Tori Telfer has established herself as the premier storyteller of crime stories about women. Whether in books (Lady Killers), podcasts (Criminal Broads), or features that have appeared in numerous outlets, Telfer peers inside the worst misdeeds women are capable of, in a way that finds new insight into well-trodden stories and brings attention to cases that ought to be better known.
Her newest, Confident Women, is an entire book devoted to women of the grift. It’s an exhilarating and entertaining collection of stories we believe we know well and stories we had hardly a clue about, a narrative synthesis that values style in tandem with substance, voice alongside facts.
Telfer shines in particular when she’s writing about historical figures. Her account of Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, whose exploits may have helped foment the seeds for the French Revolution, manages to center the woman’s desperate bid for acceptance and for the restoration of her family’s honor.
A later chapter on “The Anastasias” finds compassion for those pretending to be the supposedly lost Romanov princess, whose actual death is depicted with the appropriate horror and brutality: “The world was cruel, and death was pitiless. Sometimes it came for seventeen-year-old girls. Far better to ignore all the evidence and believe that history was kind, and men had mercy, and princesses lived.”
Femmes de Confidence
Reanimating history is an important skill in the storyteller’s toolbox, but Telfer is equally adroit at reporting out more recent, and more obscure, femmes de confidence. There is Wang Ti, whose luck at snaring an Olympian boyfriend dissipates in the face of his lavish desire for luxury—demands she can slake only with increasingly outrageous property-based schemes. And Roxie Rice, a St. Louis girl with a knack for getting 1970s sports celebrities to believe she moved in their circles, infamous at 19 and completely forgotten by 23.
The standout chapter in Confident Women is about Bonny Lee Bakley, whom Telfer introduces in the following unforgettable fashion: “It wasn’t fair, dying in Hollywood. Your reputation could be trashed before your body went cold, and what could you do about it?” Bakley, possibly murdered by her husband, Robert Blake (he was acquitted), had spent years kiting checks, fleecing marks, and setting her sights on tying down a celebrity. Blake fit the bill, but Bakley got far more than she’d bargained for, and Telfer conveys the true fear, coupled with the true thrill, that Bonny must have felt in her short-term union.
Some grifts really do get far away from their origin, superseded by the even older duo of misogyny and abuse.
Roxie Rice, a St. Louis girl with a knack for getting 1970s sports celebrities to believe she moved in their circles, infamous at 19 and completely forgotten by 23.
Telfer has a keen eye for the larger context of those in perpetual pursuit of marks, and right away zeroes in on why con artists—and especially female con artists—continue to fascinate us: “It’s tempting to think that we could be her—if we were better at accents and owned a few more wigs and gave in, completely, to our basest social desires: for status, power, wealth, money, admiration, control.”
Their glittery charm seems so fabulous, so nonviolent. Until you’re the one being fleeced, abused, or worse. The fun and glamour at the start of a con dissolves into ruin and tragedy. As Telfer writes, “To achieve these nefarious ends, the con woman weaponizes confidence itself.” And yet, how could it be any other way? To go through life forever wary, ready to jettison hope lest disappointment, or worse, befall us, is to not live at all.
Confident Women exposes the high-wire dance between con artist and mark, between a certain number of women transforming their own combination of inherited trauma for personal gain and those who fall under their spell.
Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita and the editor of Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession