“Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women,” reflects a character in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s second collection of short stories. “Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.”
Now there is. With the keen insight and penetrating empathy she brought to her debut collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Bergman resurrects a fascinating assortment of characters who’ve been marked by fame, and explores the difficult choices that have shaped their lives.
The women we meet in the pages of Almost Famous Women have risked everything — approval, acceptance, emotional and physical well-being, friendships and family ties — to wander outside society’s usual boundaries.
Opening the book, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children” reimagines the lives of conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton, former showgirls who once flaunted “floor-length raccoon coats, matching luggage, tortoiseshell combs and high-end lipstick,” only to end up bagging groceries at a local Sack and Save in South Carolina.
In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” set on an island owned by brassy Standard Oil heiress and boat-racing champ, M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, her current girlfriend — and former Weeki Wachee mermaid — vies for Joe’s favors with witchy diva Marlene Dietrich.
And “Hell-Diving Women” follows lesbian trumpeter Ernestine “Tiny” Davis of the integrated International Sweethearts of Rhythm band, who’d rather duke it out with hecklers from her audiences than suck it up — regardless of how deep her tour bus travels into Jim Crow territory.
Bergman grew up in Rocky Mount, N.C., on a diet of Southern storytelling, including Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, George Singleton, Allan Gurganus and Jill McCorkle. It may account for the liberties she’s taken with some of the biographical details — relocating the childhood of the Hilton twins from England to the South, for instance, and casting Carstairs as an American — but most of the stories adhere to the facts, which Bergman riffs off of with breathtaking confidence and precision.
Outside the convent where Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter Allegra is sent to be educated (and forgotten), early 19th-century Rome jumps to life:
“Vendors set up leather, vegetable, and paper carts underneath our public arches…. I could smell garlic, pungent and a little sweet, burning in the trattorias on my afternoon walks past the Palazzo Gradenigo to the boundary of Porta Pieve, the town gate. At night, from my cold bed, I could hear the syncopated rhythm of horse hooves on via Garibaldi’s cobblestone when all else was still.”
Bergman finds the heart of Allegra’s story in an anonymous novice whose loss of her own baby leads her to risk expulsion rather than turn her back on Byron’s unloved love child.
Although some tales are seen through the eyes of their subjects, most are told by the lesser lights who worship and envy them — a sister or lover or caretaker who’s inherited these fallen stars well after their fame and fortunes are exhausted.
A nameless childhood friend supplies Oscar Wilde’s drug-addled niece Dolly, at one time the witty queen of a glamorous social circle, with the companionship and morphine she needs to dull the shell shock of WWI horrors she once faced with bravado.
The houseboy who cares for the washed-up painter Romaine Brooks, sees all too clearly “the sort of dying that happens when the beautiful person you once were wears off and all that’s left is someone frightened and ugly, this hard and cruel kernel of a self that’s difficult to look at.”
But as much as the famous need their admirers, they need the famous more. Dolly’s friend, describing her fascination with Wilde’s eccentric escapades, says, “I needed [her] stories because I had none of my own. I was too wealthy to work … and too shy to have my own adventures … I lived vicariously through Dolly. It had always been that way; it was our currency.”
Long stories — like the enthralling and gossipy account from the sister of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay — alternate with brief vignettes, as in the sketch of a young Beryl Markham who’d rather break a dangerous horse than be “a good wife” because, “Isn’t that better than watching your sad sack of a husband drink himself stupid?”
Embedded in the memories of a young medical student is an unforgettable evangelical summer in Georgia during which she tried to convert “Gone With the Wind” star Butterfly McQueen, “an avowed atheist,” then in her 80s. McQueen’s belief in the “good we can see and good we can know” instead converts the narrator, sowing a “kernel of doubt” that takes root and grows.
In a haunting glimpse of Lucia Joyce, the troubled daughter of Irish writer James struggles to keep dancing, remembering a time when “her thoughts were the color of moss and her head was teeming with them.” In a mere three pages, Bergman conveys a mother’s callousness, her daughter’s heartache over ex-lover Samuel Beckett, and the fury and creative frustration that was Lucia’s life.
Save for one out-of-place futuristic story based on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Bergman’s scenarios are addictive and tantalizing, each one whetting our appetite for more.
“Tell me,” says Edna St. Vincent Millay to her almost-famous sister. “What kind of ride is it, on my coat-tails? Is it good?”
In these stunning depictions of how fame’s fire warms with even the slightest contact, the ride is often a harrowing journey “over the war-scorched earth” through a minefield of delusions, pharmaceuticals and flashes of greatness — and worth every minute.
Watch Joe Carstairs present her 3,000 h.p. challenger “Estelle IV” at the Isle-of-Wight in 1929. http://www.britishpathe.com/video/to-regain-british-international-motor-boat-motorbo/
Read more about the author here.
Check out Tiny Davis and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm doing “I Left My Man” with a nice solo by Tiny at 2:24: