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In "Suite for Barbara Loden" French Author Nathalie Léger Blends Fact and Fiction

Bookwitty By Bookwitty Published on March 6, 2017
This article was updated on April 23, 2018

This article is part of a series of profiles of ten Francophone authors who have been long-listed for the Albertine Prize.

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By all accounts, Nathalie Léger's Suite for Barbara Loden, translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, is a remarkable book. It is a multi-layered and intimate examination of the life of Barbara Loden, an American actress who wrote, directed and starred in the cult film Wanda, which won the Pasinetti Best Foreign Film award at the Venice Film Festival in 1970. Léger’s approach is to intertwine the life of the actress, the story of her character, Wanda, but also her own musings in a deeply melancholic account. The women in Suite for Barbara Loden set off down a lonely path towards the unknown; they are wanderers, both submissive and strong, searching for themselves.

Léger’s interest in Barbara Loden was piqued when she was began to write a short entry about Wanda for a film encyclopaedia. As she started to research the history of Wanda and its director, Loden, the material became too compelling to leave it at that, and what she discovered, in the end, became a book.

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Barbara Loden in 1958

Barbara Loden was born in 1932 in a small town in North Carolina and was raised in poverty. She left for New York at age 16, where she modelled, danced at the Copacabana club, and took acting lessons. Her path was a difficult one, but ultimately she became an actress, and also Elia Kazan’s second wife. When she was in her late thirties she embarked on a filmic project in which she told her character Wanda’s story, inspired by a news item about the real-life Alma Malone, a drifter who became caught up in a bank robbery and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Ironically, Malone was let out of prison in 1970, the year Loden’s film based on her life was released. 

Although Wanda was lauded in Europe, it was less so in the US. Only ten years after she madeWanda, Loden died of breast cancer at age 48. A New York Times article quoted a letter she sent to a German documentary team in the 1970s:  “There’s so much I didn’t achieve, but I tried to be independent and to create my own way...Otherwise, I would have become like Wanda, all my life just floating around.”

Léger recounts how she travelled to the US for her research, and tried, with great difficulty, to investigate Barbara Loden’s path, and wonders whether she could have simply remained in France, and imagined Loden's life. “This sadness, this melancholia were what attracted me to the character,” said Léger, in an interview with her French publisher. Other iconic women are woven into Léger’s account—Sylvia Plath, Marilyn Monroe—Arthur Miller cast Loden in his play, After the Fall, as Maggie, a character based on his former wife—and Marguerite Duras, who was one of the film Wanda’s unconditional fans.

Léger quotes Duras as saying “there is an immediate and definitive coincidence between Barbara Loden and Wanda,” and provides the reader with Loden’s remarks from an interview at the time: “Wanda’s character is based on my own life and character…Everything comes from my own experience.”

When the film was released, feminists were critical of the character’s victimization and submissiveness. But Loden was a typical woman from the 1970s, Léger show us, even recounting her own mother’s struggles, and how that generation of women fought to overcome the difficulties they faced. Léger quotes Loden interviewed in a film magazine in 1971: “That’s why I made Wanda. As a way of confirming my own existence.”

“What Barbara Loden did with her cinematic story telling, I tried to do with my writing, by prolonging the story, from one destiny to another…” said Léger.

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