The Queen of Crooks.
DURING THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS, Nuala O'Faolain has established herself as an exciting memoirist with Are You Somebody (1998) and Almost There (2003); she has also confirmed her innovative fiction skills in the novel My Dream of You (2001). Her most recent work, The Story of Chicago May, represents an entirely new tack as O'Faolain audaciously navigates the latitudes and longitudes of creative biography.
In 1890, at 19 years of age, May Duignan stole her family's savings and fled from her home in Edenmore, County Longford, intent on concocting a new life in America. That she did, revamping her identity more often than Flann O'Brien or Jack Crabbe. May created multiple selves--showgirl, con artist, bank robber, prostitute, reformed sinner. She quickly became a tabloid sensation, an identity she self-consciously cultivated, as "Chicago May: Queen of the Underworld." May's performances took her through New York, Chicago, London, Paris, Cairo, Rio de Janeiro, Detroit, and Philadelphia, involving her with myriad peccant and felonious individuals. Her main trade was robbery linked with prostitution; she always emphasized the former, terming herself "a badger"--one who lures a john into a compromising position and then robs him while he is passionately preoccupied. Finally, in her mid-fifties, in a Detroit hospital, May encountered August Vollmer, a nationally renowned police administrator, who somehow convinced her to forsake her life of crime and to write her autobiography. The result became Chicago May, Her Story: A Human Document by "The Queen of Crooks" (1928).
Having heard oral renditions of May's exploits in the west of Ireland, O'Faolain found her interest curiously piqued. Without a copy of May's book available in all of Ireland, she had to travel to America and spent considerable time in the New York Public Library, reading and essaying May's text. That led her to visit many of May's underworld haunts while she constructed her own reckoning, in the process of re-presenting May Duignan's life, O'Faolain is repeatedly prompted to assess Irish cultural history, especially the place of women within that heritage. May's flight from Ireland at the age of 19 is seen, in part, as a flight from familial domestic servitude: "They say in Edenmore--there are people alive who knew people who knew her--that she ran away because she didn't want to mind another of her mother's babies. This would have been the fourth one given over to her care when her mother resumed the heavy work of the place" (17). The effects of the Famine on marriage customs in the late nineteenth century are also sounded.
Sexist chauvinism certainly lights a fire under Nuala O'Faolain, and some of her liveliest writing emerges when she discusses Irish patriarchal procedures. Here, she seems right on the money presenting paternal inclinations to view a daughter's marriage as an economic opportunity. She also astutely addresses male competitions and pecking orders which would prompt gibes over a wife's good looks and a general acquiescence to an old man's late-in-life desire to possess youth.
When May, Eddie Guerin, and Dutch Gus Miller are on the verge of notoriously robbing the Paris American Express Office in 1901, O'Faolain posits the following alternative for May's participation in the heist:
In Edenmore, at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was an even chance that her husband, if she had had one, would have been at least ten years her senior. A woman with the dowry she'd have brought him would have had the minding of whatever number of children "God sent," and of three or four cows, ten young cattle, fifty or sixty hens and cockerels, half a dozen ducks and a drake, a gander and maybe two geese and their goslings--geese do a lot of foraging and cattle won't come where they've been, but in Edenmore, the rough ground at the edge of the bog is ideal for geese. There'd have been the horse that drew the cart, and a pony, if they had a pony, and trap as well. And twice a year she and her husband would have killed one of the two fat pigs. Her dark kitchen with its dirt floor would have had flitches of bacon hung to smoke from its rafters. She would have labored day and night at bringing in water, planting and digging up potatoes, milking the cows, feeding calves, preparing feed for the pigs, for the hens, for the family, for the baby, for the mother-in-law above in the room. The dog, at least, would have looked after itself. (115)
O'Faolain's use of statistics may be questioned but not her inviting prose style. I am particularly fond of the aside for the foraging habits of geese, the exaggerated lists that acquire an increasing momentum, the verbal dance steps describing the preparation of various feeds, and the coup de grace of including the mother-in-law awaiting service, "above." Thank god for self-sufficient dogs. Who wouldn't choose to be in Paris robbing an American Express Office?
O'Faolain's predilection for imagining conversations and scenarios proves intriguing yet problematic. One example will have to suffice here. Having made her way eventually to Chicago, May was indoctrinated into the world of prostitution and complementary grift and graft. One standard maneuver--a staple of "badgering"--was for May or her friend Dora Donegan to bed a john while the other lifted his bankroll during the throes of passion. Although May herself describes the "first big crooked job I did in Chi," O'Faolain curiously feels the need to add a provocative denouement:
I imagine May and Dora fleeing in a flurry of skirts down Wabash or State to one of the lounges where unaccompanied women were allowed to drink.... They sprawl on velvet armchairs, flushed and amiable. May scratches herself through her skirt because when the man started coming she heaved him onto her thigh and it's still wet. I take it that the man did come-that it was when he was enfeebled by release that Dora passed the roll of notes to May and let her get away while Dora hustled him into his clothes. (39-40)
Scenes founded on "I imagine" often prompt the audience to balk. In episode one of Ulysses, Stephen's rival, Mulligan, assures the Forty-Foot bathing crowd that "Redheaded women buck like goats" (1.706). It's a bit of a stretcher, however, to present May (very much a redhead) gymnastically improvising on the rhythm method, spilling her john's seed on her thigh, and later relaxing as she scratches the wet spot.
In constructing her account of May Duignan's life, O'Faolain is inclined to aggrandize particular experiences or events as major "turning points." Eddie Guerin, May's main man and accomplice during the Paris American Express robbery, was quickly captured after the heist, while May escaped to London. However, several weeks later, May re-crossed the English Channel, returning to Paris to try to rescue Eddie with a story designed to elicit aid from the American Consul. O'Faolain strategically skips three lines in her narrative and then declares, after the drum roll of white-space,
She did go back to Paris. And I see that as one of the cardinal actions of her life, as important in its way as stealing the family money or as the choice she made, whenever and however she made it, to become an outlaw. (120)
The causes and consequences of such a "cardinal action" are thoroughly plumbed and pondered while we witness May's subsequent arrest and celebrated trial. Then O'Faolain adopts new metaphors to signal a related turning point. She says that May's sentence of five years in jail represents
the night when May's boat capsized. I think of how young she is-she's twenty-nine or thirty-and of how her patience has never yet been tested, and how five years of hard labor may ask more of her spirit than she has to give. I wonder whether being a jailbird will be a watershed in her view of herself (128-29).
This penchant for focusing on "cardinal actions," "boats capsizing," and "watersheds" eventually results in O'Faolain more openly accommodating May's life to paradigms from literature, opera, and the Bible. Rather late in her life, at age 55, May was incarcerated yet again, this time in the Detroit House of Correction. Having refused to work because she was sick, May was placed in the facility's "dungeon," where she slept on the stone floor and proceeded to hemorrhage internally. Rushed to the Detroit hospital, May underwent an emergency operation and was not expected to live.
Because May never directly discusses her debut as a prostitute, O'Faolain takes the liberty of placing it in the following context:
Maybe she was with a man she looked on as a protector, and he instructed her to go to the back of the saloon with the man with the roll of notes. She doesn't tell us anything about the crucial moment in her life, the moment of fall, the moment of disjunction from an ordinary fate. The moment when she first agreed to sell her body. (38)
Such a "fall," with Garden of Eden implications, naturally creates the expectation of its opposite, and O'Faolain does not disappoint. The penultimate chapter of her text concludes by clearly signaling May's impending transformation and reclamation: "She was not one for smooth transitions, May. Neither is redemption smooth" (263). This "redemption," which O'Faolain has been building to, comprises two main features. First, May serendipitously meets August Vollmer and is convinced to "go straight" and to sell her life story, originally in a series of newspaper articles and subsequently in book form. Second, soon after the publication of her book, May finds herself "Moving Toward Love"--the title of the ultimate chapter in The Story of Chicago May. With timing syncopated to a classic Dickens novel, May winds up in the Philadelphia General Hospital just as her old (brief) flame from twenty years ago, Charley Smith, is released from Folsom Prison.
On the day when May and Charley planned to be married in her hospital room, May was rushed into emergency surgery on her fallopian tubes and never recovered. One of the Philadelphia papers ran the following headline: "CHICAGO MAY'S WEDDING BELLS TOLL REQUIEM AS DEATH HALTS OLD ROMANCE BEYOND THE LAW." O'Faolain is a tad less histrionic in her rendition: "as oblivion stole upon her, the finger that would have worn a wedding band went slack" (285).
In the epilogue, O'Faolain states '"As well as I could, I wrote a factual biography'" (303). In this instance, I am not sure whether it is worthwhile trying to parse what the definitive criteria of "factual biography" might be. Discussing his latest memoir All Will Be Well, the late John McGahern says, "the temptation for the fiction writer is to improve or to embellish or to reinvent" (25). I would argue that any biography or memoir (or history) necessarily improves, embellishes, and reinvents. Readers will be quite pleased that Nuala O'Faolain gives in to such temptations. Nuala O'Faolain also invests this creative biography with her own personal tragedies, sicknesses and failures. We should be most grateful that she does. The Story of Chicago May piquantly reassesses May Duignan's earlier account of her life while it also treats us to a self-portrait of Nuala O'Faolain who proves to be just as volatile and just as fascinating.
--University of Connecticut