The Genteel
March 2, 2021


Vera and Vladimir Nabokov. Source:

Over the centuries, the saying, "Behind every great man is a great woman," has proven to be more than a girl-power chant. In the shadows of some of the past century's cultural geniuses stand their biggest collaborators, rivals and motivators - in female form.

A long list of 20th century female creatives haven't been given their proper dues. Some of these women  arguable produced equally captivating work, but their talents never achieved mass appreciation. Some simply didn't feel comfortable in the limelight and therefore never welcomed it; others were suppressed by the patriarchal ruling in their respective industries; and often the label of, "so-and-so's lover," "wife," or "widow" was sewn to their names. A select few - as has been the case for Frida Kahlo, whose symbolic portraits were clouded by her husband's grandiose paintings - became revered posthumously.

In the feminist essay, "A Room of One's Own," writer, Virginia Woolf - whose family was well connected in the literary world and were financially well-to-do - stated that, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." So let us explore the women who never received a room of their own, or whose rooms have been forgotten.

Zelda Fitzgerald
Zelda Fitzgerald. Source:

SILENT PARTNER #1: Zelda Fitzgerald - Writer, Painter, F. Scott's Biggest Insecurity

With the recent deafening buzz around F. Scott Fitzgerald and his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby - a soon-to-be-released motion picture that looks nothing short of extravagant - I couldn't help but think about his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald.

With F. Scott, Zelda schmoozed and mingled with prominent 1920s artists and writers - Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso - in New York City and Paris. From Southern Belle to Jazz Age It-Girl, to a middle-aged mental patient, Zelda never received the title she had pined for: "writer"; loud and outspoken, Zelda was first and foremost F. Scott's wife.

Four books focusing on Zelda's efforts in discovering her artistic ambitions and on becoming a writer are being released this year: Z by Therese Anne Fowler; Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck; Beautiful Fools by R. Clifton Spargo; and Guests on Earth by Lee Smith.

The books (repeatedly) underline two fundamentals: the tremulous relationship between F.Scott and Zelda and its toll on her; and Zelda - the writer - living in F. Scott's shadow, desperately trying to pursue her writing and painting. Bringing Zelda's story to life, these four authors are recognising her ambitions beyond her time.

Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1930, but as author Therese Anne Fowler points out, this was inaccurate, "Zelda did suffer some mental health crises - depression, primarily - and was an uninhibited, uncensored woman…but she wasn't crazy. Unwise? Sometimes. Insane? No."

While institutionalised, Zelda was especially prolific. She penned her semi-autobiographical novel, Save Me The Waltz, about her family and relationship with F. Scott in mere weeks (while he had been attempting to do the same for years). Upon finding out, F. Scott was enraged, deeming that their family matters were solely his writing material, not hers.

It's also no secret that F. Scott borrowed, quite often, from Zelda's diaries for his stories. Perhaps he even borrowed some of her literary work; his story, "Our Own Movie Queen," was published in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, but it had, in fact, belonged to Zelda.  

Perhaps F. Scott's success and jealousy curtailed the possibility of Zelda's success. Fortunately, authors Fowler, Robuck, Spargo and Smith are finally shining light on the unsung writer.

Vera Nabokov
Vera Nabokov. Source:

SILENT PARTNER #2: Véra Nabokov - Editor, Muse, Vladimir's Better Half

"This is the story of a woman, a man, and a marriage, a threesome that adds up any number of ways. For Véra and Vladimir Nabokov the arithmetic was simple: The elements amounted to a single entity…Not only were they inseparable but their sentences fused, on the page and in person," details author Stacy Schiff in Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) - a book that confidently bestows Vladimir's success to Véra, as well as underlining that they were, in fact, one person - one genius - in several ways.

Vladimir's classic novel, Lolita, has achieved coveted success for approximately 58 years, bound in 185 international book covers, and translated into several languages. Lolita wouldn't have been the literary gem that it is without the work of Nabokov's other half - Véra.

She did much more than rescue the Lolita manuscript after Vladimir threw it into the fire: "She was Nabokov's first reader; she smoothed his prose, though she publicly shrugged off any involvement. She typed his letters, and eventually dealt singlehandedly with his publishers," informs Schiff in the article, The Genius and Mrs. Genius. Although no records indicate that she was, or aspiring to be, a writer herself, she discretely lingered in Vladimir's career and literature, refining his talent and nurturing his success.

After the publication of Lolita, "the public Nabokov, the voice of Nabokov, was Véra's," continues Schiff. Véra acted as PR representative and agent, negotiating the majority of his deals with publishers. She was also responsible for translating Lolita from English to Russian, and partook in the translation of Speak, Memory, the second most important work of Vladimir's career.

An observation in Schiff's book by American cartoonist and illustrator, Saul Steinberg, underlines Véra's quintessence in Vladimir's work: "It would be difficult to write about Véra without mentioning Vladimir. But it would be impossible to write about Vladimir without mentioning Véra."

Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner. Source:

SILENT PARTNER #3: Lee Krasner - Abstract Expressionist Painter, Babysitter of Jackson Pollock

In mainstream culture, Lee Krasner's legacy largely revolves around being the widow of fellow abstract expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock. Turning our backs to this close-minded prophecy, Krasner was actually a movement-defining artist in her own right.

Krasner pioneered her own style of painting and collaging and nurtured relationships with key players of the time such as Clement Greenberg, a close friend, and Willem de Kooning. When Krasner and Pollock met, he had not begun to experiment with his career-defining, signature "dripping" technique yet. In fact, as author Gail Levin points out in Lee Krasner: A Biography, it was Krasner who introduced Pollock into her avant-garde social circle. 

Krasner supported Pollock's work from the beginning, believing him to be a tour-de-force. But as the Oxford Press notes: "Their involvement during the early 1940s in the Surrealist circle of Peggy Guggenheim was fruitful for both of them. Unfortunately, however, Krasner's growing admiration for Pollock's work and immersion in his career proved initially debilitating for her own art. She entered a protracted fallow period during which she produced overworked 'grey slabs' as she called them, with no recognizable style or imagery."

Krasner also experienced curtailing from her male counterparts. While discussing Lee Krasner, writer Carmela Ciuraru points out, "Barnett Newman blithely dismissed her, and she (Lee Krasner) felt slighted by Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. Clement Greenberg, a close friend, turned to her (rather than the diffident Pollock) for intellectual, wide-ranging conversations about art - but he wrote exclusively about Pollock's work, ignoring Krasner entirely."

Krasner's talent forfeited to her dysfunctional husband's constant need for care. It wasn't until after Pollock's death in 1956 that Krasner began to paint - almost immediately - creating her utterly memorable, autobiographical paintings. "From 1959 to 1962, working in his barn studio, she poured out her feelings of loss in explosive bursts of siena, umber and white in works such as The Guardian (1960; New York, Whitney). By the mid-1960s, however, she had worked out her grief and anger and began painting lushly coloured, sharply focused, emblematic floral forms, taking a more lyrical and decorative Fauvist-inspired approach."

Although Krasner's artistic efforts were never acknowledged to the extent of her husband's and some of their male colleagues', Levin offers comfort by stating that Krasner is "an artist of still growing international renown."

Alma Reville. Source:

SILENT PARTNER #4: Alma Reville - Film Editor, Screenwriter, The Woman Hitchcock Admired and Feared

During Hitchock's acceptance of the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, he said: "I beg to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, encouragement and constant collaboration…The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter, Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen. And their names are Alma Reville."

Reville and Hitchcock met in their early twenties while working in the film business; at that point, Reville was an experienced "cutter" (those who cut film in the editing process) and "continuity girl" (responsible for time and space consistency in a film). Hitchcock, however, was on his first job, designing dialogue cards for the silent film, Appearances

In 1923, Hitchcock was granted the role of assistant director for the film, Woman on Woman; he wanted Reville to be the editor and asked her to come in for the interview. Reville stormed out offended at the offering salary, but running after her was Hitchcock with a better offer she didn't refuse. A partnership was born.

Throughout their lifetime, Reville served as Hitchock's silent partner. She played an indispensable role in his films, besides taking the roles of script editor and continuity person, she also served as the story consultant. It was her, in fact, who was responsible for the famous Psycho shower scene. She helped write over thirty film and TV titles, including Shadow of Doubt (1943) and Suspicion (1941), and was able to spot inconsistencies in Hitchcock's plots like nobody else.

In 2012, director Sacha Gervasi released Hitchcock, a feature film that focused on the production of Psycho and inevitably illuminated the unsung importance of Reville. Through Gervasi's investigation and various interviews with individuals involved in the film's production, he concluded that Reville's significance isn't limited to Hitchcock's oeuvres, but is crucial to the history of cinema.

But Gervasi also points out that Reville wasn't interested in the limelight, she just wanted Hitchcock to be the best that he could be: "I don't think people in general have any idea the degree to which she [Alma Reville] contributed to Hitchcock's genius. But she wasn't interested in the limelight. She recognized her role. She recognized that Alfred Hitchcock was Alfred Hitchcock. She just wanted to make his films a little greater."

Lee Miller. Source:

SILENT PARTNER #5: Lee Miller - Surrealist, Photojournalist, Man Ray's Biggest Heartbreak

Lee Miller is often credited as being a fashion model - she frequently posed for American Vogue - and as photographer Man Ray's muse - he produced countless photographs and artworks of her during and after their partnership.

The two labels "model" and "muse" have clouded Miller's true essence; she was a photographer who helped shape the Surrealist movement and a photojournalist with her own visual storytelling techniques.

Miller's beauty has made a fool of all of us. As author Carolyn Burke of Lee Miller: A Life attests, "Mesmerized by her features, we look at Lee Miller but not into her." 

In 1929, after a two-year modeling career, Miller sought out Man Ray and became his photography pupil, and quickly after, his collaborator. Man Ray taught her everything he knew and gave Miller her first set of equipment. Together they discovered the process of "solarization" - a technique that reverses lights and darks; they worked side by side in Paris and played side by side in South of France, with painter Pablo Picasso (who painted Miller a total of six times) and Surrealist photographer Dora Maar.

Besides Man Ray being seventeen years her senior - with the life and work experience to match - in the realm of photography, they viewed each other as equals. "We were almost the same person when we were working," explained Miller. Man Ray grew jealous of Miller, both romantically and professionally, and in 1932 the couple broke up.

Miller continued her photography work and eventually moved to London in 1939 to live with Roland Penrose. There she had become the most prolific contributor of British Vogue - she took on an array of assignments for the magazine, from portraiture to war photojournalism. She continued to play in a man's world, photographing some of the most dangerous and ghastly locations and scenarios (such as the death camps of Dachau and Buchenwald).

In the last five years, Miller's under-recognised body of work has received the attention it deserves, through photo exhibits - such as V & A's "The Art of Miller" (2007-2008) and "Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism" exhibited at the Peabody Essex Museum (2011-2012) and the Legion of Honour (2012) - and a book published by her son, Antony Penrose, Lives of Lee Miller (2007).

Penrose confesses: "I barely knew that she had been a photographer during her life. She was so secretive about it, and she deliberately hid all of her work in the attic of our old farmhouse... So it was an absolute bombshell of a surprise after Lee had died that we went into the attic and found all of this incredible work. But I think she made a deliberate decision to bury her career, and this was partly as a result of her war experiences, and partly as a result of her post-traumatic stress."

To mass-culture too, she still remains an undiscovered gem. Observing Miller's work, it's apparent that she had a deep understanding and connection with light. That, and her Surrealist frame of mind, allowed her to show us familiar subjects in a slightly new way.



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