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But fashion tips are really only a small part of the pleasures of this book. What makes it such fun to read is the inimitable style and personality of Edith Head, dressmaker to the stars. She was a true character and thank goodness she lets some of that eccentric genius shine in this book as she discusses her clients, such stars as: Dorothy Lamour...Madeleine Carroll...Mary Martin...Betty Hutton...Veronica Lake...Giner Rogers...Charles Laughton...and more.
The section entitled What to Wear on Every Occasion is both funny and enlightening to read as Edith Head had clear-cut opinions on the Dos and Don'ts of fashion, even advising women what to wear to such diverse events as Prize Fights, Dog Shows and Garden Parties. Don't pass up a chance to grab a copy of this one!
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"The General in His Labyrinth" tells the story of the melancholy and sad final journey of General Simon Bolivar, fondly known as "The Liberator" in many South American countries. Bolivar is the man who drove the Spanish from the northern part of South America during 1811-1824, even though the local aristocracy chose to fight against him. In the end, he became a sad and defeated man, old before his time and burdened with the knowledge that his dream of a unified South America would not be realized during his lifetime.
Although Bolivar is revered in much of South America (and the world in general), his final days were quite unhappy. In this book, Garcia Marquez takes us along with Bolivar on his final cruise along the Magdalena River from Colombia to the sea. Bolivar was sad, disillusioned, in shock from the after effects of an assassination attempt and suffering from an unspecified illness; in short, this mythic man had become old at the very young age of forty-six.
After Bolivar had been denied the presidency of Colombia he decided to spend his final days in Europe, far away from political strife of any kind. But Bolivar wouldn't have been Bolivar had he not given his life to the people. His dreams of living in peace in Europe were dashed when the government that replaced him failed.
It didn't take years of history to make Bolivar larger than life. He was larger then life to those who knew him intimately as well as to those who knew him only by reputation. And no wonder...he possessed a terrible temper, a extraordinarily passionate nature and his political and leadership abilities were virtually unsurpassed. Everyone paled next to Bolivar, in life just as (almost) everyone pales next to him in this book. (His enemy, Santander, and his commander, Sucre, are two notable exceptions. His lover, Manuela Saenz is also a well drawn character, but Bolivar's valet, Jose Palacios lets us know that, other than saving Bolivar from assassination, she was really nothing special, just one more lover among very many.)
I read, in a interview with Garcia Marquez, that the voyage along the Magdalena was chosen to be fictionalized since this was a little-known episode in a very publicly-lived life. Personally, I think it was a wonderful choice. The voyage was one that was no doubt filled with melancholy and nostalgia and no one writes of melancholy and nostalgia, especially South American melancholy and nostalgia, as well as does Garcia Marquez. This is a book in which real memories become confused with the hallucinations of delirium, a confusion that is only enhanced by the descriptions of the steamy jungle interior. The floods, the oppressive heat, the epidemics that Bolivar and his weary band of supporters encounter only serve to enhance "The Liberator's" own physical decline.
I also think that showing us Bolivar, not at the height of his glory, but at what was no doubt one of the lowest points of his life, was also a wonderful choice. Bolivar was, apparently, a man of contradictions. He was flamboyant and mythic, yet ultimately tragic; he could be elegant in public matters yet coarse in private; he was obviously a genius at strategy, yet his last days were filled with the incoherence of illness. And, all along the way, through this maze of contradictions, Garcia Marquez never loses sight of the one driving force in Simon Bolivar's life: his desire for a unified South America.
I also love the way Garcia Marquez twists and folds the narrative of this book until the reader isn't quite sure what's real and what's fevered hallucination; what really happened and what didn't. Of course, Garcia Marquez is a master at just this sort of narrative and he really outdoes himself in this book.
In the end, Bolivar, himself, decides that South America is ungovernable; it is, he declared, a land that will inevitably fall into the hands of tyrants, both large and small. Sadly, Bolivar's prophecy seems to be, at least in part, true. And, even more sadly still, although the world has come to love and rever "The Liberator," "The Liberator," himself, died a sad and defeated man.
I once read one of Garcia Marquez's earlier short stories, "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," and that story and this novel seem to share a theme. They are both about an important or extraordinary figure (in the story, the title character; in this novel, Bolivar) who falls from a state of grace, comes into contact with common people, and must suffer their treatment, be it awe or indifference. I knew almost nothing about Bolivar and the history of South America, but the fact that this fascinating novel made me want to learn more about the subject is a testament to Garcia Marquez's great skill as a writer.
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Edith Head rose through the ranks at Paramount before becoming head of the costume department in the late 30s and held the position for over 30 years. But she was basically an insecure woman who craved publicity and acceptance and managed to achieve it by hard work, tenacity and sometimes deceptive manipulation. It is true that she sometimes took credit for other designer's work (most notably Givenchey for the 1954 film "Sabrina") and she was often ridiculed by her colleages. But, she was adept and hard-working in her craft, and she had a knack for communicating and pleasing the actresses and directors that she worked with.
The book combines just the right amount of biographical detail with juicy Hollywood gossip (especially about Claudette Colbert!) to keep you turning the pages. The book also depicts a touching portrait of Head's longtime marriage to Bill Ihnen and debunks the longtime rumor that Head was a lesbian. The book's one major fault is the lack of photos - only a small color section and a few b&w are scattered throughout - not enough to illustrate her work at all. But aside from this one quibble, I recommend it.
The author has managed to get a fairly clear picture of his subject. He also has managed to uncover a lot of truths and facts regarding her own personal history and has come up with a very interesting story here. It doesn't hurt that David Chierichetti happened to know Edith Head fairly well at the end of her life.
If you are into celebrity biographies, you will find this book not only interesting for its own merits but well-written and crafted by the author who proves to be a very good researcher and writer.
I have long enjoyed David Chierichetti's articles in the periodicals Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. I am glad to see that his talents have translated well when tackling a book format.
Bravo, David! Keep up the good work. I am waiting for the next book! This is definitely one of the best books published in 2003.
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Morris's writing varies markedly from section to section, perhaps due to inconsistent editing rather than her own writing.
What has survived through thousands of letters that friends and relatives did not destory and through Edith's 40+ years of private diaries (left to her daughter Ethel) is a portrait of a iron-willed, intelligent, passionate lady who survived many family crises and lived through enough U.S. political history for a couple of high school textbooks.
She was often the mother AND the father of her large household of children and pets as TR would often leave to go on hunting trips, safaris, and political campaigns. She ran the household in every area mostly because she had to get control of the family finances. (TR almost had to sell Sagamore Hill before he married Edith because he had lost so much of his inheritance in the Badlands. His older sister helped him get through some lean financial years.)
But, she knew that he would always return to her bed and to no one else's. She often looked down at her sisters-in-law, nieces, and female friends who had married "safely" and did not have a passionate, romantic partnership such as the one she shared with TR. In many ways she was as contradictory in her beliefs as her husband. She was certainly Victorian in her moral strictures, yet one of her closest confidants and friends in the later White House years was the not-so-in-the-closet homosexual chief military aide to her husband (and this gentleman, Archibald Butt, would later help many of the Titanic's passengers to safety before he perished).
One of the most poignant chapters in the book deals with the sons getting ready to go off to fight in the Great War. Quentin, her baby, is eighteen and falling in love with the daughter of one of the anti-Roosevelts, the Whitneys. Edith and TR are concerned with their son falling in love with one of the "plutocrat" Whitneys. However, once they meet Flora they fall in love with her and take her into their family as one of their own. Quentin has to leave the safe environs of Sagamore Hill and the Long Island air training centre and be shipped off to Europe. The elder Roosevelts try to get passports for themselves to travel with Flora so that Flora can marry Quentin in Europe. They can't get passports to travel overseas during the war. Quentin is shot down over France, and TR & Edith have to break the news to her at Sagamore Hill. Flora would remain close to some of the family members until she died many years later.
In short, this is a detailed biography of a great lady, First Lady, wife, world traveler, mother, and grandmother. The vivid detail of the White House during TR's electric eight years at the head of the country is worth the price and time alone. The Kennedys and Camelot had nothing on the intellectual and artisic salon that the Roosevelts inspired and supported during their many years in Washington.
Second, Mrs. Levin's assertion that Edith Wilson was the first female president is highly overstated. While she did control, along with Dr. Grayson and Secretary Tumulty, who and what the President saw she never made an important governmental decision. While Wilson was unable to appear in public he was able to read and perform limited duties of his office. Any scholar who has combed even the surface of Wilson's papers understands this. For an unbiased and complete review of Wilson in the months before and after his infamous stroke an interested reader should look at John Milton Cooper's "Breaking the Heart of the World." Cooper is the foremost living authority on Wilson.
My point here is not to completely excoriate Mrs. Levin's book but to caution readers of its flaws. There are much better books on both President Wilson and the first lady: the mentioned book by Cooper, Arthur Link's "Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era," and John Cooper's dual biography of Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, "The Warrior and the Priest." As a student of Wilson I am most disappointed by Levin's failure to observe Wilson's high moral purpose and the energy which he devoted to it (this is what eventually brought on the stroke).
What's more, her chronology is so haphazard, and she skips around so much, that the reader is never quite sure what year or country we're in at any given time, or what the heck is going on, or who said what to whom.
Add a boatload of odd editorial boo-boos and you have a very disappointing book.
My complaints are that the book was much more Woodrow than Edith and I am still not sure I feel like I buy Levin's theme that Edith was the first female president.
I was surprised to learn just how incapacitated Wilson was and how little the country was aware of.
This could have been a much better book.
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