“San Francisco 49 Mile Scenic Drive”

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On Sunday, Allen and I took the 49-mile scenic drive. We figured the streets would be less congested during the Superbowl. (Whatever that is.) Having lived in San Francisco for decades, and noticed the signs everywhere, we’d never actually followed the drive.

I’d recently happened upon a 1958 map published by the Down Town Association of San Francisco, showing the route. Cartoon icons pepper the map, marking Mission Dolores, Coit Tower, Beach Chalet, and “Twin Peaks World Famous View.” More generic drawings depict “Industrial”, “Golf Clubs” and “View of the Farallone Islands”. Some landmarks are long gone, like Fleishacker Pool, Playland at the Beach, and the dry docks at Hunters Point.map1

Starting and ending at City Hall, the drive zigs and zags all across the city. Because the city’s area is advertised as 49 square miles I’d unthinkingly assumed that the route traced the city’s perimeter. A little research revealed that the drive was created in 1938 by the San Francisco Down Town Association to showcase the city’s major attractions and natural beauty during the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. The endpoint was originally Treasure Island, but when the World’s Fair closed, the route was revised, and has been altered several times over the intervening decades.

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The look of the ubiquitous sign was the result of a contest with a $100 prize held in 1954. Local artist Rex May, a gay man, submitted the winning design of a seagull in profile on a sky blue background with white and orange text. The simple graphic is perfectly proportioned and aesthetically pleasing, something I hadn’t noticed until we discovered newer, ugly replacement signs with the same elements but different proportions.

We started out at City Hall and immediately got turned around. Impossible to navigate solely by the signage, the drive was challenging even with a guidebook and printed out maps. As long time residents, we could discern (mostly) the reasons for the vagaries of the route. For tourists, there’s nothing to indicate what should they be looking at — or for. With one of us driving and the other navigating, neither of us was able to fully appreciate the experience. We began imagining an app, or even better, a tour guide in a mini van pointing out the highlights of the route. We got about halfway through and at the Cliff House realized we’d had enough. We agreed we’d do the other half another time. Or not. It was lots of fun to explore our own backyard, learning about something we’d long ignored or taken for granted.

I loved this line from the Wikipedia entry: “Owing variously to its length, its labyrinthine route, and the difficulty of driving through a bustling city, the drive remains relatively unpopular with tourists and locals alike.”

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Novelists’ responsibility to history?

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I recently picked up Sue Monk Kidd’s popular new novel, The Invention of Wings, on the recommendation of a friend, having loved her award-winning The Secret Life of Bees. I was having trouble with it anyway, already uncomfortable with a white writer’s attempt to write in the voice of a black slave, and then I came to the author’s note in which Kidd describes the many liberties she had taken in recreating the stories of Sarah and Angela Grimke and of their slave girl, Hetty, also known as “Handful”. Changing dates, relationship statuses and geographies, seemingly at the author’s whim, seemed an odd strategy. Why even reference the historical figure in the first place?

According to Molly Driscoll’s Christian Science Monitor profile: “As depicted in the novel, Sarah teaches Hetty to read when the two are young and both Sarah and Hetty are punished. In real life, Hetty was given a severe beating and then died of “an unspecified disease” shortly thereafter, according to Kidd. But Kidd says she knew she had to keep Hetty in her story.”

When using a historical figure as the basis for fiction, what is the author’s responsibility to accurately portray the known facts?

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Another classic example is Count Ladislaus de Almásy, the protagonist of Michael Ondatje’s bestselling 1992 novel The English Patient, played by Ralph Fiennes in the acclaimed film adaption. Correspondence discovered after the novel’s publication indicates the Hungarian-born adventurer did not die of a morphine overdose after suffering terrible burns and dreaming of the woman he loved. Instead Almásy succumbed to amoebic dysentery in 1951 never having once slept with a woman.

The Daily Mail reported that letters written by Almásy indicate he was in fact homosexual and that according to the staff, “Egyptian princes were among Almasy’s lovers.”

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I guess it happens all the time. Does that mean I must accept it?

In George Clooney’s recent film Monuments Men, adapted from Robert M. Edsel’s nonfiction book, the character played by Cate Blanchett is based on Rose Valland, who played an instrumental role in the protection and recovery of some of France’s great works of art when Nazis plundered museums and galleries of Paris during World War II. She was also, in fact, an out lesbian, a fact apparently not evident in the film. (I haven’t seen it yet.)

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Valland was depicted as heterosexual, or at least the object of a male character’s passion, in Sarah Houghteling’s 2009 novel Pictures at an Exhibition. When I contacted Houghteling after a presentation at the Jewish Community Library calling her attention to the ease with which I validated Valland’s lesbian identity, she responded with an unconvincing excuse about how she’d run out of time conducting her research.

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I don’t get it. If one is taking inspiration from a historical figure, it seems incumbent on the author to respect the known information about their life. Connect the dots with creative interpretation, sure, but don’t alter the facts. It seems to me that such misrepresentation is irresponsible and revisionist. Especially when it occurs among marginalized figures, such as women of color and gay men and lesbians. Are we such easy marks or attractive targets? Am I missing something?

Leave our lives alone unless you’re going to take the responsibility to do the research. I realize it seems I’m conflating novelists with filmmakers, but having given up on Hollywood I’m really more interested in the responsibility of writers to get it right.