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  • [SWP: Behind the Book] The True Story Behind "A Girl Like You"!
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[SWP: Behind the Book] The True Story Behind "A Girl Like You"!
Contributor
Written by
Michelle Cox
January 2016
Contributor
Written by
Michelle Cox
January 2016

I had a man-stopping body and a personality to go with it!” is what the 81-year old Valentine Cooper told me in an interview, shortly after she had been admitted to the nursing home where I once toiled as a social worker.

Even with her many health problems, some of them of a terminal nature, Valentine had a lean, wiry body and a definite spark still in her eyes as regaled me with stories about her youth and adventures during the Great Depression and beyond. So much did they mesmerize me that some twenty years later, when I began fishing around for an idea for a novel series, Valentine’s story naturally came floating back to me. Gingerly I took it in hand and began sculpting it, obviously changing some things and inventing others until my heroine, Henrietta Von Harmon, was born, very much resembling a girl like Valentine.

For the more curious reader, listed below are some of the highlights of Valentine’s life which bear an unmistakable similarity to that of the fictitious Henrietta. Most surprising is the fact that the more outlandish parts of the novel are actually the true bits!

 

*Family history: Valentine’s father, Lester Von Freudenthal, was originally from Alscace-Lorraine where he (like Henrietta’s father, Leslie Von Harmon) claimed the family had been aristocratic barons, thus the “Von” in their name. Also true: Valentine’s great-grandfather eloped to Chicago with his bride and settled in Logan Square.

*Great Depression: Valentine was fifteen when the Great Depression hit, so she quit school to find work. Like Henrietta, it fell to her to go down to the armory where free government food was being handed out because her mother was too proud to go.

*Jobs: From age fifteen to sixty-eight, Valentine worked such a large variety of jobs that she can’t remember them all. Sometimes she worked two or even three at a time, many of which feature in the novel, including: floor scrubber, waitress, radio welder in a factory, hair curler demonstrator in department stores, Dutch Girl at the Chicago world’s fair, 26-girl, bookie’s girl, taxi-dancer and usherette at a burlesque theater. Valentine’s extreme beauty got her many jobs, but it also got her fired for slapping owners who constantly tried to feel her up – often in the long dark passageways or closets where supplies were kept.

*Neighborhood Boys: Like Henrietta, who is dogged throughout the novel by the love-struck Stanley Dubowski, Valentine said that a little rag-tag band of neighborhood boys who knew that she was a “nice girl” often waited by the El station for her to get off from her late-night jobs and would follow her home at a distance so that no harm would befall her.

*Burlesque: At nineteen years old, Valentine saw an ad in the paper for an usherette at a burlesque theater on Monroe and went to audition, where the line of eager women wrapped around the block. Many of the novel’s details about Henrietta’s audition are taken exactly from Valentine’s experience, including having to show off her legs and bottom on stage in order to get the job. As in the novel, the theater maintained a strict “no touching” policy between the girls and the crowd, with burly ushers doubling as bouncers to throw out any man that crossed the line. Girls were required to go to the bathroom in pairs for safety’s sake.

*Lesbians: Valentine discovered that most of the usherettes or dancers at the theater were lesbians. Though Valentine did not share their sexual orientation and warded off their initial advances, she was eventually befriended by them. One of them, Didi, became her best friend and protector and tried to shield her from some of the more risqué situations that were occurring at the “lesbian parties” Valentine was invited to, which, she said, were boring because “everyone just sat around and made out.”

Though much of Henrietta’s story was taken from Valentine’s, the two tales eventually begin to diverge at some point, with Henrietta’s taking on a life of its own. For example, while I’m sure that Valentine was exposed to her share of crimes and murders as a working girl in the city, to my knowledge she was never involved with one, nor did she probably ever come across an aloof, but oddly charming, detective inspector of the Chicago police. But who knows? Maybe, like Henrietta, they once shared a dance…

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Comments
  • Michelle Cox

    Thanks, Mark!  Yes, it will be available on Kindle.  Hope you like it!

  • Mark Luka

    Burlesque and Lesbians?! I'm there! Seriously, nice slice of an interesting life. Will there be a Kindle version? Otherwise I'll pre-order the book.

    M. Luka.

  • Michelle Cox

    Thanks, Otto!  Hope you enjoy the book!

  • Otto Cornejo

    Amazing story! Normally when I hear stories like this I am inclined to dream about what their life might have been like - but now I have a book for that. Can hardly wait for April! :)

  • Michelle Cox

    Thanks, Jill!  Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Jill G. Hall

    Very interesting. I can't wait to read it!

  • Michelle Cox

    Thanks, Jenni and Pamela!  I have a special place in my heart for these stories from the past. Glad you like them, too!

  • Pamela Fender

    Exactly one of the reasons I volunteer to visit seniors at home for the Jewish Family and Children's Services.

    One could never hear enough of these brilliant, sad and uplifting stories.

    Great article. Love the story.

  • Jenni Ogden Writing

    Love it!  And as I've commented before, absolutely love the cover, and your evocative author website. Can't wait to read the book, an experience that will be enriched by your revelations about Valentine!

  • Michelle Cox

    Thanks for your comment, Victoria.  Yes, so many interesting stories if someone just takes the time to listen.  So many of them went through so much.  What always surprised me was that about half became bitter by their experiences and half remained positive no matter how much they had to endure.  Great life lessons!

  • Victoria Chames Writing

    That sounds so beautiful, wonderful, and true. As a nursing caregiver in a hospital ER I met many people, now elderly, who'd had incredibly interesting and heroic lives. Old people were not always old, and they very often have marvelous stories to tell.

  • Michelle Cox

    Thanks, all, for the great comments!  Valentine was an amazing lady!  Adrienne, you bring up an interesting point.  I did consult with an attorney before beginning this story, so I think I'm good.  Thanks for your input!

  • Adrienne Ross Scanlan

    Sorry to throw a wet blanket on a charming story, but did Valentine give you explicit permission to use her last name and her family's name in articles about your novel? If not, then your using those names are a violation of her confidentiality. I don't know what the rules were twenty some years ago when you first met, but I'm reasonably sure that current HIPPA and institution-specific rules wouldn't allow using client's full names (or any names at all). This isn't nit-picking but a topic related to writing memoir and also historical fiction: what's our responsibility to the people who "inspire" us by telling their life story without any suspicion that one day we'd be writing about them?

  • Patricia Robertson

    Sounds like a great story. Congratulations on your upcoming publication!

  • Charlene Diane Jones

     A great personality in Valentine and with your sharp ears for a good story, it sounds like a natural morph into Henrietta!

  • Irene Allison

    Holy, moly, Michelle, this is great stuff!

    And what a line: I had a man-stopping body and a personality to go with it!” I just love a woman with pizzaz and sass! And I had to laugh at your comment: "Most surprising is the fact that the more outlandish parts of the novel are actually the true bits!" Yes, indeed, truth is always stranger than fiction! What wonderful material you have. I'm really looking forward to reading the whole series! 

    BTW- All throughout my life, I've loved talking to elderly people about their life experience. So many fascinating stories. 

  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

    Love this background on Henrietta!