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Greatest 20th Century Action Hero

July 21, 2013


“I’ve been trying to make a picture of a man. Changing, yes. Developing, I hope. Fantastic, improbable — perhaps. Or a slightly cockeyed ideal, if you feel differently. It doesn’t matter so much, so long as you feel that you would recognize him if you met him tomorrow.” —Leslie Charteris

Most popular 20th century action hero? The Saint.

In 1926, twenty-year-old half-Chinese half-English Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin changed his name by deed poll to the shorter, more sibilant Leslie Charteris.

“I was born in Singapore, and learned Chinese and Malay from native servants before I could speak English,” Charteris explained in 1942. “My parents (Chinese doctor father; British mother) dragged me around the world three times before I was twelve and then they decided it was time I went to school. This was a mistake.”

No school could hold him. The precocious individualist began selling popular fiction at age seventeen. After placing his first novel, Charteris quit King’s College, Cambridge, to live his own life on his own terms and to be wealthy enough to get away with it.

Charteris kept writing stories while working through his personal version of the typical 20th century author’s street education: shipping out on a freighter, tending bar at a country inn, prospected for gold, went pearl-diving, labored in a tin mine and on a rubber plantation, joined a carnival and drove a bus.

The Saint was the fifth fictional hero invented by Charteris; and, in 1928, twenty-seven year-old Simon Templar breezes into an English seaside village hot on the trail of a gold smuggler in Meet — The Tiger!

Not a detective by any means, Templar is “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime,” a laughing dashing hell-for-leather buccaneer perfect for the mad sped-up Jazz Age. Handsome, superb, bantering — d’Artagnan reborn without a sword. If his pre-war British literary predecessor, Raffles, was a “Gentleman Safe Cracker,” times have changed. Post-war Simon Templar is the original Gentleman Killer. And, even more startling, he often goes to bed with pretty flapper girls, too.

He fights smiling, with a touch of poetry, like silent movie hero Douglas Fairbanks. Women see Templar’s sleeked-back dark hair and call him a Rudolph Valentino “sheik.” He is Europe’s first truly Modernist action hero, Roaring Twenties star-quality, and he comes complete with his own mocking logo, which shatters criminals with terror: a halo-ed stick figure striking a slightly effeminate pose.

Meet — The Tiger! embarrassed Charteris for the rest of his life. “I can see so much wrong with it,” he wrote in 1980, “that I am humbly astonished that it got published at all.” Charteris preferred to date the Saint’s debut from a run of brilliant novelettes published after signing a 1930 contract with Thriller — The Paper of a Thousand Thrills.

By his fifth urban showing, The Policeman With Wings, the Saint enters as an already-full-blown London public sensation. Charteris’ famous high style immediately demonstrates how to create a youthful, slightly satiric world perfectly scaled to Simon Templar in much the same spirit that, physically, Douglas Fairbanks movie sets were scaled down to make the most gracefully impressive use of his five-foot-six height.

By this time all the world has heard of the Saint. It has been estimated (by those industrious gentlemen who estimate these things) that if all the columns that the newspapers have devoted to the Saint were placed end to end, they would reach from the southeast corner of the Woolworth Building, New York, to a point seventeen inches west of the commissionaire outside the Berkley Street entrance to the Mayfair Hotel, London — which, as was remarked at the time, only goes to prove that the bridging of the gulf between rich and poor can be materially helped by the vigorous efforts of a democratic press.

The Saint’s normal conversation is a slangy stream of ad-libbed nonsense because he will not be cross-examined. One running joke has him make harmless statements sound naughty by adding “…as the actress said to the bishop.” (“You’re getting on — as the actress said to the bishop.”)

In this novelette, Leslie Charteris fully ignites the most charismatic hero in the history of action-detective fiction…

The Saint in those days had moods in which he was unwontedly sober. He was then nearly twenty-eight, and in those twenty-eight years of his life he had seen… and done more than most men would… have done in a hundred and eighty. And yet he had not fulfilled himself. He was then only upon the threshold of his destiny; but it seemed sometimes that he glimpsed wider visions through the opening door ahead. But this was not so much a dulling of his impetuous energy as the acquiring of a more solid foundation for it. He remained the Saint — the flippant dandy with the heart of a crusader, a fighter who laughed as he fought, the reckless, smiling swashbuckler, the inspired and beloved leader of men, the man born with the sound of trumpets in his ears. And the others followed him.

The pre-WW II Saint takes down bad guys, keeps a tenth of their “boodle,” gives the rest to charity, and he does this for a living. His perpetual nemesis, deceptively sleepy, fat, gum-chewing Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal of New Scotland Yard admits in The Gold Standard,

“We aren’t in the Saint’s class, and someday I suppose we shall have to admit it. If this was a republic we should make him dictator and get some sleep… I’ve had it out with Templar before — privately. The plain fact is he’s in the game with a few highfalutin’ ideas about a justice above the law, and a lot of superfluous energy he’s got to get rid of somehow.”

By the iron logic of public fads, each new Saint adventure must somehow top the one before. Charteris, now in his greatest years, bangs out Thriller novelettes and a series of “Brighter Buccaneer” short stories for Empire News. Finally, there seems to be no way ahead for the character. The Saint is a notorious criminal, and, however personable, the moral code of his era demands he be brought to justice.

Charteris neatly solves this dilemma in “the first big Saint novel,” 1930’s The Avenging Saint. Simon, for the first time, goes up against international terrorists, corrupt European royalty, and a high-finance war-monger. After a still-exciting mid-air airplane-to-speeding-locomotive climax, the Saint receives a full pardon for saving the King of England from an assassination attempt.

What Thirties standards of public decency could not do to dampen the Saint, the outbreak of World War II did. The Forties made impossible what Charteris called the “spurious glamor” he had created around Templar. The Saint couldn’t saunter into Berlin, pull Hitler’s nose, shoot Mussolini in the “tum-tum,” and drive away jauntily reciting to Patricia Holm a little poem of his own creation. Those days were gone forever.

So, during World War II, Simon Templar necessarily became a secret agent, just as, in the Seventies, secret agent James Bond, deprived of Sean Connery’s “spurious glamor,” became the Saint. Affable Roger Moore in no way resembled Ian Fleming’s “blunt instrument of state,” but casting  television’s internationally-syndicated Simon Templar as the new Bond revived the movie franchise by subconsciously resolving for theater audiences the paradoxical silliness of a glamorously high-living secret agent. 

The 20th century enjoyed seven Saintly decades of best-selling Simon Templar novels, novelettes, The Brighter Buccaneer short stories, Saint motion pictures in several languages (there was a French Saint), his weekly American radio show and various international television series, a long-running daily newspaper comic strip, endless paperback reprints along with, starting in 1952, month after month of The Saint Mystery Magazine.

Everybody loved the Saint. In the second half of his century, in print, Templar becomes the man at the cocktail party to whom people say, “So you’re the Saint.” His very presence promptly incites a mystery adventure. As time passes, Simon wears his years naturally and believably. Paralleling his creator’s own lifestyle, Templar, too, becomes a gracefully-aging globe-trotter who finds a pretty girl, danger, and a cash profit in every glamorous tourist attraction in the world.

Charteris penned his last stories for 1963’s The Saint in The Sun. Other writers chosen by him kept the now-sixty-two buccaneer ageless and triumphant in new novels, on television and in movies. Charteris protected his character’s core elements through every reinvention, but in later incarnations, the mocking righteous murderer blurs to suit the blander requirements of whatever media was exploiting the uncanny glamor of Simon Templar.

Leslie Charteris wrote in 1980 a preface for a commemorative reissue of — what else? — Meet — The Tiger!

There will always be a public for the old-style hero, who had a clear idea of justice, and a more than technical approach to love, and the ability to have some fun with his crusades.

That is how and why the Saint was born, and why I hope he may eventually occupy a niche beside Robin Hood, d’Artagnan, and all the other immortal true heroes of legend.

Anyway, on this date, I can say I’ll always be glad I tried.

“…As the actress said to the bishop.”


Fascination Versus Enchanting

June 13, 2013

Marlene2                       Garbo1                                           Fascination                                                    Enchanting

Romantic and attractive 20th century women were frequently either too subtle or too complex to be merely cute or simply charming. 

(This post is a companion piece to “Cute Versus Charm”

Nobody ever invited Mary McCarthy or Susan Sontag to a Greenwich Village party expecting they’d end up around the upright piano singing Broadway show tunes.

Yet, internationally, nothing else said “USA!” louder than our cute small-town girls and charming big-city women. In the CinemaScope movies, they might be Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day, or Katherine Hepburn. “Straight white teeth, flawless skin, big knockers!” The whole war-wrecked planet envied these perfect embodiments of our nation’s popular vision of itself as free, open, energetic, and wholesome.

But what about depicting all those other American girls from coast to coast who were, by the standards of their time, either too smart or too complicated? Hollywood’s reply was to import. On-screen, German-born Marlene Dietrich specialized in portraying too-smart, and Swedish icon Greta Garbo owned too-complex. Dietrich fascinated, but Garbo was enchanting.

Fascination and enchantment coolly differ in body-temperature from charm and cuteness. Young Dietrich’s premature weltschmerz fascinated movie-goers, and the allure of Garbo’s soulful aloofness became legendary. They were Hollywood’s European minority-report on “The Glorified American Girl.”

Dietrich and Garbo both played lovely romantic introverts who walk around constantly being distracted by either intense inner echoes of a drastic private history, like Dietrich, or else, Garbo-esque, by the subtlest promptings of her own tremulous soul. Their similar acting styles during famous love scenes — a ceaseless signaling of  mysterious private selves — challenged male co-stars, who found themselves being up-staged by a phantom third female presence to whom the star is reacting more ardently than to his big-screen love-making.

Cuteness and charm draw people closer by brightly denying that, right at this special moment, any personal or social barriers could possibly exist between us two. Both bring into being a spontaneously amorous democracy where everybody votes Yes, yes, yes!

But, whatever their physical beauty, both more subtle and the more complex women hold you off at a nearly aristocratic distance — a distance measured by the exact vantage point from which they hope to look their shattering best. So, unlike the spontaneous assent of charm and cuteness,  fascination and enchantment say Maybe, yes, no, oh, I don’t know! 

So, neither type of woman will draw strangers into a vital intimacy because both these personalities fail to offer what the 20th century called a “love interest.” Love requires the touching warmth.

Enchantment is a signal but not a summons. And fascination is slightly fiercer, if no less distancing an emotion, because I am being, not softly plucked at and beguiled, but compelled by this sudden odd beauty. Not  love, not even fondness is necessarily involved. I am simply unable not to take a personal interest — for as long as it lasts. Because, self-sealed and unrevealing, fascination is always a surface effect, a trick of the light, with nothing remarkable behind it after all. 

When fedgov won’t help, it’s everyday guys versus punk terrorists. Men are back. Tell your neighbors.

"The" Red State men's novel... gutsy, smart, funny, prophetic

“Piece of Resistance” Matters To Men

May 2, 2013

"The" Red State men's novel... gutsy, smart, funny, prophetic

Just published at

“Everyday guys versus punk terrorists — for starters…” 

"The" Red State men's novel... gutsy, smart, funny, prophetic

In 1930’s The Avenging Saint, Simon Templar, The Saint himself, defends his own genre of fiction. “The low-down shocker is a decent and clean and honest-to-God form of literature, because it does deal with things that have a right to occupy a man’s mind — a primitive chivalry, and damsels in distress, and virtue triumphant, and a wholesale slaughter of villains at the end, and a real fight running through it all.”

"The" Red State men's novel... gutsy, smart, funny, prophetic

“So you write fiction for uh… men?”

Yes, I do. I like men. I’m one myself.

“But, surely, you know, today women own publishing?”

They have earned the right. Even so, this status quo is unprofitable for Publishers Row — whose houses theoretically might double their incomes by including men — and bad for an American literature foundering in a peat bog of vampires, endless sci-fantasy sagas, and MFA chic-lit.

“But you’re missing the point. Men don’t read today.”

Men don’t read more novels today because there aren’t more men in them. I want to change that.

“Really? Why?”

Because girly fiction bores the balls off us, if you don’t mind my saying so.

“I’m sure the women novelists are sad you aren’t having a better time.”

You miss my point. I refuse to believe ambitious literary men care more for Political Correctness than we do about excellence. Call it what you will, undeniably, something is stunting our best young authors.

“Men. Don’t. Read. Today.”

I’m not talking about fewer and fewer readers. They’d come back if there were writers important enough to dare tell men the truth in our time as Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, and Bellow did in theirs.

“Literature was completely different back then.”

And that difference is the measure of our fall. The best-sellers 20th century Americans freely chose either came “High Brow” — Thomas Mann, say; “Middle Brow” — J.D. Salinger comes to mind; or “Low Brow” — sci-fi and detective stories. Today, this wide range of popular writing has collapsed into a single feminized “Lower-Middle Brow ” pulp fiction increasingly ignored even by women themselves.


The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction wasn’t even awarded last year — a full gob of rich Establishment spit in all those hip young faces. So, screw the  Establishment! Go rogue! I’m actively trying to open up male writers to the classic masculine ideal of a fiction that can help shape their generation as did Fitzgerald in the Twenties, Kerouac at mid-century, and Mailer in the Sixties.

“Hey, I read contemporary novels, and I happen to really enjoy –“

Excuse me, don’t get me wrong. Postmodern novels are often effective as fiction, everybody writes very well, but they have nothing to say.


Nothing important to say to either men or women about the way we live now, not said directly, not as Ralph Ellison argued our fiction must do in order to approach greatness.

“Yes, yes, I have his quote right here. Said the author of Invisible Man, best-regarded American novel of the second half of the 20th century…

“‘…And is there not a connection between the non-intellectual aspects of (American fiction) and its creators’ rejection of broad social responsibility, its failure to project characters who grasp the broad sweep of American life?'”

This is the horizon. This is our challenge.

“So you, who write for karate magazines, you are worthy?”

Read it yourself. Piece of Resistance is a solid thriller, that’s what they tell me, and, for today’s average reader in this year of grace, I say it also rises to Mr. Ellison’s occasion. But be prepared, if you’re just another post-masculine urban conformist, my realism may ruffle your cool.

“Realism is realism.”

My realism seems like social satire because our society really satirizes itself. So male readers of Piece of Resistance tell me what they are feeling is the “shock of recognition” when, for the first time, they enter in fiction the real world they have to live in. A place often as frankly hostile to men and our natural values as today’s average American college campus, where, at this very minute, by the way, they are busy gelding our next generation of nominally masculine authors.

“More insults! Can’t you say something constructive to these students?”

You are a male writer? For whom do you write, and why? If you write for women, women can do it better. American literature doesn’t need more women of both sexes.

“You certainly are opinionated. And your attitude toward Islam –“

Sadly, the recent terrorist attack on Boston proves what I’ve been claiming since the Kindle edition went up last year. My book is prophetic. We got legs blown off in this novel, too, folks. I’m not thrilled about that fact, but there it is. And there’s more, it gets worse, there’s what must come after.

“So now you are exploiting the tragedy?”

Are you trying to provoke me? Mr. Interlocutor, as a nation we must stop flinching and finally face the global meaning of terrorism, and we men must lead against this hard new reality because it is we who are always called upon to fight world wars. And it is before-hand, in our cultural imaginations, our “collective unconscious,” that men prepare. This is why Culture matters. This is the seriousness of light fiction.

All this interview proves is you are very glib.”

What do you want me to do? Stammer?

“Never mind. Just sum it up. Why should Piece of Resistance matter to me?”

Piece of Resistance ends up asking you a straight-forward question. If indeed I am telling you, personally, the simple truth, and here we are now, and this is what is coming for us all, then just what the fuck is a man like you prepared to do about it?

For starters — end this interview.


April 25, 2013

man man2 man3

You wish to be a man, my boy?

Not a jerk, dweeb, pansy, simp, twit, fool, clown, or conformist — simply, a good man?

Manhood cannot be conferred on you. Virility is not measured by romance or battle, fame or wealth. Those come later, if ever. Nor need you be tall, handsome, smart, or particularly well-favored in any social way. Other people may like you or despise you. That doesn’t matter to a man, does not reach where you live.

No, boy, to be a man, first and foremost, you must have a word and be able to give it.

Promise-keeping begins in the language and actions of our family. Classically, in the West, the first word we speak names our mother — lisping “mama” — and the first word we ever write names ourselves — block-lettering “Johnny.”

Here I am, only a few years old, and I live in the sunny eye of now. Mama will coo and shine on me, using pet names whose only meaning is love. And I am a good boy but sometimes mama clouds up and scolds — “Bad boy!” — which at first startles and offends me. I begin crying. After all, what suddenly has changed? Always in action is just myself, the warm focus of all household love.

One day mama walks in, sees me and says, “Don’t pet the goldfish.” I understand her to mean, “Stop doing it right now.” Nothing new. I have been curbed many times before. But then something different happens. Mama goes on to ask me never to pet the goldfish ever again. She sweetly explains the good reasons why I should not, but this future-binding makes no sense since I always encounter myself now and only now. So, next day she catches me, wet up to my elbow again.

For the first time, I experience the terror of her being really and truly angry. It has never before occurred to me that the elastic boundaries of her sympathy might pop. “Johnny Jones, promise me you will never ever do it again!” In short, I am being put in charge of myself. What compels me to try is the threatened withdrawal of her love. I am terrified. Only her love guarantees my existence.

So I, Johnny Jones, resort to the language of my family. Mistaking talk for an easy expedient, I commit instead an irreversible act. Tearfully, I promise out loud not to do it again and get sternly questioned but swear, yes, I give my solemn little boy’s word, and so I am hugged and kissed and forgiven. But I know now mama can always become terribly angry if I forget and do you-know-what again with the fish. My blurted words, at a stroke, have altered everything between us. Words spoken, I dimly perceive, can be as deeds done.

A certain kind of boy will have told mama a cold lie and meant to. These bad boys are not so common. Let’s suppose, in this majority case, my first-given promise has a child’s hopeful pretense to good faith. But what has this use of language led me to? If I mean to keep my oath, what must I be prepared to try to do?

Taking personal responsibility demands wrenching myself loose from now and projecting myself above my own head, to look down and judge what I do every second of every day, and, simultaneously, I must also send myself ahead to some far-off day when I agree to meet myself again in a calm place of honor called Never Did.

Impossible! And yet I love my mama. On a child’s swelling heart, eyes shiny, I swear my promise must be true forever…

We know the rest. Johnny will keep or break his word after a great or minimal private struggle.

A boy either builds up or else fails to assemble a good character. And, briefly put, character is the ability to say no. If I do stay true, I am acquiring a full human power of self-discipline that can be lent later to other, more public oaths — pledges of allegiance, wedding vows, business contracts. I no longer merely behave like a child but become capable of taking action.

That is to say, I am a man of my word. And of what worth, really, are truthful, honest men? Do we not laugh at them today? Are boys not taught manhood is antique, truth a flimsy construct ad-libbed on shifting sands, and virility admirable only as a female trait?

And yet, look ahead, boy. Without average men of a character strong enough to honor a few simple oaths, history warns us. What English-speakers call “civilization” breaks down into murderous hell.

So, my boy, the fundamental event of Western consciousness is a promise kept.

I give you my word.

The Most Charming 20th Century Man

April 10, 2013

Coward5nCoward coward2n

“It is discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”  Noel Coward

England’s Noel Coward, all by himself, was for the Twenties what it took four Beatles to be for the Sixties.

Coward, too, became the over-publicized essence of Youth. “Jagged with sophistication,” four plays he wrote running at once in the West End by 1925, Coward’s clipped wit and bright jazzy songs embodied the sped-up post-World War I generation’s “smart” and disillusioned sense of life: All causes lost, all heroes dead. Let’s get tight and laugh at people.

“Destiny’s tot,” as Alexander Woollcott dubbed Coward, was an actor, playwright, composer, theatrical- and motion-picture producer and director, singer/songwriter, revue and cabaret superstar, author of a best-selling novel, books of short stories, three volumes of autobiography, and one slim volume of verse he was too modest to describe as poetry.

Coward was a genius, unforgivably so. Part of his affront to the envious and less-talented was how quickly he wrote his four best plays. Hay Fever in five days; Private Lives, four; Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit, six days. In his 1982 book Coward: The Playwright, critic John Lahr argues that his greatest plays are essentially about “the politics of charm.”

Right up until Sixties British drama critics were forced, tight-lipped and slightly stunned, to admit that Coward, yes, that Coward! was a playwright of genius, they’d spent the previous thirty years writing him off as the has-been relic of an insufficiently socialistic time. These were the Labor government years when “kitchen sink” dramas such as John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger were putting working class blokes at center stage where the cocktails, long cigarette holders, and gorgeous Sulka dressing gowns used to reign supreme.

The British Left have never, to this day, forgiven Noel Coward for loving his country and befriending its Royalty. Read essayist Malcolm Muggeridge on the Thirties, for example. The political class despised Cavalcade, Coward’s epic theatrical valentine to all things English, appearing, as it did, on the verge of the Second World War.

But Coward’s worst offense came during the Forties. He put aside everything which being Noel Coward had stood for up until then and wrote, produced, co-directed (with David Lean, whom he discovered), and starred in the best English war movie of World War II, In Which We Serve. Although nosed out by Casablanca for the 1942 Academy Award as Best Picture, Coward received an honorary Oscar for his gritty and patriotic production.

In 1955, Noel Coward brought to Las Vegas a cabaret act he had perfected on endless tours entertaining thousands of soldiers and sailors during the War, sometimes within spitting distance of corpses, always in discomfort and some danger. Vegas was easier.

Hollywood turned out in force, led by its then-greatest star, Frank Sinatra. Every night at the Sands, after Sammy Davis, Jr. finished his smash-hit performance, he’d yell at the applauding audiences: “Now go across the Strip and see the Master do it like it’s supposed to be done!”

Coward’s star turn at Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn became one of the century’s most celebrated live appearances. His career revived. And the live recording of this night club act has never been out of print since its original release.

Coward’s lifelong keynote came from a famous lyric he sang a snatch of for the Vegas gamblers and gangsters — “If Love Were All” from his operetta Bitter Sweet: “For I believe/ That since my life began/ The most I’ve had is just/ A talent to amuse.”

“First I was the enfant terrible. Then the Bright Young Thing. Now I’m a tradition,” he wrote contentedly in later years.

President Roosevelt, after their first private meeting, had invited Coward to sleep over at The White House. It was not just a matter of Coward having known everybody, intimately, including Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Winston Churchill, and the entire Royal Family. Famous entertainers are often picked up and cultivated by high society. But when Graham Payne, his longtime lover, thanked the Queen Mother for attending the instillation of Coward’s plague (“A Talent To Amuse”) near the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abby, she replied, “He was my friend.”

A delightful entertainer’s remarkable career, yes, but… the most charming man of the last century? How to substantiate the ultimate power of Noel Coward’s glamor? Would you take the blushing word of the century’s greatest stage actor?

Noel Coward gave Laurence Olivier an important career break, in 1930, by casting the handsome young actor in a small but show-case role in Coward’s Private Lives, which he and Gertrude Lawrence were starring in. In Olivier’s 1982 autobiography appears one of the bravest confessions this candid artist ever made. Writing of those days and of Coward…

“I had got over like a spendthrift sigh my nearly passionate involvement with the one male with whom some sexual dalliance had not been loathsome for me to contemplate. I had felt it desperately necessary to warn him that, dustily old-fashioned as it must seem, I had ideals which must not be trodden underfoot and destroyed, or I would not be able to answer for the consequences and neither would he.

“…I felt that the homosexual act would be a step darkly destructive to my soul; I was firm in my conviction that heterosexuality was romantically beautiful, immensely pleasurable, and rewarding in contentment.

“It is surprising that this faith should have withstood an onslaught of such passionate interest, and that this, together with the disillusionment that followed the initial experience of my early marriage, did not throw me off course or even make we waver — well, perhaps I must allow it did do that.”

The charmed charmer’s secret was not whom he loved but what it was worth. Noel Coward wrote a poem called “I’m No Good at Love” in 1967, when the Beatles were riding high and Love! was a battle-cry…

I’m no good at love

I betray it with little sins

For I feel the misery of the end

In the moment that it begins

And the bitterness of the last good-bye

Is the bitterness that wins.

Astringent, yes, but, reading his private Diaries, none of Coward’s self-knowledge was ever self-pitying. To achieve, from day to day, such an amazing life was always its own reward. In 1963, the Master observed: “The only way to enjoy life is to work. Work is much more fun than fun.”

More amusing, being talented.

The Most Charming 20th Century Woman

March 24, 2013

Colette4 Colette2Colette3

“These pleasures which are lightly called physical…”  Colette

Who was Colette? A 1974 Penguin paperback of Cheri provides a good intro…

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, twentieth-century France’s greatest woman writer, was born in 1873. At first a music-hall dancer and mime, she began writing when her husband, a literary hack whom she soon divorced, locked her in a room and ordered her to produce novels for him to sign.

First husband “Willy” pocketed the profits from four “Claudine” books Colette ghost-wrote, one a year, from 1900 to 1903, when she was barely out of her teens.

Willy kept telling her to play up the sex, so Colette did, and these spicy “shockers” about “naughty” school girls scandalized French readers. Fifteen years her elder, Willy made Colette dress up like Claudine in public and added a second “school girl” on his other arm. Eyebrows crashed into hairlines, protests were raised, and all editions sold out.

A quarter-century later Colette finally proved authorship of those delightful novels by displaying the student’s blue-cover copy books she had written them in. By then, ever since the publication of Cheri in 1920, at age forty-seven, her genius had become undeniable.

However, before mere respectability overtook her, Colette had divorced Willy in 1906 and one year later debuted in Paris music halls as a protege of Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf. “Missy,” as she was known, dressed exclusively in men’s clothes. Their famous kiss on-stage at the Moulin Rouge during the 1907 pantomime Rêve d’Égypte touched off an audience riot. Police had to be called in. Yet meanwhile, even so, Colette took flamboyant Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio for her lover, as well as keeping an automobile mogul, on the side.

In 1912, Colette married Henri de Jouvenel, urbane and handsome editor of the daily newspaper Le Matin. During the First World War, she turned their estate into a hospital for wounded soldiers, for which she was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1920. She divorced de Jouvenel in 1925 during a notorious affair with her stepson Bertrand.

Finally, in 1935, Colette married Maurice Goudeket, who supported her work and cared for her deeply in her later infirmities. She called him “a saint.” While Nazis occupied World War II France, Colette helped their Jewish friends and her husband, too, by hiding Goudeket in her attic until the Liberation of Paris.

Colette’s most famous novels are Cheri and The Last of Cheri — the definitive study of an affair between a very young man and a middle-aged woman — and Gigi, later adapted into one of the most successful musical comedies of the 20th century. Audrey Hepburn, who created the role on Broadway, was discovered when Colette happened to see the until-then unheralded young actress walking through a hotel lobby.

Colette turned to a friend. “There is my Gigi.”

A great author, then, and authentically romantic, but how does this add up to Colette being the most charming woman of her century? The allure of her stage performances may be lost to us — save for a glimpse of those lovely breasts — but of her literature…? Choosing almost at random, take a paragraph from the 1919 back-stage novella Mitsou.

Mitsou is a twenty-four year old revue star at the Montmartre in 1917. Here, disguised as Mitsou’s friend Bit-of-Fluff, Colette pins her future second husband’s brother’s mistress to the page like a wildly fluttering butterfly.

Finally, a noise, and with it a series of squeaks like a nest of mice disturbed; and into the dressing-room bursts Bit-of-Fluff. Is Bit-of-Fluff plain or pretty? A good figure or not? She is a scrap of woman whose incessant and intentional writhing prevents you making any judgment on things like that. Dyed hair in a cloud comes almost down to her nose, which anyway turns up to meet it. Mascara’d lashes, clown’s cheekbones, the corners of her mouth — they turn up as if they had been blown by a gust of wind. Her shoulders quiver, her bottom dances, her hands grasp her breasts ( to hold them or to call attention to them?) and if her knees rub against each other, is it because Fluff is cold? or is playing for a laugh? or is just knock-kneed? No way of telling. If Fluff were to fall in the Seine, her closest friends couldn’t identify her at the morgue. For nobody has ever really seen her.

Pick up any of her stories. Read a few lines, a couple paragraphs. Turn a page. Nothing else like her spell in all of 20th century literature. You either fall in love, or you must stop reading. Colette passed away on the third of August 1954 and became the first woman ever to be given a state funeral in France.

The paperback bio, begun above, concludes…

Madame Colette went on to write some eighty books that are as much admired for their dazzling style as for their unerring psychology. She died in Paris in 1954. Her last years were spent in an apartment in the Palais Royal. There, on a garden wall, a plaque now reads, “Here lived, here died Colette, whose work is a window wide-open on life.”

(CORRECTION: Mrs. Herbork points out the error in Penguin’s bio.  Colette never was “At first a music-hall dancer and mime.” The nineteen-year-old girl married Willy straight out of her mother Sido’s house. Sido suspected the worst of this older suitor but could not refuse such a socially advantageous match for a daughter without a dowry. So, Colette became a music-hall artiste only after her divorce from Willy. By then, all Paris knew her scandalous reputation but nothing about who really wrote the “Claudine” novels. Going on the stage and “showing herself” was the best and perhaps only way for such a controversial young woman to earn her living.)

Cute Versus Charm

March 10, 2013

Debbie ReynoldsDorisDayCaryGrant

20th century Americans tended to favor, in each other, cute over charm.

Perhaps cute was our innocent small-town rebuke to charm, that smart city-slicker sparkle of snake-oil salesmen. Cute was as natural as the countryside. Charm, suspiciously Big City.

Cute is one-sided and unselfconscious, a helpless demand to be found adorable. Cute, in musicals, were equally-virginal Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day, peppy as puppies, all gee-wiz, aw shucks, and oh let’s! You, the guy, finally break down and marry cute.

Charm, on the other hand, is intimately mutual, a special someone’s open invitation to love and be loved, renewed from moment to enchanting moment, for as long as you two are together. Charm might be Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy swapping Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer repartee in a sophisticated “white telephone” comedy. Charm conjures up delicious romance.

Now the greatest charmers are often not the best-lookers. Consider Cary Grant.

More than just cute or charming, Cary Grant was admirably handsome, and that indelible yet somehow unresentable male beauty focused his personality. His charm was in not taking being Cary Grant too seriously. So, uniquely, his charm was for himself, and this self-distancing gave his personality depth and made the audience’s reaction to Grant more complex than stunning good-looks alone usually requires.

Of course, neither of these two happy qualities is a be-all and end-all. Incessant cuteness eventually makes us feel used. And what exactly is at the bottom of charm? Charm is always elusive and half-mysterious, especially to the degree it seems frank and open. Certainly, styles of allure are as perishable as actors’ careers. What beguiles us one year, bores us the next and, at a third showing, may even bang on our anger.

But ever-changing fashions in what is charming ought never overshadow charm’s original wonder. This fascinating grace blossoms among a handful of blessed characters in every generation. Not all are actors, by any means. The two greatest charmers of the 20th century were also writers. Neither was American-born. We over here were too busy being cute to perfect infinite charm.

A French woman and an English man. This pair of choicest European spirits have somehow never lost their power, across time and space, beyond languages and customs, to make us love them.

Cherchez la femme. Next time, we meet the 20th century’s most charming woman.