Big-Bang Baby Boomer
women changed the face of literature and
by D. J. Herda
Literary Historical Fiction
2.) Scandal in Bohemia. Divorced from her husband and alone for the first time in her life, Colette traveled a roller coaster of feelings, from euphoric highs to imperial lows. “There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom,” she said, “others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall.”
Following her 1912 marriage to newspaper editor Henry de Jouvenel, the birth of her daughter Bel-Gazou, and the beginning of her gradual transformation from scandalous coquette into France's most celebrated and respected woman writer, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette moved on to conquer a complicated series of Younger Women and Younger Men. Among the gals: Lily de Rême, the flirty, capricious model for the character, May, in Colette’s 1913 novel, L'Entrave, about a bisexual ménage à trois; Musidora, the early cinema star (and one-time mistress of Willy) who became famous as the kohl-eyed darling of the Surrealists; and promiscuous salon owner Natalie Barney (the “Pope of Lesbos”).
The guys ranged from empty-headed young studs such as Auguste Hériot, playboy heir to the Magasins du Louvre department store fortune (a mustachioed man-child with an innocent gaze and a constant erection) to the morphine-addicted Georges Kessel, known as “Smoke.”
Hériot was undoubtedly one of the models for Colette's most celebrated of all male characters, Chéri, the beautiful young man adored and repudiated by the middle-aged heroine in the exquisite post-war novels, Chéri (1920) and La Fin de Chéri (1926). Even more important to Colette's imaginative life, however, was her stepson: the startlingly handsome 16-year-old Bertrand de Jouvenel, her husband's son by his first marriage, whom Colette promptly seduced when the boy came, Cherub-like, to pay his respects to her at her seaside house in 1920.
Her last husband, Maurice Goudeket, whom she would meet in 1925 and marry in 1935 at the age of 62, was 17 years her junior. Goudeket, a handsome, obscure, wealthy Jewish dealer in pearls with a “subdued fire that bored matrons . . . found beguiling,” was immediately nicknamed “Mr Goodcock” by Colette's friend, Paul Valéry.
Colette's moral lethargy was at its peak, and she reveled in it.
3.) The Lost Years. Colette’s greatest qualities as a writer and a woman were her tremendous vitality and her attunement to nature, both of which she inherited from her mother. She returned the favor by creating a loving, albeit less than factual, portrait of her in Sido as well as in My Mother's House. When her mother died, Colette lost a piece of her soul. By contrast, Colette’s daughter, Bel-Gazou, received neither her mother’s full attention nor affection. How could she? At every stage of life, Colette relished the desires of the flesh, from food to sex, and took a peasant's detached and ironic view of subjects both lofty and sublime. There was not an idea that could carry her away, and there was no sensation that couldn't. The only thing Colette feared in life was her morbid feeling that someday she would awaken to find that she had been untrue to herself.
4.) The Last Years. For Madame Colette, growing old held few fears. When she was still 36 , an age considered at the time to be less than youthful, when the average life expectancy was around 46, she chided herself, "Don't cry...you have to get old. Repeat the words to yourself, not as a howl of despair but as the boarding call to a necessary departure.''
She lived to be 81, and her last years were
difficult. Mostly bedridden in her Paris apartment and in constant pain,
she was lovingly tended to by her third and much younger husband, who
encouraged her to continue to write, always on her trademark blue paper.
Her opulent black hair, by now frizzed and hennaed, and her once hardened athletic body, now soft and corpulent, became her new enemies. Yet, she remained determined and defiant to the end about what she had tried to do both in her writing and in her life. She told an esteemed visitor, "Thanks be to God, perhaps the most praiseworthy thing about me is that I have known how to write like a woman, without anything moralistic or theoretical and without promulgating.''
As this extraordinary woman prepared for the end of her life, she harbored no ill will. “I love my past, I love my present,” she said. “I am not ashamed of what I have had, and I am not sad because I no longer have it.”
Upon her death, Colette received the first state funeral for a woman in the Republic’s history. Six thousand people walked by her bier in the Palais-Royal to pay their respects. Most of them were women. Whether or not they realized it, Colette had in some way influenced the way they dressed, thought, loved, and lived. One of those women was New York’s own Dorothy Parker.
5.) Parker Penned. She was a natural writer who taught herself how to be anything but. She was an enigma who yearned to be free. She was an adoring fan of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. And, like Colette, she was destined to change the way a nation looked, thought, ate, drank, smoked, talked, overindulged, and expressed itself sexually. She was the original model for the Roaring Twenties girl, an unlikely candidate from a Jewish-Catholic household, who talked hard, worked hard, played hard, and fought for every inch of ground she ever gained.
And fight she did. She fought to return home when her Jewish father sent her to a Catholic girl’s school to obtain a “proper education.” She fought her way out of the box and into the penthouse. She fought her way from lowly caption writer to the talk of the town. And, at the very pinnacle of a successful literary career, she had no idea that she was about to reinvent herself. One more time.
6.) Life at the Gonk. The period following World War I was one of enormous gaiety and optimism, and it sparked a new era of creativity in American culture. One of the most profoundly outrageous influences on the times was a group of a dozen tastemakers who lunched together at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel. Dorothy Parker was at the lead. For more than a decade, they met daily and came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table. With members Parker, Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker), Robert Benchley, Franklin Pierce Adams, Heywood Broun, Broun’s wife Ruth Hale, Alexander Woollcott, Harpo Marx, George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, the Round Tablers were outspoken and outrageous, and they often quoted one another freely in their daily columns.
Edna Ferber, who called them "The Poison Squad," wrote, "They were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done, they did say so publicly and whole-heartedly."
Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent, and very, very tough. Both casual and incisive, they had a certain terrible integrity about their work and boundless ambition. Throughout all, the members reveled in their roles as trendsetters and newsmakers.
Robert Sherwood, reviewing cowboy hero Tom Mix: "They say he rides as if he’s part of the horse, but they don’t say which part."
Dorothy Parker: "That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them."
George S. Kaufman, when asked by a press agent how to get his leading lady’s name into his newspaper: "Shoot her."
By 1925, the Round Table had made Parker more famous than ever. The country-at-large was now attentive to her every word—people often coming to stare at her during lunch or to ask for an autograph. Dubbed the most powerful woman in the world, she eschewed the limelight but adored the privileges it accorded her. And the greatest privilege of all was the freedom she was finding to express her own sexuality through her writing.
7.) Breaking Ground. She was a unique woman in so many ways. At the time, about the best position a female writer could aspire to was that of a caption writer or a fashion reporter. Parker surpassed all that. She wrote captions, but she wrote stories and poetry and limericks, as well, about sexy, clever, free-thinking young women in the prime of their lives. She became an acerbic theatrical critic as feared as anyone who ever set pen to page. And she ended up criticizing herself nearly to death.
Once, someone oversaw a note in her typewriter: “Oh God, please let me write like a man.” What Dorothy Parker ended up doing was writing like a man writing like a woman who writes like a man. It began with her poetry, unabashed, unashamed, unrepentant, and exploded into her critiques, essays, letters, and short stories, including The Big Blonde. She was unafraid to present the human side of her own sexuality; yet at the same time she was terrified of not being able to find it.
“She could spit and curse and drink and write as well as any man,” one of her peers once said. “And yet she was as mild and mellow off-stage as a babe in her mother’s arms.” But that babe had an astringent, even a deadly, side. And soon enough, she would show it.
8.) In Immigrant Danger. On April 15, 1920, Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli were shot dead in South Braintree while carrying two boxes containing the payroll of a shoe factory. Two Italian anarchist immigrants, Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, were charged with the crime and eventually convicted of murder. They were sentenced to death.
But the trial had been seriously flawed. Important evidence placing Sacco and Vanzetti hundreds of miles away at the time of the murders was overlooked. A signed confession to the crimes from a career criminal was discarded. The trial judge was afterwards cited for committing several improprieties. All was to no avail.
As Sacco and Vanzetti sat on Death Row, several important figures in the United States and Europe became involved in the campaign to overturn their conviction. John Dos Passos, Alice Hamilton, Paul Kellog, Jane Addams, Heywood Broun, William Patterson, Upton Sinclair, Ben Shahn, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Felix Frankfurter, John Howard Lawson, Freda Kirchway, Floyd Dell, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and the most popular American writer of the day, Dorothy Parker, demanded a retrial. Parker was determined more than ever to win the men their freedom. She marched for a new trial; she enrolled other Round Tablers; and she was arrested. She refused to be taken to the station in the police paddy wagon. So she walked. She was photographed, fingerprinted, and released on bond.
On August 23, 1927, the day of the scheduled execution, Dorothy Parker and more than 250,000 people took part in a demonstration in Boston, denouncing as cold-blooded murder the taking of two innocent lives. Inside the prison, at the prescribed hour, the lights flickered and went out for several seconds. And it was over.
When word reached Parker, she was devastated.
Unable to shake the feeling that she had let two Italian immigrants down, that she hadn’t done enough to save them, she walked into the bathroom of her Algonquin Hotel apartment, took the blade out of her razor, and ran it deftly across both her wrists.
9.) Pen Pals. Following the execution, Parker fell back into her writing, although by now her home life was miserable. Her marriage to her morphine- and alcohol-addicted husband finally ended in 1928. Through her worst years, she maintained a tough-talking and hard-drinking public exterior, scoffing at her own misery with blasé humor. At a friend’s suggestion, she collected a volume of her poetry to pay for an overseas trip, although she herself felt her verse was not good enough for a book. To her great surprise, Enough Rope became an instant best-seller, rare for a book of poems. In this and subsequent successful volumes of poetry—Sunset Gun (1928), Death and Taxes (1931), and Not So Deep as a Well (1936)—Parker poked fun at her own heartbreak, masochism, and hopefulness. Her most effective verse captures the breadth of her dreams and disappointments with bitter irony and perfect turns of phrase, but only hints at their depths.
But nothing she accomplished made her truly happy.
As the dour days of the post-execution years passed and America entered the Great Depression and the more somber decade of the 1930s, so too did Dorothy Parker enter her own period of personal despair. The bonds that had held the Round Table together loosened; some members moved to Hollywood; others drifted off to pursue other interests. "It didn’t end, it just sort of faded," recalled Marc Connelly. A decade after it had begun, the Algonquin Round Table was over.
10.) Rising Star. In 1927, Parker joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine where she wrote book reviews under the pen name, Constant Reader. While she was there, she gradually worked herself out of her depression. Her readership began to climb, and her notoriety soared. She became famous for her two-line quip,
Men seldom make passes
Regaining both her confidence and a feel for her work, she produced verses that were sardonic, dry, and elegantly written commentaries on lost love or on the shallowness of modern life. And the public loved them to death.
Why is it no one sent me yet
After disappearing for several days from the Round Table without a word, friends and peers began to worry. Her boss, Harold Ross, was frantic. During his third day of drinking lunch at the hotel, he received a telephone call from his secretary, saying that she had taken a call from Parker, who said she’d gotten married and was on her honeymoon. She’d left a return number where she could be reached. Ross immediately dialed the number, a bar in Harlem, and asked for the writer. Parker picked up the ‘phone.
"Dorothy, is it really you?"
"Hiya, Harold. You sound kind of upset. What's ..."
"Never mind that. Why haven’t you called?"
She paused. "Cause I've been too fucking busy," she snapped. "And vice-versa."
During the 1930s, she and second husband Alan Campbell decided to move to Hollywood where she worked as a screenwriter on A Star Is Born (1937), starring Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, and Adolphe Menjou. She received An Academy Award for the screenplay, along with Campbell and Robert Carson. She attended the Oscar ceremonies, collected her prize, and was lauded throughout Hollywood for her talent and her creativity.
But she was beginning to feel suffocated. The restlessness within her kept her up nights, and her health began to fail. She was finished writing about Sacco and Vanzetti and was taken up with a new cause—the Spanish Civil War. She decided to travel to Spain to lend support for the loyalists against Franco. When she returned to Hollywood, she fell back into her work, by now a common theme, and began collaborating with Peter Vierter and Joan Harrison on Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (1940). Following the film’s successful debut, she once again found herself riding the pinnacle of popularity, and she was once again frightened.
Was it the success that frightened her...or the fact that no matter how much she achieved, none of it seemed to satisfy her. What was she searching for? She ached to learn the truth, and in aching, she sought refuge, once again, in alcohol. She “drank like a fish, so much so that the boys couldn’t keep up, which was fine with her.” Not that her drinking, by any means, dampened her thirst for sardonic wit, much to the chagrin of many A-List celebrities of the day.
After meeting Joan Crawford, who was married at the time to Franchot Tone, Parker said, "You can take a whore to culture, but you can't make her think." In a 1933 review of the Katherine Hepburn play, The Lake, she wrote, "Miss Hepburn runs the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B."
Forever the Activist, Parker felt a great sympathy for Hollywood screenwriters, upon whom producers of the day often preyed mercilessly; so she organized them into a protective guild that established minimum payment for their original scripts, as well as for rewrites, adaptations, and collaborations. She also founded the anti-Nazi Society. Her activism promptly earned herself an invitation to appear before the House on Un-American Activities Committee to testify against associates who had joined the Communist party.
11.) Fade Out. Many of Parker’s contemporaries (and even friends, such as Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett), refusing to recognize the committee’s right to hold such a hearing, pleaded the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Parker didn't. She pleaded the First. During several hours of tough grilling by Wisconsin’s freshman congressman Joseph McCarthy, she never named names.
It was a courageous move. It was also career suicide: those who gave up the names of their associates, correctly or not, were permitted to continue on with their careers. Those who didn’t were black-balled, banned from working in Hollywood at all. The tactics were the same as used during the Salem Witch Hunts. Hysteria, fear, a chance to pay someone back for old grudges, anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, prejudice, old jealousies, greed—all motivated witnesses to brand their own peers as "Communists," whether or not they actually were.
Parker had been a member of the Communist Party back in the '20s and '30s, as were many patriotic and loyal Americans whose objectives, with 20/20 hind sight, may have been naive but were nonetheless honorable and sincere.
HUAC Congressional Hearing, 1952
“Mrs. Parker, will you now tell this committee that you have nothing to hide. If so, will you name those people you know personally to be members of the Communist Party? If not, I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to help you here today.”
Parker paused, deep in thought.
“Mrs. Parker, will you answer me please.”
"Listen, I can't even get my dog to stay down. Do I look like someone who could overthrow the government?"
Shortly after her appearance before HUAC, someone finally gave testimony against her, and Parker was immediately blacklisted from the movie industry. Her screenwriting career was over.
Despite the emotional toll the blacklisting took, Parker continued to write. Much of her best work was published in the Portable Dorothy Parker.
Besides her witty limericks, Parker over the years contributed numerous words and phrases to America's popular vernacular, including bobbed (hairstyle: 1915), queer (homosexual: 1929), bundle of nerves (1915), it's a small world (1915), and what the hell (colloquial: 1923), not to mention the ubiquitous high society, one-night stand, and, appropriately enough, wisecrack.
In 1963, after years of bouncing back and forth between Hollywood and New York, Parker finally returned to the city of her youth one last time. She moved into the Hotel Volney and, a short time later, found Alan Campbell dead of an apparent overdose. She completed a few last projects, publishing her last work in November 1964. Although bitter with age and nearly blind, she had managed through her work to open the door to hundreds of thousands of other American writers to write what they thought and write what they felt. And political correctness be damned.
But she was never able to reconcile within herself the fact that she was still nothing more than a little Jewish girl masquerading as a gentile in a non-Jewish world. And she used her biting, acerbic wit and insatiable libido to mask her feelings of insecurity.
Through her years of torment that included several failed relationships, four failed suicide attempts, and an ongoing battle with alcoholism, this woman of the ages—unlike Colette before her—wound up feeling alone and defeated, a useless relic in a modern world, a symbol of what might have been, of what she might have been. But she retained her sharp wit until the very end. Upon turning 70, she said, “If I had any decency, I'd be dead. Most of my friends are.”
Dorothy Parker, who once claimed, “I don't care what is written about me so long as it isn't true” and “People are more fun than anybody,” was running low on quips and beginning to make plans for her grand finale. In a meeting with her executor, author Lillian Hellman, Parker extracted a promise that her gravestone would carry only eight simple words: ‘If you can read this, you're too close.’”
12.) The Search for Nin Anais Nin was born in Neuilly, just outside of Paris. She spent her childhood in various parts of Europe until, when she was 11 years old, her father, Spanish composer Joaquin Nin, deserted the family for another woman. That same year, her French-Danish mother, Rosa Culmell, took Anais and her two sons to live in New York.
On the ship to America, Nin began to write what would become her most celebrated creation—the journals that would span more than forty years. In them, she would come to record and examine, often in painfully candid detail, the "high moments" of her life. They would contain the "truth" of her confrontations with emotional problems, with sex and love, and with her insatiable need for extraordinary adventures. They would come to mirror the fragmentation and guilt she felt arising from her pursuit of the father who had left her—and the unattainable goal of finding a replacement who would remain devoted to her for life.
After arriving in New York, the family stayed for a while in the home of Nin's maternal uncle, Cmdr. Gilbert Chase, who lived on Onslow Place (today 82nd Avenue) between Austin Street and Kew Gardens Road. Nin's contact with Kew Gardens was merely a passing one, but she quickly fell in love with the beauty of "Kiou," as she spelled it in her diary entries.
[August 12, 1914]
[August 13, 1914]
[March 20, 1915]
13.) Breaking Out While still a teenager, Nin abandoned formal schooling and began working as a model. By 1923, she was ready to marry; and she took Hugo Guiler, who had studied literature and economics and had acquired a good position with an international bank, as her husband. Guiler’s occupation allowed Nin to live comfortably for the first time in her life.
The couple moved to Paris in 1924, where her husband pursued his banking career and Nin began to think of herself as a writer. They lived in various apartments and, for a while, in a picturesque village near Louveciennes, but Nin also often had a studio for herself and even lived for a time on a houseboat on the Seine. When they were in Paris, she and Guiler supported various avant-garde artists, including Henry Miller, with whom Nin began a lifelong affair. She also was introduced to the developing new field of psychotherapy, studying under several well-known advocates, including the famous Sigmund Freud disciple, Otto Rank, with whom she also began a blistering affair.
After several years of marriage, Nin found herself tottering on the brink of personal anarchy. On the one hand, she enjoyed the unquestioning support—both emotional and financial—that her husband gave her. On the other, she desperately missed the adulation of new men entering her life. She was, after all, a writer, an artist. And they are different, not built as other “normal” people are. Nin found herself torn with conflict. She wanted to tell her husband, "Leave me. I have a greater duty to myself and my writing." But she also wanted to say, "I love you. I am strong enough to bear any burden, any sacrifice for you."
By the mid-1930s, Nin moved back to New York just as World War II was unfolding in Europe. After a turbulent several months, she took a trip to California and soon after began dividing her life between New York and Los Angeles, between her husband and Rupert Pole, a much younger man who soon became her friend and lover—and, in time, her second husband, all without leaving her first.
14.) In Sex We Trust By the 1940s, Nin’s own life had begun to read increasingly like an R-rated version of Tales from the Arabian Nights. With her thirst for adventure and her quest for sex, she was destined to become a writer of erotica. Before Nin, it had rarely been written by women, and it nearly never had been written graphically.
Faced with an ongoing need for money to support her two parallel lives, she began writing the stories that would eventually be collected into the anthology, Delta of Venus, for a dollar a page. She considered the characters in her erotica to be caricatures of herself and never intended for the erotica to be published in book form. Her writing was scandalously explicit for the time.
As her newfound life as an anonymous erotica writer unfolded, so, too, did Nin’s growing passion for men, including many of the world’s leading literary figures: Miller, Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, James Agee, Lawrence Durrell, and others. Her passionate love affair and friendship with Miller (and his wife, June, with whom she didn’t have a sexual relationship, as depicted in the film, Henry & June) strongly influenced both women as well as the author.
By now a compulsive liar who was forced to manipulate the truth in order to hide her bigamous relationship from both of her husbands—one in Los Angeles and the other in New York—Nin called her personal life a “bi-coastal trapeze." She told so many lies that juggling them became a nightmare. She finally ended up creating what she called her lie box, a system of file cards recording all of the lies that she told to people.
She lied to keep her innermost secrets. But she lied, too, to find security. She was by now pathologically promiscuous, constantly seeking the love and affection of new conquests. She slept with every analyst she ever had, as well as with every male friend. She even convinced her father to have a sexual affair with her when she was an adult! Yet, Nin was more than mere nymphomaniac. In her, there was more of a complexity than in any other woman of her time. Driven and driving, she was intuitively complex, wielding her aphroditic charms with the skill of a surgeon, all the while struggling desperately to maintain some sense of understanding of her tumultuous and creative life.
For most of that life, Nin remained an obscure literary figure moving between Paris and Greenwich Village. From being a cult figure of the early feminist movement, she later rose to international prominence with her writing. The successful posthumous publication of her diaries generated renewed interest in her previously self-published novels. Sadly, the diaries could never have been published while Nin remained alive. Aside from the practical problems of commercial publishing and of the all-pervasive censorship of the puritanical times, Nin had been afraid to expose herself, her husband, her family, her friends, and her lovers to the intimate revelations secreted in the diaries’ more than 35,000 pages.
Similarly, her anthologies of erotica, The Delta of Venus and Little Birds, were published posthumously some three decades after she had written them. She also created several lesser known novels and a prose poem in surrealistic style that critics call mesmerizing. Characterized by the use of powerful and, at times, disquieting imagery, her work reveals a sensitivity and perception unexpected from a woman of her era.
Sadly, as with Dorothy Parker and Colette before her, Anais Nin never found the peace of mind, the comfort with herself that she sought all of her life. Through a series of fairytale escapades and fleeting relationships, she attempted to fit in, to find a simple “Tab A” that would fit neatly into “Slot B.”
In her A Spy in the House of Love, Nin veiled her own fears and insecurities in her main character, Sabina—a complex and savvy yet frightened and childlike creature of the world.
"Free me," said Sabina to the lie detector.
"Set me free. I've said this to so many men...”
Anais Nin, the admirer, conspirator, liberator, and victim of the same maladies that had haunted Colette and Dorothy Parker and, in death, finally resurrected them, died of cancer in Los Angeles, California, on January 14, 1977. Her body was cremated, and her ashes were scattered by her West Coast husband over Santa Monica Bay.
Only then—when this extraordinary woman was gone—did the world finally begin to understand the multi-faceted lifestyle and the complexities of the woman named Anais Nin.
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