Men’s Hairstyles: Why I Avoid the Subject in my Mysteries

Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino

I don’t go into men’s hairstyles much in my mysteries, because the subject is such a turn-off to today’s reader. Why? Because men usually parted their hair or combed it back in a pompadour, or both, and to hold this look, they used liberal amounts of hair oil or Vaseline. Yuck! 


Here are some examples: 

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks

Jack Pickford

Jack Pickford


Refrigerators or Ice Boxes?

When I wasn’t sure if my Roaring Twenties characters should own refrigerators or iceboxes, I did some research. Iceboxes had been around for decades before the 1920s and were common in middle-class homes. These were, literally, boxes with a bottom door (or two or more) for food and a top compartment lined with tin for the block of ice. The ice compartment had a tube that drained the melted water down to a pan on the floor, which of course had to be emptied periodically, usually every day. The ice box had hollow walls that were insulated with cork, sawdust, or straw. They came in all sizes and some were quite fancy, like a piece of furniture, with carved oak exteriors. An ice man delivered ice blocks to the home every few days.

geRefrigerators were available in the 1920s thanks to the introduction of electricity in the home. General Electric supposedly produced the first motor-driven refrigerator in 1911. But . . . the motors were noisy and not attached to the unit. This didn’t interest many people, since the ice box was silent and relatively inexpensive. Frigidaire produced a better model in 1923, and there were some sold to wealthy consumers, but not many. Refrigerator sales didn’t really take off until after World War II. So I have my characters using ice boxes. Except for David, the rich ex-bootlegger, who has an electric refrigerator in his house–and a radio too! He’s the sort to spend on newfangled technology. 

I came across this statistic: in 1920 there were 10,000 refrigerators made. Five years later, there were 75,000 made. The big boost in sales came as more homes were wired for electricity and more families became prosperous enough to afford new technology. (This was also the era for the introduction of vacuum cleaners, toasters, washing machines, and other electrical appliances.)

Iceboxes came in many sizes, so prices aren’t easily comparable, but a 1923 ad for a white, enamel lined ice box was $27.95, and a larger steel one that held 100 pounds of ice was $56.95. Here’s another: 1920srefrigerator

How Much Did They Earn?

32221u_0.previewI’ve been looking at job advertisements from the 1920s in order to learn about salaries, and have been amazed at the wording used during those years. Of course, everyone knows women were paid less than men and that interviewers could ask questions that are not permitted today, still, I was amazed to read some of the Want Ads. Like this one, for a woman:

Wanted: Stenographer and typist with knowledge of bookkeeping, 18-19 years of age . . . give previous experience and state religion. $18/ week to start. 

Compare to this job, posted in the same year:

Wanted: Young man stenographic position in executive office, large corporation, $125/month.

imagesTens of thousands of women worked as telephone operators. In the early 1920s, they earned $20/ week in Chicago. Probably less in small towns. 

This is just the sort of information I can use in my books to provide historical background. 

Makeup in Silent Movies

220px-ChaneyPhantomoftheOperaYou’ve seen silent movies where the actors had pasty white faces, dark black lipstick, and looked positively ghoulish. And it wasn’t even a horror flick! Why was makeup so bad back then? Why didn’t they use a more natural look?

A combination of lighting factors, film types, and makeup availability made movie makeup tricky. First, the type of black-and-white film in general use before the mid-1920s made blues register white and reds and yellows register black. So a cloudy blue sky would look solid white; blue eyes would look eerily white; red lipstick would look black. Second, faces without makeup appeared dark or dirty on film, so actors used a whitening material called whiteface (like blackface, which was burnt cork, was used to make them look like caricatures of African Americans). Think of clowns and mimes, but lighter. Mary Pickford is credited with being one of the first stars to use makeup in a more natural manner, but even she, with beautiful skin, resorted to whiteface for the camera. Pickford curls

Throughout most of the silent picture decades, actors and actresses–even stars–applied their own makeup, so you see a good deal of variation. Much of the makeup had to be developed and mixed by the actor. There was little in the way of commercially available makeup. Makeup experts were gradually introduced into the film industry, at first for extras who didn’t know what to do, and later for the stars as their skills grew.


Published in: on April 12, 2015 at 2:27 pm  Comments (3)  

Not the Usual Way to Use Pinterest


When the Apple Genius at our local Apple store described me to another Apple Genius as “extremely challenged,” I realized I would never be part of the computer generation. After all, I don’t like for Facebook, can’t stand Twitter, and am baffled by Goodreads; however, I do understand Pinterest. Or, at least, I understand how I can use it to support my mysteries. I’ve illustrated my books via Pinterest.impersonator

My novels are set in 1924-1925, a time no one alive remembers–even those who, like my own parents, were born in the Roaring Twenties don’t remember that era, because they were too young. And many people haven’t been to Oregon and can’t visualize the unique Oregon coast, with its amazing sea caves, immense rocks, and agate beaches. Vaudeville is virtually a lost medium–the closest thing to it is the Ed Sullivan Show, which is itself too far back for most people today to remember. So how to overcome issues like this? Pinterest.

colorWith Pinterest, I’ve posted photos of Jack Benny, before he was called Jack Benny, when he was young and handsome. I’ve posted pictures of vaudeville children who looked like Jessie, my main character, would have looked when she performed on stage; pictures of the mercury bichloride and Veronal, drugs which poisoned several of my characters; pictures of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Myrna Loy, and other silent film actors as they appeared in the 1920s; pictures of cloche hats, period makeup, bobbed hair styles, cars of the mid-Twenties, and houses where the stars lived; and the Hollywoodland sign as it originally looked. So many pictures . . . I suspect this isn’t the way Pinterest was intended to be used, but it works for me and my readers. Have a look. And let me know what I missed: is there something else you read about in the book that you think I could illustrate on these pages?

Illustrations for THE IMPERSONATOR at

Illustrations for SILENT MURDERS at

Published in: on April 6, 2015 at 7:15 pm  Comments (4)  

Magic in the Moonlight: a Twenties Movie

MV5BMTQ3NDY5NjIwN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjQ2ODkxMjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_My interest in the Twenties steered me to Magic in the Moonlight, a film that came out last year starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone. It’s a light, romantic comedy set in 1928 along the Mediterranean coast of France and the plot sounded somewhat like the plot of my own first novel, The Impersonator, so I knew I’d enjoy it. 

An experienced magician is asked by another magician friend to debunk a young woman who claims to be able to contact the spirits. The friend says he’s tried but can’t figure out how she does it. So the cocky Colin Firth enters the scene. (He’s playing a part that Houdini played in real life, debunking fake mediums.) Of course, he falls for the woman. Frustratingly, he can’t figure out how she’s doing it either, and at last he concludes that he was wrong, that some people really can contact the spirits of the dead in seances. And then there’s the ending. 

My main character, Jessie, has worked for magicians in her younger days and has participated in similar scams to bilk gullible people who want to contact the spirits of their dead relatives. Jessie knows the tricks. She would have known this one. I did not! 

It didn’t make much of a splash in theaters, but it’s available through Netflix. I recommend it to those who enjoy the clothing and cars of the era–not to mention the beautiful scenery. 

Published in: on March 28, 2015 at 7:30 am  Comments (2)  

Passing as White in the Twenties


I came across this last year and saved it because I believe I can use the information. One of my characters passes as white, and I’m basing him on Jeffries.  


Herb Jeffries, who sang with Duke Ellington and starred in early black westerns as a singing cowboy known as “the Bronze Buckaroo” — a nickname that evoked his malleable racial identity — died on Sunday in West Hills, Calif. He was believed to be 100. The cause was heart failure, said Raymond Strait, who worked on Jeffries’s autobiography. Over the course of his century, Jeffries changed his name, altered his age, married five women and stretched his vocal range from near falsetto to something closer to a Bing Crosby baritone. He shifted from jazz to country and back again. Jeffries’s racial and ethnic identity was itself something of a performance. He told some people that his father was African-American, others that he was mixed race and still others that he was Ethiopian or Sicilian. He told people he chose to be black — to the extent that a mixed-race person had a choice at the time. “He told me he had to make this decision about whether he should try to pass as white,” the jazz critic Gary Giddins recalled. “He said: ‘I just knew that my life would be more interesting as a black guy. If I’d chosen to live my life passing as white, I’d have never been able to sing with Duke Ellington.’ ”



According to the L.A. Times, his movies “had titles such as “Harlem Rides the Range” and “The Bronze Buckaroo” and featured the tall, handsome, wavy-haired singer with a Gable-esque mustache as a dashing, white-hatted good guy in a black western outfit and riding a white horse named Stardusk. The idea to make movie westerns with all-black casts was Jeffries’.

“Little children of dark skin — not just Negroes, but Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, everybody of color — had no heroes in the movies,” he told The Times in 1998. “I was so glad to give them something to identify with.”

He was born Umberto Valentino in Detroit on Sept. 24, 1913. “My mother was Irish, my father was Sicilian, and one of my great-grandparents was Ethiopian,” Jeffries, who took his stepfather’s last name, told the Oklahoman in 2004. “So I’m an Italian-looking mongrel with a percentage of Ethiopian blood, which enabled me to get work with black orchestras.” . . . But finding an African American who could ride, sing, and act was difficult — until the tall, broad-shouldered Jeffries, who learned to ride on his grandfather’s dairy farm in Michigan, nominated himself.

“No way. They’ll never buy you; you’re not black enough,” the light-skinned Jeffries remembered Buell saying. Jeffries said Buell finally agreed to let him play the part but insisted that Jeffries wear makeup to darken his skin.

“Harlem on the Prairie,” billed as “the first all-Negro musical western,” was released in 1937. Among the all-black cast members were Spencer Williams, who later portrayed Andy on “Amos ‘n’ Andy” on television, and comedian Mantan Moreland, who provided comic relief. Jeffries earned $5,000 for the film, which was shot at a dude ranch near Victorville in five days. Each of the films that followed were produced just as fast. In later years, Jeffries would jokingly refer to them as “C-movies.” But he took great pride in them.

“To say I was the first black singing cowboy on the face of this earth is a great satisfaction,” he told American Visions in 1997.

In an era when black actors typically played subservient roles on screen, Jeffries stood out. “Herb was a sex symbol,” New York University film professor Donald Bogle, author of “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks,” a history of black films, told The Times in 2003. “With his wavy hair and Clark Gable mustache, he might have been a different kind of star had America been a different kind of place.”


Published in: on March 22, 2015 at 1:07 pm  Comments (3)  
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Spanish Roaring Twenties



I returned last night from a week in Seville, Spain, where I immersed myself in that city’s remarkable collection of historic sights. Using a pedometer for the fun of it, I clocked myself walking 8 to 12 miles a day as I went from cathedral to palace to convent to museum to bullfight ring to tapas bar, squeezing in some shopping along the way. Not everything I saw was ancient. In a region famous for its colorful,lead-glazed ceramic tiles, I came across several historical tile advertisements that begged me to snap their pictures–they clearly dated from the 1920s. Aren’t these amazing? The one above is an ad for a Studebaker car; below seems to be an ad for a restaurant that may have once existed on that corner. Almost one hundred years old, they have sustained relatively little damage–only a few of the tiles are chipped. I can’t get away from the Twenties, no matter where I go! 


Published in: on March 15, 2015 at 5:10 pm  Comments (1)  

Who is Beatrice Burton?

150px-Beatrice_BurtonI’ve now read two books by Beatrice Burton (FLAPPER WIFE and HOLLYWOOD GIRL), so I got curious about this woman who wrote in the mid-1920s–and who is helping me write my own stories today.

Her first book, FLAPPER WIFE, was published in 1925, exactly the year my novels are set. Her last came out in 1937. During those 12 years, she published seventeen novels. I’ve read only two, but judging from the titles and short descriptions, they are all romances about young women finding happiness in marriage. Her books are set in the year they were written, so they provide a fascinating glimpse of the prejudices, fashions, slang, values, and surroundings of the era. No writer of historical fiction could ask for a better source!

Little is known of Ms.Burton’s life. (This is the only image I could find of her.) She was born in Cleveland in 1894 and died in Florida in 1983. She wanted to be an actress–and in fact had at least three small parts in silent movies in the 1920s–and this may explain her interest in Hollywood as a subject for her books and magazine articles. Six of her stories were made into (silent) movies, none of which seems to have survived. Too bad–I’d love to see the one that was based on FLAPPER WIFE. 


Published in: on March 7, 2015 at 7:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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How to Catch a Man in the Roaring Twenties

imageFor the past few centuries, books have been written to instruct young women on matters relating to manners, beauty, and marriage. Most of these have been written by men, of course, and most are tedious tomes, but some can be highly entertaining as we look back and think, “Really? You’ve got to be kidding!” The 1920s saw the introduction of the Flapper, a young woman who flouted society’s conventions, including those that related to men and marriage. Most men (and most women) found this horrifying; some few found it liberating. Needless to say, books like these can be very helpful in setting the scene and making my readers feel as if they have stepped back in time.

I recently came across an interesting blog post that summarizes one of these books. Or, I should say, eight of these books, as they were a set of volumes devoted to catching a man. Check this out:

Or, if you want to read the original books, published in 1922, you can do so online here:

Published in: on March 1, 2015 at 8:19 am  Comments (4)  

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