Monday, November 27, 2017

Winter is Coming: Period Pieces for Snowbound Souls

With only a couple more of weeks of autumn to enjoy (and New Yorkers can’t complain, we’d had decent weather this fall) we must brace ourselves for more at-home nights, all bundled up, in front of tv screens. For us, historical fiction freaks, there will be no lack of good material to enjoy this cold season, starting with Ragnar’s sons wreaking havoc in Saxon land and further away, and ending with Tom Hardy and his ship of the damned, bound to a land where there is no “Taboo.”

End of November has had us reconnect with the dysfunctional family of Ragnar Lodbrok, or what’s left of it. Fans are either wondering which of her stepsons will do away with Lagertha, or are looking forward to Jonathan Rhys-Myers debut as Heathmund, the warrior-bishop that will give Ivar, the Boneless, some humble pie to eat, at least on the battlefield. To be quite honest since my favorite characters (Aslaug, Echbert and Helga) were killed, I only care to know what is Rollo up to in Paris and about Bjorn’s explorations in “sunny places.” November the 29th will be the date for the “Vikings” to land on History Channel.

“Vikings” shall not be History’s only venture in historical fiction this winter. December 6th will bring us the awaited arrival of “Knightfall,” a tale of the Templar Knights. Starring Tom Cullen as Sir Landry, a Templar Master, the story merges the last days of the Order of the Temple with the search for the Holy Grail. Combining fact and fiction, this series will take place in 1306, a year before the downfall of the Templars.  “Knightfall” pretends to show us how wealth, power and a clandestine lifestyle brought a tragic end to the powerful monastic order. The Templars harbored secrets, they knew too much, they represented a hazard for the Papacy as well as for the King of France.

Although we are still months away from the eight-season of  “Call the Midwife, ” PBS will bring us its Christmas 2017 special, appropriately on December 25th. It will take place during the 1962 Big Freeze, the coldest Christmas in British history. Heavy blizzards had the country at a standstill, but as we know, you can’t put a standstill on labor. Chances are that the midwives will have to brave weather and waddle through snow to bring babies into the world.

New Year takes us back to Buckingham Palace to rejoin Victoria and Albert on a new season that will bring new babies and new troubles for the royal couple. Here are some spoilers:  Lord Melbourne departs for good, but the Queen of Thorns resurrects when Dame Diana “Olenna” Rigg joins the Queen’s entourage as a new lady of chamber. Albert will run into his old papa, but poor old Ernest will have his heart broken again by prudish Duchess of Sutherland. There will be romance upstairs and downstairs,  and even a hint of gay love among Victoria’s retainers. Season 2 of “Victoria” debuts on PBS, on January 14th.

After New Year,  we can count on TNT to bring us the perfect historical thriller, “The Alienist, ”based on Caleb Carr’s bestseller . On January 22th  we’ll meet Dr. Lazlo Kreisler (Daniel Bruhl), proper Viennese psychiatrist,  who is summoned by Theodore Roosevelt (then Manhattan Police Commissioner) in turn-of-the-century New York to solve the crimes of an American Jack the Ripper. Dr. Kreisler will be assisted by crime reporter John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans) and genteel secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning).

FX just drops hints  that “Taboo” fans must translate. It may happen sometimes in  late February or perhaps in early March,  when snow is still on the ground. Then, we’ll get to know where James Keziah Delaney is bound with that crew of freaks he managed to wrangle up. Will the East India Company ever give up the Nootka Sound? Will Robert find out he is the cannibal’s son? Will James learn what made his late mother try to murder him? Is Zilpha, James sister-lover, truly dead? So much to know, please  don’t keep us waiting!

I don’t usually dwell in what the streaming world brings, but since I have become a crownie (e.g. one who is addicted to  “The Crown”), I might as well review Netflix’s basket of period pieces. November has started unloading it with the 4th Season of “Peaky Blinders,”  in BBC, but Netflix will run it complete after December the 21th. For those of you who are following Jason “Drogo” Momoa’s adventures in fur trapping in Colonial Canada, you can enjoy the second season of “Frontier” after November the 24th.

Michelle Dockery is really shaking Lady Mary’s shadow off her and she shows it by moving to the Far West, in “Godless,” Netflix new western. Set in New Mexico, “Godless” tells of a mining town where all miners are killed, and it is left to their widows to wear the pants and sling the guns, especially when marauding bandits lurk nearby. As of November 22, you can follow this seven-part series.

On December the 8th, the second round of “The Crown” begins. Reconciliation and new babies are in store for Lilibet and her Duke (he will be called “Prince” at some point this season,  and his children will get his last name too). Nevertheless, hideous scandals will rock the monarchy. The troubles shall not come from within the royal family but from misguided ministers and their cabinets. Margaret, the family minx, will marry and settle down (of sorts), and Elisabeth II will entertain Jackie (Jodi Balfour) and President Kennedy (Charles C. Hall). Get ready to see Dexter playing Jack! This incoming season will dwell more on Philip’s early life, a subject that Peter Morgan, the brains behind “The Crown,” finds fascinating.

Netflix will go big time in January when it becomes a streaming platform for the hottest and most expensive series made in Germany.  Based on a historical whodunit series by Volker Kutscher, “Babylon Berlin” deals with the adventures of PTD sufferer and morphine addict, police Inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) who will solve crimes in Weimar Germany.

Now that sounds pretty much like Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, right?  But even as a Kerr-Gunther fan, I must agree that something written by a German, in Goethe’s language and made in Der Vaterland is bound to be of better quality. Or so we hope. So far, the series has been available only to Sky’ subscribers (in Germany, Austria, Italy and the UK). Therefore, I’ll be looking forward to when Netflix decides to gift us with the properly subtitled version of “Babylon Berlin.”

Which one of these series will you be following?

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Spanish Civil War as Historical Romance: The Lovers of Hotel Florida (III)

Over the last hundred years, historical romance  has become a feminine turf with its focus on the heroine and its attention to feminine psychology and womanly concerns. In Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill applies the genre’s tropes to a non-fiction work. As she deals with the events that shaped the Spanish Civil War and the last days of La Republica, she also recreates three love affairs. While delineating the dangers of living in a Madrid under fire or in crossing the politics of a radicalized Republic, she marvelously details the adventures of three young courageous, committed and charming women bent into being attractive in a world marked by death, blood, and betrayal.

The way the romances are reconstructed lets us see that Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn were bad for each other, that Robert Capa’s adoration for Gerda Taro was totally one- sided, and that the love that Arturo Barea and Ilse Kulcsar shared was the most precious item they dragged from the war’s debris. But Vaill does the reconstruction with such affection for her characters that her honest chronicle makes them terribly romantic and endearing. I hope she won’t take offense if I say she writes like a woman about women, a subject she knows and understand so well.
Ilse Kulcsar around the time she met Barea

Because Martha Gellhorn, Gerda Taro, and Ilse Kulcsar lived in a patriarchal world, they were seen—even by the men who loved them— from a machista perspective and that point of view would shape their public image through the years. The book is rich in examples that let us understand the realm upon which Vaill’s female protagonists treaded. Then, and now, beauty was the first trait that men noticed in a woman. After their first encounter, Arturo Barea thought Ilse wasn’t that good-looking; Hemingway described Gellhorn as owning “legs that started at her shoulders”; and on meeting Taro, fabled Dr. Norman Bethune had only eyes for her bosom to which Brigadista (and later writer) Ted Allen added the appropriate postscript “yum yum!”
Gellhorn's famed legs

From a generous bibliography (comprised by books, papers, diaries, letters, archives and photographs) the author draws out prodigious and novel interpretations and conclusions. Nevertheless, what makes Hotel Florida particularly appealing to me (and others like me who grew up in the heyday of Women Studies) is her approach to the Feminine whether it stems from matters of the heart or the mundane.
Martha looking chic in Spain. Next to her is Robert Merriman who led the Lincoln Battalion

The book is filled with feminine details. Martha’s adventures in shopping; her disciplined attempts to continue having her hair washed and set by professionals; her lovely outfits that made her the chicest of the journalistic community; and her joy on finding curlers and varied toiletry (including a vaginal douche) at a bombed-out house. On arriving to Spain, Gerda Taro had donned the blue overalls and rope alpargatas that were the unofficial uniform of milicianas, but once rode to the front on a skirt and high heels to raise morale.  “Men haven’t seen a woman in so long,” was her coy excuse.  Even no-nonsense Ilse cried her eyes out when her favorite pair of shoes became a bombing casualty.
 Gerda in miliciana outfit

 Amanda Vaill delights in showing her protagonists (male and female alike) at their silliest, pettiest or most whimsical. This even encompasses other women in her story like the British girl broadcaster (her name was Milly Bennett) who creates a striptease show called “General Mola’s Widow “ that she would reenact for the customers at the Miami Bar. Or poor Virginia Cowles, Hearst’s reporter in Spain, fending off the amorous advances of sinister Pepe Quintanilla—Madrid’s chief executioner—: or annoying Lilian Hellman who stopped in Madrid on her way to get an abortion in Moscow.
Virginia Cowles

My favorite anecdote concerns the Duchess of Atholl. Nicknamed “The Red Duchess” by the British press, this grand lady came to Madrid as a war observer to find arguments to convince the British government to give up its no-intervention policy.  But, in the context of the book, she is most remembered for eating all the spinach at the Florida’s ice box!
Duchess of Atholl around the time of her trip to Madrid

Gerda told her friend Ruth Cerf that if she ever surrendered her sexual freedom (a bone of contention in her affair with Capa) it would be for a rich man not for a penniless photographer. Martha once left the Hotel Florida in the dark after fuses blew up due to her overusing her electrical heater. Anybody who’s seen Nicole Kidman in the HBO biopic “Hemingway & Gellhorn” should read Vaill’s book to discover the real Third Mrs. Hemingway.

Vaill does not dwell on her subject’s shortcomings to undermine those women. She deftly juggles their flaws with their virtues, or whatever made then human and loveable. She also shows us how liberated women exercised their rights while taking advantage of the men in their lives. Gellhorn abused Hemingway’s influences brazenly; when in need to get to the front with Capa, Gerda would tell puritan generals (Communists then were a bit straitlaced) that they were a married couple; and once Ilse commandeered a car by convincing the driver she was the daughter of the Soviet Ambassador.
Drawing of Gerda Taro's death

It’s poignant to read about these six people now long dead. Gerda was the first casualty, killed in the Battle of Brunete while Capa was in Paris. She was ran over by a tank and despite her adoring Ted Allen’s efforts to drag her to the nearest hospital, the brilliant beautiful photographer bled to death. It was Capa’s boss, poet Louis Aragon who broke the news to him. Something in Capa died with Gerda. Throughout the rest of his life, he had many affairs, but never again loved like he had loved La Rubita (the little blonde) as she was known in Spain. Of all the characters in the book, I loved Capa the most and it’s my impression that since the loss of Gerda, he sought to die.  This is why he was such a daring war correspondent.
Robert Capa and Ingrid Bergman

After the Spanish Civil War, Capa photographed every conflict in the globe from the Sino-Japanese War in 1938, to the Arab-Israeli Conflict of 1948. World War II found him on every front: London, North Africa, Italy, and Normandy. He covered the Liberation of Paris and went to Berlin. In 1940, he took time to photograph Hemingway and Martha’s wedding. When not having wars to take pictures of, he hobnobbed with Hollywood stars (he had a two-year affair with Ingrid Bergman) and Parisian artists. In 1947, together with Henri Cartier-Bresson, he founded Magnum Photos. His last war was the conflict that preceded Vietnam. In 1954, he stepped on a land mine in Indochina and Death got him. He reminds me of the Spanish Legion ‘s anthem “Soy el Novio de La Muerte.” Robert Capa was the Bridegroom of Death.
1954 Indochina. Capa before his death.

Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn had five years of marriage bliss and hell before the inevitable divorce. Hem wrote his best novels in the 40s and 50s and won the Nobel Prize. He married another blonde whom he too would divorce. To cure his alcoholism,”Papa” submitted to electroshock. His depression worsened, and he ended up putting a bullet through his brain.
The Hemingways when they were still a happy couple.

Martha spent the rest of her life shaking away the stigma of being the third Mrs. Hemingway plus all the mental and physical abuse “Papa” had inflicted on her. Like Capa, she went to every front. She was active until her old age, acquiring the deserved recognition as a great war correspondent, and yet today, there are those who still think of her as “that blonde Hemingway took to Spain.” She covered all the wars her former husband could no longer cover: The Six Day War, Vietnam, Nicaragua. She became an expatriate during the McCarthy Era, living abroad in places as distant as Wales and Mombasa.

After her first divorce, Martha Gellhorn had several love affairs, including one with married General James Gavin. She remarried and re-divorced. She even adopted a boy and found she was a failure as a mother. She had more luck with cats and friends and until her death, she was still charming, classy, stylish and bent on looking good. In her late 80s, ravaged by cancer and almost blind, Martha took her own life.
Martha in her old age

The Barea-Kulcsar couple left Paris and settled in England. Eccentric Lord Farringdon, who had driven an ambulance in the Aragon front, took them under his protection and offered them a house on his state near Oxford. Arturo joined the BBC as a broadcaster, job he held until his death. Ilse had the fortune to have her family nearby after the Pollacks managed to flee the Nazis and settled in England.
The Barea-Kulcsar in England

In Oxfordshire, Arturo and Ilse led a typical, almost bourgeois, British country life. They raised dogs, went fishing and joined their host in shooting parties. In between, Ilse became an accomplished translator and Arturo worked on the trilogy that would turn him into a celebrity in Spanish literature:  The Forge (La forja de un rebelde).

Barea and his dog (El País)

Ilse translated her husband’s work into English and Barea’s name become famous among the exiled Spanish community as well as the literary circles in Great Britain and across the Atlantic. He was invited to tour the United States and only McCarthyistic suspicions kept him from getting a teaching post at some prestigious American university.  He returned to the English countryside to continue writing and learning to live with sudden recognition.
Arturo working for the BBC (El Mundo)

On Christmas Eve 1957, Arturo already in bed, complained of a sudden chest pain. His wife held him until he expired in her arms. Undetected cancer had provoked a fatal but quick heart attack. Ilse survived him for fifteen years. During that time, she became a successful editor, returned to her native Vienna, and wrote a book about Austria. In 1972, she died of kidney failure. Unlike Gerda who died too early, or Martha, who never found emotional fulfillment, Ilse Kurlsack was the luckiest girl in this book. She had everything a woman could ambition: a diverse career, plenty of adventure, and a lifelong love.
Ilse Kulcsar-Barea in her old age

I recently read historian Paul Preston’s review of Hotel Florida for The Guardian. As I would expect from an avowed Marxist, he resented the book’s slant against the Soviet Union, and Stalin’s politics in Republican Spain. He also notes some very minor geographical and chronological errors in the book, but at the end of his article he drops what to me is a compliment:
“This book should be read for its sensitively told stories of three love affairs, but not for authoritative views on the Spanish Civil War. “

I may differ with his last inference, but I embrace the concept of Hotel Florida as a sensitive retelling of three very romantic affairs. Thus, even Professor Preston agrees with me in the importance of Amanda Vail’s book as a new genre:  historical romances based on true events.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Truth, War and Journalism: The Lovers of Hotel Florida (II)

In my last post, I introduced you to an unusual book:  Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War. Not a history book, it reads more as romantic fiction and yet the events that shape these three love stories are based on historical evidence.  Madrid in the late 30s became a magnet for idealistic foreigners. Thus, we saw photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro together with Ernest Hemingway and his new obsession, long-legged Martha Gellhorn, arrive to Spain’s capital. So, did a Viennese journalist named Ilse Kulcsar who would meet, worked for and fall in love with Arturo Barea, La Republica’s Press Censor. In this entry, I’ll discuss how he word “truth,” that Vaill’s includes in the title of her book, affected the lives of the six protagonists.

During the Spanish Civil War, the Florida was the obligatory residence for war correspondents. It was within walking distance of the Telefonica Building where the Press Censorship Office was installed and where journalists made their broadcasts and mailed their news. The hotel was also on la Gran Via, home of Madrid’s most fashionable cafés, bars and restaurants. Vaill depicts a bustling nightlife that went on parallel to church-burning, people shot at dawn, and bombs falling from the sky. Some would land on Hotel Florida.

Although Hotel Florida and Madrid are at the core of Vaill’s book, she does take us all over. We travel with Gerda to the Cordoba front, and to the Battle of Brunete where she finds her untimely death. We follow Capa to Bilbao, just before the city fell to Nationalists. We take trips to Paris and cross the Atlantic to New York where Hemingway, and his crew, give the finishing touches to his “Spanish Earth.” That documentary, directed by Joris Ivens, would see the end of the friendship between Hem and John Dos Passos. Finally, we go down to the Mediterranean coast with Barea and Ilse as they try to escape the shadow of a repressive state. We follow them to Barcelona and to an early exile, after Spain grows too dangerous for those who embrace freedom of thought.

As the book progresses chronologically, the tone changes. It’s not about war and death anymore, but about purging and fear. The Soviet influence threatens their own.  Like Saturn, the Spanish Republica devours its own children. Lies and suspicion will haunt Barea and Ilse’s love, but fear will bring them closer. On the other hand, lies will provoke a rift between Hemingway and Dos Passos, forcing Martha to side with her lover.

Because she deals with mediatic people (journalists, photographers, censors) you could say Vaill is focusing on the conflict from the press’ point of view. Although several other journalists walk through Hotel Florida’s lobby, or promenade throughout the book, we can’t rely solely on their perspectives. Vaill is obsessed with the word “truth,” as if journalism was the only means to provide the world with an honest vision of the war. It was not. There was heavy censorship on both sides of the conflict, and certain icons of journalistic realism were manufactured. Just think about that most famous Capa photograph. If you didn’t know it was staged, Vaill does describe every detail of its fabrication. At the end she adds (Capa’s version) that in a twist of irony, a rogue bullet killed the model just as he was posing.
Capa's most famous snapshot

As Vaill tells us, Martha Gellhorn was also good at juggling fiction with reality. Prior to her Hemingway involvement, she wrote a story about a lynching in the Deep South. published by Reader Digest, it was a good compelling story. The only problem was it didn’t read like fiction, more like a reportage. Gellhorn did nothing to dispel the idea that her story was based on true events. When she was asked to bear witness of what she had seen, in front of a congressional committee, she panicked. How could she face the fact that she had deceived her public? In typical Gellhorn fashion she let her good friend Eleanor Roosevelt clean her act for her.

As Republican Spain went through a Sovietizing campaign, truth became a precious commodity. Barea struggled against the tergiversation, manipulation and suppression of the news. But then even journalists began to fear truth. Some, like Claude Blackburn, were prey to generalizations about Spain and its people. Others just felt (like Hemingway) that truth could be a double-edged sword. It was better to let it rest like you would with a sleeping dog, or sweep it under the rug, and accept the official version even if it reeked of libel.

One journalist that would not accept defamation in lieu of truth was John Dos Passos. Dos, as he was known among the Hemingway circle, had come to Spain to discover the whereabouts of his friend and translator, Jose Robles. A former John Hopkins Professor and an avowed Socialist, Robles had returned to Spain in 1936. Fluent in Russian, Robles got a job for NKDV, and yet one day he vanished mysteriously after being arrested. He was one of many innocent people purged by an overzealous and paranoid political machinery brought to Spain, together with weapons money and personnel, from Moscow.

As those familiar with Hemingway’s life know, Dos Passos involvement in Robles affair led to a final quarrel between both writers. Hemingway resented Dos Passos’s involvement, as much as he resented his friend’s solid prestige as a novelist. The injustice committed against Robles, made Dos distrustful of the Republic, the Soviet Union and the Left in general. Hemingway took advantage of his friend’s disillusion with politics, to defame him, in Spain and abroad. A libelous campaign that would go on for the rest of Papa’s life.

On a couple of occasions, Vaill uses a Hemingway quote: “it is very dangerous to write the truth and the truth is very dangerous to come by.” Those words came as result of the Robles affair and reflect Hem’s cynical view of politics. He was not a devout leftist; his anti-fascism was more of a trend than a true belief. He was foremost a writer that liked to adapt the world outside, so it would fit into the outline of whatever novel he was writing at the time. Like Gellhorn, he did not expect his fiction to reflect reality. On the contrary, he expected reality to mirror his fiction.

I’ve read the book twice. From a political point of view, Hotel Florida does the Dos Passos step. Never doubting the righteousness of the Republican cause, it grows disappointed and fearful specially as a climate of terror and suspicion clouds relationships and claims lives. Soon, the Soviet presence becomes oppressive, even to Russians already settled in Madrid. Stalin’s purges reach Spain, and many are recalled to Moscow just to vanish forever.  Red Spain decides to rid herself of the bothersome anarchists. Early on, Vaill told us, Dos Passos had perceived they were a threatened group. While shooting ”Spanish Earth” he catches a glimpse of anarchist soldiers calmly fishing in the Manzanares. His companion, a staunch communist, foresees that someday they shall be reckoned with.

Stalin’s split with Leon Trotsky and the latter’s escape from the Soviet Union, also turned Trotskyites into suspicious material. Finally, in the summer of 1937, the fuse exploded and Barcelona was caught in a mini civil war where the communists managed to suppress all dangerous elements. The lucky ones like Willy Brandt— future chancellor of Germany—fled. He went to Norway, after rejecting the offer made by another disillusioned novelist, George Orwell, to go to England. Orwell also managed to get back to London and from then on became highly suspicious of Stalinist politics.

It is my opinion (and that of several prominent historians) that La Republica died from internal injuries. It was not Franco’s Army that defeated it, but inner squabbles, wrong political choices and that psychotic dependence on the Soviet Union. Politics were everywhere. Despite our need to look upon members of the International Brigades as idealist antifascists, the truth is that they were hardcore communists totally in line with Moscow. Political commissars suffocated soldiers with their preaching and the habit of snooping into their private thoughts and lives. Vaill shows us a depressed Stephen Spender who, like Orwell and Dos Passos, grew disappointed with Stalinist Communism. This came after Tony Hydeman, the poet’s former lover, was thrown out of the International Brigades, because of his homosexuality.

In a world where Marxist dogma affected everything it’s so surprising to ascertain that the book’s six protagonists were rather innocent when it came to politics. For starters, none of them carried Party cards.  Vaill tells us how after Gerda Taro’s death, the Communist Party turned her into a Leftist Joan of Arc, gave her a martyr’s funeral, and commissioned Giacometti to build a statue on her grave. Nonetheless, she was never a communist. Capa-Friedman was idealist and an anti-fascist, but one of the reasons Gerda drifted away from him, was his lack of political commitment.

Gerda's  funeral as noted by a French paper.

Hemingway was too egotistic to be a Marxist, but he loved how Russians fawned over him and hyped their cause shamelessly. It has recently been discovered, that for a short while before Pearl Harbor, Hemingway was a KGB agent. Under the codename “Argos,” he informed on naval movements in the Caribbean, but “Papa” was as ineffectual as a spy as he would have been as a “Red.”

Martha had been a pacifist, but in general she was politically naïve. In Spain, she let her lover dictate her thinking in that realm. When Dos Passos was harping about Robles’s whereabouts, Martha petulantly interrupted him complaining that his insistent investigation was “reflecting badly on us.”  This is the only time in the book that I feel like strangling Gellhorn. I felt like asking: Who is ‘us,’ Martha?   The Club of Adulterous Couples? The Shopaholics League?”
Martha, "Papa"y Dos en "Hemingway&Gellhorn"

According to Vaill, in Spain, Martha Gellhorn spent more time shopping than in front of her typewriter. I have nothing but empathy for women that buy pretty things to look and feel better. And, certainly, I’m not one to cast stones on women who fall for married men, but her flippant response to injustice and those that demand truthful answers, were an odd reaction to her idea of honest reporting.
However, her “us” meant Hemingway and her. It’s heart rendering to see how Gellhorn needed to salvage a relationship in which she was investing her whole self. Moreover, Dos was a close friend of Pauline, Hem’s wife. To Martha, he was a foe.

As a couple, Hemingway and Gellhorn remained on the fringes of ideological commitment. Politics played a part in creating a rift between Capa and Gerda, as they would play a part in drawing Barea and Ilse close. They were the most political of the three couples, but neither was a communist. Arturo Barea was a moderate socialist, who took offense at church- burning and whose love for truth insulted those who were dragging La Republica to her downfall.

Ilse was three times more suspected than her lover was. Stalinist agents saw her as a traitor who had renounced the Party. She was branded a “Trotskyite,” a dangerous tag to wear in 1938. Arturo and Ilse were interviewed by the dreaded SIM, the new police apparatus. Friends warned the couple to flee. Instead, they moved to a beach house in the Valencian coast. After a paradisiacal sojourn, they returned to Madrid to find themselves jobless. They fled back to Valencia. Those were days of terror, uncertainty, and anguish. They knew too much. They knew what lied ahead.

Then, SIM knocked at their door and took them into Catalonia to meet the “new chief.” He turned up to be Poldi, Ilse’s estranged husband who had come to Spain to investigate a “dangerous element.” Finding out that this was about his wife, he sided with the lovers and offered his help. He left for Paris, leaving Ilse and Arturo marooned in Barcelona. The stress took a toll on their physical and mental health, but ironically strengthen their love for each other. Friends begged Barea to drop Ilse and save himself. On the contrary, he grew more devoted to the little Austrian. Seeing her in danger propelled him to do the unexpected. He started writing seriously and sold his short stories to make ends meets.

Then another blow came. Unexpectedly, Poldi died in Paris from kidney failure. Recently, some authors have elevated a conspiracy theory that Amanda Vaill barely touches upon on the last pages of her book. Barea was of no interest to the Stalinist repression machinery. The Soviets were after the Kulcsar. They killed Poldi and wanted to make Ilse disappear because they feared the couple would expose the man they had infiltrated on the Nationalist side, the notorious Kim Philby. Back in Vienna, the most famous double agent in history, had befriended Ilse and Poldi. Philby had been part of the Kulcsar communist cell. They were the ones that could blow the whistle on the respectable British journalist (who had just received a medal from Franco’s hands) and tell the world he was a Moscow mole.

Whatever the reason behind the secret services hounding them, Ilse and Barea had to leave. I don’t want to go into the many dantesque steps of their flight. They make the most harrowing pages in the book. Particularly, since we know (did Ilse know?) that Arturo had been advised by friends and authorities to drop his woman. And yet he was willing to leave everything behind, country, ideals, work, children even the wife that he finally divorced. Ilse and Barea made their way to Paris, where they immediately got married. They would never return to Spain. Above any other event, the story of Ilse and Arturo is why I consider Hotel Florida an example of romantic literature.

In my next and last entry on this fascinating and thought-provoking book, we shall see how Vaill deals with her female protagonists, how she brings out the domestic, the vain, even the petty, in them while showing the reader how they took advantage of their feminine condition to cope with war.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Cupid in Madrid: The Lovers of Hotel Florida (I)

War and romance have been staples of literature since Paris kidnapped Helen of Troy, but it’s not common for a nonfiction book to offer the stuff of which romantic fiction is made. In Hotel Florida, Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War, Amanda Vaill describes three couples living their love upon a background of violence and political strife. It is not a history book, it is not a memoir, according to the author it is “a reconstruction.” She reconstructs three romantic tales bound together by the same historical and geographical setting in which they develop.

Amanda Vaill (the author of Everybody Was So Young) presents the reader with an unusual Spanish Civil War yarn. It does not pretend to be a history book, nor is the conflict the focus of her narrative. She narrows her subject to the adventures of six people who, at some point or another, resided at the Hotel Florida in La Gran Via, in Madrid, between the years 1936-1938.

These residents were Arturo Barea, not yet a famed writer, but head of the Republican Press Censorship Office and his deputy Ilse Kulcsar, the woman that would become his lifelong companion. The second couple consisted of would-be-legend photographer Robert Capa, and his equally legendary lover and colleague, Gerda Taro. The last actors on this stage are the omnipresent Ernest Hemingway, and his soon- to-be third wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. As I turned the pages, and this book is indeed a page-turner, I realized how much I knew about the Hemingway couple, how little I knew about Capa and Taro, and how fascinating Barea and his Ilse were. I was glad to know all their stories from birth onward. One thing about Amanda Vaill, using diaries, letters, and interviews, she painstakingly details the life of each character prior, during, and after the Spanish conflict.

Arturo Barea, the only Spaniard in the group, came from a lower middle-class family. Orphaned at an early age, and thanks to his well-to-do uncle, he got to know a better life, had access to a fine education and nursed dreams of becoming an engineer and a novelist. His uncle’s death cut short his dreams. Proud as only a Spaniard can be, Barea resented his new bank clerk job. He walked out of it in the most strident manner, and set up a patent business, hoping it would provide the social mobility he craved for.
Arturo Barea

Despite his socialist views, Barea had Señorito habits that never abandoned him. By 1936, his business was doing well, and he could keep his wife Aurelia, and their children, in a first-rate apartment. Alas! not in the upper-class neighborhood his Aurelia would approved of. Neither would she have approved that her husband was also keeping, and bedding Maria, his secretary (had she known about it).

The war placed Arturo Barea into the role of the Spanish Republic’s official censor, and in charge of the foreign press office. It was a good job. One that granted him privileges, and helped him meet important and interesting people that were drawn to the Spanish struggle. Among them, Barea would meet the love of his life. Ilse Pollack hailed from a Jewish middle-class Viennese family. By 1922, the time she married Leopold Kulcsar, Ilse had been an exchange student in Scandinavia, was fluent in six languages and had embraced communism while majoring in political sciences at Vienna University.
Ilse Pollack, laater Kulcsar, later Barea.

The Kulcsar quit the Communist Party in 1924, joining the more moderate Social Democrats. But even that militancy made the couple clash with Chancellor Dollfuss’ regime. In 1934, the Kulcsar moved to Czechoslovakia where they edited a leftist paper. The Spanish Civil War gave Ilse a chance to do something useful, but also to drift away from a husband she no longer cared for. Little did she know that her post in Madrid would change her life and bring her face to face with her true love.

Barea’s and Kulcksar love story proves how opposites attract but equally different were the next romantic partners. Capa and Taro are now myths. In 1936 they were anything but, even those names were in the future. They shared nothing in common except their idealism, an Eastern European Jewish background and the fact they were penniless exiles in Paris. Even photography, which would be Taro’s ticket to fame, was something she had yet to try.

Born Gerta Polyher, she came from a family of wealthy Galician Jews that had settled in Stuttgart when she was a little girl. She had attended finishing school, mastered several foreign languages, and trained as a secretary. She could have married a wealthy man, but instead she chose to take an active part in politics. After a stint in a Nazi jail, Gerta moved to Paris where she led a life of squalor with no official papers and doing menial secretarial work to make ends meet.  In this bleak stage of her life, she was not exactly excited to serve as chaperone for Ruth, her roommate, and the scruffy- looking Hungarian the latter was dating.
Gerda Taro

Indeed, Endre Friedmann was no prospect for any girl. He dressed like a tramp, was used to a glass of sugared water in lieu of meals, and his Leica spent more time at the pawnshop than in his hands. Yet he possessed a boyish candor that made him look younger than his twenty-two years.  Endre had been his mother’s darling. Perhaps that accounted for him being self-assured without cockiness, and for his easygoing approach to people. He charmed women and made friends easily. Vaill constantly refers to him running, in Paris or Madrid, into former classmates or childhood chums, all willing to embrace his friendship again.

The Friedmann family had lost its fortune in the 1929 crash.  Endre, then sixteen, had taken to the streets and had become involved in anti-Horthy resistance. After an arrest and a beating by the police, he was thrown out of Hungary. He had gone to Berlin and majored in journalism at the Deutsche Hoschschule für Politik (German School of Politics). It was in those last days of the Weimar Republic, that Endre took up photography, his real vocation. The advent of Nazism propelled the photographer to Paris and to Gerta Polyher. It was not too long before he realized that he had fallen for this saucy little blonde.

Robert Capa in Paris, 1934

Gerta was considered pretty, sensual and shrewd. Some compared her with a fox. She was sexually liberated, took care of herself and was incredible modern in the sense that she did not believe in exclusive relationships or that a woman should be monogamous. This shocked and excited the future Robert Capa. She felt protective of this funny looking boy, recognized his talent and took him under her wing. They moved into a flat so Endre would get proper food and stop wasting money eating in cafés. She taught him how to dress, shave, and comb his hair. He got her involved in photography.

Soon they realized that Gerta, pretty, educated and possessing her own brand of chic, sold more photographs than her lover. She could move among the Haute Monde and wanted Endre to follow suit. Together, they came up with a great scheme: the invention of “Robert Capa,” a famous American photographer. It was Robert Capa who got a generously paid Spanish assignment. Endre would wear this more Aryan pseudonym (“Capa” means shark in Hungarian) until his death. Gerta also changed her name to the more exotic “Gerda Taro” and eventually would sell her Spanish photographs as “Taro Photographs.”

Finally, we get to Gellhorn and Hemingway. The winter of 1936 found “Papa” Hemingway in Florida, sunk deep in an existential crisis. He had settled down to a life of luxury, spending summers hunting in Wyoming and winters fishing in Key West, all paid by Pauline, the second Mrs. Hemingway. And yet, Hem was restless. Struggling with the writing of To Have and Have Not, unhappy with the reviews of Death in the Afternoon, his latest novel, he needed a change.  War and a blonde he would meet over Christmas, would provide such change.
Hemingway in Key West, 1936

Since college, Martha Gellhorn had obsessed over Hemingway, keeping his picture on her dorm’s wall. Her hero-worship was finally rewarded with their random encounter at a Key West bar named “Sloppy Joe’s.” They had things in common. Both came from affluent Midwestern homes. Hem hailed from Illinois, Martha from Missouri. His father was a doctor, her father was a Jewish German gynecologist. They had both lived abroad, and were both writers. Although Martha fitted into the profile Papa liked— beautiful, refined and intellectually savvy— she was different from his other wives and lovers.

Martha’s mother, Edna, had been a suffragette and was still heavily involved in politics. She was a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, a friendship her daughter would inherit. Edna had instilled in Martha a love for activism and a penchant for independence, but she had also tremendously cossetted her only daughter. Gellhorn grew up with a sense of entitlement that would turn her into a contradictory, complex woman, and play a major part in her charm.

Martha Gellhorn around the time she met "Papa"

Martha dropped out of Bryn Mawr before graduation, convinced that to write and report she just needed to travel, see and live. After a stint of journalism in her hometown of St. Louis, she moved to Paris. In France, she was to acquire two tastes that would define her forever: A need to have affairs with brilliant, yet very married men, and a love for beautiful clothing, perfumes and furs. Through three countries and two continents, Amanda Vaill takes us shopping with Gellhorn. By the time the book is over, we can safely label Martha a “shopaholic.”

In 1930, Martha suffered her first disappointment. Her chick lit novel What Mad Pursuit did poorly in the market. Critics hated it, and worse, Dr. Gellhorn didn’t like it. He also disapproved of his daughter’s lifestyle.  “There are two kinds of women in the world,” he told her, “and you are the other kind.”  Hurt, Martha decided to return to the States and do something useful. Through the Roosevelts, she got involved with Harry Hopkins’ Federal Emergency Relief, and travelled throughout the country covering the life of those most affected by the Great Depression. In partnership with Dorothea Lange, she made history in photojournalism. Martha‘s efforts crystallized in four novellas published under the title The Troubles I Have Seen. Critics raved over the book and compared the author to Gellhorn’s idol, Ernest Hemingway.
Nicole Kidman and Clive Owern at "Sloppy Joe's" in  HBO's "Hemingway and Gellhorn."

This was the baggage, Martha Gellhorn carried with her to that fateful encounter in “Sloppy Joe’s.” She revered the novelist, but did not fall for the man. Shocked by Hem’s unkempt appearance, she thought he looked “dirty.” Hem, been Hem, went wild about her long legs and dreamt of spreading them, but Martha Gellhorn, who married twice and had a string of lovers, was never into sex. That would have to wait for Madrid and Hotel Florida.

In the interim, the veteran writer and the novice author spent ten days in Miami, mostly talking about their mutual crafts. Pauline Hemingway was not crazy about their friendship, but it seemed so innocent, she couldn’t complain. Martha wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt, about her new relationship. Although, in her letters she does sound like a starry-eyed schoolgirl, she was not in love with her new mentor, no more than she had been with H.G. Wells, her previous literary tutor, at whose house she had recently stayed in London.

In early 1937, Martha Gellhorn wrote to a friend: “I’m going to Spain with the boys. I don’t know who the boys are, but I’m going with them.” One of the boys certainly was Ernest Hemingway. He was going to cover the Spanish war, he was in lust with Gellhorn, he wanted her along. However, he was not planning to upset his marriage and wife, so they kept up appearances and traveled separately.

Chaperoned by fabled Brooklyn bullfighter, Sydney Franklin, Gellhorn arrived in Paris with a ten piece-luggage. She left the matador to look after her suitcases, and bearing a knapsack, a duffel bag stuffed with food cans, and a Collier’s letter  certifying her as a bona fide journalist, she crossed the border into Spain. After two trains and a ride in a government car, she checked in at the Hotel Florida’s front desk. Hemingway was already registered there.
Martha and "the boys"(Hem, Capa and Joris Ivens) in HBO's "Hemingway and Gellhorn."

Two weeks after Martha’s arrival at the Florida, after a day at the front and a night of heavy drinking, she and Hemingway became lovers. She wrote to her mother “I think he loves me,” but it would take her a year to fall in love with Papa. So, like the romances of Barea and Kulcksar and Capa and Taro, Hemingway and Gellhorn’s passion was fostered by the Spanish Civil War.

Books and films tell us that Martha Gellhorn was a devoted journalist who found her call under Franco’s bombs. Amanda Vaill gives us a different version. The weeks, prior to her first night of love with Hemingway, Martha spent at the beauty parlor, shopping, and (according to her own words) gaining weight. How could she gain weight in a city where half of the population was on the verge of starvation?

As we learn from the book, nobody starved at Hotel Florida. Foreign journalists always had food available (Hemingway kept his own well-stocked pantry) and alcohol ran plenty.  Vaill offers us a surrealistic perspective of Madrid at war. Her protagonists share drinks at the Florida’s bar, lunch at the basement of Hotel Gran Via where black market American cigarettes could be obtained at an exorbitant price, or go to parties (usually hosted by the Soviets, the new Madrileño aristocracy) where whisky and vodka flow freely.
Stacey Keach living La Vida Loca in war-torn Madrid, in "Hemingway."

The book juggles images of death, carnage and hunger with the luxurious life led by journalists at the Florida, and other ritzy joints. The oddity of these love affairs is that they evolve between two worlds which grants them an aura of fantasy. It’s what made Hotel Florida so close to a historical romance.  I keep visualizing it on a screen whether as a film or miniseries.

In my next blogs, I’ll continue exploring the book and its characters. Following Vaill’s narratives we’ll see how the Spanish Republica died from the inside, and how death will split Capa and Gerda, while Spain and the conflict will push the other couples to marriage and commitment. We will learn how political upheaval within the Spanish government will affect our protagonists.

It’s no accident that Amanda Vaill included the word “Truth” in her title. She chronicles how Hemingway and the photographers handled such truth, and how truth forced Barea to choose between his country and the woman he loved. You’ll see how romance brought out the best of Barea and Capa, and the worst in Gellhorn-Hemingway, and how death would split the most idealistic couple in this fantastic book that reads like romantic fiction but it’s based on true bygone events.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Dopey Prince Charles, Slutty Minette and Other Disastrous Stuarts: On Why They Can’t Replace The Tudors

Ever since “The Tudors” ended in 2010, producers have been trying to find a royal family that can fulfill an audience’s craving for dysfunctional bluebloods. An article by Elizabeth Fremantle, a renown historical fiction author, got me thinking if the Stuarts could be the new trend. I happen to love the Stuarts, but I must display skepticism at such elevation.  Judging by contemporary period dramas, they were not exactly the most exciting or most positive royals around. One tremendous example is what Starz “Outlander” (and Diana Gabaldon) have done with Bonnie Prince Charlie, the most famous and charming of the Stuart family.

While preparing for the third season of “Outlander,” I decided to watch earlier episodes.  I was struck by the tragic Jacobite devotion for The King over the Water. On the first season, Claire is mystified by this readiness to die for a king that she knows was undeserving. After we catch a glimpse of the real item, viewers share her impression. In books and series, Bonnie Prince Charlie is shown as a selfish dunce, but that is how historical fiction perceives the Stuart overall, some bunch of useless idiots. I cannot see them ever replacing the Tudors.

Stuartmania vs Tudormania?
To replace Tudormania with Stuartmania, writers and producers would have to wipe our minds clean of any preconceptions and misconceptions dealing with the regalest of Scottish clans. Michael Hirst, Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel were the architects of the second and more everlasting wave of Tudor fascination but they had to work their heads off rewriting historical facts and characters and making them palatable to the public.

History tells us Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, was a tyrant, and usurper, and a greedy man. In comes Pippa Gregory and turns him into a frightened young man who stands king only through the joint efforts of his formidable mother and his little York wife. In Starz’s crazy adaptation of “The White Princess” Queen Lizzie became a badass and a black hearted dominatrix, bent into making her monster children the future rulers of England.

The White Princess and her king

We all know Henry VIII was a fat satyr, a wife-murderer, and a despotic king, but modern historical fiction gives us a thin and brooding tragic hero. His daughter, Bess, who was a distrustful, neurotic bully has been transformed into a cross between a British Madonna (the Virgin Mary not the former Mrs. Guy Ritchie) and Spencer’s idealized Fairie Queen. Even her sadistic sister, in “The Tudors,” falls into the wronged little princess stereotype, the Sansa Stark of Henry’s Court.

No such treatment has befallen on the Stuarts.  There is always Mary, but let’s be honest, there was more Guise and Tudor in the genes of the Queen of Scots, than Stuart wishy-washiness. She was French born, and French bred, had no understanding of Scotland, and no cultural links to the British Isles.
Mary's happiest years were in France

Dull King James and the Two Charles
 And yet, once the Stuart princes projected a glamorous image on the silver screen. David Niven in kilt was a proud and gallant Bonnie Prince Charlie, and a fantastic dashing Sam Neill was his uncle Charles II in lovely “Restoration.” It’s the Third Millennium which has taken the Stuarts to task by conferring them infamous fame. The family is well represented in current television series, and some films as well, but none of these Stuarts kings (or their kin) can muster up the same allure mad Tudors exercise upon us.
Sam Neill as Charles II

 Poor King James who united England and Scotland, has only shown his face in two recent dramatizations. In “Gunpowder: Love and Treason” he was played by the ever-competent Robert Carlyle, but something went wrong. Carlyle, fresh from his starring role in “Hitler,” enacted James as if the actor was still in a brown shirt. The king came across as a paranoid tyrant, not a man who would rewrite the Bible.
Tormented King James and his Danish queen

Jonathan Pryce also played Mary Stuart’s only son in “The New World,” but he was overshadowed by a steamy triangle where Colin Farrell and Christian Bale fought for the hand of lovely maiden Pocahontas.  We as public have yet to know the factors that made King James interesting. None of those films showed his remarkable knowledge, his literary patronage, his witch-hunting, or his bisexuality.

So much for James, then comes his poor beheaded son. Rupert Everett was a decent Charles I, in the film “To Kill a King,” but he seemed a bit dazed perhaps because there were so many historical inexactitudes in that account. Also, because Tim Roth, impersonating a bloodthirsty Cromwell, was bent to chew the scene to the point that he climbed to the scaffold with the king. For a moment, I thought he would chop off Charles’ head. He could have, since in real life, the two official hangmen of the reign refused to commit regicide. To this day, nobody knows who decapitated Charles.

Rupert Everett and Tim Roth, on the scaffold, in "To Kill a King"

The martyred king was again decapitated in the rather dull ITV miniseries “The Devil’s Whore,” where he was played impeccably by Peter Capaldi in his pre-Dr. Who stage. And that is the extent that we get to know about poor beheaded Charles whose sole purpose in life seems to have begotten the flamboyant Charles II. But even the executed king’s son has merited a dull treatment.

Taking advantage of the public’s appetite for royal affairs, the BBC, in 2003, decided to gift us with “Charles II: The Pride and the Passion.” Despite its bombastic title, it was a tepid affair. Not even charming Rufus Sewell could lift that sinking weight. To add insult to injury, the series was cut, chopped, butchered, in the clumsiest manner, so American audiences got to watch a fragmented and confused tale.

Still, Charles II is too good material to waste. In 2004, Rupert Everett, who likes to play kings and charming princes, went on to portray old King Charlie in “Stage Beauty.” As his was a secondary character, we tend to remember that he slept with Nell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper) more than any other kingly things he performed. A much more prominent role was given to John Malkovich in “The Libertine.” Obviously, Malkovich was out staged by Johnny Depp who can out stage a giant kraken, but oddly the king seemed more destructive than his friend and protégé, the infamous Earl of Rochester (Depp). Charles came out as a self-serving, incompetent monarch. Rochester had to drag himself on crutches (and with a face corroded by syphilis) to save his king from Parliament. How torpid can a sovereign be to need that?

That is the image Charles II, and other Stuarts, on the rebound, project on films obviously made by anti-monarchists. Just think of Jeremy Northman in “New Worlds” (I loved his wig, though), Jack Huston in “The Great Fire,” or Daniel Lapaine in “Versailles.” I haven’t seen Charles Dance in the Dutch film “Michel de Ruyter,” but I can bet money that he is not a positive Charles. If the sexiest of the Stuarts gets bad press, what is left for the others?

The Stuart Queens
Charles had a brother, James, but not even his subjects loved him and had him replaced by Mary, his Protestant daughter, whom I have yet to see in any piece of fiction. Oh, wait, "Versailles" showed her on the first season’s finale. A little girl that is offered to William of Orange as a future bride.  Aside from the fact that Maryland was named after her, what do we know of this Queen Mary?  She was barren, had a crush on a girlfriend when she was young and her husband was supposed to be gay. Maybe something could be done with that. 
"Queen Mary and William of Orange

Her sister Anne, who was also a queen, made a career giving birth to dead babies, had chairs named after her, and was totally under the thumb of her favorite lady-in-waiting, Sarah Churchill. Soon we are to see Anne played by Olivia Coleman in “The Favorite,” but in this incoming film, all the action will be centered around Sarah (Rachel Weisz). That is the rub with Queen Anne, she matters only as patron-friend-bitch of the Duke of Marlborough’s wife.

The “Bonnie” Prince
We should go back to rejected king James II  to find a Stuart with an ounce of charisma. Not old James—he comes across as a true monster in literature. Victor Hugo makes him the mastermind behind the deformity of his protagonist, in The Man Who Laughs. By James’ royal whim poor Captain Blood is sold into slavery. We do not need to hear more of James, it’s his grandson who matters, the charmer in the family, the aptly named “Bonnie” Prince Charlie.

The real Charles James Stuart

Bonnie and charming he was in literature, especially in Sir Walter Scott’s novels, or played by Ivor Novello in the silent cinema or David Niven in the talkies. Thanks to those works, I had a romanticized vision of this unhappy prince and his lost Jacobite Cause. It was hard for me to reconcile him with what the historians told me, that he was a petulant stubborn man, who neglected his illegitimate children, raped his wife and led thousands of his subjects to death or misery. Nevertheless, that was the vision “Outlander” spouses. Diana Gabaldon really dropped the bomb on Charles Stuart, and the series echoed her scorn for the Young Pretender.

In the second season of “Outlander,” time traveler Claire and her husband Jaime Frazer decide that the only way to save Scotland from the tragedy of Culloden is to ensure that battle will never happen. They travel to France to thwart Charles Stuart’s plans to travel to Scotland. Through the ministrations of his cousin Jared, Jamie gets an audience with the Bonnie Prince, but since Charles is living incognito, they meet at the most unlikely of places, a brothel.

The setting foreshadows the Prince’s appetites, his lust, and frivolous and irresponsible nature. Charles is charming and not stupid, but he is also naïve and rather cutout from reality. He displays dismissive arrogance with Murtagh (who is escorting his godson) and is angry at Jamie when he is not told what he wants to hear.

In a way, Charles acts like Daenerys Targaryen in a powdered wig. After demanding that Jamie tells him the truth, he feels offended when young Frazer tells him that the clans are too busy fighting each other to rally behind a pretender to battle the English. However, in a twist that displays his volatile personality the prince praises Jamie’s honesty and patriotism and charges him with getting the necessary funds to finance his enterprise.

Now the Frasers must double their efforts to hinder the upcoming rebellion. It’s an impossible task, the Jacobean Cause does get French support thanks to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s personal magnetism, which appears to be his sole virtue. The Frasers and the public are dismayed since this future king seems to be more into conducting affairs of the boudoir than of states. He is soon involved in a liaison with his sassy married cousin Louise de la Tour D’Auvergne and gets her pregnant.

What horrifies Claire is Charles’ incompetence and his lack of care for both the people and the land he expects to rule. He’s never set foot in Scotland, he knows nothing of his people, and has no interest in learning. He is driven by a sense of mission inadmissible to modern logic. He believes to be divinely anointed, almost as if Melisandre had whispered such notion in his ear. We, historical fiction fans, are used to hear monarchs harping about their divine right to reign, but there is something tragicomic in Charles, an actual Beggar King, making that claim in the middle of a brothel.

This negative portrait of legendary Bonnie Prince Charlie was noted by a public that still saw him as the epitome of Charming (ergo ill-fated) Prince. In an interview in IGN, Sam Houghton, who plays Jamie Frazer, expressed his shock  at learning that a beloved Scottish folk-hero was, in fact,  not very heroic:

“He’s been romanticized in Scotland to an extraordinary degree. The Skye Boat Song is about him, our main theme is about him. There’s pictures of him in Scotland,” Heughan said of Bonnie Prince Charlie. “It’s been romanticized about the great rebellion and his escape, and actually when you look at history you see that he was useless. He was completely ineffectual and led these Highlanders to their doom.”

With this sad portrayal of the selfish pretender, the Stuart Cause was lost. There was no way the public could be galvanized by that royal last name once its most fascinating bearer was outed as a narcissistic idiot. Henry VIII was egotistical and vain, but he won battles, got his women, and ruled his country. Poor Charlie couldn’t rule himself.

Minette, the Silly Slut
Moreover, the same year that “Outlander” pulled down Bonnie Prince Charles from the altar of historical heroes, another show went after another Stuart icon. For centuries, historians and writers have portrayed Henrietta Marie, the sister of Charles II, as a victim; a wronged wife, forced to marry a homosexual, and probably murdered by her husband’s jealous lover. In real life, she who was nicknamed “Minette,” was a hysterical anorexic, an adulteress, and a bad mother to boot.

“Versailles” characterizes Minette as a silly slut, indulging in an affair with her brother-in -law, the Sun King, a relationship that in those days was deemed as incestuous. Played by Swiss actress, Naomi Schmidt, Minette lies, schemes, betrays and breaks the heart of her poor husband.

 She also lets her royal lover use her body as well as her mind. He sends her in a secret mission to England to ensure her brother’s support in France’s war against William of Orange. Although in real life, Minette did possess diplomatic skills, in the series she’s seen just like a talking doll delivering her lover’s words to her brother, the King of England. Daniel Lapaine as Charles II didn’t seem very bright either, so we can say “Versailles” did its best to show us the Stuarts as a family of dull morons.

Lesser Stuarts may prove to be more fetching
If the Stuart Kings prove to be less than appealing, we would have to look among their siblings to find stories deserving to be told, for example tragic Arabella Stuart, the Queen of Scots’ niece,  who is the protagonist of The Girl in the Glass Tower, Elizabeth Fremantle’s latest novel.

There is also James Stuart, Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s illegitimate son who attempted to grab the throne from his uncle and namesake, and ended up losing his head. If you add that Monmouth could have been the real Man in the Iron Mask, you have plenty to work with.

The Duke of Monmouth
The current British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II can trace back her Stuart ancestry to Princess Elizabeth, daughter of the first King James. The Winter Queen, as she was known, could have been queen of England had the Gunpowder Conspiracy succeeded. She made a love match (a rarity in royal families of the time) to Prince Frederick of the Palatinate, became the mother of thirteen children, and was the grandmother of George, first Hanover king of England. Dear Lieselotte of “Versailles” fame was her granddaughter, too. Elizabeth did eventually rule Bohemia, part of modern Czechoslovakia. Alas, her reign was short and sad.
The Winter Queen

I’m fond of Elizabeth of Bohemia, but my favorite Stuart is her son, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, famed military man, inventor, artist, and rumor has it, wizard. He even had a magic dog that died fighting alongside his master. So, it is possible to sell the Stuarts to the public, but only looking beyond their dysfunctional kings. Do you have a favorite among that outlandish royal family?