Charlie Chaplin’s Birthday

220px-Charlie_Chaplin_portraitOn April 16, fans of Charles Chaplin celebrates his 125th birthday.

I’m not a big fan. I acknowledge his genius–he was a brilliant comedian, actor, and businessman–but as a parent, I can’t help but be turned off by his penchant for very young girls. He was 35 when he got 15-year-old Lita Grey, as aspiring actress, pregnant and, because sex with a minor could have put him in prison, married her quickly in Mexico. She had 2 boys; they divorced. Lita was his second wife. His first wife was 16 when they married and 18 when they divorced. He had many affairs, usually with very young women, and two more wives. His fourth wife was 17 and he 53 when they married. Some may not care about this but I have a problem with older men taking advantage of very young girls, so Chaplin isn’t my favorite. Nonetheless, he was Douglas Fairbanks’s best friend, so I can’t avoid mentioning him in my Roaring Twenties series.

Here’s one passage:

“Welcome, Jessie.” Miss Pickford rose from her rattan chaise to greet me. I said hello to Stella DeLanti, who was playing the queen in our Zorro picture, and to Douglas’s brother Robert, the film’s general manager, both of whom I knew from the set, then I was introduced to Ernst Lubitsch. I had heard the name. Miss Pickford had brought him and his wife Helene to Hollywood from Germany a couple years ago to be one of her directors, and he was well known in film circles. Last, Miss Pickford turned to a plump girl with a round, pretty face whose baggy frock did little to disguise her fat stomach. She appeared to be about fifteen and was clearly bored by the adults around her. I assumed she was someone’s daughter.

220px-Lita_Grey“Jessie, this is Lillita Chaplin. Lita, dear, Jessie Beckett works on the Zorro picture with Douglas. Charlie and Douglas will be along as soon as they finish their tennis game. Do have a seat and some lemonade, Jessie. I know it’s been a long day for you.”

Geez Louise, the kid was Chaplin’s wife! His second, married just a few months ago in Mexico under somewhat mysterious circumstances. And she wasn’t fat. She was pregnant. Now I believed those rumors about Lita being under age. Even malicious gossip is true sometimes: Charlie Chaplin had an itch for young girls. His first wife, too, had been little more than a child. I felt sorry for Lita and tried without success to engage her in conversation.

Mary Pickford’s Birthday

220px-Mary_Pickford_1916April 8 is Mary Pickford’s 122nd birthday. Born Gladys Smith in Toronto, Canada, she lost her father, an alcoholic, at an early age. She and her younger sister and brother were raised by their mother, Charlotte, a fiercely determined woman who pushed all three of her children onto the stage and into silent pictures. Mary’s siblings, Lottie and Jack, became stars on her coattails–she was the international superstar of her era, the best known and best loved female face in the world. Yet she was not “just” an actress. She was a producer and the co-founder of United Artists–at a time when everyone thought actors didn’t have the brains to run a business. It was said that she had “a man’s head on her shoulders”–a rare compliment in that highly sexist era.

pickford-mary-roseIn my upcoming mystery, SILENT MURDERS, the setting moves from vaudeville to silent pictures. It is 1925, the height of the silent film era, and my protagonist, Jessie Beckett, finds a job as a lowly assistant script girl at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, one of the better known but studios in Hollywood but not one of the largest. I introduce Mary Pickford, who is about 33 then and still playing children in her movies; Jack and Lottie play supporting roles in my story as well. I learned a lot about Mary Pickford–and her family–from reading a couple biographies and her own autobiography. And after writing her into several mysteries, I feel as if I know her quite well. Isn’t she pretty? But she was not just a pretty face; she was a genuinely kind person, a tough boss but always kind to her employees. She used to say that no one worked for her, they all worked with  her. 

So Happy Birthday, Mary Pickford!

Silent Murder copyedits–FINISHED!

thFinished final edits for SILENT MURDERS yesterday–only took 2 days! I have an omniscient copyeditor. Here are some things I learned: the preferred spelling is gray, not grey; also whiskey, not whisky. It’s “if worst comes to worst,” not “worse.” Rolls-Royce is hyphenated. It’s “dammit,” not damnit. These are one word: boardinghouse, drugstore, lightbulb, apiece, shopgirl, coffeepot, stuntman, backseat, shortcut, dustup, reshoot, stomachache, and uphill, BUT these aren’t: meat loaf, well-known, go-ahead, a while, tommy gun. And the popular drink, gin rickey, isn’t capitalized. When it comes to spelling, I made only two errors: minuscule (not miniscule) and lightning (not lightening, at least, not when it comes from the sky.) I’m aiming for my next manuscript to be error free–of course, it won’t be, but goals are good to have!!

Now I’m waiting for the cover art. They promised it for next week . . . I’m nervous. 

Published in: on March 29, 2014 at 8:36 am  Comments (6)  

Book Review: Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson

UnknownI picked up this book for two reasons: it was written by a black man in the 1920s and I have a character in RENTING SILENCE (#3 in the Roaring Twenties series) who is black. It is fiction, written in first person, and reveals a good deal about the thinking of a light-skinned black man who passes as white in the Twenties. 

It was a real find–I was able to use a good deal of the information as background material for my own character–but all in all, I wouldn’t recommend the book for casual reading. It was boring and the writing style is very much out of fashion today. For example, the author never uses names for his characters: they are “the millionaire” or “the beautiful girl” or “the Chinaman,” and places are referred to as “the Club.” Because it is written in first person, the narrator has no name either; he is simply “I”. This gives the book a very superficial, glossed-over feel that I found unsatisfying. 

Published in: on March 22, 2014 at 6:40 am  Comments (1)  

What to call a toilet?

170px-Old_toilet_with_elevated_cistern_and_chainOne of the challenges in writing about the 1920s in first person is finding the correct vocabulary–no modern words that weren’t used at that time are allowed! For example, I can’t use the word “teenager” because it wasn’t in use until the 1940s, or the word “date” (as in “I went on a date”) because that word hadn’t come into use yet, or the word “Model T” to describe that popular car (I call it a Ford or a flivver, or if I’m being less brand-specific, a motorcar).

2938308_f520A problem I faced early on was what to call a bathroom, especially when the three-part bathroom (sink, toilet, and tub) was not in wide use during the Twenties. The three-part bathroom was rapidly becoming the norm, but it wasn’t yet. Showers were something only the wealthy had. And multiple bathrooms in a single house was highly unusual. In Jessie’s house–an old farmhouse in Hollywood converted to a rental for five young women–a toilet was added under the staircase and a bathing room with a tub was added at the end of the upstairs hall. In SILENT MURDERS, coming out in September, I describe a boarding house where the toilet is on one end of the hall and the tub on the other end. So what word to use? Was “toilet” commonly used then? No. 

According to Merritt Ierley in an article on the history of bathrooms in American Heritage magazine (May-June 1999), only about half of the homes in America had what we consider a normal bathroom, that is, a room with the sink, toilet, and tub & shower. Evidently the word “water closet” was widely used when referencing the toilet. So I’ve made sure to use that term in my series whenever it comes up, which isn’t often, but to me, it’s a critical detail that I want to get right. The other word I can use is “lavatory,” which could mean a room with washing facilities only (tub and sink) or a three-part bathroom. 

Published in: on March 15, 2014 at 8:16 am  Comments (3)  
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Book Review: Bobbed Haired Bandit by Duncombe & Mattson

UnknownIn 1924 New York, a young woman and her husband went on a short robbery spree, holding up grocery stores and drug stores in Brooklyn. The woman, Celia Cooney, had dark bobbed hair. She was pregnant, and she and her husband Ed wanted more of the good life for themselves and for their baby. The robbed ten stores before fleeing to Florida, where they were caught and returned to face a trial. The pled guilty, avoiding a sensationalized trial, and were sentenced to 10-20 years. They served seven, and went straight afterwards. 

Not a very gripping story, and certainly not an unusual one. Yet this 2-month crime spree gripped New York and the rest of the country as the “yellow press” spun the story into a year’s worth of frenzied newspaper accounts that made Celia the biggest celebrity of her day–with crowds of tens of thousands of people trying to catch a glimpse of the Bobbed Haired Bandit wherever she appeared in public after her arrest. Poor Ed got no coverage at all, except to suggest he must be a “cake eater” or a “nancy-boy.” After all, no “real man” would be bossed by a woman. 

In 1924, a woman bandit was unthinkable. Women simply didn’t commit violent crimes unless they were insane, and sassy, self-confident Celia was definitely not insane. She enjoyed her crimes and the power the gun gave her over a group of cowering men. She enjoyed what the money bought her. Widespread opinion equated bobbed hair with sin and mental illness–fathers and husbands forbade their women from cutting their long tresses, lest they be driven to a life of crime. 

The newspaper’s reaction to the crime spree, such as it was, mightily embarrassed the New York police. Tough cops couldn’t catch a tiny young woman? How humiliating! Jobs were at stake; the newspapers screamed insults at the police, but the Cooneys remained at large and active. The police, said the newspapers, were either incompetent or on the take–either way they deserved firing. Then Celia and Ed were caught, and the pitiful story of her childhood emerged, turning her into a poster child for society’s failure to care for the most vulnerable. 

All in all, The Bobbed Haired Bandit is a great book if you are interested in a comment on the times, which of course I am. Since my mysteries take place in 1924 and 1925–although not in New York–I found the authors’ use of primary sources helpful because they revealed the language of the day, words I can work into my own stories. Words like nifty and simp (simple or stupid). Mentally impaired people were known (politely) as morons or feeble-minded. I can also use descriptions of what people were wearing at the time. This book was a hit for me!

Published in: on March 9, 2014 at 8:59 am  Comments (4)  
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Holmen Brothers–an acrobatic act

Thanks to Linda Miele, I was lucky enough to see a poster of the Holmen Brothers acrobatic act. This act is one listed on several of my vaudeville programs, so it was a treat to see what they looked like. Or what they thought they looked like! The question I have now, though, is, How many Holmen brothers were there? (Note the tiny dog at the bottom center . . . I wonder what he did? Comic relief?)photo

Published in: on March 2, 2014 at 9:49 am  Comments (4)  
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What’s “Smoke”?

Did "smoke" look like this?

Did “smoke” look like this?

“Smoke” was slang for a deadly drink served in the poorer parts of town, like the Bowery in New York, and in speakeasies that catered to the lowest segment of the population. It consisted largely of methyl alcohol (fuel alcohol0, which is poison, and water. It was cloudy, hence the name. Deaths from drinking methyl alcohol were common; in some places like New York, averaging one a day. If you’re wondering why on earth anyone would drink this stuff, so was I.

Evidently, drinking smoke didn’t always kill you. It might just make you really sick. Some people drank it without knowing what they were drinking. Others were too drunk to know or care. The most desperate must have figured they’d just drink it and hope it didn’t kill them this time. 

I’ve used smoke in the book I’m writing now. (I haven’t thought of a title yet so I just call it #4.) I’ve killed off someone, a minor character is in the story because her death sets off a chain reaction that bears directly on the plot. Her body is found in the dockside area of a port city where sleazy speakeasies abound, and the police can’t identify her at first. The medical examiner–and there were medical examiners in some cities in 1925, although it was a fairly new concept–finds that methyl alcohol killed her, and it is assumed she was a prostitute working the bars along the docks. Not so. A few days later she is identified, and it comes out that she was murdered, forced to drink the stuff in order to make her death look like accidental poisoning from drinking smoke. 

 

Published in: on February 22, 2014 at 9:15 am  Comments (1)  

Instant Death in the Twenties

imagesWhat brought near instant death in the Roaring Twenties? Methyl alcohol, better known as wood alcohol. Not a new invention, it had been used back in the days of ancient Egypt to embalm the deceased–the wealthy deceased, that is. Anyone can make it with wood and a heat source, and the result is clear as water. But with the advent of Prohibition and the difficulty in getting hold of decent spirits, wood alcohol began to make its way into the lower-class speakeasies. 

images-1According to Deborah Blum in Poisoner’s Handbook, two tablespoons could kill a child, a quarter cup could kill a man, or at the very least, blind him. So why, or why, would anyone drink this? Either because they didn’t know it was wood alcohol (it took a couple of hours to act) or because they were so drunk already, they didn’t care. The gallows humor of the day was that, after a night in a New York speakeasy, you called your friends to see if they were still alive. 

Wood alcohol became more of a problem later in the Twenties, especially in New York, the “wettest” city in America. And what was the second wettest city? My guess would have been Detroit or maybe Chicago. Nope. It’s that bastion of political hypocrisy, Washington D.C. 

I’m half-way through writing the 4th in the Roaring Twenties series–no title yet, although I’m keeping track of ideas–and have just killed off a minor character with wood alcohol. In this case, it’s murder. She was forced to drink it. In real life, while murder and suicide were not unusual, accidental death by wood alcohol was far more likely. 

Published in: on February 15, 2014 at 8:17 am  Comments (3)  
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Only Known Copy of Mary Pickford Film Discovered in Barn

pickford-mary-roseIt sounds like an improbable movie script–the only known copy of a very old silent movie is discovered by a carpenter in a barn in New Hampshire. But it’s true. The 1911 film starred Mary Pickford and her first husband, Owen Moore, a handsome alcoholic who was soon to be eclipsed by his wife’s fame and divorced for Douglas Fairbanks.

mary-pickford_new-york-hat-crop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Library of Congress has restored “Their First Misunderstanding.” The film is 10 minutes long–typical in that era before feature-length films were made. The first minute was missing, but the rest was in good condition, considering its age and where it had been stored for the past few decades. One film historian said that 90 percent of all films made before 1930 are gone, so this addition is a treasure. It seems that the barn was once part of a summer camp for boys, and the theory is that the film was something shown to the campers for entertainment. 

See a clip: http://vimeo.com/74730666

Published in: on February 8, 2014 at 8:33 am  Comments (1)  
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