Holden (Prince Valium, 1982) delves into his family’s secrets in a sweeping, novelistic biography spanning continents and generations.
Dolly Vardon, the author’s grandmother, was born in Victorian England in 1886 and was quickly abandoned to a life of poverty, raised by a foster mother in the London slums. Young Annie, renamed “Dolly” due to her small stature, earned pennies by dancing in the streets for wealthy men. Her life’s course altered when she captured the interest of Harry Sidney Nichols, a much older, well-established bookseller and publisher of Victorian erotica. He took teenage Dolly to decadent Paris as his ward and lover, showering her with luxuries she never knew before but also subjecting her to horrific abuse. Later, pregnant and desperate, Dolly followed him to booming New York City, where she eventually raised a family through two world wars and the Great Depression. Holden vividly recreates the cities of London, Paris and New York City through the decades, at one point vividly describing the moment when his grandmother crossed the threshold into America: “Country women weep, their kids stare wide-eyed, men cross themselves, kiss a Saint Christopher medal or murmur a prayer of thanksgiving….Dolly stares in silent awe at the mist-shrouded city rising before her.” Dolly’s tale is one of success and tragedy, and Holden’s biography honors the resilience of a young woman who rose out of the slums, charmed and bribed her way past customs officials on Ellis Island, and reinvented herself as a successful businesswoman. However, Holden refrains from casting his grandmother as a saint. Using testimonials from his mother—Dolly’s eldest child—he deftly illustrates how the tenacity and survival instincts that made Dolly such an indomitable figure ultimately, as she aged, became her undoing: “[S]he was fighting a war with an enemy that gnawed at the weapons she had depended upon for survival all her life.”
With clear-eyed candor, this biography brings a family’s extraordinary matriarch to life.