Author Tags: Film, History

Born in Mariposa, California on June 2, 1964, Grant Hayter-Menzies came to Canada in 2006. In his writing, he focuses on the lives of extraordinary women such as the Manchu-American author, feminist and personality, Princess Der Ling (Mrs. Elizabeth Antoinette White), the subject of his biography Imperial Masquerade (Hong Kong University Press / UBC Press, 2008).

Most people remember the actress Billie Burke, if they remember her at all, for her role as Glinda the Good Witch of the North in MGM's 1939 film, "The Wizard of Oz," but many years before that she was a famous stage personality, in London and New York, and as well as being the wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. Grant Hayter-Menzies' biography Mrs. Ziegfeld The Public and Private Lives of Billie Burke (McFarland & Company, 2009) is the first to be written about her. The book's release was planned to be concurrent with the 70th anniversary of "Oz". "It is something of an 'authorised' biography," says Hayter-Menzies, "as Burke's daughter and grandchildren cooperated with me in researching Burke's private life." He also interviewed actors who performed with her on stage and screen.

Hayter-Menzies is also the author of the first biography of the American musical comedy star, Charlotte Greenwood [1890-1977]. Based on exclusive access to Charlotte's unpublished memoirs, letters, and memorabilia. Movie critic Rex Reed wrote, "A unique talent and an overlooked chapter in show business history, diligently researched and informatively written. Beloved Charlotte Greenwood has been brought back to life with candor and charm. A movie lover's must-read!"

Yet to be published, A Certain Vision of Truth: The Epic Journey of Olga Ilyin is his authorized biography of Russian émigré poet and memoirist, Olga Ilyin [1894-1991], who was a great-granddaughter of revered Russian poet Evgeny Baratynsky and a powerful and unjustly neglected writer herself.

Among anthologies to which he has contributed is a biographical study of the daughters of Russia's Romanov tsars, The Grand Duchesses: Daughters and Granddaughters of Russia's Tsars, published by Arturo Beeche of the European Royal History Journal in August 2004. A companion volume, detailing lives of the Romanov grand dukes, is forthcoming.

He has written about classical, world and experimental music; visual art; film, books and theatre; and gay and lesbian issues for such newspapers and magazines as The Portland Oregonian, Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon), the Eugene Register-Guard (Eugene, Oregon), Just Out (Portland, Oregon), Opera News (New York), BIBLIO, The European Royal History Journal (San Francisco), the Peninsula News Review (Sidney, BC) and Galleries West (Calgary, AB and Vancouver, BC).

He has worked extensively with playwright William Luce, providing original verse for his musico-biography The Divine Orlando (based on the life of the 16th century composer Orlando di Lasso), produced off Broadway in 1988; translations of German poetry for his 1991 Broadway play, Lucifer's Child, written for and performed by actress Julie Harris; and translations of Rimbaud for his play Nijinsky, which premiered in Tokyo in January 2000.

As publicity materials for Shadow Woman (McGill-Queens 2013) state: "Kansas-born Pauline Benton (1898-1974) was encouraged by her father, one of America's earliest feminist male educators, to reach for the stars. Instead, she reached for shadows. In 1920s Beijing, she discovered shadow theatre (piyingxi), a performance art where translucent painted puppets are manipulated by highly trained masters to cast coloured shadows against an illuminated screen. Finding that this thousand-year-old forerunner of motion pictures was declining in China, Benton believed she could save the tradition by taking it to America.

"Mastering the male-dominated art form in China, Benton enchanted audiences eager for the exotic in Depression-era America. Her touring company, Red Gate Shadow Theatre, was lauded by theatre and art critics and even performed at Franklin Roosevelt's White House. Grant Hayter-Menzies traces Benton's performance history and her efforts to preserve shadow theatre as a global cultural treasure by drawing on her unpublished writings, the recollections of her colleagues, the testimonies of shadow masters who survived China's Cultural Revolution, as well as young innovators who have carried on Benton's pioneering work."

In 2015, Hayter-Menzies published Lillian Carter: A Compassionate Life (McFarland & Company $35). With the support of President Jimmy Carter and the Carter family, Hayter-Menzies recalls how Lillian cared for black families in the rural south as a young nurse and later served as a 68-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in 1960s India. Always a fearless supporter of human rights, she was dubbed “First Mother of the world” by the American press.

Scheduled for release in November 2017, Dorothy Brooke and the Fight to Save the Lost War Horses of Cairo (Potomac Books-U of Nebraska Press), recounts the heroics of an English general's wife to help old and retired equines used during wartime. Dorothy Brooke (1883 - 1955) discovered and rescued elderly and abused former war horses and army mules abandoned in Egypt following the end of World War I. She set up a veterinary hospital in a slum area of Cairo in 1934, working there until her death in 1955. The hospital continues today and has inspired other free clinics for vet care working with equines in eleven developing nations.


Charlotte Greenwood: The Life and Career of the Comic Star of Vaudeville, Radio and Film (McFarland & Company, April 2007)

Imperial Masquerade: The Life and Legend of Princess Der Ling (Hong Kong University Press, 2008)

Mrs. Ziegfeld: The Public and Private Lives of Billie Burke (McFarland & Company, 2009). Foreword by Eric Myers ISBN 978-0-7864-3800-6
photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index
245pp. hardcover (7 x 10) 2009/ Soft cover reprint (McFarland & Co 2016) $25 978-1-4766-6596-2

Shadow Woman: The Extraordinary Career of Pauline Benton (McGill-Queen's University Press 2013) 978-0-773-54201-3 $29.99

Lillian Carter: A Compassionate Life (McFarland & Company 2015) 9780786497195 $35.00

PENDING: Dorothy Brooke and the Fight to Save the Lost War Horses of Cairo (Potomac Books - U. of Nebraska Press 2017)

[BCBW 2017] "Film" "China" "History"

Imperial Masquerade
Promotional Description (2008)

Daughter of a Manchu aristocrat, granddaughter of a Boston merchant, educated like a boy in the Confucian classics, a baptized Catholic blessed by the hand of Pope Leo XIII, a woman who donned chic Western fashions in China and her ceremonial court robes in the United States, and wife of an American soldier of fortune, Princess Der Ling was a fascinating human battleground of warring identities. Imperial Masquerade is the first biography of one of the twentieth-century’s most intriguing cross-cultural personalities. It traces not only the life of Princess Der Ling, but offers a fresh look at the woman she lionized and, ultimately, betrayed – the Empress Dowager Cixi.

“The last years of the Qing dynasty were a time of rumours, adventures, and mysterious opportunities for the polyglot inhabitants of Beijing. The Memoir written in 1911 by the self-styled ‘Princess’ Der Ling, lady-in-waiting to the Empress Dowager between 1903 and 1905, has always presented baffling problems concerning accuracy and interpretation. Imperial Masquerade is an ingenious rethinking of the available evidence, and presents an absorbing account of how Der Ling survived at Court, and what it must have been like to work for such a formidable ruler.” –Jonathan Spence, Sterling Professor of History, Yale University, author of Return To Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man

“An intriguing, insightful portrait of a woman born at the boundary between two cultures who, in her restless yearning for celebrity, crossed and re-crossed another boundary—that between reality and fantasy—in an extraordinary life that took her from the Forbidden City of Beijing to the pleasure palaces of America’s Jazz Age.” –Diana Preston, author of The Boxer Rebellion

“This is a fine book, full of historical surprises. Grant Hayter-Menzies has taken a strange and much-abused figure and brought her back to life with grace and flair. He shows that ‘Princess’ Der Ling really was a lady-in-waiting to China’s Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi, and really was a member of the Manchu nobility. Outside China, the real Der Ling led a fabulous life as a diplomat’s daughter in Paris, in the company of world-famous celebrities, and then ended in tragedy in America, as sympathetically reconstructed in this charming book.” –Sterling Seagrave, author of Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China.

A resident of Sidney, British Columbia, Grant Hayter-Menzies has served as art and music critic for newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Canada. His first book, a biography of stage and screen comedienne Charlotte Greenwood, based on her unpublished memoirs, was published in May 2007 by McFarland & Company. He will be available for events in the U.S., Canada and China after the book’s publication in January.

The Empress and Mrs. Conger (UBC Press/Hong Kong U. Press $35)

from Natalie Appleton
Studying the gift of a tiny tree decorated with Chinese symbols, Sarah Conger sits in her Beijing Christmas room and writes to her sister: “Do you think it strange that I am becoming interested in these people?”

Sarah, who arrived in the Chinese capital only six months earlier—in July 1898, with her husband Edward, the newly named United States Minister to China—is already reflecting more on this culture than many of the other diplomats’ wives ever did.

Her interest in Chinese people is unusual and unwavering, her letters about her Beijing encounters are lively and telling. Both fuel Vancouver Island biographer/historian Grant Hayter-Menzies’ The Empress and Mrs. Conger: The Uncommon Friendship of Two Women and Two Worlds.

This is a book about the intimate relationship between Sarah and Empress Dowager Cixi, a concubine who came to rule China. Or is it?

It’s clear from the start that Hayter-Menzies has done a meticulous amount of research, which he uses first to explore Sarah’s life, from growing up in the American Midwest to becoming a politician’s wife, before abruptly delving into American trade, Chinese relations and Cixi’s past.

The Empress and Mrs. Conger begins like a textbook, devoid of emotion or narrative and filled instead with dates and summaries.

Sarah’s letters, which give the story life, are therefore all the more welcome in later chapters.

After Sarah and the other diplomats’ wives meet Cixi for the first time in December 1898, Sarah writes, “Only to think! China, after centuries and centuries of locked doors, has now set them ajar!” Sarah’s frank excitement, indicated often by exclamation marks, says it all: the meeting was special, and the start of something more.
And yet almost 150 pages pass before we find Sarah and Cixi in the same room again. The reader wonders when this friendship will emerge, and if it really is the focus of The Empress and Mrs. Conger.

Hayter-Menzies, the author of biographies about stage and screen stars Charlotte Greenwood and Billie Burke, as well as one about Manchu-American personality Princess Der Ling, expertly explains how foreigners and their religion collide with Chinese unrest to create a deadly rebellion, the Boxer Uprising.

His ability to build suspense and foreshadow the revolt is also noteworthy. The bolts of silk given to Conger by Cixi would “be put to a rougher use than intended in a little over a year’s time” and, during a dust storm on a trip to the Great Wall, the Congers closed their eyes and clung to their ponies, who “were to serve another important purpose in two months’ time, which none of their riders could have imagined.”
Both the fabric and the animals are used to keep the Congers and the other diplomats alive during the uprising, a siege which spans 55 days in the summer of 1900 and many more pages in The Empress and Mrs. Conger.

In this section, Hayter-Menzies drops the reader right into the line of fire. With only the fuel of incense sticks, their shouts and “centuries of resentment against foreigners and their God,” thousands of Boxers torch mission hospitals and churches. The diplomats, meanwhile, watch bullets strike a baby’s headboard, wrap bodies in flags because there is no wood for coffins and eat pets.

Indeed, Hayter-Menzies supplies some absorbing accounts of the uprising, and it’s clearly a traumatic time for both Conger and Cixi, experiencing it separately and differently, but does his in-depth exploration of the event furnish our understanding of their friendship?

Certainly it explains Cixi’s role in the rebellion. The empress dowager, we learn, “hated” foreigners, the chunks they were taking out of China’s coastline and their Christian religion, luring away so many of her people. Some debate whether Cixi supported the Boxers entirely or only in part in the beginning.

Hayter-Menzies, however, doesn’t take a stand: “Both theories have truth in them, depending on where weight is placed in the body of evidence.”
The chapters about the uprising also offer insight into how foreigners like Sarah survive the siege as well as describe why husbands were suspicious of Cixi, who gives her second audience to Sarah and the other diplomatic ladies in February 1902, four years after the first meeting and more than a year after the uprising ended.

Here Cixi takes Sarah’s fingers, gives her gifts and says they are all one family. During one of the handful of times they see each other, a picture is taken of the two holding hands.

Is this friendship? For the time and between women in these two stations, probably. Is it the heart and meat of The Empress and Mrs. Conger? No.

Hayter-Menzies might have succeeded in capturing an unlikely friendship between two people in different worlds had he focused on Sarah and her houseboy. Wang gently and intimately offers wardrobe advice, hides pet ponies from hungry eyes, plants flowers where the family’s Pekingese dog is buried and makes an altar of the Congers’ daughter, away in America at Christmas. Through Wang’s sweet, simple actions and Sarah’s interpretation of them in her writing, we truly learn what it is to be Chinese, and what it is to be Sarah.

Once more, Sarah’s letters give this book its pulse. Hayter-Menzies supplements her words with the accounts of others, such as Polly Condit Smith who, during the uprising, sees people “half-starved, covered with soot and ashes from the fires, women carrying on their breasts horribly sick and diseased babies, and in one case a woman who held a dead baby.”

This is the narrative, the human portrait of life amidst Beijing’s unrest, the reader craves.

Unfortunately, we read more dates than description, though there are some illustrious details in The Empress and Mrs. Conger, such as pigs wearing leather “socks” to protect their feet from stones, Sarah never mastering the chopstick, shops offering to brush dust off book spines and Legation Street becoming known as “Cut Up Foreigners Crowing” Street.

These fascinating facts, however, are often offset by weak comparisons: relationships as simmering pots and choppy seas; Cixi “unable to jump down from the tiger she had heedlessly chosen to ride;” and Wang, so busy he was “carrying out enough other daily jobs to make a Figaro’s head spin.”
Wang, Cixi, the other foreigners and even Sarah almost disappear from the last chapter, which drags as Hayter-Menzies summarizes Sarah’s suspected looting and her estate sales in America before her death.

In life, one of Sarah’s goals was to understand China and its people, and she succeeds. In The Empress and Mrs. Conger, Hayter-Menzies succeeds at understanding Sarah. 9789888083008

[BCBW 2011]