03/15/2013 10:51 am ET Updated May 15, 2013

Queen's Gambit -- a Fascinating Novel Illuminates the Wife Who Kept Her Head -- Farewell to a Classy, Real Lady -- Sybil Christopher

"DIVORCED, BEHEADED, Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived." So goes the old rhyme about the six wives of King Henry VIII.

It is the Queen who "survived" -- Katherine Parr -- who is the subject of Elizabeth Freemantle's wildly entertaining historical novel, Queen's Gambit, coming in June from Simon and Schuster. Parr is the least sensational and the best of Henry's wives. The others were put aside for greener pastures (Katherine of Aragon), put to death because those green pastures turned brown and un-blooming (Anne Boleyn), died after childbirth (Jane Seymour), divorced because Henry claimed the lady was unappealing to him (Anne of Cleves)... executed for her teen-aged sexual capriciousness (Catherine Howard).

  • Only Mistress Parr, a widow of 31, managed to outlive Henry and deal with him at his gross and maniacal worst. She was without a doubt the most intelligent of Henry's wives -- certainly at least the smartest in the business of dealing with a man who was close to madness by the end of his reign. Had Henry not shed his mortal coil when he did, Paar might have ended up in the "beheaded" part of the old rhyme. Her enemies were accusing her of religious heresy for embracing the new Church of England -- it might have been the block, or the burning pyre for Parr, despite all her smarts and tender loving care of the hideous Henry.

Ms. Freemantle follows history scrupulously, but her fictional off-shoots, dialogues and situations have an unmistakable ring of "Yes, this could have happened!" "Queen's Gambit" is lively, gamey, gripped with tension and within reason. One of the best historical novels I've read. It is Freemantle's first book. I hope it will not be her last.

P.S. Next week we'll go back to Anne Boleyn, for an absolute last word on this ill-fated queen.

  • Speaking of remarkable wives, the totally wonderful Sybil Christopher, died last week at age 83.

She had once been known as Sybil Burton, the wife of actor Richard Burton. She was witty, brilliant and had the patience of Penelope. Alas, her patience finally dissipated when her philandering hubby set eyes on Miss Elizabeth Taylor during the shooting of Cleopatra. Sybil was determined, that "Richard will not become the fifth husband of Elizabeth Taylor!" Unfortunately for Sybil (and perhaps for Richard and Elizabeth) that is exactly what he did become.

However, once free of Burton, Sybil never looked back--indeed, and rather heartbreakingly, she never spoke to Richard again. (Yet she never interfered with Richard's parental rights.) Sybil went on to marry a younger man, Jordan Christopher, and opened a fabulous disco in New York, named Arthur. She was the spicy toast of Manhattan for a while and most agreed, she was well out of it with Richard.

Later, she helped found the esteemed Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor on Long Island. Sybil never talked, never gossiped about Richard and Elizabeth. However, she remained good friends with one of Elizabeth's good friends, Roddy McDowall. When Roddy was on his deathbed in 1998, Elizabeth visited him almost daily. One afternoon the doorbell rang. Elizabeth opened the door and there stood Sybil. The two women fell into each other's arms, weeping for Roddy--and Lord knows what else!

RIP Sybil Burton Christopher -- a really great lady. She is mourned by her actress daughter Kate Burton, by Amy Christopher, her child with Jordan, and by many, many friends.

  • The latest edition of David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film has landed with a huge ker-plunk on my desk (1,076 pages!) Mr. Thomson is perhaps the world's greatest, most perceptive and erudite movie aficionado. The first edition of this book appeared in 1975.

Thomson's biographies of movie stars, directors, producers and cinematographers are not only accurate in factual detail, but brilliant in the usually brief one or two paragraphs that open his pieces and sum up the persona and career of whomever he is writing about.

Here are his opening lines about Mickey Rooney: "Do we laugh or cry for Mickey Rooney? Is it possible within a brief career entry to convey the dementia of his life and career, and yet suggest his spasmodic ability to transcend vulgarity and make it into an astonishing portrait of the all-American boy-hero in which the motor is accelerating at some geometric progression?... Mickey is important yet ridiculous; it is in the pitch of his absurdity that he is significant."

If you want to know what's what about movies, and you'd like to try to learn how to write explicitly, but in brief, pick up David Thomson's masterpiece.

  • The new pope, Francis I was born on Dec 17, 1936. The Sagittarian with the Moon and Venus in Aquarius, seems genuinely kind, humble and a 'man of the people.'"

With Saturn opposite Neptune, he understands suffering and truly desires to heal it. "Hopefully grace will kick in and eliminate the down side of his being elected during a Void of Course Moon and Mercury retrograde. Grace trumps the stars you know." So says astrologer Shelley Ackerman.

How does she come up with all this wonderful stuff?