Sunday, July 27, 2014

13 Castle Walk by DeWitt Bodeen

This novel is a thinly veiled fictionalization of one of Hollywood’s most famous unsolved murders. In 1922, director William Desmond Taylor was discovered dead in his home with a fatal gunshot wound in his back. Two famous actresses of the era, Mary Pickford wannabe Mary Miles Minter and popular comedienne Mabel Normand, were rumored to have been romantically involved with Taylor and had their careers tarnished as a result of his murder. Since some of the cast of players and suspects and known associates were still alive at the time it was published in 1975 (the year I was born) all names and many identifiable characteristics have been changed in the novel, but if you know the case it’s still possible to tell who’s who, and even if you don’t know a thing about it you can still enjoy this book for what it is—a novel about an unsolved murder mystery from Hollywood’s silent screen era.

The book begins with Hannah Winters being paroled from prison. The young woman, whom many regard sympathetically, was condemned for the mercy killing of her terminally ill husband. Her parole officer arranged a job for her as a live-in housekeeper/secretary/companion for the eccentric elderly former silent movie queen Jennie Jill Jerard.

Still a lovely blonde from the neck up, after Jennie disappeared from the screen in the aftermath of the scandalous demise of her director, and the only man she ever loved, Andrew Riley Rutherford (the thinly disguised William Desmond Taylor), she became an obese virgin recluse, living in her opulent Hollywood villa at 13 Castle Walk, alone with a succession of housekeepers, her memories, prize-winning rose garden, the perpetual See’s candy box, and her white Persian cat.  Jennie is obviously modeled on Mary Miles Minter whose virtuous image was destroyed after her romantic involvement with or romantic idealization of (depending on what you believe) William Desmond Taylor became public knowledge.  Both the Jennie Jill Jerard of this novel and the real life Mary Miles Minter wore their hair in long golden ringlets a la Mary Pickford, dressed in beautiful lacy Valentine gowns, and had faces you might find on the lid of one of the beribboned candy boxes of the day, and specialized in playing demure, sweet, and pure heroines on the silver screen.

Hannah and her employer instantly hit it off. They quickly become friends, not just employer and employee. And a handsome reporter, who sympathetically covered Hannah’s trial, and also just happens to be curious about the decades old mystery, also comes into their lives, and quickly becomes Hannah’s love interest.

In this novel, taking the place played by the real life Mabel Normand is the fictional Molly Carfax, who is modeled on Mary Pickford. Since Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand played different types of roles onscreen, they really could not be seen as rivals, except possibly for William Desmond Taylor’s affections, so this makes a very interesting substitution. In this novel Molly Carfax and Jennie Jill Jerard were both the girls with the golden curls, playing the same kinds of roles, both backed by ruthless, ambitious stage mothers willing to do anything to further their darling’s career. Retired from the movies, Molly lives in her mansion, and her brother, a hopeless alcohol, lives in the guest house with a retired boxer as his caretaker to keep him out of trouble.

Molly’s brother, and Jennie’s occasional costar, Johnny Carfax is also a prime player in this work of fiction. Obviously modeled on immature, hard-drinking party boy Jack Pickford, who lost his beautiful Ziegfeld Follies showgirl bride Virginia Knight (inspired by Olive Thomas) to an inexplicable suicide on their honeymoon.

The past comes back to haunt Jennie when a man, claiming to know the truth about Andrew Riley Rutherford’s death, tries to blackmail her and then is found dead, shot through the back, in her front yard at a time when both she, and her new housekeeper, are getting a fresh start in life, Jennie through an unexpected return to the screen, and Hannah when love comes into her life.

SPOILER ALERT! Because 13 Castle Walk is a rare and pricey book, at the time I’m writing this used copies range from $75 and up, I am going to break my usual rule and reveal the rest of the story. If you don’t want to know the solution to the fictional mystery please skip to the final paragraph.

Gradually the truth is revealed. The blackmailer and corpse in Jennie’s front yard turns out to be a forgotten actor who drifted into a life of obscurity and petty crime after his career fizzled with the advent of sound. Andrew Riley Rutherford was (as William Desmond Taylor was also rumored to be) a discreet homosexual. In this novel he infected Johnny Carfax with a particularly virulent form of syphilis, which he unwittingly passed on to his bride. This led her to take her own life and Johnny, unhinged by grief, took a gun and shot the man he held responsible. Molly Carfax, and her protective mother, covered up the truth, even submitting to blackmail, to protect Johnny.

Overall, this was an interesting but not remarkable read, certainly not worth the high price used copies usually go for, which I fortunately didn't pay. I only have this because of my longstanding interest in the William Desmond Taylor murder case and the lives and films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. If this review has aroused your curiosity, I recommend the highly readable, nonfiction account A Cast of Killers by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick; real life movie director King Vidor became intrigued by the Taylor case and launched his own investigation and this book details it in a lively manner that reads almost like a novel. A Deed of Death by Robert Giroux, though it draws a different and much less dramatic conclusion, also makes interesting non-fiction reading. Both of these can be found at much more reasonable prices than 13 Castle Walk. There are a couple of other fictional treatments of the Taylor murder case which I have, but have not yet read, so watch for those in the hopefully not too distant future. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tiger, Tiger A Memoir by Margaux Fragoso

This sad and disturbing memoir tells the story of the author’s fourteen year relationship with a pedophile. In 1985 when Margaux was seven years old, living with a mentally ill stay-at-home mother and a tyrannical, belittling father with a temper like a bomb that could go off at any time at the least little touch, she met Peter at a public swimming pool. He was fifty-one, with aqua eyes and sandy-silver hair worn in a Beatles cut, he lived in a home that was a wonderland of animals, including a variety of birds, black-whiskered catfish, iguanas, dogs, rabbits, and turtles, guinea pigs and hamsters, goldfish, and even a small alligator. He was kind and sympathetic and immediately charmed Margaux and her mother, who came to think of Peter as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. But to Margaux, he was the perfect friend. His home became paradise to them and they would visit every week.

But Peter was a pedophile. The games and stories soon lost their innocence. Tickling advanced to fondling and kissing and then games of hide-and-seek first in underpants and then, upon his dare, in the nude. He manipulated Margaux. He convinced her that theirs was a very special relationship that outsiders could not understand. That they were in love and would one day marry.

After a lifeguard at the pool reported seeing Peter kissing Margaux on the mouth she was forbidden to see him. First came tantrums, then she sank into a deep depression, accompanied by insomnia. She stopped eating and her grades dropped. Margaux’s mother persuaded her husband that the kiss was entirely innocent and had been blown all out of proportion and soon the weekly visits resumed.

But Margaux was growing up. Childish pastimes were now firmly in the past as Peter introduced Margaux to French kissing and oral sex. Violence began to creep into their relationship. But fueled by books such as Lolita and the works of V.C. Andrews, about younger girls seduced by older men, Margaux bought into the fantasy. To please Peter she shaved her pubic hair and hoped her breasts wouldn’t grow larger, she tried to stay a little girl instead of becoming a woman. She created a fantasy alter ego, naughty girl Nina, who was everything Peter desired and even studied porn in order to please him.

When Peter’s health worsened, Margaux found herself assuming the role of his caregiver when she was still in her mid-teens. She was convinced he was the only one who truly loved her. Even after the sex stopped, due to his health problems and her growing up, Peter continued to manipulate Margaux. When she was twenty-two Peter committed suicide and left Margaux devastated. Her life had been so entwined with Peter’s she scarcely knew where one ended and the other began. She didn’t even know what she really liked and which desires had been cultivated in order to please him. It was a long, hard struggle to reach the point where she could see the truth and write this very frank and unflinchingly honest book.

This book gripped me from the start and would not let me go until I had finished it. Reading it was a real experience for me, as some of the men in Margaux’s life resembled men I have known, though I never encountered a pedophile in my own personal life, I am no stranger to manipulative, verbally abusive men with tempers like time bombs, and pretenders who are not really what they seem, and this memoir affected me like no other I have ever read. I wish the author well and hope she has found happiness and peace of mind.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald

This dark, disturbing family saga, spanning the years 1898-1953 tells the tragedy-laden story of the Piper family of Cape Breton Island, a coal mining town off Nova Scotia. And I warn you right now, it’s not a pretty story, and if you’re prone to depression, reading this won’t help you any. That’s not to say it’s a bad book, it’s not, but the tale it tells is dark, disturbing, and bleak.

When the story begins James Piper is an eighteen year old piano tuner who grew up reading the classics to improve himself and longing for life’s finer things. He falls in love with Materia Mahmud, a Lebanese girl, and elopes with her, only to regret it later when he finds himself ashamed of his wife’s dark skin and weight gain.

Their first daughter, Kathleen, is born with the twentieth century, in 1900. In fact, the doctor has to be dragged away from a New Year’s Eve party in order to deliver her. She’s a beauty from the start, milk-white skin, red-gold hair, and green eyes, and an angel voice that’s a gift from God that James sees as her ticket to fame and fortune. Determined to give Kathleen the best of everything, a convent education, and musical training, he sends his wife out to work as an accompanist, playing the piano to silent movies, and does what he swore he would never do and takes up the pick and goes to work in the coal mines. But when Materia becomes popular, he insists that she quit.

As the story progresses, a dark, unhealthy, incestuous undercurrent ripples through James’ relationship with his firstborn. Materia senses this, and does all she can to save Kathleen. She gives James a second daughter, Mercedes in 1912, then Frances is born eleven months later, and, lastly, Lily. When Materia finds she can’t protect Kathleen, she tries to bargain with God; she’s willing to let the Devil take Kathleen, if He will only spare her other daughters.

The sisters all have interesting, well-developed personalities; the author really did a marvelous job creating her cast of characters. Mercedes is the religious one, a prim, perfectionist who later assumes the mother’s role in the household, while Frances is the wisecracking tomboy.

When James is caught up in World War I, Materia secretly hopes he will be killed; that’s really the only way to save Kathleen from him, but he returns from the war unscathed.

At eighteen, Kathleen is sent to New York to study music. There she falls in love with her accompanist Rose, a doubly forbidden attraction, as it is not only a same sex one, but Rose is black. When an anonymous letter alerts James to the affair he rushes to New York to bring Kathleen home. He is so angry with Kathleen that he rapes her. She dies several months later giving birth to her incestuously begotten twins. The boy dies but the little girl, Lily, survives and it is publicly given out that Kathleen died of influenza. The family passes her off as Materia’s child, the baby sister of Mercedes, Lily, and the late Kathleen. Materia feels so much guilt for so many things that she takes her life, but this too is covered up with a lie about a sudden stroke seizing her while she was cleaning the oven.

As the 1920s come roaring in, James becomes a bootlegger and gives all his love to little Lily. Sixteen-year-old Frances idolizes Louise Brooks, bobs her hair in the same style, and gets a job doing stripteases in a speakeasy, while Mercedes, always the prim and proper one, becomes a schoolteacher, an old maid hoarding money in a cocoa tin, saving to send Lilly to Lourdes in the hope that a miracle will cure the polio-crippled child. And there’s a lot more melodrama, sins, and secrets ahead, so fasten your seatbelt, you’re in for a bumpy ride.

Despite the darkness, and the sadness, that hangs over it all, this really is a well-written novel with a vivid and memorable cast of characters. You may or may not like them, but you probably won’t forget them.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Pearl of China by Anchee Min

This novel tells the story of novelist Pearl S. Buck, author of “The Good Earth,” her life as a blonde outsider and missionaries’ daughter in China and her enduring friendship with a Chinese girl named Willow.

 It’s an excellent tale of history and the power of a friendship that endured despite lengthy separations, the clash of cultures and religions, politics and rebellions, and marriage and the woes that go with it, that also shows the various influences that shaped and inspired Ms. Buck’s writing. 

 If you enjoy novels about literary figures from the past, or are interested in Chinese culture and history, I think you will enjoy this one.

The Jesus Papers by Michael Baigent

In this book the co-author of the sensational and provocative Holy Blood, Holy Grail, one of the sources of international bestseller The Da Vinci Code, contends that everything we know about the life of Jesus Christ has been distorted or is an outright lie. After decades of research, which he shares with the readers, taking them along on this archaeological  historical, and theological journey, he concludes that Jesus survived the crucifixion and that this truth has been concealed for centuries. His aim, he says, is to provide readers with a better, broader understanding of the life of the historical Jesus rather than the faith-based Christ.

I’m not a religious person or an expert on any of subjects explored here, so I have no opinion one way or the other regarding truths, lies, or distortions in Mr. Baigent’s book, all I can say is that it’s a fascinating tangle of dead ends, conspiracies, bloodlines, buried treasures and secrets, tales of Rennes le Chateau, the Gnostic Gospels, Knights Templars, Cathars, and the Inquisition, Egyptian mystery cults, and papal conspiracies, oracles, and the murky world of the antiquities trade where private collectors pay small fortunes to possess texts the Church would rather see suppressed. If you’re open-minded and like mysteries and conspiracies, with strong doses of controversial history and archaeology, you might enjoy this, but if you’re a person of serious faith who is offended by the mere mention of such theories as Mr. Baigent espouses then this is definitely not the book for you.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Naked At The Feast A Biography of Josephine Baker by Lynn Haney

This well written and researched biography tells the rags to riches then back to rags story of Josephine Baker (1906-1975), a woman born dirt poor in the slums of Missouri who became the toast of Paris in the 1920s.

Exuberant, enthusiastic, and egotistical, Josephine’s life was, by her own design, a fairy tale, crafted to resemble the story of Cinderella that her grandmother read her. She saw herself as a Negro Joan of Arc, destined to deliver her people from the shackles of oppression. She was always moving, it was like the ragtime music of the time was in her bones.

After a short-lived marriage at age thirteen, she began her show business career as an underage chorus girl on the vaudeville “Chitlin’ Circuit” with other black performers. She soon married her second husband, Willie Baker, a Pullman porter who shared her wanderlust and love of excitement.

After enjoying some success in cabarets in Harlem, she traveled to Paris as part of an all black cast for Le Revue Negre. Josephine fell in love with Paris and Paris fell in love with her. She became a popular artists’ model and, after overcoming her initial fear about dancing in the nude, became a star. Appearing as a bare-breasted and barefoot jungle savage in a skirt of rhinestone covered bananas at the Folies-Bergere brought her all the jewels, satins, silks, and furs she had ever dreamed of. She was the highest paid entertainer in Europe. Instead of rags she now wore couture clothes designed by Schiapareilli and Poiret. And in Paris she was free of racial scorn and prejudice, and segregation; she was welcome everywhere. She could walk into a shop and try on clothes and hats just like a white woman.

She lived lavishly, being wined and dined and bedded by celebrities and royalty, bought a chateau, and acquired a large menagerie of both exotic and ordinary pets. She starred in movies, lent her name and image to advertising beauty products and clothing, opened her own nightclub, Chez Josephine, took numerous lovers because she could not bear to sleep alone, and served chitlins, greens, black-eyed peas, and rooster combs on her table alongside Cordon Bleu cuisine.

The man she called her “no account count,” her lover/manager, the faux count Pepito de Abatino, a gigolo/dance instructor, played Pygmalion to her Galatea and helped her to acquire all the outer trappings of a lady.  Only then, in 1935, ten years after she had left, did she dare return to the United States, hoping to triumph there as she had in Paris. But America wasn't ready for Josephine, she was forced to use the servants’ entrance at the hotels she stayed at and bombed at the Ziegfeld Follies. Soon Josephine back in Paris, on the stage of the Folies-Bergere. She blamed Pepito for her failure, and cast him out of her life, leaving him to die alone. But though the lovers came and went for the rest of her life, everything from chorus boys to crowned heads, even some women if the rumors were true, she never found anyone whose love and devoted equaled or surpassed Pepito’s.

Her third husband, a millionaire sugar broker, taught her to fly, but expected her to give up her career and become a housewife. The union didn't last.

When World War II erupted, Josephine gave all her energy and dedication to the war effort. She was devoted to France, her adopted country. She worked untiringly for the Red Cross, sending gifts and letters to servicemen, entertaining the troops, and joining the Resistance, and even serving as a spy, using her numerous international connections, to free her beloved Paris from Nazi occupation. In Casablanca, she gave premature birth to her only child. It was stillborn and Josephine was forced to undergo an emergency hysterectomy and almost died of infection and fever.

Knowing that she would never be a mother, sent Josephine spiraling into a deep depression, made worse by continuing health problems, but she dragged herself out of bed and forced herself to go on entertaining the troops.

The Josephine who returned to Paris in 1944 after the Liberation was a calmer, older, and sadder Josephine, no longer the savage wild child. At the age of forty-one, she married her fourth husband, orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, and devoted her energies to restoring and operating Les Milandes, her 15th century chateau, as a working farm and tourist attraction. She continued performing, but no longer in the nude, and campaigning against racism and segregation. But on a visit to the USA, an ugly incident in the Stork Club involving columnist Walter Winchell, led to her being labeled anti-American and a possible Communist and her own people began to turn away from her.

Back at her chateau, Josephine decided to fulfill both her dreams of motherhood and racial harmony by adopting a child of each race, to prove they could all live together happily and peacefully. Between 1954 and 1965 she would adopt twelve children; her very own “Rainbow Tribe.” But it all had the air of a publicity stunt; though the children clearly adored her, Josephine was often an absentee mother, leaving them to the care of governesses, her husband, and other relatives and servants.

But everything slipped through her fingers, either fast or slow, in time she lost it all. Her health, her home, her family, her possessions, which were sold at auction. In 1964 she was photographed, sixty-two years old, barefoot with a mammy cap covering her balding scalp (the lye she used to straighten her hair had gradually destroyed the follicles) sitting on the backstairs of her chateau, crying in the rain, after she had been forcibly evicted.

Princess Grace of Monaco came to her aid, but Josephine, desperate to satisfy her creditors, returned to the only life she had ever known. Trading on fond memories and the novelty of seeing an elderly woman in feathered headdresses, sequins, and spangles, sometimes roaring onto the stage astride a Harley Davidson motorcycle or dancing the Charleston, she made a successful comeback, but even that slipped away too, as the march of time continued and senility set in. After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, Josephine slipped away quietly, without ever regaining consciousness on April 14, 1975. Princess Grace was at her side as last rites were administered and arranged for Josephine to buried in Monaco beneath a simple black granite marker.

I remember seeing the made-for-tv movie, The Josephine Baker Story, years ago, so when I saw this book I was very curious and eager to read it. I love the history of the theater and the Golden Age of the movies, and Miss Baker’s remarkable life story is a fascinating and poignant Cinderella story of the dizzying highs and lows of celebrity. She was a brave woman who did much to help people, but ended by only hurting herself, she was always chasing rainbows and could never hold on to what she had.