And yet another great read I owe to The Beguiling. (I swear, I am not on their payroll.) Also, the first book in French I’ve talked about here? Huh. Clearly, I need to get through that stack of French books on my shelf (some great-looking stuff from Éditions de Ta Mère waiting patiently to be read). But oddly enough, although Coney Island Baby is a French graphic novel written by a very talented French woman, the subject matter is decidedly English. Or rather American, starting as it does with a full page of Hugh Hefner in 1999 looking smug as hell.
But when doesn’t Hugh Hefner look smug as hell? And it’s only natural that he should be a bit on the full-of-himself side of things here, talking with two young women who want to be Playmates and attempting to show them the darker side of the glamorous Playboy lifestyle. The bunny-eared, nameless women are eager to join the ranks of hot naked ladies, but Hugh wants to make sure that they realize just what being a Playmate means. So he gives them a tour of the mansion, introduces them to the staff, buys them ice cream and tells them the stories of Bettie Page and Linda Lovelace, two hot naked ladies separated by many years who nonetheless followed creepily similar trajectories. According to Antico, anyway.
It’s actually fascinating to see them juxtaposed here, mostly because their stories really are very similar. Both are dissatisfied with the life that’s expected of them, both end up in the hot naked lady world because of chance encounters with weird men, both want to be proper actresses and yet somehow fall short of their dreams for one reason or another. And each has a sort of awakening that leads her away from the path of hot naked lady “sin”.
Reading their stories so expertly intertwined makes it easy to start thinking about larger themes, the bigger picture. And the go-to choice for that here is obviously a feminist narrative, women not in control of their own destinies and so grabbing at control when they get the chance, whether it’s Lovelace denouncing her past and insisting that her ex-husband turned her into a sexual slave, or Page finding god and becoming extra zealous because of all the evil she feels she’s done in her life. Antico did make me think about the feminist aspects of her story, not in the least because she manages to bring Gloria Steinem into it. And however forcefully Page and Lovelace reached out to shape their own lives, they were still trapped in a system that devalued and scorned them, and eventually spit them out, leaving Linda a drugstore cashier and Bettie a lonely recluse.
But I ended up thinking about the whole thing in a more general way because there is really this underlying idea of working so hard and wanting something so badly, and yet you still don’t get it. All that work, all that desire is not enough. Both Bettie and Linda wanted nothing more than to be legitimate actresses, and everything they did was to that end, but neither ever made it to that place. And part of that was choices they made ended up removing other choices they could have made, something neither of them saw except perhaps in hindsight. That is one hell of a sad thing to see. Which is probably why I don’t usually read biographies. I don’t want to see where seemingly good choices lead people to bad ends. That is too depressing.
Because when you do read something where good intentions lead to bad places, you can’t help but wonder if you are doing the same thing with your own choices. Linda Lovelace did Deep Throat with the thought that it was a stepping stone on the road that would eventually lead to an Oscar. Bettie Page got started in modeling as a sideways move towards acting. Both made lasting impressions, but not in the way they wanted to. Which is, I guess, the point that Hugh is trying to impart to the would-be Playmates as he leads them around his estate and tells them the stories of these two fascinating women.
Antico weaves their stories together incredibly skillfully. She intertwines the corresponding milestones, so the reader gets a few pages of Bettie starting out, then a few pages of Linda starting out, then back to Bettie, building up to the climax of their respective careers, then beginning the descent. Because as Antico herself notes at the peak of Lovelace’s career, “Le but atteint est vite banalisé. Dès lors, il ne reste qu’à redescendre, à son rythme.” (A goal reached becomes trivial soon enough. Then there’s nothing left but to come back down, each at her own pace.) The breaks with Hugh chatting with the wannabes are the perfect punctuation for each section, and the chance for Antico to offer up some personal commentary on the women through the mouthpiece that is Hef.
What’s particularly interesting is that these portraits are fairly sympathetic. But concerned. Something that’s obvious when Hugh talks to the wannabes, and warns them that they need to really think about what they want, and whether or not this is something that they’ll look back on and regret, the way both Lovelace and Page did. I was sort of fascinated though, by the way Lovelace is portrayed as enthusiastically embracing her super sexual lifestyle in the beginning, and then seemingly going back on all of that and insisting that her husband at the time forced her into everything. Obviously, she did do all of those things (or at least the stuff that got caught on film), but in her books, she writes that she was an unwilling participant. It’s an interesting choice that Antico’s made to portray her as super willing, and not one that I’m necessarily sure I agree with.
Either way, the art is basically perfect for Lovelace and her seventies life, all half-connected lines, and slinky, loose bodies. But despite the looseness of the lines, and the casual flow, faces are all recognizably who they are meant to depict. And there are a lot of familiar faces in Linda’s story (Hi, Liz Taylor!). But I’m less in love with this loose, sensual linework for Bettie’s story which takes place in the forties and fifties. I feel like a slightly tighter line would’ve conveyed more about the times Bettie lived in. But maybe that’s just Bettie’s fringe influencing me unduly? (To be fair, it is a pretty influential fringe.)