Talking About Women’s History: Two, or Possibly Five, Questions and an Answer with Natalie Dykstra

Natalie Dykstra grew up in the Midwest, first near the shores of Lake Michigan, then in a suburb west of Chicago. She received her undergraduate degree in Classics followed by graduate degrees in American Studies at the University of Wyoming and the University of Kansas.  She won a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for her work on Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life as well as grants from the Schlesinger Library and the Massachusetts Historical Society, where she was elected an honorary fellow in 2011.  She received a 2018 Public Scholar Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support her newest book,  Chasing Beauty: The Life of Isabella Stewart Gardner by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.  This work also has been supported by the inaugural 2018 Robert and Ina Caro Fellowship sponsored by the Biographers International Organization (BIO).  She has served as a board member of BIO since 2020.

She is emerita professor of English and senior research professor at Hope College, where she taught writing, literature, and the arts for twenty years.  She lives with her husband in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Chasing Beauty launches today and I am delighted to welcome Natalie Dykstra back to History on the Margins. She participated in Three Questions and an Answer several years ago, when she was in the process of writing the book. I strongly urge you to go back to that post, in which she had interesting things to say about Isabella Stewart Gardner and writing biography. Then come back and see what she has to add to the discussion today.

Take it away, Natalie!

Thank you for having me back, Pamela, for the launch of Chasing Beauty: The Life of Isabella Stewart Gardner.  I’m so glad to continue the conversation….

How did you decide there was room for another book on Gardner?  (Which, of course, there is.) 

It took me awhile to make the decision.  She lived to 84, a long life in her era, filled to the brim with travel and collecting and houses, to say nothing of her husband’s large family and many friends and correspondents.  I felt an enormous responsibility because of the extraordinary eponymous museum.  But I also suspected there were more archival materials to discover related to her and her story.  And that’s what happened – I found letter collections and diaries in a range of repositories that unveiled key aspects of her life: her education in Paris, her relationship to her husband Jack Gardner and his family; her relationship to her father; and her religious faith and philanthropy.  The museum has published excellent accounts of its founder.  But I felt there was room for a longer biography that could include more about her early years as well as the two decades after the opening of the museum in 1903.  I wanted her life story to stay in tune with how her art collection, housed in a four-story Venetian-style palace, combined both a hushed intimacy and a remarkable sweep of time.

Chasing Beauty is such an evocative title for the biography of a woman who is best known for creating a wonderful art museum.  Can you tell us how you came to it? 
I had always wanted the Anders Zorn portrait to be the book cover, where she’s pictured in motion on the balcony of the Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal in Venice.  She’s at her most vital in that image, with her long arms wide open and the point of her fashionable shoe stepping into the palace.  Last spring, my publishing team began with a long list of title options, and I knew early on I wanted her name to be the subtitle.  I had filled small notebooks while on my research travels in France and Italy, where I’d jot down first impressions and phrases.  And in reviewing a notebook from a trip to Florence, where I traced Isabella’s steps, I’d written: “It’s as if she is chasing beauty throughout the city.”  I liked the combination of beauty, a word I found often in her papers, and chasing, which conveyed her love of speed and movement, her enormous energy.  I liked, too, that there was something both modern and slightly melancholy about it.  She’s on a chase; we’re all on a chase.

A question from Natalie:  Your biography of the World War II reporter Sigrid Schultz, The Dragon From Chicago, will be published by Beacon Press in August – many congratulations!   How did you decide to tell her story and what were some key challenges?

I stumbled on her story entirely by accident. Several years ago an interesting item appeared in my news feed:  an architectural salvage vendor had discovered seventy-five glass plate photographic negatives in the attic of an old house in what is now the Chicago neighborhood of Ravenswood. The images dated from the end of the nineteenth century. Most of them were informal pictures of a woman, a child, and a large dog, taken in the house where they were found.

It was exactly the sort of historical puzzle I love, so I kept reading. It turned out that the little girl in the pictures was named Sigrid Schultz.  The pictures were taken by Sigrid’s father, who was a successful portrait painter who had emigrated from Norway in 1892.  It was an interesting enough story to read with my morning tea, but then I hit the punch line: Sigrid grew up to be a groundbreaking foreign correspondent.

At that point, I was deep in the process of writing a proposal for a totally different book about another woman whose story deserves to be told. Sigrid elbowed her neatly off my desk. She was the Chicago Tribune’s foreign bureau chief in Berlin from 1925 to 1940, during the rise of the Nazis and the early days of World War II. Her story was just too timely to ignore.

The biggest challenge in telling her story—other than difficulties in accessing archives due to the pandemic—was deciding how much historical context to provide. (This is a recurring challenge for me.) As I got into her story, I realized how little I knew about German politics in the years between the two world wars. I had to assume most of my future readers didn’t know any more than I had. So I wrote big chunks of German history, and then decided what pieces of it were essential to understanding Sigrid’s story. Hard choices.


Want to know more about Natalie Dykstra and her work?
Check out her website:
Read this review in the New York Times: An Exquisite Biography of a Gilded Age Legend
Follow her on the site previously known as Twitter: @NatalieanneDY
Follow her on Instagram: natalieannedy


Come back tomorrow for three questions and an answer with Elaine Hayes, author of Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan




  1. Jane Stein on April 25, 2024 at 3:38 am

    I just finished Chasing Beauty. It was a gripping biography and jammed with remarkable detail! I loved the book and love the museum. What a research project!

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