Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Queen’s Lover by Francine Du Plessix Gray

This much anticipated novel gives us a fresh look at one of history’s great love stories--the doomed romance between Marie Antoinette and the dashing Swedish Count Axel von Fersen.

They were both nineteen when they met at a masquerade ball at the Paris Opera House in 1774. Their love affair would stand the test of time, through Fersen’s other love affairs and service in the American War of Independence, and deepen through the French Revolution when Fersen tried to save his beloved and her family. He would continue to love her even after the guillotine took her life, until his own death at the hands on an angry mob in 1810.

The novel is narrated by Count Fersen himself and his beloved sister, Sophie, in places when supposedly the narrative would have been too painful for him. It weaves actual journal entries and letters in for added authenticity and includes many fascinating little tidbits of historical gossip.

I've been intrigued by the character of Count Fersen and his relationship with Marie Antoinette ever since I saw MGM's extravagant 1938 film "Marie Antoinette" starring Norma Shearer as the doomed queen and Tyrone Power as her Swedish Sir Galahad several years ago on Turner Classic Movies, and it's still one of my favorites.

I really wanted to like this book, I had been waiting for it for months, and even pre-ordered it as soon as Amazon started taking orders, but…I don’t quite known how to explain it, but something was just off. 

I am quite familiar with the lives of Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen, and the morals of the eighteenth century aristocracy, so I wasn’t expecting a beautiful romance and fidelity. I've known about the other women in Count Fersen’s life for years, and the fact is if they were actually lovers Antoinette and Axel had precious little time together and lots of time apart. Time in which Fersen, an unabashed sensualist rather vain of his conquests, liberally indulged himself with just about any woman who was willing from noblewomen to chambermaids, while Marie Antoinette stayed at Versailles being a faithful wife to Louis XVI, a mother to her children, and being hated by the masses for her excesses until the guillotine made her a tragic heroine and frequent and beloved fixture in romantic dramas, costume epics, and historical fiction. So none of this came as a surprise to me. 

I think it was simply that Fersen isn't a very likable narrator, and as an author myself I know that's a tricky feat to pull off successfully; readers generally want to like the main character. I've read some of Fersen's journals and am familiar with the man’s character and he’s not one of those charming and witty rakes like Casanova that you can love to hate. For instance, when boasting of one of his conquests, the Fersen of this novel says “I’d rather not be thought of as a rake, just as an average, venturesome sexual athlete.” Even in his much vaunted devotion to Marie Antoinette, there are disappointing lapses. In fairness, Fersen was only human, and he probably did his best to save the royal family, but knowing that he went straight from what would be his last meeting with Marie Antoinette to hiding in his mistress’s attic so her live-in lover wouldn't suspect anything, and they could enjoy each other when he was absent, it just takes some of the shine off this Swedish knight’s armor.

Or it may be that we as the readers don't really get to see the relationship between Fersen and Marie Antoinette grow and actually being played out. Fersen gives us tantalizing glimpses, and little summaries about the time they spend together, but most of the time we don't actually get to "see" it. Instead of letting us look through the window, Fersen discreetly draws the blind on his private moments with the Queen.

If you’re looking for a beautiful romance, this novel isn't it, but if you’re interested in Marie Antoinette and her relationship with Count Fersen, given that there’s not a whole lot out there to choose from, you might want to give this a chance. And if you want the fairy tale as well as some truly scrumptious eye candy that actually has some substance as well as style, make sure you treat yourself to a viewing of the lavish 1938 film version and Tyrone Power's performance as the gallant and romantic Count Fersen.

I can't help myself, I just LOVE this movie.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Lucky Stars: Janet Gaynor & Charles Farrell by Sarah Baker

If you like true-life tales of star-crossed lovers blended with the glamour of old Hollywood this just may be the book for you. It tells the story of one of the silver screen’s great romantic teams—Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. It is a story of success and failure, of a girl who didn’t want fame, and a boy who could never get enough.

He grew up sweeping the floor of his parents’ movie theatre and dreaming of someday being right up there on the silver screen with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford. Her sister wanted to be the star, she wanted to be a secretary, but she had an ambitious mother and a stepfather with a gambler’s instinct.

In 1926 their stars converged when, after years of extra work and bit parts, they finally got their big break when they were signed to Fox. Their first screen paring, in the eagerly anticipated silent film version of the romantic melodrama 7th Heaven, was absolute magic.

Janet Gaynor was the sweet, nice girl every mother wanted her son to marry, wholesome and pure with big brown eyes and a mass of coppery curls. Charles Farrell straddled the fence between boy next door and athletic, swashbuckling hero, tough, yet tender. They seemed a match made in heaven. In eleven succeeding films, despite a decline in script quality, the couple’s chemistry kept audiences coming back for more. But instead of offering their winning romantic team movies tailor made for their talents, the money-hungry executives at Fox repeatedly cast them in any old piece of nonsense that required a boy and girl to meet cute and leap over a few obstacles before the obligatory happy ending, so, sadly, they never again equaled the magic of that first onscreen pairing.

It was a closely guarded secret that they were lovers off screen as well as on, but Fame drove a wedge between them. “Good time Charlie” as his friends called him, wanted the Hollywood life—the fame, the glamour, champagne, fast cars, and, of course, the girls. But to Janet, though she was a complete professional and took her career seriously, it was really just a job. Ironically, despite Charles popularity and undeniable talent, Janet got all the critical acclaim, including the Academy Award nomination (she was the first actress to win the Oscar for Best Actress).

Janet didn’t want a Hollywood marriage, so when a handsome lawyer, Lydell Peck, came along, a self-made man with no connections to Hollywood, the ever practical Janet, dumped Charlie and married him instead. She thought she could quit while she was still ahead, now that she had made enough to support herself and her family in comfort, and pursue other interests, travel and learn and just enjoy being a wife and mother. But it was not to be, on her honeymoon she found out that her husband had just signed on with Fox as a writer and assistant director and was ready to use all his legal cunning to take charge of Janet’s career.

Reeling from the loss of his mother, and from being jilted by Janet, Charlie retaliated by eloping with his long-time crush, Virginia Valli, a sophisticated star of the silent screen whose image he had adored from afar before he came to Hollywood. Her career had tanked with the talkies, so marriage offered her a way to retire gracefully. Despite Charlie’s many infidelities—including a long-term affair with “Mousie” Powell, wife of the debonair THIN MAN star William Powell—Virginia never divorced him. She remained Mrs. Charles Farrell until the day she died. Some speculate that they might have had an open marriage or devout Catholicism might have been the cause.

Meanwhile, Lydell Peck’s interference nearly cost Janet her career. She went on strike, demanding more money and script approval, during the Great Depression when her $2,000 a week represented a fortune to normal people struggling just to get by at a time when a loaf of bread cost eight cents.

While Janet fought Fox, and shed her interfering spouse, Charlie found himself being offered roles that a well-dressed mannequin could have played in movies designed to be used as a launching pad for up and coming actresses the studio thought showed star potential. But when Charlie tried to take a page out of Janet’s book and refused a role he was promptly fired.

Janet went on to win immortal fame in A STAR IS BORN. She made a few more pictures afterwards and then retired gracefully, married MGM’s brilliant costume designer, Adrian, and had the marriage every girl dreams of with a wonderful and supportive, talented and intelligent man, who was her true partner in life. They had a son together, traveled, and devoted themselves to art and fashion. They never took each other for granted and never spent a night apart until Adrian’s untimely death twenty years later. Janet kept busy with painting, theatre, and even a line of gourmet frozen foods, and was surprised to find romance again, this time with a dear old friend, producer Paul Gregory. In 1964 he became her second husband. This second marriage also proved happy and long-lasting. It only ended when Janet’s life did in 1984 when she died of pneumonia following severe injuries sustained in a car wreck.

After a stint in the Navy, Charlie devoted himself to the Racquet Club, which he had founded, and later served as Mayor of Palm Springs, and starred in two successful tv series, MY LITTLE MARGIE and THE CHARLES FARRELL SHOW. Alcoholism eventually caught up with him. As the host of one of Hollywood’s most popular watering holes, he couldn’t say no when people wanted to buy him a drink, so he soon crossed the boundary between social drinker and addict. His heart finally gave out in 1990.

I found this real Hollywood romance riveting and read the entire book in a single night. I admired Janet for having the strength to go after what she wanted and the very good fortune to find it (I wish I could be so lucky!), while Charlie’s story hurt my heart, sometimes talent alone isn’t enough, or the dream without the drive. He seemed to drift aimlessly through life without ever truly finding what he was searching for, or to not be able to hold onto it when it was in his grasp.

A note to those interested in Hollywood history, rumors of homosexuality have dogged both Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell throughout the years, so you might be wondering if this book addresses that. And it does. Janet was friends with two women who were known or suspected lesbians and her husband Adrian’s brilliant, and often flamboyant, costume designs led many to erroneously assume that he was gay. Many have jumped to the conclusion that their marriage was a lavender one, an arrangement in which the wife was lesbian and the husband gay. This book disproves that and shows how these rumors got started and helps lay them to rest. One previous author even tried to put a kinky spin on some black satin bras the husband of one of Janet’s female friends obtained for her, when the truth was Janet was then living in the wilds of Brazil and had undergone a mastectomy and was unable to find a suitable prosthetic bra, and the man in question had the right connections to supply the desired garments. As for Charles Farrell, male friends who were in a position to know and his many liaisons with many women disprove the rumors.