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A HANDSOME DEVIL IS NOT ENOUGH
Contributor
Written by
Michele Zackheim
January 2014
Contributor
Written by
Michele Zackheim
January 2014

Discovering that I had a cousin who had been murdered in Paris by a man who was referred to as “the Handsome Devil” was tantalizing. Her murder and the subsequent trial produced screaming front-page news throughout the Western world. That she was murdered before I was born complicated my subsequent research about what happened, but whetted my appetite. 

            It was 1937, and my cousin, Jean DeKoven, and her aunt Ida Sackheim, both from Brooklyn, were doing the grand tour. On her second day in Paris, Jean fell madly in love with a dashing English-speaking man who was loitering about the lobby of their hotel on the rue du Vieux-Colombier. He spoke an educated English with a slight German accent, and gave her advice about things to see in the city. She told her aunt that he was “irresistible.” Eventually, he murdered her.

            I decided to write about the events, but had no idea which angle to use in approaching the material. A nonfiction accounting of the facts, using an omniscient narrator? A nonfiction novel with me as the narrator? I took my time and did all the requisite research. I flew to Europe and gathered a lot of information; I had done this kind of research before. But as I collected material, I started to become far more interested in the fictional characters that had begun to appear in my daydreams.

            I imagined the main character as a man. Having never written a main character from a predominantly male point of view, I began to pay more attention to how men behave. I had to watch and listen without judgment (not an easy task for a feminist). One evening, over a couple of glasses of wine, I interviewed my husband about the way men look at things. “Be honest,” I ordered. And he was—somewhat to my chagrin. I then spent the next couple of months reading tough-guy books: Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Jean Genet.

            Once I felt I had captured the male voice, I named him Jimmy Corso and began to write. Each day, I would turn myself inside out and pretend that I was a patient of Carl Jung’s, lying on his red Persian-carpeted couch, exploring the male and female sides of myself.

            I wrote in the guise of Jimmy, a tough but poetic reporter from Nevada who was working in Paris and Berlin in the late 1930s. He would narrate the story about the murder, how the Sackheim family dealt with the tragedy, and how it was woven into the anxiety of the time, those few years before World War II. It took me four years to write the book. I felt steeped in maleness . . . I imagined every step of the way in Jimmy’s Oxford shoes. Convincing myself that writing from a male point of view was a good challenge for me, I struggled through to the end of the book.

            The book was submitted to my publisher, Europa Editions, which agreed to publish it. And then for two weeks I worried. I simply wasn’t excited about what I had created. Jimmy was not right. His story didn’t feel compelling to me. He felt dry and uninteresting—one-dimensional. I didn’t care, really care, about him. When I had handed over my other manuscripts to a publisher, I found I missed my main characters and often thought about what they would have done in this or that situation in my real life. I still think of them as old friends. But I didn’t miss Jimmy.

            I realized that I had always written about shy, introverted women: Lily Jacobs, Violette Leduc’s friend; Sophie Marks, a painter with a traumatic past and a hopeful future; Mary Cole, who murdered her mother; and especially Mileva Marić Einstein, Albert’s wife. They were challenging for me to write, but not nearly so challenging as Jimmy Corso. Writing Jimmy, it seems, had defeated me.

            I asked the editors at Europa to return the manuscript, and they graciously complied.

Afraid that my love for writing might have come to an end, I decided to do an exercise. I translated the first thirty pages of Jimmy Corso’s voice into a female one, and found that I had blundered into the voice of an extroverted woman. This woman is filled with vocal passion and emotional energy for her work and the people she loves. Her name is Rose Belle Manon, called R.B. by her newspaper colleagues, Rosie by her close friends. I liked her. I still do.

            From that moment, the writing flowed far more easily than before. I tried to analyze the problem I had had with writing in the male voice. After much confusion and many self-accusations, I realized that it wasn’t that I could not write Jimmy Corso—it was that I didn’t like him enough, and that lack of affection came through on the page. On the other hand, Rosie became the kind of woman I’ve always admired, but could never be. She offered me an adventure into a period of history that had been unfamiliar to me, and an education about a branch of my real-life family. I trusted her voice, and I liked it. And Rose, a straight shooter from Nevada (like Jimmy), made sure that I gave myself credit for having avoided some handsome devils in my own life. . . .

* * *

I’m curious about other women writers who have a written their main character in a man’s voice.  Was it easy?  If so, why?  And if it was difficult, why?

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