Francisco Possenti

Although Mayann is Goldenbird's official leading lady, there is a certain gentleman who steals a lot of the attention. As a character, Falco Peregrini is not easy to write, since he is shaped by several experiences that must remain alien to me: early loss of parents, the minor seminary, military service at the Alpine front, prisoner of war in Austria, missionary work in Japan etc. Although he isn't based on any real-life person in the 1920's, I constantly discover real stories and ideas that support my work and teach me important lessons. One of these stories is the life of St Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, which I encountered today while searching for images of Pope Benedict XV (the things we do for procrastination...).

Francisco Possenti (1838-1862) was born in Assisi and grew up in Spoleto. As a young man, he was well-liked, fond of dancing, girls and hunting - but several tragic incidents in his family and a serious illness led him to religious life. He was educated by Jesuits and finally joined the Passionists. His monastic name was Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows. Having contracted tuberculosis, he continued on his spiritual path well aware of his imminent death. On February 27th, 1862, Gabriel passed away, only 24 years old. (Why must all the people featured on this blog die tragically?...) Several miraculous healings were attributed to him, and he was canonized in 1920 by Benedict XV, who promoted the young saint as an example for the modern youth. Gabriel was devoted to the Virgin Mary, as seen on the portrait. It is told that he died holding an image of her.

"Aveva occhi tondi, neri, assai vivaci e belli: sembravano due stelle."

This is the kind of role model that Falco has grown up with, although I suppose even his kindest superiors know that he himself is no saint material! St Gabriel's 41 resolutions are interesting reading if you want to compare Falco's strengths and weaknesses to the saintly ideal. It is evident that some resolutions are easier to keep than others...
Curiously, there is a society in the United States that tries to promote St Gabriel as a patron saint of handgunners. It seems that the reasons for this connection are pure legend. (Falco, with his affection for the Beretta 1915, would probably find it amusing, although disturbing - he is adamantly pro-life, after all.)


Bessie Coleman

Just in case for a future story about aviation, I post this article, which originally appeared on the Goldenbird blog. (The comic would feature Mayann going to a pilot school in Paris, a mysterious Finnish ace, a spy plot that Falco tries to unravel, and some of our mischievous Italian friends...)

The first black American pilots were trained in France in the 1910’s and 1920’s. No American aviation school would accept them. Among these pioneers, Bessie Coleman was the first woman. She is another source of inspiration for Goldenbird's leading lady Mayann, and indeed for any pioneering woman in reality and fiction.

Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta and grew up in Chicago in the 1910's. She became inspired by the stories of soldiers returning from the Great War in Europe. With her own hard-earned money (she worked as a manicurist) she wouldn't have made it far, but some well-off Chicago African-Americans provided her with financial support, realizing her PR value.
Learning to fly was a challenge for the nerves in 1920. One French school refused to enroll Bessie, because it had already lost two female students in deadly crashes. During her training at the Ecole d'Aviation des Frères Caudron, Bessie was shocked by the death of a fellow student. Her dream of flying would demand hard work and sacrifices from her in life.
In 1921 Bessie earned her flight certificate and returned to the USA, where a showbiz rumble was awaiting her. Throughout her career as a performer, she refused to attend aviation shows with segregated audiences. Tragically, her life ended much too soon, like Florence Mills's in the previous post. In 1926, one year before Mills, she died in a flight accident along with her mechanic.
Bessie Coleman left a legacy that was very much appreciated in the African-American community in her time (10,000 mourners attended her funeral in Chicago, and another pioneer, William J. Powell, founded the Bessie Coleman Flying School in her honour), but has only in the last decades become wider known. The first time I wrote about Bessie, a year and a month ago, I couldn't seem to find so much information about her. Now I have found not only one, but three inspirational children's books about her life! (Fly High - Nobody Owns The Sky - Fly, Bessie, Fly!) There is also a lovely action figure still available. The actress and professional storyteller Joanna Maddox also appears in one of her children's shows as Bessie Coleman.
For schools (and why not adults?), there's poet Nikki Grimes' Talkin' About Bessie, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, and decorated with multiple awards.

There are hints on the web about a biopic with Angela Basset, supposedly filmed in 1998 or 1999: Wings Against The Wind, with a dreamy cast of Danny Glover, Gerard Dépardieu, Don Cheadle and others. I don't know if this film was ever made, since there is no definite information about it anywhere. Pity!

Florence Mills

The heroine of Goldenbird is the cheerful little jazz dancer Mayann Sparks. Like Josephine Baker, she was born in St Louis, Missouri, and naturally she has a lot in common with la Baker... especially her childhood. However, she is as much inspired by the trailblazers of la Venus Noire, who are less well known today. Florence Mills, "the Queen of Happiness", is one of them. Sadly, she died very young, but during her short life she became a star in America and Europe, and incomparably beloved in Harlem. There are no recordings of her voice, only contemporary descriptions: "like a hummingbird", "full of bubbling, bell-like, bird-like tones", "a tempestuous blend of passion and humour", "strange high noises", "an enraptured bird" ...

An American critic wrote: In her small throat she hides all manner of funny little sounds that flutter out like sparrows from an inexhaustible nest.
I imagine Mayann with a voice like that, which cannot be heard (she is a drawing, after all!) but that has a bizarre, magical effect on people.
Florence Mills was also a great dancer, and it has been said that the reason behind her reluctance to make recordings was that she preferred to interact with a live audience. In an age before modern sound production, before there even were microphones on stage, the studio environment must have felt uninspiring.

Empty Pockets

Illustrations from Le Petit Journal Illustré.

Prices are high in France, February 1, 1920. Especially prices on imports are increasing. Important to remember when you make a story about the Roaring Twenties: they weren't so roaring for most folks, especially not in the early years. C'est la guerre!

How to be thrifty - stay out of cafés and dancings ('les dancings' were a popular form of entertainment, contrary to modern prejudice, the ordinary French have been pretty open-minded about Anglo-Saxon loanwords!). Be content with one serving of beefsteak. Have your old shoes fixed. More drastic: pour water in your wine and quit smoking! Is this France?