What do the wives and loves of Ernest Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Pablo Picasso, William Shakespeare, and Frank Lloyd Wright have in common? They all have recently appeared as the main characters in literary novels. Paula McLain’s “The Paris Wife” tells us the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. Nancy Horan’s “Under the wide and starry sky” portrays Fanny Stevenson, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife. Another book by Horan, “Loving Frank” profiles Martha “Mamah” Borthwick’s relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright. “Madame Picasso” by Anne Girard is about Eva Gouel, Picasso’s companion and a great muse in his artwork. Andrea Chapin’s “The Tutor” tells the story of a muse of Shakespeare.
I am a big fan of literary sites – of course it helps that my office looks out onto the Longfellow Garden, behind the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of America’s most beloved poets. One of these days I want to travel the country, visiting literary homes and sites, reading and blogging about the literary works as I visit writer’s homes. But perhaps my first stop should be in Chicago at the American Writers Museum, which opens in 2017. The Wadsworth-Longfellow House and Garden is one of the affiliates.
The American Writers Museum Foundation is a 501 (c)(3) organization whose mission is to establish the first national museum in the United States dedicated to engaging the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture and our daily lives.
Check it out! http://americanwritersmuseum.org/
It was a beautiful sunny Saturday driving thru Alabama, passing the cotton fields with their fluffy white flowers; much different from the snow I had left behind on Long Island, Maine. Our destination was Monroeville, Alabama, “The literary capital of Alabama” – proud to call itself that because of well-known , respected and all around good citizen Nelle Harper Lee, known for writing To Kill a Mockingbird and most recently Go Set a Watchman . She enjoyed her town, close friends family, community events, writing and golfing; what she didn’t like was all the Media, reporters, and questions that come from writing a best selling and controversial, to some, book. Her book was loosely based about Monroeville growing up with her brother and close friend Truman Capote and her visits to the Monroe County Court House to sit in the balcony at the courthouse and watch her father practice law. The themes of the book cover racial equality , rape, and childhood innocence.
Nelle Harper Lee died at the age of 89 on the Friday that we were in Alabama. We were saddened by the news. It was only on our drive that we heard on the radio that she was to be buried Saturday in a private funeral ceremony. We wondered if the museum would be opened but we continued on our journey. While parking the car at the Monroe County Courthouse and Museum I noticed black bows on the Courthouse doors, flowers on the steps, and a few people dressed in black and, wouldn’t you know it, a reporter. Whatever was said between those in black and the reporter, it was quick and off she went. Probably “No Comment. ” I think Harper Lee would approve. We were able to get into the museum and and courthouse and see 2 permanent exhibits: Harper Lee : In her Own Words, and Truman Capote : A Childhood in Monroeville. Harper Lee and Truman Capote lived next door to each other as children and shared a love for reading and writing stories about people in their town. Our tour continued with a visit to the Courtroom. It is the model for the courtroom scene from To Kill a Mockingbird – completely set up with Judge’s bench, attorney’s tables, chairs, jury box and the view from balcony which gives you a bird’s eye view of the court house. I felt that for a minute I was with Harper Lee watching court in session. Moments later I was on the floor of the courtroom walking around, and as I approached the witness stand and judges bench there were flowers, a picture of Harper Lee, and a frame with a quote from To Kill a Mockingbird where Atticus says to Jem “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin. But you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what You rarely win- but sometimes you do.” MS. LEE WON!! “She died clean as the mountain air. ” At 1:30 that afternoon on a Saturday at the Methodist church in Monroeville, AL, Nelle Harper Lee was buried with family and a few friends present and a world full of people bidding her farewell.
This past year I read four books written by strong women who have overcome some adversity, and then written about it, beautifully and eloquently.
The first was “Blood, bones, and butter: the inadvertent education of a reluctant chef” by Gabrielle Hamilton. Feisty and scrappy, Gabrielle survived an unconventional childhood to eventually open her own acclaimed restaurant in New York City: Prune. Her writing is amazing and provocative – and she really made me laugh.
Then there is “Wild: from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl also had an unusual upbringing, in the rural northwest, led a life of sex and drugs in her early 20s, and to clean up her act embarked on the hike of a lifetime: a thousand mile journey from the California desert to the Oregon border. Her book is a page turner indeed.
Another beautiful blonde, Piper Kerman (who looks a lot like Gabrielle Hamilton), had a middle class upbringing, attended Ivy League Smith College, but then was seduced (literally) into the drug trade – 10 years after walking away from it she served a 13 month stint in a minimum security prison in Danbury, Connecticut. She writes about her experience in her book, “Orange is the new black : my year in a women’s prison,” in a winsome and articulate way, which makes you really have empathy not only for her, but for the amazing women incarcerated with her. Piper is using her experience there to help incarcerated women today, offering various sources of information at the back of her book. This book has been made into a series on Netflix.
Finally, there is the classic, “The Glass Castle: a memoir” by Jeannette Walls, which is the ultimate in a tale about overcoming poverty and being raised by mentally ill parents. One is amazed that Jeannette turned out as well as she did, and that she was able to write about it in such a humorous and memorable way. This book will soon be a movie, which will hopefully inspire everyone to read the book.
All four of these books, which can be found at the Long Island Community Library, have similarities in the author, as well as being warm, humorous, entertaining, and above all, well-written.