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Get to know queer literary icon Adrienne Rich

New bio presents her as vibrant, 3-dimensional human being

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‘The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography’
By Hilary Holladay
c.2020, Nan A. Talese
$32.50/478 pages

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” declared the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Many who love poetry believe this to be true.

Yet, few would argue that poets, apart from queer bards Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, are household names.

Except for Adrienne Rich. Rich, the lesbian poet and essayist who lived from 1929 to 2012, was as famous as a rock star. Her death was front page news. A queer icon, Rich was beloved by poetry aficionados and all who worked for justice. (Rich donated $1,000 to Split This Rock, a poetry organization that works for social change.)

“I contain multitudes,” Whitman said.

Rich gave Whitman a run for his money. During her life, Rich, born in Baltimore, was many things: a poet, scholar, teacher, married woman, radical feminist and an out lesbian. Baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, Rich later in life discovered her Jewish identity.

Rich’s fans ranged from renowned hetero poet Robert Lowell to lesbians and gay men who stood in line to hear her read. Looking into her eyes as Rich signed your book at a reading, you felt as if this distinguished, award–winning poet cared about you.

“The Power of Adrienne Rich” by Hilary Holladay is the first biography of this iconic poet. Writing a bio of an icon is a tall order. How do you present your subject with their talents, heroic qualities and failings without falling into hagiography or smackdown?

Holladay, a biographer, novelist, poet and scholar of modern and contemporary American literature, deftly pulls off this daunting hat trick. With the skill of a novelist, she illuminates Rich’s life from her birth in Baltimore in 1929 to her death in Santa Cruz, Calif, in 2012.

From early on, Rich had a life filled with privilege and success. Her father Dr. Arnold Rice Rich was a prominent Johns Hopkins pathologist. From early on, Dr. Rich considered his daughter to be a “baby genius.” By age 4, she was playing Mozart on the piano). She wrote a small volume of poems when she was six.

Rich graduated from Radcliffe in 1951. Queer poet W. H. Auden chose her first poetry collection “A Change of World” (published in 1951) to be published in the Yale Younger Poets Series. Soon after receiving this honor, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and was studying at Oxford.

She taught at universities and colleges — from the City College of New York to Swarthmore and wrote more than 24 poetry collections and six volumes of prose. At the same time, she engaged in political activism. In 1997, Rich refused to accept the National Medal of Arts, the U.S. government’s highest award for artists. In her letter declining the award, she deplored the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice.”

Rich’s husband, Alfred Haskell Conrad, killed himself shortly after he and Rich separated. Rich came out as a lesbian in the 1970s. Her poems “Twenty-One Love Poems” were among the first lesbian love poems to be widely read. I’d wager that every lesbian remembers where she was when she read them when they were published in 1978. Later, Rich became a staunch supporter of queer men who had AIDS. Rich and the late writer Michelle Cliff were partners for more than 30 years.

In the midst of her complex and busy life, Rich, who for most of her life had rheumatoid arthritis, endured pain and surgeries.

The many honors Rich received include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1994, a National Book Award in 1974 and the National Book Foundation medal for distinguished contribution to American letters in 2005.

Like everyone, Rich had her quirks. She could be imperious. Sometimes Rich drank too much or abruptly dropped friends she’d been close to.

Poetry for Rich “was as close to a religion as anything she would ever know,” Holladay writes.

In the “Power of Adrienne Rich,” Holladay helps us to know a queer literary icon – not as a god, but as a vibrant, three-dimensional human being. Amen to that!

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Laundry is his love language

New book explores author’s fascination with clean clothes

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‘Laundry Love: Finding Joy in a Common Chore’
By Patric Richardson with Karin B. Miller
c.2021, Flatiron Books $25.99/185 pages

Tomorrow’s outfit is on a chair over there.

That’s where it’s been since you last washed it. What you wore today came from a basket and off a hanger, the shirt needed ironing, there was a tiny stain on the pants but who noticed? and you just bought new socks, so there’s that. Time to do the wash? Yeah, but get a load of this: “Laundry Love” by Patric Richardson (with Karin B. Miller).

In one of his earliest memories, Patric Richardson’s uncle holds him aloft so that Richardson could watch laundry swimming in the washer. He was almost a baby then, but the fascination was set: at age three, Richardson was “over the moon” when he received a toy washing machine as a birthday gift. He remembers that it was Harvest Gold.

Growing up, Richardson absorbed washday secrets from an extended family of women and he learned the appeal of laundry hung on a line outside. While at the University of Kentucky, he met three professors who taught him about textiles, and employers educated him further. Love of fabric eventually became Richardson’s career and laundry is his love-language: “caring for your loved ones’ clothes shows them love.”

The first thing to know, Richardson states, is that “our clothes are bossy.” If something you enjoy wearing says “Dry Clean Only” on the label, lay it on the kitchen counter, grab a pair of scissors, and cut that label off because, “anything can be washed at home.”

Here, you’ll learn how to save time on wash day. Find out why big-brand-name detergents are unsafe, and see what you need to care for your clothes properly. Learn to iron, eliminate horrible stains, wash woolens and other awkward-to-clean items, and see how to rescue yellowed linens and special-event clothing like a pro.

Remember, says Richardson: “You don’t have to do laundry – you get to do laundry.”

These days, though, author Patric Richardson doesn’t “get to” very often. His husband, he says, does their wash while Richardson runs a clothing store and offers “Laundry Camp” at the Mall of America. But since not everyone can be a happy camper, there’s “Laundry Love.”

If you’re thinking that a book about joyfully washing clothes would be a mighty skinny book, you’re right but laundry is only a part of this story here. The rest is biography, and a love-letter to Appalachain and southern women. In giving props to the women who raised him, Richardson shows how his interest in fabric grew, too; the subject of textiles, which may be perceived as mundane by many, is treated in this light as something precious and accessible.

If you come for the biography, you’ll be glad you stayed for the hints as Richardson shows how even the most delicate items can be safely home-cleaned. That fur you love? Done. That stinky-perfumed vintage item you found? Clean. Ahhhhhhh, so pick up the undies in the corner, use grandma’s linens, shop thrift stores with impunity. Go ahead, fear-free. Having “Laundry Love” should take a load off your mind.

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Did Doris Duke get away with murder?

New book explores death of heiress’s gay designer

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Doris Duke, gay news, Washington Blade

‘Homicide at Rough Point’
By Peter Lance
c.2021, Tenacity Media Books
$28.79/438 pages

I don’t know if there is an afterlife. But if there is, I hope I don’t meet up with Doris Duke.

Why wouldn’t I want to hang out with Duke, the art collector and tobacco heiress, known as the richest woman in America, who lived from 1912 to 1993?

Because in the fascinating book “Homicide at Rough Point,” investigative journalist Peter Lance illustrates how Duke, believed to have had affairs with many men and women, including Errol Flynn, was likely the meanest woman in America.

On top of that, Lance convincingly argues, Duke got away with murder.

For starters, she’d hire ex-FBI agents to go after her ex-lovers and former employees to make sure they wouldn’t ruin her rep in the media. One night, Duke got angry at Joseph Armand Castro, one of her ex-husbands. He reportedly made a wisecrack while Duke was playing jazz on a piano. Ticked off, she slashed Castro’s arm with a butcher’s knife.

This was child’s play for Duke. Lance, who won five Emmys for his work as a correspondent for WNET and ABC News, makes a compelling case that Duke not only killed a trusted confidant, but used her money and influence to cover up her crime.

Duke had several estates – including “Falcon Lair” in Beverly Hills, the estate Rudolf Valentino purchased in 1925.

One of Duke’s estates, Rough Point, was in Newport, Rhode Island. The estate was on Bellevue Avenue, known as Millionaire’s Row. On Oct. 6, 1966, Eduardo Tirella, 42, flew to Newport from the West Coast. For a decade, he’d been the artistic curator and designer for Duke’s estates. The billionaire hadn’t purchased any art without consulting Tirella. She’d wanted to keep Tirella, who was gay, by her side.

Tirella no longer wanted to work for Duke. Against the warnings of his partner, the sculptor Edmund Kara, and his friends, he decided to tell Duke in person that he was quitting.

Tirella, a New Jersey native, grew up, one of nine children, in a working class family. He earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts fighting in World War II.

After the war, Tirella designed hats for Saks Fifth Avenue and the gossip doyennes Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

He moved to the West Coast, where he and Kara lived fairly openly as a gay couple. Tirella designed Elizabeth Taylor’s shack for the movie “The Sandpiper.” Kara designed the bust of Taylor that’s seen in the same movie. The couple partied with friends from Kim Novak to Bobby Short.

As Tirella prepared to leave Duke, his work on the West Coast was amping up. He was the set designer for the Tony Curtis movie “Don’t’ Make Waves.” He’d earned $43,000 (about $351,000 in today’s money) the year of his death, Lance reports.

Duke, who Lance calls “the possessive, often violent heiress” wasn’t at all pleased that Tirella was leaving. People who were around Duke and Tirella then, told Lance that on Oct. 7, 1966, after Tirella said he was leaving, the two had a “wicked fight.”

Minutes later, Duke ran Tirella over with her car outside the gates of Rough Point, Lance reports. “Because Doris Duke had the money and the power,” he writes, “she succeeded in effectively erasing his death from the narrative of her controversial life.”

The Newport police said Tirella’s death was an “unfortunate accident.” Soon after Tirella died, Lance reports, Duke, who hadn’t contributed to Newport before, became philanthropic. She created the Newport Restoration Foundation to revive the city’s tourism.

For Lance, a Newport native, something about the case, “sat unsolved, like a stone in my shoe,” he writes.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald said the rich “are different from you and me,” he was so on point! “Homicide at Rough Point” is a captivating memoir of gumshoe journalism and an entertaining travelogue of Newport, where the rich and eccentric have lived since the American Revolutionary War.

Above all, it is an arresting reminder: If you’re rich and powerful enough, you can cover-up anything – even murder.

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Books

Hemingway: Brilliant writer or avatar of toxic masculinity?

New documentary breaks through the ‘Papa’ mystique

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Ernest Hemingway, gay news, Washington Blade

Ernest Hemingway’s work is widely available in print, e-book and audio formats.

“I went to the garage and cried when your Mom died,” my Dad told me a half century ago, “I didn’t want anyone to see me crying.”

“Men aren’t supposed to cry,” he added

“Why?” I asked.

“Read Hemingway,” he said, “ then you’ll know why.”

Decades later, we still avidly read Hemingway, who lived from 1899 to 1961.

We heatedly debate: Was Hemingway one of America’s greatest writers (a 20th century Mark Twain or Walt Whitman)? Or an avatar of toxic masculinity?

Gertrude Stein taught him about writing. Yet, in his work, he made homophobic references to “fairies.” He wrote with empathy of women dying in childbirth, while penning paragraph after paragraph about bullfights.

But, “Hemingway,” a new three-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick streaming on PBS, makes Hemingway, with all his contradictions, come alive. Actors from Jeff Daniels to Patricia Clarkson to Meryl Streep bring Hemingway, his parents and wives (he was married four times) to life.

“Hemingway” reveals that Hemingway, the ultimate man’s man, was into androgyny – what we’d today call gender fluidity.

Hemingway’s story is well known. Born in Oak Park, Ill., he was a reporter with the Kansas City Star, before he enlisted as an ambulance driver in World War I. During the War, Hemingway was wounded and fell in love with a nurse, who rejected him.

He and his first wife Hadley Richardson moved to Paris in the early 1920s. There, Hemingway worked for a while as a reporter, then quit to become a “starving” writer. His hunger pangs enhanced his writing. “Hunger is good discipline,” he wrote in “A Moveable Feast,” his memoir of his time in Paris in the 1920s.

Actually, Hemingway wasn’t poor in Paris. Hadley had a trust fund. In Paris, Gertrude Stein and other writers mentored him. “The Sun Also Rises,” his first novel, published in 1926 was a critical and commercial success.

After that, Hemingway lived in Key West, Fla., and Cuba; and was a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and World War II. He received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954. Everyone from Marlene Dietrich to GIs in World War II called him “Papa.”

At 61, he killed himself in Ketchum, Idaho, where he and his fourth wife Mary Welsh lived.

“Hemingway,” breaks through the “Papa” mystique. Hemingway’s father, suffering from depression, killed himself. (Hemingway would suffer from depression, traumatic brain injuries and alcoholism.) His mother Grace dressed Hemingway and his sister identically when they were young. She gave them toy rifles and dolls to play with.

Later, Hemingway and Welsh liked to switch roles in bed, says Mary V. Dearborn, author of a terrific bio of Hemingway.

Hemingway would be the girl and Welsh would be the boy. They cut their hair to the same length. “In a way, he wanted to be a woman in love with another woman,” Dearborn says.

Not surprisingly for his time, Hemingway was enraged when his son Greg (who was trans and later known as Gloria) was arrested in 1951 for wearing women’s clothing in a women’s restroom. The two later reconciled.

The documentary helped me understand why I love some of Hemingway’s work (“The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “A Moveable Feast”).

For despite his he-man image, Hemingway writes movingly of love and death. Through his deceptively simple, repetitive sentences, he makes you feel life as you read. Hot off the page.

What we remember most from his books isn’t the wars or the bullfights. It’s Catherine dying in child birth in “A Farewell to Arms.”

It’s the woman in the short story “Hills Like Elephants.” Her boyfriend keeps trying to pressure her into having an abortion. “Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, would you just stop talking?” she says to him when he won’t stop mansplaining.

It’s David and Catherine, the couple in the posthumously published “The Garden of Eden,” who, defying convention, switch gender and sexual roles.

Hemingway is a writer for our moment, when we’re struggling with toxic masculinity and viewing gender in new ways. Check out “Hemingway,” on PBS online. Better yet, read one of Hemingway’s books.

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