Geishas, Courtesans, Artists And Muses: Biographies of Fascinating Women

Good day my little ships that no-one remembers putting in a bottle, you were just there one day, watching from the mantelpiece. I’ve been reading about fascinating women and long to share them with you. I don’t know why I’ve focused so much on women, it was purely accidental.

Wishing on the Moon: The Life And Times of Billie Holiday by Donald Clarke

Billie is one of those people that so many stories have been told about, nobody really knows what’s true. The fact that she enjoyed a good yarn didn’t help matters, much of her autobiography is fiction. How she must have chuckled. Anyway, this intensive biography is filled with first hand interviews and great research, and delves right into the Billie in the soft squishy centre. True, terrible things happened to her and she lived in a time even more racist than now, but she was a tough lady and certainly not a victim.

Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, a disturbing nightmare of a song about lynching:

My Blue Notebooks by Liane de Pougy

Belle Epoque courtesan Liane de Pougy kept a diary from 1919 to 1941. It’s an enjoyable insight into one woman’s thoughts, but unfortunately it’s no unexpurgated Anais Nin. She began writing after she was already married to a Romanian Prince and her naughtiness was mostly behind her, but stick with it as she often drifts into reminiscence.

Not that her life is completely uninteresting at the time of writing. She was good friends with poet Max Jacobs, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau and writer Marcel Proust among others, and had unfinished business with more than one woman. But, if it’s juicy stuff you’re after, I recommend Anais Nin.

Postcard print, 1900s
Postcard print, 1900s

Zelda by Nancy Milford

Look at this communication from mamma, all on account of a wine stained dress. Sometimes I get so bored and sick for you…it helps then…and afterwards I’m just more bored and sicker for you – and ashamed.

This biography tries to capture Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F Scott, in all her volatile, complicated glory. She at once wanted independence and to be looked after, to make art but was afraid to try for real, to live wildly and to have Scott to herself. She was a fascinating, complicated woman and one many confused but passionate people can relate to now. She encapsulated something about the twenties, the new speed with which the young travelled, but also the lows that followed when some deeper need inside yourself is left unfulfilled.

Film and Photos of the Fitzgeralds:

The Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki

After the disappointment of Memoirs of a Geisha I wanted to read a true account of one of Japan’s living art dolls. until recently it was a world shrouded in secrecy, ramping up the curiosity of outsiders and leading to gossip. I’m sure sex work was a part of life for some Geisha, but I don’t think it was the rule. Perhaps it depended on the individual and circumstance.

I loved this book, it felt as though she’d popped round for tea and a chat. The characters are vivid as are descriptions of Japan undergoing a dramatic change from the old feudal system to the modern country it is now, and the details of gruelling practice and homesickness capture what a crazily disciplined life this was.

Mineko pops up in an interview during this TV spot:

Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley

I turned the pages like a mad woman during this book. Perhaps it was my former career as an artist’s model, or maybe her vulnerability that made me want to protect her, but the model who posed as Ophelia among others seemed very real and somehow modern.

Trapped by her love of artist Rossetti despite his commitment to free love, addicted to morphine and possibly anorexic, she was as much a doomed tragic heroine as Ophelia. Lucinda’s writing is objective and looks at scenarios from all points of view. She doesn’t make excuses for Lizzie’s sometimes unreasonable behaviour but doesn’t condemn her either, thus we can appreciate her as a well-rounded, exasperating but lovely human being.

lizzie-siddal

Edie: American Girl by Jean Stein

Despite radiating the sixties from her very pores, there was also something fabulously twenties about Edie Sedgwick. The way she held her cigarette, her Holly Golightly mannerisms, her ability to dive into the dark side with an innocent mischief.

This is probably the perfect book about Edie because it’s filled with people who were actually there. Everyone has their own perspective and, rather than chop and change to fit an easy narrative, it’s all there. This brings us Edie the person, not the angel other books project. Yes, she was magnetic, but she also stole from friends and had a wildly selfish side. Far from putting us off, it allows us to enjoy and learn about her as a whole instead of a flickering, unobtainable image on a screen.

A collage of pictures and footage over tapes she made in the psychiatric unit for her last film Ciao Manhattan:

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Maddie’s Kareoke Suggestions

I listen to music while I write and I made a CD of songs that would make amusing performances at kareoke. Well, you’ve got to pass the time somehow and god forbid you should do it actually writing.

These include:

He Hit Me (and it felt like a kiss) by Hole. It was originally by the Crystals and that’s good too, but I like early Hole:

Beetles by Aphex Twin

Waiting for the Man by the Velvet Underground

Gloomy Sunday by Billie Holiday (otherwise known as the Hungarian suicide song):

Picadilly Palare by Morrissey

Scream thy Last Scream by Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd

Put me in a movie by Lana Del Rey

Old Fashioned Morphine by Jolie Holland

I am the Walrus by the Beatles

Dead Dogs Two by Clouddead and Boards of Canada:

Poisoning pigeons in the park by Tom Lehrer