BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
She interned at Mademoiselle with Sylvia Plath, interviewed Debbie Reynolds (who became a lifelong friend), wrote profiles for McCall’s and fashion for the Sun-Times and Tribune, and authored Chicago Magazine’s first published short story. Now at 85, she’s done something she’s never done before: written a novel.
Racy, refreshing, and highly readable, The Stendhal Summer is a romp through Europe, the lead character a woman with Stendhal’s romantic mannerisms and some all her own. Laurie says she takes a turn at magical realism as she develops the character who has Stendhal’s “gold-flecked eyes.”
“I have been fixated on Stendhal, whose real name was Marie-Henri Beyle, for years. I read and re-read his Charterhouse of Parma as well as his diaries and non-fiction. I realized that no one had written about Stendhal from a woman’s point of view. Although he lived in the 19th century, he admired women from a modern perspective.”
Laurie received an Illinois Arts Council grant in 1985 to research her book, and many scenes take place in Grenoble and Paris where Stendhal lived and died. She began writing her novel in 1990, finishing it in 1993. The only copy existed on her computer, which disappeared when she moved.
“I thought it was gone forever until my son found the computer when he was cleaning out his basement many years later. I decided then that it is never too late to publish a book!”
Laurie’s Stendhal tribute is creating excitement around town. She recently appeared on Rick Kogan’s popular WGN show, After Hours; was honored by a Village Chicago book-launching party; and will be speaking as part of the Alliance Française’s Avec l’Auteur series in early 2018. The Alliance’s Renee Saito reports a recent rise in interest of events tied to the classics, and those in attendance will be in for a treat with Laurie’s take.
We asked Laurie, who describes herself as a “writer from the beginning,” to tell us about her Mademoiselle intern days in New York where her career was launched:
“I called that my ‘Bell Jar summer,’ in reference to Sylvia Plath’s only novel. I attended Mount Holyoke, and the other 19 girls were from all over the country. We all wore magenta lipstick and pageboy hairstyles and were so young and impressionable. Sylvia didn’t seem any different.
“We were allowed to request a famous person whom we would like to interview. I chose Richard Rogers because I always wanted to sing. She selected the Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen. I think both Sylvia and I were going against the 1950s when you didn’t lose your man at all costs. We kept up over the years, and I knew she was ill. It was when she did lose her man that she went over the edge and committed suicide.
Laurie’s Mademoiselle internship convinced her to stay in New York after graduation. Her Iowa parents said she had two months to find a job before she had to return home. Parents Magazine offered her a movie review post, which she held for two years before falling for a Chicagoan.
“Fast forward, I was a housewife and mother living in Highland Park, and I wanted to write. My husband had succumbed to a gambling addiction. I did all sorts of press releases and interviews. My first story for McCall’s was tagging along with the owners of an Indiana restaurant who took their staff to Italy.
“I told the Tribune’s amazing book editor, Bob Cromie, that I could review books, and the Sun-Times’ Howard Kogan, Rick’s father, was very helpful to me. I wrote about fashion for the Sunday magazines of both newspapers. Once I covered Chicago brunches for a Paris foodie magazine.”
Interviews developed into friendships with a variety of celebrities from Studs Terkel to Debbie Reynolds, thanks to Laurie’s warmth.
“Debbie and I were the same age. Our friendship started when the Tribune assigned me to interview her in about 1982. She came to town on several occasions, and I met her at the Drury Lane when she appeared there. I also wrote about her series of exercise tapes, a la Jane Fonda, when I was fashion editor for North Shore Magazine.
“We often had lunch at Drury Lane before her afternoon show. I remember writing a Tribune article titled ‘The Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds’ in November 1999. At that lunch I asked her if she had had much plastic surgery done, since she looked so young. At first she denied it, and then she admitted she had had a chin lift. Then she reached across the table and touched my chin and said, ‘You should have one, too.’
“I loved that story and told it in my article. She always had little press here, but her friends and fans found her and she always packed the house.
“We wrote each other—we talked about our daughters. Mostly, I remember the Christmas cards. She was so lovely and fun. I wish I had taken her up on her offer to come out to LA and stay with her.”
Stendhal was known as one of the 19th century’s most romantic authors. In fact, the psychosomatic disorder in which a person experiences a rapid heartbeat, confusion, and even hallucinations when viewing beautiful works of art is named the Stendhal Syndrome. It refers to his experience in Florence at the Basilica of Santa Croce upon seeing the graves of Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli. Florentine guides assert that this experience continues to this day to a small degree among tourists at museums across the city.
In The Stendhal Summer, Laurie quotes a translation of Henri’s own words:
“Everything beautiful and sublime in the world forms part of the beauty of the person we love, and this unexpected glimpse of happiness suddenly fills our eyes with tears. In the case of love, realities model themselves enthusiastically on one’s desires.”
Not only does her book delight its readers but leads you to read or re-read The Red and the Black (1830) and The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), Laurie’s lifelong bedside reading.
The Stendhal Summer is published by Northfield’s Amika Press.
For more information about her Alliance Française program in early 2018, visit af-chicago.org or call 312-337-1070.