Columns > Published on November 14th, 2014

Scandal! 6 Writers with Page-Turning Lives

Shy. Reclusive. Introverted. These badges are often stuck on us writers as a group. We’ve long been typecast as putting so much energy into the characters we create that our own lives are dull in comparison.

Well, guess what? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges! As a reminder of how we can be as wild and crazy as other artists, here are six writers who lived fast, kicked ass and gave their friends, lovers and biographers something to write home about.


Maya Angelou

Best known for:

The ground-breaking memoir of her childhood, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1974).

She did WHAT?

Anyone familiar with the most famous of Angelou’s seven autobiographies knows that she didn’t have the best start in life. After a Depression-Era childhood of poverty, racism and abuse, she found herself a teen mother. Determined to support herself and her son, she worked any job she could talk herself into, including fry cook, nightclub dancer, the first female streetcar conductor in San Francisco... and prostitute.

However, the entrepreneurial-minded Angelou wasn’t destined to work as the latter for long. Instead, having learned about The Life, as it was called, she talked a few local “girls” into working for her and a cab driver to make referrals and shuttle them to jobs. “In a few weeks,” the 20-something Angelou promised, “we’ll be thousandaires.”

 Even though her business grew into a thriving brothel, she found she herself could not thrive in those conditions. Angelou left to begin a career as a singer/dancer, traveling throughout Europe and Africa. Her early life and job choices, coupled with her later activism, ensured that when she finally took up her pen in the ‘70’s, she would have plenty to write about.

But don’t take my word for it:

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

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Yukio Mishima (pen name for Kimatake Hiraoko)

Best Known for

Confessions of a Mask (1949): a semi-autobiographical account of a young gay man who must hide behind a mask in order to fit into society. The book made him famous at age 24.

He Did WHAT?

Mishima was a post-war Renaissance man. Not only was he the author of over 100 works, including novels, essays, short stories and a film, but he was also an actor, model and body builder.

It was his political beliefs, however, that would lead to his demise. Mourning what he saw as the demise of the great samurai spirit of pre-WWII Japan in favour of materialism and a spineless form of democracy, Mishima decided to take matters into his own hands. After gathering and training an army of followers, he led them into head office of the Japanese military, held one of its generals hostage, then proceeded to stand on a balcony and give what was meant to be a rootin’, tootin’ coup-inspiring speech to the soldiers gathered below.

Unfortunately for him, the young soldiers had no interest in returning to a mindset of militarism that had led to, among other tragedies, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. They were fans of Che Guevara. And what was with all this self-sacrifice rigmarole—they wanted to get paid, yo. Mishima ended up being jeered off the balcony seven minutes into his planned half-hour speech. He returned to the office where, in front of the horrified gaze of his tied up hostage, committed seppuku, ritual suicide that involves slicing open the stomach to release the entrails. “The Mishima Incident” as the failed coup came to be called, rekindled an enormous interest in the late author’s work. Poet Anne Sexton famously called it, “a good career move.”

But don’t take my word for it:

What I wanted was to die among strangers, untroubled, beneath a cloudless sky...some natural, spontaneous suicide. I wanted a death like that of a fox, not yet well versed in cunning, that walks carelessly along a mountain path and is shot by a hunter because of its own stupidity…

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(Sidonie Gabrielle) Colette

Best Known for:

Claudine at School (1900)—Romance and Intrigue at an all-girl’s school.

Cheri (1920)—A young man must bid ‘adieu’ to his older mistress.

Gigi (1944)—Chronicles of a young courtesan in training.

She Did WHAT?

A better question would be, what did Colette not do? At the age of 20, she fled an idyllic childhood in an idyllic village to marry a Parisian nearly twice her age. “Monsieur Willy”, as her first husband was known, was a literary cad who would have made certain publishing conglomerates of today proud—he kept a stable of talented but impoverished writers, upon whose finished works he would stamp his name.  He soon convinced his young wife to write about her recent schooldays, imploring her to add a little “something extra”. The salacious scenes between teachers and schoolgirls in Claudine a l’Ecole led to France’s first bestseller, a ribald series of Colette books, not to mention Claudette cigarettes, lingerie, schoolgirl uniforms, etc. Willy is said to have locked Colette in her bedroom for hours every day while she produced the books which France loved and which Willy took full authorial credit for—worst full-time MFA EVER!

Between Willy’s charlatanism and his multiple mistresses, Colette, shockingly, was not happy. As she neared 30, she began to take her life into her own hands. She began to take credit for her work. Then, as revenge for Willy’s mistresses, she took one of her own—an older woman nicknamed Missy who was a descendant of Napoleon. She began to perform onstage in Moulin Rouge, drawing crowds and often, riots and the police with her daring acts. These included exposing her breasts, lesbian love scenes and—EEK!—cross-dressing.

During WW1, Colette seemed to settle down. She had become a prolific and respected author in her own right, and had married a second time. However, her second husband, a journalist named de Jouvenel, was also a womanizer. This time, Colette decided to keep her revenge in the family—she seduced her teenage stepson Bertrand, carrying out their affair in a way that would mirror that of the stoic courtesan in Cheri. When the young Betrand’s family (including Colette’s 2nd husband, who was probably miffed about her enthusiastic stepmothering) got wind of Colette’s activities, they were determined to put a stop to them. Betrand’s mother hastily arranged a grand wedding with a beautiful, wealthy heiress. The middle-aged Colette had to admit defeat. The morning of his engagement party, she summoned her young lover to her chambers to give him her blessing. Afterwards, as he descended her stairwell, she sent a single slip of paper fluttering to his feet. “Je t’aime”, she had written, the first time she had ever confessed her love. Poor Bertrand never made his engagement party, or the wedding it was meant to herald for that matter. Ah, l’amour!

But don’t take my word for it:

What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.

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Truman Capote

Best Known for:

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958)

In Cold Blood (1965)

He Did WHAT?

"I got this idea of doing a really serious big work—it would be precisely like a novel with a single difference: Every word of it would be true from beginning to end."

Capote was still riding high on the success of In Cold Blood when he had an idea for the novel he referenced in the above quote. He would describe Answered Prayers as his “opus” and it would ultimately lead to his demise.

"La Cote Basque, 1965" was to be the first chapter of Capote’s opus. When Vanity Fair released it in 1975, it rocked (im)polite society to its very core. The first chapter and the two more to follow featured thinly veiled accounts of all Capote’s high society friends: it portrayed Cole Porter as a desperate lothario, Tennessee Williams as an alcoholic drama queen (well…), Princess Margaret acting bitchy, various Kennedys being rather…Kennedy. In one scene, Gloria Vanderbilt is lunching at a chic restaurant when a man she doesn’t recognize drops by her table to chat. Turns out the man is her first husband. All the soigne socialites who petted and doted on Capote saw the affairs of their husbands, the affairs their closed circle was willing to ignore, chronicled for all the world to see.

Speaking of husbands, socialite Ann Woodward had murdered hers decades before, but a hefty cash donation lead the whole tiresome incident to be hushed up and forgotten. When she read the all-too-recognizable account of her crime in "La Cote Basque", she took a fatal dose of cyanide. This reaction, it could be argued, is even worse than a one-star review on Amazon.

Rather than turning on each other, the tight-knit and tightly-wound circle of wealth Truman had charmed his way into closed ranks. He found his phone calls ignored. First the invites to lunch and parties dried up, then the ones to weddings and funerals. Truman began a decades-long decline full of drinking, drugging and embarrassing public appearances where his drinking and drugging were hard to hide.

The friends who remained loyal were witness to his shock and feelings of betrayal at the shock and feelings of betrayal the beginning of his never-to-be finished Answered Prayers had engendered.

“What did they expect? I’m a writer and I use everything.” Capote, it was theorized, could have been testing the affection of his wealthy friends, the outsider rebelling against the perception that he was some exotic creature valued only for his skills as a raconteur, invited to chi-chi dinner parties but expected to sing for his supper.

“Did all these people,” Truman wondered at the rather lonely end of his life, “think I was just here to entertain them?"

But don’t take my word for it:

Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa

Best Known for:

Love in a Time of Cholera, Marquez (1985)

War of the End of the World, Llosa (1981)

They Did WHAT?

February 13, 1976, Mexico City: Mario Vargas Llosa, one of Latin America’s literary darlings, is being interviewed at a showing of his movie, Death in the Andes— which was a tale of survival and Atkins-approved cannibalism.

Just then, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, another literary darling and Vargas Llosa’s bestie, entered the scene. “Mario!” he cried, throwing his arms open to his friend.

“How dare you come greet me after what you did to Patricia in Barcelona!” Llosa raged. He then punched Garcia Marquez in the face. Then, he returned to his interview. No record if he bothered to explain his actions to the probably shocked journalist, but if he had, he might have said something along the lines of:

If you are killed because you are a writer, that is the maximum expression of respect, you know.

And what had Garcia Marquez done to provoke such wrath? Legend has it that all he did was provide a bit of marriage counseling to Vargas Llosa’s wife when they all lived on the same street in Barcelona. During this time, you see, Patricia Vargas Llosa had begun to suspect her husband was having an affair with an absolutely stunning Swedish woman. Her suspicions were further enflamed when he abandoned her and their children, leaving behind a note confessing that he had fallen in love with an absolutely stunning Swedish woman. Absolutely stunned (sorry), Patricia fled to friend Gabriel’s house, where the following things could have happened:

  1. Garcia Marquez and his wife consoled Patricia, advising her to leave her husband.
  2. Garcia Marquez consoled Patricia all by himself. Writers being rather caring sorts.
  3. He summed up her situation with the following quote:

Fiction was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale.

Regardless of the reasons behind it, the punch ended a great literary friendship and began a silence about the incident that both men continued for more than 3 decades.

The more immediate aftermath, however, was that the dazed and bleeding Garcia Marquez retreated to sit on a curb, while a friend dashed into a nearby eatery for a bit of raw steak for his black eye. She came back empty-handed, explaining that the restaurant had refused to provide a free steak. However, she continued, “…They said you can go in there and eat a hamburger if you want.”

As it turns out, Garcia Marquez got the last laugh. He received a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. Vargas Llosa had to wait all the way until 2007 to get his.

About the author

Naturi is the author of How to Die in Paris: A Memoir (2011, Seal Press/Perseus Books) She's published fiction, non-fiction and poetry in magazines such as Barrow St. and Children, Churches and Daddies. At Sherri Rosen Publicity Int'l, she works as an editor and book doctor. Originally from NYC, she now lives in a village in England which appears to have more sheep than people. This will make starting a book club slightly challenging.

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