Memories of a violent era — and why I became a Canadian

Memories of a violent era — and why I became a Canadian

JFK was murdered on November 22, 1963, fifty-five years ago today. I was nineteen and in university. I don’t remember the moment I learned — How is that possible? — but the images and the shock of it are indelible in my memory.

Mob hitman James Files claims once again he was the man ...

I have since read a moving biographical historical novel, titled, simply, Nov 22, 1963, by Adam Braver.

November 22, 1963 by Adam Braver — Reviews, Discussion ...

The assassination was made all the more horrifying in learning in this novel that JFK and Jackie had recently suffered the death of a baby. This tragic trip to Texas with her husband was Jackie’s brave first public event.

A Berkeley childhood

I grew up in Berkeley, California. Air raid siren drills were common; there was always the fear of annihilation. At Girl Scout camp, I remember a cloudy day being attributed to the test of a nuclear bomb in near-by Nevada. I was assigned to write stories about our last day alive in Grade School.

My high school years in Berkeley were vivid with protest. I was a proud member of Students for a Democratic Society. In English, I sat next to Tracy Simms, who led the very first sit-in against a hotel in San Francisco that did not hire Blacks.

These were intense years, rich with both excitement and fear. The Whole Earth Catalogue was Google in print. It’s message was: “You can do anything, go anywhere. Here are the tools.” It was a powerful concept, and an entire generation took it to heart.

Although I don’t remember the moment I learned of Kennedy’s assassination, I remember, vividly, the night of the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, two-a-half years before. I was seventeen, living in San Francisco with roommates in the Castro district, going to San Francisco State. We believed that it could be the end of the world, our last night alive. (In fact, recent scholarship shows how very close it came to being just that, by an accident of communication.) I imagine that there was a surge in births nine months later, for many young couples succumbed. Why wait?

The three assassinations

On April 4, 1968, four-and-a-half years after Kennedy was killed, Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was twenty-one, married and working in a factory in Belmont, California — a factory that provided micro-chips for fighter jets. I had to sign a Loyalty Oath to work there. I remember the Ohio Flute Society (or something similar) being listed as one of the suspicious organizations.

I couldn’t sleep the night of April 4. I got up and went downstairs. It was very late. I turned on the TV: screams, a newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images. King had been shot.

The next morning, at the factory, a white guy riding a trolley yelled, fist raised, “We got another one!”

And then, only two months later, on June 6, the same thing. I couldn’t sleep, I went downstairs and turned on the TV. A newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images, screams. Bobby Kennedy had been shot.

I’d been canvassing for him, handing out leaflets — it was my first involvement in a political campaign. Belmont was a conservative town, yet the day after Bobby Kennedy’s death there was, I was told, a rash of suicides.

A decision

That morning, the morning after, my then husband and I went to Half Moon Bay. Sitting on a sand dune overlooking the Pacific, stunned by the news, I said I wanted to move. Away. To another country. Bobby Kennedy’s death was the straw that broke my back.

And thus the decision was made to leave my country of birth for a more peaceful realm. Move to Canada — a “healing” country in the words of the wonderful Carol Shields, who had herself immigrated to Canada from the US. I found it to be just that.

A Canadian citizen now, I have never regretted that move. Even so, a part of me will always be American. A part of me will always love that country — love it, and fear for it. Which is one reason I, like so many others, am addicted to the horrifying daily news.

Are things worse now than they were during those violent and tumultuous years? I would say yes, although in a more institutional way. I believe in democracy, and greatly fear for it.

Tweetable Napoleon: a collection of his quotes

Tweetable Napoleon: a collection of his quotes

A master of the sound bite, Napoleon would have been in his element in this Age of Twitter. Here is a sampling of some pithy Napoleon quotes, some of which his stepdaughter Hortense views ironically in The Game of Hope.

“What a novel my life has been!”

“Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them.”

“If you wish to be a success in the world, promise everything, deliver nothing.”

“All celebrated people lose dignity on a close view.”

“Courage is like love; it must have hope for nourishment.”

“Victory belongs to the most persevering.”

“History is the lies we all agree upon.”

“What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon.”

“A throne is only a bench covered in velvet.”

“Our hour is marked, and no one can claim a moment of life beyond what fate has predestined.”

“A leader is a dealer in hope.”

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”

What are some of your favorites? SaveSave

SaveSave

Where Hortense’s father Alexandre de Beauharnais was guillotined and buried

Where Hortense’s father Alexandre de Beauharnais was guillotined and buried

Tracking down facts can be a time-crunching task … but a very enjoyable one when the goal is in sight.

I began with a simple question: Where was Hortense’s father executed and buried? I think these were things she might have wanted to know.

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Portrait of Josephine and her two children, Hortense and Eugène, visiting their father in prison.

False leads

In the process, I found many wrong answers … which reinforces the common knowledge that the Net can’t be trusted. However, I knew enough to know when the answer was wrong, and kept looking.

In the process I ended up making a correction to a Wikipedia page … which rather thrilled me. Alexandre was defined, simply, as the lover of Princess Amalie of Salm-Kyrburg, a friend of Josephine’s who secretly acquired the land after the Revolution because her brother is buried there. Not only was it curious that Josephine and their children were not mentioned, but I very much doubt that Alexandre was Amalie’s lover. Other women, certainly, but not Amalie.

guillotined

Place du Trône-Renversé—now Place de la Nation—where Hortense’s father was guillotined.

Alexandre was guillotined not in the Place de la Révolution (Place de la Concorde now) or Place de Grève (in front of the l’Hôtel-de-Ville), as if often claimed, but in Place du Trône-Renversé (now Place de la Nation), on the western edge of Paris. Apparently the other execution sites had become so bloody they had to find a new spot.

Mass executions at the height of the Terror

In a matter of about 6 weeks (from June 13 to July 27, 1794) 1306 men and women were guillotined, as many as 55 people a day. I imagine that it was hard work keeping the blade sufficiently sharp.

How to dispose of all the bodies?

It was also hard work disposing of the bodies. What is now the Picpus Cemetery was then land seized from a convent during the Revolution, conveniently close to Place du Trône-Renversé. A pit was dug at the end of the garden, and when that filled up, a second was dug. The bodies of all 1306 of the men and women executed in Place du Trône-Renversé were thrown into the common pits including 108 nobles, 136 monastics, and 579 commoners … .

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The mass graves are simply marked.

 

names of those guillotined

One of two wall listing the names and ages of the dead.

 

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Le Cimetière de Picpus today.

Of those executed, 197 were women, including 16 Carmelite nuns, who went to the scaffold singing hymns.

Nuns to be guillotined

4623442469_ce905dc3c0 257_Carmelites

In all the research I’ve done in Paris over the decades, I’ve yet to go to either the Place du Trône-Renversé (Place de la Nation) or the Picpus Cemetery. I believe I’m due.

Was Josepine very promiscuous?

Was Josepine very promiscuous?

The above image is a portrait of Josephine before she met Napoleon.

It is always hard for me to read biographies about Josephine. I’ve yet to read one I don’t have a quibble with. The same holds for a “Great Lives” BBC broadcast I listened to recently on Josephine. It pleases me that Josephine was chosen as one of the “Great Lives,” but there were a number of statements made that I very much question. One statement made was that she was very promiscuous. I ask you: How many lovers does a “very” promiscuous woman have?

How many lovers did Josephine have?

For Josephine, there was General Hoche, and—as is claimed — Director Barras, and — also claimed — Captain Charles.

hoche copy

Portrait of General Hoche.

Although there is no absolute evidence regarding Josephine’s involvement with General Hoche, I personally believe that he might have been her lover. We really know nothing concrete, but Hoche was a lovable, attractive man, and she could very well have loved him.

Barras copy

Director Paul Barras

Regarding Director Barras, the question posed on the broadcast was, “What did she have to offer him?” The question was rhetorical: I.e. nothing, it was implied.

Au contraire. My historical consultant, Dr. Catinat, an authority on Josephine, told me that what Josephine had to offer were connections to wealthy Caribbean bankers, contacts she had made as a Freemason. (Women could be Freemasons then.) Barras, although powerful, was very much in need of financial aid, and Josephine was able to put him in contact with men who could help.

Josephine received money from Barras, no doubt, but Dr. Catinat felt that in balance, Barras was the one who came out ahead. This perspective is never mentioned. Instead, it is assumed that because Josephine was receiving money from Barras, she had to be sleeping with him.

300px-Barras1797

A UK political cartoon showing Josephine and her friend Therese dancing naked for Director Barras, Napoleon looking on.

Several mentions were made of the cartoon of Josephine and her friend Therese dancing naked for Barras, as if this was something that actually happened. They failed to note that the cartoonist was from the UK, which was at war with France. Enemies delight in portraying the enemy in a vile light. Again, while writing the Trilogy, I checked with my knowledgeable French consultants, who declared such stories untrue.

Was Director Barras heterosexual?

Dr. Catinat also told me that Barras was homosexual, possibly bisexual. He had no progeny — in spite of claims that he had many female lovers. I am personally inclined to think that he was more homosexual than bisexual, but there really is very little to go on.

Long ago someone told me that, in her opinion, Josephine was a woman who enjoyed the company of Gay men. Frankly, that rings true to me. Josephine was bohemian, and she loved men and women of the theatre and the arts.

And what about Captain Charles?

Which leads us to Josephine’s third so-called lover: Captain Charles.

Sweet Captain Charles, Josephine’s business partner.

Hippolyte Charles, too, had no progeny — that we know of — and although we know next to nothing about his personal life, in manner he was gay as a tea party. Supremely fashionable, he enjoyed dressing as a woman.

Furthermore, at the time when Josephine was supposedly having a torrid affair with the Captain, she was quite ill, suffering from fevers and violent headaches, likely brought on by a premature menopause (the result of her imprisonment during the Revolution).

The portrait of Josephine as a woman having a torrid love affair at this time is hard to fathom. I don’t know about you, but I simply cannot see Josephine in the bed of either of Director Barras or Captain Charles. And even if I could, would these three lovers make her worthy of the label “very promiscuous”? I think not.

The BBC broadcast mentioned that Josephine was mesmerizing to men. Yes, she certainly was. What they failed to mention is that she was well-beloved by women as well.  As a rule of thumb — at least in my book of Observations of the Human Species — is that a promiscuous, manipulative, calculating woman is given a wide berth by other women. Josephine was trusted by women.

I rest my case.

(For more on this theme, see Josephine: Saint or Sinner? (Who knows?)

What have I been doing?

Other than spending quite a bit of time in Physio Therapy to help my Hip Bursitis (ouch!), I continue to wrestle with the Moonsick outline. It’s a big job, but I’m happy to report that it is coming along.

Great links to share…

The news continues to be dire. I am given hope by the resilience and creative joie d’vivre of the Belgians in their response to the order not to post telling photos to social media during the lock-down. National emergency? Belgians respond to terror raids with cats. This one is one of my favourites:

Cat

This YouTube video of people dancing on a Paris Metro is pure joy to watch.

I belong to a FaceBook group of authors, and now and then one of the members asks for help with coming up with a title. One of the authors posted a link to a Title Generator. It may never come up with a usable title, but it’s fun.

I started writing historical fiction because I wanted to imagine a world “peopled” by horses. I no longer have a horse of my own, and my riding days are behind me, but I continue to be captured by these beautiful creatures. This video on wild horses is stunning.

Have a great week!

Photo research diversion

I’ve been on-line quite a bit selecting illustrations for my e-book publications (coming up!).

It’s wonderfully easy to get lost in this process. Side-tracked, in fact. Here are some rather surprising discoveries, specifically having to do with the people in the life of Josephine’s daughter Hortense (the subject of my next novel).

I’ve always been fond of this portrait of Alexandre de Beauharnais, Josephine’s first husband, because he’s posed with his hand in his vest — exactly as her second husband Napoleon will be portrayed.

And her son Eugène, for that matter:

Coincidental? (I think not!)

The portrait that took me aback was this grim one of Alexandre, which I’d never seen before:

My suspicion has always been that Alexandre might have been bi-polar — something he might have passed onto Hortense, in fact. It’s only a hunch, but this portrait would certainly confirm that he was not a happy man.

An unusual request

An unusual request

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ll soon have my Sandra Gulland Ink e-books up. In the words of a youngster I know, “Soon is a very long time.” We are close — very close! — but for the concern that a few typos remain.

I proofed the files in France last summer, in the backseat of a car full of film crew, radio blaring. Not ideal!

Since then, Kris Waldherr, designer and tech wizz, read about half the chapters, and found typos. There are others, no doubt, and I’m on deadline revising This Bright Darkness: so no time to spare!

Here is the request. Are there any of you who 1) have an iPad, and 2) would be willing to read the new digital edition of The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Joséphine B.?

If so, I’d email you the file with instructions on how to get it into iBook. Then all you would have to do is read it, highlight whatever errors you find, and email them to me. (iBook makes this very easy.)

If you are interested, let me know! sgulland AT sandragulland DOT com.