O’Faolain, mistress of the memoir (Almost There, 2003, etc.), meets her match in fellow Irishwoman Chicago May, feisty turn-of-the-century feminist and queen of crooks.
O’Faolain’s biography of May Duignan, who fled County Longford, Ireland, for New York in 1890, is as much about the author, her beleaguered Irish clan and the tribulations of Irish emigration as it is about her notorious subject. O’Faolain manages to weave the destiny of an entire people into the flight of auburn-haired, buxom 19-year-old May, from her impoverished home in Edenmore, as her mother was delivering yet another baby the family could ill afford to raise. May fled with the family’s savings; the fugitive booked cabin class to New York, rather than steerage, in the first of her devil-may-care acts that would come to characterize her in the new world. From Nebraska, where she supposedly had an uncle, to cities teeming with vice such as Chicago and New York, as well as cities overseas, she capitalized on her good looks by learning quickly how to make a sucker of an admirer, and soon excelled as a “badger” in luring men into rooms where they would be fleeced. Flush from her prostitution earnings, ruthless May—“the tart who could bite diamonds out of tie-pins”—fell in with safe-cracker Eddie Guerin, and their American Express heist in Paris proved her eventual downfall. O’Faolain quotes extensively from May’s end-of-life, picaresque 1928 autobiography, Chicago May, Her Story, which the author found in the New York Public Library. Employing her own autobiographical skills and intimacy with Irish sob stories (see Are You Somebody?, 1998), O’Faolain speculates endlessly on May’s motivation and intention, tracking years of brutal incarceration, fly-by-night grifting and illness, ending in May’s heartbreaking “disillusion with the act of autobiography itself.”
A biography with narrative muscle and thrilling historical relevance.