During the last decade of the 19th Century, the population of New York City grew by 127%. Many who came expecting a land of plenty were left in dire poverty, especially women. Factory jobs for women had passed to men, and clerical jobs had not yet opened up. Central Park at 57th Street became a village of shanties, with roofs made from flattened tin cans. Many women turned to petty crimes as a means of survival: O'Faolin writes: "There were women for sale everywhere -- standing in windows, barely dressed, behind the curtains in cigar stores, barbershops, bathhouses, massage parlors, lunchrooms, soda-water restaurants, beerhalls, cafes, pastry shops and delis."
Whether biting the diamond from a john's tie-stud, performing in a Broadway play, horrifying upperclass women at fancy ball as she makes a bleached-blond entrance on the arm of an aristocratic escort, or actually trying to go straight as Mrs. Sharpe, a middle-class wife in New Jersey, Chicago May is sometimes despicable, occasionally elegant and always outrageous. She survived to the age of 59, dying in 1929 among roses brought to her hospital bed by a much younger lover, on the day they were to be married.
O'Faolin has achieved the nearly impossible - she has written a spellbinding book about an unlikeable character. Chicago May's story, as it veers through dazzling highs and sordid lows, provides the perfect opportunity for the author to do what she does best - fill in the missing pieces of her nonfiction tale with what might be called informed guesses, with gestalts formed from a brilliant combination of meticulous research and creative imagination. O'Faolin will, for example, imagine what May thinks and feels on an April night in 1903, when she stands lookout for her boyfriend as he robs the Paris American Express office: "To have left the streets and brothels behind, to be associated with prestigious colleagues, to be plotting against a company as big as American Express -- this was her graduation day."
The author's extensive knowledge of all aspects of the social landscape of the late 1800s enriches her imaginative projections into the hearts and minds of the colorful characters populating The Story of Chicago May. One suspects, judging by the unconventional survivor O'Faolin described in her two bestselling autobiographies, Are You Somebody, and Almost There, that the author's empathy with Chicago May derives from her recognition of a kin redheaded Irish spirit.