Plea bargaining didn’t begin in the Roaring Twenties, but the practice certainly became entrenched, thanks to the huge number of arrests for violating the prohibition laws. In large cities, Volstead violators by the thousands were rounded up and delivered to the courts–the backlog was overwhelming. The vast majority of all federal cases were prohibition violations. Emory Buckner, a US Attorney in New York (shown here in 1917), developed something he called “Bargain Day,” where he promised to ask the judge for a small fine if the accused would plead guilty. This way, he could handle 500 cases at one whack and the accused paid a small fine and went home. Another way authorities winked at the law . . . and another factoid I can use in my writing.
Samuel Goldwyn (born Samuel Goldfish in Poland) began as a film producer in 1913. Nine years later, he wrote his first book, Behind the Screen. In it, he devotes chapters to many of the famous silent film actors and directors that he had come to know and work with. I found it a fascinating look at the silent movie world in its peak years. So many careers were taking off. Reading about the actors was kind of eerie, because I knew what happened to these people. And because my own mysteries are set in 1924 and 1925, Goldwyn’s account almost exactly gives the perspective of “my” characters. For example, the chapter on Rudolph Valentino (whose name Goldwyn spells Rodolph) predicts a great future for the young Italian actor, who died two years later at the age of 31. And the many pages about Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks contain no hint of their impending divorce. He shares his experiences with Charlie Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, Wallace Reid (who would soon be dead of a drug habit), Harold Lloyd, Mabel Normand, and many who were everyday names at that time.
Because my Roaring Twenties mystery series features the real-life actors Pickford and Fairbanks and Chaplin, those were the parts I found most useful. He writes: “She never calls him ‘Doug’–indeed, I have an idea she doesn’t much like to hear his name thus shorn by other people–and somehow into her utterance of the ‘Douglas’ you find, no matter how casual the speech, the way she really feels about him.” Also, some of the details about money are priceless: “Eight years ago  the twenty thousand dollars which the Lasky Company expended upon ‘Carmen’ was considered a vast sum. To-day the Goldwyn Company is investing nearly a million in its production of ‘BenHur.'” I can use facts like that in my novels.
However, I must say I don’t believe for a moment that Samuel Goldwyn wrote this book. The man was born in Poland. He didn’t come to American until he was 14 and he always spoke with an accent. He was also famous for malapropisms–that’s no criticism, it’s quite natural for a foreigner. But the man never spoke English like a native and certainly not like an educated native. He grew up poor, with virtually no schooling. I believe he dictated these stories to someone who wrote them up in a flowery way to flatter his vanity. (He was known to be very vain.) The writing style is heavy, pompous, and unnatural, even for the 1920s. Words like therein, whereby, and ergo would not have made their way into the everyday speech of a rough man like Goldwyn. Phrases like “I quote this last as a testimony to the almost unerring acumen which Mary Pickford displays,” and “the figure with which I started falls short of conveying the full effect” don’t sound like they could come from his mouth. The ostentatious name-dropping is, I think, meant to show a familiarity to literature, opera, and other high culture that a poor orphan would never have experienced. “Many screen favorites heave in sight as slowly as Lohengrin’s swan.” “One can as easily imagine De Musset or Verlaine mowing the front lawn of his suburban home . . . ” as if he read the French poets in his spare time.
So who wrote Behind the Screen? I believe it was Miss Corinne Lowe, the woman Goldwyn cites in his “Notes” as having helped him “prepare these articles.”So thank you, Miss Lowe. Your book gives me many contemporary details that I would not have discovered anywhere else.
I came across this amusing exchange in Daniel Okrent’s Last Call.
Wayne Wheeler, the country’s leading prohibitionist and architect of the 18th amendment, characterized the president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler (diplomat, philosopher, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who opposed prohibition) as “soaked in avarice, lust and rum” and that he belonged “with the bootleggers, rum-runners, owners of speak-easy property, wet newspapers, underworld denizens, alcoholic slaves and personal liberty fanatics in his fight to bring back booze.”
To which Butler replied, “It sounds as if something had happened to trouble him.”
I went to a yacht club on the Chesapeake Bay for lunch last week and there in the bar was a wall of liquor lockers. Does anyone remember these? In places where alcohol was illegal, people could come to private clubs and bring their own liquor. They would keep it in a locker like these and whenever they came to the club, the bartender could take the liquor and make them a drink. Ridiculous, isn’t it?
Yep, the Roaring Twenties roared in urban China as well as in the Western world. I was browsing through a really nice antiques store in Williamsburg, VA, recently and came across these restored furniture pieces. For some reason, they screamed “Shanghai” to me, so I asked the owner what they were and I was right! (That doesn’t happen very often.) These came from Shanghai and they date from the 1920s. The buyer thinks they are hotel furniture from that period. Aren’t they cool?
As most of you know, authors have little or nothing to say about the cover design for their books. I am very fortunate that my publishers have always listened to my comments and have adjusted their artwork accordingly. Here is what happened earlier this month when the publisher sent me the cover art for my next book.
It’s a beautiful cover, one I would love to have if I had written a romance novel. I responded that I was disappointed because it was so similar to the previous book’s cover (also shades of brown featuring a girl wearing a cloche hat) and because the cheerful smile on the pretty lady looked seemed more suited to a romantic romp than a murder mystery.
Next they sent this, a cover that had been developed at the same time but was their second choice. I preferred it over the pretty girl cover because it was 1) different, 2) red and black are good mystery/thriller colors. But when I showed it to 3 people, only one of them could identify the round thing. One person thought it was a part of a gun; another thought it was a gear. Can you tell what it is? It’s a film reel. I was similarly perplexed by the reddish thing on the right, which at first I thought was a rosebud. Only later did I see a hat. I expressed my concerns.
So they sent this version, where you can see a bit of film looping from the reel and where the man in the hat is sharper and carrying a gun. This is good for another reason: the story begins with the shooting death of a silent-film projectionist in a movie theater in the Roaring Twenties. I’m very happy with the final results. So . . . what do you think? Is it a compelling cover? (P.S. The book is due for release August 1.)
People often ask where writers get their ideas. The answer is “everywhere.” Here’s one specific example:
I read this marvelous article in the Richmond newspaper about twin brothers who made moonshine in the 1950s and 60s when it was illegal in Virginia. Being identical twins helped when they reached a courtroom, because witnesses couldn’t identify the accused for certain. Which brother was it? They couldn’t say for sure. That gives me a good idea for a plot device: having identical twin bootleggers beat the rap because no one could tell them apart. Read the whole article here:
Of all the excesses brought by Prohibition, the story of Etta Mae Miller must be at the top of the list. Etta Mae Miller, a 48-year-old mother of ten, lived in Michigan, a state with some of the toughest anti-alcohol laws during Prohibition. One 1927 law was one of those “three strikes and your out” sort of laws, whereby the third felony landed you in prison for life. Well, possessing a pint of alcohol was a felony in Michigan, and you know where this story is going.
Etta Mae was the first woman sentenced to life in prison under this law. She was found guilty for having two pints of gin in her home. (Police could get a warrant to search a private home if they thought they smelled liquor nearby.) With 2 previous felonies for alcohol possession on her record, she was sentenced to life in prison. Her husband, by the way, was also in jail for liquor-related offenses, but not under a life sentence. (I could not find a photo of either Mr. or Mrs. Miller, and these are not the Miller children, just a picture of 1920s children I found on the Internet–excuse the liberty.)
Public outcry against the “Life for a Pint” law was strong, and Michigan’s Governor Fred W. Green was not pleased to find 10 new orphans placed in the state’s care. The state supreme court reversed the decision and Mrs. Miller went home to her brood.
On January 17, I like to mark the anniversary of the first day of Prohibition back in 1920 with a drink! That’s what most drinkers did that year, they held a wake at their favorite bar on January 16, the last legal day to drink, and went home to mourn.
They need not have bothered, as it soon became clear that the gangster element would quickly step in to fill the demand for booze, bringing far more problems and anguish than existed when liquor was legal. In fact, historians now say it was probably easier to get a drink during Prohibition than it was when Prohibition ended in 1933 and regulations limited people’s access.
So join me on January 16, the last day of legal drinking, and again on January 17, the first day of Prohibition, and lift your glass to one of the biggest mistakes in American history.
Vaudeville’s heyday lasted from about 1890 to about 1930. During that time, an estimated 2 million people EACH DAY attended a vaudeville show somewhere in the U.S. That’s from a population of about 70 million (in 1900).
For comparison purposes, today 3.6 million people see a movie each day, from a population of 325 million. That works out to 4 1/2 times the population watching about less than twice the number of movies. Why the decline? Surely it’s because there are so many alternatives in entertainment today. Vaudeville’s only competitors for entertainment were theater (called legit, for legitimate theater as opposed to variety), circuses, and musical concerts. Today . . . well, we have radio, television, movies, computer games, and social media in addition to live entertainment and recorded music.