A contemporary of Jacqueline Susann, credited by Cosmopolitan magazine with writing "the first really great dirty book," Joyce Elbert made a splash in 1969 with her novel "The Crazy Ladies," a slinky, metropolitan, woman-centric romp that sold more than 4 million copies worldwide.
Yet by the time of her death from Lou Gehrig's disease in Florida in 2009, this brash and brilliant Bronx-born author had long since sunk beneath the waves of obscurity, no longer able to garner interest in what she called her "zany, sexy, campy creations."
Luckily for contemporary readers, the eight previously unpublished autobiographical essays gathered here in "A Tale of Five Cities and Other Memoirs" brings Elbert's wit and earthy sophistication back to the surface.
Published by Tough Poets Press, a one-man operation dedicated to "new and rediscovered unconventional and neglected literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction," and committed, as Publishers Weekly has put it, to "resuscitating forgotten classics," this collection reintroduces 21st-century audiences to an underappreciated, funny and feminist talent.
With candor, toughness and an indefatigable sense of humor, Elbert regales the reader with details of her bohemian life among the likes of Mark Rothko and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as her romantic (mis)adventures with men who range from the maddeningly casual and unsupportive, to her alcoholic con-man ex-husband, to an outright physical abuser.
Yet the book is never more about them than it is about her quest to become and remain an author, an ambition so deep that after being battered by the aforementioned partner, she notes, "My only consolation was that someday I would be able to use this sordid experience in a book. Yes, even in times of despair the novelist's brain is forever churning."
Elbert also chronicles her own later-in-life descent into alcoholism and struggle for sobriety, concluding that, "Like many mind-altering drugs, alcohol had shown me where I needed to go, but alcohol couldn't get me there."
The title essay — or really five separate-but-linked essays — globe-trots from Acapulco to Paris to Campello to London to Martha's Vineyard, but New York and its bygone midcentury milieu remain the most indelible in Elbert's memory. The book opens with "Movies: 1934," about attending screenings at "our local movie palace, The Allerton … a ten-minute walk from where we lived in a remote section of the Northeast Bronx" with her mother, of whom she writes, "Nothing in her life had emotionally prepared her for marriage or motherhood and yet there she was, trapped, with no hope in sight."
Elbert manages, often with daffy panache, to evade those traps. In the confident and unapologetic yet self-aware vein of her fellow writer of glamour and excess Eve Babitz, Elbert documents her own desires and drives against a vivid backdrop of long-gone social settings.
At the end of her life, Elbert left behind at least seven unpublished novels, as well as several novellas and short stories. If the essays in "A Tale of Five Cities" are any indication of their quality, one can only hope that those will be resuscitated soon.
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey." Her poetry collection, "Where Are the Snows," winner of the X.J. Kennedy Prize, is forthcoming from Texas Review Press.
A Tale of Five Cities & Other Memoirs
By: Joyce Elbert.
Publisher: Tough Poets Press, 232 pages, $17.99.