vanity fair
Reviving Cleopatra
November 2010
By Cullen Murphy
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

Cleopatra, observes biographer Stacy Schiff, has had "one of the busiest afterlives in history." She is an all-too-familiar presence on stage and screen. She is a cigarette, a record company, a comic-strip character, an asteroid. As a figure of history and legend‑"Delilah meets Catherine the Great meets Jackie O"‑she has been a cliché for nearly 20 centuries, an avatar for the powerful celebrity temptress. What of the life itself? Everyone knows the legend‑the affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony; the suicide by snakebite‑but, in fact, there is little to go on in the historical record. "We may live in a post-factual age," says Schiff, "but hers was a pie-factual one." The earliest accounts were written by Romans with apples to polish or axes to grind. The only reliable portraits are the ones on coins. A single written word (at most) of Cleopatra's survives‑it's the Greek word Ginesthoi, on a royal decree, meaning "Let it be done." But even this may be the notation of a scribe. ‑

Biographer Stacy Schiff, photographed in New York City.
Schiff wears a dress by Burberry London; necklace by Ted Muehling; bracelets by Ilias Lalaounis; ring by Temple St. Clair.

Schiff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Véra Nabokov, set out to extract the real Cleopatra from the mythic figure. She was the richest person in the world‑the last pharaoh‑and she knew how to manage an army. She was well educated and could murder to great effect. She was a shrewd politician. She was also, says Schiff, "fully aware of herself as a woman‑even artfully aware‑but unencumbered by that fact." Schiff's learning is immense, but worn lightly and with an assured grasp of human nature: "She knew that the enemy of your enemy was your friend. And also that the friend of your friend is sometimes your enemy.” As for the fabled ending: suicide, probably yes; snake, probably no. And if Cleopatra were around today, in what precincts would she have thrived? "You might look for a short-seller," Schiff imagines, "or a Russian oligarch. But a very charming one."