Essex, Karen

views updated

Essex, Karen


Born in New Orleans, LA. Education: Tulane University, B.A.; Goddard College, M.F.A.; attended Vanderbilt University graduate program.


Home—Los Angeles, CA.


Journalist, writer, screenwriter, lecturer, biographer, educator, and producer. Blake Edwards Entertainment, Los Angeles, CA, former vice president; Force Ten Productions, former senior vice president. Works as a writing instructor. Lecturer at numerous universities and museums. Guest on television programs, including the Today Show and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) programs and on radio programs on National Public Radio (NPR).


Los Angeles Press Club award for entertainment journalism, 1991.


(With James L. Swanson) Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend (biography), General Publishing Group (Santa Monica, CA), 1996.


Kleopatra, Warner Books (New York, NY), 2001.

Pharaoh: Volume II of Kleopatra, Warner Books (New York, NY), 2002.

Leonardo's Swans, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2006.

Author of screenplay for motion picture, The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned.

Contributor to periodicals, including Playboy, Vogue, TV Guide, L.A. Style, and L.A. Weekly.

Contributor of short stories to the Sun: A Magazine of Ideas and to online literary magazines.

Author's works have been translated into twenty languages.


Novelist and biographer Karen Essex has focused her writing career on telling the stories of iconic women. She began by telling the story, with coauthor James Swanson, of 1950s pin-up girl Bettie Page. In their book, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend, the authors expose the way the erotic model embodied the contrast between the wholesome wife/mother and the sexuality of the "bad girl." In her second book, Kleopatra, Essex retells the story in novel form of the Egyptian ruler whose life, Essex maintains, has been grossly misunderstood since her defeat by the Romans. In Kleopatra, Essex saw "one of the ancient world's most brilliant and powerful rulers," as she said on the BookPage Web site, and she felt compelled to bring her true history to light.

Essex's first work on Bettie Page is less a biography than a "handsome, besotted tribute book," according to New Republic critic Margaret Talbot. Through photographs, anecdotes, and interviews with the reclusive Page herself—who was seventy-four at the time the book was written—Essex and Swanson celebrate the career of the model whose cheesecake poses seemed so scandalous in her own time but appear relatively innocent today. The book emphasizes Page's own sense of innocence and playful indulgence, laughing at the ridiculous poses her photographers concocted and refusing to see anything indecent about nudity. Talbot described Bettie Page, as portrayed in Essex and Swanson's book, as "a woman who will not be ruined by sex, but made by it." The photographs, Talbot suggested, "are not images of desire, they are images of happiness. … If one tingles at the sight of them, it is almost with envy." Suitably, the book reveals that Page did not end up a victim, but rather moved on to get a master's degree in English, to teach, and to work as a counselor with the Billy Graham Crusades. Nonetheless, she reported no regrets to Essex and Swanson. As Talbot concluded: "Her newfound Christian beliefs had never convinced her that she had done anything wrong in her cheesecake years…. There's nothing especially pathetic about her. She didn't end up as a parody of herself."

Essex and Swanson's account of Page's life after modeling ran counter to the dominant story of the 1980s that Page had descended into a shameful obscurity in the shadow of her past crimes. In the same way, Essex's fictionalized biography of Kleopatra illuminates the many ways in which mainstream history has distorted Kleopatra's life, including the widespread image of her as a sexually voracious woman who preyed upon the great men of ancient history. Writing about her book for BookPage, Essex commented: "Of all the women distorted by history and myth, Kleopatra is the most vivid example." Kleopatra is a victim of revisionist history, written by the winners, Essex added, saying that she was "the victim of a smear campaign by her rival and mortal enemy, Octavian." As Essex researched the history of Kleopatra, her frustration grew. She ranted to friends about the injustice, she recalled, until "a fellow writer … suggested that I turn my passion into a book."

Essex's corrections to Kleopatra's story begin with her name. Essex spells Kleopatra with a "K" to indicate her Greek origins; Kleopatra was not a native Egyptian, but one of the Greek rulers of Egypt. Essex allows Kleopatra's life to begin before her meeting with Mark Antony and Caesar, describing her advanced education and her participation in the politics of her family, as the daughter of Ptolemy XII, the Egyptian Pharaoh. She paints Kleopatra as a cunning and ambitious leader, learning the Egyptian language in order to win over her subjects and gain their support in her contest for power with her brother. The novel, the first of two volumes, concludes with the twenty-two-year-old Kleopatra in exile, preparing to join with Julius Caesar to regain her kingdom.

Though Essex presents Kleopatra's story as a novel, critics remarked on the historical validity of her work. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly remarked that "exhaustive research is evident throughout" Kleopatra, concluding that "even those who think they know the queen will discover new facets of her life that will engage both the intellect and the senses." Jane Baird, writing in Library Journal, commented that Essex's contribution to Kleopatra's story will help "create a complete portrait of the child, the woman, and the queen."

Essex's Pharaoh: Volume II of Kleopatra continues the story as the Egyptian ruler, now twenty-two, returns to her kingdom from her exile in Rome. Kleopatra uses her power and charisma to ally herself with Caesar and bear his son. However, when Caesar is assassinated she joins with Antony to provoke the new Roman ruler, Octavian, into a war that eventually leads to her downfall. As with Essex's first book on Kleopatra, reviewers have praised Pharaoh, especially noting the author's balanced portrayal of the ambitious queen. Also praising the book's "rich language" and historical accuracy, a Publishers Weekly critic called Pharaoh "an invigorating read for those interested in ancient history of simply the thrills of battles and romance."

In an online interview for USA Today, Essex explained that she chose the novel format "to bridge the gap … between the real Kleopatra and the Kleopatra that exists in the popular imagination. The general public is still stuck on that 1963 Elizabeth Taylor seductress role." Essex added that one of her biggest reasons for writing the book was "to restore this great female role model." She concluded: "So few women have had Kleopatra's power in the world and I couldn't live with the fact that the most powerful [woman] in the world had gone down in history merely for her sexuality."

Leonardo's Swans is a fictionalized account of the lives of two prominent noble sisters in fifteenth-century Italy, Isabella and Beatrice d'Este. Elder sister Isabella is a blonde beauty, educated and accomplished, and engaged to marry aristocratic soldier Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. Younger, less worldly, and less beautiful Beatrice married Ludovico Sforza, a politically powerful leader from Milan. Ludovico is in the midst of an affair with his pregnant mistress Cecelia and sees Beatrice as little more than the source of his children and heirs, but Beatrice is determined to win his life. When Isabella attends Beatrice's wedding, she sees a painting by master Leonardo Da Vinci, and becomes determined that the artist must paint her portrait. As the story progresses, Ludovico becomes infatuated with Isabella, and the two carry on a torrid correspondence, perpetually separated by the Italian political climate and Francesco's jealousy. An injured and convalescing Beatrice finally wins Ludovico's love and loyalty by delivering to him an impassioned ultimatum. Isabella continues to seek a sitting from the brilliant Da Vinci, even as Beatrice declines to be painted by him. In the political background of the novel, the scheming Ludovico seeks to increase his power as he makes and sets into motion plans that will have dramatic and long-reaching effects on all players in the story, particularly the sisters. Another betrayal by Ludovico propels Beatrice toward tragedy, while Isabella grows ever more frustrated with her sister's luxury and her inability to snare Leonardo's attentions and talents. "Essex delineates the confusion of historical events and historically accurate personalities with clarity," observed a Kirkus Reviews critic.

Booklist reviewer Kristine Huntley called the book an "involving novel" and "powerful historical fiction." Essex's "stories of Isabella and Beatrice d'Este along with the occasional investigations of Leonardo's artworks, methods, and personality are always engrossing," commented a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. Loralyn Whitney, writing in Library Journal, named the novel a "meticulously researched fictional biography" that "brings Renaissance Italy vividly to life."



Booklist, November 15, 2005, Kristine Huntley, review of Leonardo's Swans, p. 26.

Clockworks, fall, 1999, "MFA in Creative Writing Program—Interview with Graduate Karen Essex."

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2005, review of Leonardo's Swans, p. 1156.

Library Journal, July, 2001, Jane Baird, review of Kleopatra, p. 122; February 1, 2006, Loralyn Whitney, review of Leonardo's Swans, p. 71.

New Republic, September 8, 1997, Margaret Talbot, review of Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend, pp. 29-38.

Publishers Weekly, July 23, 2001, review of Kleopatra, p. 50; July 29, 2002, review of Pharaoh: Volume II of Kleopatra, p. 55; September 19, 2005, review of Leonardo's Swans, p. 41.

ONLINE Ancient/Classical History Web site, (February 6, 2007), review of Kleopatra.

BookBrowser, (February 6, 2007), Harriet Klausner, review of Kleopatra.

BookPage, (February 6, 2007), Karen Essex, "Reviving the real Kleopatra.", (September 21, 2001), Kate Ayers, interview with and biography of Karen Essex; Kate Ayers, review of Kleopatra; Kate Ayers, review of Pharaoh; Colleen Quinn, review of Leonardo's Swans.

Goddard College Web site, (February 6, 2007), "MFA In Creative Writing Program—Interview with Graduate Karen Essex.", (February 6, 2007), Beverly Rowe, "Author of the Month: Karen Essex," interview with Karen Essex.

Pif Magazine, (February 6, 2007), Jen Bergmark, interview with Karen Essex.

TimeWarner Bookmark, (February 6, 2007), biography of Karen Essex, description of Kleopatra.

USA Today, (August 9, 2001), transcript of online chat with Karen Essex.