The Constance Project

A network of true stories--connected by one woman's complicated, fascinating life

Several months ago,  I came across some bare facts about the life of Constance Dowling—a minor movie actress in the 1940s.  She began a long affair with famed director Elia Kazan when she was just seventeen, and more than a decade later had a very brief (but immensely consequential) liaison with the celebrated Italian writer Cesare Pavese. 

Even today she remains famous in Italy as “that woman” for whom Pavese wrote his last poems, shortly before committing suicide in 1950. 

That seemed like an unusual combination of life events, so I wanted to find out more. Who was this woman? Where did she come from—and what became of her?

Originally, I thought I could dash off a 2,000-word strange-bedfellows essay, but I was soon drawn further into a fascinating story.  Constance never wrote anything herself, but much was written about her. And because it was all concerned entirely with the role she played in the lives of famous men, everything written about her was either incomplete or inaccurate.

Some of those fragments—which you can find in memoirs, textbooks, gossip magazines, tourist pamphlets, and assorted treatises—seemed so disconnected and unrealistic that I became determined to find out the true story.

Not an easy task as it turned out. There were few reliable resources and many false trails. But I learned that Constance was an exceptionally kind and empathetic person, described by lifelong friend Shelley Winters as “beautiful inside and out.”  Equally important, she was an independent woman who reinvented herself more than once.

In the process she made it from a Broadway chorus line to World War II Hollywood, failed as a miscast comedienne but resurfaced as a film noir vamp, made several films in postwar Italy, played a role in Hollywood’s early infatuation with psychedelics and experiments with —and decades after her death, became the subject of a book about myth and media in the twentieth century.

As I found out more about Constance,  I expanded from a single essay to two parts, then three.  But every time I thought I had written the “real” Constance story, I stumbled across a new surprise.

So I went on to parts four and five, exploring deeper and more difficult aspects of the story. The cast of characters kept growing, and I not only got to know some fascinating people, but also discovered some unexpected aspects of twentieth-century history.

I eventually realized that the series had evolved beyond an account of one woman’s life. It had become a complex web of interconnected narratives, offering a glimpse of how profoundly, mysteriously, and almost invisibly one person can influence many lives, and shape distant events.

Along the way, I discovered a lot of intriguing information that didn’t quite fit into the main narrative.  So I created ten expansion stories, spun out in different directions from the central account.

Throughout all this, I kept a journal of my own process—finding pieces, putting them together, and figuring out how to share the project with readers. Multiple layers of discovery and revision accumulated, creating another story I wanted to communicate.

So the series now brings together three interrelated elements:

  • The Constance Story: a complex and consequential life unfolds in five parts, each with three chapters, enhanced by miniature sidebar stories, vintage photos, information graphics, and suggestions for further reading

  • A Writer’s Journey: how and why I created the project, shared in personal stories and biweekly posts that offer tips on writing and research

  • The Constance Expansions: a further look into some of the characters, themes, and events that shape the core story—ranging from “The Surprising Truth about Starlets” to “An Unexpected JFK Connection”

I’ll also be posting a short weekly newsletter, with previews, notes, and comments on real-life news that relates in some way to the Constance Project.

My first post will introduce Constance, outline the five parts of the core story, and preview the cast of characters.  Then, a new episode every week.

After many attempts to fit Constance into a conventional type of publication, I decided to experiment with a new kind of format here on Substack.  I hope you will join me to see if it works.  And I hope you will be as fascinated by these stories as I have been.

PS: This project has grown so much in a year of work that it now extends beyond the complex of Constance stories to explore the lives of other women who have been overshadowed by someone else’s fame, and mischaracterized by history. So if you are intrigued by that theme, and enjoy this form of story-telling, there will be much more to come.

Also, you can read more about my personal Constance journey, starting here.