The first chance locals will get to see that film is during a sold-out red carpet showing at Eastwood’s Palace Theatre, 2384 James St., on Saturday, April 2, 7 p.m. Because of the sellout, however, another screening takes place at the Palace on Sunday, April 3, 3 p.m.
Cross’ literary reputation had been growing for some time before the publication of Pope Joan in 1996. An effervescent platform performer, Cross is widely known for her appearances before local clubs and societies. She’s been a frequent flyer nationally for the American Program Bureau and other agencies, earning handsome fees by appearing before large crowds. Those who have not seen her know her for the constant audio connection with book clubs, where she takes questions and chats along with the folks in Orlando and Spokane. Many will remember her as the Onondaga Community College professor who repeatedly wowed the late Johnny Carson more than 30 years ago.
To dozens of people in town, she’s just Donna Cross, but the pen name Donna Woolfolk Cross points to a distinct heritage. Cross grew up in Manhattan in the household of two writers, William Woolfolk and Barbara Woolfolk. William’s politically oriented popular novels, like Opinion of the Court (1966) and The President’s Doctor (1975), were big sellers. He was a full-time professional writer who had no need for an academic gig on the side. Barbara wrote well-received young adult fiction, like The Girl Who Cried Murder (1974) and Abbey is Missing (1983). Earlier William had also written for television, notably the 1960s courtroom drama The Defenders, with E.G. Marshall. The immersion in writing and show business meant that the young Donna learned to sharpen her wits by entertaining dinner guests such as Neil Simon and Mel Brooks.
Marriage to biochemist Richard Cross and his joining the faculty of Upstate Medical School brought Donna to Syracuse, where she was quickly hired by OCC. While at OCC she began in the trenches like everyone else, with multiple sections of freshman composition and piles of student papers to correct. Focusing her attention on some of the needier students, she gravitated to the Writing Skills Center, a tutoring program, which she managed for many years. This may look like a more demanding regimen than, say, the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University, but Cross thrived in it.
Her first big seller grew partially from the hands-on work with students, Word Abuse: How the Words We Use Use Us (1979), a rival to the then-popular Strictly Speaking by Edwin Newman. The book caught the eye of Johnny Carson, which led to four appearances on The Tonight Show.
Other books and television appearances would follow, like The Today Show to promote Daddy’s Little Girl (1983), written with her father. Cross had her heart set on a novel, one with plenty of yummy historical research about how people really lived, preferably saying something about women. Her father’s work was a partial model, as his Opinion of the Court is an enthralling textbook on how the Supreme Court works. Another model was Cecelia Holland; her Until the Sun Falls (1969), to take but one example, makes Genghis Khan a knowable figure. What she had in mind was anything but costume romance.
Enter the question whether a woman might ever have been a pope in the ninth century. The very notion that such a character might have once existed has been with us for more than a thousand years. According to Worldcat, the search engine, there are more than 500 books on the subject, the earliest in Latin. Did such a person exist? An easy answer is not forthcoming, but she is more likely than, say, King Arthur or Robin Hood, both of whom have engendered coherent stories.
At least a dozen writers had a go with the Pope Joan phenomenon before Cross dived into it. English playwright Caryl Churchill makes Joan one of the important women in history in Top Girls (1982). And Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann acted out the story in a movie called, yes, Pope Joan (1972), later known as The Devil’s Imposter.
Cross’ research turned out to be more demanding than for a doctoral dissertation. As a non-religious person with a slight knowledge of Catholicism, she had to get on top of canon law, names of long-dead ecclesiastics, hundreds of Latin phrases and keeping straight the Benedictines and rival orders. Leaping out of this forbidding erudition were issues a modern reader could grasp. They start with the commanding advantages of literacy in the 800s, before the Middle Ages, really still the Dark Ages. And the status of women was not so different from what still exists in some benighted lands—little better than cattle.
What really sets Cross’ novel in motion if the failure of Joan’s feckless brother to pay attention in school. When he is killed in a Viking raid, she cuts her hair and takes his place. With the aid of a red-haired lover, Gerold, Joan rides the imposture as far as it can take her.
From the moment Pope Joan appeared it was a robust seller, especially with what is now called the book club market. Cross’ first American publisher thought small and calculated it had run its course at 100,000 copies. Meanwhile, it began to be translated into different languages, eventually reaching 38. The most important of these is German, where Die Papstin/ Pope Joan has racked up more than 2 million in sales. Cross credits the good luck of snaring a talented translator, but it cannot be overlooked that if Joan is indeed historical, she would have been born in Ingelheim, a Frankland village. That also means 1 million in sales for the rest of the world. The most recent U.S. edition is a 432-page paperback from Broadway Books, listing at $15. Amazon.com gives it a current sales rank of 8,096.
The question of a film version arose in Germany in part because the greatest sales were there. Before shooting could begin, a TV miniseries on the same subject, with suspiciously familiar quotations, had to be discouraged. Directors and cast members changed. In the lead is German actress Johanna Wokalek, bestknown in Germany for The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008), about violent urban terrorists, and in the United States for Aimee and Jaguar (1999), a tale of forbidden love during World War II. The love interest Gerold is played by Australian actor David Wenham, known for costume dramas like 300 (2006) and the recurring role of Faramir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Distinguished British stage actor Iain Glen plays a village priest. Yet the best-known name is veteran American character actor John Goodman, speaking in a British accent, as Pope Sergius, Joan’s predecessor. Experienced German director Sonke Wortmann led shooting in Germany and Morocco.
After a gala opening in Berlin, the 149minute Pope Joan played major houses in Germany, Holland, Italy and Greece. Traveling the world it did great box office in Singapore and won a prize at California’s Ojai Festival. It has not, however, broken through with U.S. distribution, which makes this weekend’s screenings at the Palace both unique events. Saturday’s sold out red carpet affair will benefit Fayetteville’s Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation. Author Donna Woolfolk Cross will be present along with legendary voice Barbara Rosenblatt, the queen of audio books, who narrated Pope Joan for Recorded Books, Inc., plus actress Lotte Flack, who plays the young Joan in the movie.
Sunday’s afternoon show offers a videotape of the previous evening’s remarks by Cross, plus a question-answer session and book signing after the movie. Admission for Sunday’s show is $25 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 for students. For more information, call 637-9511.
Undercover work: Johanna Wokalek (top) takes the lead in Pope Joan, with John Goodman (above) looking regal as Pope Sergius.