Today on #womenshistoryreads I'd like to introduce you to Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, who you may already know as the author of SCANDALOUS WOMEN, or as a vibrant, lively presence at the Historical Novel Society Conference (which is where I know her from.) My jaw dropped about five times while reading her informative and eye-opening interview answers -- scandalous indeed! You're in for a delightful read.
Greer: Tell us about a woman from the past who has inspired your writing.
Elizabeth: Josephine Baker is one of my favorite women in history. Not only was she a singer, dancer, and actress but also a civil rights activist and a spy during World War II for the French resistance. Not to mention that she was incredibly glamorous, as well as hard-working. There is a reason that she’s a legend. Growing up poor in St. Louis, married twice before she was even out of her teens, made her way to New York to Broadway and then to become the toast of Paris? The stories of her walking her pet cheetah down the Champs-Elysees, and her triumphant return to the stage in the 1970’s.
When I wrote Scandalous Women, I spent way too much time reading biographies and watching the few movies that she made. I just wanted to know more and more. I’m still trying to learn more about her work during World War II. I’ve been trying to find a copy of the memoir written by Jacques Abtey, who worked with her during that time. If I do find a copy, I’m going to have to break out my rusty French! Even "Gossip Girl" was fascinated with Josephine Baker. There’s a whole episode where Tyra Banks plays an actress who plays Josephine Baker in a movie about the French resistance but her part is cut out before the movie premieres in favor of Hilary Duff’s character. I remember watching that episode and thinking that it was absurd, everyone knows that Josephine Baker is one of the most fascinating women in history.
Greer: Agreed! Next question: Do you consider yourself a historian?
Elizabeth: I am definitely not a historian; I’m would say that I’m more of a story-teller. I majored in English and Drama in college, but I have always loved history, ever since I was a child. I’m most definitely a history geek. My favorite books as a child were the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder; I read those over and over. Later I moved onto to Jean Plaidy and Philippa Carr. Even when I was acting, most of the plays that I performed were historical, Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov, and Schnitzler. I think I did one contemporary play in 15 years of acting. I started Scandalous Women because I was reading about so many fascinating women in history and I wanted to share their stories with readers. Ten years ago, there weren’t many blogs or books out. Now, of course, there is an explosion of interest in women’s lives and history. To this day, my friends and I talk about women in history such as Anne Boleyn, The Brontë sisters, and Mary Wollstonecraft as if we actually knew them. They are so real to us.
Greer: What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?
Elizabeth: One of the biggest challenges is when there is either too much research or too little. I wrote a book proposal for a non-fiction book about Juliet d’Aubigny, better known as Mademoiselle Maupin. Fascinating woman, she was a 17th century cross-dressing, bisexual swordswoman and opera singer. But there is so much that we don’t know about her, in particular how many of the stories about her are true.
There was one story that was particularly outrageous. Apparently she entered a convent as a postulant in order to pursue a young woman that she had fallen in love with. One night after an elderly nun died, Juliet stole the body, placed it in the girl’s cell and set fire to the convent, and escaped with her lover. They were on the run for three months and Juliet was sentenced to death in absentia by the parliament in Provence as a man, because the judges refused to believe that a woman could abduct another, let alone from a convent. She apparently fought duels with men and won. There are so many stories or myths about her but they were all hard to corroborate. I found it really difficult to write the proposal. In hindsight, I should have pitched the book as more of an investigative piece: does this woman really exist?
For Scandalous Women, I had the opposite problem, too much research. I must have read more than seventy books, and I could have read another seventy. The research was just so fascinating, but at a certain point I had to stop and write the book! Otherwise, it would never have been finished.
Greer: Play matchmaker: what unsung woman from history would you most like to read a book about, and who should write it?
Elizabeth: One of the most interesting women that I wrote about in Scandalous Women was Jane Digby. She was an English aristocrat born just before the Regency period in England and died during the late Victorian era. She had four husbands (she divorced three of them) and many lovers, including King Ludwig I of Bavaria (she’s featured in his Hall of Beauties) as well as his son King Otto of Greece. Her last husband was an Arab Sheikh who was twenty years her junior! Finally, she’d found the happiness that she was looking for. They were married for almost thirty years before she died. Men just couldn’t help falling in love with her, and if you look at her portraits, you can see why. She is the classic English beauty, blonde hair, big blue eyes, and porcelain skin. I’m amazed that no one has written either a book or done a miniseries about her life. As to who should write it, I would have to say Leslie Carroll would be the perfect author. She’s already written about Eliza Hamilton and Mary Robinson, Jane Digby would be right up her alley.
Elizabeth: And my question for you: Have you watched the TV series about The Pinkertons? If so what did you think of the portrayal of Kate Warne?
Greer: I didn't have the right channel to watch it when it was on TV, but the timing turned out to be fortuitous -- it came to Netflix shortly after I'd turned in GIRL IN DISGUISE. Of course I was curious about overlap between their Kate and my Kate, but as it turns out, there isn't any, time-wise or plot-wise. Their story begins in 1865, just after mine ends. Of course both my book and the TV series had the same scant facts from history to draw on, so we made some of the same decisions about the personality Kate must have had: bold, fiery, and constantly battling the pervasive sexism of the day. I never saw any sources that would indicate she was solving cases in Kansas City with William Pinkerton in 1865, as she does in the show, but I'm happy for anything that gets Kate's name out there, frankly!