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The Real Memoirs Of A Geisha: The Life Of Mineko Iwasaki

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In 1997, Arthur Golden published Memoirs of a Geisha, a best-selling novel that follows Chiyo Sakamoto as she navigates the life of a Kyoto geisha in the years surrounding World War II. Golden’s book gave insight into the cloistered world of the geisha, and in 2005, it was adapted into a lush, Academy Award-winning film—though the movie garnered criticism for casting the Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang in the distinctly Japanese role of Chiyo.

But the original novel has an even more controversial history—and a dark secret.

Much of the purportedly fictional Memoirs is actually based on the life of Mineko Iwasaki, Japan’s most famous geisha in the 1960s and 70s. As the biggest name in one of the most mysterious vocations in history, hers is a story full of intrigue, turmoil, and drama. It’s also a story of betrayal.


Maiking It Work

Maiko Fukunae Geisha apprentice (maiko) Fukunae (ふく苗) of the Miyagawa-cho ochaya Shigemori.

Iwasaki was born as Masako Tanaka in 1949. At the tender age of five, she was sent away from home to study Japanese dance at the Iwasaki geisha house in the exclusive Gion district of Kyoto, which is the most elite of Kyoto’s hanamachi or “flower towns” that house geisha. The house matriarch, Madame Oima, must have seen something special in the young girl: she was made heir of the house, and took up Oima’s surname, Iwasaki. But this was only the beginning of Mineko’s illustrious career.

Like most Kyoto geisha, at the age of 15 Iwasaki began her training as a maiko, or an apprentice geisha. These young girls are actually what Westerners usually think of when they imagine geisha; their kimonos are more elaborate than their mature counterparts, and they often wear their hair in the distinctive Nihongami style. As a fledgling geisha, Iwasaki learned how to pour tea, dance, and make flirtatious conversation, all with a deliberate yet graceful air. By the time she was 16—and before she was even made a full geisha, or geiko—she was the most popular geisha in Japan.

Geisha of Gion

On her 21st birthday, Iwasaki was made a geisha proper, and the coming years were a whir of parties and famous names; in her autobiography, she counts Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles among her clients. But she found the monarch “frosty” and “rude,” and said the Queen “never laid a chopstick on the food that had been so painstakingly prepared for her.” As for the Queen’s son, he committed the gauche error of signing her fan, which Iwasaki did not look on as a favor. “I told him he could keep it,” she said, “I didn’t want it anymore.”

But though Iwasaki lived a life of glamour and flirtation during her time as a geisha, her work did not include bedroom romps, royal or otherwise. Contrary to many white fantasies, including Golden’s depiction of geisha in Memoirs, Iwasaki was not an escort. In the 18th century, geisha were specifically developed as chaste, entertainment-only alternatives to Japan’s oirancourtesans, who were designated sex workers. In fact, when a saucy Henry Kissinger tried to feel her up, Iwasaki recalled, “we told him to desist.”

Of course, many geisha throughout history have certainly engaged in sexual favors with their clients, and maintaining strict definitions in such ambiguous entertainment work is impossible. But Iwasaki categorically denies any ritualized sexual aspect to geisha life, especially the scene in Memoirs of a Geisha where Chiyo’s virginity is up for auction; this practice, called mizuage, was strictly reserved for oiran. For the most part, as K.G. Henshall puts it, the geisha’s clients were men “amused by the illusion of that which is never to be.”

Getting out of the Game

But Iwasaki’s renown couldn’t last forever. Her constant work and high standards ran her into the ground, and she once suffered from a life-threatening kidney condition. She also felt increasingly dissatisfied with the opportunities available to geisha, and with her profession’s strict adherence to tradition, especially when it came to keeping geisha and other women uneducated.

So, at the height of her popularity, she quit.

Her early retirement (she was only 29 years old at the time) shocked her community, and no less than 70 high-powered geishas followed suit, turning in their kimonos and delicate accoutrements. As Iwasaki later said, “it was a life that I found too constrictive to continue.” Tragically, it was all in vain: the geisha community closed rank, and very little changed for the painted women.

A Lifetime Ago

Geishas performing Cherry Blossom dance in Kyoto.

Despite this disappointment, Iwasaki moved on with her life. She became a more modern artist, married, and even had a child. But perhaps the bitterness at her past life could not be entirely leeched from her veins: When writer Arthur Golden came knocking at her door, asking her to divulge the secrets of the geisha for his novel, she answered. Geishas are under an oath of silence to keep the details of their lives private, but Iwasaki flouted tradition once more and opened up to Golden, turning her back on that world forever.

Golden repaid her in betrayal.

Iwasaki demanded to be made anonymous, but Golden carelessly named her as one of his sources in his acknowledgments. Moreover, though Golden conducted interviews with several geisha as research for his book, his finished story disproportionately resembled Iwasaki’s life. And perhaps most damning of all, Golden twisted happy memories and positive events from Iwasaki’s life into tortured, traumatic experiences for the sake of drama—when he wasn’t adding flagrantly false information like the mizuage virginity ritual.

Two Sides to Every Story

Author Mineko Iwasaki performs a traditional Japanese dance during the presentation of her new book “Geisha, A Life” at the Beverly Hills Library.

To be sure, fiction has a certain creative license, but Iwasaki believes that Memoirs of a Geisha doesn’t merely use her as inspiration; it is her—only darker, distorted, and fashioned into a tool of male fantasy. In response, she sued Golden for both breach of contract and defamation of character in 2001, and the case was settled out of court two years later. But she wasn’t done yet: Memoirs of a Geisha spurred Iwasaki to tell her own story, in her own words, and in 2002 she released her autobiography, Geisha: A Life.

To be a geisha is to enter into a world founded on firm tradition and harsh discipline, yet it is also a world overlaid with pleasure, luxury, and more than a little seduction. “Geisha” is thus a difficult existence to negotiate, and as Iwasaki recalls, “I [lived] in a world apart, a special realm whose mission and identity depended on preserving the time-honored traditions of the past.” Her identity as a geisha was thus nuanced and complex—and in the end, it was her identity to reveal.

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Margaret and Roumania Peters: Forgotten Champions

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On the Court

Today, women tennis champions like Venus and Serena Williams get paid millions of dollars in endorsement deals, prize winnings, and celebrity appearances. But for a long time, the sport was not only an amateur pastime—leaving even its top athletes unable to make a living from their talent—it was also heavily segregated by race.


In America, black athletes were effectively barred from playing against white athletes, and thus barred from competing in the most publicized matches, until 1950—when Althea Gibson (a tennis player herself) competed against a white player. As a result, the world never saw what many of the top athletes of the 1930s and 1940s were truly capable of. In fact, it almost never saw them at all.

If it had, maybe we would more easily remember the great tennis sisters who came before Venus and Serena: Margaret and Roumania Peters.

Margaret and Roumania Peters: Forgotten Champions

Tennis Stars Are Born

Margaret Peters was born in 1915, and in 1917, her little sister Matilda Roumania followed. The two girls were almost inseparable growing up in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC, so when Margaret began playing tennis at around 10 years old, it was only natural that Roumania (as she was known) joined too.

Their beginnings were humble: the two girls often played in Rose Park, located near their house, on terrain that was hardly Wimbledon-worthy. As Roumania later recalled, the court had “sand, dirt, rocks, everything. We would have to get out there in the morning and pick up the rocks, and sweep the line and put some dry lime on there.”

Nonetheless, their hard work paid off, and soon they were playing with the American Tennis Association. As this was still a segregated, Jim Crow-era America, the ATA was an exclusively African American league. In 1936, Margaret and Roumania attended the annual ATA tournament; Roumania made it all the way up the brackets, losing only in the finals.

And that was just the beginning.

Rose Park Recreation Center – Washington, DC

Pete and Repeat

At that ATA tournament in 1936, both girls were scouted and then recruited as tennis players for Tuskegee University, a historically black college. At the time, Margaret was 21 years old and Roumania was only 19—and not yet finished high school. When they were both offered full, four-year scholarships, Margaret agreed to the deal only if she could wait until Roumania was old enough to enroll in Tuskegee. They entered the school together the next year.

Margaret and Roumania attended Tuskegee from 1937 to 1941, honing their skills and rising up in the ATA ranks. Most good athletes have signature moves, and the Peters sisters became particularly known for their slice serves, which used an underspin to keep the ball low, as well as their chop shots, which used a now-rare technique that returns a serve with an underspin.

Yet while both girls were talented singles players, they really shone together—earning them the nicknames “Pete” and “Repeat.” They won no less than 14 doubles titles in their tenure as world-class athletes, a record for the time. This understandably gained them fame, and the girls performed for luminaries like Gene Kelly, as well as members of the British royal family. Black theater owners would even show the Peters’ matches in cinemas.

But there was a big problem.

Amateur Hour

For all their fame, the Peters siblings were stymied by the state of both tennis and American culture in their prime years of the 1940s. For one, tennis only entered the professionally-oriented Open Era in 1968. Before this, players competing in most large tournaments had to be amateurs, and thus had to pay for their own equipment, transportation, and miscellaneous fees, all while getting no remuneration. For another, most of the prestige of tennis competition in the era was centered in whites-only clubs, leaving the Peters sisters out in the cold.

Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II presenting Althea Gibson with the Venus Rosewater Trophy at the 1957 Wimbledon Women’s Singles Championships.

Times were changing, but far too slowly. In the late 1940s, African American superstar Althea Gibson rocketed through the tennis world, and after persistent lobbying the powers that be caved and invited Gibson to the Nationals in 1950, effectively breaking segregation. Gibson, however, was a full decade younger than Roumania Peters; by the time tennis opened up, the Peters girls were no longer at their full strengths.

This is not to say that they finished their careers unaccomplished. Aside from their 14 ATA doubles titles, Roumania also won multiple singles titles on her own individual steam. In fact, the youngest Peters sister won one of those titles against none other than Gibson herself; Roumania is still the only African American woman to have ever defeated the Grand Slam champion.

In 1977, the Peters were rightly inducted into the Tuskegee Hall of Fame—but by then, life was much different for the sisters.

The Retired Life

With the odds stacked against them, Margaret and Roumania simply couldn’t support themselves on tennis alone, but this didn’t mean they floundered. The two sisters got masters degrees—Margaret actually got two—and became teachers later in life, with Roumania even teaching at Howard University. Margaret remained unmarried, but in 1957, Roumania wed a man named James Walker, giving birth to two children, Frances Della and James George.

In 2003, while Venus and Serena Williams were dominating tennis, Roumania died at the age of 86. Never one to be too far apart from her little sister, Margaret died a year later, in 2004.

Gone and Not Forgotten

Just after the peak of their athletic careers ended, the Peters witnessed some of the biggest upheavals of the 20th century, inside the tennis world and beyond—from the desegregation of the sport to the wholesale Civil Rights Movement. Though many may not remember their names today, Margaret and Roumania Peters were an essential foundation of this history—not just for women’s tennis or African American players, but for tennis as a whole.

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How Did Bob Marley Die?

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Jim Morrison. Kurt Cobain. Jimi Hendrix. Many talented musicians have died tragically young from the self-destructive habits of their superstar lifestyle. But while we often place reggae singer Bob Marley in the ranks of these rock gods gone too soon, few people know the truth about Marley’s early death. So how did Bob Marley die?


RIP Bob Marley

Bob Marley wasn’t necessarily known for fast and reckless living; a Rastafarian icon, Marley infused reggae music with his spiritual beliefs of gentle love and beautiful harmony. Yet on May 11, 1981, he died at just 36 years old. It felt sudden, but those who knew him had actually spent years preparing for his death.

That’s because back in 1977, the legendary singer was diagnosed with a malignant, and eventually fatal melanoma just underneath one of his toenails. When he died fewer than five years after his diagnosis, Marley was deeply mourned in both his home country of Jamaica and around the world.

His death was tragic, but there’s much more to the story than that.

Bob Marley FactsGetty Images

Death Comes for Marley

You see, many people believe that Marley could have been saved.

When the cancer was first diagnosed, Marley’s doctors suggested amputating the toe to give him a better chance for survival. However, the singer refused. Although this might seem irrational, he actually had a good reason: his religious beliefs prevented him from amputating, as Rastafarian tenets state that the body is a temple and that no part of it should be cut off.

Instead, Marley went with a less invasive but ultimately less effective procedure. He simply had the nail and nail bed removed with the help of a skin graft from his thigh. Ever the trooper, Marley and his band continued planning the world tour for the album Uprising, even after finding out about the cancer. The tour saw Marley reach new heights, playing his biggest-ever crowd in Milan and even playing the iconic Madison Square Garden in New York. For now, it seemed like the storm had passed.

But dark days were coming.

Bob Marley FactsGetty Images

Die Another Day

Near the end of the Uprising tour, Marley’s illness had taken a toll on his body, and it began to show. Just two days before a concert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in September 1980, Marley suddenly collapsed while jogging in New York City’s Central Park. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors performed a series of tests—and the results were devastating.

The tests revealed that the small melanoma from his toe had spread over the past three years, and was now infecting his brain. In an incredible feat, Marley still made it out to his scheduled Pennsylvania show, but this appearance would be the last concert of his world tour. His team canceled the rest of legs, and Marley—again partly in accordance with his religious beliefs—began to seek out alternative medicines to fight for his last scraps of life rather than submit to chemotherapy.

It was a radical, peaceful choice in keeping with his religion, but it did not delay his death.

Bob Marley FactsGetty Images

Dying Wish

Although Marley tried to keep the cancer at bay by eschewing certain food and drinks, after eight months it became clear that the end was near for the cultural icon. The alternative methods had not stymied the cancer. Bravely facing up to his fate, Marley made a heartbreaking decision to go back to Jamaica to live out his days.

But in a cruel twist of fate, he was denied the chance to die in his beloved homeland.

In May 1981, a very sick Marley was traveling home from Germany to Jamaica. In the middle of the flight, his vitals plummeted. When the plane landed in Miami, Florida, he was rushed to the hospital so doctors could try to save his life.

This time, however, there was no hope to be had: Bob Marley died in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami. Before he left this world, though, Marley had one last act to finish.

Bob Marley FactsGetty Images

Gone But Not Forgotten

Just before he died, with the melanoma rapidly spreading into his lungs and deeper into his brain, Marley gave his son Ziggy some final advice, father to son: “Money can’t buy life.” They were fitting words for a man who lived by his own harmonious principles and died on his own terms.

After his death, the world felt robbed of one of its brightest stars. There was one consolation: in the end, Marley made it to Jamaica. The country gave him a state funeral on May 21, 1981, following Rastafarian traditions for the ceremony. He was buried alongside his guitar in a chapel near where he was born.

During the funeral, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Edward Seaga gave the eulogy, saying that, “Bob Marley was never seen. He was an experience which left an indelible imprint with each encounter. Such a man cannot be erased from the mind. He is part of the collective consciousness of the nation.”

Bob Marley FactsShutterstock

To Die, to Sleep, Perchance to Dream

The story of how Bob Marley died is not one of partying and excess, but of a principled man unwilling to compromise for modern medicine. In many ways, this makes him an even more tragic figure than some of his fellow fallen rock stars. The melanoma that killed him at the age of 36 might have been managed and eventually defeated, had he only wanted it.

This, however, was not the way that Marley chose to go. Instead, he fought the cancer in his own way, and succumbed when it was his time. It was his life, and he chose how to leave it. Though he is still dearly missed, we have his many albums and inedible songs to help remember him by.

Rest in peace, Bob Marley.

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The King Who Fell To Earth: The Life And Mysterious Death Of Albert I Of Belgium

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Albert I was King of the Belgians at a very tumultuous time in the country’s history. He ruled through World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, and oversaw his nation’s reconstruction after the War ended. Despite such an eventful reign, it’s not this that he’s remembered for—it’s his sudden and tragic demise in a mountaineering accident. The circumstances surrounding his death immediately drew suspicion, leading to the rampant spread of rumors and conspiracy theories about the monarch’s tragic end. So what really happened to King Albert of Belgium on that fateful day?


A Death in the Family

Albert I was born on April 8, 1875, the grandson of the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I, and the nephew of the reigning king, Leopold II. At that point, he was third in the line of succession, following his father and his older brother, but when Albert was just 16, tragedy struck. His brother, Prince Baudouin, died after a bout of the flu. He was only 21 years old. Prince Baudouin’s sudden death sparked many rumors and conspiracy theories—notably, one that said the Prince had died in a situation remarkably similar to the mysterious suicide of Prince Rudolf of Austria just two years earlier.

With the death of his older brother, Albert found himself in a position where he would inevitably become King of the Belgians. His father, Prince Philippe, although next in line for the throne, was already 54 at the time of the Prince Baudouin’s death. Prince Philippe would go on to pass away in 1905, while his older brother Leopold II was still on the throne. When Leopold II died in 1909, it was time for Albert to take his place as King.

Albert I FactsWikimedia Commons
Prince Baudoin of Belgium

War Hero

By that time Albert had already married, to a Bavarian Duchess named Elisabeth, and the couple had had three children. The first few years of his reign went relatively smoothly, especially since his subjects regarded his stable home life favorably. In the final years of Leopold II’s reign, a public scandal had erupted over human rights abuses in the Congo, Belgium’s only colonial property. The Belgian government had wrested control of the colony from the monarch shortly before his death. Albert’s first few years of rule must have seemed like a fresh start after all the public disgrace that had been heaped on Leopold II over the episode. But all the goodwill in the world couldn’t make up for what would befall Albert—and Belgium itself—in the ensuing years.

At the outset of World War I, Belgium found itself stuck between Germany and France—and not just geographically. German forces demanded safe passage through to France, claiming that France planned to invade Belgium to get through to Germany anyway. Belgium refused Germany, leading the Germans to invade Belgium on August 3, 1914. As a result, Britain was then forced to declare war on Germany the next day.

Albert became commander of the Belgian Army and led numerous campaigns to drive the German forces back, but ultimately, his army wound up pushed back into a small area, where they remained entrenched for years. Albert fought alongside his men while his wife worked as a nurse, but the entire time, he tried to encourage other diplomats to negotiate peace with Germany, seeing the damage that the occupation was doing to his kingdom. The forces at war ignored his pleas, however, and eventually, Albert led the drive that liberated Belgium.

When the War ended, Albert and his family returned triumphantly to Brussels, where he spoke to his subjects about the future of the kingdom. He assisted in the Paris Peace Conference in April 1919, but his advice—to not punish Germany too harshly, in an attempt to quell future hostile behavior—was largely ignored, despite Belgium’s heavy losses during the War. He also did what he could to help rebuild his realm, working with the Belgian Ministry of Internal Affairs to create the King Albert Housing Fund for communities that had been destroyed, among other initiatives.

Shutterstock

Tragedy in the Mountains

Albert was known to have a strong interest in mountaineering, so when he asked his driver to pull over so that he could go for a short climb on the afternoon of February 17, 1934, it wasn’t seen as an unusual request—although later, everything that led up to that moment would come into question. He was climbing the Roche du Vieux Bon Dieu in a Namurois village called Marche-les-Dames. Albert’s driver watched him navigate the rocks from where they’d parked. The moment the King went out of sight was the last time that he was seen alive.

As minutes turned into hours, the driver knew something was wrong—after all, the King had an engagement in Brussels to get to that night. He went to the nearby village to ask for help, and soon enough, a search party was formed. At around 2 AM, one of the volunteers stumbled across Albert’s body. He looked to have died of a massive head wound. Albert’s involved role in WWI had made him a name around the world, and when news broke of his tragic death, both his subjects and the rest of the world mourned.

Albert I FactsShutterstock

Dark Rumors

Almost immediately after Albert’s death, whispers about foul play began to circulate. Yes, the king was aging—58 years old at the time he died—and his eyesight wasn’t perfect, but he was also an expert climber with many years of experience, including in solo climbs, under his belt. Many of those closest to him claimed that Albert had told them he planned to stop climbing—so why would he have undertaken such a dangerous climb alone?

One First World War hero-turned-fascist activist gave a speech in which he alleged that despite Albert’s actions during the war, the King’s push to negotiate peace during WWI had angered the wrong people, and that was the reason he’d been targeted for assassination. Others claimed that he must have been killed in another location and had his body dumped in the mountains as a convenient cover-up.

Beloved among his subjects, the area where Albert died became a place of pilgrimage, with many taking souvenirs from the site—rocks, leaves, other debris. A century later, one of these souvenirs would finally provide some insight into that fateful day, finally shutting down some of the more insidious conspiracy theories about the king’s death. A journalist found one souvenir hunter who had taken some blood-stained tree leaves from the site. He purchased the foliage, then had it sent for DNA testing. In 2016, the blood was compared to samples from some of Albert’s descendants, and it came back a match—meaning that the King had, in fact, died at the scene of the climbing accident.

Albert I of BelgiumShutterstock
Albert I in 1919

The King Who Fell to Earth

Albert was a beloved monarch who saw his subjects through one of the worst periods in history, and it was hard for many to accept that he’d died alone and helpless in such a sudden and violent way. Although the revelation provided by the DNA testing did settle some of the speculation surrounding Albert’s death, conspiracy theories are always more intriguing than a simple explanation, and people will believe what they want to believe—and so, sadly, Albert’s legacy will always be as much about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his tragic death as about his honorable actions as monarch.

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