I finally saw it, and it’s an amazing true story of a French woman who spent most of her life working as a nanny for wealthy Chicago families, all the while shooting film and video, as — self-described — “a sort of spy.”
She lived in a tiny French town and in New York City in earlier years, but mostly lived in her employers’ homes as a way to live more frugally and to partake in family life. She never married or had children of her own and, it seems, was not at all close to her own family.
The film traces her history and interviews many of the people who knew her, from the children she cared for (and sometimes poorly) to their parents to a few of her friends. She was intensely private, insisting that everywhere she lived there were multiple locks on the door to her room.
And it all started with an auction, when the film-maker, John Maloof, bought a box of negatives:
After John Maloof purchased his first home and pursued a career in real estate in 2005, he began to get more involved in the community where he lived. He delved heavily into historic preservation and eventually became the president of the local historical society on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Given that this part of the city is often ignored, he came to believe that by writing a book on the neighborhood, he could work to promote awareness of its often overlooked charm. It was this decision to co-author the book Portage Park that would change his life forever.
The publisher required approximately 220 high-quality vintage photos of the neighborhood for the book. To gather enough images for this project, John and his co-author, Daniel Pogorzelski, were forced to look everywhere for any old photographs good enough to make the cut. The result was a nearly year-long scavenger hunt where they followed lead after lead to compile the pictures needed for the book. It was during this process that John visited a local auction house, RPN, to see if by chance, they would have any material for the book up for auction. Sure enough, he found a box of negatives depicting Chicago in the 60’s. Unable to get a thorough look at its contents, he took a gamble and purchased the box for around $400.
As someone who began her career as a photographer, and whose husband is a career photographer and editor, this story was even more compelling to me. Her images are truly extraordinary, and also now for sale — how sad and ironic that this has happened only after her death.
But Vivian’s story also intrigues me because we know someone personally whose trajectory is somewhat similar — a single European woman who nannied for wealthy families and who is also an artist. Even her first name initial is the same.
If you haven’t watched the film or seen any of Maier’s photos, I urge you to take a look.
Powerful stuff — and a sad, mysterious and memorable story.
I blurbed the book, and I loved his devotion to women’s history in a fun, lively, detailed look at all the ways women have influenced the production (and prohibition) of spirits, from Ireland and Scotland to the U.S.
As a single-malt fan (Balvenie), I had no idea how involved women have been, for centuries, in the whiskey trade. I love Fred for unearthing and telling these stories! I learned a lot reading his book and recommend it highly.
Here’s my Q and A with Fred:
Tell us a little bit about you: where you live, how you got into writing/journalism and what sorts
of things you typically cover.
I moved to Louisville, Ky., after my tour in Iraq as an Army photojournalist. The reason? To be with the beautiful woman I’m now married to. My writing career started in the Future Farmers of America (FFA.)
Like many rural towns, my hometown—Jones, Oklahoma—had an FFA chapter that showed pigs, sheep, cattle and participated in many other farming activities. I showed pigs.
At 15, my advisor asked me to start writing stories for our local newspaper about pig shows. At the time, we were winning
all these grand champions across the state and receiving little credit. My first story was about a pig show. After I saw my byline on the front page of the Oklahoma County Newspaper, I was hooked.
My beginnings are in agriculture writing, and I’ve always found myself covering aspects of agriculture. Even now in my main beat, whiskey, my agriculture background comes in quite handy.
Where did you get the idea for this book and when?
When I was 12, my mother went back to school and eventually received her degree, becoming the first woman in our family to earn a college degree. And when I was in Iraq, I observed women soldiers outperform men. So, I have all these moments in my life where I found myself looking up to women for their accomplishments. In 2011, a new organization called “Bourbon Women” was formed.
That’s where the idea for the book came. I essentially studied the history of women in whiskey and was amazed nobody had ever done this book before.
Was it a difficult book to sell to an agent or publisher?
When you write about whiskey, you find yourself reading the following line a lot: “Fred is great, a terrific writer, but the subject feels too niche to appeal to a broader audience. We’ll pass, but thanks for thinking of us.” My agent at the time, Neil Salkind, who retired after this book, never gave up, because he believed in Whiskey Women and in me. He forwarded more than 50 rejections, but this story needed to be told.
Finally, Potomac Books’ Elizabeth Demers fell in love with the title, and Potomac bought it. That was an incredibly taxing experience, because the book went before a dozen review boards but most came back with “we love Fred, but the genre is too niche.”
Rejection is just a part of the business. Once you realize this, those notes don’t feel so personal.
What were the most challenging aspects of reporting or researching the book?
Since so much of whiskey’s history relates to commercial brands consumers buy, I found it frustrating that few whiskey brands knew about their female heritage. For them, women represented a small sales percentage that required feminine marketing tactics. When I discovered female owners in brand histories, I went back to these brands and they said, “oh, I didn’t know that.” Now, I hope they will recognize their female histories. To be fair, Maker’s Mark and Johnnie Walker have always promoted their female connections. I honestly think most brands didn’t realize how important women were to their
histories. Hopefully, Whiskey Women will change that.
Tell us a bit about your research for the book – where you went, who you spoke to, how you found
After picking the brains of every brand manager in the whiskey business, I found myself sitting in archives seeking old whiskey recipes and looking for female names in whiskey-related arrest records. Either online or in person, I searched through archives in Scotland, Ireland, England, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky and anywhere else with a
whiskey past. At one point, when looking at a whiskey recipe from the 1600s in the National Library of Ireland, I saw scholars surrounded me. That was a rewarding moment.
How long did it take you, from signed contract to delivered manuscript?
A year and a half.
Was this faster or slower than you anticipated?
It was about what I expected, but the University of Nebraska Press acquired Potomac shortly after I filed my manuscript. I didn’t hear anything from my publishers for a couple weeks, and I feared the worst. UNP acquired Potomac for its military titles, not my book. What would they do with me? It turned out to be a great move, because UNP has been fully supportive.
What did you enjoy most about working on the book?
The research. I loved digging through archives, knowing I
was the first whiskey writer to publish a recipe or mention a woman’s name.
What was the least fun part?
Citing sources. This is the first book I’ve written with endnotes and a bibliography. My first book, Camera Boy: An Army Journalist’s War in Iraq, was a first-person memoir, and my second, The Brand That Changed Beef, attributed sources with “according to” and quotations. Trained in journalism, not in history, I was so nervous about not properly citing that I probably over-cited sources.
Who do you see as readers for this book?
I really tried to make Whiskey Women a book about women, who happened to be the foundation of the whiskey business. I hope women from any walk of life can read it and relate to these women in a male-dominated industry. I tried to give women credit they’ve ever received.
If you have written other books, how is this one different – in tone, content, approach?
This is a true narrative history book. My previous books flowed with a conversational style; Whiskey Women packs the facts. But, I certainly stick to my easy-to-read style with quirky anecdotes.
What advice would you offer a would-be non-fiction author?
Once upon a time, I hated the proposal stage. After writing my share of winning and losing proposals, I now view this stage as the map to the eventual book.
The more thought out and research-laden your proposal is the better your book will be. I
did my homework for this proposal, and it helped set the stage for what I hope is considered a great book.
And for the year 2010 to date, the NYT has chronicled the deaths of 606 men, and only 92 women.
Bear in mind that the population of women in the U.S. exceeds that of men, and is nearly neck and neck worldwide.
This disparity in coverage has gone on for years, virtually unnoticed in a society that decades ago granted full equality to women, and has seen huge strides in the prominence of women in virtually all fields of endeavor.
And not only does it show no signs of getting better — it’s actually getting worse.
In a September 2006 “Talk To The Newsroom” interview, NYT obituaries editor Bill McDonald (pictured above) was asked about the lack of what a concerned reader referred to as “gender parity” in the section. His stunning response somehow slipped by unnoticed.
“Ask me in another generation,” McDonald replied. “Really. The people whose obits are appearing in our pages now largely shaped the world of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, and the movers and shakers in those eras were predominantly white men.”
If you’re a Lithuanian lute-maker (no offense meant, specifically, to either category) — and male — hang in there. Your time for posthumous glory will come. Men doing the most unlikely and obscure things end up in the Times obit pages every day.
I know for a fact that women do die, women who have achieved extraordinary success and influence in business, the arts, science, medicine, public service, education. But you’ll never hear about them in the Times. (Or The Wall Street Journal or USA Today or The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. You know the “papers of record.”)
I think it’s a toxic combination of two issues: male editors who don’t see women’s achievements as worth this level of honor — and women, and their families, colleagues and employers who don’t make a (big enough) fuss about them and their value to the larger world, either when they’re alive or after they have died.
Women who vaunt themselves and seek public attention are often derided for their egos and glory-seeking, while men who do so are considered…normal.
Every single obits column that ignores women ignores half the nation’s population.
I confess, though, that one passage is truly memorable, in which a priest is being burned at the stake, too slowly because the wood is wet, and he begs his onlookers to fan the flames so he can die faster. No matter how gross, it’s hard not to picture, and remember that scene.
Yet so much of history, as presented to most of us along the way, is a big fat snooze, boringly taught and impatiently suffered through.
A recent piece in my favorite newspaper, the weekend Financial Times, looked at the problem and determined it was a case of “Too Much Hitler and the Henrys” — i.e. for British students anyway too narrow a focus on WWII and the Kings named Henry.
A new television series, “America: The Story of Us” began this week on April 25 and continues for six more Sundays on the History Channel. It’s the most ambitious project of its kind since Alistair Cooke’s 13-part “America: A Personal History of the United States, broadcast in 1972.
“a naked attempt by the producers to rope in viewers whose experience of United States history may be limited to their school history classes. “In that attempt to make it feel epic, it’s actually quite refreshing to see big personalities commenting on what history means to them and what that moment in the story means to them, and how that has inspired them,” said Nancy Dubuc, the president and general manager of the History channel. “It sort of ups the entertainment value of the show.”
“It’s not about dates, facts and dead people,” she added. “It’s about presenting a very rich story in an engaging and entertaining way, and along the way, lo and behold, hopefully millions of people will watch something that they hadn’t anticipated they would watch.”
I read a lot of great women’s history – (check out anything written by Glenda Riley, a historian of the American West) — when I researched my first book, about American women and guns, and learned that entire swaths of Colorado and Wyoming had been homesteaded exclusively by women, for whom being armed and ready to shoot was a matter of life or death. Many women fought in the Civil War, even those heavily pregnant, their gender or condition undetected by their comrades in arms, and detailed in the great book, “They Fought Like Demons” by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook.
Too often, as women know, history books typically focus on wealth and power, those narratives told and driven by men. Women, confined for centuries to domestic or religious life, often seem almost invisible.
A wildly popular series for kids, (now available on DVD) is Horrible Histories, filled with gruesome/alluring details like the fact it took two swings to lop off Mary Queen of Scots’ head. The series has sold 11 million copies in the UK and 20 million worldwide, with the accompanying books translated into 31 languages.
Something is working when there’s such hunger for history amongst the young ‘uns.
These aviators — all women — got long-overdue recognition on Wednesday. They received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by Congress, in a ceremony on Capitol Hill.
About 200 women who served as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, were on hand to receive the award. Now mostly in their late 80s and early 90s, some came in wheelchairs, many sported dark blue uniforms, and one, June Bent of Westboro, Mass., clutched a framed photograph of a comrade who had died.
As a military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one of the women who had been sitting in a wheelchair stood up and saluted through the entire song as a relative gently supported her back.
“Women Airforce Service Pilots, we are all your daughters; you taught us how to fly,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. She said the pilots went unrecognized for too long, even though their service blazed a trail for other women in the U.S. military.
In accepting the award, WASP pilot Deanie Parrish, 88, of Waco, Texas, said the women had volunteered without expectation of thanks. Their mission was to fly noncombat missions to free up male pilots to fly overseas.
The WASPS were crucial to the war effort. From Wikipedia:
The WASP women pilots each already had a pilot’s license. They were trained to fly “the Army way” by the U.S. Army Air Forces at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. More than 25,000 women applied for WASP service, and less than 1,900 were accepted. After completing four months of military flight training, 1,078 of them earned their wings and became the first women to fly American military aircraft. Except for the fact that the women were not training for combat, their course of instruction was essentially the same as that for aviation cadets. The WASPs thus received no gunnery training and very little formation flying and acrobatics, but went through the maneuvers necessary to be able to recover from any position. The percentage of trainees who were eliminated during training compared favorably with the elimination rates for male cadets in the Central Flying Training Command.
After training, the WASPs were stationed at 120 air bases across the U.S. assuming numerous flight-related missions, relieving male pilots for combat duty. They flew sixty million miles of operational flights from aircraft factories to ports of embarkation and military training bases, towing targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice and simulated strafing missions, and transporting cargo. Almost every type of aircraft flown by the USAAF during World War II was also flown at some point by women in these roles. In addition, a few exceptionally qualified women were allowed to test rocket-propelled planes, to pilot jet-propelled planes, and to work with radar-controlled targets. Between September 1942 and December 1944, the WASP delivered 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types. Over fifty percent of the ferrying of combat aircraft within the United States during the war was carried out by WASP pilots.
Thirty-eight WASP fliers lost their lives while serving during the war—11 in training and 27 on active duty. Because they were not considered to be in the military under the existing guidelines, a fallen WASP was sent home at family expense without traditional military honors or note of heroism. The army would not even allow the U.S. flag to be put on fallen WASP pilots’ coffins.
Over the millennia, there are thousands of women whose lives, talents and hard work have smoothed the path for others, thanks to their political bravery, their devotion to the needs of those they do not know and will never meet, their care for the earth and its resources, their skills in medicine or music or architecture or design.
As we sit down for turkey, stuffing and giving thanks, here’s my highly edited short list of cool women, any one of whom I’d love to have had lunch with — some of whom maybe I still can!
And, of course — my Mom. She met my Canadian Dad in France when she was 17, married him and moved from New York City to Canada, followed him and his film-making career to London, then back to Canada where she became a radio, television, film and print journalist. She traveled the world alone for years, from Afghanistan to Singapore, Fiji to Chile. We lived and traveled in Mexico, the first place she taught me the need to pay careful attention to other cultures. A multiple survivor of various cancers, and still kicking my butt, she taught me to be feisty, frugal, fearless and have fun.
I’d love to hear your votes!
Marie Curie. Everyone who’s ever gotten an X-ray owes a debt of gratitude to Pole Madame Curie, who, sadly died of leukemia from overexposure to radiation. Only four people have won two Nobel prizes; she won in 1903 for physics and 1911 for chemistry.
Nellie McClung, who won Canadian women the right to vote. She’s on the Canadian $50 bill and a bronze statue of her stands outside the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. I dedicated my first T/S post, July 1, 2009, to her.
Lena Bryant, who emigrated from Lithuania in 1895 at the age of 16, and who founded Lane Bryant, by 1950 one of the U.S.’s most successful and earliest makers of clothing for larger sizes.
Virginia Apgar, a New York City physician and professor at Columbia University whose Apgar score for newborns, has since 1953, measured five key indicators of health within a baby’s first few minutes of life. She never married because “I never found a man who could cook.”
Suze Orman, who candidly admits she learned firsthand what it’s like to wear the leg-irons of consumer debt and who teaches women, especially, to take better financial care of themselves.
Alice Munro, a Canadian treasure, winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, and one of the world’s greatest living writers. I have met her, and she was as lovely and gracious as I’d hoped.
Jane Austen, who bequeathed to us some of the most enduring stories that still resonate centuries later.
Babe Didrikson Zaharia for being such a ferocious and multi-talented athlete long before anyone had heard of Title IX, civil rights or the Williams sisters.
Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who was fighting for the land years before it became fashionable to do so.
Sylvia Earle, aka Her Royal Deepness, whose passion for the oceans has made her the female equal of the much better-known late Jacques Cousteau.
Dian Fossey, one of several accomplished women (Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas) who made saving monkeys a powerful and compelling argument, devoting her life to them.
Billie Jean King, for her many tennis accomplishments, and for taking on the impossibly sexist-chauvinist Bobby Riggs and kicking his ass. Young women today have no idea how prevalent his brand of contempt was for women athletes.
Emily Roebling, whose name should be legend. Her father-in-law John Roebling won the contract, but died of tetanus. Then her husband, Washington, was severely injured by having descended too many times into the caissons to watch the progress of the Brooklyn Bridge, the 8th wonder of the world, as it was known at the time. While he had to sit in their Brooklyn home watching construction of it out their windows, it was Emily — unheard of in the 1880s — who, without any engineering or mathematical training, took over heading up this complex project. She defended her husband publicly, also unheard of at the time, and went on to become one of New York State’s first female lawyers.
Nellie Bly, a crusading journalist who chose to spend time in an insane asylum to report on its appalling conditions, then did a wild round-the-world journey in record time, also to write about it. Bold, brave and way ahead of the days when “embeds” or other forms of immersive reporting were considered cool.
Rosa Parks, who had the guts to take a stand for civil rights when so few others dared.
Margaret Bourke-White, whose photograph graced the first cover of Life magazine, and who became one of the U.S.’s best-known and most-respected women photographers.
Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher and writer, an extremely rare female leader in that world, whose books, and wisdom, have helped millions. A graduate of Miss Porter’s, a prep school in Connecticut, and Berkeley, she began her career as a schoolteacher and now runs Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia.
Annie Oakley, for escaping a crazy, impoverished childhood thanks to her guts and self-confidence. She learned to shoot so accurately because she initially shot game birds and sold them to local hotels for food, needing the money even as a teenager to survive. She met her husband, Frank Butler, when she beat him at a shooting competition. She became one of the nation’s best-known and widely-admired performers — until William Randolph Hearst, deciding to ride on the coat-tails of her fame, published articles in his newspapers slandering her. She took three years away from her career to fight every single one of them, and won. Here’s a biography of her by one of my favorite female historians, Glenda Riley. I also wrote about her in my first book.