"A biography with narrative muscle and thrilling historical relevance." -Kirkus Reviews
Legend says that May Duignan was tall with red-gold hair and big blue eyes, and that she was compellingly attractive to men. At 19, she stole her family’s savings and ran away from home in rural Ireland to America, where she worked as a confidence trickster, a thief, a showgirl, and a prostitute, notorious as much for her violence as for her diamond rings. The tabloids dubbed her “The Queen of the Underworld.” Reaching across decades for points of connection, Nuala O’Faolain, the bestselling author of Almost There and My Dream of You, brings sympathetic scrutiny to the understanding of an outlaw experience like no other.
In 1890, 19-year-old May Duignan left her hardscrabble Irish town with her family's savings and set off to create a new life. In a biography that is also a reflection on autobiography, O'Faolain, author of two bestselling memoirs, examines the young woman's transformation into the notorious thief and prostitute Chicago May. Her greatest source is May's own account of her life, which, in significant contrast to modern memoir, is long on action and short on reflection. O'Faolain balances that deficit with smart readings of scattered sources and with evocations of her own life that illuminate the Irish experience in May's time and today. She follows May through the desperate and tough Chicago red light district to the Tenderloin of New York, and then to London, Paris and various prisons. May's opportunities for escape from the life she made came in many forms, including marriage to the black sheep of a respectable New Jersey family and a successful escape with the loot from a heist of the American Express office in Paris. But shortsightedness, loyalty and revenge led her to rebuff each opportunity. While drawing out the lacunae of her story with speculation and description, O'Faolain resists the urge to reinvent or sentimentalize May. The biographer makes herself a complement rather than an intrusion, and May emerges lively, unique and cut from the cloth of Irish and American reinvention. B&w photos not seen by PW.