The Spitfires by Beril Becker
Pyramid Books, 1964
Originally published as Whirlwind in Petticoats
Price I paid: $3.50
Vicki and Tennie came out of the Midwest and hit New York like a cyclone. The Robber Barons were in full swing, building famous names and fabulous riches, but they were no match for the whirlwind Claflin girls, who lost no time in
- squeezing a fortune out of Commodore Vanderbilt
- ruining the most respected preacher in the city, Henry Ward Beecher
- preaching a scandalous gospel of free love—and practicing it!
- defeating Boss Tweed, the powerful, corrupt head of Tammany Hall
- starting a campaign to make Vicki president of the United States!
The Gilded Age was one of the wildest periods in American history—but the Claflin girls were wilder still. Their story is grippy, bawdy—and strangest of all, true!
Last February I reviewed a book called The Gods Hate Kansas, which I seem to remember was most remarkable for its cover. Researching the cover artist, Jack Thurston, led me to The Spitfires. The cover intrigued me enough that I set out to learn more about the book…and hit a wall.
Finding a copy wasn’t that hard. I ordered one online and got it within a week or so. But everything else was wildly difficult. There is no entry for this book on Goodreads, which is especially bothersome because now I have no way of marking it on my yearly book challenge. Searching for the author, Beril Becker, led me only to listings for his—and it took me a fair amount of work to determine that pronoun—other books. I assume they’re his and there’s not another Beril Becker out there.
I’ve probably put more research into this book than any other for this blog. I found a scan from the New York Public Library of the cover of the original Doubleday edition, Whirlwind in Petticoats, which had an author bio on it, confirming that the author was a male. I was about ten percent into the novel before I found that bit of information, and had up to that point been under the impression that I was reading the work of a woman.
For one, I assumed Beril was a woman’s name. Beryl typically is.
For two, this book, written in 1947, is dedicated To All Feminists. I had a hard time imagining a man doing that.
I also found an old Kirkus review that wasn’t terribly helpful and an article on JSTOR about biographies of women from 1955 that makes reference to it. I procured the full College English article via library means and found it to be dismissive and insulting to both the book and women in general:
Women are interested in the suffering female, and most book buyers are women. (It is worth noting that even the best writers in the field like to write about a woman.) Furthermore, the Claflin sisters were reformers; they wanted to emancipate their sex. That too has a strong appeal for the dishpan and diaper trade.Bode, Carl. “The Buxom Biographies.” College English, vol. 16, no. 5, 1955, pp. 265–269. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/372338.
This passage made me love this book even more. And I really loved this book.
What we’ve got is a fictionalized biography of two of the coolest women in American history, sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin. Together, these women spent the 1870s running a newspaper, preaching about Spiritualism, becoming the first women stockbrokers on Wall Street, and making life a living hell for some of the most famous figures of the time.
The book focuses more on Victoria than her sister because she was the more public face of the pair. Victoria was an advocate of Free Love and the idea that marriage, as it was currently practiced, makes slaves of women. She called for women to take control over their sex lives and spoke boldly on the matter. Tennessee, for her part, was no prude, and was happy to use her good looks and sexuality both for her own enjoyment and to further her goals.
Victoria sometimes butted heads with Susan B. Anthony, who felt that Victoria’s Free Love gospel did more harm than good to the cause of getting women the vote. This didn’t keep Victoria from running for president in 1872. She’s now considered the first woman candidate for the job, although there’s some debate over the legitimacy of it because she wasn’t yet 35 at the time.
This book clocked in at a hefty 333 pages of small type, and by God, I ate it up!
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the author was working from an incredible real-life story, but the main thing here is how well he communicated it. The narrative stayed out of the way of the events taking place. I was afraid at many times it wouldn’t, but those fears were unfounded.
There was the occasional pacing issue. On the one hand, things moved very quickly and it worked, generating a frenetic pace that worked with the plot and the characters, making it feel like they were never able to rest, never able to stop, always on the move. But sometimes there were things that seemed important, such as when Victoria’s young son fell out of a window and was gravely injured, that felt like they merited more than a sentence noting the incident.
It’s hard for me to tell how historically accurate the book is. Certainly it follows the broader historical narrative closely, at least based on the Wikipedia articles for the two women and the historical figures they ran across. But being that this is more of a biographical novel than a straight recounting of history, the author had to take liberties with dialogue and motivations that felt right to me, but a person more deeply invested in the history might take issue with. The book treats a few historical rumors as truth, as well.
The most notable thing is how current this book felt. There was so much going on then that is still relevant now. There’s the unsettling feeling of how nothing ever changes, and that even dynamos like Vicki and Tennie were unable to make a particularly huge headway on matters of social justice that are still with us. Certainly progress has been made, but the problems are still there.
The sisters’ struggles are familiar to anyone who, at the very least, listens to women today. Men refuse to take them seriously, they condescend to them, they treat them as sex objects. Their response, which may not appeal to a lot of people today, was to lean into it. Tennessee becomes adept at playing the insipid damsel who works her way into a man’s confidence and strikes. She becomes a master of blackmail. She becomes a spiritual healer to Cornelius Vanderbilt, earning his trust so that he funds their first forays onto Wall Street.
But never does it feel like the sisters accomplish their aims because men do all the real work. Once they’re on Wall Street, they succeed handily through their own ingenuity, mainly handled behind the scenes by Tennie.
Victoria’s husband, Colonel Jim Blood, is no slacker, though. He has dreams of his own and is happy to let Victoria be the means toward them while he works in the background. Never once does it feel like she’s just a figurehead while he pulls all the strings. They are a partnership. They are both Free Love advocates and they live up to those principles. Their partnership is one of trust, love, and work. It’s a fine line and I think the author communicated it well. Is it historically accurate? Again, I don’t know.
Jim’s goal in life is less about women’s liberation, although he certainly supports Victoria’s efforts. His own cause is yet another one familiar to the modern reader: The Goddamn Plutocracy. Jim wants to unite the workers and throw out the capitalists. He frequently says things about wealth inequality and the brazen lawbreaking of the rich that are immediately familiar.
The back of the book makes a few claims that aren’t quite true. They didn’t “squeeze a fortune” out of Vanderbilt, they borrowed some money and then paid him back.
It was mainly Tennessee who helped bring down Boss Tweed and his Tammany goons, and this was one of my favorite parts of the book. For some reason I’ve always had an interest in Tweed and his crimes, and seeing him fall is always a joy. It lets me pretend there’s justice in the world. Tennessee’s contribution to his destruction is magnificent.
She makes some public statements against Tweed to get his attention, but her main contribution comes on one Election Day. Basically, she is well aware that Tweed’s goon squad will be prowling around all the polling places at every New York City election, and she finds a way to stop it. She organizes women. Yes, they can’t vote, but that just means they have time to patrol the polls themselves.
“And have them knifed in the back!” Andrews exclaimed grimly.
But Tennie piped up sweetly: “Women’s hatpins are longer than knives, Mr. Andrews. We can organize a hatpin brigade.”
The feminists of Section 12 were enraptured with the idea. A hatpin could be as effective as a stiletto, but it was a weapon that would bring a smile in the courtroom.pg 232
It works, and it’s magnificent. Tammany agents, heavily outnumbered by angry women, aren’t able to prevent people from voting their conscience, and when they finally decide to just grab the ballot boxes and throw them in the river, Tennie’s hatpin brigades are there to stop them. Tennie straight-up stabs a guy in the thigh while onlookers laugh. Tweed’s political lackeys lose their elections, Tweed loses all his power, and he’s finally arrested.
While the book makes it seem like Tennessee alone took down Tweed, I know just enough to know that there’s more to it than that. It’s still entertaining to read, but it’s a reminder that this is a fictionalized account with no claims to historical accuracy.
The book spends most of its time building up to what it considers the main two events: Victoria’s candidacy for president and the sisters’ crusade against Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous Protestant minister of the time. The jacket copy says that they “ruined” him, but that’s a flat-out lie.
Their rivalry with Beecher came mostly from the fact that he preached several times against Victoria’s Free Love beliefs, yet he was himself a notorious womanizer. Enraged by the hypocrisy, the sisters vowed to take him down via their newspaper and lawsuits.
Beecher gets off for a variety of reasons.
Before that is Victoria’s run for president. She nominates Frederick Douglass as her running mate, but he ignores it. Everything goes against her and it’s heartbreaking, even though we all know that she didn’t stand a chance. The book tries to play up her potential victory, but it was the longest of shots. Not only was she a woman running for president before women could actually vote, she was doing it on a third-party ticket.
These two failures left Victoria a wreck. She did a complete reversal of her earlier teachings, either in an effort to regain fame, truthfully, or some combination of both. She started to preach against Free Love and instead promoted the sanctity of motherhood and the family, things she was rabidly against earlier in her life, having said that they were the chains that kept women imprisoned in the kitchen and bedrooms of men they’ve grown to revile.
While this is all from real history, I started to get worried that our author was leading up to something preachy with it. I became afraid that he was going to start moralizing and say something like “See, even a woman like this could come around and see the truth eventually.” I started to fear that the book’s dedication “To All Feminists” was snide and mean and backhanded.
I was wrong. The book’s epilogue, recounting the end of Victoria’s life at 89, presents it all as a tragedy. Women got the vote, but Victoria was forgotten and unappreciated in her time. Perhaps she dreamed too big and tried to move society too fast. She was reviled by preachers, mocked by the press (except for when it was profitable to be on her side), and ultimately destroyed by the rich and powerful. She accomplished so much, and kept pushing until it was all yanked away again.
It’s a damn shame that this book is out of print.
I’m not going to claim that this was a perfect book for everybody. It was, however, perfect for me, at this moment. It’s not flawless, but it spoke to me. It made Victoria, Tennessee, Colonel Blood, Vanderbilt, Beecher, and so many others come alive. It made the Gilded Age come alive.
It’s certainly not unbiased. It makes Beecher look like an absolute bastard and barely mentions that he was a prominent abolitionist and suffragist. He opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act. But he was also a Social Darwinist who opposed the labor movement.
It also glosses over Victoria’s eugenicist leanings later in life.
History’s complicated, y’all.
You can’t take this book as Truth, but it’s some damned exciting storytelling that, if nothing else, can get someone even more interested in the history and the issues that Victoria and Tennessee lived through, championed, fought against, and were eventually, sadly, broken by.
I’m so happy I found this book.