniformed, blonde-haired, blue-eyed glory.

In the years that follow, as political unrest continues to simmer in France, Marie Antoinette revels in the true love she has found with Count Fersen, and finds both satisfaction and heartbreak in motherhood. A bit of chicanery conspired between Antoinette, her brother the Austrian Emperor Joseph, and the royal physician results in Louis having the necessary corrective surgery, and, after years of waiting, a royal child is at last conceived. But it is a princess, not a prince, and as females cannot inherit the throne by French law, many are quick to brand Marie Antoinette a failure. A miscarriage follows before she at last secures the succession with a son. Her heart-wrenching journal entries reveal the agony the crippled and ailing child suffers throughout his short life, and also show how sorrow and the helplessness she feels watching her child suffer leaves its mark on Marie Antoinette . With the birth of a second son, a thriving, hearty bundle of joy Antoinette affectionately calls her chou d'amour, she ensures that France now has an heir and a spare, but sorrow further tempers joy when her final child, a sickly, premature little girl, doesn't live out her first year. And through it all events and agitators continue to fan the flames of revolution, ultimately leading to a tragic end for Marie Antoinette and those she loves. Her journal entries let readers feel the heat of the French Revolution, and the frustration, despair, abuse, and humiliation the captive royal family endured. The inclusion of a former chambermaid with an axe to grind brings it to an even more personal level as the vengeful ex-servant gloats and glories in Marie Antoinette's misfortunes and does all she can to increase them.

Like one of Marie Antoinette's ornately decorated panniered ballgowns, Ms. Erickson's novel contains many romantic and dramatic embellishments, such as the Queen and Count Fersen going off to Sweden together for a romantic holiday, ostensibly to help King Gustavus decorate his new palace, a sort of "Swedish Versailles." This assuredly never happened, but perhaps it is Ms. Erickson's way of posthumously giving the lovers something they never had in life. She also simplifies and condenses the history, and is a tad too sparing with details and descriptions of Marie Antoinette's circle of friends. For instance, unless the reader is already familiar with the life of Marie Antoinette, they may not realize that a woman mentioned frequently but always only as "Loulou" is actually the Princesse de Lamballe; a fact not revealed until Marie Antoinette pens her friend's epitaph in her diary. And the Comtesse de Polignac is little more than a name that appears on several pages. I am sorry to say that these bosom friends who played such important roles in Marie Antoinette's life simply do not emerge as fully realized characters. And, most curiously, there is not a single mention of the monumental powder keg of a scandal known as "The Affair of the Diamond Necklace" that blasted what little was left of Marie Antoinette's reputation into smithereens, though there is a cameo appearance by the charlatan Count Cagliostro who is brought in to try to heal the sickly Dauphin with magician's tricks and gobbledygook about Ancient Egyptian deities. There is even a daring, Scarlet Pimpernel style rescue attempt thrown in for good measure near the end.

All in all, though historical fiction purists will probably deplore it, this novel is like the cake the longstanding and erroneous legend says Marie Antoinette once advised her starving people to eat if they had no bread. And I, for one, happen to like cake, and, despite its flaws, I like this novel too.