Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Belle of New Hampshire

Last night we attended Sarah Vowell's reading/talk, which was all kinds of cool. Really must read her books. Though I don't think it will be quite as fun as her reading them aloud. :-)

She chose a Lincoln-assassination-related passage for the first reading, prefaced by an entertaining tangent about how dumb it was from a PR standpoint for Booth to pull the trigger on Good Friday. Something to the effect of "thus ensuring that a President half the country hated on Friday would, by Sunday morning, be eulogized in every Easter sermon." Which is a really, really good point, and one I don't remember if I ever thought about before.

If I did, it would have been while I was devouring research getting ready for These Honorable Men, and that was 1995, so it's a little fuzzy. I read about the whole topic, of course, but mostly I was focussing on any mentions I could find of my character, Booth's "secret fiancée," Lucy Hale. (The linked article just happened to be the first Google hit I got this morning, and is really cool, but has the same oddity from my perspective as the one I'm about to explain...)

Those aspects of my research are less fuzzy, despite it being thirteen years later. So the passage Vowell read last night got to the part about how Lucy's father was keen on taking her with him to his new assignment as Ambassador to Spain, thus putting as much distance between "his pretty daughter" and Booth as possible... Well, that's all quite accurate, except for the part where everything I read indicated that she was quite the social belle, and regarded as having an "air" or personal charisma, specifically in spite of not being considered a beauty. Even my hubby (who, granted, had to live with me while I was living with Lucy, but still, thirteen years!) chuckled at that. And noted in the car on the way home that her long list of suitors, including Robert Todd Lincoln, could probably be at least partly ascribed to money and connections. Which, yeah, probably true. But since she's one of two historical figures I've played (and it's questionable how much one can count Catherine de Valois as written by Shakespeare in that reckoning), I choose to believe it was charisma. ;-D
IIRC, neither of the good pictures I found of Lucy online this morning is the carte de visite Booth had in his pocket at the time of his death. (The actual one is in the museum in the basement of Ford's.) It might have been the one at the top of this post, but I don't think so. But my favorite -- the one I photocopied and taped to the front of my THM script -- is this second one, mostly because it's the one that reminded me so much of my maternal grandmother (seen below modeling her brother's Army coat) as a young woman. Grandma Wieging was a lady and a tough broad, with nary a speck of cognitive dissonance between the two, and is without a doubt the root of what my mom raised me to be.
There ended up being some of Grandma in my Lucy because of that picture, which worked amazingly with the way Doug wrote her -- young and sheltered and not without vulnerability, to be sure, but no hothouse flower either. Such a gift that she was written for me! That'll always blow my mind.

We actually had some remarkable resemblances in that play, some of them not even discovered until we started doing research after it was cast! The standard comment was "Except for Val, because she's prettier." Which still amuses the heck out of me, as my one experience with the typical "more glamorous version of historical figure" thing. Since I'm not usually more glamorous in, well, general. And of course I was amused by the definitely-more-glamorous Jean Louisa Kelly in the TV-movie The Day Lincoln Was Shot a couple years later. I distinctly remember making note of that. (And also feeling particularly unglamorous myself, as I was watching it with a big knot on my forehead, having whacked myself with a dryer door in the laundry room half an hour before.)
It's a curious thing, that people seem to find it essential to characterize such a person as a beauty, even if she wasn't. Which feeds tangentially into the Lizzie project, as one of the threads I'm playing with is how she started out being perceived as quite plain and/or odd-looking, but became defined as the Pre-Raphaelite stunner. Complete with a certain amount of revisionism going into the story of her "discovery" by Walter Deverell, who was looking for red hair and a girl who could be convincing as a boy (i.e. Viola-as-Cesario). All pretty much because Rossetti said so, and saw her that way, and painted her that way.
Funny all the things popping up lately that resonate with that watershed year. Maybe just me, or maybe the Universe trying to tell me something. :-)

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