the Insiders


July 8, 2013 6:01 PM


The Passionate Reader: July 8, 2013

"Queen of the Air: "A True Story of Love & Tragedy at the Circus" (Crown), by Dean Jensen, tells the story of a brilliant aerialist, Lillian Leitzel, and her life under and outside the Big Top....

"Queen of the Air: "A True Story of Love & Tragedy at the Circus" (Crown), by Dean Jensen, tells the story of a brilliant aerialist, Lillian Leitzel, and her life under and outside the Big Top.

queenair.jpgHer mother, Nellie Pelikan, had been born into a circus family, the Pelikans, and apprenticed at an early age to the owner of another small circus, Willy Dosta. She gave birth to his daughter just before she turned 13. This child, Lillian Leitzel, began her circus training early, and went on to become one of the highest-paid performers at the Ringing Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. Her first two marriages were short-lived, but then she married Alfred Codona, one of the celebrated Flying Codonas. Their incendiary romance is at the heart of "Queen of the Air." She was melodramatic; he was jealous, and they were both big stars. Circuses are a passion for Jensen, and he never misses a trick in describing their appeal and the way they work.

"The Woman Before Wallis: Prince Edward, the Parisian Courtesan, and the Perfect Murder" (Picador), by Andrew Rose, covers a rather different segment of society. Rose has unearthed the surprising story of high-priced courtesan Marguerite Alibert. The daughter of a cab driver and a charwoman, Alibert became a courtesan in the house of a Madame Denart, who years later recalled that she became "the mistress of nearly all my best clients, gentleman of wealth and position in France, England, America and other countries." Denart added, "It was me who made a sort of lady of her."

TheWomanBeforeWallis_300dpi.jpgDuring the First World War, Alibert worked for a time for the Red Cross in Touraine, then went to Egypt, where she became the mistress of a rich man, Mehmet Cherif. Later, in Paris, she was introduced to the Prince of Wales, who fell in love with her and wrote her impassioned letters. She, no fool, kept them. Their relationship lasted from April 1917 until the fall of 1918. In February 1918, however, the prince met Freda Dudley-Ward, who would become his mistress and closest confidant until Wallis Simpson arrived on the scene in 1934. In December of 1922, Marguerite married a wealthy Egyptian playboy, Ali Fahmy. Almost immediately, there were conflicts between the two. He was very jealous of her friendships with other men and had apparently made death threats to her. It all culminated on the stormy night of July 9, 1923, when the pair were staying at London's Savoy, and Alibert shot him three times. It would seem an open-and-shut case; but, in the end, after her lawyers apprised the Royal Family of her cache of letters, Alibert got off. Rose makes a good case for the notion that this was because the English government didn't want her relationship with the Prince of Wales revealed.

Then there's "The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), by Mac Griswold. The story this book tells is remarkable. One day in the Eighties, Griswold, a landscape architect, was canoeing up Gardiners Creek on Shelter Island when she saw, to her amazement, a set of 12-foot-high boxwood hedges surrounding a house, Sylvester Manor. Box grows very slowly, and she knew that their height meant that they were hundreds of years old. After writing repeatedly to Andrew and Alice Fisk, the owners of the house, she was finally able to visit it. The property had been in the same family for 11 generations, and the manor house was filled with heirloom furniture and ancient documents dating back to the time of the original treaty with Wyandanch, the 17th-century Grand Sachem of Long Island.

themanor.jpgIn her research, Griswold eventually discovered that the original owners had been Quakers who were involved in the slave trade. The Fisks knew that their ancestors were slave-owners, but believed that they had sheltered Quakers from persecution; the revelation that they themselves were Quakers was unexpected, since members of this group were historically committed abolitionists. Griswold skillfully weaves a historical tapestry of considerable complexity around the estate, which once encompassed the entire 8,000-acre island, and now comprises 243 acres. She writes about many of the items that have been discovered on the property during an ongoing series of archeological digs there, along with giving the history of the family's fortunes and the many public intellectuals who were family friends, among them Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sarah Orne Jewett, John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell. The estate was inherited by Andrew Fisk's nephew Eben Ostby, who is a founder of Pixar and who didn't want to move from the West Coast to manage the property. His sister's son, Bennett Konesni, now supervises the estate, part of which has become an organic farm.

OnTheFloor_HiRes.jpgIn "On the Floor," (Picador), a novel by Aifric Campbell, 28-year-old London-based investment banker Geri Molloy is trying to recover from a difficult breakup and resisting pressure to move to Hong Kong in order to service her firm's biggest client, Felix Mann, who has taken an unexpected shine to her. The fast-paced narrative brings to life the London banking world of the go-go early Nineties, just before the quants took over, with unexpected consequences that would eventually result in the Great Recession, which began in December 2007. Campbell, who worked in the City for 13 years, and, at Morgan Stanley, became the first woman managing director on the London trading floor, knows this world intimately, and she pushes the boat of plot out beyond predictability, while keeping her characters believable and engaging.

LoveAffairsOfNathanielP_300dpi.JPG"The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P." (Henry Holt) is more playful. Adelle Waldman creates a young literary star, Nate Piven, narrating the book from his point of view. His girlfriends include business reporter Juliet, beauty Elisa and his intellectual equal Hannah....But when he gets involved with yet another young woman, Greer, who has received a big advance for a book about adolescent promiscuity, things change. The tenor of his observations is illustrated by a moment when, speaking of Hannah, who has just left to go to the ladies' room, he observes: "When she returned, she asked if he was mad at her. As if she had done anything that would have entitled him to be mad at her. Why the f--k did women, no matter how smart, how independent, inevitably revert to this state of willed imbecility? It wasn't as if he had the emotional register of a binary system, as if his only states of being were 'happy' and 'mad at her.'"

It's not a new book, but it's a fascinating one. "Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), by Douglas Smith, which came out last year, is a social history of what Smith estimates as the 12 percent of the nobility and aristocracy who did not leave Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, which broke out in 1917. Some members of the group who stayed were idealists who believed that the last czar's policies were wrong, and that changes needed be made. Others believed that the regime's animus against them would eventually wane, and that they would be able to live their lives in peace. This, however, wasn't what happened. Smith focuses primarily on two families, the Golitsyn and Sheremetev clans, each of whom had provided leaders in politics, the military and the arts in Russia for generations.

formerpeople.jpgThroughout the Twenties and Thirties, these "former people" -- a Russian idiom -- were frequently arrested on laughable charges and given long sentences in Siberia. Sometimes they could bargain their sentences down, and when they were finally released, they hoped that their trials were over. But this was rarely the case. Libraries, archives and museums often employed "former people," since few members of the general public had their levels of education and language skills. But both Lenin and Stalin believed in perpetual class struggle, and this meant that anyone with the wrong surname was vulnerable to repeated arrest. In the end, after several prison sentences or periods in exile, they would often be targeted by particularly zealous prosecutors and executed, especially during the Great Purge of 1936 to 1939. One Orwellian euphemism used by the regime was that the people who had been arrested had been sent to prison camps "without the right of correspondence." What this meant was that they had been summarily shot. But it wasn't until the thaw that began under Khrushchev that their families, who had been trying to get news of them for decades, learned this.

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