All Decked Out: Easter in the Gilded Age

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Photo Credit: Let all rejoice sweet Easter Day, 1881, stock card, published by Geo M. Hayes, Boston Public Library, Print Department: Boston Public Library/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

It’s officially Easter and, if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I love to dive into the way things were during the holidays. The Gilded Age made of Easter what it made of many other holidays — an opportunity for opulence and excess. But, then, Gilded Agers knew how to enjoy life.

Easter in America didn’t become a spectacle until after the Civil War. In the first half of the 19th century, it was an important holiday for Christians and Catholics, but some religious groups were apt to ignore it. Others made Easter Sunday a day of mourning the fallen soldiers of the war. 

But things began to change around the 1870s (which coincides, not coincidentally, I think, with the birth of the Gilded Age). Easter was still, of course, a religious holiday and honored as such, but the Gilded Age mentality began to slip in. Gilded Agers saw it as a time to celebrate spring in the best way they knew how — by showing off.

Now, here’s a cartoon that is a sign of the times: An elderly Victorian lady dressed to the nines points toward a lavish Easter bonnet on a maypole while other equally garish women gather around to worship this sign of Gilded Age opulence. But the New Woman isn’t buying it and, in her sensible and comfortable suit, gives her a look like, “Seriously?”

Photo Credit: She won’t bow to the hat, C. J. Taylor, 1896, Library of Congress, Chromolithographs: Picryl/No known restrictions

The tradition of new Easter clothes took off during this period. Easter was the perfect time to jump into spring with bright, pastel shades and adornments. As with other holidays, such as Christmas, consumerism ruled, and it suddenly became a necessity rather than desirable for women and men to get new clothes for the holiday. Advertisements for men’s clothes urged them not to wait to order their new Easter suits, and buying a new hat for the holiday was the order of the day for most women (thus was born the “Easter bonnet”). As you can see from the photos on this page, not a ribbon or a frill was spared on these elaborate headgear. 

Where did Gilded Agers take themselves to display their new Easter garb? To church, obviously. In fact, there were those who weren’t regular churchgoers but would make an exception for Easter Sunday so their fellow worshipers could admire their new spring clothes. Another place Gilded Agers went to see and be seen in their new Easter garb was restaurants and hotels. Just as with Thanksgiving, hotel dining rooms had special menus for Easter that might have included lamb and asparagus (a vegetable just coming into vogue in Victorian cuisine). And the height of showing off in the Gilded Age was the Easter parade. In fact, the idea of the parade was conceived when aristocratic Victorian ladies flocked down Fifth Avenue dressed in their finest after church. In 1948, the musical Easter Parade, starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire epitomized this Easter tradition, especially in this song where Garland tackles all the cliches of Easter in one tune.

Want to read about one Nob Hill family and their rise and fall in the Gilded Age? My entire Waxwood Series is now available!

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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Complex Woman and Man in The Misfits (1961)

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Photo Credit: Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in The Misfits, May 1961, from Radio-TV Mirror, McFadden Publications: Encyclopedias/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to review a book about classic Hollywood film director Robert Wise (you can find that blog post here). Reading this book reminded me of how much I used to love blogging about classic films. I haven’t done that in the last few years because I wanted to focus more on history related to my fiction, but the Wise book got my juices flowing again, so I’m putting classic film blogging back on my agenda.

Since this is Women’s History Month, and I’m celebrating the accomplishments of women in the 1950s and 1960s, I thought it would be fitting to blog about one of the most iconic movie stars of the mid-20th century who still haunts us today — the beautiful, talented and troubled Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe is best known for comedies in the 1950s such as Gentlemen Prefer Blonds (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955). But she also did a fair amount of dramas and excelled in them. In 1961, when she was married to Arthur Miller, she starred in The Misfits and gave what I consider the finest performance of her career. The film is a magnificent classic written by one of America’s premier playwrights (Arthur Miller) and stars, along with Monroe, some of Hollywood’s greatest actors (Clark Gable, Eli Wallach, Montgomery Clift, and Thelma Ritter). What fascinates me the most about this film is the way both Monroe and Clark Gable edge out of the kind of roles they had been used to playing for much of their careers.

I don’t think anyone would deny that, when it comes to the feminine prototype, Marilyn Monroe’s film persona is it. From her voluptuous figure to her child-like voice to her sensual gazes, Monroe embodied a fantasy for 1950s men that differed widely from the woman of the Occupation: “Housewife” era. The sensual babydoll was no weakling, though. She was in command of the men who admired and lusted after her, aware of what she had to offer as a woman and making the most of it. Similarly, Gable was the definition of masculinity in the 1930s and 1940s. His elegant pencil mustache and gruff manner and his readiness to throw a punch at any given moment defined what it was to be a “man’s man” not only in the pre-World War II era but in the years following the war.

In “The Misfits”, Monroe is something of the innocent but voluptuous baby doll while Gable is the gruff cowboy capable of bringing women to their knees even in his 60’s. But the characters they play are much more complex and move well beyond these stereotypes. Monroe shows us the darker side of the sexy babydoll that so captured the delight of 1950s viewers in films such as those mentioned above. Miller wrote the character of Roslyn Taber with Monroe’s own past in mind, and some of the more troubling aspects of Monroe’s life emerge in that character. One is Monroe’s paradoxical relationship with her mentally ill mother. In a scene following Taber’s divorce settlement, she becomes tearful thinking about her mother. One can imagine that, during this difficult time, Taber has a sudden wish for the maternal comfort she never got, and one wonders whether Monroe herself didn’t sometimes have the same wish for her mother, who was largely absent from her life, in and out of mental institutions.

As for Gable, the character of Gay Langland is much less pugnacious than some of the characters Gable played in the 1930s and 1940s. For example, in one scene, he assures Taber she might someday think of him as something more than a friend in such a good-natured way that it’s clear Langland isn’t a man who expects every woman to fall for him, and that his ego doesn’t depend on this. The man of iron also shows himself as vulnerable as the film progresses. In one scene, his drunken devastation at being unable to find his estranged grown children at a rodeo gives us a glimpse into some of his past regrets.

The 1960s, when The Misfits was made, was a time when the rigid definitions of the post-war gender roles were beginning to break down, which, I think, partly accounts for the way Taber and Langland are portrayed in this film. If you’re interested in reading about more characters whose ideas of gender already showed signs of changing in the 1950s, check out my short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life

And just for fun, here’s the trailer for The Misfits. 

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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An Eclectic Collection: The Films of Robert Wise

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Photo Credit: Film producer and director Robert Wise at the premiere of Air America, 1990, photo by Alan Light: Bebe735/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 2.0

Sometimes opportunities come up that are almost a crime to pass up (and y’all know my head is in crime right now with the launch of my Paper Chase Mysteries this year). When author and film historian J. R. Jordan contacted me and asked me to review the revised edition of his book, Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition), I jumped at the chance.

As many of you know, my first love is classic literature, but I have an equal passion for classic film. I have my favorite classic film directors. Robert Wise is on the top of that list as well. Wise was one of those down-to-earth Hollywood figures who didn’t create a lot of unnecessary drama on the film set. As his nephew, Douglas E. Wise says in the introduction, 

“As a director, Uncle Bob’s demeanor and personality were quite even. There was no temper. There was no ego. There was no flexing of power or anything else. He was simply a nice guy and everybody, cast and drew alike, admired him.” (Location 111)

Jordan matches Wise’s personality as a film director with the tone and voice of this book. He writes a no-nonsense, comprehensive guide to forty of Wise’s films, showing the impressive array of genres and approaches to story that made Wise such a talented and respected director. As a historical fiction author and history lover, I especially appreciate how Jordan contextualizes many of the films within the psyche of the moviegoers at the time. 

Photo Credit: Simone Simon and Kurt Kreuger in Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), publicity still, cropped, author unknown, RKO Pictures: Ce-CilF/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

For example, Jordan explains how Wise’s decision to direct Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) was a controversial one because of the film’s subject matter and timing. The film takes place during the war between Prussia (a kingdom of German until the end of World War I) and France in the 19th century and portrays the Prussians as victorious over the French. As Jordan points out, when the film was made, “much of France was under Nazi occupation [and resentment] of the German government grew stronger with each day that passed..” (Location 328). In this atmosphere, producers were nervous that a film showing the triumph of Germany over France might not go over well with the public. Wise’s solution was to emphasize the patriotism of the film’s plot and the main character so that, although the “enemy” won the war historically, they lost morally and emotionally. 

What really struck me about the book was how its well-researched discussions of Wise’s films really showed the eclectic nature of his career. In his sixty-odd year career, Wise seems to have directed every film genre out there: horror, drama, film noir, musicals, sci-fi, and everything in between. Having said that, the book makes clear Wise did have certain periods in his life where he directed films in one genre more than in others. For example, the 1940s saw horror films such as The Curse of the Cat People and 1945’s The Body Snatchers (one of my personal favorites). The late 1940s and 1950s were the golden eras of film noir, and Wise made his share, including The Set-Up (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). And no one can forget Wise directed two of the most iconic and unforgettable blockbuster musicals of our time in the 1960s: West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Later in his career, science fiction films came into the Wise catalog with films like The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1978).

The book Robert Wise: The Movies (Revised Edition) does exactly what the title implies — it gives readers an understanding and appreciation of the films of one of America’s greatest and sadly overlooked directors. It’s a great book for any classic film lover, not just for fans of Robert Wise and his films.

Works Cited:

Jordan, J. R. Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition). BearManor Media. 2020. Kindle digital file.

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What is Historical Mystery Fiction?

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Photo Credit: Old book and magnifying glass, taken 20 January 2017: Pxhere/CC0 1.0

The tagline for this blog (bet y’all didn’t know it had a tagline…) is “psychological insights on history, mystery, and the arts.” Much of this blog deals with history, and I’ve dabbled here and there in the arts (such as my revisiting of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth here and my discussion of the role art plays in one of my books here.) But so far, I haven’t dealt with the mystery part of my blog.

Why? Because I wanted to bring you into the world of my current books, the Waxwood Series, and my stand-alone post-WWII women’s historical fiction short story collection (that’s a mouthful…), Lessons From My Mother’s Life. As much as I love classic and historical mysteries, I wasn’t ready to turn to the topic of historical mystery on my blog.

But now that the Waxwood Series has come to a close, I’m super excited to bring you all into my world of historical mystery fiction. So I’m starting with the basics: Just what is historical mystery fiction anyway?

On the face of it, a historical mystery is a subgenre of mystery fiction or, more specifically, the traditional mystery (sometimes called the “whodunit”). Many might see the only difference between historical mystery fiction and mystery fiction is that the former is set in the past while the latter is set in the present (or future, but then, we get into sci-fi mystery if there even is such a thing.)

The genre has a relatively recent history. Classic mysteries like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Anna Katharine Green’s Amelia Amelia Butterworth series have, of course, been around for quite a while. But these are books set in their own time, and so were contemporary to their original readers, even if they are historical to us. The first actual historical mystery fiction was a series of short stories set in the pre-Civil War era (if you’re curious, they were written by Melville Davisson Post and can be found here.) The first full-length historical mystery novel was written by — no surprise — the Grand Dame of mystery fiction, Agatha Christie. Murder Comes At the End is set in Ancient Egypt, so it’s a huge step away from Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.

The cross between mystery and history becomes interesting when we consider the main purpose of historical fiction is to submerge readers into a world of the past, and the purpose of mystery fiction is to present a human puzzle for the amateur sleuth or detective (and the reader) to solve. Writers of historical mysteries aren’t only building a story around a crime that has to be solved, but they’re also giving readers insights into another era. And not just the daily lives of people living in that era, but the crime and criminals that such an era would have produced and how those crimes were solved and the criminals caught.

The latter is especially important because we have to remember that crime detection, investigation, and conviction has changed drastically over the centuries. There was no DNA testing and no real scientific forensics to help solve crimes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fingerprinting, for example, didn’t begin until the late 19th century. So crime detection was relatively primitive and crude in most cases, which makes it more of a challenge for the historical sleuth or detective to solve them, but, I would argue, more fun for readers to follow. 

As a writer, I’m fascinated by how people lived and breathed their time and I love solving puzzles, which is one reason why I decided to delve into the historical mystery genre. My upcoming series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, takes place at the turn of the 20th century when America was beginning to clean up its act regarding the corruption, greed, and graft of the Gilded Age. Progressive Era reforms were starting to take shape in many American institutions, including the judicial system. 

The first book of this series will be out this summer, but you can read more about it here.  

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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Social History: Putting the Human Element Back into History

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Photo Credit: Dudley Street, Seven Dials, 1872, Wellcome Images, Wellcome Trust, UK: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

I’m starting out this year as a revisionist (in a sense). I’m revising my perspective on my writing and my passion for history by examining what really makes them tick. For those who have been following my blog for a while, you know I’ve had several transformations in the past years. I started out in 2017 as a contemporary literary fiction writer believing in psychological reality in fiction, something I am still fascinated by and still incorporate in much of my fiction. Then I discovered a way to transform my passion for history, especially women’s history, into stories about resilient women and the nooks and crannies of history that don’t always come up in historical fiction. 

Last year, I completed the Waxwood Series, my Gilded Age family saga set among San Francisco’s elite. I discovered that my real passion for history lies more in its social and psychological aspects rather than its politics and events. Those terms can sound a little vague and academic, so this month, I’ll be talking about what social history is and what it means in my fiction.

Let’s begin with a simple definition: Social history is history with the human element thrown in. Not that political or economic history isn’t about humans, as all history inevitably is. But you’re more likely to read a book about or set in the Civil War, say, where the people or characters are players in the big event. Social history looks at the people who participated in history, how they were affected by it, and how they influenced it. In my Civil War example, a novel might be about African American soldiers (actual or fictional) and their daily struggles not only with the war itself but with the racism surrounding them on the battlefield, forsaking a more blow-by-blow account of the events of the war. Social history gives us a window into the way people lived and breathed in their time and, sometimes, the values and beliefs they held that we want to acquire or release in the 21st century.

Social history is actually an academic field of study that emerged in the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. This isn’t much of a surprise, since much of the social awareness that emerged during these times required knowledge of the past. For example, the Civil Rights movement was built on the oppression and heinous crimes of slavery and on racism not only of the present but of the past. Similarly, the second-wave feminist movement, as I discuss here, took the issues the 19th-century suffragists were fighting for to the next level.

When I say I focus more on social history than on political and economic history, I mean that how my characters live and relate to their environment matters to me. The more academic perspective of social history often looks at the bigger picture, like the movements, systems, and structures of history. These are important, but I also find the way people related to these social structures and lived within them (or rebelled against them) is part of what makes history so fascinating and relevant to us today. 

Vivian Alderdice, the main character of the Waxwood Series, is a great example. Like many 19th century women, she is locked in social systems and structures with very rigid definitions of what women should and shouldn’t do. She’s a member of the Nob Hill elite, adhering to the social norms of the aristocratic class (which is especially true in Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women). Later, she moves into suffragism and progressivism, but, just as she had to revise her position in her Nob Hill world, she also has to examine her values and beliefs against those of her new world (which you can read about in the last book of the series, Dandelions). 

In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, social history plays a huge role. The series begins in the first years of the 20th century when many people were still reluctant to leave behind Victorian values for the complexity and fears of the modern. Like Vivian, the series main character is a social reformer, and when she moves from San Francisco to the small, dusty town of Arrojo, her forward-thinking ideas aren’t always embraced, appreciated, or understood. 

You can find out more about that series here. The first two books of the Waxwood Series, which were re-edited and refreshed in 2020, are here and here

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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