The saying goes that “behind every great man is a woman.” But what about the great woman, who stands behind her?
In “Almost Famous Women,” Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of the acclaimed short story collection, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” takes on the this question.
Real women are found at the heart of these tales, women unusual for their times and almost entirely forgotten in ours.
The author drops us into the lives of conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton, born in 1908. The twins toured the United States performing song and dance routines, turning over all of their earnings to the abusive woman who reared them.
Though the twins didn’t share any vital organs, they were attached at the hip and shared blood; to separate them would most likely kill at least one.
The story opens with the women in their 60s and working at a grocery store. We get Daisy’s perspective, the one who most enjoyed fame. Violet longed for domesticity.
Daisy recalls “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.”
Past and present weave together, exploring their tumultuous childhoods and rise to fame, but also a complicated relationship with no secrets. “Imagine: you could say nothing, do nothing, eat nothing, touch nothing, love nothing without the other knowing.”
One commonality between the twins is curiosity about what it would be like to be alone. As death circles, the terrifying possibility of separation becomes real.
Ever hear of the “mile-a-minute girls?” Hazel Eaton was the first to ride a motorcycle in a carnival motordrome, basically a large barrel, known as the “wall of death.” She roared around and around rode at up to 60 miles per hour, often using no hands.
Hazel didn’t wear a helmet because it admitted “the anticipation of being hurt, of breaking.” And she was hurt, suffering severe head and facial injuries.
Because of these women, many of whom ended up nearly alone, forgotten, and dying far too soon, some of these stories could have become cheap warnings about moderation.
Instead they are sympathetic, never romanticizing the often self-destructive behavior, but exploring why these women sought risk taking and the effect of their impulses.
Several used their courage to serve their country. Dolly Wilde, the niece of Oscar Wilde, and Marion “Joe” Carstairs, heir to the Standard Oil fortune, drove ambulances on World War I’s front lines.
After the war, Dolly Wilde noted its effects: “Those days are why I don’t cry at weddings, why I drink, why I say something rash at dinner. They are why I forget to pay my bills. They are why I can’t sleep. They are what I see in my sleep.
“They are why I don’t waste my time doing practical things, hoping the world will be good to me when I’m older.”
Carstairs bought an island called Whale Cay and invited her many friends and female lovers there, where she raced speedboats and earned the title of the “fastest woman on water.”
As Bergman writes: “Maybe the world has been bad to its great and unusual women. Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.”
Bergman never shies from the darker aspects, such as Wilde’s drug abuse and instability, but also withholds judgment. The author invents a childhood friend and caretaker, who tries to keep Wilde afloat, to reveal this life. Some of these narrators are real people, as well.
Like great men, great women require an entourage.
While the actions of the star cast here are arresting, it is their supporting characters — who love but are exhausted by them — that the reader often becomes most attached to.
In some ways, this collection becomes a memorial to those usually anonymous enablers who only orbit fame, such as Norma Millay, sibling of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the third woman to win the Pulitzer in poetry. Norma Millay first took care of her sister, and then her sister’s memory by founding an art colony.
As Bergman has Wilde’s friend sum up this thankless task: “There were years when I convinced myself that she had to rely on others because she was a woman without means who did not want to marry, and there were years when I got tired of trying to save her, tired of trying to coax her into the incredible woman she should have been.
“There shouldn’t have been flashes of greatness; there should have been a lifetime of it.”
Leanna Bales, intern with University of Missouri-Kansas City Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Almost Famous Women, by Megan Mayhew Bergman (256 pages; Scribner; $25)