Another Memorial Day for America

Another Memorial Day has come. Many Americans will spend the weekend travelling, shopping, and celebrating the holiday with family and friends. But nothing much has changed since last year. Peace has not come to America or to the rest of the world. Mass killings have not ended. The sentiments I posted last year still seem appropriate for 2023.

In May of 1865, a month after Abraham Lincoln had been shot and killed by an assassin, Walt Whitman wrote these lines as a tribute to the slain president:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,

I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

During the years since then, in late May when lilacs are blooming in much of the country, Americans have paused to honor the young people who have died in war. Memorial Day has been one of the most important holidays of the year especially for parents who lost children during those wars.

This year we have even more tragic deaths to mourn. Nineteen children were killed—not on a battlefield, but in their classrooms in Texas by a teenager with two assault weapons. A teenager killing children. It is hard to believe that such a thing could happen in a civilized country. But it did. And it has left grieving parents and grandparents who will never forget their loss. Every year when spring arrives across the country, people will grieve again for the senseless waste of innocent lives.

Christina Rosetti put that grieving into words for us:

Talk what you please of future spring
And sun-warm’d sweet to-morrow:—
Stripp’d bare of hope and everything,
No more to laugh, no more to sing,
I sit alone with sorrow.

The only way to end this endless cycle of loss and grieving is to take action. Those of us who have read and listened to the news of the mass shootings must remind our political leaders that we the people have the right to defend our children and our children’s children. We must protect them from the endless cycle of tragedies. Other countries have shown us the way. We can insist that Congress outlaw the sale of lethal weapons to young people. We can make spring a time to celebrate growth and rebirth instead of a time of mourning. We just need the courage and the wisdom to act.

Witch of Wall Street or Modern Woman? Hetty Green

In 1834, in the prosperous town of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Edward Robinson waited impatiently for the birth of his second child. Finally, on November 22nd the birth came. But Edward had nothing to celebrate. He was so disappointed that he refused to see his wife or his new baby. Her sin? She was a girl. Henry needed an heir and to him that meant a son.

Hetty Green’s first introduction to the world was seen as a tragedy instead of a joy and she soon came to realize what a disappointment she was. Her mother was not well, and was unable to have another child, so her father’s wish for a son was never fulfilled. When Hetty was two years old, she was shipped off to her grandfather to live with his family. Her parents did not want to see the constant reminder of their failure. Somehow, Hetty was able to build a satisfying life for herself. She was bright and soon learned that she could be useful to her grandfather by reading the market reports to him. She realized that her value to her family lay in how much she could help build up the family fortune.

Hetty Green

After Hetty’s grandfather died, Hetty returned to live with her family. When her mother died, her aunt took over as the person responsible for guiding Hetty into a normal social life. But Hetty was not like other young women of her time. Instead of being fascinated by clothes,  jewelry and parties, Hetty preferred to learn more about banks and bonds. Instead of spending hours being fitted for new clothes and attending parties, Hetty preferred to wear cheap, unfashionable clothes and to talk with men about whaling ships and railroads.

In despair of marrying Hetty off, her aunt sent her to New York to live with friends for a year, but despite all their efforts, Hetty resisted joining society. She left New York early and returned to New Bedford without having spent all of the money given to her for the year. Instead, she had bought bonds to increase the money. Her father was pleased to see what a good businessperson she was, but she still had no husband.

During the Civil War, New Bedford’s industry had changed. The discovery of oil and the development of commercial oil wells had ruined the market for whale oil. Hetty’s father moved his business to New York and Hetty spent her time partly in that city and partly with her aunt in New Bedford. In New York she met a prosperous young businessman, Edward Green, of Vermont. He and Hetty married in 1867, with the blessing of her father, but Hetty and her family insisted that the family fortune should be left to her alone when the older generation died.

Hetty was a brilliant businesswoman and continued investing money and reaping profits. Everyone agreed that she was a clever investor, but the men in her life, like most men at the time, clung to the belief that women should not control money. When her father and her aunt died in quick succession, they both left their money to Hetty, but they left it in trust funds, so that she was not able to make decisions about its use. This lack of trust in her abilities made Hetty furious and she sued to get control of her trust funds. There is still disagreement about whether or not Hetty forged her aunt’s signature on a document changing her will, but Hetty lost the suit and was not allowed to manage the money left to her.

During the prosperous decades of the post-Civil War years, High Society flourished in New York. Socialites like Mrs. Astor ruled society, sponsoring receptions, teas, and dances which dominated high society. Many of the men who were making the money to support this society did not participate in it. They let their wives and children dominate the social events while they stayed at home, moved to country estates, or in other ways found the time to carry out the business that enabled their families to live this lavish lifestyle. On this subject, Hetty joined the men.

Instead of spending her time socializing and managing the large households where parties were held, Hetty joined the men in escaping to quiet solitude and concentrated on business. Instead of buying a mansion, she lived in boarding houses where other people worried about preparing meals and keeping house. For this, journalists punished Hetty severely. She was a woman so she should have wanted to be part of high society. Reporters enjoyed tracking her down to the quiet boarding houses where she lived and publishing the addresses. Some reporters called her “The Witch of Wall Street” and she received constant solicitations from people who wanted money or jobs. But Hetty went her own way.

Hetty’s private life mystified the media, but she seems to have been satisfied with it. During her business career, while Hetty made millions of dollars, she also managed to live a fairly normal family life. She and her husband had two children. While they shared a fairly close personal life, they did not share their business affairs. Hettie was by far the better judge of how to make money, while her husband often made bad investments and lost much of his. Eventually they lived separate lives, but they never divorced and Hetty remained very close to her children. As she grew older, her son became her closest business confidante and handled many of her business affairs. When she died, she was buried beside her husband in his family plot in Vermont.

Hetty Green was the subject of much curiosity and wonder throughout her life. Perhaps the greatest mystery, one which her contemporaries never solved, was the question of how she could have handled her business career just as if she were a man. Reporters and gossips alike found it almost unbelievable that she did not crave fashionable clothes or jewelry and did not attempt to spend her time making calls upon the leading society women of her time. 

Some of these questions are addressed in a recent biography by Janet Wallach, The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age. (2012 Random House). Wallach gives a balanced account of Hettie’s life, one which makes her seem far more human than she seemed in many of the gossipy stories about her that appeared during her lifetime. Hetty Green may have been an eccentric in her time, but today she seems far more like a 21st century woman than like her contemporaries during the Gilded Age.   

Putting the Zing into Romance—Elinor Glyn

The name Elinor Glyn still sounds familiar to many media fans, but most people have forgotten what she did. Her name has become a cliché in quotes such as the anonymous “Would you like to sin with Elinor Glyn on a tiger skin? Or would you prefer to err with her on some other fur?”

But who was the real Elinor Glyn and why are so many of her books still available on Amazon—although not in most public libraries? Who was this woman who invented the “It” girl and started the new genre of romance books as well as helping to make some of the most popular movies of the jazz age?

Elinor Glyn

Glyn was born in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, in 1864 into an aristocratic family. Her father died while she was an infant, and Elinor’s mother moved back to her family home in Canada with the baby. After living for eight years in Canada, they returned to Jersey where Elinor spent most of her childhood. She had almost no formal schooling. Her education came mainly from her grandmother and governesses, although she spent one year at a boarding school in France. She spoke both English and French fluently and read avidly in both languages. Her family assumed that her role in life would be to marry an aristocrat and live a secure life flitting between England, France, and the rest of Europe. 

Luckily Elinor grew up into a strikingly beautiful young woman with pale skin and bright red hair. She also had a lively wit that made her popular with both men and women. Her early adult years were spent socializing, going to parties, and becoming familiar with many important people in European society. In 1892, when she was 27 years old, she married Clayton Louis Glyn and it seemed as though a prosperous future was assured.

Unfortunately, the marriage was not a happy one. Elinor longed for romance and intimacy, but Clayton’s interests were mainly in hunting, fishing, and traditional country life. She tried in vain to bring romance into their marriage, even buying a leopard skin rug, but he rejected her fantasies. Their relationship became worse when their money dwindled away. His wealth was constantly threatened by his spendthrift habits and his obsessive gambling. Instead of living a life of ease, Elinor found herself struggling to keep the household running and paying for nurses and servants to take care of the two daughters she and Clayton soon had. To raise money quickly, Elinor turned to writing. Unlike most aspiring writers, she found almost immediate success.

Glyn found an audience by putting into words the romantic dreams of girls and women in England and America. She wrote quickly and was soon turning out a new book every year. One of her first major successes was Three Weeks, a book that was published in 1907 and is still being read more than a hundred years later. Her writing supported the family while her husband’s drinking destroyed his health and led to his early death in 1915 soon after the beginning of World War I.

Elinor’s writing became an even more important to her and her family after the death of her husband. She became a war correspondent and wrote dispatches from France. Her social ties gave her entry into a wide circle of important men, including Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India, who was part of the Prime Minister’s War Cabinet. Glyn was one of only two women who attended the Paris Peace Treaty meeting after the war.

As her children grew up, and the war ended, Glyn turned all of her energy toward writing and socializing. She had a long and satisfying affair with Curzon, but that ended when he decided to find a young bride who could give him a son. He never had a son, but his relationship with Glyn ended.

After the war, England and the rest of Europe still suffered from economic depression and the loss of many of their fighting men. Cities needed to be rebuilt and farms cultivated. Meanwhile, America was thriving. In 1920, Glyn was invited to visit Hollywood with a view toward writing for the new movie industry then in its infancy.

Early films were considered to be entertainment for the masses and not a legitimate art form by most critics, but Elinor Glyn was the perfect link between upper class socialites and lower-class pleasure seekers. She found her place in Hollywood where she was able to teach young actors how to project an image of elegant romance, how to walk and dance like an aristocrat, and how to dress like a lady. Among her friends were Mary Pickford (the “It” girl), Gloria Swanson, and William Randolph Hearst. She entertained at her tea gatherings, which were welcomed by many people as a change from the usual highly alcoholic Hollywood parties.

In addition to her social skills, Glyn was a hard-working writer who was able to turn out scripts (called continuities) that shaped the actions of early silent movies. From 1920 until 1927, silent films reigned supreme in Hollywood and were popular across the country. Unfortunately for historians, copies of these early silent movies have disappeared, so it is impossible to evaluate their quality. With the advent of talkies at the end of the decade, Glyn’s popularity dwindled. With the help of her daughters and son-in-law, she tried to establish her own company to produce and distribute films  but was gradually pushed out of the business.   

In 1929, Glyn returned to England. As her dreams of producing movies failed, she gradually turned back to writing books and articles. She died in 1943, in the middle of World War II. The story of her eventful life has been told recently by Hilary A. Hallett in Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood (2022). Hallett not only tells the story of Elinor Glyn’s life and achievements, she also paints a fascinating picture of the growth of the modern film industry, one of the remarkable success stories of the twentieth century.

“Helpless” Woman Helps Pirate—Sarah Kidd

During Colonial days in America, women were considered so weak that they needed the support of a husband or father to accomplish anything. Girls were seldom taught to read or write because those were skills they would never need. But Sarah Kidd demonstrated that a determined woman could handle property, raise a family, and support her husband’s cause even though she didn’t learn to sign her name until she was a middle-aged woman.

Sarah was born in England in about 1645. Like most girls of her time, she married young and soon had a daughter to care for. She and her husband emigrated to America with their young daughter hoping to find more work and greater prosperity. America offered opportunity, but it was also filled with dangers, especially from illness. Sarah’s husband soon died, leaving her with a child to raise and no chance of employment.

Like most young widows, Sarah married again. Her life seemed to be following a familiar path, but there was little certainty in colonial life. Her second husband, Samuel Cox, was a merchant and Sarah soon learned a lot about taking care of property and managing shops. She became a wealthy woman. Unfortunately, Cox was considerably older than she was and he died, leaving her again a widow.

Her third marriage was short, but during it she found the man who would define her life—Captain William Kidd. He was clearly the love of her life and they were partners in business and in life. At the time they met, Kidd was a respected and successful ship’s captain and a privateer.

Captain Kidd

Today we think of privateers as criminals, but things were different back in Sarah’s time. The American colonies were struggling to remain free from what they viewed as unfair rules imposed by England. New York, for example, was pushed to become a part of New England instead of maintaining its status as a separate colony.

Sarah and Kidd were a prosperous and popular couple during the first years of their marriage. They owned property, gave parties, and were friends of many of the most important citizens of New York.

One of their friends was the Earl of Bellomont, who was governor of a large area from Massachusetts to New York. He commissioned Kidd to hunt down pirates and enemy French ships in the Indian Ocean. Kidd’s trip was a long one, but he hoped to return in a year and be with Sarah, who was pregnant with another child at the time he left.

Time dragged on and everything seemed to go wrong on the trip. Men who had signed on hoping to enrich themselves were bitterly disappointed as the months went by. Several of them rebelled and Kidd punished them harshly. At least one man died after his punishment. Kidd declared it was an accident, but some of the sailors began calling Kidd a murderer.

Sarah struggled to take care of her children in New York where Kidd had left her. Finally, she got a message telling her to go to Boston to meet her husband. She hurried to meet him, but he was no longer a free man. Political feelings had changed in England. Privateers were no longer needed and the government was attempting to get rid of pirates. Kidd found himself condemned by the people who had hired him. His friend Bellomont turned against him and refused to defend him. He spent two years imprisoned in Boston and was finally sent to London where he was kept in prison for another three years before finally being hanged in 1701.

 After Kidd died, Sarah was left a widow again. Not only had she lost her husband, but she had also lost her social position and credibility. Within a few months after his death, ballads about the “notorious Captain Kidd” were circulating in both London and New York. Sarah and her children lost a husband and father as well as their reputations. They also lost Kidd’s property, which was confiscated by the state. For two years they lived in seclusion in New York.

Fortunately, Sarah still had a father and a brother. When the brother died, she received his property and was able to move to a more suitable house than the one she had been living in. She married one last time, changed her name to Rouseby and lived respectably until her death in 1744.  Somehow, out of all the troubles of her life, she managed to demonstrate that she was far from helpless. She worked her way out of poverty and raised her children to become prosperous citizens of the new country. You can learn more about her life by reading a recent book written by Daphne Palmer Geanacopoulos, The Pirate’s Wife: The Remarkable True Story of Sarah Kidd (2022)

Sarah Kidd did not leave many written records of her life and questions remain, but she demonstrated that she was a strong, clever head of the family. Despite being a mere woman, she built a satisfying life for her children and descendants.

Saving Ancient Temples and Facing Modern War

The civilization of ancient Egypt has fascinated Europeans for centuries. When Napoleon’s army invaded Egypt during the early 1800s, they brought many Egyptian artifacts  to France and placed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.  It is no wonder that a young girl being raised in Paris a hundred years later became fascinated with Egypt and decided to devote her life to the study of Egyptology. But no one would have predicted that Christiane Desroches would become a world-famous Egyptologist and the savior of some of the most important tombs ever built in Egypt.

Christiane Desroches was born in Paris on November 17, 1913, the daughter of a prosperous lawyer who encouraged his children to read and to study. She was lucky to have teachers who recognized her abilities and helped her to find her path. The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 caused a great stir in France and like many other young people, Christiane decided to become an Egyptologist. Unlike most other students of her time, Christiane never lost her enthusiasm. Encouraged by her teachers, Christiane was able to get a job working in the Egyptian department of the Louvre classifying and cataloging Egyptian artifacts.

During the 1930s, she became the first woman to lead an expedition to Egypt to study antiquities. Her trip there was not easy. Men had dominated Egyptology ever since the study began. Many of the scholars who were part of the expedition belittled Christiane’s contributions because they did not believe a woman could handle the hard physical labor of digging up artifacts, but Christiane proved her worth. She worked well with the Egyptian field workers and became friendly with many of the Egyptian families in the camp. And her patient field work led her to discover important items that were taken to the Louvre and added to their collection.

Then came Hitler’s rise to power, which led to World War II. As the German army moved closer and closer to Paris and threatened to capture the city. Christiane realized that the precious Egyptian artifacts she had studied might be captured and taken to German museums or even destroyed. She and other museum employees mounted a campaign to move the treasures to unoccupied areas in France where they would be safe. They carefully packed up the artifacts they treasured and secretly moved them through the German lines to safety in the unoccupied areas of southern France. Despite being caught and questioned by Gestapo agents, Christiane managed to maintain her secrets and save many of the most important artworks owned by the Louvre.

Among the people she met during the war was Andre Noblecourt, who she married in 1942. Their marriage was never a traditional one, although it was long and happy. Christiana did not give up her maiden name but linked her married name to that of her husband, an unusual choice in France at that time. After the war her husband worked for the Louvre and eventually became a security adviser for the national museums of France. When the war ended, Christiane went back to her position as curator of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre. She wrote several popular books about Egyptology and taught at the Louvre school.

During the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt, many European countries worried that his efforts to make the lives of Egyptian people better would result in the loss of many of the monuments of ancient Egyptian civilization. Christiane Desroches- Noblecourt played an important role in persuading UNESCO to contribute money to preserve the monuments. The work became especially urgent after Nasser’s decision to build a second Aswan dam in 1954.

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt was tireless in visiting government leaders throughout Europe and persuading them to support the efforts of the Egyptologists. She even spoke personally to De Gaulle, who was reluctant to contribute French money to the effort at a time when France was still rebuilding from the devastation of World War II. Christiane also found an ally in Jacqueline Kennedy, who was keenly interested in French culture. Jacqueline in turn encouraged her husband President John Kennedy to find American support for the efforts.

The work of saving Egypt’s monuments continued for many years. Huge monuments were lifted out of the desert sands and moved to higher ground. Some of the artifacts found in Egypt were sent to countries that had contributed to the restoration efforts. (You can read the full story at International Campaign )   

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt did not rest on her laurels after these achievements. She lived a long and active life even after she had to give up her active field work. She continued teaching and writing until almost the end of her life. She died at the age of 97 in 2011. A vivid account of the work of Desroches-Noblecourt can be found in a recent book, Olson, Lynne (2023). Empress of the Nile: The Daredevil Archaeologist Who Saved Egypt’s Ancient Temples from Destruction.

Sinner or Savior? Madame Restell

Mary Trow–Madame Restell

During the 1800s, New York City was an expanding city with a growing population of immigrants and newcomers from rural states. Among the immigrants in 1832 was a young English girl named Mary Stow Sommers and her husband with their infant daughter. Unfortunately, the husband died soon after their arrival in the city, and Mary had to find work to support her daughter. That was no easy task, and Mary struggled to find work she could manage from home while she took care of her daughter. Her brother, who had also moved to America, worked in a pharmacy and Mary soon realized there was a business opportunity in developing skill as a midwife.

At that time, many of women’s healthcare needs were taken care of by women rather than by doctors, all of whom were men. Midwives assisted women in giving birth. They also helped when pregnant women had a miscarriage or a stillbirth. Many of them provided medications made from natural products to ease the difficulties of pregnancy and childbirth.

Mary was a quick learner and soon realized that taking care of women’s health needs was a business opportunity. As she learned more about drugs and natural products that were used to help a woman become pregnant as well as to prevent miscarriages and stillbirths and to ease the pains of giving birth, she built up an efficient organization. She changed her name to Madame Restell and claimed to have learned her medical skills in France. She also married her second husband, Charles Lohman, a printer and a freethinker, who helped her in reaching out to a wide audience.

Many pregnant women wanted abortions because there were no effective contraceptives at that time. Abortions were not illegal if they occurred during early pregnancy, before ‘quickening’ or the time when the fetus began to move in the womb. Within a few years, Mary had established herself as a reliable midwife and as a woman who could help with difficult births, miscarriages, and also provide abortions.

Restell was a good businesswoman as well as a good medical practitioner. She placed ads in the newspapers to let people know that about the services she offered. Not only did she provide medication and treatments, she also helped women who came to her for other needs. Women who wanted to have a baby and give it up for adoption, could stay with her for weeks before the birth knowing that they would have the safest care available. Her clients included wealthy women as well as prostitutes and young unmarried girls. The age of consent was very low, sometimes as low as 10 or 12 years of age, so many young girls fell prey to employers or relatives who were unwilling to take any responsibility for providing care for the girls if they became pregnant.

Madame Restell not only became successful, she also became famous and very wealthy. She built a large mansion directly across the street from the Catholic Archbishop of New York. He could rail against her and her activities from the pulpit, but he could not prevent her from carrying on her business in his own neighborhood.

When Restell travelled around the city, she rode in an elegant carriage drawn by large, handsome horses and driven by coachmen in expensive livery. Madame Restell became a celebrity, and a very wealthy one. Other women followed her example and tried to build up practices similar to hers, but none became as famous as Restell.

As the years went by, doctors noticed that this large section of healthcare was handled by untrained women rather than male doctors, and some of them determined to take over the field. Doctors, despite having more education than female midwives, did not always offer better service. The germ theory was unknown, so doctors did not consider it necessary to wash their hands before attending a birth. Babies delivered by doctors died more often than babies delivered by midwives during these early years. Nonetheless doctors continued to push to take over the entire field of medical services.

For forty years Madame Restell managed her successful business and offered her services to many women, but finally one activist brought an end to her career. That man was Anthony Comstock, who campaigned for “virtue” by trying to eliminate obscenity, contraception, abortion, and several other activities he considered to be sinful. He fought bitterly against Madame Restell and her services. In 1878, he managed to trick her by showing up at her house and asking for contraceptives for his wife. Restell gave him some of her products, but he returned the next day with several policemen and had her arrested.  

At this time, Madame Restell was suffering from a series of troubles. More and more people began to support Comstock’s campaign against obscenity, more doctors were offering services that competed with hers, and her private life was disrupted by the sudden death of her husband a short time before her arrest.

Comstock fought bitterly to bring Restell to court before a judge who was hostile to her. He fought to have her denied bail and it was clear that he wanted to defeat her and drive her out of business. But she was a strong and determined woman. On the morning of the day she was scheduled to appear in court, her body was found in the bathtub of her home. She had evaded a final reckoning by slitting her throat. Comstock had finally managed to defeat the most famous abortionist of nineteenth century America.

The full story of Madame Restell is told in a recent book, Madame Restell: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Old New York’s Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist by JenniferWright (2022), There you will find an account not only of Restell’s life, but also much of the background about how women’s right to control their fertility and their bodies became a battleground. Today’s news will tell you that this struggle is far from over.

See How She Falls—Fannie Hurst and Her Disappearing Books

Just about half a century ago, in February 1968, the New York Times printed a front-page obituary of one of the most popular writers of the twentieth century—Fannie Hurst. Today her name means almost nothing to an average American reader. Her books have disappeared from most public libraries and bookstores, although films based them are easy to find in film study classes and on YouTube. Who was this woman who loomed so large for half a century and then fell so far?

Fannie Hurst was born on October 18, 1889, in Hamilton, Ohio. Her only sibling, a sister, died soon after Fannie’s birth. Her parents were an immigrant couple from Germany. Fannie grew up in St. Louis, attended public schools there and graduated from Washington University at the age of 24. During her last year in college, she wrote the book and lyrics for a production of a comic opera. After her graduation, she began submitting stories to magazines, but had a difficult time getting them accepted. Her parents wanted her to stay in St. Louis and find a suitable husband, but Fannie was determined to build a career. Finally, after two years, she persuaded her parents to allow her to move to New York City and find out whether she could succeed as a writer.

Fannie fit easily into life in New York. She wandered around the city to visit different neighborhoods and took jobs as a salesgirl and as a waitress in a Childs restaurant to study city life. She also visited night court sessions to learn more about criminal activity and punishment in the city. But always, she wrote. In 1912, she sold a story to the Saturday Evening Post and after that her sales to magazines increased.  The Post asked her to write exclusively for them and she soon became a well-known author. In 1921, her first novel, Star Dust, the Story of an American Girl appeared. It was not long before her career took off. Within a few years she was one of the best paid writers in the country.

Fanny was an energetic and diligent worker who was never at a loss for devising new twists for her stories. She was also a good businesswoman who had no qualms about demanding high paying contracts with magazine editors so that she could plan on writing a number of stories for publication as a series. In New York, she quickly made new friends with whom she shared social life as well as market information. Perhaps equally important in her success, she was a healthy, disciplined worker who fulfilled her obligations and never developed the bad habits that prevented many other writers from fulfilling their promises. She did not drink alcohol nor get involved in passionate love affairs.  Despite family obligations—her parents demanded many visits and frequent letters—she did not let depression or annoyance interfere with her writing schedule. Editors could count on her.

Fannie Hurst with Eleanor Roosevelt

The public too could count on her to come up with plots that offered endless variations on the familiar themes of family life and love affairs. Her audience was primarily women, who struggled with the endless issues of maintaining satisfactory lives in a fast-changing world. No doubt she introduced many American women to neighborhoods they had never seen and the kinds of people they had never met. She didn’t spare words in describing the settings for her stories and novels. The first sentence of her novel Humoresque uses 53 words to set the stage for the neighborhood where her characters live:

On either side of the Bowery, which cuts through like a drain to catch its sewage, Every Man’s Land, a reeking march of humanity and humidity, steams with the excrement of seventeen languages, flung in patois from tenement windows, fire escapes, curbs, stoops, and cellars whose walls are terrible and spongy with fungi.

Few of her readers would have ever seen such an inner-city neighborhood, but Fannie spread it out before them so readers in small town Idaho could visualize the lives of immigrant New Yorkers and sympathize with their troubles. Some critics and reviewers complained about the wordy details Fannie provides, but readers loved them and her books sold widely.

As Fannie’s work became more popular, her social life expanded. She became more interested in women’s rights and other causes and was an early member of the Lucy Stone League, a group dedicated to allowing married women to keep their own name rather than adopting their husband’s name. Her own marriage demonstrated her determination not to become labelled as “wife of…”.

In New York, Fannie met and fell in love with a Russian émigré, the musician, Jacques S. Danielson, but when she took him to meet her parents in St. Louis, they objected strenuously to the marriage. They looked forward to having a daughter conventionally married to an American from the Jewish community in which they lived rather than a foreigner. Instead of openly defying her parents, Fannie and Jacques had a quiet wedding in New Jersey and stayed in their separate apartments in New York. For five years they told no one about the marriage and carried on their usual social lives. When a reporter found a record of the marriage and wrote a story about it, the news caused a sensation. Nonetheless, Fannie and Jacques continued their separate social lives although they eventually moved in together. Their marriage lasted until Jacques’s death in 1952. Fannie mourned him for the rest of her life.

By the late 1920s, Fannie was a well-known public figure and one of the most popular and well-paid writers in the country. When the movie industry started during the early 1920s, it was natural for producers to turn to her stories for material to be filmed and made available in the new format. The movies made it possible for Fannie’s readers to see the settings in which her stories took place without reading Fannie’s lengthy prose and so it opened up a new audience. Her fame and popularity with both viewers and readers continued throughout the development of the movies. She was fortunate in her timing because her stories could be filmed more than once as movie technology changed from silent films to talkies and eventually to technicolor films.

During the 1930s, Fannie’s high energy life continued and it was not restricted to writing and publishing. She became more involved in social issues, especially as her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt grew. She was invited to the White House for lunches and events and she supported the first lady in her campaigns to establish racial equality and to increase support for women’s causes.

During her long and busy life, Fannie maintained the discipline that kept her writing and publishing short stories and novels. She became a host on several radio and TV stations, although her popularity in these media never reached the heights of fame that her writing did. Gradually, during the postwar years, Fannie’s earning power diminished. Nonetheless, she remained prosperous and led  an active life until, after a short illness, she died of cancer on February 23, 1968.

A recent biography by Brooke Kroeger,  Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Frances Hurst (2022) tells the full story of Fannie Hurst, an unforgettable woman whose achievements should not be forgotten even by people who no longer read her books. She left an indelible mark on the culture of twentieth century America.

The Woman Who Couldn’t Stop Writing—Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Eighteenth century women were expected to lead quiet lives within their family circle. But Lady Mary Wortley Montagu would not accept that life. She was tormented by the need to express herself and be recognized as the brilliant, successful writer that she was. Throughout her life, she wrote and published articles, sent travel letters to a wide circle of friends, kept a journal, and even publicized new medical treatments. How could she help but yearn for acknowledgement and fame, unwomanly though that idea was?

Lady Mary was born Mary Pierpont on May 15, 1689, into a wealthy British family. Even as a child she showed an avid interest in books and she learned to read at an early age. Mary’s mother and her grandmother encouraged Mary’s interests and the girl spent hours in the family’s large library where she taught herself Latin and read widely. Unfortunately, both her mother and her grandmother died while Mary was still a child and her father did not believe that women should be too highly educated. However, Mary was a stubborn girl and she continued to pursue her literary interests. At the age of 14, she collected her early poems together and produced a booklet that she proudly showed to her family and some of her friends.

Like all wealthy women of the time, Mary was expected to marry young and in 1712, she married Edward Wortley Montagu despite some opposition from her father. She soon produced a son, but continued her writing, especially after she and her husband moved to London. Living in the city, where Lady Mary met most of the leading intellectuals of the day, was delightful. Among her friends were Joseph Addison and Alexander Pope two of the most important cultural leaders in the city. Addison encouraged her to write for the Spectator, the leading journal of the time, and she became the only woman whose articles appeared there. Like all of the articles, hers were unsigned, but at least her friends knew that she had written them.

Life in London was not free of trouble. When she was 25 years old, Mary got smallpox, a constant danger in London. Friends and family were afraid she might die, but she recovered well and soon gave birth to a healthy daughter. Nonetheless, her face was permanently scarred—a bitter trial for a young woman. The many portraits of Lady Mary which still exist do not show the scars, but no doubt they were visible to her as well as to the people around her.  

The biggest event of Lady Mary’s early years of marriage occurred when her husband was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and the family moved to Istanbul.  After a long and difficult journal the family settled into their new quarters. Through all of their adventures, Lady Mary continued to write long letters to her friends and family. Her descriptions of life in Istanbul introduced Londoners to the exotic life she and her family were living. Lady Mary had an advantage over many other travelers because, she could mingle with Turkish women and learn how they lived, raised their children, and lived their lives. She was impressed by the social baths where women gathered every week  and shared stories, news, and ideas.  

One discovery Lady Mary made was that the dreaded smallpox was not feared as much in Turkey as it was in England and other European countries. “I am going to tell you a thing which I am sure will make you wish yourself here,” she wrote in one of her letters. And she described the process of variolation, during which Turkish doctors injected a small amount of smallpox germs into an individual to prevent their catching smallpox. “This method,” she continued, makes the disease – “so fatal, and so general amongst us” – all but “harmless” amongst the Turks.”

Lady Mary had her son and other family members inoculated. When she returned to England, she brought variolation back home, introducing the practice to the aristocracy and their physicians.

After Lady Mary and her family returned to England, she continued to live an active, intellectual life. She never stopped writing, turning to poetry in her later years, but she continued to be reluctant to sign her name to her work. Although some of Lady Mary’s works continue to be available, especially her travel letters and her poems, she has never received the attention she deserves as a writer. A fascinating account of Lady Mary’s work and her ambitions is told in a recent book by Anna Beer, Eve Bites Back: An Alternative History of English Literature (2022

“The body says what words cannot.” –Martha Graham and the Art of Dance

Dance is one of humanity’s oldest art forms. Tomb paintings in India dating from 8000 BCE show pictures of people dancing. Throughout history people have danced to celebrate happy events such as births, marriages, and victories as well as to commemorate deaths and defeats. But dance is an art that has not been easy to record, so we know very little of what ancient dancing was like or how the performances looked. And so, it seems that every generation must reinvent the art of dancing.

Fortunately for us, the twentieth century brought us new ways of recording visual arts and movement. At the same time, many artists were turning to dance as a way to express their feelings and ideas. Martha Graham is remembered as a woman who revolutionized the way dance was taught and performed in America. She was born in 1894, and lived through most of the twentieth century, dying in 1991. During her long life she transformed the art of dance.

Martha Graham

Graham was born in Pennsylvania but moved with her family to Santa Barbara, California when she was 14 years old. It was in California that she first saw professional dance performances and decided to study dance. She enrolled in the Denishawn Dance School in Los Angeles and soon became one of their star dancers. In 1923, she left the school and moved east where she started her own studio and school in New York City in 1926. The school which she started has been an important part of the modern dance world ever since its founding and it is now the oldest active dance school in America.

Most dance performances staged in New York before the twentieth century had been based on the European tradition of ballet dancing. Dancers wore gauzy tutus and ballet shoes that allowed them to dance “en pointe” and move about the stage as if they were floating.  Graham’s approach was very different. She developed the concept of “contraction and release” as the major style of movement. Some fans of the more familiar European style of dance considered Graham’s work a betrayal of the traditional culture of ballet. Graham herself felt that she was expressing the spirt of her time. She wrote: “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time; it is just that the others are behind the times.”

Graham had strong feelings about social and political issues. In 1936, she refused to dance at the Olympics in Germany saying, “I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time” because of Hitler’s persecution of Jews. Many of the dances she created were based on American traditions, or on ancient Greek drama. Through her work she celebrated democracy and freedom. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt invited her to perform in the White House, making her the first dancer to appear in a performance there. Years later, in 1976, President Gerald Ford presented Graham with a Medal of Freedom in a further acknowledgement of her work.

During her long career, Graham created 181 dances. One of the most popular and influential was “Appalachian Spring” which was first staged in 1944 with music by Aaron Copeland. It was welcomed as a major achievement in American dance and music. As her work became more widely acclaimed, and filming techniques improved, Graham gave up he early objections to having her work photographed. A number of films of Graham’s dances have been preserved at the Library of Congress. In recent years, many have also been made available on YouTube.

Graham continued to create dances and to perform in them during the postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s. The records aren’t clear on when she gave her last performance, but in her unfinished memoir, she said that she last appeared on stage in 1970.

During the years after her retirement from the stage, Graham had a period of depression that lasted for almost two years. Her health declined and she spent some time in a hospital, but in 1972, she returned to her studio and to choreography. She created new dances and coached young dancers in performing them. Her death in 1991 led to an outpouring of honors to celebrate her contributions to the arts.

Several biographies of Martha Graham have been published, most recently, Neil Baldwin’s Martha Graham: When Dancing Became Modern (Knopf 2022). Baldwin’s bookhas been praised as the most complete account of Graham’s life and work.  It is widely available in bookstores and public libraries.

The Woman Who Rivals Shakespeare in Sales—Agatha Christie

In 1890, when Agatha Miller was born into a middle-class family in Southern England, no one would have predicted that she would still be remembered today. Not only is she remembered, but her books continue to be sold worldwide and movie and tv adaptations of her works continue to be produced. Many of her fans are looking forward to September 2023 when they will be able to see A Haunting in Venice, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Christie’s Halloween Party, a sequel to Death on the Nile. Who was this woman who holds such a grip on audiences from England to Ethiopia and from North America to Southern Asia?

Agatha’s family was prosperous, but not influential. Her father had been born in the United States but lived much of his life in England. He was not particularly interested in being a businessman and was better at squandering the wealth he had inherited rather than adding to it. Her mother believed that girls did not need much education so she did not encourage Agatha to learn to read. Nonetheless, Agatha was curious about books and with the help of her grandmother, she learned to read by the time she was four years old. Like most middle-class girls at that time, Agatha assumed she would not need to earn a living because she would marry and devote her time to her husband and family. But the world was changing and Agatha’s life did not follow the traditional pattern.

As she grew into her teens, Agatha was given a taste of formal education by attending boarding school in France, but her social life was more important to her than education. She began to attend parties, where she met many young people of her class, notably Archie Christie, a handsome young man who pressed her to marry him.

Agatha Christie and her books

The start of World War I in 1914 brought dramatic changes to all of Europe including England. Earlier British wars had been fought mainly in distant countries such as India and Afghanistan. Suddenly battles were being fought close to home and wounded soldiers were being sent home to hospitals in England. Most young men joined the army, including Archie Christie, who was soon sent overseas to fight in France.

Like many other women in those days, Agatha volunteered to work for the Red Cross in British hospitals. It was a full-time volunteer job, and Agatha learned a great deal about nursing and especially about handling drugs, tending the sick, and dealing with death. During one of his home leaves, Archie and Agatha got married.

Settling down to peacetime life was not easy. Neither Archie nor Agatha was wealthy, although they were accustomed to living as if they were. Their only child, Rosalind, was born in 1919. Archie found jobs in business while Agatha was responsible for taking care of the house and of Rosalind. She wrote her first novels during these postwar years, but finding a publisher was difficult. Finally, she tried writing mystery stories, basing her major character, Hercule Poirot, on the Belgium soldiers she had met during her wartime work. The first Hercule Poirot story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles caught the public’s attention and has held it. Played by a series of actors during the years, Poirot is still appearing in movies and television productions more than a hundred years after he was first introduced.

Agatha continued to write mysteries and soon became one of the most popular and well-known British novelists. Unfortunately, her marriage did not fare so well, and in 1926, this led to the most dramatic episode in her life. The year had not gone well for Agatha, starting with her mother’s death in the spring. In December, Archie asked for a divorce because he wanted to marry his assistant. The day after his announcement, after leaving Rosalind with her sister, Agatha disappeared. Her empty car was soon discovered, but Agatha had vanished. Newspapers worldwide seized upon this story and the search was on. There were reports that Agatha had been seen dancing at a health spa, and later at a resort hotel, but it was ten days before she was finally discovered. She was registered under an assumed name at a spa not far from her country house.

Agatha never completely explained what had happened. After she was discovered, she went into seclusion at her sister’s house leaving the public to argue whether her disappearance had been a publicity stunt or the result of genuine mental illness. Gradually she recovered and returned to normal life. But her marriage to Archie was ended. Her divorce was finalized and Agatha continued her writing career. For the most part she led a quiet, successful life. She had a happy second marriage with anthropologist Max Mallowan, raised her daughter, and enjoyed domestic life. But through all of her years she continued to write and publish more stories that entranced thousands of readers.

Several biographies have been written about Agatha Christie and many of them focus on the few days of her mysterious disappearance in 1926. Fans still argue about the causes and effects of that event, but probably the more important mystery is the question of why her career lasted so long and why it was so successful. The statistics are startling. During her lifetime, Christie published 66 mystery books as well as 14 short story collections. Her play, The Mousetrap, set a record as the world’s longest-running play. All of her works were written in English, but they have been translated and published in 44 different languages.

What is the secret of Agatha Christie’s success? That is the biggest mystery of all. She wrote most of her books during between 1920 and 1970. Other authors of that time have published other mysteries that were popular, but none of them approached the perennial appeal of Christie. Some critics have suggested that it is the cleverness of her best-known detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, that keeps readers entranced. Others say that the complexity of Christie’s plots are the secret ingredient that wins her fans. Her mysteries are honest in the sense that the clues are laid out clearly so the clever reader can match wits with the fictional detectives. And year after year the books continue to be reprinted and produced in electronic versions and readers continue to seek them out.

The only way to judge whether or not Agatha Christie’s work deserves the popularity it has achieved is to read the books for yourself or perhaps to view the film adaptations. Then you too can decide whether or not you are one of Christie’s fans and whether you can solve the mystery of her lasting appeal.