Looking Back on THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE–A Review

Hi there! This week I’ll be spotlighting some sweet historical reads I’ve collected in the past month or so. Today I’m kicking it off with a new historical fiction release, out today, from Melanie Benjamin. THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE calls back to the early days of film, and how women–who’d had a big part in shaping that industry–were often left behind. It focuses on the friendship between star Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion, as a lens to the history of Hollywood. I also enjoyed THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE by Ms. Benjamin, a novelization of Truman Capote’s life and connections, which is also historical fiction. Other books in this genre that I’ve liked include CROSSING THE HORIZON, and LISETTE’S LIST.

About the book:
An intimate portrait of the close friendship and powerful creative partnership between two of Hollywood’s earliest female superstars: Frances Marion and Mary Pickford. An enchanting new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue and The Aviator’s Wife.

Hollywood, 1914. Frances Marion, a young writer desperate for a break, meets “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, already making a name for herself both on and off the screen with her golden curls and lively spirit. Together, these two women will take the movie business by storm.

Mary Pickford becomes known as the “Queen of the Movies”—the first actor to have her name on a movie marquee, and the first to become a truly international celebrity. Mary and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, were America’s first Royal Couple, living in a home more famous that Buckingham Palace. Mary won the first Academy Award for Best Actress in a Talkie and was the first to put her hand and footprints in Grauman’s theater sidewalk. Her annual salary in 1919 was $625,000—at a time when women’s salaries peaked at $10 a week. Frances Marion is widely considered one of the most important female screenwriters of the 20th century, and was the first writer to win multiple Academy Awards. The close personal friendship between the two stars was closely linked to their professional collaboration and success.

This is a novel about power: the power of women during the exhilarating early years of Hollywood, and the power of forgiveness. It’s also about the imbalance of power, then and now, and the sacrifices and compromises women must make in order to succeed. And at its heart, it’s a novel about the power of female friendship.

My Review:
Mary Pickford and Frances Marion, not two names I’d say ring loud for contemporary movie aficionados, like me. This historical novel centered on their lives and friendship weaves a 60-year experience into a rich and textured story that left me emotionally hollowed and filled, by turns.

Mary Pickford was an actress at age 5, responsible for earning a living that supported her mother and two younger siblings once her father died. She gave up her childhood to be on the stage, and earn money, and later star in “the flickers” short silent movies that were shown in storefront “theaters” known as nickelodeons. As her career progressed, she became creatively involved, writing, staging and editing her own films.

Frances Marion, a twice-divorced sketch artist, fell in love with the movies when she moved to LA from San Francisco during her second marriage. It was a chance meeting with Mary’s philandering first husband that brought Mary and Frances in contact. Frances wanted to learn all about making movies, and never wanted to be an actress–a plus for building ties with Mary. Mary’d learned some very basic lessons about humanity in her years as a performer, but she recognized Fran for being a solid woman who might be a confidant, and friend, in the business. Mary had few of them in her life. Together, they made a powerful creative team, once Fran got the hang of writing for the screen–a skill Mary helped her cultivate.

I don’t want to divulge too much of the plot. The lives of these ladies intersected professionally and personally a great deal. Fran wrote exclusively for Mary’s films for a time, and helped rocket Mary to stardom, in some ways. Mary, a standoffish person, had trouble believing people were on her side, and lived in mortal fear that making personal choices, like divorcing her cad of a husband, would upset her fans and she’d be back to the poverty she grew up in. What was remarkable was the struggles Mary and Fran suffered professionally still exist for women today. They were fierce women looked down upon by the men who held the money and power in the fledgling world of film. They were pinched, and overruled, and groped, and belittled, and had to keep cheery smiles for the camera–so many of their professional pictures reflected their isolation as the only women in the picture. They did have falling outs, and reunions. Their relationship isn’t all sunshine and Academy Awards. No, they had disappointments and jealousy and needed to lift each other, and themselves, up many a time. They had uncaring husbands, and abusive partners and alcoholism to contend with, but they left a mark on the business that they helped to create and this was beautifully captured in print, not celluloid. Mary was a founding member of United Artists and AMPAS, as well as being the second woman to win an Oscar. Fran helped to form the Screen Writers Guild, and both weathered the transition from silent film to “talkies” in different ways. I’ll admit to being captivated throughout by the resilience of these women. Fran was the first American woman to cross the German Frontline in WWI as she helped film women assisting the US forces. Mary supported her entire family for decades, through famine and feast, from the age of 5 or 6. Astonishing.

I’ll be honest, I’d only barely heard of Mary Pickford, and I’d never heard of Frances Marion before opening this book…and I’m a fan of older movies. My father and I passed many an evening watching AMC Classics when I was younger, yet, I hardly watched any silent film. There’s a reason for that, which the book makes clear: lots of those movies were lost to the vagaries of time and poor storage. Still, I’m a fan of movies, and historical fiction, and stories about strong women, so I began my second Melanie Benjamin book with high hopes that were completely exceeded.

The premise seemed simple, read about the beginnings of Hollywood as told through the lives and friendship of two women who were there at the start. Wow. What an understatement of this reading experience. I know it’s a novelization, and the author clearly states that she fabricates some scenes, but I still feel awed by the lives of Pickford and Marion. They were pioneers, and tried to create an egalitarian Hollywood that struggles to exist today. I remember thinking how the sexism Mary and Fran experienced is reflected daily in the tabloids on my grocer’s checkout. To borrow an adage from my father: the more things change, the more they stay the same. (He surely borrowed that from someone, but I don’t know whom.) And that’s a pretty sad commentary on how far we haven’t come in terms of sexual equality since Fran met Mary in 1914.

Interested? You can find THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo. I read a review copy provided by NetGalley.

About the Author:
Melanie Benjamin is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE and THE AVIATOR’S WIFE, as well as the national bestseller ALICE I HAVE BEEN, and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB. THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE, about the creative, feminist friendship between Mary Pickford and Frances Marion, icons of early Hollywood, will be out in January 2018. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and is currently at work on her next historical novel.

You can catch up with her on her website, Facebook and twitter.

Thanks for popping in, and keep reading my friends!

Cephalopod Coffeehouse January 2016–THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE–A Review

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Hi there! Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month. Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.

This month I’m sharing a review for a newly-released “non-fiction novel” to use the term coined by the book’s subject, Truman Capote. Melanie Benjamin‘s THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE is a knock-down drag-out story of true love and utter betrayal that’s all the more poignant for being based in reality. These people existed. And I felt a bit grotesque peeking into the murk of their shady relationships.

The Swans of Fifth AvenueAbout the book:
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife comes an enthralling new novel about Truman Capote’s scandalous, headline-making, and heart-wrenching friendship with Babe Paley and New York’s society “swans” of the 1950s.

Centered on two dynamic, complicated, and compelling protagonists—Truman Capote and Babe Paley—this book is steeped in the glamour and perfumed and smoky atmosphere of New York’s high society. Babe Paley—known for her high-profile marriage to CBS founder William Paley and her ranking in the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame—was one of the reigning monarchs of New York’s high society in the 1950s. Replete with gossip, scandal, betrayal, and a vibrant cast of real-life supporting characters, readers will be seduced by this startling new look at the infamous society swans.

My Review:
I’ll be truthful, I don’t usually read biographical fiction. It’s not my thing, but I have long heard the name “Truman Capote” whispered about and while I don’t believe I have read any of his work, I recognized his stature in American literature. So, I was hooked into the read for that. I love historical fiction, and the blurb indicated this book to be rife with the sort of dark plot turns only Diana Gabaldon could have wrought.

As I am wont to do, I read a bit. Let it sit. If I’m still curious I go back for more. In this case I could see the blood-spattered writing on the wall. I even took half a day looking into a quick-and-dirty history of Capote. His life seemed both tragic and charmed, and the tatters of his career and friendships were the stuff of quite a lot of public and private banter. I let it sit a week and came back. And I finished it with the ill-ease of someone who’s binge-watched a “Real Housewives” marathon. (I can only suspect this as I’ve never managed to make it past the intros to those shows before turning on something…better? Or, simply turning the tube off…)

What we know: Capote was an out homosexual in a time when such a person was normally killed or jailed. He charmed everyone, men and women alike. His wild, flamboyant ways captivated the cultured ladies of the Manhattan’s elite. His waifish looks and witty repartee got him meals and lodgings and vacations and fame. They may have even gotten him love from one of the most beautiful women of the era, Babe Paley. The book relates a special, intimate, though platonic, relationship between Capote and Babe that was well-known at the time and amongst their peers.

I was young when Capote died–of drink and drug excess, it seems, and the pages of the novel fairly sang with love between these mismatched, hopelessly lonely people. Babe’s husband, the powerful and wealthy Bill S. Paley–CBS magnate, was a known philanderer, and this took a toll on her emotionally. The exquisite Babe could never be seen out of make-up, not even by her husband, and she doted on him completely, as she was well-trained to do by her mother, to the exclusion of really raising her own children.

The story meanders in time between first-meetings with the “swans”: society dames Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Pam Churchill, Marella Agnelli, C.Z. Guest, and Gloria Guinness, and the infamous article Capote penned in 1975 for Vanity Fair, which was a gauche caricature of the beautiful society people that Capote had insinuated himself within. It marked a permanent break in his life, one that many attribute to his ultimate downward spiral into addiction and death. The article, La Cote Basque 1965 was a tell-all of sorts that throttled the society mavens. Ann Woodward, mentioned under a pseudonym, actually killed herself following reading of the article–which recounted the spectacle of her husband’s “accidental” death by her own gunshot.

Truman Capote is definitely portrayed as a bounder in this book. He was a social climber with the aim of being the best, and surrounded by the best. And yet, he is made sympathetic. He long struggled to find love–first from his neglectful mother, and then everyone, including Babe. Their relationship may have indeed been a love story for them, but Truman’s needs were too great. He had a long-time companion, Jack Dunphy, who urged him not to publish his scathing article, but Truman didn’t heed that advice. Or maybe he could not afford to. It was known for some time that he’d been losing control of his addictions, and was years overdue on a novel that he’d been advanced money against. “La Cote” was meant to be one of seven chapters in that book, and only three were ever recovered and printed as “Answered Prayers”.

Swans is a beautifully-woven multiple POV story that is without question a melancholy read, with a train wreck-type plot that is only more harrowing for its veracity. Capote’s real-life self-destruction was rather spectacular, and fairly well-documented. I left the book feeling sad for such waste, and such sadness. The rarefied world of the New York’s social elite is certainly not the stuff that ever filled my dreams, but it was a bit shattering to have all it’s unsavory bits on display. On the flipside, it was a meticulous introspection into the ills of high society in general–what power brokers in this world do we not see living to excess, in different aspects of their lives? What morality exists for those who place themselves above others by means of wealth? These were issues that seemed to trouble Capote, and his “justice” was that of the pen. It was a brutal weapon.

Interested? You can find THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE on Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Expect to find it in bookstores and libraries now. I received a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

And, now! Take a hop over to the websites of my fellow Coffeehouse pals to see what their fave books were for January. As always, thanks for popping in and keep reading my friends!