I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Friday, October 30, 2015

Behind Every Great Man: The Forgotten Women Behind the World's Famous and Infamous by Marlene Wagman-Geller

There are many things you can say about these women, some are proud, doormats, crazy, homemakers, helpmeets, rabble rousers, dedicated to a cause, or just plain delusional.  But you can never say that they are not smart or that they did not help historic men get to where they did.  They are history's footnotes and the ones who are overshadowed by the lives of great men, either because at the time, women were viewed as being less, or because the man's personality simply was too powerful.  Some of these women you will want to reach back through the sands of time and shake, give a few slaps to the face and say "Snap out of it! He does not deserve you!".  Others you will applaud their ability to make the difficult decision to walk away.  Either way, these are incredible women you will not soon forget.

The first chapter details the life of Mrs. Karl Marx.  Its rather sad that my response to this was, "Karl Marx was married?"  It never occurred to me that he would ever consider marriage, for some reason.  Johanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of a Baron in Prussia, fell head over heels in love with the poor Marx and refused to marry anyone else, much to the consternation of her family.  She would wait seven years for him to return from Berlin with a degree.  By this time, her father would be dead and her mother, fearing she would die an old maid, gave in and let her marry him.  Marx would get a job at a newspaper writing leftist articles, but it wasn't his articles that got him fired, but his inability to meet a deadline.  When he began to insult the King of Prussia in print, the two, with children in tow, began to flee through Europe for their lives.  They settle in squalor in London, where they do not speak the language while Marx writes his famous Manifesto.  Jenny, pregnant with their fourth child would go on a speaking tour to promote his views, while Marx stayed at home and got the housekeeper pregnant.  The whole thing was hushed up, but Jenny found out anyway and blew a gasket.  Life would go on a while longer for them, but would end tragically for the whole family.

Mrs.. Wagner, or the delusional one, as I call her (of course you have to be to like his music), Cosima, is the daughter of a liaison between the famous pianist Liszt and his married mistress.  When the affair ended bitterly, he refused to let her see their children and they ended up in the care of a Nurse Ratchet ancestor, whose only good thing she did for the children was to die.  Cosima, adored her absentee father and was obsessed with music and musicians.  She would marry his father's pupil, Hans von Bulow in the hopes that he would become a great musician, but was deeply disappointed.  When she met the racist anti-Semite Wagner, whose music she loved, she declared her undying love. A few days later, he would go out and marry another woman.  This, however, would not keep Cosima from her great love.  Eventually the two would marry and she declared that she wanted to die at the same time he did as she could not live without him. Now, if I had a time machine, I would travel back in time and grant her this wish and take a shotgun and shoot her head off so she would not continue to live for many decades until 1930 when the Nazi would take Wagner's music and turn it into a kind of national anthem for Germany, ensuring that Wagner will never die.  The two insane people were perfect for each other, though Wagner's fidelity was not always as certain.

Mileva Maric, a Slav, had two disabilities during the nineteenth century: a severely displaced hip, leaving one leg three inches shorter than the other, and a genius intellect.  Her wise parents, realizing, perhaps that she would not have a chance a marriage, encouraged her schooling and she became one of the first women to get into Switzerland's Zurich Poultechnic, the MIT of Europe, where she quickly rose to the top of the her class.  It was here that she would have a fateful meeting with Albert Einstein, whom she would become best friends with, as he was already interested in another girl.  The more time they spent together, however, the closer the two became.  Einstein's mother warned him to end the relationship with the shiksa before something happened, but Mileva was the first person he could really talk to about anything with and who really understood him.  He would indeed get her pregnant, but he would not ask her to marry him.  She would have to return home, because she was being kicked out of school.  There is no record of what happened to the baby girl they had.  He would marry her later, partly out of guilt and partly because he still loved her.  They would spend hours in the lab working.  This was 1905, known as Einstein's Annus Mirabilis (Year of Miracles) where many of his incredible ideas would come from.  How much input Mileva had, is unknown to history.  Eventually as they began to have children, her role began to be relegated to motherhood and her role in history erased, as Einstein's eye began to wonder.

Not all of the men are bad.  Julius Rosenberg was a jewel of a man who found himself accused of something he did not do by his brother-in-law who was trying to escape a death sentence.  Ethel would also be named so that her brother's wife could be spared.  The two met when they were young and she was terrified to go on stage to sing and he walked up and told her to pretend she was singing only to him.  They fell immediately in love.  They both believed in workers rights and unions, which meant that they had both belonged to the Communist Party, as had many before World War II.  Ethel could have saved herself at any time and raised her children by denouncing her husband and naming names, but she refused.  She, more than most women, gives the true meaning to standing by your man. Before they died, they shared side by side cells and she sang to him like she had so long ago.

Ian Fleming, sworn bachelor, and author of the James Bond spy series, would be felled by a woman that would be the first Bond girl, Ann Geraldine Mary Charteris, whose shared love of S and M and whose pregnancy, would eventually get him to the alter.  But things would only last so long and soon another woman, the inspiration for Pussy Galore, would turn Fleming's head. This would begin the heartache for poor Ann, without whom, the world would not have 007.

Ruth Bell's father was a Presbyterian doctor in Pearl S. Buck's father's ministry in China and Ruth was looked after by a born again procuress of "little flowers".  Her dream was to be an unmarried missionary.  Before she did this, her father insisted she go to Wheaton College, near Chicago, which is where she met Billy Graham and the two immediately fell in love.  Ruth knew that Billy's Southern Baptist's beliefs would mean that she would be stuck at home raising the children and would have to give up her dream of being a missionary, but she was in love.  What Billy did not know, was that Ruth was always looking for loopholes through the idea of submitting to your husband, which was not a Presbyterian idea.  It was not easy raising a brood of children mostly alone, sharing your husband with the world, but she was the best thing that ever happened to him.  She kept him his ego firmly in check and on the right path.  Her most searing quip was when she was asked if she had ever considered divorce she had said "No. Murder. Yes."

 Rachel Annetta Isum would be the first of her family to go to college, UCLA, where she would meet the famous Jackie Robinson.  He would go to Hawaii to seek a semi-pro career and they would agree to marry, until, two days after he left, Pearl Harbor happened and he joined up, but told her she shouldn't volunteer herself (she had been studying to be a nurse).  After a brief break-up, they got back together and after the war, when the president of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey discovers him, they get married and embark on a difficult life together.  Robinson would have this to say about it: Thinking about Rae always makes me want to remind women how important they are in making the world go around.  It's an old saying--but a true one-that behind every successful man there is usually a woman who deserves much credit for his success.  Rachel and the children would be there for every game, putting up with all the racial abuse over the years and watch him leave their lives much too soon.  Rachel is still alive and kicking doing her part to make the world a better and fairer place for others.

There are so many women to mention.  Like the women who endured much for there freedom fighting husbands, Gandhi, Malcolm X, and Mandela.   The poor woman who would suffer after her husband Oscar Wilde met the wrong man.  The one woman who walked away from Picasso and ended up marrying another famous and influential man.  The fiery woman, his Heart, who helped Larry Flynt begin Hustler magazine and match him cuss word and woman to woman and bring him back from the dead by his cojones.  The wronged Mrs. Stieg Larsson and the amazing relationship with the woman who supposedly broke up the Police and stole Sting away from her best friend.  And the completely bizarre relationship between the very weird Robin Gibbs and his wife, a Celtic Priestess, among other things.  And is anyone capable of loving a monster as Eva Braun did with Hitler? These women are all amazing in their own way.  Some are able to walk away from the disaster of their men, while others went down in a blaze of glory or faded into the night.  They have all mostly been forgotten to all of us, which is why this book is so important.  I salute these women who were brave enough to try.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Savannah.  Called "The Hostess City of the South", it is also, perhaps the eccentric aunt once hidden away that no one knew about.  In Berendt's amazing book as a Yankee, the ultimate outsider, he explores a city that prefers not to change; a city that is difficult to reach and while visited, was at the time of his stay, not a tourist mecca like other Southern cities.  Savannah had preserved the old ways of doing things.  They had rescued the old buildings, kept big businesses from coming in, and highways from destroying the town.  It is a peculiar town that will experience change whether it wants to or not.

The narrator of this work of non-fiction is a magazine writer who has discovered that the cost of a meal is the same cost of an airline ticket, so he begins to travel.  On a trip to Charleston, he decides to visit Savannah and sets up a meeting with a Mrs. Hartly who will act as a guide.  He has a romantic and quirky notion of Savannah based on Southern stereotypes and Johnny Mercer music (he grew up there).  Soon, he finds himself spending more and more time there and gets a place to stay.

The first thing you may notice is that the timeline seems a bit off.  It is.   The author played with it for artistic purposes, which  may confuse you a bit, but will come together in the end. 

While most of the book seems to be wrapped around the situation of the antiques dealer Jim Williams, who owns the enviable Mercer House, who is accused of first degree murder of a young man who works for him, Danny, who is a violent drug user, hustler, and his lover.  The D.A., Lawton,  has only tried one case before and lost it, and the man who got him elected Adler, hates Williams, with whom he has had a long feud over the restoration of buildings in Savannah.  Lawton does not seem to have much of a case and everyone wonders what he is thinking as it seems a clear case of self defense or at the worst, second degree murder.  But Williams has two strikes against him: his is gay, which is fine, so long as he keeps quiet about it, and two he did not come up from money, but is a self-made man, who is beholden to no one.  Though, people do seem to like Williams a lot more than they like Adler, whose restoration projects are questionable.  Plus, Williams throws a very swank, exclusive Christmas party every year that everyone wants to go to.

Williams uses not just many lawyers, but a voodoo practionor, because everything helps.  And it seems that her help may eventually win him his freedom, as there will be more than one court case and you may figure out what happened that night, but you may never really know.

Some of the people he meets in Savannah are too incredible to be real, but this is the South, so I know they are.  One of the first characters you meet is Joe, a piano playing lawyer who, well, squats, in various nice houses, charges for tours, steals electricity and water.  The houses are open at all hours for everybody and a party is always going on.  He tries and fails many times at various businesses, mostly clubs and often has the law after him for bouncing checks.  But his personality is such that no one can hate him and everyone forgives him and continues to do business with him even after he has done them wrong.  He keeps promising to marry a singer Mandy, who travels a lot on the road performing and who opens up a club at one point with him.  He also had a bar with the famous Emma Kelly, whom Johnny Mercer dubbed "the woman of six thousand songs", because he guessed that seemed to be the number she knew.  She drove all over the place playing piano and singing, but the two parted ways, when his creditors came after him through the business and he felt that was unfair to her. 

Then there's Luther, the very weird man who once worked for the government and came up with the pest strip and various other inventions, which he got no money off of, because he worked for the government at the time.  He carries around a bottle said to be of poison that he may empty into the city's water supply and kill them all at any time.  He also ties flies and such to strings and attaches them to his shirts, or will clip the wings of flies so the fly around in circles. 

But one of the most wonderful characters of them all is The Lady Chablis.  When the narrator meets her he does not realize that she is a "T".  She receives hormone injections that give her breasts and other female attributes.  She has a boyfriend that satisfies her in every way.  And she is more woman than I will ever be in this lifetime of the next.  She does a drag show, where she shows that she is more than just a stereotype and there is a hilarious scene where she crashes a black debutante ball the narrator is attending (and refused to take her to) and causes quite the scene.  She really does things her way.

Those from the South can tell you that each area, each city, is unique.  They talk differently, eat slightly differently, have a different way of doing things than the other cities.  They even have trouble getting along with each other.  Savannah is no different.  With the creation of this book and the subsequent movie, one can suppose the theory, the observer effect, that once something is observed it is changed by being observed.  Berendt, through no intention of his own, changed Savannah from a secluded city, to a the tourist mecca it is today.  I was there is 1994 for a Psych Conference and sadly did not get much of a chance to look around.  This was right before the book came out.  I fell in love with Savannah then and vowed to see it again, but once I found out what had happened to it, some of the romance left it for me.  It was not the special place I had seen all those years ago, but something now lost to commercialism.  I was too late.