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The Scrapbook Project

A 1914 Mae West publicity photo found in a scrapbook. She was just launching her career and had not, as yet, created her "character." 

 

 

Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves, and not anything else, and by the immobility of our conceptions of them.

 

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: Volume I

 

   

In the midst of book culling, reported here in March ("The Books Inside Us") piles of old photo albums and two scrapbooks surfaced. I cannot remember the last time I printed a photograph, or created a photo album, or a scrapbook, and wonder how historians will gather documents from personal clouds. Most startling as I perused one particular album from a trip to Vienna, I found a photo of my maternal grandparents' marriage certificate with my mother's handwritten note: Marriage certificate of my parents. Therefore it was legitimate.

 

I wrote the two intriguing sentences down in a notebook and have been pondering them ever since. I also texted them to my sister; she also has no idea what they mean. And so it remains a mystery, an opportunity to untangle a family secret, or a prompt for a story, a story that has been buried and cannot be unearthed other than in a writer's imagination.

 

So it is with people in photographs that cannot be identified, erased by the passage of time and distance, or the contacts in my phone if I have neglected to annotate a connection in the notes. My daughter made a beautiful scrapbook for my 60th birthday, and as I flipped the pages, each one either a letter from a friend or relative, or an artistic collage of photographs, I marveled at both the familiarity and strangeness of the images and remembered stories. The process of looking and reading evoked some sadness at the passage of time, lives lost before, during and after Covid, or the interruption of connection after a move across the country, across the ocean, and back again. But I also marveled at the life I have lived thus far and the rendering of my personality and life's work through the eyes of others. This scrapbook, an objet d'art, is a gift in many respects. And to find it again, as if for the first time, as it surfaced in the culling, was an even greater gift. I took photos of the photos and the letters with my phone, and sent them out as texts. Most recipients were grateful for the memento, thanked me, and commented in a variety of ways, adding more story to the stories. One or two texts went unanswered. That sent me to Google and Facebook to find out if the person who had attended my intimate 60th birthday party was alive, dead, overseas, or in prison. Those stories for a future story here, or elsewhere.

 

When I was working on a short biography of Mae West for Chelsea House Publishers,  a source suggested that I go to the New York Public Library Lincoln Center  Branch to search for scrapbooks Mae West's family, friends and fans had donated. It was a treasure trove and took me nearly a month to pore over, every day pleasurable and immersive. I was witness to Mae West's childhood and fascinating career in real time. I could hear her authentic voice—not her stage voice—telling me her story as the photos and memorabilia accumulated. The collection has all been digitalized for the benefit of future biographers. And though it's unlikely that anyone will be writing my biography, my 60th birthday undigitalized scrapbook, and the photo albums, are valuable to me and my family, which is value enough.

 

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Push Back

"Interior," aka, "The Rape," by Edgar Degas 1868-9, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

 

In the end, the courage of women can't be stamped out. And stories - the big ones, the true ones - can be caught but never killed.

  

 Ronan Farrow, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators

 

 

Of all the commentators pontificating after the first day that Stephanie A. Gregory Clifford—aka  Stormy Daniels—took the stand in a New York City courtroom, it was only Molly Jong Fast, daughter of Erica Jong, author of the iconic feminist novel, Fear of Flying, who, in my opinion, got it right: Ms. Clifford did okay, she stood up to a hectoring insulting cross examination, she's brave. In other words, let's reframe the reporting and the words we use to describe what we are witnessing here: Election interference, yes. But also an exploitative casting couch story reminiscent of Harvey Weinstein. A 20-something-year-old woman was hoping for a gig and the gangster who refused to use a condom and blocked the door, well that bully in the story is familiar by now. Think about how young Ms. Clifford was at the time, 30 years the bully's junior. Who has more power in that situation?  And, please, call her Stephanie Clifford, her given name, and stop using the now tiresome moniker "porn star." More accurately, she's a sex worker, and like every other American woman, she has rights, and is deserving of respect on the witness stand and in the media. If she cries, if she rants on, she's communicating. Listen to her.

 

By the second day on the witness stand, the pundits referred to Ms. Clifford as "impressive," "stalwart," and "admirable," her shoulders back, sitting up straight, or her body leaning forward attentively to counter aggressive questioning from the defense attorney. I consider her a heroine, and a beneficiary of the women's movement from the days of suffrage to #pro-choice to #metoo and beyond.

 

Let me affirm for the jury that I am not, nor ever have been, a sex worker, but like most women, I've had my share of inappropriate propositions over the years. Like Ms. Clifford's experience, the most egregious was firmly tied to a job offer, a job I coveted. I was called in to WNET—a PBS affiliate—for an interview with a well-known producer who insisted that we meet at a diner for breakfast, his go-to for "taking meetings," he told me. But we'd never met before and I thought the setting strange, and a bit too intimate. I don't like to eat when I am interviewing, or being interviewed. No chomping, no food dribbles, or worries about what to choose from the menu, or who will pay. A diner? Really? I ordered a cup of tea and watched the guy eat and ramble on about his life and his wife. I didn't care about any of it, but I didn't stop him, and I didn't walk away, which in retrospect, I should have once he started talking about his wife.  Once the meal was over—and  it seemed endless—too much friendly chitchat to the waiter slowed it down—we  headed across the street, up the elevator and into a secluded office, door shut. I was already worn down by the guy's self-aggrandizing chatter and felt intimidated and a bit woozy. He saw my weakness and started coming on to me with more pointed suggestive remarks. He asked about my marriage. Firmly, I told him it was none of his business and that I was leaving. For an instant I worried that the door was locked. It wasn't. Needless to say, I didn't get the job.

 

So, it isn't hard to imagine what a very young Stephanie Clifford felt like in that hotel room, or to identify with what she said to herself, "What did I get wrong to end up here?" Now she has had her day in court and did well, or well enough.

 

This post is dedicated to every woman in these United States who has been harassed, intimidated, gaslit, silenced, or refused an abortion. May we all get out to vote in November for the men and women—gay straight or trans—who  care about the future of this country, and the world.

 

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An Invitation

 

If you are afraid of the consequences of what you say, then you are not free.

 

An intimacy of strangers. That's a phrase I've sometimes used to express the joyful thing that happens in the act of reading, that happy union of the interior lives of author and reader.

 

-Salman Rushdie, Knife

 

 

 

 

I begin my blog post today with a tribute to Salman Rushdie, his fortitude and recovery from a near-death experience. I won't reiterate the particulars here of the brutal slashing; Rushdie refuses to name his assailant in his new memoir, Knife. He's just A.

 

It saddens me that the World Voices Festival, which Rushdie was instrumental in launching, has been cancelled this year. It's a testament to how fearful and unfree writers are feeling these days. How we are taking precautions we would never have considered before. How we are self-censoring. And all of this must stop.

 

It was Rushdie's new book, and his courage, which supported my decision to accept an invitation from the Woodstock Library Forum to read from and discuss my new book, Becoming a Writer.  I hadn't planned on yet another reading. But I think it's important to get onto the library steps, so to speak, as friends of Rushdie did at the New York Public Library to support his rehab at the Rusk Institute and honor his work. His injuries were beyond even his fertile imagination. He's back home now, writing, and publishing. 

 

I will be "standing up" for him and all writers at risk at the Woodstock Library Forum on Saturday, May 4 @ 5 p.m.  Bring a notebook and free flowing pen, or an electronic device. Let us read and write together in a spirit of peace, freedom and compassion.

 

This post is dedicated to all the writers at risk throughout the world. For more information:   https://pen.org/issue/writers-at-risk/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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