Monday, March 30, 2009

Fame and Obscurity

When I stumbled across one of the two main characters in the novel I’m currently working on–Betsy Patterson Bonaparte–at an exhibit of Gilbert Stuart portraits some years back, I was intrigued. Here was a clearly fascinating historical character languishing in obscurity.

Yes, her beauty and her marriage to Napoleon’s youngest brother in 1803 had catapulted her to celebrity status in the 19th century–a collection of her letters published shortly after her death in 1879 referred to her as "one of the most famous women in America," a statement that was to me a sadly ironic comment on the fleeting nature of fame. Sure, she was the subject of numerous biographies and historical novels into the early 20th century, and during the same era there were two silent films and a Broadway play based on her life. But who really remembered her now?

Well, apparently, a lot of people–at least in the environs of her native Baltimore. The other day I was at the Maryland Historical Society’s library in that city, putting in a request for a box of her correspondence. A man standing next to me, who turned out to be a Historical Society staff member, asked me what I was researching. When I told him, he informed me that he himself had done a lot of research on Betsy, and that if there was anything I needed to know I should just ask him.

Okay, maybe that’s not so surprising–after all, the MdHS is where Betsy’s papers are housed, along with various personal items. They’re even having something of a Betsy Bonaparte festival in the fall of 2010. But a little later, I was giving a luncheon talk at a club in Baltimore called the Hamilton Club (among those present were several people from my Baltimore childhood and adolescence, including my high school English teacher, who must now be approaching 90). The talk was primarily about my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, but when I mentioned my work-in-progress, I was surprised to find that virtually everyone in the room seemed to know all about Betsy.

"I must be the only person who grew up in Baltimore who’d never heard of Betsy Patterson," I remarked. (Baltimoreans, true to their conservative nature, seem to prefer to call her by her maiden name). I’ve even discovered that a bakery in downtown Baltimore I liked to frequent when I was a child was called "Betsy Patterson’s." Somehow, I’d never noticed the name.

Well, all right–maybe everyone in Baltimore has heard of her. But what about the rest of the country? I now live in Washington, D.C., a city that has a lot of its own history to deal with; Betsy made a number of appearances here in the early 19th century (including a very high-profile one when she appeared at a party wearing an apparently see-through dress), but in relative terms she must still be pretty obscure. Or so I thought.

Yesterday I toured an old plantation house called Riversdale located in what is now a Washington suburb. It belonged to a remarkable woman named Rosalie Stier Calvert, who left behind a lot of letters (published in a book called Mistress of Riversdale). In several of these letters she mentions Betsy, and I’m about to write a scene that places Betsy on a visit there. So I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the place.

It’s a beautiful house, lovingly restored, and I had an extremely knowledgeable and personable gentleman as my docent for what turned out to be a private tour (at only $3 per adult admission, this place is a bargain – I urge those living in or visiting the DC area to check it out). I kept hinting that I was primarily interested in what the house would have looked like in 1803 or 1804, without mentioning exactly why. But then I started to explain that I was working on a historical novel.

"Betsy!" muttered my docent, somewhat wearily.

How did he know? Does he routinely get visitors working on historical novels about Betsy Bonaparte? How many of us are out there? I was too taken aback to ask.

Of course, it’s possible that writing about someone who’s reasonably well known could actually be an advantage; maybe more people will be willing to buy and read a book about someone who’s not that obscure. But for me, part of the appeal of writing historical novels is precisely to rescue my (real) characters from obscurity, to make a "discovery." Clearly, Betsy has already been discovered.

But I can console myself with the thought that I have another character up my sleeve, one that only a very few people know about–even in Baltimore, which was also her hometown. Her name was Eliza Anderson Godefroy. And if you’re interested in knowing more about her (as well as in finding out some things about Betsy that may not be so well known), you’ll need to read my next book. Of course, first I’ll need to write it!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Dinner With Woody

The novel I’m currently working on has led me to contemplate the phenomenon of celebrity: one of my characters, Betsy Bonaparte, was catapulted into the public eye after her marriage to Napoleon’s youngest brother in 1803. In a way, she was the Paris Hilton of the early 19th century: young, beautiful, fabulously wealthy, and famous for being famous. (She also had a formidable intellect, but that’s not what she was famous for.) Complete strangers felt free to speculate about her private life, and even to write raunchy poetry about her when she appeared in public in a scandalously flimsy dress–sort of a 19th-century version of the Paris Hilton pornographic video episode, if anyone remembers that at this point.

The other evening I had a brush with celebrity myself. Not with Paris Hilton, but with someone who’s figured far larger in my own psyche. On the way to a benefit performance and dinner at the Metropolitan Opera, my hostess–a relative of mine–casually mentioned that I would be seated next to Woody Allen at dinner. My husband would be next to his wife Soon Yi.

WHAT?? For the next five and a half hours–through the cocktail reception and the four and a half hour performance–I suffered low-level panic. What could I possibly say to him? How could I keep him entertained? I knew he was famously reclusive, and I had the feeling he wasn’t the type to suffer fools gladly.

What is it about the prospect of encountering a celebrity that frazzles us so (or me, at least)? Part of it, I think, is the disconcerting feeling of seeing someone who looks so familiar but whom you’ve never actually met in the flesh before. During the performance, seated right behind Woody and Soon Yi, I kept thinking that they looked exactly like themselves (although Woody’s hair is grayer than I remembered). It was eerie, like seeing a painting come to life.

The other thing is what I might call the knowledge imbalance: when you meet a celebrity like Woody Allen, he knows nothing about you, but you already know a lot about him. Or I did, anyway. I asked my 18-year-old daughter if she knew anything about Woody and Soon Yi, and she had no idea. But I remember vividly the shock of finding out about their relationship, back in 1992: how Woody’s companion of 12 years, Mia Farrow, had discovered nude pictures of her 22-year-old adopted daughter, Soon Yi, in Woody’s apartment; how he subsequently admitted to an affair; how, during the bitter custody battle that followed, Mia accused Woody of molesting their 7-year-old adopted daughter. The week the Soon Yi story broke was the one and only time I’ve actually purchased a copy of People magazine.

So I don’t usually follow these sorts of celebrity scandals–not closely, anyway (I’ll admit that I do on occasion leaf through People magazine in the supermarket checkout line). But this was personal. I grew up on Woody Allen. I felt like I knew him, maybe because he bears a resemblance to my Uncle Morris–and because his New York Jewish sensibility struck a chord. I haven’t loved all of his movies–some I’ve downright disliked–but there are concepts in life that I find I can only express through the prism of a Woody Allen movie ("Zelig-like," is one adjective that comes to mind, along with the joke from Annie Hall about the guy whose brother thought he was a chicken–"We’d turn him in," says the guy, "but we need the eggs"). I had a certain image of him, and it didn’t correspond with the reality of a 56-year-old man having an affair with a girl who was in effect, if not in the eyes of the law, his own stepdaughter.

This was obviously one topic I wasn’t going to bring up at dinner (when my husband asked what he should talk to Soon Yi about, I told him, "Just don’t ask her how they met"). But what made the knowledge imbalance even worse was that whether I brought it up or not, Woody would know that I knew. That awkwardness would hang in the air, as it always must when Woody Allen meets someone new (unless that someone was, like my daughter, still a baby when the scandal broke). It was implicit in the moment of introduction, when I said my name, and Woody said, unnecessarily, "Woody."

After we were installed at our table, I was relieved when the woman sitting on the other side of Woody proceeded to engage him in a lengthy conversation. But eventually it was my turn. Actually, finding something to talk about was somewhat easier than I’d imagined. I asked him a few questions about his work, but he also talked about how much he’d liked Washington (where I live) when he came here to do standup in the sixties, and how he can’t go to the opera because he can’t stay up that late.

He was pleasant enough, but I had the distinct impression that he would have preferred to be elsewhere–probably in bed, asleep. Unlike some of the other celebrities in attendance, who had posed on the red carpet in their Yves St. Laurent outfits (the company was a sponsor of the event), Woody was there to see the opera–he’s a genuine fan. The other stuff–the paparazzi, the dinner conversation–was just something he had to put up with. He didn’t ask me anything about myself, but then, I didn’t expect him to. That’s part of the celebrity imbalance: I knew all about him (or thought I did), but he didn’t know anything about me, and didn’t particularly want to. My role, as I saw it, was to make his experience as painless as possible.

That weird false familiarity that surrounds a celebrity–the feeling that you already know this person even though you’ve never met–is heightened in Woody’s case because his off-screen persona is so similar to his on-screen one. At times I had the surreal feeling that Woody had either just stepped out of one of his movies, or I had just stepped into one (kind of like Mia Farrow’s character in The Purple Rose of Cairo, to use another Woody Allen metaphor). When our main course arrived–retro-comfort-food meat loaf with a hard-boiled egg in the middle–Woody stared at it glumly and then never touched it. A bit later the chair of the event took the podium and mentioned that she had chosen the menu to cut costs, in recognition of the economic crisis (never mind that it was described in the program as "Kobe Beef Meat Loaf"). Woody murmured, "So she’s the one I should complain to." He could have been Alvy Singer, or Virgil Starkwell, or any of his other on-screen alter egos.

Throughout the conversation, I had a sort of double vision of him: he was–perhaps surprisingly–just an ordinary human being, doing ordinary things; but he was also a celebrity, someone whose life I knew way more about than I should have. When he mentioned that one reason he needed to get to bed early was that he took his daughters to school in the morning, I thought: how sweet, how normal. But at the same time I couldn’t help wondering if he’d ever done that for the three kids he’d had with Mia–one biological, two adopted. I doubted it. Hadn’t he refused to marry Mia, hadn’t he even maintained a separate apartment throughout their relationship? How did those three kids feel now about his apparently idyllic relationship with their sister, and the two little girls who were at the same time their half-sisters and their nieces?

But if you just looked at the two of them, Woody and Soon Yi, the way you’d look at any couple you’d just met, there seemed to be nothing odd about their relationship, apart from the 35-year age difference. When Woody decided it was time to go, I saw him give Soon Yi the same gesture–raised eyebrows, lowered chin–that my own husband has given me, for the same reason, on countless occasions. They seemed affectionate, companionable, happy. Who am I to judge them? Who am I to think I know all about them?

Some would say that celebrities have no right to complain about intrusions into their privacy. They’ve invited attention, the argument goes, and they have to take the bitter with the sweet. Certainly that’s true in some cases. Betsy Bonaparte, for example, could easily have worn more clothing and attracted less attention, and she chose not to. But in other situations it’s not so clear. Don’t celebrities have the right to fall in love–and act upon that feeling–without undergoing intense scrutiny, even when they violate society’s conventions? When Betsy’s marriage fell apart very publicly, did she deserve the scorn that some heaped upon her? Did Woody and Soon Yi?

But I guess it’s naive to expect that the public will ignore such goings on. After all, I didn’t exactly ignore the Soon Yi episode myself, and I’m writing a whole book about Betsy (although in my opinion the fact that she’s been dead for over 100 years absolves me of any responsibility to respect her privacy or refrain from judging her). Not to mention the fact that I’m writing this blog post now.

I guess the bottom line is that, while I continue to see Woody and Soon Yi as celebrities–and while I’m not about to forgot everything I’ve read about them–having had an actual brief encounter with them, I also can’t help but see them as human beings. Maybe it’s the fact that Soon Yi laughed at one of my jokes, or that Woody seemed genuinely interested in some of what I had to say; maybe I’m just flattered that they deigned to pay any attention to me at all. And maybe I’m impressed that, after enduring abuse that would send most people permanently underground, they’ve simply gotten on with their lives. I may never understand what happened between them, but I’m no longer feeling equipped to condemn it. Really, it’s none of my business.

[N.B. -- Woody mentioned during dinner that the producers of the movie My Dinner With Andre originally wanted him to play the role ultimately played by Wallace Shawn--but he declined because he didn't think he could memorize all those lines. Hence the title of this post.]

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Plus Ca Change...

"People don't write letters any more!" When I go around speaking about my novel, A More Obedient Wife -- which is based on letters written in the 18th century -- I almost inevitably hear this comment. E-mail, cell phones, Facebook: they've all replaced good old-fashioned letter-writing, goes the lament.

I'm not saying people are wrong about this (although there's something to be said for email, which theoretically can be printed out and preserved for posterity -- and which, also theoretically, can actually be as finely crafted as a good old-fashioned letter). But what they may be wrong about is the assumption that there's something modern about this complaint.

Proof (if any be necessary) that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun came today as I was perusing a volume published in 1887. Entitled A Girl's Life Eighty Years Ago, the book is a collection of letters by Eliza Southgate Bowne, a remarkable young woman and an apparently prolific correspondent. (In distinctly 21st-century fashion, I was perusing this volume online -- Google Books is amazing!)

In any event, I began by reading the introduction, written by someone named Clarence Cook. Mr. Cook, after praising the quality of Eliza's letters, embarks on a lament about modern life (again, this is 1887): "No doubt we have gained much," Mr. Cook says, from modern inventions that have "reduced time and space to comparative insignificance." But, of course, we've also lost some things -- and "among these losses, that of letter-writing is perhaps the most serious. A whole world of innocent enjoyment for contemporaries and for posterity has been blotted out, and, so far as appears, nothing is taking its place."

And Mr. Cook goes on, in words that sound strangely familiar: "Nowadays no one writes letters, and no one would have time to read them if they were written. Little notes fly back and forth, like swallows, between friend and friend, between parent and child, carrying the news of the day in small morsels easily digested; it is not worth while to tell the whole story with the pen, when it can be told in a few weeks, at the farthest, with the voice. For nobody now is more than a few weeks from anywhere."

We can only speculate what paroxysms of despair Mr. Cook would suffer if he could be revived and plunked down in our midst, where "small morsels" of news do almost literally fly back and forth, and the few weeks of separation he marveled at has become no more than a few hours. He compares letters to the newly invented "toy, the phonograph," which "will repeat what has been confided to it in the very voice of the speaker, with every tone and every inflection as clear as when first it spoke." What, I wonder, would he make of Skype?

And yet, despite the decline of letter-writing bemoaned by Mr. Cook, historians have managed to find a fair amount of correspondence written after 1887. Perhaps letters got shorter (some of those early 19th-century letters were almost novella-length, having been composed over a period of days), but people continued to write them.

And no doubt one or two hundred years from now, historians of the future will find a way to unearth our own version of correspondence, even if it means digging up hard drives from landfills in order to retrieve our e-mails.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What's in a name?

I've noticed that bloggers--and others who have a presence on the Internet--often go by pseudonyms. Sometimes they're clever (a friend of mine who started a blog on English usage chose the moniker "Kitty Literate"). Sometimes they're just puzzling to the uninitiated (several people have asked me why my son blogs as "Vicente" -- it's a long story). And, as with so many things, this phenomenon puts me in mind of the 18th and early 19th century, when it was virtually de rigueur to write under an assumed name.

Perhaps the most famous example is the Federalist Papers--written in defense of the proposed U.S. Constitution--which were first published under the name "Publius," but were in fact the combined effort of John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. The Federalist Papers were themselves a response to two pseudonymous anti-Federalist writers, "Cato" and "Brutus." Who these guys were may still be a mystery.

As you can see, Roman names were big -- this was in keeping with the general feeling that the infant American republic harked back to the Roman one. But there were also lots of whimsical names, more on the order of "Kitty Literate." In 1797, a Richmond newspaper printed an open letter to a Virginia congressman that was signed "Timothy Tickle." And "Mr. Tickle" appended to his own letter another (fictitious) letter, signed "Simon Simple."

Lately I've been reading two magazines published in Baltimore in 1806 and 1807 that abound with these sorts of pen names: Edward Easy, Nathan Scruple, Biddy Fidget, Benjamin Bickerstaff (apparently an allusion to a now forgotten writer named Isaac Bickerstaff).

Why do people, then and now, feel the need to hide behind these inventions? I suppose the obvious answer is that anonymity is liberating -- for better or for worse. But the fact is that many of these names haven't actually guaranteed anonymity. Most of the people who read my son's blog, or my friend's, are friends or acquaintances and aware of the blogger's true identity. And it seems the same was true, in many cases, for the pseudonymous writers of the past. We may not have figured out who Cato and Brutus were, but it's possible many of their contemporaries were able to. The world was smaller then, and the world of people who mattered even smaller.

But for the historian, these playful subterfuges can be a real pain--for example, the authorship of 12 of the 85 different Federalist essays is still uncertain (were they written by Jay, Hamilton, or Madison?) And I've encountered this problem myself: one of the women I'm currently writing about edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807 under the name of "Beatrice Ironside." (Her explanation for the name was that criticism wouldn't bother her, because she had "iron sides;" as it turned out, she was plenty bothered -- a more appropriate name would have been something like "Beatrice Marshmallow.") But it's clear that her contemporaries soon figured out who she really was (her name was Eliza Anderson). What's not so clear is what else she wrote, and when she started writing.

The magazine that "Beatrice Ironside" edited was called the "Observer," and it was a successor to the "Companion," whose ostensible editor was Edward Easy. The prospectus for the "Observer" says that a new editor is now taking over -- but the prospectus is unsigned, and there's no indication of the editor's gender. Was this "Beatrice," whose name doesn't actually begin appearing until some weeks later? Or did she take over from someone else?

To make things murkier, just before the "Companion" ceased publication in 1806, the editor suddenly starts referring to herself as "she." (In the ancient bound volume I was perusing, some earlier reader had underlined this pronoun and put an exclamation point in the margin -- it was highly unusual, of course, for a woman to be editing anything during this period.) So was this Beatrice/Eliza? There were pieces in the "Companion" published under female names -- even one published under "Eliza" -- but given the predilection for pseudonyms, sometimes of the opposite gender, this doesn't really tell us anything. In fact, it seems unlikely that anything signed "Eliza" would actually have been written by someone named Eliza.

Virtually unsolvable mysteries like this make me glad I'm writing fiction rather than history; I can just decide whether or not I want Beatrice/Eliza to edit the "Companion" and then go on to found the "Observer" -- I don't have to decide whether that really happened. But, in an effort to make the jobs of future historians somewhat easier, I've resolved to continue blogging under my own name -- boring as that may be.