Almost made a big mistake

MV5BMzU0NDkyMjEzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTcyMzEyMjE@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_Thanks to the Library of Congress silent movie workshop last spring, “Almost Lost,” I learned that in my fourth Roaring Twenties mystery, I had made a big mistake in describing Douglas Fairbanks’s filming of The Black Pirate. Luckily, that book hasn’t gone to press yet (and won’t–I’m still waiting for #3 to come out), so I could make the change. 

There is an underwater scene in the film with Douglas and lots of men swimming secretly out to the pirate ship to rescue the fair maiden. I was under the impression that it had been filmed on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles (and some scenes were filmed there), and I did a good bit of research to learn how cameramen in those days filmed under water–a tricky process before the days of waterproof cameras. That turned out NOT to be correct. So then I learned about the Williamson underwater filming process that was used in 20,000 Leagues MV5BMTQ0OTk3MTIzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDA5MjAwMzE@._V1_SX214_AL_Under the Sea (1916). Underwater cameras were not used for that film. The Williamson brothers had developed a system of watertight tubes and mirrors, like an upside-down periscope, and were dependent on the clarity of water and sunshine to provide the necessary light. Then, at the workshop, I ran into a film historian who told me that wasn’t right either! Evidently, Douglas Fairbanks faked that scene. The swimmers were held in the air with harnesses and went through the motions of swimming under water. He told me his own collection included one of the harnesses. 

So I rewrote that part of the book, deleting most references to the underwater scene. You can see why I value this silent movie workshop so much. I plan to attend the 2016 event as well. 

The Scandal of the Decade–Was It True?

President Waren G. Harding, philanderer-in-chief

President Waren G. Harding, philanderer-in-chief

I knew about the President Harding scandals–he was a good-looking man and a popular politician who was rumored to be unfaithful to his wife–but never thought they would be confirmed! In a very Clinton-like episode (see Gennifer Flowers and her claim to having had a 12-year affair with Clinton), Harding and his followers vilified the young woman who wrote about her long relationship with Harding and claimed that he was the father of her child. Well . . . good ol’ DNA proved her accusations were true. 

P.S. Harding is usually ranked at the bottom of U.S. presidents. 

Test Results Are In: At Last, Secret About Harding Is Out WASHINGTON — She was denounced as a “degenerate” and a “pervert,” accused of lying for money and shamed for waging a “diabolical” campaign of falsehoods against the president’s family that tore away at his legacy. Long before Lucy Mercer, Kay Summersby or Monica Lewinsky, there was Nan Britton, who scandalized a nation with stories of carnal adventures in a White House coat closet and endured a ferocious backlash for publicly claiming that she bore the love child of President Warren G. Harding. Now nearly a century later, according to genealogists, new genetic tests confirm for the first time that Britton’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, was indeed Harding’s biological child. The tests have solved one of the enduring mysteries of presidential history and offer new insights into the secret life of America’s 29th president. At the least, they demonstrate how the march of technology is increasingly rewriting the nation’s history books. The revelation has also roiled two families that have circled each other warily for 90 years, struggling with issues of rumor, truth and fidelity. Even now, members of the late president’s family remain divided over the matter, with some still skeptical after a lifetime of denial and unhappy about cousins who chose to pursue the question. Some descendants of Britton remain resentful that it has taken this long for evidence to come out and for her credibility to be validated. “It’s sort of Shakespearean and operatic,” said Dr, Peter Harding, a grandnephew of the president and one of those who instigated the DNA testing that confirmed the relationship to Britton’s offspring. “This story hangs over the whole presidential history because it was an unsolved mystery.” The Nan Britton affair was the sensation of its age, a product of the Roaring Twenties and a pivotal moment in the evolution of the modern White House. It was not the first time a president was accused of an extracurricular love life, but never before had a self-proclaimed presidential mistress gone public with a popular tell-all book. The ensuing furor played out in newspapers, courtrooms and living rooms across the country. Britton, who was 31 years younger than Harding, had a difficult time proving her relationship when she revealed it after his death in part because his family insisted he was sterile. “The family really vilified Nan Britton,” said Peter Harding, now 72 and a physician living in Big Sur, Calif. After finding Britton’s book, “The President’s Daughter,” among his father’s belongings, though, he and his cousin, Abigail Harding, decided to pursue the matter and made contact with James Blaesing, a grandson of Britton and son of the daughter she claimed to have conceived with the president. Testing by Ancestry.com, the genealogical web site, determined that Blaesing was a second cousin to Peter and Abigail Harding, meaning that Elizabeth Ann Blaesing had to be President Harding’s daughter. James Blaesing said Britton’s relationship with Harding was a love story. “She loved him until the day she died,” he said. PETER BAKER

Published in: on August 21, 2015 at 11:15 am  Comments (2)  

Cover Art for New Gothic Mystery

Just received cover art for my new book, a gothic mystery that takes place in France in 1928. I love it! A little spooky, and it matches one particular scene in the book. Release date is in a couple of months.Stolen Memories Cover

Here’s the synopsis on the back: 

A brutal attack along the banks of the Seine in 1928 leaves a young Englishwoman close to death in a Paris hospital, without a memory in her head. She soon comes up against a vengeful husband who accuses her of the theft of priceless art, the French gendarmes who have linked her to a murder on the Riviera, and a scorned lover who is trying to kill her. The husband, believing his wife’s amnesia is faked, spirits her away to an ancient chateau in the French province of Champagne, where prehistoric dolmens and standing stones dot the fields and caves hewn out of limestone are used for more than storing wine. But who is trying to poison her and bury her in an avalanche of slate? Who is laying a trap for her deep within the wine caves of Champagne?

 

Published in: on August 14, 2015 at 2:18 pm  Comments (8)  

Illustrating The Impersonator

IMG_0194 (1)On a trip to Alaska last month, we sailed into a cave that reminded me of the Oregon cave I wrote about in The Impersonator . . . especially because it was lined with starfish and other sea life, like I described in the story.

As I reached its mouth, the loose pebbles underfoot gave way to rough rock and slime. My thin soles fared poorly on the jagged floor. The cavern itself was larger inside than its narrow mouth suggested, about the size of a theater stage, and as high, with starfish decorating its walls and crevices. I called to myself and my own voice answered in the emptiness. I picked my way about halfway in until I could see the back wall, then turned back into the sun. No clues there. 

. . . and later . . .

It looked like Nature had built herself one of those pointed-arch cathedrals I had seen in Oliver’s travel books and decorated its wet walls with frescoes of colored algae, red and white barnacles, and starfish. A narrow ledge, smooth from centuries of erosion and slippery with strands of green slime, skirted the north side of the cave all the way to the back. A few feet below, the rising sea churned like boiling water, even on a relatively calm day like today. The waves broke against the cave’s mouth and sloshed noisily inside, each one bringing the water level closer to covering my walkway. I had arrived just in time. It wouldn’t be long before the ledge was submerged. I wondered whether high tide regularly filled the cave, and one glance at the barnacles stuck high on the walls answered the question.  IMG_0193

Published in: on August 6, 2015 at 1:55 pm  Comments (4)  

11-Year-Old Film Scholar

ShaneFlemingPhoto-1024x577At the Library of Congress’s Almost Lost workshop last month, there were about a hundred and fifty participants were trying to help identify the unidentified silent movies in the Library’s collection–scholars, film collectors, film buffs, and regular folks like me–and one eleven-year-old boy who is all of the above.

Shane Fleming from NY City attended and contributed as much or more than most. He’s an avid silent movie fan. And he’s not shy about calling out his thoughts as the audience tries to figure out something–anything–about the piece of a silent movie being shown. I enjoyed talking with him and his mother during the conference. 

Shane was interviewed last year, when he was ten, on the Turner Classic Movie set. See it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUWVK3c4OXc

Published in: on July 24, 2015 at 5:42 pm  Comments (1)  

The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929

51Q+nUeLhIL._AA160_I read The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929, by David Pierce, published 2013 by the Library of Congress. I learned a lot about silent movies, and it had some good tidbits that I can use in future Roaring Twenties mysteries:

Coquettemp–in the early years of talkies (1929-1931), some producers shot films as both forms–silent and talkie–so they could be shown in theaters that had not yet outfitted for sound. Mary Pickford’s Coquette of 1929 was one of those. That’s something I’ll mention if and when the series progresses to 1929. (Right now, we’re in 1926.)

–the first feature-length silent films were produced in 1912 and there were only a very few. In 1913 there were about 50. From there the number shot up to over 900 in 1917, then steadily in the 600-800 range, until talkies came on the scene. In 1929, the number dropped to 300, then a dozen in 1930 as talkies took over. 

–Mary Pickford owned many of her films and paid for their preservation. Few other actors, directors, or studios did.

Unknown-2Unknown-1Unknown-3 Unknown

 

 

 

–“It is Fairbanks’ representations of these characters (Robin Hood, Zorro, the Three Musketeers, the Black Pirate, etc.) that live today, filtered and morphed over the years by Errol Flynn, Antonio Banderas, Michael York, and Johnny Depp.” I completely agree with the author in this and have tried to portray Douglas as the creative innovator that he was. 

 

Identifying the Unidentified

images How does one identify unidentified silent films? That was the question in my mind as I sat down in my seat in the Culpeper theater at my first Library of Congress “Almost Lost” workshop. (They don’t call it a conference because, they said, they expect us to work!)

I quickly learned as I heard the experienced members of the audience shout out their thoughts. No silence for the silent movies! Some people could identify a studio from the font used in the titles; others called out the names of actors and actresses (occasionally receiving a rebuttal: “no, it’s not”). A camera flashing past a street sign helped on several occasions to identify the place where the movie was filmed. Those who knew their cars were a big help: they could call out the make, model, and date of almost any vehicle that appeared in the picture. And twice, the camera panned an office wall with a calendar on it, which allowed someone to say, “What year did May first fall on a Saturday?” A few taps on the computer answered that question and, Bingo! we had the year. Last but not at all least, that indescribable feel that pervaded a film’s overall appearance caused some experts to call out, “Look like a pre-Griffith Biograph.”

UnknownFinding copies of missing films is a race against time, because of chemical decomposition every day, and fires. Why weren’t more saved? Here’s what the famous director Frank Capra had to say when he was asked that question.

“Nobody thought they were important enough to save. You know, the films we were making in those days were just nickel and dime affairs. They were like today’s newspaper–you don’t save today’s newspaper. And when they were finished, nobody expected to ever see them again.” 

Published in: on July 12, 2015 at 8:22 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Library of Congress presents: Almost Lost

FullSizeRenderAnd they truly are “almost lost”–only about 20% of the silent movies made in America survive. The Library of Congress is the largest repository for them. Every year for four years, they have put on a workshop at their building in Culpeper, Virginia [near Washington DC], where film historians, experts, collectors, and the general public (me!) are invited to spend three days watching snippets of unidentified silent movies. The goal is to identify them, by recognizing the actors or settings or style or date made.

I attended my first workshop last month and it was, to say the least, a hoot! Although I don’t have enough expertise to have made any profound contributions, I had a blast and learned a good many things that I can use in forthcoming Roaring Twenties mysteries.

One thing I learned is that the era of silent film features lasted a very short time, from 1912 to 1929. During those few years, about 11,000 silent features were made in America. Film historian David Pierce, who gave us a very entertaining lecture, has counted 2,749 titles that survive in complete form and another 562 that are incomplete. The rest are lost, due to carelessness (the movies seemed to have no value at the time), chemical deterioration, fire (the film was highly flammable), or thrift (the films contained traces of silver which had some value when melted down).

IMG_0142The workshop’s format is simple: in the mornings there are a couple of scholarly presentations followed by lunch, and then an afternoon of viewing bits of film, some just a few seconds long, others might be 14 minutes. The evenings are taken up with screening important silent features–that much is open to the general public. The workshop audience of about 125 people sits ready to shout out their observations: “Looks like early Pathe,” or “That’s Harry Depp,” or “No it’s not,” or “That looks more like Australia than southern California.” Twice we caught a glimpse of a calendar on an office wall, and someone shouted, “What year did December 1 fall on a Sunday?” A dozen computers clicked away until one 11-year-old boy called out, “1912,” and we had identified the film’s date.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, the opportunity to attend comes around again next June. The cost of the workshop, $60, covers three very nice lunches. Watch this space for news about the 2016 event. I’m hoping to attend again. Maybe next time, I’ll even make an observation!

 

Published in: on July 5, 2015 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  

The Amazing Acro-Cats

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In my first Roaring Twenties book, THE IMPERSONATOR, I mentioned an act I called the Cat Circus. It had a young man named Walter who ran it, and one of Jessie’s friends, Angie, falls in love with Walter and leaves the act to join his Cat Circus. Angie and Walter appear briefly in the second book, SILENT MURDERS, when Angie helps send Jessie some information from Chicago, where the Cat Circus is playing. 

Well . . . I made up the act, of course, but here it is, the real thing–the Amazing Acro-Cats! They came to Richmond two weeks ago while I was, sadly, on vacation. When I saw the article in the newspaper, I immediately thought: Walter and the Cat Circus has come to town! The Acro-Cats have a female trainer, however. It’s Samantha Martin, and she has trained a dozen or more cats to do tricks (when they feel like it). Performances took place through June 21 at the Richmond CenterStage theater. See http://www.richmondcenterstage.com for details. Maybe they’ll return next year and I can see them. 

“The Amazing Acro-Cats are opening in Richmond today and, true to their name, their show features more than a dozen “amazing” cats performing acrobatics and tricks.
There’s Alley, who is a Guinness World Records holder for longest jump made by a cat; Tuna, leader of Rock-Cats, the world’s only cat band; and Sookie, who plays the chimes, to name a few.
The show is the brainchild of Samantha Martin, Chief Executive Human of The Amazing Acro-Cats, who trained all of her show cats — and rescued them all as well.
“I’ve been training animals since I was 10,” Martin said. “I started training the family dog.”
A lifelong animal lover, Martin said she started asking for a cat as soon as she was old enough to talk.
Cats, however, weren’t how the Chicago-based trainer got her start.
“I started training rats,” she said. “When I got out of college and moved to Chicago, I started my training business with rats” for television and film performances.
It was a fortuitous pet rescue, 10 years ago, that led Martin to cat training. “A very special cat came into my life,” she said.
So Martin made the shift from rats to cats. “Cats are actually the second-most requested animal” for movies and TV, she said. “You have to keep them working. Keep them socialized.”
Putting on a performance when her cats weren’t booked for TV or film kept their skills sharp, Martin said. But it wasn’t always easy.
“The show was a disaster in the early days. I was trying to figure out how to get these cats to do what I needed them to do. Cats are a little bit unpredictable. If someone showed up to a show with balloons — or if a clown showed up, the cats would be like, ‘I’m out of here,’ ” she said.
That’s why Martin introduced a chicken into the show. Yes, a chicken. Chickens, apparently, are much better behaved than cats, so if a show starts to go south, Martin knows she can bring out the chicken and save the day.
These days she’s on her third chicken, Cluck Norris, who plays the cymbals and tambourine in the Rock-Cats rock band, but a chicken has been part of The Amazing Acro-Cats since the very beginning.
The chicken even travels along with Martin and her 14-plus cats on their 35-foot-long tour bus. But don’t worry; everyone gets along.
“If anything, the chicken messes with the cats,” Martin said.
And there have been a lot of cats.
In 2009, Martin started fostering cats in addition to her regular performers. She was looking to add another performer, so she fostered a litter of kittens to see which one worked out. For the rest, she helped find their “forever homes.”
It’s a trend she continues — fostering whole litters of kittens and taking them on the road, hoping to find adoptive families for the animals after the shows.
In fact, in four years Martin has found “forever homes” for more than 150 cats and kittens — all of which come complete with some basic training from Martin.
“Every cat can be trained to do something,” she said.
Martin builds her show around that philosophy, working with each cat’s existing personality to develop performances.
“Some cats have different energy. I train active cats to do active things; cats that like to use their paws get trained for paw tricks. Some cats just like to do the bare minimum,” she said.
For Martin, training is an essential part of cat ownership. And she starts all of her cats off with one simple trick — one that could save their life one day: getting into their carrier.
To do this, Martin uses a whistle and then rewards the cat with a treat — semisoft chewables — when it gets inside.
“It usually takes three training sessions to get them to go in there,” she said.
For the rest of their training and for the shows, Martin uses a clicker — and treat rewards. Soft treats at home and the good stuff — boiled chicken, salmon or tuna — for live shows.
Under Martin’s training — and as part of the Acro-Cats show — these amazing cats walk tightropes, skateboard, jump through hoops, ring bells and balance on balls — when they’re not rocking out in their cat band (plus one chicken), which is the finale of the show.
The Acro-Cats show is basically live-action adorable cat Internet video-watching — and proof positive that if you can’t train your personal house cat, you might not be trying hard enough.
Running through June 21, the full show is one hour — 35 minutes of performance (“due to the short attention spans of these performers”) followed by a meet-and-greet. But face it, 35 minutes of trained performance is 35 minutes more than you’ve ever gotten out of your cat.”

Published in: on June 30, 2015 at 6:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Impersonator audiobook–FREE!

51mqUstf5iL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_Did you know that June is National Audiobook Appreciation Month? Me neither, but now that someone told me, I can use it as a good excuse to give away an audiobook copy of THE IMPERSONATOR. It’s a 9-CD issue that takes the talented professional actress, Tavia Gilbert, 11 hours to read aloud–if you want a sample, the amazon.com page let’s you hear her read part of a chapter. To enter the contest, go to my web page http://www.marymileytheobald.com and click on SUBSCRIBE to add your email address to my newsletter list. I’ll choose a winner on July 10 from that list.

Published in: on June 15, 2015 at 6:09 am  Comments (1)  
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