Books About Remarkable Women

The Destiny of Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904) by Cecily Mackworth. The child of a Russian ex-priest and a European aristocrat, Isabelle Eberhardt grew up in Switzerland exposed to the arts and all manner of people. She read widely and, something of a mystic, was drawn to the East. The young woman’s interest was stoked by a French officer in the Sahara who became her pen pal. When an Algerian photographer offered to help her and her mother (at loose financial ends) relocate to North Africa, Isabelle jumped at it.

As no woman could move around unaccompanied, Isabelle wore the Arab dress of a male. Connections allowed her to go where few but diplomats had preceded, while behavior found her ostracized from the French community. She wrote and published with a decidedly anti-colonial bent, eventually turning to Islam. Barely a year later, her mother died.

Most of the rest of Isabelle’s life was spent in her adopted homeland. She fearlessly explored the desert dressed as a man (though apparently having sex as a woman), and was accepted by nomads and thieves alike. Her knowledge of Islam and Arabic lead French who first wanted to arrest her, to ask that Isabelle mediate what could have been a desert war. Paul Bowles translated some of her writing. This would make a wonderful film.

The Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Blanch. Four headstrong women, including Isabelle Eberhardt, personify characters more frequently found in romance novels. These are the true stories of: Isabel Burton who married adventurer/explorer, “Burton of Arabia,” traveled by his side and eventually set out on her own.

Aimee Dubucq de Rivery, cousin of Empress Josephine, was captured by corsair pirates and sold into the harem of Grand Turk. She became his great love. Jane Digby, a libertarian divorcee, cut a promiscuous  swathe through Bedouin tents, ending up with the powerful Sheik Abdul Madjuel El Mezrab. Digby moved back to Damascus at 74 only because tent life became too physically difficult. And Isabelle Eberhardt- see above. A grand read.

Signed, Mata Hari by Yanick Murphy. A novelistic telling of the life of Margaretha Zelle, alias Mata Hari, from her poor childhood on the North Sea through loveless marriage to a brutal alcoholic, to life as an artist’s model, circus rider, exotic dancer (she stripped), infamous courtesan, and an unwilling spy for The Deuxième Bureau and the Germans.

Some historians conjecture Margaretha  may have accepted money without actually carrying out any spy duties. Others document that information she was asked to secure would’ve been unavailable through the men she was asked to seduce. The author has his own opinion. Mata Hari was executed by a firing squad Her stage name is the word for “sun” in Malaysian (literally, “eye of the day”), a nod to the dance technique she studied.

Queen of The Ritz by Samuel Marx. Blanche Auzella and her husband Claude ran Paris’s Hotel Ritz from the 1920s through the 1940s, from its lavish heyday through German Occupation. She knew anyone worth knowing, famous and infamous. Relationships with Gestapo  officers, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gabrielle Chanel (who had an affair with a highly placed Nazi), J.P Morgan and Cole Porter find their way into the pages. While Nazis occupied suites, Blanche quietly worked for the Resistance, even sequestering fugitives on premises. Goods and women changed hands. All this and she seems to have lived without breaking a sweat. This book by her nephew is curious and entertaining.

The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker by John Keats. Dorothy Parker had her finger on the darker pulse of her generation, a seat at the fabled Algonquin Round Table, jobs at The New Yorker and in Hollywood; she went through two husbands and four prominent lovers at homes in Beverly Hills, Bucks County, and New York. Parker was quoted and copied, her wit held in high esteem, sarcasm a sharp blade. She lived well, but often at a low ebb, a tormented alcoholic. This book captures the woman and her times. Razors pain you;/ Rivers are damp; Acids stain you;/ And drugs cause cramp./Guns aren’t lawful;/ Nooses give;/ Gas smells awful;/You might as well live. There are photos.

West With the Night by Beryl Markham. Raised in East Africa, Beryl Markham watched her father build a working farm from dry earth. She was taught nothing was beyond her. Markham  learned to train and breed horses on the estate, but captivated by flight, set up business piloting a small plane that carried mail, goods and passengers to distant corners of the continent. In 1936, she became the first person to fly across the Atlantic from east to west, crashing in Nova Scotia 21 hours, 25 minutes later. The book is full of adventure, exploration, relationships, poetic and colorful tales of a country with which she was intimate at a time before endless war.

Some of My Lives- A Scrapbook Memoir by Rosamond Bernier. To those who never attended one of Bernier’s lectures at The Metropolitan Museum, I can only say you missed something extraordinary. Born in Philadelphia and educated in France, Bernier was the first postwar European Features Editor for Vogue, living at Hôtel de Crillon. She co-founded the top French art magazine L’OEIL, published from 1955 to 1970, becoming friends with, it seems, every notable artist of the times. (Bernier would arrive to her lectures wearing formal attire that embodied each artist’s point of view.)

The self portrait is formatted as a collection of intimate stories and articles about, in part, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Aaron Copeland, Karl Lagerfeld, Leonard Bernstein, Miro, Calder, Leger, Rivera, Balanchine, Pauline de Rothschild, Rene Clair, Vittorio De Sica…. Sophisticated, knowledgeable, charming and driven, everyone seems to have trusted and taken to her.

When the bubble burst, jobless and divorced after 20 years of marriage, Bernier returned to Manhattan. She met and married New York Times art critic, John Russell- the love of her life and became what she called “a professional talker.”  Like being a fly on the wall.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay 

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About Alix Cohen (791 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.