Duchess Goldblatt is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a Twitter account
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Duchess Goldblatt is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a Twitter account
In an undated image provided by Duchess Goldblatt, letters written by fans to Duchess Goldblatt. “Becoming Duchess Goldblatt” is a memoir by the writer behind a beloved fictional character whose fans include Lyle Lovett and Celeste Ng. Duchess Goldblatt via The New York Times.

by Kate Dwyer

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The painting of a 17th-century Dutch aristocrat hangs in the west wing of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. She wears a ruff collar, lace cuffs and a velvet-trimmed brocade jacket with puffed sleeves — the height of Calvinist chic. Painted by Frans Hals in 1633, the subject’s name has been lost to history; the piece is called “Portrait of an Elderly Lady.”

But on Twitter, this portrait is the avatar that represents Duchess Goldblatt, the fictional author of nonexistent bestsellers like “An Axe to Grind,” “Feasting on the Carcasses of My Enemies: A Love Story” and “Not If I Kill You First,” a tale of motherhood. Her audience of more than 25,000 followers includes many good-humored literary types, including acclaimed authors Elizabeth McCracken, Celeste Ng, Alexander Chee and Laura Lippman.

Duchess Goldblatt joined Twitter in 2012 and has since built a rich mythology around herself. When she’s not philosophizing about empathy, toast, dogs and Riesling, she’s quipping about the mundanities of life in Crooked Path, New York, her imaginary duchy, located 10 minutes north of Manhattan and 10 minutes south of the Canadian border. (“The Scrabble Tile Drive continues in Crooked Path all weekend,” she recently wrote. “Only clean, like-new consonants accepted.”)

There’s no recipe for Duchess Goldblatt tweets, but they often amount to one part conventional wisdom and two parts surrealism, with some grandmotherly tenderness or saltiness sprinkled in for good measure. “Night night, loons,” she tweeted to her followers earlier this year. “Don’t try to snuggle up to me in my sleep. You know I need to stretch out.” She often writes about maintaining her sanity: “I’m finding myself some peace and quiet today. I buried it in a coffee can under a weeping willow last fall.” Her feed is one of the few places on the internet devoted to spreading unadulterated joy. It’s also a successful example of social media literature, due in part to Duchess’ voice, which requires readers to confront the ridiculousness of the entire premise alongside the sincerity of her musings.

Because so many writers and actors follow Duchess Goldblatt, it has long been suspected that her creator is a public figure. (McCracken, the first writer to champion Duchess online, seemed a likely candidate.) The writer behind the account insists that’s not the case, although she is a professional writer. “That’s kind of the joke to me, that Duchess is famous as a fictional person, but I’m not. In any way,” she said during a phone interview.

Still, devoted fans will soon learn a great deal about the person behind the account; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is publishing her memoir, “Becoming Duchess Goldblatt,” on Tuesday.

The people who do know her real identity are a very small number, including a couple of people at Houghton Mifflin and a few select friends made on social media who have gone on to meet her in person. The publisher wouldn’t reveal her identity, and other friends said they plan to take the secret to their graves. Tina Jordan, an editor at The New York Times and a regular Duchess reader, said her efforts to figure out the writer behind the account have so far come up empty.

The memoir maps the character’s origins as an activity to help the writer distract herself post-divorce. The book is written entirely in the author’s personal voice, with Duchess tweets interspersed when appropriate. For example, following one scene in which divorce lawyers describe the writer’s joint custody options, we see this Duchess tweet: “What kind of feelings taste best raw? I like regrets on the half shell. Serve them on a bed of crushed ice with lemon wedges and Tabasco.”

“It started on Facebook, just as something fun to do for myself,” she said of the fictional persona. Abandoned by friends and relatives in the wake of her divorce, and faced with nights alone when her 6-year-old son was with his father, she began to sublimate her pain into joy online. Soon, strangers began to play along.

For years, she says, her ex-husband told her she wasn’t funny. “He was very concerned with appearances, and he wanted to appear to be the smarter and kinder and funnier one, and he resented whenever he thought I upstaged him,” she said.

After migrating from Facebook to Twitter, Duchess hit a nerve with the literary community and caught the attention of her creator’s favorite singer, Lyle Lovett.

“I just came across a tweet where she mentioned me, and I thought, what is this?” Lovett said. He clicked on the entire feed and “really enjoyed her writing immediately.” At the time, Lovett was on tour, staying in a luxury hotel in Washington, D.C., looking at a portrait not unlike the Frans Hals painting. He sent the writer a direct message, inviting her to a concert of his.

“The person behind Duchess is every bit as kind and thoughtful and clever as Duchess is herself,” Lovett said. They’ve become real-life friends in the years since, and he contributed his voice to the audiobook of “Becoming Duchess Goldblatt,” alongside actress J. Smith Cameron (“Succession”) and narrator Gabra Zackman.

Lovett was the first to suggest to Duchess that she write a book. “I told her from the beginning that I thought she had a book because of the community that she created” online, he said. He’s gotten to know some fellow Duchess fans in real life, too, like Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer, who has visited Lovett’s home in Texas. Some Duchess fans have even attended his concerts in groups. “To be able to create that kind of community virtually and anonymously, in this day and time, is really something,” Lovett said, especially since the community is bonded by a sensibility more than a specific shared interest.

The writer behind the persona insists that Duchess tweets aren’t pre-written. Instead, Duchess’ voice occupies a special place in her brain. “She’s always with me,” the writer said. “She’s with me in the way that ghosts are with us, you know? That the dead are with us. She’s just always sort of present at my elbow. Or on my shoulder. And so sometimes, when I’m not really paying attention, I’ll just randomly go to my phone and, out of habit, click open Twitter and just be Duchess for a minute.” She likens her followers’ responses to “an ongoing cocktail party” or “salon experience.”

But while Lovett suggested she write about her community, “Becoming Duchess Goldblatt” recontextualizes the Twitter account as a therapeutic exercise. The memoir gets dark, covering loss, grief and loneliness. The Duchess-created holiday Secular Pie Thursday, for example, was the result of a Thanksgiving spent alone.

Cameron said she was “struck by the book as an entity, because the character of Anonymous has such a different voice. Now I kind of read another echo into the tweets.”

Jon Danziger, a film studies professor at Pace University and a longtime Duchess fan, has twice nominated the imagined writer for an honorary degree at Pace. “Her being fictional shouldn’t prevent her from getting a degree,” he said. “There was a moment where I thought, ‘This is the last thing I’m going to do. They’re going to terminate me from the faculty.’ But I thought, ‘If that’s how I’m going out, I’ll take it.’” (“Duchess and I are both quite bitter that she hasn’t been recognized by academia,” her creator said.)

Like most internet personalities, Duchess Goldblatt has her superfans, too. Her home office is filled with fan art, mailed to her through various proxies. She’s received watercolor portraits, maps of Crooked Path and custom-made Duchess M&M’s. A woman named P.J. in Galveston, Texas, traveled the world taking selfies with a laminated cutout of Duchess’ face and mailed her a sachertorte from Vienna. The novelist Ng crocheted a Duchess doll, which she mailed to Lippman to commemorate Lippman’s Goldblatt Prize, an imaginary literary award that Ng had won two years prior.

If 2020 had gone as planned, Meg Heriford, owner of the Ladybird Diner in Lawrence, Kansas, would be on a plane right now, hand-delivering a dozen Duchess pies from her restaurant to the now-canceled book party in New York. (Duchess was planning to be represented at the party by some of her notable fans as surrogates.) “There are books to sell,” Heriford said over the phone in February. “I am dead serious, I will bring pies.”

Some publishers were wary of releasing “Becoming Duchess Goldblatt” anonymously, with publicity and marketing departments especially concerned about how they could best promote the book without an author to send out behind it. For Lucy Carson, the writer’s agent, the anonymity is part of the magic. “In publishing, in 2020, there’s such an emphasis on the writer being part of the narrative, and we’re losing something really pure about how to read a text,” she said. “For me, part of the book’s power comes from Duchess saying, ‘You don’t have any choice but to use the text alone to form your opinion.’”

As for the woman depicted in Frans Hals’ painting, the writer behind Duchess hopes she would be pleased that “almost 400 years later, people are still gazing at her portrait with love and affection.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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