Megan Mayhew Bergman’s new story collection, Almost Famous Women, features fictionalized versions of real women who lived daring, unusual lives, who as a result of that daring were often forced to society’s edges. These are mostly women whose names we vaguely recall or else never learned, such as the artist Romaine Brooks, daredevil motorcyclist Hazel Eaton, dancer Lucia Joyce, motorboat racer M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly Wilde, Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter Allegra Byron, pilot and writer Beryl Markham, jazz musician Tiny Davis. Many of these thirteen stories share a time frame – early-to-mid 20th century, when the Great War still reverberated and racism, sexism, and homophobia were more blatant – and a few characters show up in more than one story.
The stories’ narrators tend to be the women standing behind or next to the almost-famous women. In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” Georgie, who once worked as a mermaid showgirl at a Florida spring and is now kept by boyish heiress Joe Carstairs, recounts a debauched 1930s gathering at Whale Cay, Joe’s private island where celebrities, politicians, and misfits go to escape. Georgie tries to make sense of her life with Joe, who in turn is tortured by her own past and seems to revel in tyrannical behavior towards Georgie and others.
In “Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period,” we get glimpses of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay through the eyes of her sister Norma, an almost-famous woman herself. We see the before (the sisters’ troubled, threadbare Maine childhood) and the after (Norma at Edna’s farm, after Edna’s death, shooing away or taking in young Millay scholars as she recalls Edna’s morphine habit and decline). And in “Hell-Diving Women,” bus driver and backup musician Ruby narrates a heartbreaking story: She’d do anything for her band-mate Tiny Davis, the self-destructive star of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, their all-female, mostly black big band, as the band travels through Jim Crow-era South. A little scene setting from that story:
“That afternoon they arrive in Kinston, Ruby steering the bus to a spot behind the armory. The girls are already in their dresses and jackets, hair curled, their faces made up for the Tobacco Festival…Anna Mae sits away from the fray in her white column gown, trying to stay clean. Her eyes are closed, but Ruby can see her lips moving, practicing her set. Further back Tiny is running through finger exercises, her trumpet silent, her fingers arched and limber.
“We’re going to start with ‘Jump Children,’” Rae Lee is saying at the front of the bus, clipboard in hand. “And if anyone gets to asking you about what race you are, you just smile and pretend you can’t hear a word, understand?”
Another affecting story is the collection’s first one, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children,” about conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton near the end of their lives. Daisy and Violet have been used and abused since babyhood, and narrator Daisy, the tougher, more impulsive twin, can’t always separate fact from fiction.
Here, Daisy remembers nights onstage at a New York bar:
“Some nights I felt like a woman – the warm stage lights on my face, the right kind of lipstick on, the sound of my voice filling the room, Violet singing harmony. Some nights I felt like two women. Some nights I felt like a two-headed monster. That’s what some drunk had shouted as Violet and I took the stage. Ed had come out from behind his table swinging.”
“At night, our legs intertwined. This was not like touching someone else’s leg. It wasn’t like touching my own, either. It was comforting, warm. We were, despite our minds’ best efforts, one body.”
Despite its noirish title, the story “Who Killed Dolly Wilde?” reminded me of Anita Brookner and even Henry James with its tone and telling, as the mousy friend of glamorous, troubled Dolly Wilde is driven at last to take action. The story is set mostly in World War II London during the Blitz; as the city crumbles and burns, Dolly declines from drug use and cancer.
“(Dolly) spent a lot of time screaming in her bedroom, complaining about the wallpaper. She claimed she couldn’t be left alone with bad wallpaper, because that was how her uncle Oscar had died, and she was his reincarnation, and wasn’t it dangerous to leave a narrative thread dangling that way?”
“Dolly was the exclamation point in my life. She made me feel things: adoration, anger, frustration. She was always in love and it made her glow.”
It’s a complex and fascinating story. The diction felt slightly off, though; some of the phrasing (“track marks,” “cane” instead of walking stick) made the narrator feel more like a 21st-century American woman and less like an Englishwoman born at or before the turn of the 20th century.
Bergman has also effectively reworked Shirley Jackson’s chilling story “The Lottery,” giving the fatal lottery a reason beyond tradition. I was intrigued to read it, but still wished for another story about a real Almost Famous Woman.
I appreciate writers who manage to combine historical fiction and short stories, illuminating an odd character or corner of history; I’m thinking of writers like Jim Shepard and Lauren Groff. Bergman’s stories make a terrific addition to this category. Almost Famous Women’s stories peer closely at these women of an earlier era who were driven to make art, break barriers, or even just love another woman, whose drive often made them difficult and demanding (though surely no more difficult and demanding than men who made art or broke barriers). And in letting the friends, sisters, and servants of these women do most of the telling, Bergman gives us nuanced, surprising stories. It’s an affecting collection.