One secret of the singer-songwriter’s artistry is that she has never feared the ludicrous—she tries things that other musicians would be too careful or cool to go near
Female pop geniuses who exercise their gifts in rampant, restless fashion over decades, writing, performing, and producing their own work, are as rare as black opals. Shape-shifting brilliance and an airy indifference to what’s expected of you are not the music industry’s favorite assets in any performer, but they are probably easier to accept in a man than in a woman. And such a musician, even today, is subject to the same pressures that have always hindered women’s artistic expression. Like the thwarted writers whom Virginia Woolf described in “A Room of One’s Own,” the female pop original is “strained and her vitality lowered by the need of opposing this, of disproving that”—by the refusal to please and accommodate that only a deep belief in one’s own gift can counteract. “What genius, what integrity it must have required in the face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society,” Woolf writes, “to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking.” [ . . . ] Continue at THE NEW YORKER
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley began writing “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” when she was eighteen years old, two years after she’d become pregnant with her first child, a baby she did not name. “Nurse the baby, read,” she had written in her diary, day after day, until the eleventh day: “I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it,” and then, in the morning, “Find my baby dead.” With grief at that loss came a fear of “a fever from the milk.” Her breasts were swollen, inflamed, unsucked; her sleep, too, grew fevered. “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived,” she wrote in her diary. “Awake and find no baby.”
Pregnant again only weeks later, she was likely still nursing her second baby when she started writing “Frankenstein,” and pregnant with her third by the time she finished. She didn’t put her name on her book—she published “Frankenstein” anonymously, in 1818, not least out of a concern that she might lose custody of her children—and she didn’t give her monster a name, either. “This anonymous androdaemon,” one reviewer called it. For the first theatrical production of “Frankenstein,” staged in London in 1823 (by which time the author had given birth to four children, buried three, and lost another unnamed baby to a miscarriage so severe that she nearly died of bleeding that stopped only when her husband had her sit on ice), the monster was listed on the playbill as “––––––.”
“This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good,” Shelley remarked about the creature’s theatrical billing. She herself had no name of her own. Like the creature pieced together from cadavers collected by Victor Frankenstein, her name was an assemblage of parts: the name of her mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, stitched to that of her father, the philosopher William Godwin, grafted onto that of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, as if Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley were the sum of her relations, bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh, if not the milk of her mother’s milk, since her mother had died eleven days after giving birth to her, mainly too sick to give suck—Awoke and found no mother. [ . . . ]
The rise of talking pictures coincided with the Great Depression. The ostensible golden age of the studios paralleled the darkest days of the thirties. Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane,” released two months and two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, sparked an artistic revolution amid the Second World War’s stifled traumas. Current-day Hollywood contrives its public self-image from the phantoms and the fumes of the classic studio era; in the process, it evokes, with a fallacious longing, the hard-knock times that high-studio movies symbolize. The latest revenant of reflected glory is in not a Hollywood movie but a British one—“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” based on the British actor Peter Turner’s memoir about his relationship with the Hollywood luminary Gloria Grahame, which began in 1978 (when she was fifty-four and he was twenty-six) and lasted until her death, in 1981.
As the title of Turner’s brisk, poignant book suggests, it’s the story of how Grahame, one of the most celebrated (and, to my mind, one of the best) movie actors of the nineteen-fifties, ended up being nursed through her final illness by him and his pleasantly unexceptional, warmly conventional working-class English family (who offer an extraordinary breadth of generosity and depth of emotion). The book’s strength is found in its sketches of surprising personal connections through a diverse range of places and settings: Turner and Grahame met in London, visited California and Las Vegas, and lived together in New York before Turner returned to Liverpool and, after a break in their relationship, was summoned to London to gather Grahame there and deal with her failing health. Turner, a working actor of local renown, found himself in contact with a legend whose way of life had become surprisingly ordinary but whose personality retained its grandeur, whose every casual remark resonated with the weight of a past that was populated by potentates and geniuses and by fierce conflicts—intimate, public, and historical. Continue reading →