Have a bite of the Roaring Twenties–try a Charleston Chew.

250px-CharlestonChewEvery so often, I have to do a book signing. This involves sitting at a table at a book store for three or four hours, hoping customers will stop by to chat and maybe buy a book. To make the process more interesting for book store customers, I usually bring show-and-tell: my 2 beaded flapper dresses from 1925, my (empty) bottle of poison that my killer used to murder a couple people, antique vaudeville programs, and a 1929 doctor’s prescription for alcohol (legal booze). Talking about these helps pass the time. 

I recently decided I needed something to give away, so I had some bookmarks printed and did a quick bit of research into candies that were popular in the Roaring Twenties. There are several that are still around–and still popular–today, but I chose Charleston Chews, largely because the name evokes the era–the Charleston was the signature dance of the decade. I had a local candy store order a large quantity of bite-size Charleston Chews for me and am ready to set them out at my next event! 

Other candies were popular in the Twenties: Butterfingers, candy canes, and Clark Bars, for example. I mention Clark Bars in SILENT MURDERS when Carl Delaney, the cop who likes Jessie, hands her one after she’s been arrested and says they gave them to him in France during the Great War. (I can’t write World War I because it wasn’t called that until after World War II happened.) But Clark Bars don’t have the verbal tie-in to the Twenties that Charleston Chews have, so I went with those. Maybe, if the Charleston Chews are popular, I’ll buy some Clark Bars and give out both . . . 

Charleston  Chews were introduced in 1922, and since my books take place in 1925 and 1926, they come from the right era. I plan to mention them in my next book. They are chewy, as you might expect from the name, and made of nougat coated in chocolate. 

Published in: on September 13, 2014 at 7:34 am  Comments (4)  

Prohibition and the Church/State Overlap

Church Pic1I read something interesting in The Economist last week. Something I hadn’t thought about but it made sense. “A century or more ago, Protestant pastors largely stayed out of politics. They were wary of church-state entanglements, so tended instead to their flocks’ basic needs. It was Prohibition, for which many clergy campaigned before the first world war, that galvanized the church’s involvement in politics.”5 Prohibition Disposal(9)

 

Published in: on September 7, 2014 at 8:29 am  Comments (1)  
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How Much $$ Can Fit in a Suitcase in 1926?

20-dollar-bill-061My fourth mystery, MURDER IN DISGUISE (due out in 2016), involves a suitcase full of cash from illegal bootlegging and drug sales. I found myself at a loss when trying to estimate how much money would be in that suitcase. How much money would fit into an average suitcase? Of course, it depends on the size of the suitcase and the denomination of the bills, but even then, I had no earthly idea. Would it be tens of thousands of dollars? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? 

To find out, I took a trip to my local bank and, after carefully explaining that I was neither crazy nor a bank robber, I asked the manager how many bills to an inch were in a stack? I explained why I needed to know, and after she stopped laughing, she got a teller to bring out several packets of cash. I whipped out my ruler and measured–turns out there are about 200 bills per inch when the bills are used. Crisp new bills lie flatter and would measure more per inch, but I figured the money in my fictitious suitcase was used bills, coming from bootleggers and drug dealers, not from banks. 

Back home, I measured the length and width of a dollar bill, then plotted how many could fit in a suitcase of approximately 30″ x 20″ x 8.” There would be 1,600 bills in each 8″ stack and 35 stacks arranged 5 rows by 7 rows. Now, depending upon the denominations inside the suitcase, it would hold about 5 1/2 million dollars if they were all hundreds. But my story takes place in 1925, and hundred dollar bills would be rare and difficult to spend (and would be worth about $1,365 in today’s money), so I figure most are twenties and some are tens, still large bills in those days but easier to use. With a hypothetical mixture of mostly twenties (see illustration) and some hundreds and some tens, I came out with about $1.68 million. That sounded reasonable. So that’s what I’m going with. 

Then I learned that bills from that era were slightly larger than our today. I could either redo my calculations or imagine a slightly larger suitcase. Lazy me.

 

 

 

Published in: on August 30, 2014 at 2:46 pm  Comments (1)  
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Now Available in Paperback

adaf6-impersonatorHooray! My Roaring Twenties mystery, THE IMPERSONATOR, originally published by St. Martin’s/Minotaur Press last September in hardback, has just been made available in paperback form at all bookstores and online. The paperback version has a section at the end with suggested questions for book clubs, something they don’t do in hardcover versions, for some reason . . . probably because most book clubs choose books that are available in paperback to keep costs down. 

 

Published in: on August 23, 2014 at 3:07 pm  Comments (6)  

How Much $$ Was Made during Prohibition?

255_10000_1934_face_large_2This is a famously difficult question, one that historians and economic historians have played with for decades. Still, it is fun to speculate. According to Daniel Okrent, the historian who wrote the marvelous book, Last Call, the annual sales from bootleg liquor reached about 3.6 billion dollars by 1926. To put this into perspective, that was about the same amount as the entire federal budget that year, including the military. 

Another way to look at the question is to measure the increase in printed bills by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. In 1925, they printed $300 million MORE large-denomination bills than they had five years earlier, before Prohibition started. As NY Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia said, “What honest businessman deals in $10,000 bills? Surely these bills were not used to pay the salaries of ministers.” 

Surely not. They were more likely to go to pay for things like Al Capone’s armor-plated car ($350,000 in today’s dollars) or bootlegger Terry Druggan’s solid silver toilet seat, not to mention bribes for the judges, politicians, lawyers, policemen, juries, federal agents, and bureaucrats in every town and city. 

The introduction of electronic money transfers between banks and credit cards meant the end of large bills. Nothing larger than a $100 bill has been printed in America since 1969. 

Published in: on August 15, 2014 at 2:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

Douglas Fairbanks, Creator of Zorro

220px-FairbanksMarkofZorroOkay, I know that Johnston McCulley wrote the original story of Zorro in 1919 in a weekly magazine. He titled his tale “The Curse of Capistrano,” and it didn’t get much notice. It would have died an obscure death had not the great swashbuckling actor, Douglas Fairbanks, happened to read the magazine on his way to Europe for his honeymoon and decided it would make a great movie–with himself as the star, of course. 

I recently re-read “The Curse of Capistrano” and re-watched “The Mark of Zorro,” Fairbanks’s 1920 film, to compare the two. I wanted to see just how much of the Zorro persona Fairbanks invented and just how much was McCulley’s. 

Turns out, Fairbanks accounts for as much or more than McCulley. McCulley is not a great writer and is particularly weak on descriptions. While he describes Don Diego as “lifeless” and the character is always complaining about being exhausted, it was Douglas Fairbanks who turned that into a vivid image. He shows Don Diego in his first scene entering a tavern during a storm with, of all things, an umbrella–that highly effeminate tool. He is dressed in fancy, decorative clothing. He yawns constantly and slumps. At least 5 times, he shows a stupid magic trick while asking, “Have you seen this one?” He wears a beauty spot on his chin and in one scene, makes shadow puppets on the wall. None of these details appear in the original magazine. 

Douglas Fairbanks also put details into Zorro. It is he who invented the black outfit, the Z on the cheek and, in one case, on the seat of the pants. Endowing Zorro with his own athleticism, he swings on a rope from balcony to balcony, leaps walls and rooftops, conducts sword fights over tables, while walking over a chair, and crouching on the fireplace mantel. Douglas added the secret, underground lair beneath the de Vega household where Zorro can hide his horse as he is being pursued (sort of like the Bat-cave), and the hidden passageways in the deVega mansion by which Zorro/Don Diego come and go in secret.

Conclusion: Our notion of Zorro, nurtured through many more movies and television series, stems largely from Douglas Fairbanks’s vision of the hero. I’ll be using this in the talks I’m scheduled to give this fall. 

 

Published in: on August 5, 2014 at 5:55 am  Comments (7)  

Mostly Lost: A Silent Film Identification Project

mostly-lost-bannerI heard about this from a piece on NPR, unfortunately too late to participate. The Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, VA, had a workshop in July for film experts, archivists, and anyone with expertise on early silent movies, where they show films and partials that they can’t identify and hope the audience can help. This isn’t a quiet, respectful audience; this is a shout-out audience whenever someone thinks they recognize a particular actor, the model of a car, a geographic location –anything that would help pinpoint a date or help ID the work. The 3-day event is open to anyone, but one must register and be admitted in advance. I believe it happens every year, so I’m going to try to attend in 2015. I’m no big-time expert, but I have learned something from my research for my Roaring Twenties mysteries, and I might be able to supply a clue or recognize something historical that could help. Anyway, spending a couple days with other people who share my interest in silent film would be a treat!

Read more about this unusual event at www.culpepertheatre.org/mostly-lost/

Published in: on July 26, 2014 at 11:06 am  Comments (7)  
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Medical Liquor Prescription

Look what I bought on eBay! A prescription for liquor dated 1929. Medical Liquor Prescription It’s a duplicate and the handwriting is sloppy, so it’s a bit hard to read, but it was made out to Albert Long of ???, Pennsylvania for Thatcher’s Drug Store in West Chester. The doctor prescribed a quart of some liquor that the second word begins with Fr . . . ti. Anyone know a liquor that would fit those letters? On the back, rules say that the prescription is only good for 3 days, and that this duplicate had to be retained by the drug store. No doubt, the pharmacist saved these in a binder (see the 2 hold punches?) in case the Prohibition cops wanted to check. Since one of my characters in Silent Murders and the book following that (Renting Silence 2015) is involved in legal drug store liquor sales, I wanted to have one of these for my “show and tell” folder when I appear at book signings and at book clubs. It makes history really come alive.

Published in: on July 20, 2014 at 8:22 am  Comments (9)  

How did waiters fare during Prohibition?

margaret-bourke-white-waiters-serving-at-marlborough-house-a-speakeasy-haven-for-drinking-socialites-during-prohibitionHere’s an interesting tidbit I stumbled upon–how Prohibition affected waiters.

During Prohibition, especially in the cities, a restaurant that didn’t sell booze was doomed to fail. Obviously, customers preferred the ones who flouted the laws, but it was more than that. According to Daniel Okrent in Last Call, labor economics favored the illegal speakeasies, “because tips in speakeasies were so much larger, so was the earning power of their waiters and chefs; this attracted the best in the business.” 

Others flocked to hotels where they could drink in the privacy of their own rooms. So many people were using hotel rooms in this fashion that the practice led to the installation of wall-mounted bottle openers which were fastened to a door jamb so they wouldn’t be stolen. 

These are both nuggets I can use in my mysteries.

Published in: on July 12, 2014 at 7:49 am  Comments (1)  

Cocktails for the Twenties

imagesProhibition changed drinking patterns a lot during the Twenties. Before 1920, most Americans had enjoyed drinking hard cider, beer, or wine; relatively fewer drank gin, whiskey, or other spirits. In fact, many people initially supported the proposed prohibition of alcohol thinking that it was only going to outlaw hard liquor, and that beer and the rest would still be available. Not so. For the hard-core Prohibitionists, it was all or nothing.

After everything was all illegal, there was an uptick in hard liquor sales. Why? Because speakeasies found it was  easier to transport, store (hide), and sell liquor than it was the lower alcoholic-content beverages like wine and beer. One bottle of gin could go a lot farther than the same size bottle of wine. That’s what led to the proliferation of the cocktail during this decade.

images-1In my mysteries, I show a lot of drinking, mostly at private parties and speakeasies. My main character’s beverage of choice is champagne, which she doesn’t get very often, and she drinks beer and cocktails as well. Which ones? She likes gin rickeys, which first appeared around the turn of the twentieth century. A 1903 recipe calls for the juice of one lime, a small ice cube, a wine glass of gin, and the rest seltzer. Many other gin cocktails were developed during these years. Mix a shot of gin with lemon juice, sugar, and seltzer and you have a Gin Fizz. The Bennett used gin with lime juice and bitters; the Bee’s Knees with honey and lemon juice; the Southside with lemon juice, sugar, mint, and seltzer. 

Readers often ask if I modeled Jessie after myself. Some authors do that. I did not. I have Jessie drinking beer because it was more popular than wine in those decades. Personally, I dislike beer and I don’t drink liquor at all. I’m too happy with a glass of wine, red or white, to venture into the cocktail world. One drink we both like–champagne! 

Published in: on June 23, 2014 at 2:38 pm  Comments (4)  
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