The Huffington Post: ‘Belle’: An Austenesque with a Racial Twist

By Regina Weinreich

The name of this utterly charming movie conjures images of the Disney cartoon feature with a brunette cartoon star singing in the library. Dido Belle, however, was a real life mixed race woman, smart enough to have had a career in the law, but for 18th century England, she went far. The talented Amma Asante’s movie is an Austenesque comedy of manners, keenly involved with who shall marry whom, and whose fortune is more plump than so and so’s social standing, but here’s the delicious twist: Belle is desirably financially endowed, but as a mulatto, and illegitimate, she is of dubious position. Thoughtful and daring, she influences an important decision, changing the course of British history.

Born in a slum to a black woman and a high-born white navy captain (Matthew Goode), Belle’s fate takes a turn when her father takes charge of her, and brings her to his family’s stately mansion. There, surrogate parents, Lord and Lady Mansfield (excellent Tom Wilkinson and a witty Emily Watson), manage Belle’s education and upbringing. Her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) is a constant playmate. Belle’s father disappears early on, and in many ways this romance becomes a father-daughter piece, with Wilkinson beaming proud of his ward as Belle shows intelligence, not only in helping to adjudicate a
famous legal case involving the Zong slave ship vs. an insurance company, but also insisting that when she marries, her race would not be an issue of conciliation and embarrassment. Sam Reid plays the suitor, a kind of Mr. Darcy.

At a recent lunch at la Grenouille, hosted by British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant and W Magazine’s Stefano Tonchi, Phyllicia Rychard, Star Jones, Tamron Hall, and others were introduced to director Amma Asante and her leading actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Diners also heard historical novelist Amanda Foreman flesh out the legalities of the Zong slave ship matter. Foreman, originator of the popular and entertaining House of Speakeasy nights, where writers are invited to extrapolate on a theme, knows how to make history and literature engaging and fun. The discussion went down with the ease of the delicious striped bass: in the case of Belle, and the lovely actress who plays her, a refreshing gem in the season of sequels and action hero blockbusters.

Publisher’s Weekly: House of SpeakEasy Takes the Stage

By Clare Swanson

At the January 27 inaugural gala for Seriously Entertaining, a monthly “literary cabaret,” the actress Uma Thurman read three fiery passages as part of a literary quiz called “Tip of My Tongue.” The 380 audience members at the City Winery in downtown Manhattan were charged with identifying the titles and authors of the texts from which the passages were quoted, as well as the decade when each piece was originally published. Only one member of the very literary crowd nailed all three: Salman Rushdie.

Emcee Andy Borowitz, a New Yorker writer and author of the Borowitz Report, proclaimed Rushdie the victor and, throughout the night, introduced the event’s cast of performers who riffed, ruminated, and reflected on the night’s theme: “Plays with Matches.” New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik shared a story about delivering a somewhat improvised keynote address at a conference, while historian Simon Winchester scored with a comical and gory account of working as a mortuary assistant when he was a teenager. Susan Orlean, also of the New Yorker, pondered the city’s papaya chain phenomenon, and singer/songwriter Dar Williams closed out the evening with an acoustic set.

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The Huffington Post: Uma Thurman Reads from Moby Dick and Salman Rushdie Wins a Prize at House of Speakeasy

By Regina Weinreich

Good news: the written word thrives downtown. The brainchild of Doctor Amanda Foreman, the author of historical works like Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, “House of Speakeasy” was founded to keep writers visible, engaged with audiences, and earning money for their craft. At a sold-out salon at City Winery on Monday night, the first of a series, some writers who do, also showed another side of their chops as performers: moderated by humorist Andy Borowitz, authors Adam Gopnik (The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food), Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief), Simon Winchester (The Men Who United the States), and songwriter Dar Williams sang–in other words, working writers at The New Yorker magazine and other venues– who also earn a living–told stories on the theme of “plays with matches.”

Wit, particularly in the form of irony, has not died. Gopnik told a tale of addressing a crowd on the topic of “pluralism and the individual,” whatever that means, understanding finally that all such speeches are really variations on that subject. Orlean recounted her observations upon first moving to New York, on the city’s proliferation of Papaya Kings. Winchester’s piece was about working in a morgue, the perfectly explosive accompaniment to the evening’s comfort dinner: chicken on mashed potato.

The four hundred or so guests included Dick Cavett, Steve Croft, Barbara Goldsmith, Kurt Andersen, Marina Rust, and Salman Rushdie who picked up a prize for knowing three famous but not obvious passages from world literature–from Mary Shelley, Robert Frost, and Herman Melville– read to this erudite group by Uma Thurman. His prize: books by the entertaining authors. In something of a summation and echo of his talk, Adam Gopnik said he did not know what he was getting himself into. He just showed up and to his surprise, “It was a big deal. Everyone was there.”

The Wall Street Journal: Uma Thurman, Susan Orlean Host A Night for the Literary Elite

Photo: Amanda Schwab

Photo: Amanda Schwab


Last night, City Winery in downtown Manhattan hosted the inaugural gala event for a new monthly literary showcase, ‘Seriously Entertaining,’ presented by the non-profit House of SpeakEasy Foundation. The organization was created six months ago by historian and WSJ columnist Amanda Foreman.

The emcee—Andy Borowitz, former sitcom writer and creator of satirical news column “The Borowitz Report”—began the evening explaining the group’s missions: to bring writers together with their audience, and to support the principle that writers should be paid for their craft. One of the foundation’s goals is to have SpeakEasy performers visit schools and reach young audiences.  He also shared haiku:

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The Wall Street Journal: ‘Think-y Entertainment’ for New York’s Book-Loving Crowd




In 1962, the author Simon Winchester attended a London science fair and lost his heart to a young woman as the two toiled over their science experiment.

“We built a hydroponic tomato and fell head over heels in love,” he told the audience at Monday night’s House of SpeakEasy gala.

Sadly, the girl lived in Canada, and a young Mr. Winchester (who went on to write “The Men Who United the States” and “The Professor and the Madman”) desperately wanted to buy a ticket to visit her. To raise the funds, the then-17-year-old applied for, and got, a job as a mortuary assistant, mostly because he was the only one who answered the ad.

“Basic anatomy preferred but not essential,” the classified read, according to the dapper Briton, who was wearing canary yellow pants and a matching pocket square.

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Vogue: House of SpeakEasy’s Inaugural Gala

House of SpeakEasy’s Inaugural GalaBy Caroline Palmer

The House of SpeakEasy’s inaugural event opened with writer and host Andy Borowitz regaling-slash-horrifying the legions of literary-minded folk in attendance with a tale of being asked to live-tweet the Oscars last year by an unnamed newspaper owned by “an Australian man” and turned the offer down once informed it was for no actual fee. “They said they would mention my website,” he dryly quipped. And while the online editors in the audience (ahem) may have cringed, the point was quite, and rightfully, clear: Writing is a profession, and professional people deserve to be not only paid, but respected and supported. And so the House of SpeakEasy was born. The philanthropic idea was dreamed up by Dr. Amanda Foreman, the author of several books (including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which was made into a movie with Keira Knightley), mother to an astonishing five children, and current girl crush of multitasking women everywhere. The overarching idea—to provide cultural entertainment with community outreach through live monthly events with authors and school programs, among other things—was properly ushered into existence by a bookish lot, including Susan Orlean, Salman Rushdie, Uma Thurman, Dar Williams,and the hilarious Simon Winchester, who gathered  at City Winery for an evening of stories, games, and song, all touching on the evening’s theme, “Playing with Matches.”

For more information on House of SpeakEasy,

The Huffington Post: Survival in Pre-Civil War South: 12 Years a Slave Honored at the Lotos Club

By Regina Weinreich

The subject of race was addressed head on at a luncheon celebrating the film “12 Years a Slave,” easily the film of the year in an awards season gathering momentum. “I’m a black man, as if you didn’t notice, and part of the global identity of slavery” said director Steve McQueen on a panel led by Amanda Foreman at the Lotos Club on Tuesday. The director was seated between two of his stars Chitwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o and in front of guests who included the luncheon’s host George C. Wolfe, Geoffrey Fletcher, Spike Lee, Thulani Davis, Walter Mosley, and many more of the city’s cultural and industry elite, but the context of McQueen’s remark was an answer to a question about his being a British citizen making art of a particularly American experience, and embarrassment. With family from the West Indies, he pointed out, we are all part of a diaspora, and that understanding makes the horrors of plantation life witnessed in his powerful movie all the more dreadful, and close to home no matter what your color or ethnicity.

Others attending included the actors Tovah Feldshuh, now in “Pippin,” and Nikki James, Tony winner for her work in “Book of Mormon.” James, soon returning to “Mormon,” and slated to play Eponine in the coming revival of “Les Mis,” said she had read for the part of Patsy, the love object of the cruel, psychopath plantation owner played by Michael Fassbinder. While James acknowledged that it is always a disappointment when a part goes to someone else, she admired Lupita Nyong’o’s work as Patsy, especially as this is the young actress’ first film and she was chosen fresh out of Yale. Beaten and tortured, Patsy picks cotton by day and prays for death by night. One of the most heartbreaking scenes is when Solomon (Ejiofor) leaves the plantation, a free man at last, but he leaves her, a soul mate, behind.

In many ways, the story of Solomon Northrup, based on his memoir of the same title, who, as a free man was kidnapped and sold into slavery, has a happy ending. He does return to family and loved ones. But Patsy as a character is emblematic of the huge numbers that never lived free lives. Despite the relief of seeing Solomon with a grandson named for him, the searing images of where he has been are unforgettable.

One of the movie’s producers, Dede Gardner (she’s partners at Plan B with Brad Pitt who plays a heroic role both in the film as a Canadian abolitionist, and beyond, getting the film financed and green lit) noted that one of her jobs was protecting the film, fighting the fear that the subject is not commercial, is too difficult in its most extreme violent moments. Gardner is clearly building a career with fine films that have this edge. Her current project is a movie of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” starring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts. As in matters of race, the politics of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980’s, pose questions of conscience and humanity that we are all only beginning to address.