Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This is one of my favorite books, which inspired one of my favorite movies, and I was delighted to finally have the chance to read it again. It’s a wonderful coming of age story spanning the years 1912 to 1918 in the life of Francie Nolan, a girl of the Brooklyn tenements who loves to read and dreams of being a writer when she grows up.

When the story begins in the summer of 1912, Francie is ten years old and her brother Neely is nine. Their mother, Katie Nolan, is a pretty, practical, hard as nails woman of twenty-nine, who works as a scrubwoman to support her family, while her lovable husband, Johnny, a drunkard and pipe dreamer whose dreams never come true, can’t hold down a regular job, and takes work as a singing waiter whenever he can get it, using his tips to buy his liquor. Life has eroded any natural tendency to tenderness Katie ever had, and hardened her heart like the soda in the water she uses to scrub the floors has hardened her hands and left them raw and cracked, she has to make hard and often unpopular decisions while everybody loves and likes Johnny. Then there is her sister, Aunt Sissy (wonderfully portrayed by Joan Blondell in the movie) a big-hearted woman with a lackadaisical approach to marriage, divorce, and birth control, who can’t give birth to a living child.

This book paints a vivid picture of this family and what their life was like, and how a poor and lonely child with a love of books struggles to fit in and to hold on to her dreams, like school, which Francie loves, but almost loses after her father dies.

For those familiar with the movie, it follows the book very closely, only offering a broader scope, like introducing a few characters not featured in the movie and taking a look back at the happy days when Katie and Johnny first fell in love and married. But the movie stops with Francie at fifteen, the book goes further.

After Johnny’s death, of alcoholism and pneumonia, the reader gets to witness Francie’s grief, the birth of her baby sister, named Annie Laurie after a song Johnny used to sing, we get to watch her grow up, become a young woman, going to work in an artificial flower factory at fourteen, then at newspaper clipping service, enduring the first painful pangs of love, being hurt by a man’s lies, and preparing to go to college in 1918 after her mother has married Officer McShane who can make life easier for them all.

It’s a moving, sentimental and nostalgic “Sidewalks of New York” style book filled with characters who stick in your mind you can actually feel something for, whether good or bad or somewhere in between. But it’s not all sugar and spice nostalgia, it doesn't shrink from the ugliness and cruelty of life, it has it all in just the right measure and I think that’s one of the reasons people still love this book. Life is not a fairy tale and this story doesn't try to pretend it is, it doesn't promise a happily ever after, and when you reach the last page you’re left wondering what the rest of their lives were like. Sometimes I wish Betty Smith had written a sequel, even though part of me is glad she didn't since I always seem to regret reading sequels yet always feel compelled to if I liked the original book. 

Through the author’s words, we feel and see it all, the people and their problems, the dirt, poverty, hope and despair, we feel the hard knocks of life they experience, and it’s sweet, simple pleasures like penny candy and library books, candy canes and tangerines at Christmas, and fourth of July fireworks, Thanksgiving dinner with homemade noodles and pot roast, and Halloween hijinxs. We experience Francie’s first taste of pumpkin pie and the pretty china doll with golden curls and a fancy dress she won at charity Christmas party by telling what turned to be a white lie and her guilt over it. And the gentle encouragement of a teacher that changed her life when she told Francie to write down the lies instead of telling them, that way they become a story, “tell the truth and write the story.” Great advice and a great book that inspired a great movie, I urge everyone to try one or the other or, even better, both.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Where’s Evelyn? The 1953 Babysitter’s Kidnapping That Shook The Nation by Susan T. Hessel

In 1953 La Crosse, Wisconsin was like the setting on one of the era’s popular sitcoms, like “Father Knows Best” or “Ozzie and Harriet.” It was a world of freshly painted houses, neat lawns, stay at home moms, and church on Sundays, people didn’t lock their doors, and kids rode their bikes to the malt shop or movie dates, and football and basketball games. The rock and roll craze hadn’t hit La Crosse yet and the bogey man was anyone who had ever been a member of the Communist Party. Girls earned their spending money by babysitting and guys by pumping gas at the local station. It was a Norman Rockwell world of innocence, and it was about to be shattered.

On October 24, 1953 Viggo Rasmusen, a college professor, and his wife were eager to attend the Homecoming game. They needed a babysitter. But the girl they usually called was unavailable. But Evelyn Hartley, the mature and responsible daughter of their neighbor, biology professor, Richard Hartley, was free. The fifteen-year-old straight A student, a fresh-faced, blue-eyed, brunette in a white blouse and red denim pants, arrived promptly with her spectacles on and her schoolbooks in hand, ready to study while the Rasmusens’ baby daughter, Janice, slept. Everyone knew “you could always rely on Evelyn.” She was a quiet, studious girl, with no boyfriend who went on very few dates. She loved music and the outdoors.

Everything seemed fine. Until 8:30 p.m. when Evelyn failed to call. She always called her parents promptly at 8:30 p.m. whenever she was babysitting. When her parents dialed the Rasumsens’ number the phone rang and rang, no one ever answered. Finally Mr. Hartley decided to go find out why. He found the lights on, the doors locked, and music playing on the radio inside. He rang the doorbell but Evelyn never came. He found the basement window was unlocked, the metal frame was warped, and the screen had been removed and propped against the wall. In the basement he found one of Evelyn’s shoes lying at the foot of the basement stairs, and upstairs he found its mate lying on the living room floor with Evelyn’s glasses amidst scattered schoolbooks and other signs suggesting a struggle.

Baby Janice was safe, asleep in her crib; she had slept through whatever had happened to Evelyn, that may have saved her life. As for Evelyn, she was never seen again. “She was an ordinary girl in an ordinary home and someone someone had come in and taken her,” as the news would soon report.

The police would later find blood, Type A, the same as Evelyn’s, which was all that could be determined in this era long before DNA, a few feet from the basement window on the dark side of the house and some tennis shoe prints in the window box, and matching clumps of dirt on the living room carpet. A trail of blood on the side of a neighboring house, presumably left as the kidnapper or kidnappers were taking Evelyn away, indicated significant blood loss and led the Hartleys to believe their daughter was dead.

The police did everything that was humanly possible to find Evelyn Hartley. Police in neighboring states offered their full cooperation. The case was well publicized. They canvassed the neighborhood and stopped cars and even searched parked ones, looking for a girl without shoes on who fit Evelyn’s description. They rounded up known sex offenders and suspicious charactes. Bloodhounds followed the trail of blood and Evelyn’s scent through adjacent years to the street where Evelyn must have been put into a car and driven away.  Thousands of volunteers, including forty troops of Boy Scouts, helped conduct widespread searches of the woodlands, highways, sewers, and gullys, and any other likely locations for concealing a body. There were also aerial searches, lakes were dragged, and divers explored the Mississippi River. Fresh graves were even opened to make sure Evelyn’s body had not been deposited on top of the deceased.

Despite some later criticisms, all evidence suggests they worked very hard and gave the investigation their best in this era of limited technology, in spite of the interference of the press, some of whom even went so far as to impersonate police, replete with fake badges, in their quest for scoops to fill their newspapers. Even as late as the 1990s police were still following up any tips they received about the case.

One eyewitness came forward to say that around 7:15 p.m. he had seen a girl, staggering, semi-conscious (he thought perhaps she was drunk) in the company of two men, walking between the Rasmusens’ house and the neighbor’s, where blood was later found on the wall. He saw them again later the same evening in a two-tone green Buick with the girl slumped in the backseat. But he didn’t know anyone was missing at the time and merely assumed they were just people getting a head start on celebrating the Homecoming game.

On October 28, 1953 a bra and panties of the same size and type worn by Evelyn were found near an underpass on Highway 14, two miles south of the city limits. Type A blood, the same as Evelyn’s, was found on the panties (Evelyn had her period at the time she disappeared.)  A few days later, on October 31, another search party found a pair of men’s size eleven tennis shoes along the same highway. Tests would later confirm that these had probably been worn by the kidnapper. A bloodstained denim jacket was also found nearby. The shoes and jacket were displayed in nearby communities in the hope that someone would recognize them. A reward was offered but no one ever came forward to claim it.

To this day questions abound, but answers are lacking. Was it a burglary gone wrong or an intended sex crime all along? Was Evelyn the intended victim or randomly chosen? Did she know her abductor(s)? If it was planned, was the Rasmusens’ regular babysitter the target? Was Evelyn merely in the wrong place at the wrong time?

This book gives a thorough account of the investigation, all the leads and clues are explored, including the theory that the notorious killer Ed Gein, one of the inspirations for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” may have kidnapped and killed Evelyn, as well as the inevitable cruel hoaxes and confessions that form a part of any missing person’s case. It also covers what may be an intriguing clue or just another dead end, an old reel-to-reel tape recorded in a bar in 1969 came to light in 2004 that claims to reveal what really happened to Evelyn. But no one knows if it is real or just bar talk and drunken boasting.

In missing person and murder cases, time is the enemy. A case that is well publicized at the time may fade from human memory. People die and people forget. It’s been a long time since October 24, 1953. Let’s pause to remember Evelyn Hartley wherever she may be.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Bad Seed by William March

"The Bad Seed" is one of my favorite classic movies, so I was very curious to read the novel and see how it compared. Originally published in 1954, this novel became a bestseller, a successful play, and a popular movie.

Devious little devil disguised as an angel, Rhoda Penmark, age eight, is the epitome of “Little Miss Perfect” in her red and white Swiss dotted dress and pigtails on the day of the annual school picnic when all the other children are wearing playsuits and coveralls, but inside she is burning with fury, all because Claude Daigle, a thin, timid boy, has won the gold penmanship medal.

When Claude dies at the picnic, the tragic victim of what was apparently an accidental drowning, despite some curious bruises on his head and hands, and the mysterious absence of the medal he so proudly wore pinned to his shirt, it soon comes to light that Rhoda had been hounding the poor boy all day, following him around trying to badger him into letting her hold the medal.

This is not the first time death has come so close to Rhoda. Her puppy fell out of a window shortly after Rhoda made the unpleasant discovery that it was her responsibility to take care of it. And an old lady who had promised to leave Rhoda the opal pendant she admired so much when she died fell down a flight of stairs and broke her neck.

When Christine Penmark, Rhoda’s mother, discovered the penmanship medal hidden in Rhoda’s room, she is forced to confront the terrifying and uncomfortable truth about her daughter and her own past.

I really enjoyed reading this book, and the movie adheres very closely to it, although the ending was changed for the film, so if you've seen it and enjoyed it you might want to give the book a try too.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Happy 6th Birthday Tabby!

Tabby will be six years old on September 17th, but because I will be recovering from surgery then we decided to celebrate early this year. Here are some pics of my little girl with her Oreo Cookie Cake. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Twilight Of Innocence The Disappearance Of Beverly Potts by James Jessen Badal

On the evening of August 24, 1951 two ten-year-old girls left their homes in a quiet, respectable Cleveland neighborhood to walk to Halloran Park, five minutes away, to attend a free performance of the traveling Showagon, a troupe of dancers, singers, and magicians. Patricia Swing would come safely home, but sweet, shy Beverly Potts, who had recently had her long pigtails cropped into a stylish bob, would never be seen again.

The author chronicles the police investigation and extensive media coverage, which left no stone unturned in a diligent and dedicated effort to find Beverly Potts, every clue was meticulously followed, including the numerous false hopes and cruel hoaxes that inevitably accompany such well-publicized disappearances. The police never gave up on finding Beverly, but to this date no trace of her has ever been found. In July 2000 an anonymous letter in cramped handwriting, claiming to have been written by an 82 year old man who claimed to have molested and unintentionally murdered Beverly was sent to a local newspaper, the author said he wanted to confess before he died, but the police were never able to identify the author or determine if it was authentic or a hoax. This is a very detailed and well-written account of the tragic disappearance and probable murder of an innocent child. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe by J. Randy Taraborrelli

As a longtime fan of Marilyn Monroe I've found that almost every new biography claims to be THE ONE to reveal the REAL truth about her, to reveal the heretofore undisclosed and to blast the lies and secrets away like bursting bombshells. That said, Mr. Taraborrelli's book did indeed contain some unexpected surprises. Instead of giving in to sensationalism and conspiracy theories as the title might reasonably lead readers to suspect, he instead paints a portrait of a sad and lonely woman grappling with the demons of her own mind, a borderline paranoid schizophrenic, terrified that, like her mother and grandmother before her, she would end up institutionalized.

The life of Marilyn Monroe is a fascinating study in contradictions. She was the woman every man wanted and every woman wanted to be, but that was just a beautiful illusion. The real Marilyn, despite her breathtaking beauty and genuine talent, was a bedeviling blend of insecurity and fear barely glued together by drugs and alcohol which made her behavior and mental state even more erratic. She was a woman who used sex to affirm her desirability and usually chose badly, either to boost her career or stave off loneliness, when it came to the men in her life. She also had a distressing tendency to surrender herself to the power of strong, Svengali-like personalities, such as her acting coaches Natasha Lytess and Lee and Paula Strasberg, and her last psychologist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, a man often cast as the villain in the saga of Marilyn Monroe, because of the control he exerted over all aspects of her life and the unorthodox and unprofessional choices he made in her treatment.

To my surprise, Mr. Taraborrelli, while admitting anything is possible, largely debunks the web of conspiracy, sex, and murder that has been spun around Marilyn and her relationships with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert "Bobby" Kennedy. He maintains that Marilyn was basically a weekend fling, just another conquest--bedding the ultimate Hollywood blonde--to JFK, and that poor deluded, drug-addled Marilyn became obsessed with him, doggedly pursuing the President and pestering him by phone, wanting their relationship to be more than it actually was or could ever be, maybe even going so far as to imagine herself as First Lady someday. When Marilyn refused to face the facts, Bobby Kennedy was dispatched to tell her to back off and stop calling. Though many believe this confrontation evolved into a love affair, the evidence presented by Mr. Taraborrelli fails to support this, and one is left with the feeling that while they make fascinating reading the conspiracy theories that abound about Marilyn and the Kennedy brothers are more fiction than fact.

Although a genuine air of mystery enshrouds Marilyn's death, and there are questions that remain unanswered and probably always will, in Mr. Taraborrelli's account suicide seems more likely than murder. For many years, I was a devout believer in the murder conspiracy, but as I have gotten older my mind has given greater consideration to the suicide theory. I used to be one of those who believed that Marilyn would never have intentionally taken her own life, she had too much to live for; things were looking up, she had a bright future ahead of her and some great projects in the works. But I know now that having talent that suggests a bright future lies ahead is not always enough to chase the darkness of the soul away. Attaining success, or even stardom, is not a cure, and these things bring their own share of problems that can compound pre-existing ones. Admiration, adoration, and accolades aren't enough, they are not chicken soup for the soul. In the end, Marilyn Monroe couldn't escape the encroaching darkness, she was a woman fighting a losing battle with her own mind and inner demons; she could not save herself and no one else could or would either.

Whatever the truth about Marilyn Monroe's last night on earth, and whether she departed via malice, accident, or intent, Marilyn Monroe didn't die that night, sad, lonely, frightened, lost little girl Norma Jeane died, her glittering platinum and diamond creation, with the breathy little girl voice and marshmallow-soft but oh so fragile heart and soul, the legendary Marilyn Monroe lives on.

I found Mr. Taraborrelli's book to be a refreshing, down to earth, unsensationalized look at the life of Marilyn Monroe, the woman and the movie star. The only issue I had with it was that he omitted to mention either the cosmetic surgery or abortions that form an oft-repeated part of the Marilyn Monroe story and appear in numerous books about her. To me, the book would have felt more complete if he had explored these issues, regardless of whether it was to affirm or disprove them. That said, I would still recommend this book to any casual reader or devoted Marilyn fan.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Speeding Bullet The Life and Bizarre Death of George Reeves by Jan Alan Henderson

The world was devastated when tv’s Superman, George Reeves, was found dead with a bullet in his head on June 16, 1959. Was it suicide, a tragic accident, or murder? Those questions are still being asked to this day. A movie, Hollywoodland, was even made about this enduring Hollywood mystery.

This is not just a book about a mysterious death. It takes us back to George Reeves’ humble beginnings in Iowa, through his theatrical training at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met his wife Eleanor, and his early days in Hollywood, where, after a few small parts in B-westerns, he landed a part as one of the pair of tangerine-haired Tarleton twins in Gone With the Wind. But appearing in one of the most famous and best loved movies of all time wasn't the break George hoped it would be. More small roles of varying qualities followed. He seemed poised on the brink of stardom when he was cast alongside Claudette Colbert in So Proudly We Hail, but then, as luck would have it, he was drafted.

After the war, he just could not seem to get his career back on track. He began a long term affair with a wealthy older woman, Toni Mannix, the wife of an MGM studio executive, and in 1951 accepted the role in a kiddie serial, The Adventures of Superman, solely for the money. To everyone’s surprise, it became a smash hit, and he was signed for six more seasons playing Clark Kent and his alter ego Superman, which meant dyeing his prematurely gray hair black and being laced into a corset and strapping on twenty pounds of rubber muscles beneath the famous blue and red suit.

To George’s dismay, he became typecast, trapped by the role that made him famous. When audiences saw him on the screen in other roles they screamed Superman! He tried to be a good sport about it, and hid his pain behind wisecracks and alcohol. Though whether he actually became an alcoholic or not is open to debate.

In 1958 a new woman came into his life, the alluring life of the party girl Lenore Lemmon. Toni didn't take being jilted gracefully; she was hurt and angry, and begged mutual friends to intercede and try to talk some sense into George. But he and Lenore stayed together and there were rumors that they planned to marry.

Then it all came to a sudden end that night in June when shots rank out in Benedict Canyon. George was found dead, nude in bed, with a bullet wound in his head while downstairs Lenore hosted a small party downstairs where the drinks flowed freely.

The truth about George’s death remains a mystery. Did the aging and depressed actor (he was forty-five), trapped by his success as Superman, see death as the only graceful way out? Was it an impulsive act of despair? Or was it an accident or murder along the lines of “Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned”? All theories are explored in this book.

As for the women George Reeves left behind, Lenore continued drinking and partying until she died, while Toni Manix, heartbroken over George’s death, became a recluse, sitting in her bedroom of her Beverly Hills mansion watching old episodes of Superman and eating the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that had been his favorite until she died.

This author exposes some of the errors in the more sensational and popular book about George Reeves’ death, “Hollywood Kryptonite,” which I will also be reviewing. He has a very honest, down to earth approach, and if something is unknown or open to debate he says so, and that’s something I give biographers high marks for when we all know sensation and scandalous new revelations are what sells celebrity biographies. Of the two books currently available about George Reeves’ death, I would say “Speeding Bullet” is the best.

Hollywood Kryptonite by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger

This book claims to reveal the truth about one of Hollywood’s great unsolved mysteries—the death of George Reeves. It puts his affair with Toni Manix squarely at the heart of the matter.

Toni, “The Lady,” was the wife of “The Bulldog,” Eddie Mannix, a powerful executive at MGM Studios, and George Reeves was “The Boy,” in this love triangle that went murderously wrong when party girl Lenore Lemmon came on the scene and ousted Toni from George’s bed and affections.

It all makes a very interesting story, and it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for George Reeves, torn between two women in his personal life, and professionally being trapped by the role of Superman, an all too human and aging man played a character expected to be always young, strong, and handsome, and worrying about children being injured trying to fly like their television hero (one little boy even brought a real gun to one of George’s public appearances as Superman, an incident dramatized in the movie Hollywoodland), but I can’t honestly say I’m convinced they've solved it. I was also struck by a glaring error in this book, the authors state there was no window in George Reeve’s bedroom, but there definitely was, if you look at the illustrations in the book you can even see the window, and when an author makes an important error like that in a nonfiction book it really makes me wonder if they've played fast and loose or misinterpreted or ignored other facts for the sake of their story and proving their theory.

If you read this in the spirit of a novel, or a dramatization of George Reeves’ death, like watching the movie Hollywoodland, it makes a great story, riveting and page turning, and is definitely worth reading, but as a true crime book I think it falls a little short. Ultimately, I think the death of George Reeves is fated to remain one of Hollywood’s unsolved mysteries.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Sheik by Edith Maude Hull

Being a big classic movie fan, I was curious to read this “shocking” 1920 bestseller that became a cultural phenomenon forever entwined with the life and legend of movie star Rudolph Valentino after he brought the title character to life on the silver screen. Because of this novel the word “sheik” made its way into the dictionary as slang for a masterful, dominating, forceful man women find themselves irresistibly drawn to. It led to stream of parodies and copycat movies, books, and plays, and even a brand of condoms. In movie theaters women swooned over Valentino as The Sheik and men laughed out loud and walked out. So here is a review of the book that began it all.

Beautiful Lady Diana Mayo is a fearless young heiress who lives sports and travel. She’s “the coldest little fish in the world” who doesn't even know what love means. Even though all the boys seem to fall for the blue-eyed reddish-blonde beauty, she just can’t understand it. She’s a complete stranger to affection and the expression of it. “When God made me He omitted to give me a heart,” she says. Perhaps it’s because of her upbringing? After her mother died of complications in childbirth, her father shot himself, leaving baby Diana in the custody of her nineteen year old brother, Sir Aubrey Mayo, who just doesn't know what to do with a girl, so raises her as a tomboy instead, to be a companion to him in his travels and hunting and fishing and camping trips around the world. Proud Diana is determined never bend her will to another’s, she sees marriage as a revolting idea, an end to independence, and thus not for her. She’s only interested in men as pals, or chums, to fish, hunt, and ride with, their lovemaking holds no appeal to her at all.

When the novel opens, Diana is poised to leave Biskra and embark on a scandalous month long tour of the desert, alone, without a chaperon, only a caravan full of Arab males and camels.  Her own brother calls her “a damned obstinate little devil” when she refuses to change her mind. But Diana obstinately refuses.

As Diana is riding across the desert, a white-robed Arab on a swift steed sweeps her out of the saddle and carries her away to his tent. “Lie still, you little fool!” he snarls to the outraged heiress as he easily overpowers her. For the first time in her life, Diana knows what it is like to be afraid.

In his tent, the cruelest and handsomest man she has ever seen looks at her in a way that seems to burn her clothes away and then introduces himself as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. The imperious beauty demands to know why he has brought her here. “Are you not woman enough to know?” he retorts before he proceeds to rape her. This is not graphically depicted, like an old movie fading to black, Diana awakes from her ordeal in the Sheik’s luxurious bed, in a tent that commingles oriental splendor with elegant French décor, castigating herself for her tears and cowardice, for begging to be spared, instead of stoically and silently enduring the assault. The tomboy has at last become a woman, “born with tears and agony last night.”

For months, Diana remains a captive in the Sheik’s tent, being attended by his French valet, an Arab maid, and being permitted daily rides on the fine horses her abductor breeds, awakening to the true inferiority of her sex and at the same time realizing that it is futile to resist this cultured barbarian who refuses to let her go until she begins to bore him. He reminds her of a tiger she shot in India the previous winter, “a graceful, cruel, merciless beast” she both feared and admired.

One day she decides to attempt an escape during one of her daily, chaperoned rides. She gallops madly across the desert, ignoring all the portents of death along the way, like the whitened bones of camels and vultures circling overhead, until she spies riders in the distance. She’s hoping for a friendly caravan that will take pity on her and guide her back to polite society, but, as luck would have it, it’s the Sheik.  When she resists him, he shoots the horse, his own prized mount, Silver Star, out from under her and sweeps her onto the saddle in front of him. As they ride back to his tent by moonlight, Diana experiences an epiphany. Leaning bqack against the Sheik’s powerful, strong chest, she realizes that she loves him. Yes, she really and truly loves him and life would be meaningless and not worth living without him.  She’s “deliriously, insanely happy!” For the first time in her life she knows what love is, and the intensity and immensity of it truly frightens her.  Now there’s only one thing she wants, and without it her life will never be complete—she wants him to love her, really love her, not just want her body for lustful purposes.

Now Diana has something new to fear—that the Sheik will get bored with her and send her away from his splendid, barbaric presence, so she forces herself to go on feigning indifference, pretending to hate him. But something’s got to give. When Diana is captured by a rival sheik during one of her daily rides Ahmed Ben Hassan discovers he loves his pretty English plaything and risks his life to save her.


His brush with death makes him realize that he can’t keep Diana in the desert with him, and the right, the noble, honorable thing to do is to send her back to civilization. Because he loves her so much, he is willing to make this sacrifice. Now her worst fear really has come true! So naturally Diana tries to shoot herself. But she doesn't succeed, instead they get married and live happily ever after in the desert. The End…until the sequel that is, Sons of the Sheik, which I haven’t read and I’m not sure I want to.

I recommend reading this only as a curio of the past, to see what constituted a shocking, scandalous bestseller in 1920. The modern reader must keep in mind the era and common beliefs of the time and audience it was written for, otherwise they may find its racist and sexist attitudes offensive. The perceived British superiority over other races is very much in evidence, as is the belief that all women should be tamed and domesticated and devoted to serving the men in their lives. Famed grand dame of romance Barbara Cartland said when recollecting the phenomena of The Sheik which she first read and saw on the screen when she was nineteen or twenty. “We all saw ourselves in the role of Diana Mayo," Cartland recalled, "we all longed to be abducted into the desert and to be forced by sheer violence into obedience by an all-conquering male.” However, it's good to know that some women have taken an opposite view and strenuously objected to its depiction of such a strong-willed, independent woman being tamed and subdued by a man who repeatedly rapes her and then falling head over heels in love with him.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Original Million Dollar Mermaid The Annette Kellerman Story by Emily Gibson and Barbara Firth

In the early 20th century a young Australian woman named Annette Kellerman became one of the world’s biggest stars in vaudeville and the movies. Years later in 1952 her life story would inspire a splashy Technicolor movie starring then swimming star Esther Williams as “The Million Dollar Mermaid.”

The story begins with a little girl with her skinny legs in iron braces, suffering from rickets. She took up swimming to strength her legs and soon the braces were off and she was beating the boys and breaking records. She loved every moment of it.

After her family fell on hard times, she and her father traveled to England where she began giving exhibition dives in a one piece, modernized bathing suit of her own design. Remember, this was back when women still went into the water wearing full skirts, bloomers, bathing caps, and even lace-up shoes. Her attempts to swim the English Channel made news around the world. And she was soon appearing nightly in a huge glass tank starring in her own water ballets in such elite theaters as The Hippodrome and The Palladium. And giving lectures about her healthy lifestyle—no alcohol, cigarettes, or red meat—and beauty and exercise tips to eager women.

Then Hollywood beckoned. In 1916 Annette became the first major Hollywood star to appear nude in a film, the sadly lost “Daughter of the Gods,” a big budget fairy tale romance about mermaids and mortals and eternal love. It was a million dollar hit, thus earning Annette the sobriquet “Million Dollar Mermaid.” During the production of “Neptune’s Daughter,” another mythical ocean romance, Annette suffered a spinal cord injury when the glass tank she was swimming in cracked. Doctors said she would never walk again, but she defied them, and not only walked, but swam, and even danced again, and went on to make more movies.

But the public is fickle and fame of this kind seldom lasts long after the novelty wears off and the curious are satisfied  There’s only so much you can do with swimming. And Annette was soon back to taking whatever work she could get during the dying days of vaudeville, where the enormous cost of staging a water ballet in a glass tank proved increasingly prohibitive. During World War II she was very active working for the Red Cross to raise money and entertain the troops, but she poured so much of her own money into this lavish water shows that it’s really no wonder she ended up broke. She also opened her own health food store but that failed to prosper and in 1952. miffed that she would not be allowed to portray herself on screen, she returned to Hollywood to act as adviser on the movie of her life.

As Orson Welles once famously said, “if you want a happy ending it depends on where you end your story.” While the movie’s version of Annette’s life ends happily in the arms of the man she loves, the real Annette Kellerman died practically penniless in 1975 at the age of 89 in Queensland, she even had to sell an old fur coat to try to make ends meet. But she did in fact enjoy lifelong personal happiness. In 1912 she married her manager, Jimmie Sullivan, and had the happy marriage every woman dreams of, which only ended with his death in 1972, after which Annette’s own splendid health began to deteriorate.

If you've ever seen the Esther William’s movie “Million Dollar Mermaid,” and wondered how much truth was in this supposedly true story about the world’s first swimming superstar, this book is a great way to find out.

You can see several of Annette's theatrical and film costumes, including this mermaid tail, at

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Light In the Piazza by Elizabeth Spencer

This novella inspired one of my favorite classic movies, which is Finally! available on dvd.

Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara appear to be just the typical American tourists visiting Italy in the 1950s. But appearances are often deceiving. Though temperamentally sweet and physically beautiful, Clara is in fact the mental equivalent of a child of ten. Certainly the handsome young Italian man, Fabrizzio Naccarelli they meet can’t tell that anything is amiss.

Smitten with Clara, he contrives to meet her on the daily mother-daughter sightseeing excursions. He and Clara have an instant rapport that transcends the awkward language barrier.

Of course Mrs. Johnson is worried. In the past she has often had to take young men aside and gently explain the problem with Clara. But with Fabrizzio she keeps putting it off. After all, this is only a vacation, they will be returning to America soon, so why not, just once, let her enjoy the dream of romance, even if it is just a fairy tale that, though it will not end happily ever after, will end, and soon.

But the more time passes, and the more she observes the interaction and attraction between Clara and Fabrizzio, Mrs. Johnson begins to see things differently. Fabrizzio likes, loves, and accepts Clara for who she is, he doesn’t see any problem, and in his simple Italian world Clara’s beauty and innocence are much admired. Clara could make a happy life here with Fabrizzio and his family and her mother becomes determined to give her the chance.

If you’ve seen the movie, I think you’ll enjoy the story that inspired it, and if you haven’t seen it but decide to read the book first make sure you treat yourself to a viewing as soon as you can afterwards, it’s a real treat.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Madam Valentino The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova by Michael Morris

The second wife of Rudolph Valentino, the great Latin lover of the silent screen, has always been a controversial figure. Some see their stormy marriage as Pygmalion and Galatea in reverse—she created him, but whatever the truth is about that, Natacha Rambova created herself first.

Born a millionaire’s daughter in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1897 Winifred Shaughnessy (later Hudnut when her mother’s third husband, cosmetics magnate Richard Hudnut legally adopted her) led an eccentric and colorful life right from the start. When her parents divorced and her mother remarried Edgar de Wolfe, the brother of the flamboyant lesbian interior decorator, she went to live with her aunt in Paris. She grew up fascinated by myths and legends and fell in love with costumes and dancing, and later a ballet dancer, Theodore Kosloff, when she joined his dancing school. At seventeen he took her virginity. When he went to Hollywood, to work for Cecil B. DeMille and took Natacha Rambova, as she now styled herself, along, and tried to take credit for her costume designs, Natacha decided to leave. He shot her in the leg as she was walking towards the taxi, thus ending her dancing career. Luckily the outré Russian star, Alla Nazimova, was there to pick up the pieces. When she brought Oscar Wilde’s Salome to the silver screen it was protégée Natacha Rambova, who designed the Aubrey Beardsley inspired costumes and sets.

Even amidst all the Hollywood beauties, Natacha, tall and slender, with her hair worn in braids, and her body draped in exotic robes or elegant Parisian silks and jewels, drew every eye. It was inevitable that Hollywood’s newest star would look her way. Natacha met Rudolph Valentino in 1920 when Madame Nazimova chose him to play Armand in her modern art deco interpretation of Camille. Valentino’s career was just taking off after his smoldering tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. As the couple embarked on a whirlwind romance, Natacha began to shape the Valentino image, combining her eccentric flair for costume design with public relations and artistic photos. They would later marry prematurely, in Mexico before Valentino’s divorce from his first wife was legal, and there would be a bigamy scandal providing fodder for the newspapers, but the couple married again, legally, as soon as they were able.

Many saw her influence on Valentino as meddling, interfering, and detrimental, and this is still debated to this day. She was often vilified in the press. Much was made of the platinum slave bracelet she gave him, which he wore faithfully until his death. Some felt her tastes were just too highbrow for popular audiences and the public did not respond as well to the Latin lover, who’s fame was cemented with his portrayal of “The Sheik,” when he was costumed as an eighteenth century fob in pink brocade and powered wigs in the period extravaganzas that Natacha preferred; modern films bored her to tears. Other believed that by handing over his business affairs to his wife, and making her the villain in negotiations, Valentino revealed himself to be a naïve and childlike man. Whatever the truth of the matter, when Valentino signed a new contract in 1924 part of the deal was that Natacha have nothing to do with his films and was barred from the sets.

The marriage crumbled and they eventually divorced. After Valentino’s death in 1926, which hit Natacha hard, she went on to wear many hats—actress, eyewitness to the Spanish Civil War, a spiritualist who conducted séances, automatic writing, and taught the teachings of Madame Blavatsky, fashion designer, and an Egyptologist specializing in the study of comparative religions and symbolism.

Her second husband, Alvaro de Urzaiz, bore a strong resemblance to Valentino. They were living in Mallorca, buying and renovating houses for tourists, when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Even when the bombs fell and foreigners evacuated, Natacha stayed, snapping some photos that poignantly record the devastation. In 1936 she fled to her mother’s chateau in France with her white Pekingese dog in her arms.

Her health buckled under the strain and though she was not yet forty she suffered a heart attack. The end of the war coincided with the end of her marriage. Alvaro wanted children, which Natacha did not, and had fallen in love with another woman.

Natacha chopped off her long braids and renounced her exotic garb for suits of simple tweed and dedicated herself to the study of the world’s religions and symbolism.  She also made a serious study of the zodiac and wrote many articles on a variety of occult and mystical subjects.  She taught classes in her apartment on symbolism, mythology, and comparative religion. On her fiftieth birthday she moved to Egypt to begin a study of ancient religious symbolism. “magic is in the very soil of Egypt,” she said. For several years she was engaged on a project to record tomb inscriptions. She returned to the USA in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Valentino’s death and to threaten to sue if she was portrayed in a planned movie about his life.

At the age of fifty-six she was diagnosed with an incurable disease called scleroderma, a degenerative disease that attacks the esophagus, causing it to grow fibrous and hard and make swallowing and digesting progressively difficult. Despite her decline, Natacha retained a positive attitude; she was at peace with herself. She died in 1966, some sources make a point of saying she suffered paranoid delusions and had to undergo hospitalization and shock treatment, however these were some of the sad effects of the malnutrition and weight loss caused by the scleroderma.

Whatever one’s personal opinion about her marriage and influence upon Rudolph Valentino, Natacha Rambova was undoubtedly an intelligent and remarkable woman and a talented designer. Below are some photographs of her costume designs.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Dark Lover The Life And Death Of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider

"Dark Lover" is a wonderful biography of legendary silent screen star Rudolph Valentino, still best remembered today for his role as "The Sheik," his untimely death in 1926 at age 31, and the mysterious "Lady in Black" who still visits his tomb. He was the first and most famous of the movies' "Latin Lovers;" previously all the romantic leading men had been clean-cut American types like Wallace Reid and Italians and other ethnic or Latin types cast as villains, that is until Valentino danced the tango in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."  Then, as the old saying goes, a star was born. Valentino made the women in the audience swoon and their male escorts' blood boil.

Valentino had a fascinating life even before he sought fame and fortune in 1920s Hollywood--he was rumored to be a gigolo and was a popular "Taxi Dancer," a man rich society women paid to dance with them, and was famous for his graceful and sensual tango. His whole life was fraught with controversy, including persistent rumors of homosexuality. To this day the truth about his sexuality and marriages and relationships with strong and eccentric women of questionable sexuality (Jean Acker, Natacha Rambova, Pola Negri--all reputed or known lesbians) remain the subject of much heated debate. Rumors even surround his sudden and unexpected death, including the suspicion of murder. And the public displays of grief that followed his demise, including riots outside the funeral parlor where crowds actually broke the plate glass windows in a rush to get in to view his corpse as their idol lay in state, and suicides by grieving female fans, are still the stuff of legends.

This is how a biography should be written. I love this author's style, this biography is not written to be sensational like many celebrity biographies, or to make shocking, scandalous, or unverifiable statements and revelations, which is sadly often the case with books about deceased celebrities no longer able to defend themselves. If something is unknown about the subject, Ms. Leider comes right out and says so, if there is speculation or differing viewpoints about an issue, she makes that clear and gives the evidence both for and against. As a classic movie fan, I hope she will write more biographies like this one.

See Valentino in his most famous film "The Sheik" and its sequel "Son of The Sheik"

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Devil Water by Anya Seton

The novels of Anya Seton have a special spot in my heart. GREEN DARKNESS, still one of my all-time favorites to this day, was one of the first adult novels as well as one of the first historical fiction novels I ever read. And this sprawling eighteenth century epic journeying from London to Colonial America does not disappoint and more than earns its place as a keeper on the shelf alongside GREEN DARKNESS.

Spanning 1709-1746 DEVIL WATER is the story of Charles Radcliffe, his secret daughter Jenny, and the doomed Jacobite cause which attempted to oust the Hanoverians from the throne of England and restore the deposed Stuarts.

As a bored young nobleman, a younger son of the Earl of Derwentwater, Charles rides aimlessly over the Northumberland countryside, inspecting the local coal mines and just looking for something fun to do. He seduces a young servant girl named Meg. But her family doesn’t take it meekly and abducts Charles and forces him to marry Meg just in time for her to give birth to their child—Jenny. Whereupon Charles is cast out; Meg and her family want nothing further to do with him.

This forced marriage costs Charles a love match with his cousin Lady Betty Lee, and in the years to come, denied the normal comforts of hearth and home, he becomes a rake, spending lavishly, keeping a retinue of actresses as mistresses, until boredom sets in and he goes on to the next and then the next. In 1715 he and his brother join the ill-fated Jacobite Rebellion and end in prison. James, a fervent Catholic and devoted family man, becomes a martyr to the cause, and Charles, awaiting execution in Newgate, cleverly escapes.

Before he goes into hiding, he arranges for Jenny to be reared as a lady by his old love, Lady Betty Lee. She attends an exclusive girl’s school in London and becomes friends with Evelyn Byrd—a name I know well from books of ghost stories; her lovelorn spirit is said to haunt her family’s plantation. And in this novel we get a front row seat to the doomed romance and parental disapproval that led to the unhappy girl’s spirit becoming earthbound, though the haunting is never mentioned in this novel.

After Robbie, the proud man Jenny loves who worked his way up from pit boy in the coal mines of Newcastle to master builder, saves her from being a virgin victim of the satanic debauchery of the Hellfire Club and is deported to America as a bond slave, Jenny follows him to the New World. With Evelyn’s assistance, she buys her lover’s freedom and they carve out a new life for themselves in the Virginia wilderness.

But the past intrudes on their happiness when, after twenty years of silence, Jenny’s father reaches out to her. After throwing in his lot with Bonnie Prince Charlie he ends in the Tower, facing a death sentence, and asks Jenny to come and be a comfort to him, thus driving a stake into the heart of her happy marriage and forcing Jenny to choose between her husband and her father.

I could not put this novel down, though I was supposed to be working on my own, it kept pulling me back to it. I think I had better stay away from Anya Seton’s books until I meet my own deadline then I’ll treat myself to another.