Look what I bought on eBay! A prescription for liquor dated 1929. 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.
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.
Prohibition 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.
In 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!
You can’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do. So I’m pleased that I’m pleased with the cover for my next book, SILENT MURDERS, which will be released on September 23.
The art director for St.Martin’s/Minotaur has been working on the cover for some time, and I thought you’d like to see how the process works. Here’s the first attempt. I’m fortunate that my publisher listens to its authors when designing their book covers–many (most?) do not. I wondered about the use of denim as a background for the title–blue jeans in the 1920s didn’t seem to fit. It was meant to look like the hardcover below the torn book jacket, but to me it said “blue jeans.” And the face was a little cheesy, too innocent, too modern, too much like a romance novel, which SILENT MURDERS certainly is not.
The second attempt was more authentic and more interesting. In fact, they chose to use an actual photograph from the mid-1920s. This woman looks less “ingenue,” more mysterious. I liked it very much, but thought it was drab. I wondered if they had designed it that way on purpose to mimic the black and white silent movies of the era, which form the backdrop for the story. But still, I asked if they couldn’t inject a little color.
Third time’s the charm, right? Here are the final results–I think it’s terrific. Now all I have to do is wait until September to see the finished product.
I’ve found Prohibition to be the most fascinating aspect of the utterly fascinating Roaring Twenties. In the course of my research over the past several years, I’ve learned a lot, most of which does not fit into my mystery series (hence this blog). What shocked me most was not the hypocrisy of the era, not the violence, not the wholesale corruption, but the parallel between the prohibition of alcohol and the prohibition of marijuana. All I had to do was substitute the word “pot” for the word “liquor” and the story reads the same.
During Prohibition, there were exceptions for medical liquor, just as there are exceptions in many states for medical marijuana. And those exceptions were flagrantly abused. During Prohibition, some people (farmers, for instance) could legally make hard cider or wine at home for home use. Similar exceptions exist in some states for small amounts of homegrown marijuana plants. During Prohibition, the medical community switched from saying that alcohol had no medicinal value to saying that it had significant medical value. Most doctors now say that pot has medicinal value.
Prohibition led directly to the rise of an international crime syndicate that smuggled liquor into the United States from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Canada. The prohibition of pot has led to the creation of an international crime syndicate that smuggles pot into the U.S. from Mexico and the Caribbean (not so much from Canada). The gangsters during the 1920s were gruesomely violent, the murder rate almost doubled, many innocent bystanders were killed. The drug cartels of today are gruesomely violent, turning entire countries or parts of countries into narco-states, and many innocent people are being killed.
During Prohibition, the vast amounts of money corrupted the legal system, bribing policemen, judges, lawyers, juries, and politicians, and buying murders. Today in many countries and parts of the U.S., drug money is corrupting the legal system, bribing or terrorizing policemen, judges, lawyers, juries, and politicians, murdering many. During Prohbition, imprisoned gangsters could operate from inside prison; today, many of the imprisoned drug dealers operate from inside their prisons. Prohibition of alcohol cost the country millions and millions of dollars over 13 years to enforce–and was unenforceable. Prohibition of pot costs our country billions of dollars to enforce and is not enforceable. In the 1920s, courts and prisons overflowed with people who had broken the Prohibition laws but who were otherwise not criminal or violent. Today our courts and prisons are overflowing with nonviolent people who have broken our drug laws.
I used to be one of the majority of Americans who believed that marijuana should be illegal. My immersion in the 1920s has convinced me I was wrong.
In hindsight, Prohibition looks so stupid to all of us, so doomed to failure, so utterly wrong that most of us wonder how on earth such a law came about. (Read LAST CALL of you want the shocking details.) So now I’ve come to believe the prohibition of marijuana is equally stupid.
Do you know what surprised me? It was actually HARDER to get a drink after Prohibition ended in 1933 than it was during Prohibition (1920-1933). Why? Because of regulation. When government regulation came back into effect in 1933, there were once again rules–laws limiting the number of bars in a particular area, the days of the week they could operate (not on Sunday), the hours they could operate (not 24 hours a day), the sort of people they served (not children), and where they could go (not near schools or churches). Legal booze, unlike illegal rotgut, was made by legal breweries, distilleries, and wineries where quality could be monitored; illegal booze killed people because it was often made with poison. Alcohol-related deaths declined once alcohol was legal. And people started drinking more beer and wine and less hard liquor. The crime world was removed from the liquor supply system and violence declined. (Unfortunately, the gangster organizations didn’t disappear because there were still plenty of illegal moneymaking opportunities in drugs, prostitution, gambling, and extortion.)
So oddly enough, my research into the Prohibition era has had the unexpected effect of changing my opinion about legalized pot. What about you?
Leslie Townes Hope was born in England on May 29, 1903, and he died 100 years later. Could he have chosen a more traumatic century in which to live, with all its world wars and horrible violence? But it was those wars that brought out the best in Bob Hope, the comedian, dancer, and entertainer who often put himself in significant danger in order to bring a moment of enjoyment and a little bit of home to American and Allied soldiers during World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War, plus hundreds of other occasions on military bases. He is the only person named by Congress as an “honorary veteran.” Bob Hope is one of very, very few performers to have had success in vaudeville, Broadway, radio, movies, and television.
He got his start as a teenager in vaudeville, which is what got me interested in his story. I read several of his autobiographies (probably ghost written, but written with his help) and his official website, http://www.bobhope.com, and incorporated what I learned into his cameo role in my third mystery, RENTING SILENCE (due in 2015). He was still Les Hope when my story takes place in 1925 (he didn’t change his name until several years later), so I can’t call him Bob, but I hope readers will figure out who the young vaudeville “hoofer” really is.
One of my all-time favorite mystery/suspense authors, Mary Stewart, died a couple weeks ago. She was 97 and hadn’t written anything in years, but in her productive tim, she published a couple dozen novels, including several for young people. Some of her books were made into movies, notably The Moonspinners, set in the Greek isles. Her most famous books are her Merlin series (Crystal Cave, Hollow Hills, Last Enchantment). Her maiden name, I just learned from her obituary, was Mary Rainbow. Really.
My favorite was her first, Madam Will You Talk? (1954) which takes place in the south of France right after the second world war. She was a wonderful storyteller and a powerful writer, imaginative, vivid, and with a strong sense of place. To read a Mary Stewart novel is to travel, in place and in time.
I’ve written a novel set in France in 1928 that I modeled after Mary Stewart’s work. Nothing nearly as good as hers, of course, but she was my inspiration. I call it Stolen Memories. My agent is reading it now–I hope she can recommend a suitable publisher.
To entertain myself on a long train trip this week, I brought a copy of E. M. Hull’s THE SHEIK to read. This is the shockingly steamy and famous romance novel by the British author, Mrs. Edith M. Hull (who probably needed to use initials to disguise the fact that she was a woman), published in 1919 in Britain and in 1921 in the U.S. It was a huge seller, but became even more so when it was made into a movie starring Rudolph Valentino in 1921, catapulting him to international fame. Because the second in my Roaring Twenties series SILENT MURDERS is set in the mid-Twenties in silent-movie Hollywood, I mention Rudy several times. He has a few cameo appearances. In the fourth book, which I am writing now, I mention the book itself. So I thought I’d better read the thing for myself. I wanted to see what constituted “shocking” in the 1920s.
It was hard coming across a copy. The library doesn’t carry such old books, nor do bookstores. I got a very old, used copy of a paperback from paperbackswap.com, so fragile that the pages kept crumbling as I turned them!
If you like romance novels, this is one you should read, if for no other reason than it started the craze for desert romances. It uses language we consider offensive today, for example, all dark-skinned people including Arabs are referred to as niggers, while avoiding anything considered offensive then, such as damn or hell. To note that the story seems trite is like saying that Shakespeare used lots of cliches. Hull was the first. Legions of romance writers followed her example and wrote similar stories in a similar vein. Her story involves a rich English noblewoman who is kidnapped and raped by a powerful sheik. She hates him. Then she loves him. He hates her; then he loves her. Happy ending in the desert wilderness. Most amusing is the kicker: he’s not a real Arab!!! (Of course not, no English girl can be in love with a dark-skinned barbarian!) The sheik is really an English lord, raised in the desert by Arabs and tanned by the sun. Made me think of Tarzan, who similarly turns out to be the son of an English nobleman, raised by apes in the jungle.
What is fascinating, to me at least, is the language and the way the story unfolds. For young women of this era, independence is not a virtue. Diana can only be happy when the sheik “tames” her, wrings all the spirit out of her, humiliates her, and makes her his slave. Then, she find true happiness. Here’s a paragraph so you can see for yourself:
She looked after him, as he went through the curtains, with a long, sobbing sigh. She was paying a heavy price for her happiness, but she would have paid a heavier one willingly. Nothing mattered now that he was not angry any more. She knew what her total submission meant: it was an end to all individualism, a complete self-abnegation, an absolute surrender to his wishes, his moods, and his temper. And she was content that it should be so, her love was prepared to endure whatever he might put upon her. Nothing that he could do could alter that, and nothing should make her own her love. She had hidden it from him, and she would hide it from him–cost what it might. Though he did not love her, he wanted her still; she had read that in his eyes five minutes ago, and she was happy even for that.
The silent movie, and its sequel, Son of the Sheik, were wildly popular, yet many fathers and husbands forbade their daughters and wives from seeing it. Too sensuous for impressionable women–although the rape is never shown or mentioned. Stories abound of females fainting in the theater during the movie. You can see why I’ve enjoyed learning about this book and movie, and why I’ve mentioned it in the book I’m writing now.
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) – A new exhibit of costumes from the hit British television drama “Downton Abbey” at the Winterthur Museum could turn out to be the most popular in the history of the former du Pont family country estate.
The exhibit, which runs through January 2015, will offer visitors a firsthand look at the design and creation of the period fashions that are a focal point of the television show, in the context of comparing country house life in Britain and the United States.
Museum director David Roselle said Wednesday that advance ticket sales are strong, and 11,000 tickets have been reserved for bus tours alone. “I believe it will be the largest attendance for an exhibit in Winterthur’s history,” said Roselle, who came up with idea for the exhibit, seeing an opportunity to seize upon the popularity of the television show while giving visitors a comparative look at life at the fictional British estate and at its real-life American counterpart.
Winterthur officials worked tirelessly to turn Roselle’s idea into reality, taking advantage of an indirect connection between Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and Winterthur director of museum affairs Tom Savage. Savage knew a former associate of Fellowes and was able to connect with Fellowes in New York City last year. Fellowes, in turn, worked with the show’s production company, Carnival Films, to help bring the exhibit to Winterthur, which will be its sole venue.
“Julian Fellowes‘ advocacy for this exhibit has been a great help,” said Chris Strand, Winterthur’s director of garden and estate.
Winterthur is renting 40 Downton Abbey costumes, most of which are owned by Cosprop Ltd. in London, one of the world’s largest theatrical costumers. Carnival Films also is providing some of the costumes, including the infamous harem pants worn by Lady Sybil, the engagement dress worn by Lady Mary, and Lady Edith’s wedding dress.
“Getting the costumes was the easiest part,” said co-curator Amy Marks Delaney, who found that securing the rights to intellectual property, including photos and script excerpts that serve as backdrops to the costumes, far more difficult. Sculpting museum-quality mannequins to properly fit the costumes also required time-consuming work by Winterthur staff.
In conjunction with the exhibit, Winterthur is offering a series of lectures, workshops and other events, including afternoon teas and English brunches. Those interested in a truly behind-the-scenes look at post-Edwardian fashion can take in a May 15 lunchtime lecture on “Downton Undressed: Underwear and the Fashionable Ideal in the Teens and Twenties.”
The exhibit is organized chronologically, with visitors moving from morning to night, and provides a look at life both upstairs and downstairs at a British country estate.
“There was a true regime about what was worn at different times of day,” explained Jeff Groff, director of public programs for Winterthur.
The exhibit opens with three servant costumes displayed in front of a working re-creation of the wall of brass bells used to summon help at the Yorkshire estate and concludes with examples of the evening finery worn by the Earl and Countess of Grantham and other members of the fictional Crawley family. In between are a host of other fashion statements, including garden dresses, cricket uniforms, walking and hunting tweeds, and housemaids’ aprons.
To complement the Downton Abbey costumes, Winterthur brought out several holdings from its own collection, including a well-worn dinner jacket that Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont bought from his favorite Savile Row tailor, Henry Poole & Co., and his wife’s custom-made leather travel case.
My talented friend, Eleanor Kuhns (a writer whose hugely popular Will Rees mystery series–set in the early Federal period with a Shaker backdrop–won the 2011 Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel award, just as my book won the 2012 award–see her at http://www.eleanorkuhns.wordpress.com), has passed the baton to me for a blog tour. I’m up next–must answer 4 questions, then hand off to 2 of my favorite mystery authors. So here goes–
What are you working on?
I’m finishing revisions to the third book in my Roaring Twenties mystery series, Renting Silence, where Jessie gets caught up in blackmail, bootlegging, and murder. “You don’t buy silence,” says one silent film star, “you only rent it, and the rent keeps going up.” I’m nearly done with the first draft of the fourth in the series, as yet untitled. I try not to look at the pile on the table to my left, where I have another mystery, this one a stand-alone set in France in 1928, waiting to be revised so it can be sent to the publisher, and 3 magazine articles to write.
As a historian, I find the past pulls me much more than the present or the future. I get as much enjoyment out of research as I do writing. My secret weapon is silent movies: I learn so much watching them! Like what offices looked like, and train stations, and hospitals, not to mention clothing, police uniforms, children’s outfits, etc.
I chose to write mysteries, rather than, say, science fiction or romance, because mysteries are what I most like to read. The first “real” books I ever read were the Nancy Drew books. I discovered them when I was 8 years old. I think they cost $1.25 back then, and I remember getting one for Christmas and one for my birthday each year. Libraries didn’t carry them then–I think they were considered “trash.” The day the older girl across the street went off to college and bequeathed her set of Nancy Drews to me was one of the highlights of my life! I graduated to Agatha Christie and romantic suspense writers, and more recently to authors like Laurie King and Lindsey Davis. I read widely, but still get the most pleasure out of mysteries.
How does your work differ from others in your genre?
Oddly enough, there are very few mysteries set in America’s Roaring Twenties. I believe that’s odd because it is hands down the most fascinating decade in American history. No other decade can match the Twenties for murder and mayhem, and it marks the real beginning of the women’s movement, when women were finally liberated from their corsets and most societal restrictions–and after almost a century of effort, they got the vote. Just look at television (Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, Ken Burn’s miniseries on Prohibition), and movies (the Academy-award-winning film, The Artist and Midnight in Paris, The Great Gatsby) to see how much that era is attracting the public’s notice. Yet most historical mysteries are set in medieval times, ancient Rome, or the 19th century.
What is your writing process?
I have been a writer (nonfiction books and articles) for 35 years, so I am used to working all day, every day. To keep from becoming attached to my computer, I take regular breaks to run to the grocery store, throw another load in the laundry, or do household errands, but I pretty much write whenever I’m not doing chores. I still write a lot of historical nonfiction, so my day is spent juggling research, interviews, and speaking events, and trying to squeeze in more writing time. For the past couple of years, I’ve traveled a lot, mostly along the eastern seaboard, to speak at conferences, book clubs, museums, and book & author events. This is fun, but it cuts hugely into the writing process, so I’m glad that two of my nonfiction books are winding down in that regard. I am probably most productive in the late afternoon when I pour a glass of wine and escape into the world of vaudeville, bootleggers, and silent movies.
And now, let me introduce you to two other talented friends, who are also published mystery writers.
Maggie King‘s debut mystery, Murder at the Book Group, comes out December 2, 2014 from Simon and Schuster. She contributed the short story, “A Not So Genteel Murder,” to the new Sisters in Crime anthology Virginia is for Mysteries. Maggie has worked as a software developer, retail sales manager, and customer service supervisor. She did a stint as an administrator at the Kent-Valentine House in Richmond, Virginia, which she used as the setting for her short story. Maggie graduated from Elizabeth Seton College and earned a B.S. degree in Business Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology. She has called New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California home. These days she lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and cats, Morris and Olive.
Heather Baker Weidner is originally from Virginia Beach (http://www.heatherweidner.com). She has been a mystery fan since Scooby Doo and Nancy Drew. A member of Sisters in Crime, she is finishing her first full-length novel, and is one of the authors of Virginia is for Mysteries (http://virginiaisformysteries.com/ ) In addition to mysteries, she writes a blog, Crazy for Words (http://blog.crazyforwords.com/). Heather lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers.
Visit these ladies and see what they are doing!