Intriguing Biographies of Semi-Forgotten Women
For much of my life, I was strictly a fiction-reader. Early on, I privileged stories that came from the imagination and found myself disinterested in non-fiction. I dismissed non-fiction as a whole—including explorations of history, scientific screeds, critical texts, and biographies—stereotyping truth as mundane and boring.
Of course, one lives and learns.
These days, I find myself in a rather inverse position: Non-fiction—and biographies in particular—accounts for many of my recent favorites. I’ve become especially interested in biographies of strong, artistic women, and find it fascinating (and, frankly, scary) that so many of these women have had to undergo such hardships to actualize themselves.
Here are five biographies of fascinating, once-famous women that I recommend.
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Diane Arbus: A Biography
By Patricia Bosworth
W.W. Norton & Company, 2006
Diane Arbus was an innovative photographer known for her haunting portraits of figures on the edges of society who are often seen as “freakish”: transsexuals, little people, the mentally ill, circus performers. She pioneered an intimate style that included a squared frame that mimics the frame of early snapshots and specialized lighting that creates a surreal effect. Arbus’ goal was to show the world marginalized members of society, not to portray them as freaks, but to reveal their essential humanity. Arbus once said about her subjects, “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them.”
It took a long time for Arbus to find her creative voice. She started out in the 1940s as a typical housewife, occasionally assisting her husband with his fashion photography. As the decade wore on, they became more of a creative team, and by the time the couple divorced in the late 1960s, she had already come into her own. However, things weren’t easy for Arbus; She suffered clinical depression most of her life, and it was during a severe depressive episode that she finally took her life in 1971.
Patricia Bosworth’s take on Arbus’ life is intriguing, if uneven. Bosworth’s account of Arbus’ childhood is extensive, but details of Arbus’ life post-separation from her husband are fairly scarce. The reader might find this annoying, but Bosworth makes up for the lack of detail by branching out and covering the New York art scene at the time. Though somewhat off-topic, these glimpses into the lives of other famous artists of the time make for fascinating reading. This biography is worth the read not only to learn about Arbus, but to learn about changes in the world—particularly in the world of art—during the women’s liberation movement.
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England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton
By Kate Williams
Ballantine Books, 2006
If you think Brangelina is big, wait until you hear about Ematio. Well, they didn’t have the annoyingly mashed-up nickname, but Emma, Lady Hamilton and Lord Horatio Nelson were the scandalous It-couple of 18th century Europe. Though both were married to other people, Emma and Nelson carried on a torrid love affair that resulted in one daughter—Horatia—and one of the first media-fed scandals ever. People loved to hate Emma—a former artist’s model and dancer—copying her style of dress while performing “the Attitudes”—a cross between model’s posing, dancing, and theater that Emma invented—and still finding judgmental words for Emma’s lifestyle, which included living in what amounted to a ménage á trois with Nelson and her husband, Sir William Hamilton.
Nobody could’ve predicted that destitute Amy Lyon—Emma’s birth name—would rise above her humble origins to become one of the most infamous women of her time. After ditching her job as a housemaid, Emma yearned to become an actress, a particularly ignoble profession at the time. Unable to break into conventional acting, she became a dancer and model at the “Temple of Health”—a theatrical exhibition of “the healing powers of electricity.” Essentially: a front for a quack doctor. After being a mistress to several rich British men, she was eventually married to Sir William Hamilton who was willing to overlook her somewhat sordid past. Together, they lived in Naples as Sir William was the British ambassador to the country. She lived the high life in Naples, consorting with the queen and entertaining British tourists with her performances of “the Attitudes.” Eventually, she hooked up with war hero Nelson who came to protect war-threatened Naples and became even more infamous before dying relatively penniless in exile.
England’s Mistress details the sometimes tragic and often sordid events in the life of the woman who came to be known as Emma, Lady Hamilton. Kate Williams primarily sticks to what can be proven about Emma’s life, but occasionally falls into musing prose, particularly in sections concerning the romance between Nelson and Emma. This is a fairly negligible fault though and doesn’t take away from this engaging and intriguing biography.
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Lee Miller: A Life
By Carolyn Burke
University of Chicago Press, 2007
Lee Miller didn’t live one life: She packed several lifetimes worth of living into her seventy years on Earth. Miller started her adult life as a theatrical set designer, but accidentally fell into modeling after a chance run-in with Condé Nast. She had a successful career as a model and was featured in several iconic advertising campaigns and magazine covers of the Jazz Age, but she was more than just a pretty face. Her interest in photography—inherited from her father—led her to Paris in 1929 where she quickly fell in with the surrealist crowd, becoming involved with the legendary artist and photographer Man Ray both romantically and artistically. She then became a photographer in her own right, re-discovering the photographic technique of solarization and applying surrealist ideas to landscape photography. During WWII, she reinvented herself as a war correspondent, famously photographing herself taking a bath in Hitler’s tub. After the war, it was homemaking and babies for Miller, who once again reinvented herself as a cook. She died at home in England after a long, simple life on her family farm.
But Miller’s life was hardly filled with sunshine and lollipops. When she was eight years old, she was raped by a family friend, contracting gonorrhea that she would battle with painful, invasive treatments throughout her life. Her father took a very odd approach in helping her deal with her rape: Ongoing nude photo sessions shot by him from Lee’s childhood through her twenties. Suffice it to say, as an adult, Lee had very complicated relationships with men. In addition to Man Ray, she had a tumultuous marriage with Egyptian Aziz Eloui Bey that ended with her becoming pregnant by another man, British surrealist Roland Penrose.
Carolyn Burke does a good job juggling the myriad—and often contradictory—phases of Miller’s life and providing a narrative in which the drastic shifts in her life make sense. She does fall into some speculation, but attempts to back it up with interviews from people who knew Miller. For example, Burke suggests that Miller suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the traumas of her war correspondence work which included liberation of concentration campus and witness firsthand the violence of frontline combat. Burke supports this with the assertions of a family friend who was a child when she knew Miller that suggest Miller suffered from long bouts of depression. Though the assertion is logical, the evidence is fairly flimsy. Burke’s liberties don’t particularly detract from the overall story of Miller’s life, but are worth noting nevertheless.
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American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White: The Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century
By Paula Uruburu
Riverhead Hardcover, 2008
The term “crime of the century” is bandied about often enough, but the very public murder of Stanford White with the sordid details that surrounded it was the first to claim the title. Shot in the middle of a crowded rooftop theater—at Madison Square Garden, a building he had designed—White was hardly an innocent victim. Murderer Harry Thaw had obsessed about killing White for a long time, and for many reasons. At the center of the scandal was young Evelyn Nesbit, a beautiful artist’s model and actress who was essentially the first pin-up girl; Her picture postcards could be found in any corner store, and her face was as recognizable to the American public as Megan Fox’s might be to the contemporary world. The conflict between White and Thaw centered on Nesbit.
Nesbit’s father died when she was young, leaving her mother, her brother, and herself in abject poverty. As a result, the strikingly beautiful Evelyn was pushed into local artist modeling around Pittsburgh at an early age in order to provide an income for the family. At the age of sixteen, Nesbit moved with her mother to New York to take advantage of the larger artists’ community. She soon became one of the most sought after artist’s models in New York for both painting and photographic work. Striking while the iron was hot, Nesbit’s mom-ager found her work as a chorus girl in addition to her modeling work. It was as a chorus girl that she caught the eye of successful architect Stanford White who took advantage of her mother’s negligence and apparent naïveté to insinuate himself into Nesbit’s life in a most inappropriate way, including allegedly drugging and raping her in his secret sex lair above FAO Schwarz toy store. Once Nesbit was of age, White began to lose interest, and Harry Thaw—a millionaire obsessed with taking down Stanford White and possessing the “pure” Evelyn to spite him—moved in and married the girl. After Nesbit confessed to Thaw the nature of her relationship with White, all hell broke loose.
Paula Uruburu manages to conjure an evocative New York at the turn of the last century, setting the scene of the scandal. She also manages to place Nesbit’s story in the larger context of women’s roles in society without things feeling clichéd or forced. The one detriment of the book in my mind was that its focus was too narrow: The book’s dénouement tries to cover the entirety of Nesbit’s life after the murder over the course of a dozen or so pages, leaving a mostly cursory outline of events. Though Nesbit is at the center of this story, this book is more about a set period in her life than about her altogether.
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The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright
By Jean Nathan
In the late 1950s, a soon-to-be iconic children’s book was published: Dare Wright’s The Lonely Doll. The book featured black and white photographs of a blonde be-ponytailed doll who eventually finds friends in two teddy bears. These were Edith, Mr. Bear, and Little Bear, characters that would go on to star in over a dozen more books, all photographed and written by Wright. Since being republished, the book’s depictions of physical discipline have been seen as inappropriate, but many contemporary readers have embraced Wright’s work and have sought out information about her life. The most comprehensive book on Wright so far is Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll, which is not without its controversies.
Dare’s family structure was very strange for its time: The daughter of separated parents, she lived with her mother while her brother lived with her estranged father. As a result of her divided family, Dare had an incredibly close relationship with her mother, artist Edie Stevenson Wright. So close that into Dare’s adult life, the two shared the same bed and worked together on artistic collaborations that included nude photographs of Dare. Despite her rather liberal attitude towards nudity, Dare was very guarded in romantic relationships, and though she was engaged to a RAF pilot for a time, it’s believed that she never had a consummated relationship with a man. Highly creative as a fashion designer and photographer, she had a prodigious output of artistic work during her lifetime, but she never seemed to quite get her personal life in order. She became a recluse after her mother’s death and ultimately died relatively alone and forgotten.
Well, according to Jean Nathan, anyway. Controversy arose after Nathan’s book was published when Dare’s executrix and goddaughter Brook Ashley wrote a letter to the NY Times denouncing the book and accusing Nathan of unscrupulous tactics in gathering information for her book. According to Ashley, the striking nude photographs published in Nathan’s book were never meant to be seen by the public and Nathan had taken them under false pretenses. Ashley also challenged Nathan’s assertions that Dare’s relationship with her mother was as unhealthy.
As is the case when trying to capture any person’s life, after someone has died, their true essence can never be captured and transmitted to others. Who knows which version of Dare’s life is the correct one? Or if Nathan and Ashley’s visions of Dare are mutually exclusive? In any event, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll is an entertaining and enthralling read about a fascinating woman.