George Will’s history lesson touches my books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’ve read THE IMPERSONATOR, you may remember a character who is running for public office named Henry. Henry is a bigot, typical of Oregonians (and many other Americans, it should be said) in the 1920s, who rails against Catholics, the Japanese, and private schools (because some were Catholic). Henry mentions that the current governor is a friend of the Ku Klux Klan, as is Henry himself.  In my third book in the series, RENTING SILENCE, the main character Jessie goes on a vaudeville tour in Indiana and comes up against serious threats from the KKK–but she can’t get help because the town’s entire police force are Klansmen. Some readers thought these portrayals were inaccurate–that the Klan was only in the South.

History books seldom go into enough detail to mention that the Klan was stronger in Indiana and Oregon than it was in parts of the South, but it is true. So I was delighted when conservative columnist George Will wrote about this in last week’s column. Here’s the excerpt:

In the Twenties, however, Oregon was a national leader in a different flavor of nonsense, as historian Linda Gordon recounts in “The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition.” The Klan’s revival began in 1915 with the romanticizing of it in the film “Birth of a Nation,” adapted from the novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon. He was a John Hopkins University classmate and friend of Woodrow Wilson, who as president made the movie the first one shown in the White House. Wilson was enraptured: “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

The resuscitated Klan flourished nationwide as a vehicle of post-World War I populism. It addressed grievances about national identity — pre-war immigration (too many Catholics and Jews) had diluted Anglo-Saxon purity — and disappointment with the recalcitrant world that had not been sufficiently improved by, or grateful for, U.S. involvement in the war.

Gordon, who grew up in Portland, says: “Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, and extending through the mid-twentieth century, Oregon was arguably the most racist place outside the southern states, possibly even of all the states.” By the early 1920s, “Oregon shared with Indiana the distinction of having the highest per capita Klan membership” because the Klan’s agenda “fit comfortably into the state’s tradition.”

In 1844, Oregon territory banned slavery — and required African-Americans to leave. Prevented by federal law from expelling African-Americans, Gordon says it became the only state to ban “any further blacks from entering, living, voting or owning property,” a law “to be enforced by lashings for violators.” The state offered free land, but only to whites. It imposed an annual tax on non-whites who remained. Oregon refused to ratify the post-Civil War Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (not doing so until 1959 and 1973, respectively).

In 1920, Oregon’s population was 0.006 percent Japanese (they came after the federal government banned Chinese immigration in 1882), 0.3 percent African-American, 0.1 percent Jewish and 8 percent Catholic. To make living difficult for Japanese, Gordon says, the state “banned immigrants from operating hospitality businesses.” In 1923, only one state legislator voted against barring immigrants from owning or renting land. In advance of today’s progressive hostility to private schools competing with government schools, Klan-dominated Oregon — it was primarily hostile to Catholic schools — banned all private schools. In 1925, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (Gov. Walter Pierce was a Democrat and, Gordon says, “an ardent Klan ally”), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down this law.

Interesting, huh? Thanks, George Will, for elaborating on this subject.

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Published in: on August 12, 2018 at 8:53 am  Comments (2)  

The Girls in the Picture: Book Review

I just finished the new book by Melanie Benjamin titled The Girls in the Picture, a fictionalized version of the lives of two women who were massively influential in the development of both silent movies and talkies: Mary Pickford and Frances Marian. Mary Pickford was the stage actress who moved into silent movies in her teens, when they were little more than one-reel “shorts” filmed in New York. “Little Mary” became the first international movie star and is credited with inventing modern screen acting techniques. Although she never went to school, she had a brilliant mind (“a man’s brain,” as it was called then) and became a sharp businesswoman and the founder of United Artists. She was also probably the richest woman in the world at one point. Frances Marian wasn’t quite the star that Mary was, but she wasn’t an actress either–she was a writer who penned “scenarios” for silent films and later wrote scripts for talkies. She and Mary were close friends from their early days, although they drifted apart during middle age.

The book is written from the first-person POV of Frances Marian, in alternating chapters, one about Mary, the next about Fran. Mary’s chapters are written in third person. I wondered why. The effect was to make Fran the effective narrator, and a stronger character than Mary.

As a historian focusing on the 1920s for my own novels, I’ve done tons of research into the era, so I had to smile when I read the author’s note at the end describing her research. She and I have studied the exact same histories, biographies, and autobiographies, which perchance explains why I found every detail in her story so familiar. I commend the thorough research job she did. She also did a good job trying to explain some of the unexplained aspects of these women’s lives, such as why Mary Pickford became such a recluse and what happened to destroy her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks. There are only so many pages in a novel, so the story focuses on the early years when the two women worked together and were close friends. Once they reach middle age, the story pretty much ends. I wish the author had not had to leave out the two children Pickford adopted, and I would like to have read more about Douglas’s death, Lottie’s and Jack’s deaths, and many other important events in their later lives, but maybe she’s planning a sequel!

If you like silent films and enjoy learning more about the famous names of that era–Charlie Chaplin, Lilian Gish, Fred Thomson, W.D.Griffith, Marie Dressler, and Adolph Zukor, to name a few–you’ll enjoy this book. Although I already knew tons about Mary Pickford, I knew much less about Fran Marian. I think that’s why I enjoyed those chapters the most, because I was learning something about a woman who made a significant contribution to the art of film-making, one that isn’t widely acknowledged or even known today. These two were the two most important women in the history of movies. It’s about time someone wrote a book about them!

Published in: on June 10, 2018 at 7:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Need Christmas Present Idea?

Need a Christmas present or hostess gift for someone who likes to read? Consider giving a journey back into the Roaring Twenties via my Roaring Twenties mysteries, set in 1924 with a vaudeville and silent movies backdrop. The first in the series, THE IMPERSONATOR, won the national award for Best First Crime Novel in 2012, the second, SILENT MURDERS, had a terrific review in the New York Times. 

Find them in your local bookstores, libraries, or online at amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Take one missing heiress, an unscrupulous uncle, and a young vaudeville performer fallen on hard times; add several murdered girls, a mysterious Chinese herbalist, and a handsome bootlegger; then move from the seamy world of Prohibition-era vaudeville to Oregon’s rugged coast, and what do you have? A formula for suspense, as Jessie finds herself torn between her deceitful charade and her determination to find out what really happened to the girl she is impersonating.

 

 

In the second Roaring Twenties murder mystery, Jessie trades her nomadic vaudeville life for a modest but steady job in the silent film industry. She quickly learns that all Hollywood scorns the Prohibition laws: studio bosses rule the police and gangsters supply speakeasies everywhere with bootleg hooch and Mexican dope. When a powerful director is murdered at his own party and Jessie’s waitress friend is killed for what she saw, Jessie takes the lead in an investigation tainted by corrupt cops. Soon tangled in a web of drugs, bribery, and greed, she finds herself a prime suspect as the bodies pile up.

The third in the Roaring Twenties mystery series takes Jessie from silent films back into the world of vaudeville to track down a performer with something to hide. At the request of her silent film star boss, Mary Pickford, Jessie uses her vaudeville talents to investigate the murder of an extra by a Hollywood actress already sentenced to death for the crime. Her inquiries lead to the discovery of a blackmailer and more than a dozen actors facing ruin or even death if their secrets are exposed. If the convicted actress is innocent, then who killed the blackmailer?

The fourth book begins in the fall of 1925 when a projectionist is gunned down in the theater booth. The killer flees to the balcony and vanishes. Jessie’s investigation succeeds where the police fail, thanks to her vaudeville skills and connections. A killer seeking revenge for an Old World massacre is targeting a group of Balkan immigrants, one by one. Jessie deduces the reason the killer is never apprehended—but fails to spot the killer until it’s almost too late. A young deaf girl whose mother has gone missing plays a significant role.

 

 

 

 

STOLEN MEMORIES, below, is not part of the Roaring Twenties series, although it is set in that decade, in France and England.

A brutal attack along the banks of the Seine 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, who believes 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. For weeks he tries threats, bribery, and hypnosis to pry the truth out of her. As her memory returns piecemeal–some corroborating, some clashing with what she is told–she struggles to establish her identity. 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? The story takes place in 1928 against a backdrop of pagan ritual and an early Christian midsummer festival known as the Fires of John the Baptist.

 

 

Vaudeville Travel

I spend a good deal of time in my mysteries dealing with vaudeville travel practices, because travel–especially train travel–was such an integral part of every vaudeville performer’s life. Performers paid for their own tickets. It was their single most costly expense they had, more than hotels or food. Most tried to leave town after the final performance on their last day, which would usually be late Saturday night, so they could sleep on the train and save the money for a hotel that night, and so they could arrive the next morning in time for rehearsal. 

Performers called each train ride a “jump.” They jumped to the next town on their itinerary. But booking agents were not arranging these jumps with any thought to efficiency, so often performers had to “back jump” or go in the opposite direction or re-trace their route. And railroad travel was unpredictable. Trains were often delayed by snow, landslides, or strikes, meaning the performers missed their next gig and a day’s or week’s pay. 

Here’s something I learned that doesn’t make it into my novels–trains in the 1920s were faster than they are today. Incredible? Yes, but true. Why? Less rail capacity and poorer rail quality, plus the dominance of freight travel over passenger travel.  Read this for more. 

Published in: on December 9, 2017 at 8:55 pm  Comments (3)  
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A New Museum in Switzerland

Heading to Switzerland any time soon? There’s a new museum you might like to see. (I sure would.) They’ve taken Charlie Chaplin’s old home, located in a small lakeside town 50 miles from Geneva, and turned it into a museum–a fine museum, according to the New York Times article (attached), with re-creations of some of his more famous sets and of course, his films.

In my Roaring Twenties mysteries, Charlie Chaplin appears occasionally as the best friend of Douglas Fairbanks. They were inseparable for many years, until circumstances moved them apart. Fairbanks died quite young (56) in 1939; Chaplin lived to be 88 and died in 1977. Although he was English by birth and made Hollywood his home for decades, he spent the greatest portion of his life in Switzerland.

I’m going to be in eastern France next year, near the Swiss border. I think I’ll try to make this a side trip.

 

Published in: on November 19, 2017 at 4:11 pm  Comments (2)  
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Hollywood Calling

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a Hollywood actress and a producer/director who are interested in turning my Roaring Twenties series into a movie! I referred them to my agent, who pronounced them legitimate and gave them a year’s option so they could start trying to raise the money. A historical movie or television series is usually more expensive than a contemporary film, due to the extra costs of period requirements like costuming and motor cars, not to mention the difficulty in finding appropriate historic settings for outdoor scenes. It’s a long shot, of course, but it’s fun to dream. Stay tuned for updates! 

Published in: on October 25, 2017 at 9:46 am  Comments (5)  

Invitation to my new book’s birthday party

It’s my book’s Birth Day! The date the publisher chose to release it. Come to the party on Aug. 16 at Chop Suey Books in Richmond’s Carytown district and get a copy of my latest mystery, MURDER IN DISGUISE. In the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, I’m doing a short reading at 6:00 and serving suitable Prohibition beverage–and giving away a hardcover copy of the first in the series, THE IMPERSONATOR, with every purchase. Convenient, free parking behind the Byrd Theater across the street. 

Published in: on July 28, 2017 at 8:24 am  Leave a Comment  

Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit Grows in the 1890s

When I write my Roaring Twenties mystery series, which is set in the 1920s, I depend on my research about the vaudeville circuits of the early 20th century. One thing I learned was that these “circuits” (groups of theaters that joined together to host an itinerant group of performers) didn’t materialize out of nowhere. In the 1890s, the Orpheum Circuit, which was largely made up of west coast theaters and a few in the Midwest, needed to find some theaters in between so that performers didn’t waste a week of unpaid time traveling from the Midwest cities (like Chicago) to the west coast. Yes, it could take three or four days to travel from the Midwest to the far west by rail, which meant the performers lost that week. Anything less than one day of travel cut into their 6-day week, rendering the act unemployable for that week.

The first in-between theaters added were in Kansas City, MO, and Omaha, NE, both railway hubs that were growing in population and sophistication. After that came Denver, in those days, the largest city between Kansas City and San Francisco. The Denver Orpheum was built in 1899 at the unheard of cost of $350,000. (Sadly, it was torn down in the 1930s.) But with this stunning theater, the Orpheum Circuit could at last attract big names, because performers could travel between engagements one day at a time.

Published in: on July 10, 2017 at 4:45 pm  Comments (1)  

Houdini’s Rise to Stardom

I mention Houdini briefly in a couple of my mysteries, so I became interested in his remarkable life and unusual talents.

Houdini began as a small-time magician in vaudeville. Fortunately for him, he was spotted by Martin Beck, an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire who became one of the top booking agents in vaudeville thanks to his uncanny ability to discover new talent. When he saw young Houdini, he told him he should cut out the regular magic tricks that other magicians did and concentrate on one big thriller that only he could do–escape-artist tricks like the handcuffs in the trunk.

Houdini took his advice and became a vaudeville sensation. Beck became the Orpheum Circuit’s general manager.

Published in: on July 1, 2017 at 6:19 am  Comments (1)  

Murder in Disguise Gets a Nice Review

Author: MARY MILEY

Title: MURDER IN DISGUISE

Publication: PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

Issue: 19TH JUNE 2017

 Murder in Disguise: A Roaring Twenties Mystery, Mary Miley. Severn, $28.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8714-6

The shooting murder of projectionist Joe Petrovitch, during a showing of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush at a Hollywood movie theater, propels Miley’s engrossing fourth Roaring Twenties mystery (after 2016’s Renting Silence). The police rush to the theater, but the gunman escapes without a trace. The victim’s wife, a hairdresser at the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, asks script girl Jessie Beckett, who’s a skilled amateur sleuth, to investigate. With help from Adele Astaire (Fred’s glamorous sister and dance partner), actress Myrna Loy (later to achieve fame in The Thin Man), assorted vaudevillians, and police detective Carl Delaney, spunky, resourceful Jessie sets to work. Aficionados of showbiz history will delight in the technical details of filmmaking in the silent era and the peripatetic lives of the performers. Readers will also get the lowdown on bootlegging, speakeasies, and gin joints. Series fans will be pleased to know that David Carr, Jessie’s love interest, has a tidy subplot of his own.

 

Published in: on June 26, 2017 at 3:26 pm  Comments (2)