The author traces the life of May Dugas, who schemes, thieves, claws, charms, swindles and whores her way to economic success.
One of the tragedies of May’s life is that she grew up in Menominee, Wis., and aspired to so much more. The dull Midwest couldn’t contain her vaulting ambition and grand sense of self-destiny. The novel alternates between her trial for fraud in 1917 and flashbacks into her life as con artist, “lady of leisure” and manipulator extraordinaire. The lawsuit has been brought against her by Frank Shaver, a woman who had been May’s close friend as well as her lover. Even more interesting than the trial is the pattern of behavior that led May to jack up her social status—so at one level, the narrative line fulfills the American myth of the self-made woman, whose pluck and courage lead her to economic and social success. Her pursuit of wealth—and occasional need to escape the law, especially in the form of the relentless Reed Dougherty, a Pinkerton detective who tracks her for years—leads her to Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, Shanghai, London, Amsterdam and other places, both exotic and non-. She eventually marries Rudolph de Vries, a Dutch baron, and this allows her the liberty to style herself a baroness. Along the way, she accrues lovers of both sexes, makes extravagant purchases of jewelry and engages in sordid business schemes promising huge rates of return through questionable means. When the judge rules that May owes Frank over $57,000, she makes one last attempt to escape her past as well as to shake off Dougherty’s dogged pursuit.
Based on a true story, Biaggio’s narrative provides an engaging glimpse into a character who categorically eludes our attempts to define her.