Interview with Tracy Lawson, Ohio Writer

This is my first interview, here on Ohio Women’s History Project and I am starting with Tracy Lawson, whom I met at the recent Ohio Local History Alliance Conference. Tracy is an Ohio based writer who is known for her most recent work “Pride of the Valley,” which is a historical account of her ancestors. Tracy won “Best Non-fiction History,” in 2012 from the Ohio Professional Writer’s Association. In 2013, she was selected to present at Ohioana Book Festival. She also holds a 5-star selection from Reader’s Favorite Book Reviews. Tracy has written in several genre’s which you can find on Amazon and by clicking the book photo above. The following is the Q&A format I submitted to her:

  1. How long have you been a writer and what made you choose to go in this direction?

I always wanted to be a writer, from the time I learned how to read. But I finally found the time to try when my daughter was in high school. My first book was published in 2012, and since then I’ve published six more, and have two in progress.

  1. What plans do you have for your next book?

My next book is historical fiction, based on events in the life of my 6x great grandparents. I’ve written nonfiction history books, and also thriller novels, so this is like the perfect mash-up of what I like to write—a thrilling tale of a woman thwarting a conspiracy that could have changed the course of the American Revolution.

  1. What struggles did you face while working on your books?

I sometimes wrestle with writer’s block or, perhaps it’s better called writer’s insecurity. First drafts can be messy, and often the story doesn’t fully develop until it’s been through a few drafts. It can take a while for the story that’s in my head to emerge on the page.

  1. What woman in history has inspired you and why?

When I was younger, I found the story of Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, fascinating. It showed just how vital it was to be able to communicate, read, and study to develop one’s mind. I’m also a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, both as a pioneer and as an author.

  1. What woman in your ancestry inspired you and why?

Anna Asbury Stone, the subject of my current work-in-progress, inspired me      because she was willing to risk her safety—not only to come to the aid of her husband and brothers, but to deliver a dispatch to General Washington while she was being pursued!

  1. What advice would you give young women about tackling their future?

Don’t be afraid of hard work and don’t expect to land in your dream job right away. Study something that will allow you to earn a living and support yourself. My daughter loved dance and theater—but she majored in economics in college, and is now in grad school and planning to be a college professor.

  1. When you think of the upcoming 100th anniversary passing the 19th amendment, what sticks out in your mind?

Wow this is a tough one. I wonder what the women who fought for our right to vote would think if they could see the candidates we have to choose from. I think they’d be disappointed.

Tracy Lawson

Alaine Polcz – Hungarian Writer and Psychologist

In her book, “A Wartime Memoir: Hungary 1944-1945,”Alaine tells about a life changing year that instead of being her downfall, became her life’s purpose. Sitting ducks with a changing guard, from Russian to German on an on-going, what seemed like a never ending basis, she travels from Transylvania (then hoping to remain with Hungary) to Csákvár, in Hungary and back again. In the end, you can imagine the frustration in knowing, if she had never left, her life would have remained simple an innocent.

What is beautiful about this book is that she is not talking like a psychologist but instead, goes back in her mind to re-live painfully traumatic experiences at the age of 19, as if she were that age once more. As a psychotherapist myself, I get the sense that she probably never went through her own course of treatment. This is because she continues to repeat over and over “I do not remember…” This is typical of a sexual abuse survivor or someone who was horribly traumatized at a young age and blocks the exact details of the trauma from their mind, for their own “assumed” well-being. Ironic, as she was a psychologist yet even today, people in this profession are closed off to doing their own work. It is important so that they can properly support others without transferring their own pain onto the client or confusing the client’s story with their own. I am not condemning her though because this was more typical of this time period. I grew up with Hungarians (refugees from the revolution), none of whom went into therapy and all of whom went through some of their own harrowing ordeals. Not least of which was fleeing their beloved homeland.

Alaine was born in Kolozsvár, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (at this time known as the city of Cluj-Napoca). Now it is Romania and it was in 1944-1945 as well. This was a time of unrest between the Romanians and Hungarians, power struggles on the Romanian part that included violence and discrimination against the Hungarians who lived there. Alaine’s father gave her this male name because of two reasons. One, he did not know French and so unaware that it was a man’s name but Two, his only purpose was finding a name that was not able to be translated into Romanian.

At the onset of 1944, Alaine, at 19, was married to her childhood sweetheart János. Within a few months into their honeymoon period, he gives her gonorrhea. Amazingly, but not surprisingly, it is at this point when he detaches from her and begins to be an emotionally abusive husband. She has the luck of being a strong woman, though terribly naïve. His mother, Mami, happens to work for the Esterházy family, who are of noble origins. It is here that they will go to live and because of him that she follows the family as they escape into Hungary to live and work at another estate, which will be the beginning of the end of Alaine’s life as she knows it. In Csákvar, what seems to bring some peace and safety for a short time, ends up being the front lines, which means constant harassment or torture from either the Germans or the Russians. For women, as with all wars, she and other villagers will be gang raped on what appears to be a daily basis, and at this time, she is under the impression that her husband was executed. The most impressive lines that she writes of her first account of abuse goes like this:

He put the photograph [of she and her husband] on the nightstand and laid me down on the bed. I was afraid he would not give me the picture. When he was done, he took the picture into his hand and showed it to me again…

When she writes, she is not writing like a writer in this book.  She states facts, over and over. There are no pictures drawn and yet there is a story being told. Fuzzy memories are re-told and sometimes they are not even in order, so you have to re-read to catch yourself. It is as if you are sitting with her and she is telling you a story. When I got to the line “When he was done,” it came at me so quickly; I had to read it a few times to let it register. “Oh, okay,” I thought, this is how she is protecting herself and the audience. Even though she is not talking like a psychologist, she is consciously protecting throughout the book.

At some point, days, maybe a month or so later, she is escorted to a cellar, with 79 other Hungarians, who are doing their best to survive. They will go through days or months (you are never sure of the timeline but the book is only one year), of not bathing, very little food and at one point no water, ritual defecating and urinating (they can only go outside to do this during the 10 minutes of ceasefire which occurs daily at the same time), as well as lice and natural body odors. She is only with Mami and her dachshund “Filike,” who she holds at her breast, under a coat which no one notices until the end of her time there.

Alaine does spend a lot of time talking about blood and guts and waste, more than any other writer I have seen when it comes to war zones. One does wonder how people use the toilet during these times. When she mentions herself running away from a gang rape sequence, she talks about running through the snow with a slip on and blood being caked on her body and in her panties. She mentions being in the cellar when she pulls her shirt away from her body and a woman notices the skin of a sore coming with it. She is telling us about how you just keep going, no matter what, becoming oblivious to your own vanity.

The war is at the end, in 1945, when this part of her story comes to a close. She returns to Budapest, still without her husband, to be reunited with family; who will then return to Kolozsvár. She is saved from being labeled a whore, as most women will be in this time period, because her family are good people and she finally denies what happened. By this time the gonorrhea and the life conditions she has just endured have taken its toll on her body. She is hospitalized for some time before she will recover and get some of her life back. The irony is that she will never be able to bear a child and this was the fault of her own husband. The sardonic twist is the realization that all those Russian soldiers had went home to their wives passing on her venereal disease to them.

She and János will part ways and soon she will meet her second husband Miklós Mészöly, who went on to become a famous Hungarian writer. Alaine will go on to become the founder of the first children’s hospice program and win two different awards. She receives the Tibor Déry Award in 1992 (for this book, which was written in 1991) and The Middle Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary in 2001. Alaine’s husband dies in 2001 and she will pass six years later.

Post-Script: What is horribly frustrating about the book is the writing and translation. Albert Tezla is the translator and having read a great number of translated books from several different countries, this is pathetic. You would almost think he didn’t speak English because the sentences come across as broken and unedited. I believe he is translating word for word, rather than trying to put it together in some organized fashion. It is also possible that Alaine was never edited since Albert was not either. I think this is embarrassing to both the writer and the country itself. While I am not a prolific writer myself and certainly need to be edited, I am self-published and have no professional acclaim to add to my repertoire.  I was disappointed to say the least. However, this story, edited or not, annoying with the redundancy or not, needed to be told. What I have noticed when I find anything about women in history, this is so often the case. It is sad because I can’t recall any time when I have seen the same about men.

Natalie Clifford Barney – Dayton, Ohio

1896 painted by her mother Alice Pike Barney

Ms. Barney  (October 31, 1876 to February 2, 1972, Aphrodite/Scorpio) only lived in Ohio, where she was born for 10 years. However, I assume because her parents were both born and raised in Ohio, she is accepted on the roster of notable women from Ohio (on Wikipedia). There is also a historical marker where she was born in Dayton. Her heart and where she spent the majority of her life as a famous salonist was in Paris.

One must become idle to become oneself. Natalie Clifford Barney

I developed a love/hate relationship with Ms. Barney and trying to read 368 pages of Suzanne Rodriguez’s book “Wild Heart,” (2002) took me a couple of months. Ms. Barney is famous for saying “I am a lesbian. One needn’t hide it nor boast of it.” I have a great deal of respect for this sentence because I think the way our world is today is quite hedonistic and part of why we are in such turmoil as a whole. Ms. Barney would probably agree with me. She was a society lady, raised in wealth, appreciating high fashion and having exceptional taste. What I did not like about her is that she was a snob and if she were a man we would say she was a player. Friends, who spoke to the writer of this book described her as a very giving and generous woman. These were not her liaisons that made these observations. They documented much more painful and passionate thoughts as to her character. A player is a person who will use the word “love” sparingly and in her case as sonnets to continue playing with her web of intrigue and manipulation. A player loves the chase, like a cat to a mouse and once caught, will carry it around in their mouth until they are ready to spit it out. Natalie was known to have said “When you want to make someone crazy, you must not give in.” If she had been a poor woman, it is doubtful she would have had half of her success with friends, though she would not have been a snob.

Natalie Clifford Barney

Ms. Barney was a writer, though what I have seen thus far (very little is translated) is not quite to the level as many of her counterparts, many who were her lovers. Her salon in Paris on 20 Rue Jacob, was her child, a place where she helped create futures for young writers from the 1920’s to 1972 when she died. Some of the people who were known to be in her circle, such as Pauline Tarn (aka  Renée Vivien ) the courtesan Liane de Pougy, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, and Lily Gramont (the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre). There were also very famous people (that we know today still, the others were famous then) who made their way to her “Fridays” and these were James Joyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Max Jacob, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Mata Hari (entertainment), Isabelle Duncan (entertainment), Antole France, Romaine Brooks and Jean Chalon.

Natalie and Romaine

Her longest relationship was with the painter Romaine Brooks, who is now being brought back to life by many art historians. I did find myself captivated by her work when I looked at copies online. I wonder if Coco Chanel would have been intrigued as well, since they might have known each other then. Her work is black and white paintings with what is said to be incredible insight, on her part, in capturing someone’s psyche. What is odd is that they met in 1914 and it wasn’t until their mid 90’s, right before both of them died that Romaine ended the relationship for good. Of course this had to do with her mental condition that she was in at this time. My guess, from reading, is that she probably had some form of dementia. However, due to her early abusive upbringing, she had always been a bit of an eccentric and had very low self-esteem. I felt sad for Ms. Brooks because Ms. Barney was never faithful to her. I can imagine what this must have been like for her. Ms. Brooks was a survivor in some respects though. She would live elsewhere or travel abroad whenever Natalie was chasing after another skirt. Sometimes she had other liaisons herself.

Self-portrait by Romaine Brooks

In her younger days, Ms. Barney was a horsewoman, known for her athletic abilities. What is fascinating when you read this book is reading descriptions of her pursuits of other women or networking with locals, on horseback through the streets of Paris. I found myself caught up in visualizing what this might have been like, though I have seen many period pieces that have shown this.  What is funny about this book is that one might think every famous woman in Paris was a lesbian, considering her exploits. What I began to gather though, is that at this time women she chased, who were well-bred ladies like herself (for the most part) and many of them married, only knew what they were allowed to behave like with a man. Natalie introduced them to newer, more promiscuous and perhaps sometimes even safer ways to be able to express oneself. Most women at that time were more comfortable with other women. I have read in other historical books that lesbian type behaviors were actually acceptable in women’s schools and colleges. It kept them from focusing on boys but was considered natural behaviors too. Once they married it was meant to end of course and they were meant to behave in a manner fitting a betrothed spouse. With Natalie’s lovers, sometimes this happened; sometimes they continued the affair and on occasion a ménage-a-tois.

Ms. Barney’s salons were famous because of her extroverted behavior, the wonderful delicacies that she served, her choice of entertainment but also her rules. The rules had to do with not cursing, behaving appropriately (not being a jerk) and if she didn’t like you, then you weren’t allowed to come back. Agents and publishers would approach her about bringing around what they hoped would be a protégé. On one occasion Natalie invited Emmeline Pankhurst; to discuss women’s suffrage in her parlor. She listened intently but in the end was disturbed by the way their discussions and ideals turned into petty arguments. She decided at that point on not to use her salon as a political venue. This is something I could applaud her for as well. While these ladies did so much for their countries, in getting the right to vote, their behaviors kept this from happening sooner (see my article on Victoria Woodhull).

In 1927, Natalie created Académie des Femmes as a reaction to the discrimination against women in Académie Française (a group recognizing writers, but only allowing men to join). While her group did not last very long, it did bring attention to women writers. It wasn’t until 1980 when Académie Française would admit the first woman.

The last salon would occur at the cemetery on February 4, 1972 when 23 friends came to honor the passing of Ms. Barney. They realized it happened to be a Friday which was fitting this great lady and her famous salons. Ms. Barney and her sister Laura were buried together. Laura was famous for her translations in the Baha’i faith. Natalie had known that the Van Gogh brothers were buried together and thought it was ridiculous that all the marker said was “Here Lies.” As a result, Natalie prepared her own tribute which says “I am this legendary being [Amazon] in which I will live again.” Her nickname, given to her by the writer Rémy de Gourmont, after they met was “The Amazon.”