Romaine Brooks: Hardly “Almost Famous”

I have just finished a fascinating read of Megan Mayhew Bergman’s new collection of short stories, Almost Famous Women. As a biographer of Romaine Brooks, it’s great to see the inclusion of my subject, not just as the star of a prominent short story, but in what is widely reported to be one of the book’s most resonant pieces.

Gone and Undeservedly Forgotten

I echo many reviewers in applauding Bergman’s choice of subject matter. What’s old is new again in these stories of remarkable and unsung pioneering women. These louder-than-life female characters stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their male equivalents, but history has almost erased their contributions. Bergman is artful in recognizing these compelling lives. She catches them at pivotal moments and portrays them in provocative scenes.

Consistent with What Came Before

“Romaine Remains” is a powerfully dark narrative written as a noir power play; a tale of jealousy and envy. I can attest that the author has done her homework. The character of Brooks in this fictionalized piece holds true to what biographers have documented about Romaine’s life. All major published works about the artist and her circle are consistent in their depiction of Brooks as dark, subversive, and antisocial. Bergman plays this out vividly. New evidence, however, reveals that history didn’t just neglect Brooks; history got Brooks wrong, as my forthcoming biography Romaine Brooks: A Life (University of Wisconsin Press, Fall 2015) will explain.

An Impression Made to Last

A review in Seven Days, a publication out of Vermont, mentions that Brooks’ work “inexplicably failed to make a lasting impression.” As a biographer who has been pursuing the truth about Romaine Brooks for decades, I must disagree. The impression in Europe from 1910 to the eve of WW2, recorded in newspaper reports and catalog essays, was that she was among America’s top three living portrait painters. Today, Romaine Brooks remains a Modernist rock star in Europe’s art scene. So why has she been relegated to “almost famous” status in America? Because of a different art — writing. And far from being “inexplicable,” it’s sadly easy to explain.

The View through an Unfortunate Lens

Brooks’ contributions, both as a major American painter and as a formative innovator in the decorative arts, have been overshadowed by her reputation as a restless heiress with conservative politics and inconvenient friendships with fascists. Biography played a part in shunning Brooks’ legacy because she herself was believed to be a radical conservative on the fringe. It was a tale that appealed to prurient tastes, and in a few cases, hearsay has been taken for — and printed as — truth.

Rediscovering Romaine Brooks

The evidence cited in A Life sheds new light on the character of Romaine Brooks, leaving far less of her reality to the imagination. After decades of researching my subject, I was shocked to discover Brooks at the end of her life to be quite unlike the woman depicted in “Romaine Remains” or in previous biographies. In life, she remained witty and charming even at 93, the age at which Bergman chooses to tell Romaine’s tale. Romaine was, in fact, quite lucid, personable and articulate in discussing her life and art. What’s more, this woman of great passion created groundbreaking art that remains arresting. That art, rarely exhibited, deserves to be seen.

A New Legacy for a New Generation

It is not her characterization in Almost Famous Women that makes Romaine Brooks unforgettable. I attribute the enduring fascination with her story to the undeniable voice of truth resounding through time, demanding to be heard. The last word on Romaine Brooks has not yet been spoken, and I invite readers interested in her life to discover in A Life a truth even more captivating than what Megan Mayhew Bergman’s shocking tale imagines.

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