Do you ever stumble into a book fetish you didn’t even realize you had? At about two books in, I discovered a love of biographies about amazing, artistic women living in the 1920s. I’m fascinated by that other turn of the century, what was going on historically – Jazz Age! Harlem Renaissances! – and particularly in the lives of famous women. The bios I was reading I initially picked up based on cover-appeal alone, with a dash of title-obsession, and then I began discovering threads in common among the women: feisty, forthright, wholeheartedly living their lives, loving their many loves, and unapologetically determined to practice their art. The books below are all follow suit.
Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd
I was obsessed with Alice Walker when I first read Zora Neale Hurston’s books, and both women/writers intrigued me with their connection to the earth, people and the word. Walker is credited with unearthing interest in Hurston in the first place, rediscovering her writing and anthropological research into black culture; and Valerie Boyd completed the story by thoroughly delving into every nook and cranny of Hurston’s life. And that’s not a light feat, as Hurston was wont to stretch the truth (i.e., lie) about most of her life story, bending the truth as it befitted her cause of the moment. But at heart she was a girl from a broken family, who turned to writing and became one of the inspirational African American writers of the Harlem Renaissance, writing prolifically – poems, essays, research papers, fiction – all about black folks. And that was one of the keys to her writing that Boyd takes pains to distinguish: Hurston wanted the freedom to just write about what she wanted to write about, without the societal pressure to Richard-Wright it all and be the voice of The Black Experience. She understood that life is that experience, and you don’t need to call it out or title it in order to appease anyone.
You’ve read or watched the movie version of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Get to know the woman who traveled to Haiti and immersed herself in Hoodoo culture, wrote (fought with, loved) alongside luminaries like Langston Hughes, protested the U.S. handling of race relations, and struggled at every turn to just remain herself. Boyd’s book allows you to find the woman behind the scenes, unadorned and whole.
Verdict: Borrow. This is one of those books that should be passed along, dog-eared and underlined, and accompanied by passionate recommendations and entreaties (“I can’t even tell you about it – just read it, please!”). Then you can discuss it, highlight the bits you love, and pass it along for someone else to enjoy.
Have you heard the story of how Isadora Duncan died? I thought it was urban legend, so when Kurth’s biography of the woman who invented modern dance appeared, I had to read it to find out the truth. And the truth is even crazier than the story.
Duncan, in the early 1900s, when corsets were still all the rage and dance was ballet, period, burst onto the American and European stages. With her barley-there, Grecian-inspired flowy fabric dresses that allowed the body to breathe – and the watcher to enjoy the form – she transformed forever the way we think of dance. And, while she was at it, Duncan lived her life to the absolute fullest: having affairs with men and women, married and not, making waves with her stance on women’s rights. She lived to dance, was constantly in debt, had absolutely no filter, and people loved her or completely hated her.
But back to the inglorious death. Duncan lived, like other cosmopolitan woman of her time, between the US and Europe. Years before her own death, as she was experiencing (yet another) career resurgence and basking in public adoration in Paris, she kissed her children goodbye for an outing with the nanny, and minutes later learned that the car they were driving in had plunged over the banks of the Seine, submerging and killing both children, and the nanny. But did that stop her from returning to the City of Lights? No! Still reveling with men and women of all ages, nationalities and professions, well into her elder stateswoman years, Duncan was flush with one more love affair. Dashing off into a convertible car, wearing her absolute favorite scarf – “two yards long, five feet wide…heavy crepe…the fringes on either end eighteen inches long….” – in this shawl Duncan felt magic. So she wrapped it round her shoulders, jumped in the racy, low, two-seater, and happily cried, “Goodbye my friends! I go to glory!” The car took off; the long red shawl got caught in the spokes of the wheel; Duncan’s neck was broken and the formidable, glorious woman was gone.
Verdict: Buy, buy buy!
This should’ve been the book that spoke to me beyond all others: a light-skinned black woman, daughter of the first African American man to graduate from Harvard, passing for white to practice the library arts she loved, despite society telling her it was not the path she was allowed to undertake. Belle, who had a passion for illuminated manuscripts (title shout-out!) was plucked by a Morgan, of the J.P. Morgan family fame, to become a force in the world of rare manuscript acquisitions. But, like the title itself, the book is too long, too un-salacious (even with Belle’s taking of many lovers), too (sorry!) boring to capture me like the other bios of fascinating women of the 20s in this series. I can’t even get into it, I might fall asleep while typing. A review calls this bio ‘competent’, and that’s as best as I can come up with to describe it.
Verdict: Bypass. I can’t even advise that you check it out from the library. Read the Goodreads reviews if you must.
What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Daniel Mark Epstein
Edna St. Vincent Millay became my personal hero after I read her biography. Admittedly, from its title, a bio that focuses on the love affairs of this fantastic writer of beautiful poetry. Millay was, like Hurston, like Duncan, surrounded in mystery, and the biography confirms that, yes, she was bisexual, and had a 25-year open relationship – an open relationship! In the 1920s! And she wasn’t stoned to death, or boycotted, or even shunned. She was adored, she was sensuous in a way that perfectly matched her writing, she was seductive, a brilliant writer, a benefactress later in life, and a role model of sorts to other aspiring writers – men and women. Growing up in poverty, caring for her younger siblings and scraping by, soon Millay was the toast of the literary scene, living the high life with a husband, a writing place of her own out in the country, friends in high places and critically acclaimed poetry.
Verdict: BUY, and then keep it under lock and key so you’ll always have it nearby, for inspiration (personal and lyrical). My copy is lost to the world, but you still have a shot. Buy your book, and then hold onto it as if your life depended on it.
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