Something Good #5: Four Lives
Often when reading, researching or procrastinating, I come across a real-life character whose story fascinates or touches me in some deep way. When I can’t fit them into whatever I’m working on, I put them aside, to return to later.
Here are four lives, spanning approximately 30 centuries.
You’re more likely to have heard of Margaret Wise Brown than anyone else in this issue. She is, of course, the author of the celebrated children’s classic Goodnight Moon. We have a few of her books and I consider her somewhat of a literary genius; I’m sure you’re familiar with the elliptical poetry of Moon but even her less-known children’s works (she wrote over 100) have an enchanting and unforced lyricism.
In idly researching her life I discovered that Brown was somewhat of a bohemian. She was born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and was heavily influenced by the work of Gertrude Stein, who she even commissioned to write a children’s book of her own, The World Is Round. She had a longstanding romantic relationship with Blanche Oelrichs, the “Sappho of Long Island,” who wrote erotic poetry under the name Michael Strange and eventually took on the nom de plume entirely.
And she died, tragically and unexpectedly young. While recovering from emergency surgery in France (some say for an ovarian cyst, some say for appendicitis), a nurse asked her how was she feeling, and Brown is said to have kicked her leg up and replied, “Grand!” Somehow that action dislodged a blood clot in her leg, which almost instantly killed her. She was 42.
A strange and sad post-script to Brown’s life is that she mysteriously left her royalties to Goodnight Moon to a nine-year-old neighbour named Albert Clarke. As the years passed and the book became firmly established as a children’s classic, they became worth a great deal. But he seems to have been ruined by this windfall, squandering his millions as he wandered around the world, getting arrested (for larceny, assault and marijuana possession) and forever keeping a copy of Brown’s will in his wallet. He apparently believed that Brown was secretly his mother, a claim that doesn’t seem to have any evidence to support it. A Wall Street Journal article from 2000 tells his story up to that point, but after the trail goes cold.
“You see Jean-Michel Basquiat and Anya Phillips and Lydia Lunch and John Sex and Lisa Rosen and Fab 5 Freddy and John Lurie and Andy Warhol and Sophie Vieille du Temple and Klaus Nomi and Futura 5000 and Felice Rosser and Boris Policeband and Mary Lemley and Lee Quiñones and Patti Astor and Kristian Hoffmann and Adele Bertei and Lady Pink and Ronnie Cutrone and Rammellzee and Debbie Harry and Rene Ricard, and Anita Sarko on the decks and Haoui Montaug at the velvet rope, the wisest and most poetic doorman ever.”
That last description leapt out at me. It’s from a passage describing the scene at the Mudd Club in 1981, from Lucy Sante’s essay “Bass Culture,” in her recent collection Maybe the People Would Be the Times.
“The wisest and most poetic doorman ever”? I had heard many of the other names on this list, but never Haoui Montaug’s. Of course I needed to learn more.
Montag was born in Brooklyn in 1952. He achieved a local scene-adjacent fame from working the door at now-legendary clubs of the era: the Mudd Club, the Danceteria, Studio 54—where he legendarily once made Mick Jagger pay six bucks to get in. Places where the right bouncer, the sole determining arbiter of who was cool enough to enter the Holiest of Holies inside, could be a star. His poem about the job is worth reading.
He also, notably, put on a cabaret called No Entiendes, which featured early appearances by the likes of Madonna and the Beastie Boys. Amazingly, some record of it still exists on YouTube.
Montaug had been diagnosed with AIDS when he decided to end his life in 1991. His New York Times obituary (“Haoui Montaug; Disco Doorman, 39”) makes no mention of how he chose to go out, though. The story has it that he invited 20 of his friends to his loft in downtown Manhattan, where he had a goodbye party of sorts (Madonna attended by phone from L.A.) and then swallowed a handful of painkillers.
The next morning, he woke up—still very much alive and pissed off—kicked out all the stragglers, and tried again, this time successfully.
Zamor was born in the city of Chittagong in what is now Bangladesh at some point in the 1860s—we don’t know exactly when. What we do know is that he was kidnapped and enslaved by English traders, and eventually sold to King Louis XV of France. The king gave the young man as a gift to his mistress the Comtesse du Barry, who christened him Louis-Benoît.
Although she no doubt believed she treated him well, du Barry (who mistakenly assumed Zamor was from Africa) showed him off at gatherings, had him serve drinks to her guests, called him names. In short, du Barry treated Zamor as a sort of exotic pet, and he grew to resent her and her profligate lifestyle. He began reading Rousseau and eventually joined the Committee of Public Safety. When the Revolution came, he denounced his former mistress and publicly testified against her. She was sent to the guillotine, one of the first, and certainly one of the most prominent, fatalities of the Reign of Terror.
As for Zamor, he was briefly imprisoned by the Girondins. After working as a schoolteacher, he eventually died alone, penniless, and mostly forgotten in 1820.
In 1898, the archeologist Victor Loret opened a tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, designated “KV35,” which contained some dozen stored mummified bodies, where they had been stored some 3,000 years prior. Some were readily identified as pharaohs—Ramesses IV, V and VI, Thutmose IV, Seti II—but others were more mysterious. And one, until very recently, was known only as The Younger Lady.
The Younger Lady appeared to have been severely wounded, on her chest and most noticeably, on her face. It was determined eventually that these wounds were received before her death (and presumably were its cause).
But who was she? It was a mystery that lasted for more than another century.
To give her some context (and to digress a little bit—sorry, I can’t get enough of this stuff), we need to talk a little about Tutankhamun—perhaps the most famous mummy, and pharaoh, of ancient Egypt. At least, the most famous to us, due to Howard Carter’s sensational discovery of his nearly intact tomb in 1922, which made the boy king a style icon for the Art Deco era. But the truth is, his reign was not particularly monumental: crowned as a young boy, he reigned for only about a decade before a death almost certainly hastened by congenital weaknesses caused by the inbreeding of the literally incestuous royal family.
Tutankhamun’s predecessor, just a few years before his reign, was the very usual Akhenaten. Akhenaten had overthrown centuries of polytheistic religious tradition to worship only the sun god Aten. He had decamped from the traditional ruling seat of Thebes and founded an entirely new capital city, Amarna, out in the desert. This was really very strange, and nobody still knows why. According to renowned Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, who I interviewed for a podcast last year, it’s still debated whether this was a political move, to undermine the powerful religious cults that dominated society, or a genuine religious conversion on Akhenaten’s part (she’s leaning towards the latter).
After Akhenaten’s 17-year reign, and death, it would be Tutankhamun who moved the capital back to Thebes and re-established, possibly his most significant mark on Ancient Egyptian history.
But what does all this have to do with The Younger Lady?
Well, in 2010, a DNA study strongly indicated that The Younger Lady was, in fact, Tutankhamun’s mother. And her husband, his father, was her brother. She turns out to be a crucial branch of Ancient Egypt’s most studied and celebrated royal family (celebrated by us, at least).
What we don’t know is anything about the life she led, nor how she died. Was she murdered? Killed in a chariot accident (a very real cause of death for nobility of the period, and one speculated cause for the wound on her face)? Did she have standing, or was she seen as a mere concubine? What was her day-to-day life like? What did she like to eat? Was she funny?
We may be able to put a name to her shattered face but those are details we will never ever know. All we have, improbably enough, is her body, with its own stories to tell.
Congratulations to Rebecca Lessard and Lori Messer (whose solved puzzle is pictured), who both successfully solved last week’s crossword despite me accidentally leaving out one of the clues. Your very special prize is currently being dreamed up.
If you liked the crossword and want more, please let me know—I enjoyed making it. (You can just reply to this email.)
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