This January, after twenty-seven years lost from myself and the writer me, I began an account of a trip I took to Europe in 1973 with two friends to recover from an affair gone awry. We bought a VW bus in Frankfurt and adventured our way through Austria into Tuscany and Verona, where I met a young southern Italian man who led me to the infamous Juliet balcony for our first kiss. I took his address with me to Corsica, asking him to join us; he replied with a letter asking me to come to Reggio Calabria at the toe of the boot where he and his family lived. My friends insisted that I go and I took a train alone down the Italian coast with my heart in my mouth. We lived a short and wonderful life together, “una vita breve insieme,” before I came back to the U.S.
For years this story has lain compressed in my psyche beneath layers of experience, other relationships. I had tried to write of it many times, never understanding why I couldn’t. Finally, one winter morning, beside myself with the need to give myself to a writing project that would be challenging and compelling, I wrote the first chapter. The other seventeen followed.
This has been my first full-length memoir. I did not understand that in writing the story, the mosaic of my adventure would fill itself in across the four months it took to produce a draft. I did not know that the process of excavating it all from so many years out would result in the revelation that I was deeply loved– I was not just a summer fling for someone– and more, that in order to deal with needing to return to the U.S., I had repressed my own feelings and simply run away.
Despite the impact of such epiphanies, I persevered for the sake of the story and to produce something I could take pride in. I researched potential interest in my memoir. I could find only one other Italian travel memoir that is also about a relationship. I stumbled upon Goethe’s Italian Journey and D.H. Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy, and I drew on these works and the arias I love and have sung from Puccini and Verdi for epigraphs. I wrote my book as cleanly and evocatively as I could.
My lover would be in his mid sixties now, and I am 61. I have imagined all kinds of things and had all kinds of fantasies and finally, to soothe myself, begun a spin-0ff, in which at the last minute my very autobiographical character changes her mind about coming back to the U.S., and rejoins him in Calabria. I decided that I needed to write a story in which things do work out for me, a kind of love letter to myself in which I get to live what has eluded me. As I continue the story I find myself exploring the things that have shaped me as a woman and influenced my idea of love, and investigating whether a southern Italian man and an American poet/feminist could forge and sustain a relationship. I thought of this as a healing project even as I have been refining my book proposal for the memoir and having the debate with myself of whether I should “independently publish” it or begin to sell it.
But tonight fate dealt me the blow that occasions this post. I was watching SNL, when suddenly there was a commercial for a movie opening this weekend called Letters to Juliet. There on the TV screen, was beautiful Verona, and reference to the balcony, and to a love story involving a woman my age.
I was completely blindsided, and my spirits sank. I then hoped that some saccharin romance writer had come up with this film. Even though I have been focused on getting the memoir in front of an agent more than thinking in terms of anything as long-range as a film option, the wind was out of my sails.
I also knew nothing at the time or remember nothing, of a tradition beginning in the late 30’s of leaving letters to Juliet in the crevices of the wall of the courtyard where the balcony is, and where there is a statue of her. I believe now that when my lover and I were in each other’s arms under the balcony, other people were placing pleas for information and declarations in the walls around us.
I came home and did a search for articles about this film and any book that may have preceded it. It turns out that there is a new book out, called Letters to Juliet, about one Juliet Club in Verona in which women patiently answer all of the letters that come addressed to her on Valentine’s Day. One of the authors is a curator of this project.
The screenplay for the film is a spin-off in which a young girl visiting Verona finds a fifty year old letter in the wall left by a woman seeking information about an Italian man she met in 1969. Improbably, the young girl decides to write back to the woman and encourage her to come looking for her old lover.
Wikipedia led me to the trailer and more information. The woman persuaded to try to reunite with lover is played by nonother than the wonderful Vanessa Redgrave, and her lover, with whom she does reunite, her fabulously handsome Italian husband who is himself an actor.
It turns out that “Lorenzo” and Redgrave parted ways from 1969 to 2006, reuniting and marrying nearly a full forty years later and that he is the father of her daughter Natasha Richardson, walking her down the aisle when she married Liam Neeson.
Natasha Richardson died last fall of complications from a skiing injury and there was heartbreaking video of Neeson as pall bearer. Meanwhile, a short time ago, Lynn Redgrave succumbed to cancer.
How under these circumstances, could I begrudge that Redgrave’s own love story lies at the heart of the screenplay, so that this may be a very good film in its own way, or that somebody, many somebodies capitalized on the ethos of the Juliet balcony before I did?
I did not know that I myself am a good candidate for a letter to the mythic Juliet, who is well-acquainted with longing, having stood on the balcony whispering, “Romeo– wherefore art thou? Why hast thou not come?”– Where is he, what has become of him, and all of my “what ifs…
That the legend is now generating stories close to my own and that the movie will generate interest in the book has made me feel incredibly star-crossed. What now?
This is one of those trials when a writer must summon all of the self-belief he or she can. Here then, is the blurb I envision for what I will from now on need every day, to refer to as my “forthcoming memoir,” availing myself of Juliet’s power to move mountains and bring people back together and art to life, perhaps to move an agent’s heart, a publisher’s soul.
“What happens when a young American poet finds herself in Italy? Filet Mignon for the soul. Nightfall in Verona, poet Jenne’ Andrews’ account of a trip to Europe in 1973, is a tour d’force of glittering narrative and lyricism. Recounting her trip through the Alps into Tuscany and a falling in love in Verona of operatic dimension, Andrews imparts dignity and beauty to the art of memoir. “