Book Review

The Tuscan Child

by Kitty Kelley

Rhys Bowen is the pen name for the British woman who has written The Tuscan Child, and she appears to be a writing machine, having churned out 40 mysteries, including the Constable Evan Evans series, the Molly Murphy series, the Royal Spyness series, the Red Dragon Academy series, and the Boyfriend Club series for young adults.

In addition, she’s written two volumes of short stories for the Molly Murphy series and the Royal Spyness series. Under her own name, Janet Quin-Harkin, she launched the Sweet Dreams series, plus wrote 11 more novels, including Wanted – Date for Saturday Night, The Boy Next Door, Who Do You Love?, and Love Potion.

Perhaps the frothy titles led to the pseudonym, which has rocketed her into stupefying levels of productivity much like her counterpart, Barbara Cartland, who published 723 romance novels by the time she died at the age of 99. Bowen is only 77, so maybe her female fan base can look forward to yet another series springing from the heroine of The Tuscan Child, who sets out to solve a mystery à la Nancy Drew.

Unfortunately, Bowen’s heroine does not have the style and panache of Carolyn Keene’s: no roadster, no loving lawyer father, and no devoted boyfriend named Ned. Instead, Joanna Langley is the poor child of an unloving father, and the girlfriend of a swinish boyfriend with whom she’s been living until he dumps her for someone who better enhances his career.

This break-up comes on the heels of a car accident that causes Joanna to miscarry a pregnancy that she has embraced but the swine has insisted she terminate. Tossed out of his London apartment, she moves her battered self, her broken heart, and her few belongings in with a girlfriend and sleeps on a cot. A short time later, her father dies and, as her mother is also dead, Joanna is now an orphan — or so she thinks.

Joanna travels to her childhood home in the English countryside to arrange her father’s funeral. In going through his personal effects, she finds a small box containing a strange religious medal and a love letter he had written to a woman named Sofia, which mentions hiding “our child.” The letter had been returned to him in 1944 marked “addressee unknown.”

Joanna knew her father, a former RAF pilot, had been shot down over Italy toward the end of WWII, but she knew nothing else because he never shared that part of his life, or much more, with her. So she decides to head for Tuscany to solve the mystery of the hidden child and to see if she might have a sibling, which she hopes might give her a semblance of family and bring her closer to her aloof father.

We follow her into the lavender hills of central Italy to the fictional village of San Salvatore, where we delight in her discovery of food — real food with fresh ingredients. Accustomed to boiled meat, blanched vegetables, and plastic carryout, she stays with an Italian woman, who introduces her to the glories of sun-kissed tomatoes, warm olives picked ripe off the tree, oven-baked biscotti, and sweet wine pressed from garden grapes. In these scenes, stolid prose starts dancing as Joanna savors the abbondanza of a Tuscan kitchen.

As we know, Bowen is no rookie; she’s mastered the rules of her genre. First: Hook them from the get-go. So she opens with: “He was going to die, that was quite obvious.” Second: Tease with cliffhangers. Most of hers are formulaic (“He had no idea how dramatically things would change by morning”).

But midway through, when Joanna can’t get water from her shower, Bowen sends her to — the well. What does she find? (Bowen asks a lot of questions to push her plot forward). “A man’s body jammed head-first into the well.” Move over, Nancy Drew. Joanna now has a murder to solve, as well as the mystery of the child.

Third: Give them a fairytale romance, which Bowen dutifully delivers when Joanna meets Renzo, who — surprise, surprise — is single, impossibly handsome, immensely wealthy, and who wants to be a chef. What could be more delicious for a young British woman who didn’t know the difference between paste and pasta?

The book alternates between Sofia’s chapters during WWII and the sleuthing of Joanna almost 30 years later. In the first chapter, the British pilot is hiding in a bombed-out Franciscan monastery, where he finds an underground chapel full of relics, statues, prayer books, and magnificent paintings, including (hint, hint) Leonardo da Vinci’s “Madonna with the Child.”

The airman has been saved from starvation by the food Sofia sneaks to him on midnight visits unseen by the villagers. He shows Sofia his amazing discovery, which they decide must be concealed from the Nazis.

Religiosity pervades this book from the beginning. Sofia’s a devoutly Catholic woman who lights candles, goes to confession, and believes in a retinue of saints for every disease and dilemma: St. Blaise for sore throats; St. Rita for wounds; St. Clara for weather.

Joanna, unlike Sofia, makes it clear that she is not a believer, particularly in Catholicism. She says she “finds Catholic churches to be frightening places — one step away from black magic.”

Now, some Catholics who believe in the sacred seal of Confession might be more offended when the mystery is solved due to a priestly judgment (or misjudgment) on saving the village from the Nazis. They had discovered the crashed plane and knew the British pilot had escaped and was being hidden by someone in San Salvatore. What then transpires provides the twist needed to solve the mystery.

The result: Sofia is last seen being carted off by the Germans; the pilot escapes to England and, never able to find Sofia, he marries his family’s charwoman, who gives birth to Joanna. She, in turn, becomes the protagonist of a book that can best be described as a Hail Mary pass.

 

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Library Book

by Kitty Kelley

As a writer who reveres libraries and genuflects to librarians, I was predisposed to embrace The Library Book by Susan Orlean. I just didn’t expect to fall in love so quickly. But by page three, I was head over heels when I read how she made magic of the mundane. Strolling through the grounds of the Central Library in Los Angeles, she noticed: “Pigeons the color of concrete marched in a bossy staccato.”

God really is in the details.

Orlean, a staff writer for the New Yorker, was onsite in downtown L.A., “a glassy landscape of office buildings,” to research the cause and effect of the single biggest library fire in U.S. history, which occurred in April 1986. You may not recall reading about the library disaster; it occurred the same day as the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, when most of us were waiting to see if we were about to witness global incineration.

The Library Book is not simply an investigation into a fire that burned for seven-and-a-half hours and left 400,000 books in ashes and 700,000 more covered in soot and slime from the over 3 million gallons of water sprayed to extinguish the flames. In addition to the mystery of who or what started the inferno, the book becomes a fascinating mix of crime and history and biography and investigative journalism, all told by a superb storyteller who holds you in thrall to the pathology of arson, a subject you might not realize you care about until you pick up this book, which the publisher has generously bound in red paper-over-board and embossed in gold.

Orlean takes you on her journey as she interviews detectives, policemen, and firefighters. She gives you the physics of fire and the terror of libricide. You become engaged; you want to find the culprit; you agonize for the traumatized librarians; you cheer for the hundreds of volunteers who rush to help remove the smoked wreckage from the Central Library; you applaud the man — the wonderful man — from ARCO who opens his corporate headquarters across the street to warehouse the damaged books, and then helps raise $14 million to rebuild the library.

With this book, Orlean wrote a love story to her mother, who first introduced her as a little girl to the pleasures of reading at the Bertram Woods Library in Cleveland, Ohio. Sadly, her mother slipped into dementia and died before she could read her daughter’s tribute to libraries and her homage to librarians, who stand as the citadels of civilization.

Orlean makes music with her words; they warble and trill across her pages and sing straight into your heart. She writes about the mission of a library as “a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

She makes you see a library like a giant oak tree spreading its branches to give shade and comfort and beauty to a community. The destruction of either tears an ugly gash in the landscape, leaving a crater of dashed dreams. Yet, as she reports, there are more than 200 library fires in the U.S. every year — and most are set on purpose.

If it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, it’s a crime against humanity to burn a library, because, as the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote in the 19th century: “Where they have burned books, they will burn human beings.” World War II proved that prediction by destroying more books and libraries than any event in history, and killing over 60 million people, making that war the world’s deadliest. The chain that links books and libraries and human beings is indisputable.

Orlean opens her book by quoting from William Faulkner’s Light in August: “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” So, it seems fitting to conclude here with a quote from Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize address, in which he talks about the writer’s duty to write from the heart “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” Susan Orlean has done her duty with The Library Book

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

A History of France

by Kitty Kelley

Imagine you have an 88-year-old grandfather who lives in London and is crossing the pond to tell you about his newest book. Besotted by all things French, he intends to take you from Gaul to de Gaulle in 400 pages, and your mother insists you give him respectful attention. After all, he’s written 23 history books, edited 11 more, and narrated 30 television documentaries. He’s also hosted the BBC Radio game show “My Word!”

On top of that, he’s a viscount.

(That’s a British title that confers immense prestige on a man, who gets to be addressed in the U.K. as “Lord.” In the five degrees of British nobility, viscount is less than duke, marquess, or earl, but higher than baron. At royal investitures, each nobleman wears a coronet and a crimson coronation robe with a white miniver fur collar.)

So now you’re prepared for John Julius Norwich and A History of France, which is the viscount’s Valentine to Francophiles.

“I have loved every moment of the work on [this book],” he writes in his preface, “and see it as a sort of thank-offering [sic] to France for all the happiness that glorious country has given me over the years.”

He indicates this may be the last book he writes, and, sadly, he’s right; he died this year, a few months after its publication. He ended his French history at 1945, leaving the Fourth and Fifth Republics to another chronicler.

The preface intrigues as Norwich begins with the first words Charles de Gaulle wrote in his memoirs: “Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idee de la France.” (“All my life, I have had a certain conception of France.”)

Lest you think the author identifies with Le gran Charles, be assured that he applauds him as “one of the greatest men in all [French] history,” but lambasts him for “almost unbelievable pusillanimity and small-mindedness.” To underscore this point, Norwich writes: “No wonder Churchill used to say, ‘The heaviest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine.’”

Being the son of Duff Cooper, for whom the title Viscount Norwich of Aldrich in the County of Sussex was created in 1952, the author casually drops the names of de Gaulle and Winston Churchill, men he had met through his father when he was a teenager.

He recalls meeting de Gaulle at a commemorative luncheon on the third anniversary of the D-Day landings. Young Norwich had arrived late after all the plates were cleared, except for de Gaulle’s plate of apple pie, into which he was tapping his cigarette ash. The hungry young man asked the general if he might have his dessert, and the general immediately pushed the plate over, apologizing for the ashes.

The teenager replied: “I said that it would be an honor to eat the general’s ash — a remark that proved a distinct success. It was my only conversation with the great man; but unlike most of those he had with my father or Winston Churchill it could hardly have been more friendly.”

The author’s preface becomes even more intriguing when he mentions spending Christmas 1944 in the British embassy in Paris, where his father was serving as ambassador. There, the young man meets the poet Louise de Vilmorin, “my father’s mistress,” whom, he claims, “my mother loved…almost as much as my father did,” adding that his mother, Lady Diana Cooper, “had no conception of jealousy” about his father’s many lovers.

And we’re still only in the preface!

If you’re as curious as I was, you might be tempted to Google Duff Cooper, whom you’ll find described by London’s Telegraph as “a legendary womanizer” whose “many…early liaisons left his wife in tears but as his health failed, she accepted them.”

In addition to the aforementioned poetess, these liaisons included Singer sewing machine heiress Daisy Fellowes, socialite Gloria Guinness, fashion model Maxine de la Falaise, and writer Susan Mary Alsop, with whom Cooper had an illegitimate son.

Now the author’s family history is looking as interesting as any of the 58 French kings he writes about, including Charlemagne, with his “five legal wives and four supplementary spouses.” I confess: I ran to Google again to learn that “supplementary spouses” are “an important but often unrecognized relationship” in a marriage, rather like the third leg of a tripod.

After reading the preface, one almost wishes Norwich had written his own memoir and left the history book to French scholars. He states that he did not write his book for professional historians, and certainly none would nominate him for a Pulitzer.

He breezes through the Crusades in a few pages, dusting off two centuries’ worth of battles, from the Fall of Jerusalem to the Fall of Constantinople. Along the way, he introduces a variety of regents, from Clovis I to Napoleon III, with 18 Louises in between, plus an odd duck named Dagobert I, who wore his trousers inside out. (Why? We’re not told.)

You may have difficulty keeping separate “King of Franks” (as France was originally called), “King of France,” “King of the French,” and “Emperor of the French,” but, remember, you’re getting your history in one drive-by gobble rather than dainty little sips.

You can’t help but be amused as you meet various kings, including Robert the Pious (he liked to pray), Philip the Amorous (he was excommunicated for adultery), Louis the Fat (he weighed a lot), John the Posthumous (he lived just five days), John the Fearless (he loved waging war, but then, all French kings did), Charles the Bold, Philip the Fair, and Philip the Good (he founded the Order of the Golden Fleece).

You’ll appreciate the author’s Oxford credentials when he writes that King John of England “was responsible for the murder” of his nephew, Prince Arthur of Brittany, which, Norwich adds, provided “Shakespeare with one of his most poignant scenes.”

(The Groucho-glasses-wearing duck will drop down and pay you $25 if you can name the Shakespeare play to which Norwich refers, because he doesn’t tell. He assumes you are as educated as he is and will know the Bard’s “The Life and Death of King John.”)

Far be it from me to question an esteemed viscount, but I was startled to read that when St. Denis, third-century bishop of Paris, was beheaded, he “calmly picked up his severed head and walked several miles to the site of the abbey that bears his name while preaching a sermon on repentance.” No documentation, but in a sly footnote, Norwich quotes Madame du Deffand: “It’s the first step that counts.”

Regarding Madame: Again, consult Google and then — Ça Alors — continue your merry romp through A History of France.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret

by Kitty Kelley

The book cover shouts “rollicking, irresistible, un-put-downable.” The blurbs trumpet “original, hilarious, memorable,” even “a level of genius.” Even if all that praise for Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown comes from his pals in London, including the exalted likes of novelist Julian Barnes — who pronounced the book “roistering” — I could hardly wait to start reading.

Having never heard of the author or the 18 books he’s written, I raced to remedy my ignorance. Apparently, Wikipedia has the same problem, because information is scarce. Brown identifies as “a parodist and a satirist,” and his books appear to be in that genre: The Private Eye Book of Craig Brown Parodies, The Craig Brown Omnibus, This Is Craig Brown, and, of course, Craig Brown’s Greatest Hits.

This man definitely understands the art of branding. The British comedian Stephen Fry claims Brown is “the wittiest writer in Britain today,” and an example of that wit from his 10th tome, The Little Book of Chaos, presents his advice on coping with vexation: “Regain your inner child: Pull a colleague’s hair.”

Not roistering enough for you? Well, never mind. In this somber era of Trump, I long for any amusing escape, and what could be more humorous than reading about our betters across the pond, especially the princess who teased her hair to helium heights, wore platform peep-toes, and wrapped herself in parachute silks?

So, I looked forward to a joy ride with this book, imagining myself breezing along in a sleek, vintage Jaguar XK convertible — top down, laughter rising to the skies.

But midway through, I felt stuck in a dilapidated jalopy, gears jammed with sludge.

My fault, I’m sure, for not finding humor in the grotesquerie of a spoiled brat so blinded by entitlement that she flicks cigarette ashes into a servant’s hand because she can’t find an ashtray; who announces at a dinner party that the host’s food looks like upchuck.

She derides Jews, detests Americans, denounces the Irish as pigs, and despises politicians of all stripes. “I hate them,” she said. “They never listen to anything I say or answer my questions. Even Sir Winston Churchill would just grunt.”

I don’t doubt the accuracy of Brown’s unsparing characterizations of HRH, the Princess Margaret, whom he refers to as “the royal dwarf” and labels: short, fat, rude, blunt, boorish, acid-tongued, boozy, haughty, chain-smoking, and gauche. But “hilarious” and “rollicking”?

Brown gives many glimpses into the supposed amours of Queen Elizabeth’s errant sister, including an affair with Pablo Picasso, when he was 85 and she was 26. Brown also writes that “Ma’am, Darling” — as his book is titled in England, a cheeky reference to “ma’am,” the day-to-day form of spoken address used with an adult female royal — did not sexually limit herself to men:

“After [the] death [of singer Dusty Springfield] rumors circulated that she and Princess Margaret had once been an item. This seems improbable, but then again improbability is no barrier to gossip.”

Continuing, he provides a list of “those with whom Princess Margaret was…rumored to have had sexual relationships.” In alphabetical order, he names two women and 21 men, including Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger, David Niven, Peter O’Toole, Prince Philip (the queen’s husband), Peter Sellers, and a former prime minister of Canada.

For me, this book becomes a glimpse too far when Brown makes forays into the bathroom. He writes about one man’s pride in being able to sit on the same lavatory seat vacated by a member of the royal family, and then reports another who fishes a royal elimination from the toilet, which he proudly displays in a specimen jar in his home. Yech!

Perhaps Brown’s Ninety-Nine Glimpses is intended to be an indictment of the British monarchy and its pernicious class system. If so, he’s written a masterpiece, especially for those disinclined to crack a knee and curtsy to the crown. He is highly skilled at dissecting the cruel crevices of class in the U.K.

For instance, before you become too impressed by the distinguished photographs of Lord Snowdon, the princess’ former husband, Brown cautions: “The social status of a photographer [is] roughly on a par with that of a tailor — above a hairdresser, but below a governess.”

What Brown has accomplished with his book is a new form of biography — a hybrid of sorts. His “glimpses” are the literary version of mating a donkey to a horse and getting a mule: nothing short of jackass brilliance. He dodges the drudgery of cradle-to-grave chronology, avoids time-consuming interviews, and disregards all documentation, including chapter notes.

Instead, he scours the public record — books, newspapers, magazines — skims the froth off the top, and tra-la-las to publication with a colorful collage of cut-and-paste bits from previously published sources. No index, no bibliography, and, not to put too fine a point on it, no need.

With the princess safely departed (she died in 2002), Brown does not have to contend with the draconian laws of his country, where an insult can be libelous and, if litigated, the loser pays all — judgment, plus lawyers’ fees for both sides.

As sad as Margaret’s wastrel life was her lonely death at the age of 71. After a series of strokes, she boarded herself up in her residence at Kensington Palace, spent most of her time in bed, and refused to see anyone, especially men. “I look so awful now. I don’t want them to remember me like this.”

On the morning HRH Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, died, the queen’s office consulted the prime minister’s office and, with bone-chilling cynicism, discussed “the appropriate level of grief and how to stage manage it.” Between them, they kept tributes to a minimum.

Years later, Margaret’s two children staged a two-day auction at Christie’s to sell her worldly goods. Among her royal possessions was a tiny porcelain box inscribed with the words: “May the King Live to Reward the Subject Who Would Die for Him.”

R.I.P., ma’am

 

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World

by Kitty Kelley

Eunice Kennedy Shriver longed to be Daddy’s little girl. “You are advising everyone else in that house on their careers, so why not me?” she wrote to her father. Joseph P. Kennedy did not ignore his daughter, but he directed his fiercest attention to his sons, determined to invest his millions in making one of them the first Irish Catholic president of the U.S. He accomplished his life goal in 1961 with the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

Still, “puny Eunie,” as her brothers called their gawky, skinny, sickly, big-toothed sister, refused to be ignored, and with determination and persistence, she finally forced her father’s admiration: “If that girl had been born with balls, she would have been a hell of a politician.”

Some might dispute any such lack as Eunice Kennedy Shriver barged into a man’s world and grabbed her rightful place alongside them, although she sometimes — but not always — considered them to be her betters.

She founded the Special Olympics, which spread to 50 countries, and because of her, those with physical and intellectual disabilities are no longer locked away. Society now educates them, employs them, and helps them thrive.

Eunice used her father’s vast connections and immense fortune to her best advantage. (She got admitted to Stanford because Joe Kennedy asked his friend Herbert Hoover to make it possible.) Through her father, she landed a job in the Justice Department as a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark. “Joe Kennedy had secured Eunice’s job the same way he had engineered a U.S. House seat for Jack,” McNamara writes, “with good connections and cold cash.”

During that time, Eunice and her brother Jack lived together in Georgetown, where they had an Irish cook and numerous friends, including Senator Joseph McCarthy and Congressman Richard M. Nixon of California. In her unpaid position, she developed interest and expertise in juvenile delinquency and appealed to her father for help in setting up a scholarship program.

Joe responded that the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, established to honor his firstborn, killed in WWII, “would be glad to defray any expenses…in Boston.” Perceptively, McNamara notes “the random nature and mixed motives of the Kennedy Foundation’s early philanthropy. Solving social problems did not preclude advancing his children’s careers.”

Within a few years, Eunice commandeered the foundation and directed its resources into the field of mental retardation, perhaps in expiation for the plight of her sister Rosemary, the family’s special-needs child.

Recognizing Rosemary’s severe disabilities in London, when he was serving as U.S. ambassador, Joe Kennedy decided his daughter should undergo the experimental psychosurgery of a prefrontal lobotomy, which went horribly wrong, rendering Rosemary unable to function on her own.

Afraid that the stigma of mental retardation might affect the political ambitions he had for his sons, Kennedy sent Rosemary to be cared for by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi at St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children in Jefferson, Wisconsin. Her absence was not mentioned by her parents or her siblings for 30 years, until Eunice began “reintegrating her sister into the family that abandoned her.”

Like her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a zealous Catholic who accepted all the tenets of her church, including the sanctity of marriage and the abomination of abortion. Yet she turned a blind eye to the marital infidelities of her father and her brothers.

In 1980, when Gloria Swanson published an autobiography and revealed her long affair with Joe Kennedy, who took the Hollywood actress on family vacations with his wife and children, Eunice took umbrage. She fired off a blistering letter to the editor of the Washington Post, which McNamara does not mention. Extolling her mother as “a saint” and her father as “a great man,” Shriver lambasted Swanson’s revelation as “warmed-over, 50 year old gossip that accuses the dead [my father] and insults the living [my mother]…The closeness [my father] shared with my mother and her obvious devotion to him inspired his children to revere the values of home and family as well as public service and dedication to others.”

By that time, the sexual romping of the Kennedy men — father and sons — had become proven fact. The only marriage of Rose and Joe Kennedy’s nine children which still seemed intact was that of their fifth child, who adored the Blessed Virgin Mary and wanted to become a nun before she was persuaded, after a seven-year courtship, to marry R. Sargent Shriver.

That 1953 wedding was as grand as a coronation, with Francis Cardinal Spellman celebrating the nuptial Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, assisted by three bishops, four monsignors, and nine priests. The 32-year-old bride wore a white Christian Dior gown made in Paris, and 1,700 guests danced to a 15-piece orchestra on the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf Astoria.

But the wedding might not have occurred without the intervention of Theodore Hesburgh, the charismatic young priest from the University of Notre Dame who was prevailed upon by Joe Kennedy to persuade Eunice not to enter the convent, which Joe felt would be detrimental to JFK’s political career.

Because of Father Hesburgh’s high esteem for Sargent Shriver, he agreed to be Joe Kennedy’s heat-seeking missile, summoning Eunice for “a frank and honest exchange.” He told her that her vocation was not the convent but to marry Shriver, have his children, and continue the work she was doing with the mentally challenged.

He later told McNamara that Sarge “was the best, the very best of the bunch. I knew her not as well as I knew him, but she was a great gal. There are a lot of Kennedys. They come in all shapes and sizes. But who did the work she did? Who cared for Rosemary as she did? It took a lot of strength, I will tell you that. The men tend to outrank the women in that family, but she had as much or more to offer as any of them.”

Eileen McNamara writes with grace, elegance, and diplomacy, never making moral judgments on harsh facts. If she were not doing laudable work as chair of the journalism program at Brandeis University, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer would make an excellent secretary of state. Her fine biography of Eunice Kennedy Shriver champions the overlooked sister, who deserves as much, if not more, applause than her celebrated brothers in establishing the family’s monumental legacy.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World

by Kitty Kelley

I had no idea until I read Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World by Miles J. Unger that Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was so shocking. After visiting the Musée National Picasso in Paris last week, I would’ve pinned that ribbon on “Guernica” (1937), his mammoth evocation of the horrors of war. (Obviously, I missed the memo proclaiming sex more shocking than man’s inhumanity to man.)

Strictly translated, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” means the young, unmarried women of Avignon — the ancient town in southeast France in the Vaucluse, on the left bank of the Rhone. But elementary French does not capture Picasso’s revolutionary painting meant to rivet and revolt. As he said, “Art is not made to decorate apartments…It is an instrument of offensive and defensive war against the enemy.”

In 1907, Picasso’s enemy was “the centuries-old tradition” of art, which he attacked with his full artillery, producing a wall-size painting of five androgynous nudes with knife-sharp breasts, misshapen heads, and hollow eyes that looked fatigued and fed up with the sexual demands of their paying customers.

For Picasso, “Les Demoiselles” encompassed a narrative of lust and rage and repulsion and illicit desire. He stripped sex of all romance and displayed the brothel business as a basic transaction of cash for services rendered.

“Indeed, the dynamic interplay between the constructive and destructive principles, Freud’s Eros and Thanatos, was the key to the artist’s creativity,” states the author. At the time, those accustomed to the idealized nudes of Botticelli’s “Venus” and the soft Madonna curves of Raphael did not see Picasso’s masterpiece as creative, but rather as dark, disruptive, and dystopian.

In fact, he was shunned by his adoring bohemian disciples (aka, bande a’ Picasso), who were horrified when he pronounced the painting his glorious “exorcism.” Henri Matisse, his main rival among avant-garde artists in Paris, denounced “Les Demoiselles” as a crime against art, an elaborate hoax, and a personal affront. Dealers and collectors fled, showing only disgust for the painting.

One left Picasso’s studio practically in tears, telling Gertrude Stein, the artist’s biggest patron: “What a loss for French art!” Gertrude’s brother, Leo, once a Picasso patron, called the painting “a horrible mess.” Picasso so scandalized the art world by his depiction of these hard-edged prostitutes that, after one studio showing, he rolled up his canvas and stashed it under his bed for nine years until the world caught up with his vision that introduced the school of painting known as Cubism.

Given the heaving shelves of Picasso books, and the fourth and final volume of the artist’s life to be published soon by Sir John Richardson, one has to applaud Unger, an art historian, for carving his own niche in the adoration wall that surrounds Picasso’s genius.

While the author genuflects to the artist’s protean talents, he does not spare the man holding the paintbrush. Unger describes Picasso’s whorehouse as “the great battlefield of the human soul, an Armageddon of lust and loathing but also of liberation, the site where our conflicted nature reveals itself in all its anarchic violence.”

Some might wish Unger had grappled more vigorously with Picasso’s misogyny and his well-documented cruelty to women, but his savagery remains palpable on the page. “An unrepentant male chauvinist,” Unger calls him, Picasso used and abused women, discarding wives, mistresses, and lovers like a snake shedding its skin. His art was his first priority in life. Everything else — family, friends, children, even pets — was sacrificed on the altar of his raging ambition.

At one point, Picasso and Fernande Olivier, his first true love and mistress of many years, decided to adopt a 13-year-old girl from a Paris orphanage. Within weeks, we learn, “Picasso’s feelings veered dangerously far from the paternal.”

A sketch he titled “Raymonde Examining Her Foot” shows her spreading her legs to Picasso’s devouring gaze. “There’s no indication that Picasso ever abused Raymonde,” writes Unger, “but it’s clear she aroused feelings in him that might have led to disaster. His attraction to adolescent girls, at least later in life, is well-documented.”

The youngster lived with Picasso and Fernande for four months, during which time he was working on “Les Demoiselles.” Then they decided a child was too much of a strain on his art and their relationship, so they returned Raymonde to the orphanage, discarding her along with her dolls.

One of the artist’s most despicable acts occurred in 1944, when Picasso, a Spaniard living in Paris during World War II, was spared military service. Famous and influential at the time, he refused to help his lifelong colleague Max Jacob, Jewish and homosexual, who, the author tells us, “died at Drancy while awaiting transfer to Auschwitz, after Picasso failed to intervene on behalf of his old friend.”

The young prodigy from Barcelona lived to be 91 years old. He became rich beyond his imaginings and made himself the most renowned artist of the 20th century, but he was hardly a man beloved. Like his art, Pablo Picasso never tried to please.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

 

 

Robin

by Kitty Kelley

Shakespeare set the gold standard for honoring a beloved comedian no longer alive. In Act 5 of Hamlet, when the Prince of Denmark sees the skull of his father’s court jester, he nearly weeps: “Alas poor Yorick…A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…”

And now, in Robin, we come to another man of merriment — a comedic genius who has, unfortunately, been buried in a turgid biography. Melancholy suffuses this book like a shroud, but perhaps that’s because the 2014 suicide of Robin Williams still saddens those of us once dazzled by his ricocheting brilliance, his hilarious humor, his raucous one-man shows, and many of his movies, particularly Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society, and Good Will Hunting, which earned him the Oscar for best supporting actor.

As his friend Billy Crystal said the first time he saw Robin Williams perform: “Oh, my god. What is this? It was like trying to catch a comet with a baseball glove.”

Alas, poor Robin. While your star shines, your biographer shambles.

Granted, the challenge of writing about someone of sparkling talent is daunting, but there’s no excuse for plodding prose from “a culture reporter for The New York Times,” which is how the author, Dave Itzkoff, identifies himself on the back of the book.

On page eight, Itzkoff describes a photograph of Williams’ mother: “Even in this black-and-white image, the soft sparkle of her blue eyes is unmistakable.” Later he writes: “Still, there were lessons that Juilliard could not teach Robin…itches it could not scratch.”

Itzkoff continues scratching in another chapter: “After all the extravagant ambitions he had chased in show business and all the self-indulgent itches he had been able to scratch, none of which had led to his finding fulfillment, maybe this was what he truly wanted in life — maybe becoming a father is what would finally make him happy.”

The first few times Itzkoff mentions Williams wearing “rainbow suspenders,” I noted the colorful detail and remembered he had made them a fashion trend in 1978 with his breakout performance in the sitcom Mork and Mindy on network television.

By the fifth and sixth mention of “rainbow suspenders,” I wondered what I was missing. Was Itzkoff perseverating? His editor dozing? Were “rainbow suspenders” supposed to be Robin’s Rosebud? Did he wear them for good luck? To support the LGBTQ movement? I still don’t know.

By the age of 35, Dave Itzkoff had written two memoirs about himself, recalling his father’s cocaine addiction, his own drug use, and his attempted suicide, which presumably sensitized him to the addictions that plagued Williams, who was open about his struggles with drugs and alcohol, and frequently used them to fuel his comedy. He told audiences:

“I believe that cocaine is God’s way of saying you’re making too much money.”

“The only difference between me and a leprechaun is I snorted my pot of gold.”

“An alcoholic is someone who violates their standards faster than they can lower them.”

By contrast, discussing his decision to finally get sober, which he was for the last eight years of his life, Williams said: “I had to stop drinking alcohol because I used to wake up nude on the hood of my car with my keys in my ass. Not a good thing.”

When his second wife divorced him because of his extra-marital affairs, Williams said, “I’ve learned this: There’s (sic) penalties for early withdrawal and depositing in another account.”

Itzkoff covers all the biographical bases: Williams’ lonely childhood, his family’s many moves, his imaginary playmates, aloof parents, different schools, bullying, and the fear of disapproval and rejection, plus a bottomless need to please and perform, to be noticed and applauded.

No surprise that the best lines in the book belong to Williams, who psychoanalyzed himself better than anyone could: “I don’t think I’ll ever be the type that goes, ‘I am now at one with myself’…therapy helps…it makes you reexamine your life, how you related to people. How far you can push the ‘like me’ desire before there’s nothing left of you to like.”

Williams joked that he had to work nonstop because divorce was expensive, but the book makes clear that he worked for the same reason a dervish whirls — he had to. As one friend said, “He operated on working. That was the true love of his life. Above his children, above everything. If he wasn’t working he was a shell of himself. When he worked, it was like a lightbulb was turned on.”

Robin Williams turned the lightbulb off on August 11, 2014, when he hung himself by a leather belt. Months before, he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, leading many to assume that depression prompted his suicide. But three months later, the Marin County Sheriff’s office released the autopsy report, showing that Williams suffered from “diffuse Lewy body dementia,” a toxic, devastating brain disorder for which there is no cure or control.

“Robin was aware that he was losing his mind and there was nothing he could do about it,” said one of his doctors. Billy Crystal said: “My heart breaks that he suffered and only saw one way out.”

Williams left behind one widow, two ex-wives, three children, and an estate worth $20-$50 million, which was litigated by some of the above. He left the rest of us a legacy of laughter but feeling as desolate as Hamlet over Yorick: “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table in a roar?”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Jackie, Janet & Lee

by Kitty Kelley

Nothing sells like sex, diets, and the Kennedys. A book entitled How JFK Made Love to Marilyn Monroe on 150 Calories a Day would zoom to instant success. Just ask J. Randy Taraborrelli, who’s been mining two of those veins for the last 20 years and claims “many New York Times best sellers” to his credit.

In 2000, he wrote Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot, which became a two-part TV series on NBC in 2001. He wrote After Camelot in 2012, and he now offers Jackie, Janet & Lee: The Secret Lives of Janet Auchincloss and Her Daughters Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill.

Spoiler alert: He adores Jackie and abhors Lee. The big reveal, according to his publisher’s press release, is that (supposedly) their mother performed do-it-yourself artificial insemination to get pregnant twice after she divorced their father and married her second husband, Hugh D. Auchincloss.

Janet was 37; Hugh was 58, and he had had three children by two previous wives. Yet we’re told to believe that Mr. Auchincloss was incapable of impregnating Mrs. Auchincloss in 1945 and again in 1947. And — hang on — we’re told why: “Even though Hugh was not able to sustain an erection, he was able to produce sperm…[and Janet] used a kitchen utensil along the lines of a turkey baster — though it would be incorrect to say that this was the specific instrument she used; no one can quite remember…”

With eyes popping, I turned to the chapter notes for documentation on this “never before revealed secret.” Under source notes for “Janet’s Unconventional Pregnancy,” Taraborrelli writes: “Because of the sensitive nature of this chapter, my interviewed sources asked to remain anonymous.”

Huh?

With Mr. and Mrs. Auchincloss deceased for many years, I wondered what possible “sources” could’ve been interviewed about the intimacies of their bedroom. No documentation is provided, other than the author’s note that he recycles sources from his previous books. Then, like a bird feathering its nest, he snatches twigs and wisps from newspapers, magazines, and tabloids while plucking from the vast trove of other published lore, which Jill Abramson, in the New York Times, once estimated to be 40,000 Kennedy books.

In this book, some readers might be troubled by the lack of attribution for “she felt,” “he thought,” “said an intimate,” “revealed an associate,” “confided an employee,” and “reported someone with knowledge of the situation.”

Others might be puzzled by the personal quotes Taraborrelli does attribute, particularly a story about Janet giving Lee a check for $650,000, saying: “For any time I ever let you down, I’m very sorry. Maybe this small gift will make your life a little easier. I love you, Lee.”

Taraborrelli follows with: “We don’t know Lee’s reaction; she’s never discussed it and only she and Janet were in the room at the time the gift was presented.” So how is it that Taraborrelli, who was not in the room, can gives us Janet’s exact words?

Perhaps the quotes come secondhand from Taraborrelli’s main source for this book: James “Jamie” Auchincloss, the 71-year-old son of the aforementioned parents and the half-brother of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, although Taraborrelli tells us: “[H]e never refers to Jackie and Lee as ‘halfs.’”

Full disclosure: I interviewed Jamie Auchincloss several times in 1975 when I was writing a biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. That book, Jackie Oh!, received attention because my interview with former Florida senator George Smathers was the first time a Kennedy intimate had gone on the record to discuss the president’s extra-marital affairs.

During our three-hour interview in his law office, Smathers also confirmed that Jacqueline Kennedy had received electroshock therapy for depression after losing her first child, Arabella, in 1956. Published 20 years later, my book also revealed for the first time the prefrontal lobotomy performed on the Kennedys’ eldest daughter, Rosemary, who was severely diminished by the surgery, and, as a result, spent the rest of her life in the care of the nuns at St. Coletta’s in Wisconsin.

While Jamie Auchincloss was not the source for those revelations, he did speak openly about his famous relatives and, unfortunately, he paid a price. Appearing on Charlie Rose’s local DC talk show a few years later, he said that Jackie stopped speaking to him after my book was published, much as she had with others whom she felt had shared too much personal information about the late president, including Ben Bradlee, who wrote Conversations with Kennedy, and Paul “Red” Fay, JFK’s Navy buddy, author of The Pleasure of His Company. When Fay sent his royalty check to the Kennedy Library, Jackie sent it back.

A few years ago, Jamie Auchincloss plunged from the height of being the 6-year-old page boy who carried the wedding train of his sister’s gown when she married John F. Kennedy to the scandal of being jailed at age 67 for the possession of child pornography. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to distributing what prosecutors called lewd and lascivious images, and was charged with two felony counts for encouraging child sexual abuse.

He spent Christmas 2010 in jail. Failing to cooperate with his court-ordered sex offender treatment program, he was sentenced to eight months in jail, serving just over half the time behind bars and the rest in home detention. He was put on probation for three years and ordered to stay away from children for the rest of his life and to register as a sex offender.

Taraborrelli writes that “this unfortunate turn in Jamie’s life in no way impacts his standing in history or his memories of growing up with his parents…and siblings…Or his brothers-in-law, Jack, Bobby, and Ted Kennedy. The times I spent with Jamie were memorable; I appreciate him so much. He also provided many photographs for this book.”

If you’re a reader who requires corroborated information and credible sourcing in your nonfiction, this book may give you pause. Then again, if your requirements are less stringent, you might enjoy the photographs.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

 

Avedon: Something Personal

by Kitty Kelley

If you’re into pop culture, you’ll inhale Avedon: Something Personal by Norma Stevens and Steven M.L. Aronson, which drops more names in 700 pages than a prison rollcall.

If you recognize Kate and Naomi and Veruschka and Christy as first-name fashion models, you might pay $40 for the book, but you won’t see any of Richard Avedon’s acclaimed work for Bazaar or Vogue in it. You’ll read about “his iconic image of Dovima and the elephants,” but you won’t see why the image is iconic.

You’ll learn that Calvin Klein paid Avedon “three million in 1980 dollars” ($9.6 million in 2018 dollars) for the famous ad campaign showing a young Brooke Shields in an unbuttoned blouse and blue jeans saying, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.”

But, again, no photo.

Astonishingly, this biography of a world-renowned photographer contains none of his photographs.

Avedon was as celebrated for his black-and-white portraits as his fashion photography, but unless you know his work, you won’t understand why these portraits raised the ire of some of his subjects, like Truman Capote, whose “puffy-faced” image is described but not shown.

And neither are Avedon’s “vaunted picture of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor,” described as “two people without a country and without a soul,” and the photographer’s “highly controversial” and “fraught” portraits taken “relentlessly” of his terminally ill father during the months he was dying.

There are snapshots by others throughout the book, but none by Avedon himself. Apparently, this omission is because his images are controlled by the Avedon Foundation, which did not bless the book. In fact, the foundation issued a statement blasting the biography as filled with factual errors (some 200) and fantastical stories, which it claimed could damage Avedon’s legacy.

His son, John, called the book “a collection of half-truths or outright falsehoods,” particularly the last scene in which he prepared a meal and mistakenly sprinkled his deceased father’s ashes, rather than oregano, on the food.

A high school dropout who gravitated to intellectuals, Avedon was the beloved only son of an adoring Jewish mother. He loved theater and film and appeared to have read widely, as was evidenced by the nameplate on his building, which identified him as Dr. Aziz, the emotional character in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, whose quicksilver moods lifted him to heights of exuberance and cast him into the depths of despair.

“Avedon chafed at being defined a ‘fashion photographer,’ and longed to reign in the pantheon of artistes. To this end he published heavy books of his portraiture, staged gallery exhibitions and mounted museum openings, his proudest being twice honored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet by the age of 75, he felt burned out creatively. He agonized over losing his focus, drive and energy, despite daily infusions of amphetamines and sleeping pills. Still, he never lost sight of his financial worth, saying: ‘Money is the only power in the world, and that’s my belief.’

“He once billed the New Yorker for over $1 million in expenses and sent his collected receipts in a large Tiffany box. He considered Qatar’s Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed bin Ali al-Thani to be his own ‘ATM on legs,’ and charged him ‘many millions’ for personal photography.”

The book’s most startling revelation is the 10-year love affair between Avedon and the director Mike Nichols. Despite their marriages to women (two wives for Avedon; four for Nichols, including his widow, Diane Sawyer), the men once considered leaving their spouses and running away together.

Avedon later confided to author Stevens that he could not publicly declare himself as gay because his self-proclaimed stature as “the world’s greatest photographer” would be diminished, and there was nothing he cared more about than his star in the stratosphere. “You do it, after I’m gone,” he told her. Stevens obliged — and then some. She retold his stories about “innocent kissing” with James Baldwin and youthful sexual encounters with his sister and his cousin.

This intimate biography draws on the recollections of Stevens and her 30 years with Avedon as his studio director and confidante, as well as oral histories from friends, associates, and a few disgruntled employees, all of whom acknowledge his creative genius as well as his relentless drive for national recognition.

Despite the bad blood between the foundation and the authors, which comes across clearly in the former’s public statement, nothing contested by the foundation rises to the level of libel, even allowing for no chapter notes indicating where the facts in the narration come from — no diaries, journals, or correspondence are cited as documentation.

Consumed by his legacy, Avedon counted the words in the death notices of his rivals and wondered if he’d get more or fewer. Particularly sad was his obsession over how the New York Times would cover his final exit. “Will I make the front page…Will I be above the fold?” To this end, he sent the newspaper annual but unbidden obituary updates listing his latest shows and exhibits.

Richard Avedon, 81, died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on assignment in San Antonio, Texas. The Times reported his death on the front page — below the fold.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Just a Journalist

by Kitty Kelley

If Linda Greenhouse is “just a journalist,” then Secretariat is just a horse. With a Phi Beta Kappa key from Radcliffe (1968) and a Pulitzer Prize (1998) “for her consistently illuminating coverage of the United States Supreme Court” for the New York Times, Greenhouse is the gold standard of journalism.

(Full disclosure: Greenhouse is a friend, and I admire her — personally and professionally. She’s the woman so many would like to be: smart, accomplished, and principled.)

Her book, Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between, not so much memoir as treatise, took root from a set of lectures she delivered in 2015 at her alma mater about the role of a journalist as a public person and a private citizen. She used herself as an example to pose provocative questions about the shifting boundaries in journalism and whether the old shibboleths remain effective in the 21st century, especially prescient now that we’re in the era of Donald J. Trump and his “fake news” and “alternative facts.”

Sparking her reflections on the subject was her personal experience following a speech she gave after receiving her college’s highest honor, the Radcliffe Medal. It was 2006, during the second term of George W. Bush, when, she told her audience, “Our government had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib…and let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.”

She also talked about how the world had in some important ways gotten better, especially in the workplace for women and through the Supreme Court’s recognition of gay men and lesbians’ rights to “dignity” and “respect.”

Greenhouse took heat for expressing herself on these matters of verifiable fact, all part of the public record and covered in depth by the media. She did not reveal state secrets or endanger national security. She simply offered her opinion on the world at that time. Still, her peers pounced.

National Public Radio’s website ran a story headlined “Critics Question Reporter’s Airing of Personal Views.” Among the critics was the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, who was shocked — shocked! (Like Claude Raines in “Casablanca.”) The dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland pronounced her remarks “ill-advised.”

The former chair of the Pulitzer Prize board executive committee said, “The reputation of Greenhouse’s newspaper is at stake when the reporter expresses her strong beliefs publicly.”

The coup de grace was delivered by her own newspaper, whose public editor recommended she not cover the Supreme Court on topics she addressed in her speech. “Ms. Greenhouse has an over-riding obligation to avoid publicly expressing these kinds of personal opinions…[and] giving the paper’s critics fresh opportunities to snipe at its public policy coverage.”

They all sounded like Chicken Little, convinced the sky was going to fall on the New York Times because one of its reporters had expressed herself on public policy. Actually, the sky had fallen two years before, when Jayson Blair was forced to resign from the newspaper for fabricating or plagiarizing half of the 72 stories he had written.

The newsroom was still reeling from that debacle, which may have been why no one stepped forward to defend Greenhouse for telling the truth. She was like the child in the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale who called out the emperor for not wearing clothes. (To the Times’ credit, she continued covering the court until she retired in 2008, when she accepted an offer to teach at the Yale Law School.)

Greenhouse blows holes through the current theory of objectivity that journalists are expected to maintain — to have no private opinions or support any private causes. According to these old rules, journalists should not contribute to their community because it might reflect negatively on their employer or tempt others to see bias in their work. Leonard Downie took this to pious extremes when he was executive editor of the Washington Post and announced that he would not vote and would stop having “private opinions about politicians or issues.”

He felt that would give him a completely open mind in supervising the newspaper’s coverage, and I suppose it would in Brigadoon. But what about the real world, where journalists might want to participate in parent-teacher associations, volunteer for community organizations, contribute to nonprofits, and — God help us — register to vote?

Greenhouse asks how journalists can be objective in their coverage by adhering to “he said, she said” reporting, as if there are only two sides to every story, when, in fact, there are usually several. Under deadline, reporters, trying to be neutral, frequently run to official sources to get their quotes for “on the one hand, on the other hand” presentations. The advocates’ words could be lies or, to use the newspaper euphemism, “factual untruths,” or benign lobbying for their particular causes.

If their words come to the reader without context or correction, they gain credibility for simply being quoted in the news. Hardly neutral reporting. In fact, just the opposite, as these journalists, striving to be fair and balanced, are, according to Greenhouse, doing what they most dread —deferring to power.

Normally, a journalist writing about journalism is like a golfer writing about golf; interesting only to those who play the game. In this case, though, we’ve got a Babe Didrikson Zaharias holding forth on a subject for which she holds the field, and her subject is not “just” journalism, as if journalism is a mere incidental that can be shrugged off with indifference.

In arguing for more context in reporting, Greenhouse echoes the wisdom of Felix Frankfurter, who said: “The responsibility of those in power is not to reflect inflamed public feeling but to help form its understanding.”

While her questions are provocative and meant to be pondered, her style is cool, analytical, and without hyperbole. She writes with restraint and offers no harsh criticism of her former employer. To the contrary, she recognizes the premier position the New York Times holds and wants nothing more than for the paper of record to excel in its mission to inform.

Journalism affects all of us — locally, nationally, internationally. For it’s through journalists that we learn what’s happening in our world and how to traverse its shoals. Journalists are our eyes and ears, and without seeing and hearing, we’d be blind and deaf, unable to function. Linda Greenhouse’s little 192-page book is a big contribution and deserves our attention.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books