Hey guys. Hey. It’s me. JAF. I’m not dead. I’m not even critically injured, horrifically maimed, or otherwise physically incapacitated. I’m just lazy. So incredibly, amazingly, astoundingly, mind-bendingly lazy.
I last appeared as a blip on the proverbial blogosphere radar 6 months ago, and I genuinely have no adequate reason for my absence from this, my internet baby. So I’ll just put it out there that MRG, LHB and KAB are the best (and most forgiving) minds of my generation and thankfully they have not been destroyed by the madness of my Chris McCandlessian self-indulgence. Thank you, bless you, I’m sorry, let’s move on.
As it so happens, I am currently back in the Old Country, from whence the germ of this blog was first conceived, studying the things I study the best—whiskey, unfiltered cigarettes, odd sleeping hours, and Medieval Literature. So as a “welcome back, old bean” sort of post, I’d like to introduce you to a dear, dear frienemy of mine, Petrarch.
I often ask myself hypothetical questions to while away the hours in between my various pretentious activities, and I have pondered on more than one occasion, “Can I have a deep and
completely only somewhat irrational antipathy towards someone that I have not only never met, but who died approximately 600 years ago?” When it comes to Petrarch, the answer is absofuckinglutely.
You see, Francesco Petrarca, as the Eyetalyuns knew him, was the first to call that roughly thousand year period between the Fall of Rome and the beginnings of the European Renaissance, “The Dark Ages.”
What an utter bastard he was.
As a member of the Italian intellectual class, and an early Renaissance humanist, Petrarch didn’t cast too kindly an eye upon the lives and times of his forefathers—and who can blame him, really? The oceanic-trench of a chip on my shoulder about how people don’t “appreciate” the “cultural” “flowering” of the medieval period is my cross to bear, and hopefully some day I’ll be able to hear that most well-meaning of phrases, “Oh, you study the Middle Ages? So you like Ren Faires, right?” without weeping. So, as a staunch defender of my world lit only by fire, I fundamentally despise Petrarch in the same way that popular fiction tells us dogs fundamentally have to pee on fire hydrants.
But I also feel bad for Petrarch. You see, among all his genuine achievements—like collecting, preserving and translating a multitude of Classical writings that would most likely been lost without his efforts, and various original writings on Christian philosophy, diplomacy and the usage of the Latin language—Petrarch is, and probably will only ever be, remembered best for his incredibly passionate, declarative poems to a woman he met once.
There’s a certain type of sympathy (alright, it’s actually pity) I reserve for men who spend their lives writing reams to a slampiece they’ll never have. Everyone knows this is a well–honored literary tradition—Petrarch was by no means the first sad sonovabitch to lust after that (always) perfect and (always, for some unfathomable reason) unobtainable poon, nor will he be the last. But thank Jesus for those men down the ages who have tried to come to terms with their goshdarned unfortunate sexual frustration through painfully personal verse, and, either because of shamelessness or on the “advice” of vindictive friends, have decided to let the world in on their emotional constipation and published that shit. Well, thank Jesus for the talented ones, anyway.
Petrarch’s muse was a lady named Laura. They supposedly met in church in 1327, and for the next forty years, almost to Petrarch’s death, he put pen to parchment in her imaginary honor. The collection of his 366 poems is called Il Canzoniere, and is perhaps the biggest influence on love poetry in Europe for the next 300 years. Divided into two sections, “in vita,” and “in morte” by Laura’s death in 1348, Petrarch deals largely with the fact that no matter how much he loves Laura (which makes him happy), he can never have her (which makes him sad), so he refuses to pursue her (since that would be sinful, and sin makes him sad), and just has to deal with loving her passionately from a distance (which makes him sad-happy). (s’dappy).
It all sounds very “dear diary,” since, well, you know, it is, but Petrarch can be forgiven for all the sex he ensured he was not having, because his poetry is so stupidly, asininely, heartbreakingly beautiful. Goddammit I just want to hate him, but he hurts my heart too much:
“If it, indeed, must be my fate,
and Heaven works its ways,
that Love close up these eyes while they still weep,
let grace see my poor body
be buried there among you
and let my soul return to its home naked;
then death would be less harsh
if I could bear this hope
unto that fearful crossing,
because the weary soul
could never in a more secluded port,
in a more tranquil grave,
flee from my poor belabored flesh and bones.”
So while it’s not a particularly scandalous return, I stick by my choice. Because, like that other great Latin poet of libidinal verse said, “I hate and I love.” So here’s to you, Petrarch—you’re too talented to join the great and ever-growing pantheon of pseudo-intellectuals which contains my other nemesi, but I can still have my revenge and tell
the readership of this mildly popular blog the world about how you spent your life alternating between verbally crying and masturbating over The Pussy on a Corinthian Column.
“Fortune and Love, and my own mind, which shuns
what it sees now and turns back to the past,
afflict me so that there are times I feel
envy for those who’ve reached the other shore.
While Love wears out my heart, Fortune deprives it
of any comfort, and my foolish mind
gets angry and it weeps—so in great pain
forever I must live and fight this way.
Nor can I hope the sweet days will return,
I see what’s left me go from bad to worse,
and I’ve already run half of my course.
Alas, not made of diamond but of glass
all of my hope I see slip from my hands
and every thought of mine split down the middle.”
What an utter bastard he was.
Anyone who’s not a total asshat should like the writing of Charles Dickens. That is a sweeping generalization, and I don’t fucking care.
A couple Tuesdays ago was the great man himself’s 200th birthday, and shoot boy, does he literarally look good for his age. Dickens’ stories are still some of the most widely read and certainly some of the most widely adapted in the English language (he’s what Masterpiece Theater does when they’re not doing Agatha Christie’s greatest hits or other pieces of shit). He has accessible prose, genuine humor, biting satire, emotional highs and lows to rival those in a frat bathroom on a Friday night, and enduring characters that have influenced generations of writers.
A flawed man, to be sure, he had a tendency to love or hate something wholeheartedly with little grey area in between. Dickens proves the old adage (and if I’ve said it once, don’t worry, I’ll say it one more time just in case you didn’t hear), there is no better way to deal with women than on a sine curve. But truth be told, while Dickens was never the greatest clamdiver in the sea, he made up for his relative lack of sex-having by being the creepiest, most obsessive motherfucker who ever immortalized an idealized muse or eviscerated a fatty in blackletter typeface. So start your week off right with For Shame! and a take quick look at Victorian popular literature’s greatest leacher.
Before we delve into Dickens, a little background: Born in 1812 to a ne’rdowell clerk into an already large family, Dickens’ early life would have a profound effect on how he was formed as a person and writer. At age 12, he was forced to leave school to work in a blacking warehouse to bring in money to help his father get out of debtor’s prison. Because of this, he would continually revisit themes of the English treatment of poverty, child labor, the socio-economic divide, and the essential nature of education. When his father was left a small inheritance (enough to get the family out of prison), Dickens’ mother argued that he should continue to work at the factory rather can go back to school, and her never forgave her for this sentiment.
But enough of that shit. In 1830, at the tender age of 18, Dickens met a sweet 20-year-old slice, Maria Beadnell, and fell truly madly deeply in lust. She was, by all accounts, ultra-feminine but also hyper-sexualized, as attested to by this sort of really creepy painting, commissioned by HER PARENTS, of her dressed as a milkmaid. Dericious.
But, she was also of a higher social station than Dickens, and while their attachment was mutual, Maria got shipped off to “finishing school” in France to cool her pheromones, Charles spent the two years she was away mooning over her and building her up in his desperately inexperienced and horny mind to be the greatest of all greastestests. When she came back, Maria, like the tarted up slorebag she was, was distinctly indifferent towards Dickens and they soon parted ways. He never forgot his all-consuming, wild, devoted, hopeless (his words) passion for Maria. Well turns out, she really was A Ho To Build A Dream On.
She was the epitome of sexual desire, but in the way that you wanted to marry her rather than have it be a one-and-done type deal (’cause she was a high-class lay, you know?). Dickens revisited their relationship in several books, most notably in David Copperfield and Great Expectations. In the former, she is Dora, the flighty first love of David’s life, with whom he falls head over heels for at first sight. In the latter, she is the cold, cold bitch Estella, who represents wealth, beauty and social position, but who refuses to return Pip’s affection.
Also, I should probably mention, Dickens is, to a greater or
lesser more greater degree, the protagonist of all his stories. There are some things therapy just can’t get you past. Especially when therapy hasn’t been invented yet.
FUN FACT: After he was supa famous, Maria apparently recanized herself in one of Dickens’ books and rang him up (via letter, because there were no phones, OBVI). He went to visit her, and found her to be the delightful combination of a woman who still simpered and flirted like a tweenager trying to impress the guy with an earring folding shirts at Hollister, trapped in the body of an obese forty-something. He subsequently wrote her as Flora in Little Dorrit, the former fiancée of the protagonist, Arthur. BBC tells me she looked like this.
On the rebound, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in 1836. By all accounts, despite the fact they had 10 children together, he only kind of liked her. As time went by, Dickens became increasingly annoyed with her constant lack of energy, poor housekeeping skills and inability to organize shit. I mean, I get it Charles. It’s not like 10 kids will do that to you. She must have just been shitty out of the gate.
Also, he blamed her for the fact they had 10 kids. I would say he had a part in that one, but hey, I dunno. I hear the jury’s still out on science.
Catherine’s younger sister, 16-year-old Mary Hogarth, moved in with the Dickens’ after they were first married. This was not unheard of. This was, in fact, common. Perhaps, however, the complete and unbridled obsession Charles developed for Mary was less common.
As we have observed, Charles loved putting pussy on pedestals. It was like if Beyoncé had a dowdy, lame sister, Dickens married her, then met Beyoncé at the wedding and was all, “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaammit.” It was clear Catherine could do no right in comparison to Mary. To Dickens, she was the swamp monster to Mary’s bathing beauty. She was the acne-plagued band geek to Mary’s genetically-blessed cheerleader. She was the Godfather III to Mary’s Godfather I & II.
Mary was fucking good, she was fucking kind, she was fucking all things a prim Victorian lady should be. She and Dickens became biffles. He let her “read what he was writing” and she gave him “feedback” and “criticism.” Charles worshiped the ground she walked on, and of course, she died tragically, suddenly, and at age 17, allowing him to forever crystalize her in his mind and literature as Blandy McLameface, the essence of perfection (see Agnes, second wife of David Copperfield, Rose in Oliver Twist, Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, Amy in Little Dorrit, the list goes fucking on). Apparently, she died in his arms, whispering his name. Whatever Charles, just go knock-up your wife again and repress your emotions like real men should.
Sadly, Charles was only good at one of those, and after only a few years of marriage to Catherine, he basically knew shit wasn’t going to work. I’m not going to say he checked out of the marriage, but I’m not not saying he didn’t. The only time Dickens ever missed publishing a monthly installment of a story (because everything he wrote was published serially) was when Mary died. Not on either occasion he had a child die. Nope. Kids, whatever. Dime a dozen, amirite Chuck?
Anyway, Dickens also wrote plays. The more you know. He also often starred in them, and in 1857, during the production of one of his pieces, he met Ellen Lawless Ternan. She was an 18-year-old actress, and coincidentally, the same ages as Dickens’ daughter, Kate. Heeeyfunfact.
He starred in the play with Ellen and from then on, they began an affair that lasted until Dickens’ death in 1870. Soon after meeting Ellen, Dickens publicly separated from Catherine. As in, all his stuff was in a box to the left, to the left. Because she kicked him out of the house when a bracelet and (what I imagine to have been an incredibly graphic) note meant for Ellen were delivered to the Dickens house by mistake in 1858.
This was fucking huge in Victorian England. She quit the stage and he supported her through his fabulous riches. They traveled to France together, he bought her a house, he left her a thousand pounds in his will, the usual. BUT, most salaciously, there is a distinct possibility she got pregnant and the child died in infancy.
Some scholar puts it real nice like:
“The girl’s name certainly influenced the naming of the heroines of the last three novels, Stella in Great Expectations, Bella Wilder in Our Mutual Friend, and Helena Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The willful and imperious ways of the first two of these characters represent a noteworthy departure from the earlier ideal of saintly meekness embodied in Florence Dombey, Agnes Wickfield, Esther Summerson, and Amy Dorrit. And there can be no mistaking that Dickens’ later fiction explores sexual passion with an intensity and perceptiveness not previously apparent.”
I’ll buy it.
Most of their correspondence and anything involving Ellen was destroyed by one or both parties, so we’re grasping at straws here. OR ARE WE??????????/?
Even though Dickens voraciously denied being involved with Ellen (and to be fair, we don’t actually know if they ever did the sex—they could have just been really close, guys), there was always a rumor swirling around, which turned into a fullblown media obsession in 1939, when a book came out featuring Kate Dickens’ juicy tell-all with a horribly awkward title about her dad and his bangmaid. BOOM, how’s that for some reputation-smearing postmortem revenge, Charlie? And way to carry a grudge for like a bazillion years about your shittyass dad, Kate. We scandal bloggers thank you.
But whatever bad press Dickens got in his lifetime from leaving his wife and shacking up with a stage-inclined guttersnipe, he over-came by being the most popular author in the fucking world. So Happy Belated Birthday, Charlie “Big Dick” Dickens—may you keep on keepin’ on in whatever afterlife you’ve landed your philandering, egocentric, brilliant literary self.
Oh, and Happy (also belated) President’s Day, for all you fake-holiday lovers. God Bless us, every one!
[Insert usual apologies about absence here. It’s finals week. Get over it.]
I’m cuddled up in bed with the Michael Buble Holiday Pandora station set to an audible but not-too-loud volume, sipping some peppermint tea, thinking about writing the final paper for my European Novels class, and WHAT BETTER TIME THAN THAT to write a blog post, I always say!
I’m “writing” this paper on a little novel called Madame Bovary. Ever heard of it? Well I certainly hope so because PSYCH! this post is also going to be about that fabulously smutty novel and the elegantly mustachioed gentleman who wrote it. Mwahahaa PAPER RESEARCH TURNED BLOG POST. I’m efficient, motherfuckers. Get used to it.
For brevity’s sake (because it’s finals time, we get it, bitches, you gotta do whatchu gotta do) we’re going to skip over Gustave’s Flaubert’s childhood and life/career in general and just talk about the good stuff. He only had one major romantic relationship in his life, and that was with a poet-lady named Louise Colet. Colet was a righteous bitch who I just fell in love with after skimming her Wiki page. A couple years before she and Gustave started touching parts, she gave birth to a daughter, and neither her husband nor her lover (woops!) would say they were the baby-daddy. After all of her lovers (she had like four or five, not including Flaubert) kicked the bucket, she supported herself and her daughter by writing poetry. How cool is that?? Anyway, Flaubert and Colet were getting it on for, like 8 years, so it was a good chunk of time. Especially considering she was married and had an unclaimed love-baby for all of that time. After that extended tryst ended, Flaubert left Paris and moved back in with his mommy in Croisset near Rouen.
He apparently had a mistress or two before he died, but he never married and nothing with those bitches was every as serious as it was with Louise. He did, however, know (biblically speaking) probably hundreds of prostitutes. Male and Female. And he was really open about it. He wrote all about his sexploits with prostitutes from all over the world in his letters home – hopefully not to his mother, but who knows. According to such epistolary accounts, a young Turkish girl gave him a pesky cancher sore on his penis, he had anal sex with a male prostitute from Egypt who was “pock-marked” and wore a turban, and he contracted syphilis in Beirut. It was like the UN of STDs up in there.
The real scandalosity of Flaubert’s life came upon the publication of his greatest work (arguably), Madame Bovary. I would highly recommend not reading further if you have not read the book and you plan to do so at some point. Because you don’t want this shit ruined. It’s fucking juicy. Unless you don’t care, in which case, fuck it, we’ll do it live, amiright? But don’t blame me for spoiling the ending if you keep reading, MMKAY?
So, MB is published and people fucking love it. Women all over France are like, “This bitch is me! I’m Madame fucking Bovary!” And Flaubert is like, “Non non non non, Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” (He really did say that – I don’t make everything up, I swear.) But the authoritee, the man, the homme, if you will, is like, “Whooooah whooahh there, Gus, you can’t publish shit like this. Bitch has the loosest morals since, like, Eve, and she’s your heroine. Not cool.”
So the homme is like, “See you in court, son.” Because people said shit like that before SVU. And in 1856, before its extended publication, he was sued for having written the obscenity that was Madame Bovary. And guess what his defense was that allowed him to walk away and the book to become a bestseller and one of the most influential novels in history! “I killed the bitch!” How could Flaubert be condoning the character of Emma Bovary if he gave her the axe in the end? The scandal surrounding the trial made the novel’s release infinitely more popular than it would have been, probably. So joke’s on them!
If you stopped reading before because you didn’t want the book ruined, you can join us again.
Flaubert, I have come to grudgingly (since I didn’t like this class so much) realize, was a genius. I found out that he coined my favorite expression of all time, “God is in the details.” And when you read MB, you can really tell what he meant by that. The hyperdetail of MB creates a reality that is fucking holy, if you ask me. He was a perfectionist, not in his sexual health necessarily, but in his writing, and used to say “There is no such thing as a synonym, there is always a perfect word.”
Apparently I have wasted hours of my life trying to come up with synonyms for “boning.”
[Ed. Note: You’re about to read something very special. So unzip your pants and unscrew your favorite flask because For Shame! is bringing you, FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME (like a virgin, in case that wasn’t clear), a post by a guest writer! That’s right, it’s our very first guest post and we couldn’t be more excited. Let this be a lesson to all you scandal-lovers that if you’re funny and are amused by sex that happened a long time ago, you too could one day write for this very blog. I’m just saying, dream big, ok? Dream big. Without further ado, a guest post by KAB.]
When you think about the 1920’s, some pretty fly people come to mind: Velma Kelly, Al Capone, Albert Einstein, fucking George Gershwin. But I hope you know that I speak from the bottom of my heart when I say all of these bitches were tame compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre. Said Lillian Gish, just one of their beautiful dirty rich friends, “They didn’t make the 20’s, they were the 20’s.”
Scott wrote a little number called The Great Gatsby, now forever populating Facebook favorite quotes and Tumblr accounts alike. He also had a bromance with Hemingway (to rival Tommy & Ezra’s, I think), peaced the fuck out of Princeton to join the army, and had a dope-ass haircut. Did I mention he lit cigars with 5 dolla bills? Ain’t no thang.
Now let’s talk about Zelda. In an era of (illegally) drunk bitches running around smoking and wearing obscene amounts of fringe, Zelda set the trend. I’m pretty sure they were all little monsters to her Gaga. With their forces combined, Scott and Zelda formed one of the most scandalous, mythified, and seriously fucked up romances of all time. These guys lived fast, drank hard, and were quite possibly the worst sinners since Adam and Eve.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Scott and Zelda met when he was stationed at Camp Sheridan during his I-want-to-be-a-war-hero stint. They hit it off at a little country dance (read: underground Alabama club scene), and Scott immediately has a hard-on. He said that he “fell in love with a whirlwind.” Such a way with words.
And let’s be honest, this chick’s name is Zelda. Tell me I’m wrong, but she has one of the biggest legends of all time. Not to mention girl was voted “Prettiest” and “Most Attractive” in her high school class. Legit as fuck.
So after a brief courtship and at least a dozen handles of gin, Scott built up the courage to ask for her hand in marriage. Zelda was interested in Scott for sure, but at this point Scott was not super successful. I’m not saying she was a gold digger, but she wanted a bit more financial stability to lead her ideal life of sex, drugs, glamour, and a dash of alcohol.
Scott was pretty keen on snatching up this bitch for life, so he hauled ass to St. Paul, wrote This Side of Paradise, and had it published by Scribner’s in a year. This Side of Paradise made critics AND readers blow their loads, so around this point Zelda caved and agreed to marriage. For the wedding, Zelda wore a midnight blue suit and matching hat with leather ribbons and buckles. She had an orchid bouquet. There were no photographs. Jazz age SWANK.
Here’s where the fun starts. Scott was on fire after This Side of Paradise; every post-WWI kid felt like Scott just understood him. What do we do with ourselves after this time of destruction, war, and existential crises? Get shitfaced, obvs.
The Fitzgeralds were the anti-Brangelina of their time. Instead of adopting babies and trying to save the world, they were just hedonistic hot hip things that lived like kings. Everyone wanted to know what they were doing, what they were wearing, how much they were drinking, and what the fuck they did while drunk, which included:
- Jumping into the Plaza Hotel’s fountain fully clothed.
- Riding an open car through the streets of New York City (probs more scandalous than it sounds).
- Getting thrown out of their honeymoon suite for rowdiness. I guess that’s why Scott would later describe their behavior as “sexual recklessness.” Was the kama sutra a thing in the ‘20s? Either way, I’m sure lots o’ blowies were involved. (See LHB? I used blowies!)
And then, outta the blue, Zelda’s knocked up! They go to Europe because they feel like it––EXPATS EY OH. They start in England, but they thought it was boring, so they moved to Italy, which they didn’t like, and were finally satisfied with living on the goddamn French Riviera. When their daughter (Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald, talk about living in Daddy’s shadow) is born, Scott writes down Zelda’s first drugged words after giving birth: “Goofo, I’m drunk. Mark Twain. Isn’t she smart––she has the hiccups. I hope it’s beautiful and a fool––a beautiful little fool.”
Then the dynamic duo and their new baby side-kick returned to the good ole USA where they rented a place in Great Neck, Long Island (English major side-note: the place that would inspire West Egg in Gatsby! Cool story, bro!). You think you’ve been to some crazy ragers in your time? Think again. The Fitzgeralds would have house rules, like asking their guests not to break down doors in search for liquor even if Scott and Zelda, in a drunken stupor, told them to do it. Another rule was a safeguard against guests spending the night even if Scott and Zelda, still in a drunken stupor, told them they were welcome.
Bored again with the USA, they returned to the French Riviera. Scott was busy with his whole writing gig, and Zelda was bored as shit so she found herself a French pilot, Edouard Jozan, to toy around with on the beach. Supposedly the relationship was unconsummated, but that’s boring, and Zelda was not a boring bitch. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions with that one. This is around the same time Zelda called Scott a fairy and accused him of having an affair with Hemingway. To prove her wrong, Scott called up a female prostitute and had sex with her. Why Scott couldn’t have just had sex with Zelda? Good question. Another good question: What the fuck was Scottie doing this whole time?
Scott and Zelda went on a violent streak, and not in the sexily deviant way. While vacationing in the Mediterranean, Zelda threw herself under their car and dared Scott to run her over. Rumor has it that Scott actually started the car. (In all honesty, it would have saved him a headache later.)
Shit gets even shittier. At a party in St. Paul, Scott casually hits on this dancer chick Isadora Duncan. Scott def keeps his dick in his pants, but either way Zelda is not a happy camper. This slut Isadora goes a bit too far, strokes Scott’s hair, and calls him her “centurion.”
And, in what is perhaps an overreaction, Zelda throws herself down a staircase for attention. When the hosts find her, they actually think she might be dead. Thankfully, she recovers to continue a string of mild overreactions to Scott’s flirtatious tendencies, including:
- Stealing all the bling from her rich-ass party guests, putting them in a boiling pot of water, and pretending to make soup.
- Throwing her platinum watch off of a moving train.
- Setting fire to her clothes in a bathtub. (Zelda actually causes two separate fires––one of which burns down an entire building––and then she ends up dying in a hospital fire. Sorry, but crazy had it coming.)
At this point, everyone’s kinda wondering what the fuck is going on with Zelda. She starts to obsessively practice ballet––we’re talking 10 hours a day. Bitch wanted to be perfect (but probably not as much as Nina, amirite?). Zelda was taking dance lessons in Paris and once ran out of her taxi through through traffic in a tutu to make it to her class on time. She also started to burst into inexplicable bouts laughter at meals. Scott and their flapper friends are reasonably concerned.
In 1930, she’s checked into Malmaison clinic outside of Paris, and from then on is in and out of hospitals for the rest of her life. At this point, Scott and Zelda are kind of calling it quits. She writes him letters from the hospital of happier days, he continues to support her financially, but they’re pretty much caput.
Actually, not true, they take one last hurrah vacation to Cuba, but all that’s not well, um, does not end well. Scott drinks his ass under the table and tries to break up a cock fight, and then gets the shit beat out of him. And that’s the last they saw of each other. Try not to swoon.
All right, so they loved each other for a while, then hated each other, then made each other’s lives miserable to the point of insanity, but isn’t that what love is all about? Come on. They even wrote thinly-veiled passive-aggressive accounts of their lives together in books published back to back before they died. That, my friends, is too cute to be forgotten.
Worth a try, amiright?!
For the first installment of Ex-Pats Theme Week, we’ll be turning to everyone’s favorite 20th century lesbians, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas who were, admittedly, not that hot. Or scandalous, if we’re being honest. Explicitly at least. Because even in 1920s hipper-than-austin-tx-during-a-film-festival Paris, to be a lady who was into other ladies was still pretty taboo. But regardless of their scandalosity, Stein and Toklas were the uncontested leaders and organizers of the 1920s expat scene in Paris and no For Shame! ex-pat theme week would be complete without them. So we’ll do the best we can here, and if I have to make up some imaginary lesbian sex dialogues, so be it.
Stein and Toklas met in Paris in 1907 on Toklas’s first day in the big city, and it was love at first sight. This is what Alice wrote about Gerty the first time she saw her:
She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice– deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices.
Did your heart just melt a little? Yeah, mine too. Bitches be sweet. They were swapping panties from that day until 1947, when Stein died of stomach cancer. During their life together, their home in Paris was the most important Salon for budding writers and artists during Europe’s interwar period.
They collected paintings, they read manuscripts, they sat for paintings, they rejected paintings, they rejected manuscripts, they sold paintings, they stood for paintings, they sat for readings – Stein and Toklas were the artistic and literary barometers of 1920s Western Europe. It is arguable that Thornton Wilder, Ernest Hemingway, and Pablo Picasso among others are all well known because Stein encouraged and promoted their work and deemed it good. If she had told Hemingway that he sucked and his work was no good, we probably wouldn’t know who he is now. If she hadn’t started buying Picasso’s painting or letting him paint her, or other people, in her salon, he’d just be some Spanish douchebag with a paintbrush and sex problem. Point is, we have these bitches to thank for, like, half the MOMA’s permanent collection, and probably a third of the Penguin Classics. As they say, behind every good artist is a good lesbian.*
To keep this puppy short, let’s just do a good ol’ list of ways that Stein and Toklas scandalized shit up in their time as Europe’s #1 lesbian couple:
- Stein’s book, Q.E.D. (Things As They Are), which was published by Toklas posthumously, is considered to be the first coming out story in history. Pretty big fucking deal if you asked me. It was also the first book to use the word “gay” to mean “homosexual.” And she used it over, and over again. So people who didn’t understand that thought it was just a book about a lot of really happy women.
- Stein’s most famous book, from which you probably read an excerpt in high school, or on an AP exam or something, is called Tender Buttons. WHICH I JUST FUCKING REALIZED IS A METAPHOR FOR CLITORISES!!! How did I miss that all these years? She was the biggest lesbian in the world and her most famous book is called Tender
Buttons. DUH. OF COURSE IT IS. Why didn’t Mr. Snyder, my 11th grade English teacher, tell us that?! In the text, she repeatedly uses the words “snatch” and “box,” (MRG and my favorite vaginal euphemisms, respectively.) That sneaky, sneaky bitch. Tender fucking buttons. You sneaky bitch, Gertrude Stein!
- I just learned this while doing my “research” for this post. Did you know that Stein and Toklas were hard-core political conservatives? Weird, right? Considering they had vaginas, and liked vaginas so much, and were both Jews from the Bay Area. But it’s true. During WWII, they retired to a little cottage in the French countryside and weren’t bothered by Jew Hunters because they had a friend in politics who collaborated with the Vichy government. Wuuttt?? And then, after the war, when their buddy was imprisoned for being a collaborator, they helped to fund his escape! So maybe that wasn’t exactly scandalous, but kind of surprising right? It subverted my expectations, ‘aight?
And now, as promised, an imagined lesbian historical dialogue from For Shame!’s resident thesBian (that’s me), unto you:
Gerty: Alice, TWAT did you think about Pablo’s latest work?
Alice: I TWAT it was rather pedestrian.
Gerty: Really? I was thinking I might SNATCH it up!
Alice: That’s curious, because I would put it in my BOX of things that suck.
* Joke courtesy of good friend and lover of the blog, LP.
Listen. I know. Be quiet. I get it. Our silence is getting old. And we’re sorry. And I promise these lags in posting will become less frequent and less prolonged, and eventually we won’t have to begin every post with an apology. How do you know that we’ll never wrong you again? Well, I guess you can’t know for sure. But just trust that bringing tales of scandalous and historical titty-touching and pepe-pleasuring directly to you is back at the top of our collective to-do lists. Let us begin.
Harry Crosby was born in Boston’s swank-ass Back Bay neighborhood (where I’m going to live when I grow up) in 1898 to kabillionaire parents who set him up with a nice little trust fund and sent him off to all the best schools for blue-blooded beantown boys. In order to escape the “horrors of Boston virgins,” Harry signed up for the Ambulance Corps during WW Uno and was shipped overseas to tote sickies around the Western Front. So in between the Sommes and Verdun, I’m sure he was able to score plenty of Belgian poon. He arrived home in 1919 with a fresh case of PTSD and that characteristic post-war melancholia that made people make art with lots of weird shapes, drink espresso, and fuck as many bitches as they could manage to roofie at the neighborhood speakeasy. Shortly after returning, he decided that what he really needed was some learnin’, so he entered into an accelerated veterans program at a little college called Hogwarts, I mean Harvard, where he cultivated his passion for literature and noncommittal coitus.
When he was 22, his mom arranged for a bunch of his friends and some suitable snatches, I mean matches, to go on an afternoon outing (because apparently in 1920 it was normal for parents to arrange playdates for their grown children.) Mama Croz asked her friend Mrs. Richard Peabody to keep everyone’s hormones under control as their chaperone. I worry about his mother’s judgement because Mary Phelps Jacob (aka Mrs. Richard Peabody) was only 6 years Harry’s senior and also happened to be the inventor of the bra. No big deal. Girlfriend had a huuuuge personality. And young Harold just could not take his eyes off of it. Within two weeks, their love affair had become the talk of Boston society.
It took him, like, a year, but eventually Harry managed to convince the well-endowed Mrs. Peabody to get a divorce from her husband, and he put a ring on it in 1922. Shortly after, they moved, along with Polly’s children, to Paris. Because Paris in the 1920s was a great place to raise a family. And by “great place to raise a family” what I mean is that Paris was where people went when drinking absinth and smoking salvia with a prostitute at an illegal bar in Manhattan wasn’t really doing it for them anymore. Paris was where people went when the bar in H – E – double hockey sticks had to close early because of too much sinning. Paris was where people went to find a sensitive-and-STD-ridden artist/writer/adventurer to inspire/become inspired by through constant sexhaving and cafe claches. Do you get it? Is it clear what I’m getting at? Paris was a motherfucking hotbed of sex, drugs, alcohol, jazz, sex, alcohol, fun, and sex, and more sex.
Luckily, child rearing wasn’t Mr and Mrs Cosby, I mean Crosby’s, primary concern. Instead, it was how many extramarital D/V wetting sessions they were able to fit in between dinner and breakfast Thursday through Sunday each week. They were both known for having a wide open marriage and Harry was known to have had one night trysts with young women who may or may not have been studying for their Bat Mitzvahs. Or taking 7th grade algebra. I’m uncomfortable.
Because of Harry’s charmingly irresponsible use of his trust fund, the loving spouses led an extravagant lifestyle that involved living in lavish apartments and holding “dinner parties” out of their giant bed. They also apparently hosted a party once that involved playing polo on donkeys, stick in one hand, a 40 in the other. (I almost typed “dolphins” and then I thought, “now, that would have been fucking cool.” If only they’d had a little more imagination.) Ernest Hemingway, the most famous alcoholic writer, like, ever, used to say that Harry Crosby could drink anyone under the table. I mean, if Hemingway is saying that, then Jesus fucking Christ, you have a problem, ok? I’ll say no more.
Except that’s not true at all BECAUSE I HAVEN’T EVEN SCANDALIZED YOU YET HAVE I?!?! Well listen the fuck up because it’s about to get all Prince Rudolph up in here, ifyouknowwhatimsayin??
Harry met a girl named Josephine Rotch in Venice while she was shopping for, get this, her wedding dress. (Who would have thought it? Bridal Salons. Great place to pick up chicks.) The two started a steamy affair which continued until her wedding later that year at which point, it stopped. JUST KIDDING. Within, like, 20 minutes, they were transatlantically sending each other depressing love poetry again. Plus Jo kept telegramming him, demanding that the next time he come stateside, he bed her immediately. Girlfriend knew what she wanted.
A consummate gentleman, Harry obliged. In December of 1929, the couple met at a friend’s studio apartment in Manhattan and the next thing you know, Harry is late to a pre-show dinner, his wife gets worried, his friend goes to check on him at the studio, has to break the door down because it’s locked from the inside, bada bing bada boom, Harry and Josephine are lying on the floor, clutched in each other’s arms, with matching bullet-holes in their temples. Awkward.
I know, shit’s whack. It came out that right before, the two had written a bunch of charming poetry to each other and in their diaries about death and love and marriage and dying and blah blah So the whole ordeal was looking like a suicide pact. BUT THEN the coroner’s report came back and it determined conclusively that Josephine had died, like, 2 hours earlier than Harry. Again, awkward. So, kind of up in the air on whether or not shit was consensual is all I’m saying. Needless to say, the suicide/murder-suicide speculations were plastered all over the tabloids – the press had a motherfucking field day with this shit. It was like when they figured out that they could make Brad and Angelina into one word. THAT BIG.
Even though my general tone towards Harry has been a little judgmental, his suicide is considered now to be sort of emblematic of the post-war Lost Generation. And that’s really sad. And makes my throat a little tight. Because while I do think that the expats had some whiny tendencies that I could do without, I have a pretty major hard on for interwar Europe and I actually think they were pretty brilliant people, expressing some very real and legitimate concerns about the world around them.
I know this post is getting ridiculously long, but I should add one thing about Harry’s contribution to interwar Modernism and Parisian art culture: When they weren’t partying til dawn and scamming on hot young things, the Crosbys were busy being the first to publish TS Elliot, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound – all before they were famous, in a publication that they founded called the Black Sun Press. It was and still is kind of a big deal.
On that note, what have we learned? Having a lot of affairs and being on a lot of drugs all the time might make you kind of unstable and lead to your tragic, yet super famous, demise? Yeah, I don’t know either. Those interwar motherfuckers are so goddam ambiguous.
LHB (with some much appreciated guidance and collaboration and title-writing from JAF)