Saturday, January 29, 2011

Heroine of the Weekend

This weekend's Heroine post is one of those that is less "heroine" and more "interesting person in history"! We'll take a look at Empress Anna Ivanovna of Russia, who was born in Moscow on this day in 1693, the daughter of Ivan V and niece of Peter the Great.

In the tradition of the day, she grew up with her mother and sisters in almost completely female company in the women's quarters of the palaces, but she was not completely uneducated. She studied reading and writing, German and French, dancing and court procedure, as most princesses did, but she grew up shy and clumsy and not very pretty (not much of a prize in the European marriage market at the time!). But she was tall, with a strong voice that projected authority and lovely dark eyes.

In 1709 her uncle Peter started marrying off his nieces and nephews to European royalty in his quest to expand Russia's prestige and power. Anna was married off to Frederick Wilhelm, Duke of Courland, in November 1710 at the Menshikov Palace in St. Petersburg, a lavish celebration including a vast amount of drink and the wedding of two dwarves (the Russian royal family of this time seems to have had a strange interest in dwarves--Peter hoped to breed a whole race of small people and had them "imported" from all over Russia to his new city of St. Petersburg). But the duke died on the journey home a month later, leaving Anna a widow. Peter ordered Anna to go to Courland and become its ruler.

Peter gave her an allowance of 40,000 rubles a year, not nearly enough to run a country (even a tiny one), and she was constantly forced to go begging to her uncle and his wife. She grew increasingly bitter in her exile. In January 1730 Peter died, and the privy council offered the throne to Anna (with limitations on her power--she could not declare war, set taxes, sign death sentences, and give out honors and estates without council permission. Where's the fun of being queen with all that??). She was greeted in Moscow by a group of noblemen who petitioned her to reject the conditions and rule as a proper Russian autocrat. She then repudiated the conditions and imprisoned the council members. She was crowned at the Dormition Cathderal on April 28.

Though she was meant to rule Russia herself with the aid of a cabinet of 5, she actually left most of the work to her lover Ernst von Biron. Not surprisingly, this was a period of expanding German influence in Russia, while she made up for her impoverished past with a lavish lifestyle in St. Petersburg. She liked balls, theater, card games, and hunting, and shared her uncle's strange passion for dwarves and clowns. She also loved setting up weddings for her courtiers, including one famous instance where an elderly prince was forced to marry one of her maids, dressed up like clowns in an ice palace in the middle of winter. (Hilarious--not!). This was all paid for with higher and higher taxes and the strengthening of serfdom. She also embroiled Russia in such quarrels as the War of the Polish Succession.

Luckily she was not empress for too long. She died in October 1740 from complications of a kidney stone and was buried at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. Her designated heir, her great-nephew Ivan VI, was only a year old at the time, and his mother Anna Leopoldovna was appointed regent with the aid of Biron and Anna's other German councilors. But the Russians had had enough of the Germans, and Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth was put on the throne in his place, imprisoning the infant Ivan and exiling his mother.

Some sources on this tumultuous period in Russian history are:
Ronald Hingley, The Tsars: 1533-1917 (1968)
W. Bruce Lincoln, The Romanovs: Autocrats of all the Russias (1981)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Portrait Friday

Henry VII of England was born on this day in 1457...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New Cover!

I always get so excited when a new cover comes in! This is for a 1920s-set "Undone" story out in April. An exotic Gatsby-esque party, where a daring woman won't settle for anything less than getting the man she loves...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


At the Riskies, of course! Talking about Oscar noms, Burns Day, Anne Boleyn, and Burns Day...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Heroine of the Weekend

Welcome to the weekend, everyone! Sorry it's been so quiet this week--I've been scrambling to finish a project and get back to the WIP, but I'm glad to take a break and celebrate this weekend's Heroine, opera singer Rosa Ponselle, who was born on January 22, 1897. (When I was a kid, I got hooked on opera, and my grandparents had a vast collection of old records! One of them was of Ponselle, and had a glamorous photo of her on the cover. I loved it).

Ponselle was born Rosa Ponzillo, the youngest of 3 children of Italian immigrants, in Connecticut. Her gorgeous voice was obvious at a very young age, and she sang on any possible occasion despite very little training. Her sister was a cabaret singer, and through her Rosa found work as a silent movie accompanist. She would sing ballads to entertain the audience while the reels were changed, and by 1914 she had a job at the San Carlino theater which led her to vaudeville along with her sister. "Those Tailored Italian Girls" as they were known were a big hit on the vaudeville circuit. After leaving the act, she met with an agent/voice teacher who persuaded the famous tenor Enrico Caruso to hear her sing. He was so deeply impressed with her talent, he arranged for her to audition at the Metropolitan Opera, which led to a contract for the 1918-19 season. From vaudeville to grand opera in a few short years!

She made her debut on Nov. 15, 1918 as Leonora in La forza del destino opposite Caruso, her very first opera performance of any sort. The stage fright that would plague her for her whole career almost derailed her at first, but she rallied to an enormous success. The New York Times declared "she possesses a voice of natural beauty that may prove a gold mine...with its luscious lower and middle tones, dark, rich, and ductile, brilliant in the upper register." She went on that season to perform in Cavalleria rusticana, Oberon, and premier of Breil's The Legend (an opera she said would "stink up a cat box").

She was put under a long-term contract at the Met and scored triumphs in La Juive, William Tell, Aida, Don Carlos, and many others. In 1927 she debuted in what many considered her greatest role in Bellini's Norma. She also had a busy concert career, traveling from coast to coast, but she rarely performed at other opera houses aside from a few appearances at Covent Garden, where she made her debut as Violetta, and once in Florence (she declined to appear at La Scala, after seeing the harsh treatment the uber-picky audiences there doled out!). In 1935, she sang her first Carmen (by this time her upper register had started to fade, and she did better in the mezzo roles). She sang for the last time on an opera as Carmen in Cleveland on April 22, 1937. She had already parted with the Met over contract disagreements.

In 1936 she married a wealthy man from Baltimore, Carle Jackson, with whom she built a luxurious home in Maryland called Villa Pace, where she retired. The marriage didn't last, and the rocky breakup caused a nervous breakdown. Once she recovered she never sang in public again, though she would perform for her friends, and in 1954 RCA Victor made recordings of her at her home. She helped found the Baltimore Civic Opera Company and taught promising singers, including Beverly Sills and Placido Domingo. She died of bone marrow cancer at Villa Pace on May 25, 1981.

A few sources on her life:
James A. Drake, Rosa Ponselle: A Centenary Biography (1997)
Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Rosa Ponselle: American Diva (1997)
Rosa Ponselle with James A. Drake, Rosa Ponselle: A Singer's Life (1982)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Heroine of the Weekend

Our Heroine of the Weekend is a bit late today, thanks to my birthday festivities yesterday! If we have to get older, we might as well have some fun doing it, and I had a lovely lunch out and a dinner with family and friends. Now back to work today! :)

Our Heroine is Sonya (or Sofia) Kovalevsky, a Russian mathematician born on January 15, 1850. She was born in Moscow, the middle of 3 children of an officer in the Imperial Army and a scholarly mother. Her parents encouraged her early love of mathematics and hired tutors for her. Her sister was also gifted, and published a story in a magazine edited by Dostoevsky. But higher education in Russia was closed to her, so in order to go abroad to a university (a woman required permission from a father or husband to do this, and her father did not want her to go) she contracted a (possibly fake) marriage to Vladimir Kovalesvky, a paleontology student who would later work with Darwin. She left Russia with him in 1867 to attend the University of Heidelberg.

Later the couple would visit London and become involved in intellectual circles, including being regulars at the salon of George Eliot. After 2 years at Heidelberg Sonya went on to Berlin to continue her studies and research of her own on such subjects as partial differential equations and elliptic integrals (I am not even sure what these are...), and earned her doctorate in mathematics at a high when most women never even considered higher education. Her dissertation on partial differential equations is now known as the Cauchy-Kovalevski theorem.

She and her husband then returned to Russia but couldn't find professorships because they were considered radicals for their political beliefs and their time in Germany. They returned to Germany, where a daughter Sofia, of "Fufa," was born. After a few separations, Sonya left her daughter in the care of her sister and left her husband for good. In 1883 he committed suicide. Sonya went on to secure a teaching position in Stockholm and in 1884 became editor of Acta Mathematica. In 1888 she won the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Science and the next year was appointed Professor Ordinarius at Stockholm University, possibly the first woman to hold such a position. She was also later granted a Chair in the Russian Academy of Sciences, but never given a professorial position in her own country.

She died in 1891 in Stockholm at the age of 41.

A few sources on her life include:
Her own memoir, A Russian Childhood
Ann Hibner Koblitz, A Convergence of Lives: Sofia Kovalevskaya--Scientist, Writer, Revolutionary (1983)
A novel by Joan Spicci, Beyond the Limit (2002)

Friday, January 14, 2011

New Book!

I have an essay (about what it's like dating as a single romance writer) in this book, which is out just in time for Valentine's Day! I can't WAIT to read the other stories...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tuesday Tuesday

Happy Tuesday everyone! I'm over at the Riskies today, talking about a great book I just read and announcing a brand new Laurel McKee series (yay!)
And Thomas Hardy died on this day in 1928. Here is his poem "The Darkling Thrush":

I LEANT upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seem'd to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seem'd fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carollings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some bless├Ęd Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Heroine of the Weekend

Since we had our first Hottie Monday of the year this week, we have to follow up with the first Heroine of the Weekend for 2011! Our Heroine is dancer and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, born on January 8, 1891.

Bronislava was usually overshadowed by her more famous/notorious brother Vaslav Nijinksy, but she had a great career in her own right. She was born in Minsk, the third child of dancers, and was 4 when she made her dancing debut, and at 7 was accepted (along with her brother) to the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. She studied there for 7 years and graduated with honors, becoming a dancer at the famed Marinsky Theater in 1908. She stayed there until 1910 (resigning when her brother was kicked out of the company), when she was invited by Serge Diaghilev to join his revolutionary Ballets Russes in Paris. There she became a choreographer as well as a dancer, studying under Michel Fokine and creating roles in ballets such as Petrouchka and Carnival.

In 1913 there was a short-lived attempt to create a company with her brother, and she returned to Russia the next year, creating her first ballet Tabakerka, and after the war opened her own school in Kiev, where her star pupil was Serge Lifar. She left Russia in 1921 to rejoin the Ballets Russes as choreographer, working with Stravinsky on some of her ballets such as Renard (1922) and Les Noces (1923). Her best known work was Le Train Bleu, a ballet about Paris Society on the Riviera, which utilized stylized games of tennis, golf, and beachy, modern costumes (she took a role in the debut as well). Chanel did the costumes, Milhaud the music, and Picasso the stage designs. It was great hit and watershed in the modern arts. (She had also appeared in another modern landmark, her brother's production of L'apres midi d'un faune, and went on to be his guardian and protector as he lived out his life in madness).

In the late '20s and 1930s she moved from company to company, including her own Polish Ballets of Paris, and also directed the choreography of the film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935). In 1938 she moved to Los Angeles and opened her own school as well as collaborating with such companies as American Ballet Theater and the Royal Ballet in London. Her students included Cyd Charisse and Maria Tallchief, among others.

In her private life, Nijinska was married twice, to dancer Alexander Kochetovsky, with whom she had 2 children Leo and Irina (who also became a dancer), but her true love was opera singer Feodor Chaliapin, though they never married. She died in California on February 22, 1972.

Some sources on her life:
Irina Nijinska, ed. Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs
Nancy Van Norman Baer, Bronislava Nijinska: A Dancer's Legacy

Friday, January 07, 2011

Birthday Friday

Yesterday we looked at Joan of Arc's birthday--today, it's my father's day. Happy Birthday, Dad!

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Happy Birthday Joan of Arc!

January 6, 1412 is the (legendary) birthday of Joan of Arc! Click here for more info on her fascinating, famous life....

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Risky Tuesday

Starting off the New Year with a new Risky post! What are your resolutions??