Don't Put Me in a Skirt

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Review: Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, by Rachel Cooke (HarperCollins, 340 pages).

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on December 15, 2014.

 

In London, 1951, a crowd gathered as a woman attempted to board a bus while wearing one of Christian Dior’s newest creations: the New Look. “Her skirt was so wide, she couldn’t negotiate the door. At first I laughed along with everyone else,” recalled Grace Robertson, a then twenty-one-year-old aspiring photojournalist. “But then I suddenly thought: are they putting us into these clothes so we can’t get on buses, and take their jobs?” [xix] Only one year into the decade and already some women were starting to get the hint.

In Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, journalist Rachel Cooke reveals that British women’s experiences during World War II radically rearranged their expectations of what life would be like afterward. Having survived the Blitz and served their country during wartime, the idea of turning their backs on engaged, professional lives was often unthinkable.

Her Brilliant Career aims to dispel the myth of what a “Fifties woman” was: “old-fashioned, unambitious, docile, emollient, inhibited, clenched, prudish, thwarted, frustrated, [and] repressed.” [xii] Cooke tells the stories of ten vibrant, fascinating women who came into their own after the war. While a few of them were frustrated, thwarted, and even repressed at times, they never stopped trying to lead meaningful lives.

Patience Gray, author of the best-selling British cookbook of the 1950s, Plats du Jour (1957), guided a nation emerging from years of rationing (Cooke describes wartime cookbooks that offered recipes for cooking crows, sparrows, and “eggs that are really tinned apricots fried in bacon fat” [3]). Gray is notable not only for her salutary influence on British cooking, but for the unorthodox choices she made later in life.

A single mother who once gave her teenagers money to hitchhike back to London—they were vacationing in Italy at the time—Gray was always a little different. [35] At age 46 she decamped for Italy with the great love of her life, the sculptor Norman Mommens. “We shed a snakeskin of fuss, plans, hesitations, and other people’s claims,” [39] Gray explained, and they left.

The couple lived together “hand-to-mouth” [39] in a rustic Italian barn with no plumbing for the next forty years (“It was with some reluctance,” Cooke writes,[40] that electricity was installed in the 1990s). This experience informed Gray’s next and equally influential cookbook, Honey from a Weed (1986), which predated twenty-first century foodies’ interest in foraging and eating locally, remaining in print and influential to this day. Gray wasn’t totally averse to traditional ideas, however; thirty years after they met, she and Mommens were married. She never returned to England.

Not every woman was as Bohemian as Patience Gray. The pioneering architect Alison Smithson’s adamant sense of modernity, exemplified in the landmark buildings she created with her husband and creative partner Peter Smithson, brought her admiration and controversy. “We’re the best architects in the world,” she liked to say. It wasn’t merely an unusual statement coming from a woman; as one of her contemporaries recalled. “It wasn’t very English at all.” [105]

Film producer Betty Box demanded the same pay as her male counterparts and became one of the most successful producers in history—her nickname was “Betty Box Office.” [206] And while the celebrated archaeologist and author Jacquetta Hawkes enjoyed a series of professional achievements and affairs with both men and women, her life was conducted “with a careful public smoothness” [248] after marrying writer J.B. Priestley at age 43. “Let me have the guts to behave badly,” Hawkes wrote to a friend, and [249] eventually at age seventy, she published a scandalous sexual quasi-memoir entitled A Quest for Love, and did. [252]

It’s Rachel Cooke’s intention to “make people reconsider the ‘lost’ decade between the war and feminism” and to “pull the reader along” with these tales of “derring-do.” [xxv] She succeeds on every count. Thanks to Cooke’s deep research, buoyant storytelling, and her sincere affection for the ten remarkable women portrayed here, Her Brilliant Career is both entertaining and touching. Give it to any enterprising, smart woman you know: although she may never have heard their names, she’ll recognize these women right away. Women who, like journalist Nancy Spain, “didn’t want to meet anyone who would make me put on a skirt.” [52]

Truth, Justice, & Polyamory: Wonder Woman

Book review: THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN by Jill Lepore (Knopf, 410 pp.) This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on October 23, 2014.

Who is Wonder Woman? She is, of course, the Amazonian superhero fighting for women’s rights, with a secret agenda that included securing access to birth control, free love, and the importance of erotic bondage — preferably chains — in uniting two (or more) lovers in polyamory. Not what you expected? Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, author of the new book, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,’’ is here to tell you: You have no idea.

As Lepore explains, Wonder Woman’s history was “a family secret, locked in a closet.” That’s because the trio of people who inspired and created her, renegade psychologist and eventual comic-book writer William Moulton Marston, career woman and editor Elizabeth Holloway, and writer Olive Byrne, beloved niece of birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, were determined that it be so. The three were in fact a threesome (a fourth woman, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, also lived with the trio off and on for decades) and together raised four children, two of Holloway’s and two of Byrne’s, all sired by Marston. Marston and Holloway were legally married; Byrne was usually described as a live-in governess, widowed with two children. The children didn’t know the truth until they were well into adulthood.

The first half of “The Secret History of Wonder Woman’’ tells the story of these three and the world of radical politics in which they lived. They were activists in the struggles for women’s suffrage, access to birth control, and equal rights of the early 1900s, participating in bohemian Greenwich Village salons in which socialism, androgyny, and free love were explored.

They also shared a belief in what Lepore describes as a “cult of female sexual power,” a vision of a woman-centric world not too different from the kind you’d find in Amazonia, Wonder Woman’s hometown. It was a thrilling time; women were granted the right to vote in 1919, and the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1923. The prospect of legal gender equality seemed inevitable.

Marston had been a staunch feminist since his undergraduate days at Harvard, where he studied psychology. He was fascinated by the male-female relationship, and his theories of dominance and submission influenced not only his personal relationships but also the superhero he would eventually create. (“Not a comic book in which Wonder Woman appeared, and hardly a page, lacked a scene of bondage,” says Lepore, a fetish that eventually became the target of morality crusaders in the 1950s.) Perhaps because Marston’s private life was kept secret, he was also obsessed with the ways in which people suppress the truth, an interest that led to his invention of one of the first lie-detector tests.

It was only when Lepore encountered Marston’s name in two disparate archives — first in the history of the lie-detector test and then in the papers of Margaret Sanger — that the secret history was revealed. Marston himself was always frank about his political agenda. In the cover letter he wrote to DC accompanying his first “Wonder Woman” script he argued that the comic would chronicle “a great movement now under way — the growth in the power of women . . . Let that theme alone . . . or drop the project.” “The only hope for civilization,” Marston wrote in a “Wonder Woman” press release, “is the greater freedom, development, and equality of women.’’

Marston’s career as a psychologist was hurt by rumors of his unconventional family life, and he struggled to find work. He was eventually hired as a consulting psychologist at DC Comics as a sort of bulwark against the growing societal concerns that comics were immoral and overly violent. Marston answered the critics with the idea for a new character: Wonder Woman.

As Lepore shows, in the original comics created and written by Marston beginning in 1941, “Wonder Woman was a Progressive Era feminist” who fought for justice and also explicitly for women’s rights, “organizing boycotts, strikes, and political rallies” and protesting the wage gap between men and women. “’Girls, starting now your salaries are doubled!’” Wonder Woman proclaimed in a 1942 comic.

What Lepore does so well is to show how Wonder Woman’s career mirrored the hopes, progress, and eventual disappointments of the American women’s movement in the 20th century. When American women began entering the workforce during World War II, Wonder Woman was at her strongest, battling evil and refusing to settle down and get married (Amazonian law forbade it). After the war ended and women were hustled back into the home, Wonder Woman’s power likewise faded.

The big changes took place after Marston died in 1947 and other writers took over the series. No longer a crime fighter, now she was “a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She [also] wanted, desperately, to marry Steve.” By the late 1960s she had lost her superpowers altogether. Although she was reclaimed by feminists in the early 1970s and appeared on the cover of Ms. magazine’s first issue under the banner, “Wonder Woman For President,” her status as a feminist icon withered.

Marston’s widows lived into the 1990s and remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives. They “never broke their silence” about the truth of their relationship or of Wonder Woman’s radical past. As women who were young when the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to Congress in 1923, you have to wonder what they thought about the fact that it was never ratified. And were they depressed by the fact that Americans were still arguing about abortion a century after Margaret Sanger began fighting for women’s reproductive rights? There’s a new Wonder Woman movie coming in 2017. If Lepore’s “secret history” has proved one thing, it’s that at least so far each era has gotten the Wonder Woman it deserves.

One nation, not exactly under God.

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NATURE’S GOD: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart (W.W. Norton, 2014), 566 pp. This review was originally published in the Boston Globe BOOKS section, July 19, 2014.

“The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” So begins Article XI of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which was read aloud in the US Senate and ratified unanimously. Our second president, John Adams, who detested the “spirit of dogmatism and bigotry in clergy and laity” and regarded the resurrection of Jesus as “an absurdity,” promptly signed the treaty into law. It was no big deal then. So why does it all sound so surprising now?

Matthew Stewart’s enthralling and important new book, “Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic,’’ argues that we misremember the philosophical and religious origins of the American Revolution. Stewart, who holds a PhD in philosophy from Oxford University, is the author of previous books on the history of Western philosophy, and once again he happily rips into the original sources of Enlightenment thought, this time discovering a radical and profoundly humanistic worldview underlying the American Revolution.

The book is a pleasure to read, its often surprising conclusions supported by elegant prose and more than 1,000 footnotes. Stewart’s erudite analysis confidently rebuts the creeping campaign of Christian nationalism to “ ‘take back’ the nation and make it what it never in fact was.” The next time someone like Jerry Falwell asserts that the United States is “a Christian nation,” he’ll have to answer to “Nature’s God.’’

The United States, Stewart writes, was in fact founded by a “club of radical philosophers and their fellow travelers” who were known as deists in their day and today would be called “humanists, atheists, pantheists, freethinkers, [or] Universalists.” “America’s revolutionary deism remains an uncomfortable and underreported topic,” writes Stewart, and in his view the Revolutionary leaders — famous men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as well as “Forgotten Founding Fathers” such as Thomas Young, one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party — are themselves partly to blame, since for the most part they veiled their religious unorthodoxy for fear of condemnation.

Franklin, for example, urged his friend Ezra Stiles not to “expose me to Criticism and censure” by making his deistic beliefs known. George Washington, who refused to kneel in church or to take communion, simply declined to answer when asked by clerics whether he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. “[T]he old fox was too cunning for them,” his friend and fellow freethinker Jefferson noted approvingly.

Does it matter in what or in whom the men who wrote our nation’s founding documents believed? After all, we still have the documents; surely those speak for themselves. Yet over 200 years later we are more absorbed with questions about original intent than ever, and the debate in particular over religious freedom — and freedom from religion — grows louder every day. “Nature’s God’’ makes significant new contributions to our understanding of what the founders had in mind.

As Stewart points out, the “broad plurality of people in America remained active and observant within some variety or other of relatively orthodox religion,” and the radical humanism of the Revolutionary leaders “was simply not representative of its people in this respect.” Jefferson nevertheless believed that the Declaration of Independence would inspire people “to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” His views on religion may have differed from most of his countrymen, but in the end he was the one planning and writing the Declaration.

It was Jefferson, too, who invoked “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence’s first sentence. But this was not “the fictitious, meddling deity of the religious imagination but . . . nature itself or the universe comprehended as a whole. It is a way of talking about God long after God is dead.” This is Nature as God, the “presiding deity of the American Revolution.”

To uncover the origins of this revolutionary philosophy, Stewart embarks on a deep investigation into the history of ideas. Just as Stephen Greenblatt argued in 2011’s historical blockbuster, “The Swerve,’’ Stewart cites the the “revival of Epicurean philosophy that followed upon the rediscovery of Lucretius in early modern Europe” as “the decisive episode in the history of modern thought.” He then follows “Epicurus’s dangerous idea” to the 13 Colonies, where its inherently secular, materialist message focused on the importance of attaining a peaceful, happy life during this lifetime, not after death, and inspired a vision of a nation founded on reason, not on faith.

He finds ample evidence of Epicurean influence in the writings of known intellectuals such as Jefferson and Franklin and in some unexpected places, too. “Oracles of Reason’’ (1784), the almost completely forgotten philosophical manifesto of the American revolutionary Ethan Allen, “testifies to the presence in the remotest regions of revolutionary America of modes of thought that have almost universally been regarded as too old, too radical, and too continental to have played a role in the foundation of the American republic.” The thrill Stewart feels upon its discovery is infectious. “Opening its pages,” he exults, “is like discovering an empty bottle of whisky on the moon.”

When he stepped down from his position as commander of the Continental Army in 1783, Washington made a point of reminding his countrymen: “The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition.” The question “Nature’s God’’ implicitly asks is whether we ought to take Washington at his word.

The extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.

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Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. (HarperCollins: 2012) 320 pp.

Tom Wolfe haunts Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, the 2012 novel by Ben Fountain. The first three sentences plunge the reader into a you-are-there sensory overload POV that Wolfe brought to nonfiction 50 years ago:

The men of Bravo are not cold. It's a chilly and windwhipped Thanksgiving Day with sleet and freezing rain forecast for late afternoon, but Bravo is nicely blazed on Jack and Cokes thanks to the epic crawl of game-day traffic and the limo's minibar. Five drinks in forty minutes is probably pushing it, but Billy needs some refreshment after the hotel lobby, where overcaffeinated tag teams of grateful citizens trampolined right down the middle of his hangover.

This is the story of Bravo Company during one epically weird day on their "victory" tour of the USA in the midst of the Iraq war of the early 2000s. Set in Texas Stadium before, during and after a Dallas Cowboys game, the soldiers are exposed to America at its most extreme, a nonstop chorus of hysterically sincere gratitude Fountain evokes in floating word clouds: nina leven... terrRist... evil... values... God... currj. Wolfian, n'est-ce pas? Lupine, even.

Wolfe's kaleidoscopic, oversaturated literary technique begat pieces of reportage like "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored-Tangerine-Flake-Streamline Baby" (1964) and "Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers" (1970). He's probably equally famous at this point, FIFTY YEARS LATER (!!!), for his 1989 "literary manifesto for the new social novel" in his Harper's essay, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," in which he warned that the American novel would become "irrelevant" if it failed to engage with contemporary life the way journalism did. "America today, in a headlong rush of her own," Wolfe wrote, "may or may not truly need a literature worthy of her vastness. But American novelists, without any doubt, truly need, in this neurasthenic hour, the spirit to go along for that wild ride."

Wolfe's own subsequent novels failed to prove his point, though. A Man in Full (1998), I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004)  and Back to Blood (2012) were mostly received as overblown and out of touch. So I hope he's reading Ben Fountain. Because Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk realizes all Wolfe's dreams. This is a fiction steeped in realism that manages to illuminates the weirdness and beauty of contemporary American life. Here's one of Billy Lynn's many philosophical musings, squeezed in between endless handshakes, backslaps and selfies with the fans:

Without ever exactly putting his mind to it, he's come to believe that loss is the standard trajectory... you might keep the project stoked for a while but eventually, ultimately, it's going down. This is a truth so brutally self-evident that he can't fathom why it's not more widely perceived, hence his contempt for the usual shock and public outrage when a particular situation goes to hell. The war is fucked? Well, duh. Nine-eleven? Slow train coming. They hate our freedoms? Yo, they hate our actual guts! Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better, but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity. 

Billy Lynn is a beautiful, funny and dark portrayal of America in the post-9/11 era. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll throw your red Solo cup at the TV. The social novel is alive, Mr. Wolfe. It's weaving its drunken way through the inner corridors of Texas Stadium, smoking weed with the catering staff and falling in love with Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. Like we all do.

Johnny Cash: Love, God, Murder.

Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn

(Little, Brown: 2013) 679 pages

 

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(Photo credit: Jim Marshall, Folsom Prison concert, California, 1969)

This review was originally published on October 27, 2013 in the Sunday Books section of the Boston Globe.

The three words chosen for the title of Johnny Cash’s 2000 compilation — “Love, God, Murder’’ — told you everything you needed to know about the contradictions that defined the man and his obsessions; he was just as comfortable whipping the felons of Folsom Prison into a frenzy with his famous lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” as he was testifying to the power of Jesus at prayer rallies with his good friend the Rev. Billy Graham.

Cash called his first autobiography “Man in Black”; his final book was “Man in White,” a novel about the Apostle Paul. His struggles with drug addiction and his stormy relationship with his second wife, June Carter Cash, are well known. Now Robert Hilburn, the longtime pop music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times, delivers his new biography, “Johnny Cash: The Life.” Is there anything left to reveal?

According to Hilburn, despite two memoirs, an Oscar-winning biopic, and numerous books by family and friends, only “twenty percent” of Cash’s story has been told before now. The singer told Hilburn that “he wanted people to know his entire story — especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments — because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed.” One wonders whether Cash understood that his fans loved him because of his faults, not in spite of them.

Hilburn’s biography, based on interviews with Cash and those close to him, unearths new details about Cash’s personal problems, from his guilt at not being a better father to decades of bad behavior and occasionally bad music. But Cash’s conviction that no one knew the depths of his wickedness merely underscores the depth of his Southern Baptist spirituality and his lifelong view of himself as a sinner: Nothing in “Johnny Cash: The Life” will shock anyone who knows even the outline of the man’s career or those already inclined to love the singer or his songs. And the book’s best sections are those concerned with the music.

Cash spent the first three years of the 1950s in the Air Force dreaming of music stardom. As soon as he got discharged he headed for Memphis’s Sun Records, which had released Elvis Presley’s first recordings a few months earlier. Cash and his hastily convened band, the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant on guitar and bass), had more ambition than musical skill, but they convinced producer Sam Phillips to give them a shot. The primitive, halting sound they produced, a stuttering boom-chicka-boom, was reminiscent of a freight train and just as powerful. “It wasn’t that they thought they had discovered something; it was just about the only way they could play,” Hilburn writes. Yet that spare, propulsive rhythm combined with Cash’s authoritative bass-baritone voice and fire-and-brimstone lyrics created a signature, timeless sound.

Cash’s songwriting and charisma carried him through the next several decades of performance and recording, and Hilburn charts it all, from the county fairs and prison concerts to Cash’s beloved gospel albums, recordings with the Highwaymen, and all the TV shows and schmaltzy Christmas specials in between. Like the touring schedule, Cash’s cycles of drug abuse, health scares, repentance, and relapse were unending; they exhausted those who knew him. After several hundred pages of day-to-day details they become something of a blur. Happily, Cash’s career and the pace of the book pick up again in the last decade of his life.

In 1993 Cash believed “his recording career was over.” Then hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin called. Cash was skeptical, but the Rubin recordings were a watershed, six albums of intense, painfully stark, and often solo performances “that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him,” Rubin said. “It was epic, and that’s what Johnny was to me — epic.”

After two decades of subpar records and halfhearted touring, Rubin’s American Recordings label brought Cash acclaim and his first hits in decades. They also reminded a world of music lovers that he was still relevant. “Rick made me think I might have a legacy after all,” Cash said, “I vowed not to let it slip away again.” They continued recording until just a few weeks before Cash died of diabetes-related complications in 2003.

Cash’s legacy as an icon of American duality had been restored: an outlaw with an angel on his shoulder; a holy prophet with a back-up plan. U2’s Bono spoke of his admiration for Cash and his music. “I think he was a very godly man, but you had the sense that he spent his time in the desert. And that just made you like him more.” He remembers sitting down to dinner at Cash’s home. “Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard,” Bono says. “Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’ ”