The Lost Chapters–Catherine’s Stallion (Part 1)
Write with your eraser. A huge amount of material never made it into the final version of Island Apart, including a chapter built around Catherine the Great. I made Claire a biography book editor precisely so I could real life figures in the story. (They’re meant to parallel and counterpoint the lives of my main characters.) Catherine the Great was intended to be a symbol for the re-awaking of Claire’s sexuality. Here’s what you missed.
from CATHERINE’S STALLION
“Wonderful thing to be known for—the scandalous sex of a middle aged woman,” said Claire.
The full title of the book was The Empress’ Stallion: A Psycho-Sexual History of Catherine The Great. Claire bought the rights to the book from the estate of a Malibu sex therapist named Dr. Finch, who self-published it in the 1980s. It was one of those rare self-publishing ventures that actually earned more than the cost of printing. The book was a clumsy spiral-bound, but the sex therapist managed to sell 60,000 copies.
Dr. Finch was a better saleswoman—and presumably sex therapist—than she was writer. Her manuscript was riddled with historical and factual errors—starting with Catherine’s steed. So Claire had it completely rewritten by two Russian graduate students from Barnard. Harrison had found them for her and it never dawned on Claire that the price for such a plum research assignment might be private night school sessions with the professor.
The Catherine in question was Sophia Augusta Frederika von Anhalt-Zerbst, better known as Catherine the Great. She was born on April 21, 1729, in the town Stettin, now in Poland. She died on November 5, 1796, at her royal palace in St. Petersberg, having transformed Russia from a feudal backwater to a world power.
The stallion was one of those apocryphal tales that seems to follow the deaths of great or controversial leaders. It referred to Catherine’s allegedly prodigious sexual appetites, which ran to both beasts and young men.
The voracious Catherine was supposed to have arranged for the stallion to be lowered on top of her, in missionary position as it were, in a leather harness hung from a winch. The harness broke, the story went, or perhaps it was the winch. In either case, the unfortunate Empress was crushed to death by the weight of the steed. Colorful story, yes, but it is well-documented that the Empress actually died of a stroke, suffered in her “water closet,” as bathrooms were called at the time (emphasis on bath—flush toilets having not yet been invented).
As for Catherine’s appetite for young men, well, here there is better evidence. She had at least eleven lovers (including the military genius, Gregory Potempkin) and rumored to have had as many as three hundred. Her final lover was an aide-de-camp named Platon Zubov who was forty years her junior. Neither party, it seems, had any complaints about the arrangement.
Claire sighed. Here she was, child of the 1960s, daughter of the sexual revolution and of women’s lib, and she had only made love with four men in her life The first was a gangly sociology student at Columbia. The second was a long-haired activist in SDS. For all their self-proclaimed social consciousness, neither made the least effort to assure Claire’s sexual satisfaction. It wasn’t until her third lover, a Senegalese musician that Claire met during her publishing intern days, that Claire learned the pleasure of having an orgasm with a man. The fourth was Harrison, her husband of twenty-one years.
Most likely, the tales of Catherine’s alleged perversions—including a sexual escapade with a horse—were spread by political enemies in Russia or abroad in an effort to tarnish her reputation. After all, power corrupts, goes the saying and absolutely power corrupts absolutely.
“History like you’ve never experienced it before,” read the review in the Times Sunday Book Review. The year it was published in hardcover, The Empress’ Stallion added three million dollars to Apogee’s bottom line.