Episode 28: Alice in Wonderland

Once a season we step back from the factual historical world into the fictional historical world. This season, while stepping back, we fell into a rabbit hole of sorts and found ourselves becoming curiouser and curiouser about Alice. Alice in Wonderland, that is.

This episode is all about Alice. Who was she, how did these books about her come to be and who is her creator, Charles Lutwidge Dodson (more commonly known as Lewis Carroll)?  What is it about this story that has allowed  it to endure for 150 years? Is it the charm or is it the mystique that surrounds not only the tale, but the life of the writer?

Originally written for a child, this fantasy deals with some very dark images and has generated some wholly grown-up interpretations.Yet, it has been  adored by children and adults alike.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Saw There have been in continuous publication since they were first published in the late 1800’s.

We discuss the storylines of these two books in our companion mini-cast, Beckett and Susan’s Adventures in Wonderland and What They Saw There. If you are not familiar with the story, or need a refresher, please give a listen to that podcast first. Some of the details of this episode are better understood within the context of those stories.

There are more references than just the biggies

On July 4th, 1862 Charles Dodgson, a friend and three young Liddell sisters- Lorina, Edith and 10 year-old Alice- took a rowing trip up a river. As was tradition for this group, Charles began to tell stories. One in particular enchanted young Alice who asked if he could write it down for her. He did, and presented her with a hand written and  self-illustrated Alice’s Adventures Under Ground some time later. With further editing, reworking and creating, Charles published the tale (with illustrations by John Tenniel) as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland three years after that boating trip.

Who was Charles Dodgson? He was the third of eleven children, although the first male in his family. His father, Charles, was a clergyman and mother, Francis Jane, raised the large and close upper- middle class family in Cheshire, England. Young Charles was gifted academically and excelled in school (although he had a stint in a rather notorious institution that may not have been the cheeriest of times).  When it came time for Charles to decide on a career path he became a mathematics lecturer at Oxford.( Maybe not the most obvious choice for a man with a stammer). He was quite religious, and an ordained deacon- although he never entered the priesthood as his employer would have required. He was also a writer, penning magazine articles and poems under the name Lewis Carroll, and a very accomplished amateur photographer .

The mystique of Lewis Carroll that endures is probably based on the loss of some key diary entries after his death, and what is known was often left to very loose interpretation. We knock out some of the myths and common misconceptions during the podcast including:

Did he stammer only around adults?  (No, he stammered when speaking with children as well, they may have been more understanding, however.)

Was he shy? (No, he was very social and had a wide circle of friends.)

Was he a pedophile? (No, probably not. When the social context of the times, as well as the trends in photography are taken into consideration evidence seems to  point to no.)

We cover quite a bit more in the podcast, but the one that pertains the most to this topic? Who WAS Alice and who was she to him?

Alice Liddell was the forth of ten children of Henry and Lorina Liddell (rhymes with ‘riddle’). Henry was the Dean of Oxford during a large chunk of Charles’ time there, and his boss. Charles was a good family friend, spending time with the whole family, not just Alice. He photographed all of the children, and does have several existing portraits of Alice.

The two parts of the portrait sitting of Alice, meant to be shown together.

Alice lived a very long and full life, marrying a man of means she became a society hostess and mother of three boys. She held on to her original gift from Charles for most of her life, although a series of situations forced her to sell it in her old age.

But she doesn’t LOOK like the Alice you know, does she? As Charles was rewriting his original story, and combined forces with illustrator John Tenniel and sent John images of a couple of other young girls who looked more like the girl in his mind including this one:

Beatrice Henley, the probable model for Tenniel's book illustrations.

The story of Alice lived on long after the deaths of both Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell. Alice and her friends have crept into our language (“Off with her head!”) and culture (See: Tom Petty Don’t Come Around Here No More or any number of other musical references). We don’t really know when we are going to stumble into her, but when we do- we feel like we are meeting with an old friend.

This fountain has been in Central Park since 1959.

Time Travel With The History Chicks

Have you fallen into the rabbit hole that is the world that surrounds Alice in Wonderland? Where to next? Oh, why here is a note, it says “READ ME!”

We suggest that you start with Annotated Alice, by Martin Gardner. In this (really big) book you will find the original text and illustrations for the two books, as well as commentary about the subject matter.

Are you interested in learning more about the man behind the tales? We liked The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Woolf. Although there are MANY books about this man out there, and many contradict the others…that’s kind of what’s fun about the mystery, don’t you think?

Why should all the recommendations be non-fiction? With this topic, it just doesn’t make sense. Give these two a try:  The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor.

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

If you are as drawn to the work of Mary Blair as Susan was, this is the book version that she  gushed discussed.

Retold by Jon Sciezka, with original artwork of Mary Blair

Alice All The Things! (History Chicks Internet version)

Read both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass and The Hunting of the Snark online. LibriVox also has audio versions available.

AlteredAlice– links to Alice inspired art from all over the world.

Lostepedia– Many references within the TV show LOST. Many. (As in:enough to get you to watch it again)

Contrariwise– One of many online groups whose purpose is to discuss and exchange information about Lewis Carroll and his beloved tales.

Carrollmyth: a super slick site that helps address some of the myths surrounding the man.

And, of course, please please, take a cruise through the work of the Lewis Carroll Society (link to North America, but that’s only because we are in North America). If you investigate that site you can easily find links to many of the photographic works of the man, as well as lots of other very fascinating information. You could be there for a while.

And finally ( because, really, where else are you going to find it?) a last look at the Mock Turtle and a recipe for Mock Turtle Soup. You are most welcome.

why does he have a cow head, again? Oh, yeah.

The Walrus and the Carpenter restaurant, In Seattle- which probably doesn’t serve Mock Turtle Soup, but we thought it was pretty interesting.

Episode 27: Clara Bow

We couldn’t tell the story of Clara Bow entirely in G-rated terms, so younger ears should probably skip this one where we talk about the original It Girl. What is It?  Looks, charm, talent, and something special that attracts a wide range of people.  It is a mysterious quality usually likened to a form of sex appeal. Clara Bow had It. She used It for her career and It attracted many men.  But, in addition to all those marketable qualities that made her a successful silent film star, she had other factors in her life that contrasted: Poverty, abuse, mental illness, and a span of time when she was treated like a pawn in an industry where youth and It survived, and all else was tossed aside.

Clara Gordon Bow was born on July 29, 1905, to Robert and Sara Bow in Brooklyn, New York. We would love to give you a romantic version of her parents, a rags-to-riches love story- but it would be a lie. Robert had a thing for younger girls and liquor; Sara was the daughter of an abusive father and mentally ill mother who was looking for a way out of her home and teen marriage was that ticket.

Robert worked as a singing waiter and at various odd jobs, but he would often leave his wife and child for long stretches. He spent his wages in bars and on underage prostitutes. Sara was miserable at home. Clara was her third  child- the first two died almost immediately after birth- and Sara had been advised that another pregnancy might kill both her and the child. Death may have seemed a great strategy for leaving her sad life, but both mother and child survived.

More sadness, and gloom filled the life of young Clara: her mother plummeted through episode after episode of depressed, psychotic and hostile states leaving Clara to take care of both herself and her mother. Clara’s grandfather died at her feet. As a young child she witnessed the gruesome death of her best friend, and she would be forced to drop out of school by seventh grade to get a job to help support her family. We go into details on the podcast of the impoverished and dysfunctional world that Clara grew up in, but let’s suffice it to say, it wasn’t a fairy tale. The escape method that she used was the movies- going to them, reading about them, and dreaming of a life as the person IN the movie magazines, not  just reading them.

One of Clara’s first employers

At the age of 16,she saw her chance in the form of a magazine sponsored contest  With a storyline that would make a terrific movie, she scraped together the money for  entry pictures, impressed the judges, kicked fanny at the  acting auditions and won!Included in the prizes was a photo shoot that created these two images:

Through what may have been the hardest work of his life ( if not a singular moment of support for his child)  Robert Bow pushed the powers- that- be to follow through with the other part of the prize: help Clara get work in the movies. Clara got her first role, and- in true movie fashion- her performance ended up on the cutting room floor. Crushing.

But that role landed her the next, and she was off to the glamorous local of….New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Made it on the big screen! Down to the Sea in Ships

In fairly quick order, Clara set off to Hollywood with an agent who had a rather interesting tale to tell after her cross-country train trip with the free spirited, insomniac that was a teenage Clara Bow.

Of course, we go into the whole story on the podcast, but Clara’s acting skills, big eyed beauty, and ability to cry on cue (not to mention her lack of inhibitions and sparkling personality) soon got her the screen time she needed to get  her career really started. She signed with Preferred Pictures and let her career  be formed in the hands of the head of the studio- B.P. Schulberg.
Her looks and attitude suited the times. Women were taking more risks, making bold moves, bobbing their hair, letting their sexuality shine all while dancing on tables. Well, the women that Clara portrayed on screen were- she personified the flapper, the Jazz Baby. Women wanted to be her, men wanted to be with her and both of them were flocking to her movies.

The movie that she is most often known for, It.

Throughout the 1920’s Clara was, quite simply, a superstar. Her personal life was as wild as some of the characters she played on the screen. Tooling about town in a roadster she lived her life with as little a filter as she could get away with. (How is that for putting it mildly?) She was romantically linked to many men, and called her own shots in her frenetic personal life. The newspapers and those movie magazines she used to read loved her, although they may have exaggerated some aspects of her life- the public couldn’t get enough of Clara.

The invention of talkie movies slowed Clara down a bit, but it didn’t end her career as is often rumored. What did end it? Maybe the pace she had kept for so long. Maybe a series of ill-timed life moves including several stints in hospitals for “rest” and a much publicized legal battle with a former personal secretary who attempted to blackmail Clara. Maybe the love of a good man, Rex Bell, who helped stabilize her life and gave her the family and normalcy that she had longed for since she was a child. Maybe the times, as the Depression began the flamboyant lifestyle of the now matured flapper wasn’t the image that movie goers craved. Maybe it was a combination of all of those things.

Clara stopped making movies in 1933. She retired to the ranch in Nevada where she and Rex raised two boys. They later divorced and she moved to Los Angeles. She was mostly a recluse, although she did still answer her fan mail and was often surprised when people remembered her. She died of a heart attack in her home on September 27, 1965 at the age of 60.

Clara, Rex and their children.


First thing we would do? Watch some movies. Netflix streams It, as well as some others, and you can see bits and pieces on YouTube. If you have 7 minutes, give this one a peek… the IT of Clara Bow  is very obvious in this clip. This link will take you to a channel with  more Clara Bow movie clips.

Since we are talking internet links here, Clara Bow Archive on tumblr maintains a twitter account as well. Get unique pictures of Clara sent right to your twitter feed. Also The Flapper Factor on tumblr is not Clara specific, nor is this Silent Ladies.com , but you might be impressed with the collections presented.

Learning more about a movie star just seems to fit visual media, you know? There is a Biography:  Clara Bow which isn’t on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon-but you might want to check out your library.

Turner Classic Movies has a Clara Bow documentary, Discovering the It Girl (narrated by Courtney Love) which we liked. And  a related one, Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood which is narrated by Jane Fonda ( and based on a book by Mick LaSalle who is interviewed in the film). Keep an eye out for airings of both these on TCM, or see if your library has them.

As it ties into this topic, and to cleanse your brain of the Debbie Reynolds Molly Brown image- go see Singing in the Rain. Set in the times of Clara Bow and with some of the (highly Hollywoodized) issues that Clara had to deal with. (Just an aside: the songs were written before the story of this movie but it’s still a fun romp).

Just for a fun movie tie in

We teased you about this in the podcast, an interview by Mark Twain with Elinor Glyn, writer of It and overall character herself.

So you like books? Us toooo!  For Clara we recommend:

Clara Bow: Running Wild by, David Stenn

The “It”: Girl: the Incredible Story of  Clara Bow by, Joe Morella & Edward EpsteinSilent Stars by Jeanine BasingerAnd finally, as a related recommended read (yes, there is a movie also), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith.

As always, music comes courtesy of Music Alley. Visit them at Music.mevio.com