Finding Leonardo’s Muses

leoOn a trip to Milan, I visited The Last Supper, which can only be seen by appointment and in small groups. After everyone had left the room, I remained, strangely drawn to the mural on the opposite wall, the Crucifixion scene by Giovanni Montorfano. In the lower right corner, witnessing the Crucifixion, are several Dominican nuns. This caught my eye, having been educated by the Dominicans in New Orleans. Who, I wondered, was the ghostly figure kneeling in prayer, virtually nestled in the skirts of the nuns?

While the rest of the mural is in fine condition, the figure of the kneeling woman has all but disappeared. Being someone who unearths women’s hidden history, I had to find out more. Upon further investigation, I discovered that it was Beatrice d’Este, the young wife of Ludovico, the infamous duke of Milan and Leonardo’s patron. I also found out that it was Leonardo who had painted Beatrice into Montorfano’s mural. Why?

More curious still, I visited the Trivulzian library in the Castello Sforzesca, but found that it was closed for renovation. I pounded on the door, finally getting a reluctant librarian to open it. In my pathetic, broken Italian, I announced that I was a novelist looking for information on Beatrice. No one in the library spoke English, and besides, did I not understand that they were closed? With some persistence, I found a sweet-faced librarian who spoke French and pleaded my case. With a bit of coaxing, she began to show me copies of exquisite miniatures of Beatrice and her children, as well as a bibliography that would be useful in finding out more about her fascinating, short life.


Duchess Beatrice d’Este of Milan

I found myself inexplicably moved by Beatrice’s tragic story. Later, while walking through the rooms of the Castello, I felt an eerie, chilling aliveness. I believe that all writers and journalists feel this heightened awareness when a nascent story begins to blossom within us. I dug deeper, trying to find if there was a personal connection between Beatrice and Leonardo, when I discovered that during his years in Milan, Leonardo painted not only Beatrice, the duke’s 15-year- old wife, but Isabella, Beatrice’s illustrious sister, who was the Peggy Guggenheim of her time and who was having a flirtation with the duke; Cecilia Gallerani, the duke’s 17-year-old mistress; and Lucrezia Crivelli, the duke’s later mistress. Imagine, I thought, all these women competing for supremacy in the duke’s heart, while Leonardo was charged with painting them. The poor artist! Leonardo’s troubles with the duke are well known. Didn’t he have enough on his hands without having to negotiate around the duke’s love life?

Portrait of Isabella d'Este Gonzaga of Mantua by Titian

Portrait of Isabella d’Este Gonzaga of Mantua by Titian

I set out to find out everything I could about the Este sisters. I dug up books about their lives, mostly from the 19th century and long out of print. I read their letters, as well as letters by the courtiers of their time. I traversed northern Italy, visiting Ferrara, where they were born, and Mantua, where Isabella reigned as Marchesa. I visited the areas around Milan where Beatrice and Ludovico kept their “pleasure palaces.” I went to Venice, where both sisters came, one after the other, competing for the favor of the Doge and the Venetian Senate. By the time I came home, the story of these formidable women and their rivalries had started to write itself.

Why I Wrote Kleopatra

KleoOf all the women distorted by history and myth, Kleopatra is the most vivid example. Far from the sexual and treacherous archetype of feminine evil who lives in the popular imagination, Kleopatra was one of the ancient world’s most brilliant and powerful rulers. She survived blood-curdling family rivalries for the throne, single-handedly ruled a rich nation with an eye for turning a profit, and kept Egypt independent while all its neighboring countries had been annexed to the Roman Empire. She spoke nine or ten languages, patronized art, drama, athletics, sciences and other forms of scholarship, and had the loyalty of her subjects — rare for the members of her dynasty.

It was time to set the record straight, and it would take two books to do so.  The first, KLEOPATRA, is the untold story of her astonishing young life before she ever laid eyes on Julius Caesar.  The second book, PHARAOH, begins when as an exiled queen, she has the audacity to present herself to the most powerful man in the world and demand his support.

The Kleopatra handed to us by history was the victim of a smear campaign by her rival and mortal enemy, Octavian (who became Caesar Augustus). Octavian feared — with good reason — not only Kleopatra’s power as the Queen of Egypt, but also her influence with Julius Caesar, and later, Mark Antony. History is written by the winners, and Octavian, in his war against Antony and Kleopatra, won. After her death, he destroyed all written histories favorable to her, and her story was rewritten by his court historians.

The more I found out about the historical Kleopatra, the more infuriated I became over the perversion of her legacy. Women have virtually no role models who have had Kleopatra’s great power, and I could not accept the fact that perhaps the most powerful woman in history — with the possible exceptions of Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria — has been remembered only for the men with whom she slept, and has been blamed for their downfall. I began to find out as much as I could about Kleopatra, and the more I learned, the more I raged on to friends and anyone who would listen. Finally, a fellow writer — perhaps tired of listening to me — suggested that I turn my passion into a book.

Luckily, I was enrolled in an inter-disciplinary graduate program at Vanderbilt University where I could study with classicists, historians, and women’s studies scholars. I studied not only Egyptian culture, but also Greek history, Roman history, and the history of the area we now consider the Middle East because Kleopatra’s story stretches over all those lands and cultures.

I wanted people to rethink the very idea of Kleopatra, right down to the spelling of her name. Replacing the familiar “C” with the more appropriate “K,” which is from .the original Greek and how she would have spelled her name, was my first step in interrupting the traditional narrative of this extraordinary woman’s life.

Chiostro del Bramante, Rome, 2013

Chiostro del Bramante, Rome, 2013

I traveled to Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and Rome, walking in Kleopatra’s footsteps. The research process took five years. Only then did I begin to write the book. At the outset, I had no idea what it was going to take to do write this book with integrity!

It would be ten years from the time I decided to write about Kleopatra to the publication of the second book, PHARAOH. It was both strange and illuminating to spend a decade of my life with someone who’s been dead for two thousand years. But I hope that I’ve contributed to the ongoing dialogue about the ways in which women have been ignored, misinterpreted, or discredited by the telling of history.

For more information or to purchase the book:



My Life Being Groped (I never came forward)

My Life Being Groped (I never came forward)

In the early years of my professional life, receiving unwanted and unprovoked groping and kissing was not unusual.  It was the story of my life, and now we are discovering that it is not unusual.  It is many women’s stories.

How many times did I speak out?  None.  We don’t speak out.  The most ambitious, careful women never speak out.  Why?  Because it’s too hard to get into the room in the first place to complain about men’s behavior once we are there.

To wit:

I was chased around a desk (literally) by my first modeling agent when I dodged his gropes and kisses.  I was 18, he was 50.  I was completely caught off guard and ran out of his office.  I had just started modeling and at the time, he was the only game in town as far as agents went.  I never went into the agency again.

A few years later, I moved onto bigger markets.  Every time I did a runway show, men who remind me an awful lot of Donald Trump bullied their way backstage immediately after the show so that they could catch the models in states of undress.  When I did print work, the client would often do the same thing.  Did I make an issue of it?  Of course not.  It was too hard to get those coveted jobs in the first place.  Would I risk being seen as a troublemaker or complainer?  I have to say, though, that the disrespectful treatment hastened my exit from the profession. (Note that it’s the women who have to flee, leaving behind their careers.  The abusive men stay in place, moving on to the next set of victims.)

As I think about these humiliating incidents these many decades later, I feel the old fury rising inside of me.  How dare they confront me while I was half naked to tell me “what a great job I did.”  How dare they look me up and down while I was virtually nude and couldn’t cover up?

As a young woman working in the film industry, I had men grab my zippers and pull them down (yes, more than once; I finally quit wearing my favorite front zippered tops).  One man, after offering me a job, pushed me onto his desk and tried to pry my legs apart.  Another backed me against a wall and with one hand, grabbed me between the legs, and with the other, grabbed my breast.  “The right hand’s for you and the left’s for me,” he said.  I was bilious.  Needless to say, I didn’t take the job, even though I really needed the work and the money.  Who lost out?  Not him.  He had his high-paying position until the day he died (good riddance).

I always dressed modestly in work situations to try to avoid situations like this but it didn’t seem to matter.  After a business breakfast meeting, one man (married; twenty years my senior) offered to give me a ride.  When I got into his car, he turned to me, pulled up my shirt, and saw through my bra.  He exclaimed, “Wow! Your nipples are amazing.  I can’t wait to tell _________” (my then boss).  My then boss, I later heard, went around the office asking the male employees, “you hittin’ that?” about me.  Yeah, I felt great when I heard that too.

To address the Trump defenders who point out that he hires and promotes women, including his “great piece of ass” daughter, let me make this clear: all of these gropers and assaulters hired and promoted women.  All of them wanted to hire me or keep me on at work.  All of them would profess to value women’s contributions in the workplace.  In fact, many of the great promoters of women are also the biggest abusers.

The horror for women is that there is no equivalent these assaulters could experience that might give them an idea of the humiliation, anger, self-doubt that they inflict upon us.  They will never know how we check ourselves to make sure we’re not being provocative; how we mention our husbands or boyfriends to try to discourage the predators; or how we try, with anxiety in the pits of our stomachs to deflect their advances because we know that they can hurt us way beyond what they do to us when no one is looking.

These predators know that they have the power.  They know what damage they can do to us.  They know that they can turn around and call us liars and fantasists, and who can dispute them?  They know that a significant percentage of people will say that we did something to deserve it, that we asked for it, that we must have been wearing provocative clothes.  They know that in a “he said, she said” situation, we maybe have a fifty-fifty chance of being believed.

Donald Trump told us on tape exactly what he did to women.  Then women came forward to validate what he said.

Every time I hear Trump’s boasting words of what he can do to women and hear Billy Bush’s chilling little laugh, and then watch as they make an unsuspecting women give that creep a hug, all the memories of abuse and of being violated come back to me.  The humiliation.  The loss of income because I could not subject myself to that kind of treatment.  I get nauseated.  I feel fury.  I have to relive it all once again, though it happened long ago.  It’s an automatic response.  And there’s nothing I can do about it.