Meet Constance Dowling

The woman at the center of the Project . . .

Constance Dowling died 50 years ago this year, and she was born 100 years ago next year.  Which means we are at the perfect point to look back on a life that spanned two major transitions of the twentieth century.  And to explore a story that has continued to fascinate those who know about it. 

It’s not a simple story.  At first, I thought it was, and I dashed off a 2,000 word “strange bedfellows” essay.  But there was something I couldn’t quite make sense of—and the more I learned about Constance, the more fascinated I became.

If you want to get a head start by looking up Constance Dowling in Wikipedia or IMDB—can’t stop you!  But I can give you this caution:  Don’t assume that those cursory accounts are even superficially correct.  Nothing you will read about her, whether in popular accounts or scholarly commentaries, can be relied upon—and even what is correct will be incomplete.

So what do I know that has been hidden from everyone else? 

Nothing.  All of what you’re about to read has been gathered from published information.  I have no special or secret insights, just a determined desire to understand one woman’s story through its public descriptions.  There are few facts, many opinions and imaginings, so ultimately the “story” of Constance Dowling is just that—a story.

Or more accurately, a collection of interrelated stories, each told from a different perspective:  by lovers, friends, fascinated strangers and casual observers, writing in memoirs, history books, tourist pamphlets, poems, gossip columns, letters.  Some of the stories can only be read in photographs, or glimpsed in the relationship of one fact to another.

I found all this out slowly and unexpectedly, coming back (again and again!) to what I’d already written, every time my previous ideas and assumptions were overturned by some new discovery or realization.  So the essays often reveal/reflect my own process, and they are woven through with my own interpretations, speculations, and lingering quandaries.  But as this process was unfolding, I’ve been keenly aware that Constance Dowling was a real person, not a fictional character, and I’ve tried to respect her memory and the privacy of her family. 

At this point you may be wondering:  Why is the Constance Dowling story worth all that bother?  Why did this author keep writing about it—and why should I go on reading?

A commentator whom you’ll meet later in the series asserts that Constance Dowling’s life is “the story of the twentieth century.”  That seems a bit grandiose, but I suppose my own conclusions are not much more restrained.  For me, the Constance story has come to represent the essence of story itself—never really clear, never really over.  A good story always raises more questions than it answers, and always leaves behind the ghosts of characters, and the echoes of events.  Which I think describes what lies ahead in these essays. 

On the surface, the main facts about Constance Dowling’s life seem to fit a trajectory followed by many starlets of the 40s and 50s:  get discovered by someone with influence, go to Hollywood, make a few movies, date some guys, realize you’re not going to make it big, get married, and (putting it kindly) retire to private life. 

But in this particular case, the “guys” were two intense and very famous men—America’s most celebrated director and Italy’s most beloved writer. One was obsessed with her for seven years, the other committed suicide not long after their brief affair.

Even the most basic version of those facts seems to suggest that Constance was an unusually interesting person.  And you have to wonder what could account for two such admired men falling in love with a woman routinely described as a “minor,” “struggling,” or “failed” movie actress . . .

Was she a femme fatale, a muse, a blank slate, an earth mother?

Although Constance’s life happened between 1920 and 1969, her story has continued up to the present day. I will connect the various parts of that story to the changing cultural contexts in which they take place.  And throughout we will see various themes that are as relevant today as they were during her life—most notably, the pervasive tendency to record and depict the lives of women through the men around them. 

I hope that doesn’t sound dull—but in case it does, I can promise you there will also be a generous helping of “truthful gossip” about Hollywood celebrities, Italian obsessions, modern Dutch metaphysics, dolphin romance—and of course, the robots.

For a more detailed overview, see The Very Big Picture. And to join the journey, just click Subscribe. A new chapter in the Constance story will be coming every week.