Wednesday, January 11, 2006

RE: The Story of Chicago May

Date: Wed, 11 Jan 2006 11:09:37 -0800 (PST)

From: "Lotus Reads"

Subject: Re: The Story of Chicago May

To:"Judy Dean"

Dear Judy,

I wanted to thank you for letting me know about "Wild Rose: Rose O'Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy: A True Story." by Ann Blackman. I loved how Rose, a Southerner by birth and conviction, became a social power in Washington and ran a successful spy ring for the Confederacy. Knowing how the feminist in you loves stories of brazen women, I thought you might enjoy reading Irish writer Nuala O' Faolain's (NOO-luh O'FWAE-lin) new book, "The Story of Chicago May".

The protagonist will intrigue you. She is May Duignan , a nineteen year old Irish lass, described by legend as having a baby face, big blue eyes and rich, thick auburn hair. The book opens with her running away from her small, poor Irish town called Edenbern, the same evening her mother was in labor with her youngest child. As if the act of running away wasn't audacious enough in itself, but she took with her all the family savings, the equivalent of $5000!!! She got to a port and with great chutzpah bought herself a first class ticket by steamer to Manhattan with the stolen money (only 2% of Irish immigrants ever traveled by first class in those days - steerage was the more common form of travel). What spunk, huh? Judy, do you remember when we were nineteen? We left home for the first time, but only to go on a three-day camping trip together, less than one hundred miles from your backyard! And remember how we just HAD to call home every few hours so that our parents knew we were OK?

Anyway, back to May. After she arrives in Manhattan, her money doesn't last long and not having any education or skills for decent employment or the desire to work at any factory jobs (which is where most new immigrants went to work), she falls in with the infamous Dalton gang and marries one of its members, Dal Churchill. Living the kind of violent lives they do, I am not surprised that she is soon widowed and turns to the streets (brothels) for her livelihood. She is not a prostitute (although I don't doubt she did occasionally have sex with men for money), she prefers to call herself a "badger", a small- time con artist who makes her money by robbing unsuspecting men who want to use her " services". She becomes particularly famous for "her method of biting the stones out of men's scarf pins while she amorously pretended to bury her face against their chests." Later she manages to find a small part in a dancing girl chorus and soon meets the man who is about to change her life - for better or worse, I won't tell you here. You'll have to read the book to find out, but if you absolutely MUST peek, Judy, go here!

Nuala O'Faolain has done some wonderful research for this remarkable book! She has actually travelled to many of the places Chicago May stayed in and described them in such detail, you feel like you have stepped into turn-of-the-century London with its bawdy pubs, Chicago with its wooden buildings and sidewalks made of boards, Ireland with its peasant houses with their dirt floors and flitches of bacon hung to smoke from the rafters of the kitchen. May also travelled to Cairo, Paris, Belgium and South America. Gangs in those days thought of nothing of traveling long distances to engage in crime.

(Picture of Chicago May in 1907, courtesy The New York Times)

She also paints a vivid picture of the kind of lives prostitutes lived in that era. Most of them spent their days either very drunk or sedated with a cocktail of various drugs. I did like their outfits, however, Judy! In pictures included in the book, you see them in long, flouncy skirts with very narrow waists, and big, wide-brimmed, lace-trimmed hats,a boa of black feathers thrown around their necks---they look like such genteel ladies, it's hard to believe that prostitution was their profession

Ms. O' Faolain, based her book on Chicago May's crudely written autobiography titled, “Mary Churchill Sharp, Queen of the Crooks” which was published posthumously. The curious thing, Ms. O' Faolain tells us, is that May's autobiography imparted information about events in her life, but contained no reflections of any kind; she doesn't tell you what the events meant to her...are we to deduce from that that Chicago May never thought about her life? That she just lived for the day without taking lessons from her past into the future? With such a paucity of emotions in Chicago May's own book, it is left to Nuala O'Faolain to fill in the gaps---to guess at her thoughts, to deduce why she did the things she did.

In one of the most poignant scenes in the book, Chicago May travels back to Ireland to see her family. Now usually most emigrants to the US are welcomed back with open arms. They are given the place of honor by the fireplace and the whole neighborhood comes to visit them,a dancing party is organized which lasted for days, but May's family were unsure how to welcome her, after all, this was Catholic Ireland at its most devout. They firmly believed that May chose the side of the devil when she chose her profession. The Irish of those days hated and feared sexuality, they were suspicious of people that dressed to the nines like she did..."she wasn't only bad in a virtuous place; she was modern in an antique world." It's no wonder to me then, that she left Ireland again as fast as she could and never returned.

In closing, I cannot strictly call this a biography and nor is it completely fiction - it falls into the grey area somewhere between, however, Nuala O'Faolain, being Irish herself, must have a fairly good inkling as to how another Irish woman in those circumstances must have felt, so although there is a lot she has had to make up with regard to Chicago May, I still think it's an excellent piece of work. I do hope you get to read it, Judy.

Anyhow, I must run. The kids need to be picked up from school. I hope your little ones are doing well. Give them my love.