The sunrise is beautiful … but it will never be enough. She was questioning then, as she does now: what makes you empty and what makes you full? [from “Hazel Eaton and the Wall of Death”]
Almost Famous Women is a collection of fictional short stories about real women who have appeared in the footnotes of history but who haven’t quite won the notice of the general public. These women were dissatisfied with life’s limited offerings for them and behaved in unorthodox ways in their quest to live as they wished. Bergman writes in her author’s note that these women drew her attention because, “I’m fascinated by risk taking and the way people orbit fame.” With a few exceptions, the stories are narrated by someone close to the subject — sometimes a real person and sometimes a fictional person, but a person who had a “love/hate” relationship with her. The blemishes and warts are on full view alongside the fearlessness, and this makes the “almost famous women” both more tragic and more admirable. As the NPR reviewer noted, you wouldn’t necessarily want to be pals with these gals, but you can’t take your eyes off them.
Bergman offers us thirteen stories: 8 are longish stories, 4 are quite short (a few pages long) and one, “The Lottery, Redux” is Bergman’s reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s horror classic. The four shorter stories — about daredevil motorcycle driver Hazel Eaton, “high-grade bitch” Beryl Markham, choreographer Lucia Joyce, and “The Internees” freed from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of WWII — were my least favorite, in large part because I felt they were too brief and I wanted the kind of detail found in the other pieces. It’s interesting to note that three of these four are told through third person narration instead through a character known to the subject. I think having a participant narrate allows for much more speculation about the real women; the reaction to these women is as interesting as the women themselves. The inclusion of “The Lottery, Redux” is a little puzzling, since Jackson’s story is a work of fiction, and not based on a real person. I liked Bergman’s reimagining of it, and I think that the actions of one female character at the very end could be construed as unorthodox and heroic, as she makes the others look at her and participate in her choice. Still, its inclusion in this collection of “almost famous women” is unusual.
The eight longer stories are more engaging and provocative. Bergman’s subjects include the conjoined Hilton twins, heiress Joe Carstairs, actress Norma Millay, artist Romaine Brooks, Allegra Byron, Butterfly McQueen, Dolly Wilde, and musician Tiny Davis. With the exception of Allegra Byron, whose story is so tragic and yet shows that even a small girl can be a single-minded force for self-determination, the women lived in the 20th century and were in their prime before or during WWII. Butterfly and Tiny, women of color, shocked others by their outspokenness on atheism (Butterfly) and racism (Tiny). Joe and Romaine behave like tyrants to those around them. Joe has her own island where she has set herself up as supreme authority; Romaine is demanding and rude to her servants but she is old, infirm, and easily taken advantage of. I found myself wanting to know a lot more about Romaine Brooks after reading Bergman’s story for her. Norma Millay and Dolly Wilde might be categorized as “coattail riders,” although it wouldn’t be fair to either woman. In Norma’s story, her famous younger sister [Edna St.] Vincent accuses her of doing it, but Vincent also relies on Norma, and Norma leads her own life as an actress. Dolly receives support from a family enamored of her famous uncle Oscar, and she does take advantage of the daughter’s infatuation with her, but we learn that Dolly had another life, another job, that ate away at her. It is also suggested that Dolly, Joe and Romaine would have been acquainted with each other, which would be fascinating. The story of the conjoined Hilton twins is told from one twin’s point of view. It is an incredible story. I had never heard of Violet and Daisy Hilton before, but Daisy is given one quote that, while referring to her and her sister, might also be said about these other “almost famous women”:
One thing I’d learned — people saw different things when they looked at us. Some saw freaks, some saw love. Some saw opportunity.
Bergman did her research for this collection and provides some great links at the end for those wishing to learn more about these women. Bergman also has a vivid imagination and a beautiful way of presenting her characters, real and fictional, to the reader. These “almost famous women” aren’t completely lovable, but why should they be? Having the fearlessness and intelligence to go into the world and discover “what makes you full” while being labeled a freak, a weirdo, a bitch, or whatever term of fear and ignorance is used — it’s breathtakingly courageous. Almost Famous Women was definitely the right book choice to kick off Women’s History Month.