montparnasse paris

Carolyn Burke


Becoming Modern:
The Life of Mina Loy

Thoroughly Modern Mina

By Carolyn See, The Washington Post

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

Mina Loy — not Myrna, although there were rumors that the movie star Myrna took her own name from Mina — was born in London in 1882. She turned 18 when the century turned and lived until 1966. As the title of this terrific book suggests, her life was preoccupied with an enduring project: to become "modern," to stay that way and then live with all the consequences of that decision. As a result, the reader swings back and forth about this book, a victim of nostalgia for wonderful things we'll never see again and of shivering fear of the aforementioned consequences of "freedom" and "genius."

Mina's family was a dysfunctional mess, to put it mildly. Her father was a Jewish tailor, her mother a hysterical Christian shrew. They strove mightily to move from the lower middle class to the upper middle class and got stuck halfway. Mina surmised that her mother detested her, and she was right; that mother, who had had to get married, was a bundle of rage and wrecked nerves who took out her fury on her eldest child, suffocating her in a barrage of Victorian tantrums, unfeeling governesses, crazy restrictions — and, when Mama didn't get her way, swooning to prove a point.

Mina had to escape from all of it: her parents' mixed marriage, the phony Victorian refinement of it all, her sister's sniping, the bourgeois domesticity that narrowed her life choices down to nothing. She persuaded her parents to send her to art school in Munich — this was just barely respectable for girls of good upbringing — and then for more art schooling in Paris. Her life began to change and flower as the century turned, and "modernism" began to float through the air like a strange brand of influenza.

This is where Mina's life begins to look like a lot of other artistic lives and other women's lives and — let's face it — a lot of our own existences. She desperately wanted to be special, different, famous, cherished, recognized, loved. She had no real education and no solid family. She hated everything she came from but was disconnected from everything she yearned for. She was stuck out on the margin of things — a young woman with no money, a nice little talent and a desperate longing to be a "genius," because if you were a genius you could sidestep all the grim details of being human that tied you back down into the supremely boring bourgeoisie.

What she did instead, in Paris, after painting for a while and getting accepted into exhibits but being virtually ignored by critics, was to marry a man she couldn't stand, move with him to Florence and have three kids, one of whom died in its first year.

I'm not sure how this will resonate with people who read it. It seems to me that you can look at this century as a kind of quadruple movie feature at a cosmic drive-in theater: That is, every day, right now, women with spotty educations, hatred of their parents, some talent and fierce yearnings to be "geniuses" work at their art or their careers for five to eight years, then marry some passing yahoo who may be quite nice but above all fits the description of "first husband." Then these women have a flock of kids, putter about with their art and go into a funk which may last decades or a whole life. The dichotomy, the thread of tension is: Shall I spend my life as a bourgeois mother and a crashing bore or shall I elect to be a "genius"? It's a pattern that has held fast for 90 years. And it's tough as nails on the innocent bystanding husbands and children.

In Florence, Mina, the young wife, pined. She did some work, ignored her children, flirted with Italian futurists (sleeping with the two most important leaders), watched World War I sail by, took up poetry as well as painting and disdained her husband so thoroughly that he finally got fed up and headed out for the South Seas. Again, Mina's life looks like a template for the lives of many modern women. She hated "trade"; it reminded her of her tailor dad. But she had children to raise. She had to make some kind of money. She was beautiful and headstrong, and while she didn't seem to love those futurists, at least there was some kind of emotional scuffle and glow when they were around. She knew Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein, but she didn't have the emotional drive of the former or the artistic determination of the latter. As her brilliant biographer so compassionately shows us, Mina was fragmented. She was a genius but she could not get her act together.

Her second husband was bad news in a hundred different ways. She lost one more child, had another, and was stranded for a while, alone on the west coast of Mexico. Then she went to America, not so beautiful anymore, a woman alone with children and the conviction — no matter what — that she was special. As always, the choice was whether to become a part of the middle class and die of boredom or be a "genius" and die of loneliness and peculiarity.

There's not a judgmental word in this book. It's an amazing examination of "modern life" in this century. After many years of disorder, ironically it was family loyalty that saved Mina in her old age and may save us all. Queen Victoria might smile at that.