Three female journalists with three very different books: Cressida Connolly explores the legacy of the Garman Sisters in her first work of nonfiction; Jean Nathan chronicles the strange and eerie life of children’s author Dare Wright, and former Washington Post staffer Lorraine Adams delves into the fictional realm of Algerian refugees. With an eye for detail and a nose for a story, they uncover new worlds for all of us.
WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE
This story first appeared in the August 26, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Upon entering Jean Nathan’s spacious Alphabet City apartment here, visitors are welcomed by artifacts from the mysterious life of children’s book author Dare Wright, who is the subject of Nathan’s first book, “The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll” (Henry Holt). There are a number of portraits, all of them painted by Wright’s mother, Edith Stevenson Wright, hanging on the walls, and Nathan’s office is devoted to all things Dare: childhood photos, a Wright family tree, newspaper clippings and 16-millimeter films of Dare’s life.
“Biography is a complicated game,” says Nathan, a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times and The New Yorker. “It’s a little bit like portrait painting.”
Wright was an endlessly creative and intriguing character. She never married and worked as an actress, model and fashion photographer before gaining a loyal following in the Fifties and Sixties as the creator of “The Lonely Doll,” a series of 10 books of eerily realistic stories that center on staged photographs of Wright’s own childhood doll, Edith. The books follow Edith and her friends, Mr. Bear and Little Bear, as they go on adventures together, often ending up in trouble.
“She was sort of a preconscious Cindy Sherman,” says Nathan, who first read “The Lonely Doll” at age five. Over 30 years later, in 1997, the images from the book crept back into her mind. What began as a mission to track down an old copy (it has since been rereleased, but most of Wright’s 19 books are out-of-print) led her to Dare, who had an apartment in Manhattan but was confined to a New York hospital. She died in 2001, at age 86.
“It felt odd to me that I would allow myself to run up to 80th Street and see what her apartment building looked like,” says Nathan. Through a series of connections, she got in touch with many of Dare’s friends, relatives and neighbors, all of whom shared anecdotes, photographs and pieces of her life. “It just became this detective job of finding all the people and one person would lead to the next.”
Armed with a six-figure advance from Random House (due to staff changes, she later switched publishers), Nathan explored every lead. Along the way, she uncovered what she calls “an unwholesomely close” relationship between Dare and her mother and delved into the complex layers of the author’s contradictory persona, which was at once glamorous and unbelievably childlike.
The book, which first appeared, in part, as a 20-page cover story in the literary magazine Tin House in 1999, has been optioned to Killer Films. Though Nathan is mum about her next project, it’s clear that biography is in her blood. “Since I was in grade school, I’ve been criticized for not being able to see the forest for the trees,” she says. “I’m into trees.” — Jamie Rosen
She reported on the shootings at Columbine, the standoff in Waco and the O.J. Simpson trial. She’s spent six hours interviewing the Unabomber’s mother in her Poughkeepsie, N.Y., home and even won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her investigative reporting on civil rights violations by Texas law enforcement.
But after nearly 20 years of chasing down some of the country’s most compelling stories, former Washington Post reporter Lorraine Adams has called it quits, trading in her career as an ace journalist for that of novelist.
“I don’t think I could ever go back,” she says by phone from her Washington home. “It was something that was building in me. I really think there’s a growing sense that there needs to be reform in American journalism, but no one really knows how to do that.”
Her debut work of fiction, “Harbor” (Knopf), is the compassionate story of a 24-year-old Algerian stowaway who washes up on the Boston shores and find himself entangled in a web of FBI surveillance and terrorist suspicions. The tale was inspired by a story she reported for the Post’s Sunday Magazine. In 1999, when an Algerian man was arrested on the Canadian border bound for Los Angeles International Airport with a trunk packed with explosives, the FBI — believing the act was part of a conspiracy — launched a large-scale counterterrorism probe.
While investigating the FBI’s probe, Adams immersed herself in the communities of Algerian refugees. She drank tea on their living room floors, took Arabic classes and daily encountered their prejudice against women and their suspicions that she was really an undercover FBI agent. Some respectfully refused to shake her hand “because it’s against their religious practice to shake a woman’s hand they don’t know,” and one even mistook her for a lesbian because of her conservative dress.
“Harbor,” she says, grew out of the tales they told her — and her frustration with the limitations of journalism. Shortly after 9/11, she privately began recording those untold stories at night, while working full-time at the Post. “I wasn’t doing it to write a novel,” she says. “I wanted to write down what I knew.”
In two years she’d completed a draft, and she’s currently at work on her second novel. Although she has left her profession behind, her days as a hardscrabble investigative journalist will certainly seep into her prose.
“I’m not going to write a novel about the Unabomber’s mother,” she says with a laugh. “But I have all of these really fascinating encounters stored up in me, and they combine into an enormous desire to tell stories — stories that I make up, but that draw on my knowledge from my reporting days.” — Alison Burwell
MUSES AND LOVERS
It’s every writer’s dream to stumble upon a subject not only rich but also untapped. That’s what happened to Cressida Connolly, fiction writer and daughter of the late critic and editor Cyril Connolly. In 2000, she visited a museum not far from the flower farm she lives on in Worcestershire, England, some 100 miles north of London. (Her husband makes confetti out of petals.) The museum, not exactly in an area known for its art, had just received a donation of pieces by Bonnard, Constable, Picasso and Van Gogh from the estate of Kathleen Garman, wife of the American sculptor Jacob Epstein.
Connolly visited Epstein’s daughter, Kitty, who explained that her mother and two of her sisters, Mary and Lorna, had led bohemian lives in the Twenties and Thirties in London. They were entangled with such artists as Lucien Freud, the poets Roy Campbell and Laurie Lee, the writer Vita Sackville-West and the adventurer T.E. Lawrence. Amazingly, the Garman sisters had never been written about, partly because Lorna bore a child to Lee while she was still married to someone else.
“It just so happened I was the right person at the right time,” says Connolly, whose account of the Garmans and their intense love affairs became “The Rare and the Beautiful” (Ecco), her first foray into long-form nonfiction. She discovered that the sisters weren’t people who really worked themselves, so their mark on the world was more inspirational.
“They were sort of film-star beautiful,” Connolly explains. “They were erudite, cultured and unconventional. They were living in a time when people wore hats and still had chaperones — and they went to nightclubs alone. They didn’t mind if people disapproved of them. They cared about art with a capital A.”
The sisters lived at a high emotional altitude, Connolly says, so “going home and making beans on toast for my children” was especially difficult after reading their intense love letters. When she first discovered the Garmans, the author adds, she “was very much in love with them.” But as she spoke to their children and discovered how complicated their childhoods were, Connolly began to question the glamour. “These children were left unkempt because their mothers were so narcissistic.”
At one point, Connolly thought of calling her book “The Last Muses,” as she’s noticed that women no longer yearn for that role. “It isn’t any longer enough to be a vessel,” she says. “Women want to create.”
She’s especially glad to flex her creativity as she starts a new novel, which will include “glimpses” of the Garman sisters. “It feels like going home,” Connolly says of her return to fiction. “It’s quite nice to snuggle with my own imagination.” — Marshall Heyman