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Chicago May gets her say in O'Faolain biography

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May Duignan was 19 when she ran away from home in rural Ireland on the day her mother gave birth to her fifth child.

May stole her family's entire savings and bought a first-class ticket to New York, something only 2% of the richest passengers did in 1890.

"Nothing could better show that May had a big idea of herself," Nuala O'Faolain writes in her inventive biography, The Story of Chicago May. "It makes her more American than Irish even before she steps aboard -- that belief in abundance, that confidence that, when this money is spent, there'd be more money."

There was, for a while. In Chicago, May began an international career as a prostitute, blackmailer, chorus girl, con woman and, late in life, author, the confessed "Queen of the Crooks" who survived a dozen years in hellish prisons.

O'Faolain, an Irish journalist and novelist, is an exuberant and eloquent storyteller. She built an American readership with her memorable 1998 midlife memoir, Are You Somebody?, which deals with the price women pay for their independence.

The Story of Chicago May deals with the price May paid for her crimes and taste in men, most of them other crooks.

But it's more than the story of an amusing scoundrel. It's about the English tyranny in Ireland, a society "fully in the grip of an institutionalized fear of women; that is of sexuality." In Chicago and New York, it draws a vivid portrait of widespread prostitution, corruption and a "world more cruel than we can easily imagine."

May's book, Chicago May, Her Story, was published in 1928, a year before her death. O'Faolain is disappointed that it's about what May did, not what she thought: "I had forgotten that the autobiography of crooks are all plot and no theme."

But May's book was a road map to a bigger story and an unconventional biography. The author doesn't fade into the background. She deals with her own life and imagines scenes and conversations with her subject.

Readers get to follow the author through archives and jail ledgers, down streets where May once lived and finally to her unmarked grave in Philadelphia. Along the way, O'Faolain shares the joys of discovery and the frustration of not knowing the unknowable.

O'Faolain never makes May lovable, the way a novelist might. But she pays her respect: "This or that ideologue goes to great pains to deny women like May a common humanity with the rest of us. She was excluded from every community. She was thrown out of memory. Well, I want her back in, and I want her such as she was."

As much as any biographer can, O'Faolain has brought May Duignan back to life.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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