Raise your hand if you occasionally find yourself more enthralled by the lives—in particular, the love lives—of writers than by their actual works. (A couple of authors who come to mind are Lord Byron and Anaïs Nin.) If your hand is aloft, as mine is, then you'll surely be as thrilled as I am about the just-published Writers Between the Covers by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon.
The subtitle pretty much says it all: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads—and yes, Byron and Nin are among them, along with the likes of Flaubert (Casanova), de Beauvoir (coquette), Mailer (cad) and many others. It's a fun and delectably juicy read.
Below, Schmidt and Rendon share what first inspired them to take a peek under the covers, dishing up six titillating tidbits they discovered along the way.
Classic writers had more than just their ink-stained manuscripts to keep them company. As sex symbols, soul mates and the celebrities of their day, they were enmeshed in love triangles, whirlwind romances, dysfunctional marriages, clandestine courtships and more.
We first became intrigued by the subject of writers’ deliciously complicated romantic lives while researching our previous book, Novel Destinations, which features literary landmarks. Visiting the homes and haunts where famed writers lived, loved and found inspiration, we repeatedly found ourselves sidetracked by the “love” aspect.
Where was the hidden door Victor Hugo used as an escape route for his mistress? Was it true Charles Dickens had a thing for his sister-in-law? Who was Edith Wharton’s secret trans-Atlantic lover? How closely did F. Scott Fitzgerald’s plot lines resemble his stormy, fast-living life with Zelda?
Looking for answers to tantalizing questions like these led to Writers Between the Covers. What we discovered is that when it comes to literary love lives, what happened off the page was often a lot spicier than what was written on it:
• Edie Parker’s wedding gift to Jack Kerouac was bail money. The pair swapped vows while he was under arrest and handcuffed to a detective, who treated the newlyweds to a steak dinner before returning the groom to the slammer until his release could be arranged. Not surprisingly, Kerouac and Parker’s marriage didn’t last long.
• Agatha Christie was the lead character in her own whodunit. The crime novelist made international headlines when she disappeared for 11 days after her husband admitted to an affair. Her cheating spouse was pilloried by the press and suspected of doing away with her, but she eventually resurfaced—after sparking the largest manhunt for a missing person ever in England.
• Nosy tourists rented telescopes to spy on some infamous poets. They trained their instruments on a villa overlooking Lake Geneva, where Percy and Mary Shelley sought refuge after fleeing England in the wake of a scandal. Popular poet Percy had dumped his pregnant wife to run off with 16-year-old Mary, whom he later married. Adding fuel to the gossipers’ fire, the couple was joined at the villa by Lord Byron, a bard with a notorious reputation of his own.
• Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe should have heeded their critics. “Egghead Weds Hourglass” screamed one newspaper headline when the opposites-attract pair wed in 1956, while negative predictions and snap judgments were doled out by pundits like Truman Capote, who quipped the marriage could be called “Death of a Playwright.” Marilyn’s camp also discouraged the nuptials, concerned that her all-American image would be tarnished by the playwright’s “unpatriotic” leftist politics. The naysayers were right: less than five years later, wedded bliss came to a bitter end in a Mexican divorce court.
• W.B. Yeats’ wife used the occult to spice up their sex life. On their honeymoon, Georgie Yeats was devastated to learn that her spouse was still in love with someone else, but she salvaged the marriage by pretending to fall into a trance. As though guided by a spirit, she sent her husband reassuring messages that he had done the right thing in marrying her. The technique worked so well that Georgie used it to her advantage for years, even sending Yeats messages from the spirit world on how to satisfy her in bed.
• Trailblazing feminist Simone de Beauvoir once thought about becoming a nun. The French philosopher and novelist reconsidered after a crisis of faith, instead scandalizing society in the 1930s by vowing to live her life with the same freedoms as a man. Her controversial actions included an open relationship with fellow academic Jean-Paul Sartre and penning the groundbreaking work The Second Sex.
Thanks, Shannon and Joni! What do you think, readers? Are you intrigued? Will you be checking out Writers Between the Covers? Learn more about Shannon and Joni's other passion—literary landmarks—on their website.