Happy Birthday Nancy

Image

‘I never dreamt of such happiness. I had never any idea of what it would be like — Now I hardly think of anything else…Sydney will make just such another mother as I had so he ought to be a very happy little boy.’ David Mitford in a letter to his mother.

At 6 o’clock, on the evening of the 28th November 1904, the baby was born. With her thick black hair, pale skin and grey green eyes (once she opened them!) Farve immediately decided the child should be named Ruby. ‘The baby is splendid 91/2 lbs at birth and the prettiest little child you could see…Our happiness is great..’ he wrote to his mother, Lady Redesdale.

One week later Sydney was well enough to take an interest in the baby and decided that the name Ruby would have to go. David put up little protest and on January 26 1905, the baby was christened Nancy Freeman-Mitford.

Image

Nancy was a spoilt little girl and through such indulges she became a temperamental toddler prone to violent rages. ‘Nancy bellowing in her pram all the way to the park; Nancy on a pony screaming to be put down,’ Selina Hastings wrote in her biography, Nancy Mitford. ‘The houses are smiling at me,’ Nancy would say, suddenly grinning at Sydney from her pram, having roared all the way from Graham Street to Belgrave Square.

Image

Despite her characteristic tantrums, predictable to her nanny, Ninny and her exasperated parents, Nancy’s entire childhood was dismantled at the age of three when Ninny guided her to the nursery to gaze at the new baby, Pamela. ‘Oh, Ninny, I WISH you could love me! WHY don’t you love me any more?’ Nancy implored. Sydney found the pleas to be pitiful and she dismissed poor Ninny. Nancy discovered her knack for teasing, transferring her rage on to gentle, unsuspecting Pam. Through such nursery pranks and cruelties Nancy honed her skills for teasing.  And they would be refined through the years as Tom, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah were introduced to the family.

Image

Advertisements

The Duchess & The King

AVT_Deborah-Devonshire_9082 -Elvis-elvis-presley-30741633-440-619

‘He was very agile, wonderful movement, wonderful timing, and the best voice any of us ever heard.’
‘Was he sex on legs?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Was he sex on legs?’
‘I suppose he was…I suppose he was.’

– An exchange between a radio interviewer and Debo

Even though she lived through the 1950s when Elvis burst onto the music scene, Debo did not become an avid fan until the evening of her life. Had she been a fan during his prime she surely would have been arrested for stalking – her claim, not mine! In her own words Debo described her introduction to the King in an interview for BBC Woman’s Hour: ‘I switched on the television one day for no reason and there he was and I suddenly realised I was in the presence of a genius. Never having really noticed him when he was on the go. I just thought this was the most brilliant performer I have ever seen and that’s what I still think. In my long life I’ve seen many performances of many people but there’s nothing comes up to him. Nothing.’

Debo soon advanced from a casual listener to an avid collector. Her collection contains many pieces of rare memorabilia (a plank of wood said to be from the fence at Graceland) to mass produced souvenirs (tattoo transfers and postcards). ‘One thing leads to another and it became a sort of joke…’ Debo said. She, too, could see the irony in owning such a vast collection containing street signs, car registration numbers, sketches, books, CD’s, slippers and a telephone which played Jailhouse Rock. ‘People are surprised, but some people are easily surprised, aren’t they?’

And speaking of her pilgrimage to Graceland, Debo said: ‘It’s really very moving because you feel it was his real home and he really loved it but of course the other fascinating side, to me – I love seeing round strange places -was that it was probably the last really early fifties interior which has been left intact. There is his amazing chairs and tables and the huge old televisions and the carpet on the ceilings as well as on the floor. It’s just extraordinary!’

Debo’s favourite trinkets from her collection are a few ‘roughly made museum pieces’, such as an Elvis themed cook book entitled Are You Hungry Tonight? Some of the recipes, mind you, were disgusting as Debo discovered; although a few of them, she thought, ‘might be’ delicious. ‘But it’s what he liked,’ she carefully added. ‘Fried peanut butter and banana…’ Other collectables included a pair of earrings made in Mexico from Coca-Cola bottle tops; ‘The trouble is, I can’t wear them because my ears aren’t pierced.’ And a black Elvis mug which says ‘Elvis Lives’, when hot water is added a picture of Elvis manifests. ‘So Elvis does live. He really does,’ she said. During the interview Debo searched her fireplace for some familiar Elvis photographs. ‘Oh, that’s my grandfather! That’s no good,’ she said as her eyes scanned the clutter. She spied a photograph of Elvis dancing with a teddy bear. Let’s not even mention the Elvis printed wallpaper in her lavatory . . .

Her husband, Andrew the Duke of Devonshire, was not an Elvis fan but he understood Debo’s infatuation with the king of rock ‘n roll. ‘He’s your hero!’ he caterwauled on the BBC programme Debutantes. ‘He’s your hero!’ he repeated just in case the enthusiasm was lost on Debo. I should add this was the result of an exchange between the Duke and Duchess on people who possess star quality (Debo nominated Lester Piggot, Rita Hayworth, Winston Churchill and the man himself, Elvis).

The greatest experience in Debo’s quest for Elvis was a touring concert which visited London. Elvis appeared onstage via hologram and was surrounded by his original band, ‘Some of them were grey . . . some of them were fat,’ Debo described the ageing musicians. ‘But the atmosphere was incredible.’ Despite her love for his music, Debo had admitted that she cannot sing any of his songs. ‘No of course not!’ she protested when pressed to do so by an interviewer, ‘can you imagine! It’s an awful idea, no no.’  Debo, however, admitted that she loved to retire to her drawing room in the evening to blast Elvis music on her CD player. ‘Banging away,’ as she referred to it.

Her Favourite song? Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away. It was symbolic, Debo thought, because he had become ‘such a travesty’ compared to what he was when young. ‘Very sad,’ she said.

You can read more about the Mitford girls and their love of fandom in my book The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life.

Debo describes JFK’s funeral

Deborah to Nancy
4 December 1963

Get on
    Thanks v. much for yr letter. We had such a sad time in Washington. I was more or less alright in the church till all his friends came in and then all welled & it was floods all the way. You never saw such crumpled miserable faces. I never want to see such a thing again, but anyhow one never will as whoever dies whom I know can never make such an effect on so many kinds of people.
    I certainly was incredibly lucky to know him & I still can’t believe he’s dead, it’s impossible. We had such odd journeys out & back, if it hadn’t been for the great sadness of the reason for going I suppose it would have been rather fascinating, going out I had dinner with the D of Edinburgh & Mr Wilson (Harold Wilson), & Andrew was with the Homes, & coming back there was only the Homes & Mr Grimond (Joseph Grimond) & me & 150 empty seats behind. They all fetched up here because British Railways couldn’t get them any sleepers. Ha ha. They slept in the sheets put on for Princess Margaret & co. Ld Home said if he crept into bed very quietly and lay still no one would know they had been used.

    Haste as per.

    Much love, 9

Such a sad letter from Henderson (Decca). I do wish she had known J.K. They would have so screamed at each other.

(Extracted from Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, pp. 404-405. No copyright infringement intended).

Kick Kennedy

Image

I’ve been invited on to BBC Radio Sheffield to chat about the Kennedys and their connection to the Cavendish family. Of course, the connection began with Kick, who in 1938, moved to London when her father accepted the post of United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. I suppose the Kennedys had a lot in common with the Mitfords. Each came from a large family where the siblings possessed star quality, the press were intrigued by their shenanigans, an element of scandal lurked in the background and each family was plagued by tragedy.

Kick and Debo met when they both were presented at Court in 1938. A few months later Kick caught the eye of William Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington (known as Billy), and heir to the Dukedom of Devonshire. Similarly, Debo met Andrew, the Duke’s second son, at a supper party. Soon they became a foursome, attending parties and society events in and around London. Billy and Kick wanted to marry but their pending engagement was not greeted enthusiastically by their parents, mostly the Kennedys who were staunch Catholics. Likewise, Billy’s parents – the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire – were not thrilled at the family establishment welcoming a Catholic. Given that Billy was his father’s heir, his choice of wife was important. What if Kick convinced Billy to convert? What if their first born son was a Catholic? A Catholic Duke, it was enough to dismantle the entire family. Luckily for the young couple meetings were held with both of their churches and an agreement was made: any sons born to Kick and Billy would be brought up in the Church of England and any daughters would be raised Catholic. This, in a way, solved the Catholic ‘problem’.

Image

The worries over religion seemed wasted, for a few months after their marriage Billy was killed in action. Ironically, the Cavendish family came to love Kick and given that her own mother, Rose, had more or less disowned her because of her marriage to Billy, they became the only family she knew. After the war Kick fell in love with a married man, Peter Fitzwilliam, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam. If a protestant son-in-law shocked Rose, a married protestant man outraged her. Kick and Peter were flying to Cannes when their small aircraft crashed into the side of a mountain, both were killed instantly. Rose, still unforgiving, apparently said upon receiving the news of Kick’s death: ‘God saw what was going on and pointed and said NO!’

In her 28 years Kick made quite an impact on London society and over 500 mourners attended her funeral. The Cavendish family arranged the burial and interned Kick’s body in the family plot in the churchyard of Edensor village.

Following the death of Kick the Cavendish family still kept in touch with the Kennedys. Shortly after the funeral, Bobby Kennedy stayed at Edensor with Debo and Andrew and amused Debo by wearing shorts and socks, she thought Bobby socks had been named after him. JFK was sympathetic to Kick’s plight with Rose and he formed a close bond with her. In 1961 he invited Debo and Andrew to his presidential inauguration. In 1963 he visited Kick’s grave for the first time (I go into detail about this in my previous blog).

Though Kick was not considered beautiful she possessed star quality, she was lively, bright, charming and full of life. As Debo attests, all of these radiant qualities shine through in her photographs. Kick’s love for life only made her untimely death all the more tragic.

Debo & JFK

ImageMark my words, I would not be surprised if that young man becomes President of the United States of America.
-Lady Redesdale, 1938

It was during the debutante season of 1938 that Debo first met the Kennedy family when Joseph Kennedy, was appointed United States ambassador to the United Kingdom. Lady Redesdale, like all of the aristocratic ladies, was intrigued by the this large, Irish-American family and she was ‘full of admiration for Mrs. [Rose] Kennedy who had easily outdone her in the childbearing line’. Debo danced with John F. Kennedy, known as ‘Jack’ at a ball given by Lady Louis Mountbatten for Sally Norton and she recorded her thoughts on the young man in her diary: ‘Rather boring but nice.’

Jack had quickly left her thoughts but from 1941 onwards Debo would form a life-long bond with the Kennedy family. Her brother-in-law Billy Cavendish, (heir to the Dukedom of Devonshire) married Jack’s sister, Kathleen, known as ‘Kick’. Both the Kennedy and the Cavendish family opposed the marriage between Billy and Kick due to their religious differences, the Kennedys more so given their staunch Catholic beliefs. They did indeed marry but their happiness was short-lived when Billy was killed in action. Kick remained close to the Cavendish family until her death in a plane crash in 1948.

Debo and Andrew kept in touch with the Kennedys and followed Jack’s political progress. They were guests of honour (invited by Jack) at his inauguration in 1961, Debo called it ‘Jack’s coronation’. When Jack became President, Andrew’s uncle, Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister and what began as a polite relationship based on past family ties and politics developed into a close friendship, especially between Debo and Jack. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Jack would telephone Debo often at 3am to ask after ‘Uncle’ Harold (he, too, adopted this term of endearment), reminisce about old times when Kick was alive or simply just to have a general chit chat. Andrew, impressed by Jack’s popularity, especially with the ladies, quipped: ‘Kennedy is doing for sex what Eisenhower did for golf.’

Nicknames were popular in the Mitford family and Jack was no exception, Debo quickly nicknamed him Loved One after he telephoned her on the 4th of July to ask, ‘Have you got all of your loved ones around you?’ Nancy was more brutal – she nicknamed him Fat Friend. ‘It’s a pity you don’t like Americans. You would worship the body of the President, that’s all,’ Debo wrote to Nancy. Despite Nancy’s lack of enthusiasm, Debo was ardent in her admiration for the president. Her Christmas present to him was a framed photograph of herself ‘surrounded by protestant clergymen’ and some silver footman’s buttons he had admired covered in crowns and snakes. Jack was fascinated by Chatsworth and he surprised everyone, Debo, Andrew and staff alike, when he announced he was dropping by.

As Debo learned, there was nothing casual about Jack’s visit. The Secret Service telephoned Debo in advance to inquire what type of village Edensor was. ‘Well quiet sort of people,’ Debo responded and her claim was backed up when an elderly local appeared on his doorstep with two crutches. The president’s helicopter landed in Edensor, causing a fanfare of havoc in the sleepy village. Jack wanted to visit Chatsworth House but his advisers warned against it; the place had not been vetted by his security officers, but he did not listen. He piled into a car with Debo and Andrew and as they set off towards the ‘big house’ Jack chatted enthusiastically about the helicopter, ‘It’s even got a bathroom!’ he said.
‘A bathroom? What on earth for?’ Debo asked. ‘You possibly couldn’t need a bath on that short trip.’ What he meant, Debo realised, was that it had a lavatory.
The following day after Jack’s whirlwind visit, Debo bumped into a local villager. ‘Wasn’t it exciting to see the President?’ she said, still on a high.
‘I didn’t think so,’ the villager responded. ‘That helicopter blew my hens away. I haven’t seen them since.’

Debo and Andrew were in London on November 22 1963 when they heard the news of Jack’s assassination on the wireless. Andrew had to make an after dinner speech but admitted, ‘Whatever I was saying was of no consequence since our minds were elsewhere.’ Debo, like the rest of the world, was stunned. Letters from Pam, Diana and Decca are a testament to Debo’s friendship with Jack, each wrote to express their sympathies…

‘You will be so terribly upset at the ghastly tragedy of Mr. Kennedy’s death. He was the only person who was honestly making for world peace and was making real progress in that direction.’- Pamela

‘Don’t be too sad…he had a wonderful life and a quick death.’- Diana

‘I can’t describe the feeling of utter horror at what has happened.’ –Decca

Debo and Andrew flew to Washington to pay their respects and to attend the funeral. Prince Phillip was also in attendance, representing the Royal family, and the three travelled together on an empty jet. Nobody could believe what had happened and Debo who was no stranger to tragedy, felt the immense grief of Jack’s untimely death, no other death, she said, would affect her in the same way. ‘You never saw such crumpled miserable faces. I never want to see such a thing again,’ she wrote. ‘Jackie looked tragic, with tears glistening on her veil, and Rose so very pathetic. The Kennedys are so good when things are going well but they are not equipped for tragedy.’

A review of Curtains by Victor Olliver

Image

Click here to purchase Curtains

Curtains‘ outrageous plot is set against the chilly corporate publishing world of Raven’s Towers, a designer megalith. Here, Olliver takes us inside the world of Glossy International magazine, a kingdom ruled over by a megalomaniac ice queen super-ed called Vicki Cochrane. At first, it looks as if we’re in for one of those ‘insider’ tales beloved by journos who’ve moved onto better things, but not a bit of it. Before you can say ‘Conde Nast!’, Vicki’s been blown sky high and whisked off to an astral waiting room where, upon the chaise-longue of her soul, she’s forced to watch an action replay (in virtual reality mode, of course) of the previous few days leading up to her demise, to try and ascertain whodunit. Mr Olliver is a talent to watch. His caustic and very funny narrative, set exotically between London and Brightworth (where absent media magnate husband Max has set up home at the end of the pier), has a cast of bitches, temptresses, queens and roughs worthy of grand opera, and just asking for the book alone should provide mirth at the checkout. And that’s before you’ve even opened it.” Christie Hickman, Midweek

Friend of The Mitford Society, Victor Olliver (author of Lifesurfing: Your Horoscope Forecast Guide 2014 and astrologer for The Lady) sent me a review copy of his fabulous book Curtains. I spent the best part of a week reading Curtains, never wanting it to end, its hilariously funny plot, bitchy ego-centric characters, 1980s technology and excitable narrative (there is never a dull moment in the prose) brought me into the inner-circle of the magazine biz. Raven’s Towers is the HQ of Glossy International magazine, headed by Vicky Cochrane, a sort of Maggie T/ Sable Colby of the publishing world. It is as sleek as The Devil Wears Prada…think Miranda Priestly meets Dynasty. I’m a fan of Victor’s writing, his horoscopes in The Lady are divine and his blog (in which he posts as Madame Arcati- click here) is devilishly witty. As with Nancy’s novels, Curtains is also a product of its time and the author has clearly written from experience. For me, Curtains is a camp classic!

 

An interview with Kendra Bean author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

Image

Vivien Leigh and Nancy Mitford had many friends in common; Lady Diana Cooper, Noel Coward and even Winston Churchill, though as we Mitty fans know, ‘Cousin’ Winston was more than a friend to the family. I am certain Nancy and Vivien must have met one another along the way, though I have found no evidence of this. However, in her letters, Nancy writes of a film adaptation of the Love in a Cold Climate and how Vivien Leigh was a contender to play Linda. Sadly the film fell through.

I’ve been anticipating my interview with Kendra Bean, author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, because some familiar factors are at play here: Kendra and I have known one another – in the online sense – for years, probably a decade but who is counting! We secured book deals within a day of one another and on a more significant note, today is the centenary of Vivien’s birth.

Kendra runs www.vivandlarry.com – an online treasure trove of information on Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Her gorgeous coffee table book, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait was published by Running Press and is gaining much attention in the media and by fans alike. I caught up with Kendra to quiz her about her book, the interview follows below.

Click here to purchase Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait.

When did you become a fan of Vivien Leigh, can you tell us about the defining moment?

There wasn’t really a defining moment. My interest in Vivien began when I first saw Gone With the Wind and deepened over time as I read and learned more about her.

Did you ever imagine it would lead to a website, an international following and a publishing deal?

When I first became interested in her story? No, not really. There were quite a few Vivien websites online at that time. I’d been a fan for a while when I decided to start vivandlarry.com, which I did because as I began doing my own collecting and research about Vivien, there were a lot of things I wasn’t finding on those other websites and wanted to share them with other people. Over the years it’s grown exponentially, which was surprising as I never knew there were so many other fans out there. As you know, the book deal was a long time coming, even after I’d decided I wanted to do it. It took a lot of persistence to convince publishers that Vivien is still relevant today.

What inspired you to write a coffee table book rather than a conventional biography of Vivien?

My interest in Vivien led to a further appreciation for vintage fashion and Hollywood studio photography. In some ways I almost enjoy coffee table books about Old Hollywood more than straight biographies because those actors, those stars, lent themselves so well to the visual medium. Also, in maintaining vivandlarry.com there were so many photographs of Vivien that turned up, which I hadn’t seen before.

My original vision for An Intimate Portrait was to have all new and super rare photos, and there were a lot that I found which aren’t included in the book for various reasons ranging from copyright issues to things being too expensive for my budget. But during the publication process, I learned that there has to be a sense of familiarity for readers, as well as new material, and a mix of colour and black and while photos.

Can you describe the process which you undertook in gathering information and how you go about transcribing it?

This book was five years from idea stage to finished product, and in that time I obviously had other things going on in my life – working full time, graduate school, moving half way around the world, working again. But the research process consisted of gathering as many materials as possible to form a timeline. This included sourcing articles, transcribing letters and documents in archives, listening to audio, watching Vivien’s films again, going through the previous biographies, etc.

Then I had to sort the pile of information in front of me and start to construct a narrative. As this isn’t a full biography, I really had to editorialise and think about what worked here and what didn’t, what was really important and what wasn’t in reconstructing Vivien’s story. There were areas I wanted to highlight and felt I could bring something new to, whether it was new documentary information or new analysis based on my own knowledge of film history.

What was your publishing journey like, can you tell us about any unexpected twists or turns?

It was a long road. When I first started out on this journey I knew next to nothing about how to take my idea and turn it into an actual book. How does one go about getting published? I asked a lot of questions and, thankfully, people were encouraging and willing to offer advice. Things got serious when I packed up and moved to London in 2010. I got an agent pretty much right away, which was really exciting and a step in the right direction, but then it took two years to actually get a publisher. In that time, the focus of my book changed (for the better, I think), so I had to re-write my proposal.

I was a bit disappointed that a lot of publishers didn’t think Vivien was that relevant anymore, and therefore didn’t think she would sell. From running my website and Facebook page, I knew there was an audience for a book like this, but I had to prove it. I have enough awareness of marketing to know that big anniversaries are a good selling point, and because there hadn’t been a good biography about Vivien since Hugo Vickers’ in the late 1980s, I knew that if I didn’t get it published for this 100th anniversary on 5 November, the ship would pass and there wouldn’t be another good opportunity for years, by which time people really might not care anymore. So, time was of the essence, and I needed a publisher that had the resources to publish this specific type of book. Running Press asked me to pitch the book via a conference call with the senior editor and publisher, and luckily I was able to convince them that this was a worthy project.

An Intimate Portrait was a late acquisition for Running Press’ fall 2013 list, so the turnaround time between getting my contract and handing in the manuscript was really fast. There was a lot of stress involved because not only did I have to finish the manuscript, I had to finish sourcing, purchasing, and clearing copyright for photos, which was a time consuming task in itself.

Is this the start of a writing career? What would you like to do next?

I hope so. I have a few different ideas kicking around. I’d like to try my hand at a full biography and also branch out into other areas of film history. I’m currently working in the photographs department at the National Portrait Gallery, which I love, so maybe there’s some more archival or curatorial work in my future. We’ll see what happens!

Aside from Vivien Leigh and the world of acting, who are you literary heroes?

I don’t have heroes, per-se, just favourite books. I read a lot of books about film history, but when it comes to literature, I’m a big fan of historical fiction. Some of my all-time favorite books include Gone With the Wind (an obvious one), The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I love the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I’ll read basically anything by Cormac McCarthy.

And last but not least, who is your favourite Mitford girl?

I don’t have one as yet, but I have The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life in front of me and am looking forward to learning more about all of them.

An interview with the best selling Marilyn Monroe biographer, Michelle Morgan

It has been a joy to interview Michelle Morgan because she’s not only a magnificent biographer, she is also my friend too. Michelle has always been on hand to listen to my silly questions regarding writing and she’s always ready with good advice. I can’t say that she’s steered me wrong yet.  This is one interview that isn’t Mitford related but I think fellow authors, or aspiring writers, can take something useful away from this interview. Click here to visit Michelle’s Amazon page. ImageDid you always want to be a writer? Can you tell us a bit about your journey in becoming published?

When I was growing up I always thought wanted to be an actress.  I wanted to be the next Marilyn Monroe!!  I went to auditions, spent years working with a really negative, awful drama coach, took numerous exams etc, but what I discovered during that time, was that I really enjoyed writing the application letters (and was told they were very good) but I hated the auditions and the exams.  It took me a while but eventually I realised that the reason I was so good at writing the letters, was because I was a writer, not an actress.  That took about six years to realise!  But when I did, it all made sense.  When I was really young I used to write my own books (held together with string and staples) and numerous articles and stories too.  I was a writer from the age of about eight, but I never knew it – it took me until the age of twenty-one to finally understand that writing was what I needed to do with my life.

ImageThe journey to becoming published was long and rather up and down.  I worked in an office for seventeen years and during that time I was faced with an onslaught of negativity from many of my colleagues.  I was laughed at for having a dream that was out-of-the-ordinary; I was told I would never leave to do anything because I was ‘part of the furniture’ and whenever I was lucky enough to be on the television (such as the Collector’s Lot programme, or BBC and Sky News), people would take great joy in telling me they had ‘missed it.’  Don’t get me wrong, there were some people who were very supportive, and I’m still friends with them today, but for all those who supported me, there were many more who made fun of my dreams.  That’s okay though because those detractors made me very determined to prove them wrong, and made me extremely grateful for everything I have now.

But getting back to the point of becoming published…. In 1995 I had a book published entitled ‘Marilyn’s Addresses’ which was small but gave me enough confidence to see if I could write more.  I struggled for many years and wrote lots of articles, newspaper stories etc, and finally got a big break when Constable & Robinson decided they’d like to publish a hardback biography called ‘Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed.’  I was very lucky because they got me a publisher in the States too, and five years later I was given the opportunity to do a complete revision of the book for a paperback, which reached number 16 in the W H Smith Bestseller lists in 2012.  What a shock that was, but a happy, happy, shock!!

I had a few ups and downs between the hardback and paperback books, with several projects not working out the way I’d hoped, but I learned a great deal from the experiences, and now I am happy I went through the disappointments because they taught me to rely on myself and my own abilities.  Since then, numerous projects have come my way, including ‘The Mammoth Book of Hollywood Scandals’ which has just been published.

Around the time the hardback was published, I was offered a column in my local newspaper, and I have been writing it now for the past six years.  I am very happy to have my own column; not only because it has given me a chance to become more well-known locally,  but because it also gives me the opportunity to use my imagination when thinking of things to write about every week.
ImageWhat inspired you to write biography rather than fiction?

I like to write both, but it just so happened that my non-fiction work was picked up by a publisher, and my fiction wasn’t.  Actually I came quite close to having a novel published in 1998, but then at the last minute the marketing department of the publishing house decided that it was too much like Bridget Jones and so decided not to go with it.  At the time I hadn’t even read the Bridget Jones novel so it was a pure coincidence that they were in any way alike, and I was devastated that the book was dropped.  It is now lurking in a cupboard, along with several other novels that I wrote in the years after that.

I have been writing another novel for the past few years, called ‘Before I leave’ which is about an old man called Joseph, who is struggling to come to terms with the loss of his wife, and trying to discover why he is still on earth when his wife has gone.  It is a slow process because of the non-fiction work I am commissioned to do, but I will finish it one of these days.  I also have several other ideas for novels, and I have a play published, called ‘Wife Five.’  I wrote the play with Hollywood scriptwriter Steve Hayes, and it is about a man called Harry who has been married four times, and is about to embark on a fifth marriage.  His existing ex-wives are threatened that their lazy weekends at Harry’s beach house are about to be scuppered, so campaign to end the marriage before it has begun.  It is a comedy and I’m very proud of it, so to see it published is fabulous.  Next I hope to see it produced on stage too (there is a theatre company quite interested in it).  If that happens, it would be brilliant!
ImageDo you think you will move into the fiction market eventually?

Yes I definitely think that I will write more fiction.  The publication of my play is a big step in that direction, and I will continue to move that part of my career forward.  It is my aim to write in all kinds of genres – biography, novels, children’s books, plays, and screenplays.  At the moment though, I am becoming very well known for my work in biography and non-fiction, so I think I will stick to that for a while and then make my move a little later down the line.  I intend to write for the rest of my life, so God willing I will have many more years of writing books ahead of me.
What process do you undertake when writing a biography?

I start by creating a timeline of events in my subject’s life, then start doing the research; gathering as much information as I can find such as vintage newspaper articles, documents, letters, archives etc.  Then when I think I have enough to start writing, I do so, but my research never ends.  Up until the revision process, I am still seeking new information, looking for new leads and writing up recently-found information.  I am a firm believer in leaving no stone unturned and I think that came across particularly in the Marilyn  book – I tried to write about all aspects of her life, from helping a family member with DIY, to singing for the President, and everything in-between!  I wanted all her stories to be told and I think it came out pretty well in the end.

I know that you are a great example or somebody who has gone mainstream with your work but has also put in the time and effort to do projects which are a labour of love.

What do you think of the E-book and self publishing market and how do you think it will effect your work as a writer?

I have mixed feelings about self-publishing to be honest.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some great self-published books out there and I self-published a book of my newspaper columns last year, which I’m very pleased about.  But I am a very firm believer that writers are born, not made and with that in mind, I think it is hugely important for anyone who wants to write a book, to make sure they actually can construct a sentence before pressing send on the self-publishing website!  Writing is not an easy job and I find it incredible that people think they can just throw words at a page and it will create a book.  Writing is a craft just like everything else; and not everyone can do it.  It is not shameful to admit that you can’t write; it is more shameful to self-publish a book that is badly written and expect other people to spend their money on it.

I also find it scary that self-publishing means that people can write about all kinds of things that would never be published by a traditional publisher.  Subjects that are taboo, or illegal can all be done as a self-published work, and this scares me a lot.  Self-publishing is a great tool when used properly, but when abused, I think it can create a quite a substantial mess.

What writers inspire you?

I love many writers, but I am really inspired by biographer David Stenn, who has written about Jean Harlow and Clara Bow.  His books really did inspire me to write the Marilyn book, and I thanked him in the Acknowledgements section too.  When he contacted me to say that he’d read the thank you I gave him, I was so thrilled.  He is the God of biography-writing as far as I’m concerned!  Other writers who inspire me are Jackie Collins, Lisa Jewell, J K Rowling, Jane Green, and Stephen King , because they all have a tremendous work ethic which I admire greatly.  They tell a good story too!

Can you tell us a bit about your next project?

My latest book has just been published in the UK and will be out in the USA in December.  It is called ‘The Mammoth Book of Hollywood Scandals’ and has so far been very well-received by readers.  It covers over sixty different scandals, tragedies, deaths, etc and is 170,000 words long!  The book goes from the Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle scandal in the 1920s, right through to the present day, so it is quite diverse and has something for everyone I think.

At the moment I am writing a book about Carole Lombard; co-writing an illustrated book about Marilyn Monroe’s early career; and am in the process of signing a contract to write about….  Oh wait… That’s a secret project and I’m not allowed to talk about it!  Yet!

What is your dream project?

I would love to write Madonna’s official biography!  I’ve loved her since the age of thirteen and to have her ask me to work on her authorized story would definitely be a dream-come-true.  But in the meantime, I think the books I am working on at the moment are definitely dream projects for me.  I am grateful to every single project I am offered, and every day when I am able to make my living as a writer.  I have dreamt about this for many years and I will never take it for granted.  Doing what you want to do with your life, and be paid too is a great honour, and one I will appreciate for the rest of my days.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Yes.  To aspiring authors I would say that if you are absolutely sure that writing is what you were born to do, then never, ever, give up.  I worked seventeen years in a job I hated, standing at a photocopier and imagining the day when I could see my book on a bookshelf and take part in interviews such as this one.  Never let anyone put you down and belittle your dreams.  It sounds trite but dreams really do come true, so work very hard and always do your best.  That’s really the only thing you can do.

Click here to order Michelle’s latest book The Mammoth Hollywood Book of Scandals

‘The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone’

Image

Beautiful Diana Skeffington

The Hon. Diana Elizabeth Margaret Skeffington [1909-1930], the only daughter of Viscount Massereene and contemporary of Diana Mitford, spent her childhood at Antrim Castle – once a prominent feature in an area known by locals as The Castle Grounds. As a little girl Diana was a member of the Girl Guides – later becoming the leader of the Primrose Patrol- and many of her childhood companions were the children of local merchants. It was quite unheard of for a girl from her background to mix so freely with non-aristocrats. Diana’s closest friend, Sadie, was a fellow Girl Guide whose father worked as head gardener for Viscount Massereene. Escorted by her governess, Mrs. Molloy, Diana visited Sadie at her home on Castle Street, causing a scene each time she entered through the back door. Sadie’s mother was mortified as Diana passed through the scullery to the parlour; the gentry always entered by the front door and often to a small fanfare.

Image

Antrim Castle in its heyday. Could this be Diana and her little brother?

Viscount and Viscountess Massereene were not alarmed by Diana’s familiarity with ordinary people. At the age of 17, Diana attended a fete at Mount Stewart – home of Lord and Lady Londonderry- where she did not hesitate to lend a hand, which prompted an astonished Lady to remark: ‘There is a remarkably good looking, tall girl here, I don’t know who she is, but she is working as hard as any waitress in the restaurant.’ A year later, all of London’s high society would know who Diana was when she came out as a debutante in 1927.  Through this social whirlwind, known as The Season, Diana met Edward, Prince of Wales, who would later ascend the throne as King Edward VIII and cause a scandal by abdicating to marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. It was an open secret that Edward had fallen in love with Diana. How different the current royal family’s lives would have been had fate not intervened. Diana might have become Queen consort, and our current Queen Elizabeth II would have faded down the line of succession to live the life of a minor royal.

On 15 October 1930, Diana served as a bridesmaid at the society wedding of her friend Miss Susan Roberts to the Hon. Somerset Maxwell Farnham. On this day, Diana asked for a glass of water – a seemingly harmless gesture. The water was contaminated and a week later Diana collapsed at her mother’s family home, Ardanaiseig House, in Argyll. The diagnosis was typhoid fever and a doctor in Harley Street had been alerted of her condition and the necessary arrangements were made for her to travel to London for treatment. Hopes were raised when Diana claimed to feel better and it seemed she would be well enough to return to Antrim. On Trafalgar Day, Diana took to the street to sell flags in aid of servicemen, it was a cold day and her friends were concerned about her fragile appearance and urged her to rest. ‘If I go to bed now, it will be weeks before I shall be up again,’ she joked. Suddenly all expectations of a complete recovery were dashed when Diana – still battling typhoid- developed pneumonia and her condition took a turn for the worst. The raging fever consumed her and at the age of 21 she was dead. The words of Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes, following the untimely death of Lady Sybil, could have been applied to Diana’s demise: ‘The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone.’

Image

Diana’s final resting place

A solemn mood filtered through London’s social scene and, at home, the people of Antrim were in mourning for the girl they had loved so much. The funeral was held at All Saints Parish Church and the town came to a standstill; the local residents and shopkeepers lined the road to pay their respects. In her short life Diana had touched many, and the Girl Guides of Antrim walked alongside her coffin, followed by her parents, Viscount and Viscountess Massereene.

Today the small burial ground is hidden behind hedges and imposing trees and in this quiet, secluded part of the Castle Grounds rests Diana, her body clothed in her bridesmaid’s dress, in a grave purposely angled to face Scotland. Had fate dealt Diana a kinder hand she might have become a prominent figure in the history of the twentieth century. And like the ruins of the castle, and her ornate grave, the name Diana Skeffington should serve as a reminder that Antrim once played a part in a forgotten, gilded age.

Image