BECOMING DUCHESS GOLDBLATT
Full disclosure: I know the author of this memoir. I know Duchess Goldblatt the way I know Omar Little and Wonder Woman. I know her the way I know Rhoda Morgenstern and Tony Soprano.
@DuchessGoldblat, if you aren’t familiar with her, is a Twitter personality — a “character.” She’s a self-described 81-year-old author of royal blood, who lives in the (fictional) town of Crooked Path, N.Y. She has a (fictional) middle-aged daughter, Hacienda, who is incarcerated, and she’s the author of the (fictional) memoirs “An Axe to Grind” and “Feasting on the Carcasses of My Enemies: A Love Story.” Her avatar is a (nonfictional) 1633 painting by Frans Hals titled “Portrait of an Elderly Lady,” which hangs in the National Gallery.
Like most of her 25,000 followers, I feel as if I know her. We interact in real time and I have a strong sense of who she is. I like her posts, and every once in a while, she likes one of mine. And yet reviewing her book doesn’t compromise my ethics in the least. Because I really don’t know her at all.
Since I began following her, people have regularly direct-messaged me some version of “Do you know who Duchess Goldblatt is?” Meaning, Who is behind the made-up character? I truly have no idea, besides assuming she was a gay man in publishing in Manhattan (a common misconception, she writes); she is very smart and her humor is on the literary side, and the gay man part was just a feeling from her particular brand of warmth and wit. More than that — I really don’t want to know. The whole fun of her is imagining this 17th-century, elegant elderly woman in a brocade gown, starched white linen ruff and Dutch cap in a tall throne of a chair, tapping away on her iPhone to tweet, “I left a window open overnight and the moonlight slipped away and now the sun’s getting in and touching all my stuff.” Or: “Loyal friends don’t grow on trees. They grow on little vines near the ground and have to be harvested by hand. Huge pain in the ass, frankly.”
In fact, the memoir does tell us who Duchess Goldblatt really is, without giving a name. As one of those followers who didn’t want to see behind the curtain, I found it deeply satisfying, unexpectedly moving and not spoilery in the least. And as lovable as the duchess herself.
It’s the story of a woman going through a terrible time. Her husband leaves her, she loses her job and she is trying to cope with the great pain of a part-time separation from her young son. Out of these ashes emerged Duchess Goldblatt — the name came from her friend’s dog and his mother’s maiden name, but her subjects on Twitter treat it as her royal title (they call her Your Grace, or YG). The Duchess says she doesn’t have many analog friends. She prefers not to be too chummy when moving to a new neighborhood: “I’d wave to them and keep moving. I was very careful to be nice but never too friendly. … You get too friendly with the neighbors like this, and then you’ve got a problem on your hands when they inevitably drop you. Suddenly you’re persona non grata on your own busy street. I didn’t dare risk that. Better to be a neutral positive, as it were.” And yet in Duchess Goldblatt’s digital neighborhood, people are not just welcome but completely adored.
Later she realizes she wants to connect with people — she tells a friend, “I’m trying to make a new life for myself, and it’s like this life doesn’t want me” — and her friend suggests that she do something she enjoys. She realizes what she loves is writing and being the duchess. And just like that, people gravitated to her.
A lovely consequence of the duchess’ Twitter persona is the friendship she develops with the singer Lyle Lovett, of whom she has been a longtime devoted fan. She tweets with him and then meets him in real life. They discuss Duchess Goldblatt’s appeal, and she reveals that her followers confide in her about “trying to get or stay sober, or their marriages are unhappy or they have a child who’s terribly sick.” She says, “I think talking to Duchess might be like whispering a little prayer into the wind. You know, it’s safe.”
Duchess and Anonymous subtly, slowly, become one person. She no longer feels alone; neither do her subjects. People find solace in this fictional character — and Anonymous does, too.