People have often asked me what inspires me to create a new book with new characters who are engaged in the events of a world of my imagination? It’s often a word or a phrase that strikes me in such a way that I am catapulted into a mood of creativity. Or it might be a distortion of a real-life event that gets me going. Or a topic of discussion. Some people, like Paul McCartney, dream. He dreamed “Yesterday”, and then wrote it down–music and lyrics–upon awakening! Don’t I wish!
But, today is a special day in the history of our country. It is on this day fifty years ago, that one of the greatest moments of inspiration sprang forth. Did it spark in the mind of Mahalia Jackson, as she watched Martin Luther King, Jr. make what might have been remembered as an earnest, but ultimately forgettable, ten minute speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial before a quarter of a million people?
“Tell them about the dream, Martin,” she urged her friend at the podium at the nine minute mark in his prepared speech.
It wasn’t a new premise. The Reverend Dr. King had used “the dream” theme before at the pulpit. And yet I wonder who really inspired whom that day in 1963. Was it really just the spark of a thought in the mind of Miss. Jackson, or the ineffable vision set before Dr. King of the vast determined gathering of humanity, committed, as he was, to a cause of achieving long-delayed justice for an oppressed segment of our society? Was it the collective offspring of millions of souls that had lived and died in slavery that blessed the speaker to preach with such eloquence? Or was it a chance confluence of all these things?
Inspiration as define in Merriam-Webster:
a) a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation b) the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions c) the act of influencing or suggesting opinions.
So by definition King was inspired that day. It was so inspired that Dorothy Parker named Martin Luther King, Jr. to inherit her estate in her will.
Where it all came from, who can say? But, as inspiration also means to draw in breath, I like to think of it as drawing in the breath of the divine spirit.
Until next time,
The great thing about writing mysteries is that when you are screwed by a thieving editor/publisher and his/her pathetic, lackluster writer/lover/nephew/whatever, you can knock-off the buggers in your next book without fear of reappraisal. Feels awfully good, too. It is really cathartic the way a little bit of poison, a bullet, or a well-placed dagger can relieve an author of the slings and arrows of deliberate injustices waged upon her by the very act of literally “relieving” those who have trespassed against her of their lives.
“Ha-ha!” methinks. “That’ll teach ‘em!”
I wonder if Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle were inspired by personal effrontery? Did an event spark the idea for a murder mystery? Oprah always suggested keeping a journal to express your feelings. I write story books—the names are changed to protect the innocent, yada-yada. . . . I don’t like journals and diaries. They always seem to land in the wrong hands and when that happens, all kinds of bad things are sure to follow.
Of course, I am a rather gentle woman, who would never dream of striking out at anyone with poison, bullet or dagger. I have never kicked a dog, and I usually transport spiders to an outdoor location. Most homicidal maniacs love their pets, I know, so maybe these aren’t such good examples of compassion. All right, I do swat flies. But I hate bloody forensic scenes on TV and film, so I just couldn’t swing an axe, you understand. I may, at times, feel inclined to strike out verbally against my offenders, but am more likely to speak out in a campaign of defense of those less fortunate than I am than to ever give voice to my own grievances. Still, I don’t dwell for very long on personal thoughts of retaliation (it depletes creativity); I therefore give no power or advantage to those who have harmed me. Instead, I have the marvelous outlet of creating a murder mystery in which I can have my little revenge without risking the death penalty. Throughout my Dorothy Parker Mystery Series I have laid to rest multiple priests, numerous theatrical people, several Commie spies, a handful of psychics, and a couple of floozies and fat cats. What fun!
And such it is with The Murder Club, my newly released Dorothy Parker Mystery novel, the sixth in the series in which the potential victims are among a group of six authors, each in search of a murder plot for the mysteries they are writing. The question Parker and Benchley try to answer is who wanted them dead? And here they are:
Anthony Young—Young’s first mystery, featuring as the novel’s amateur detective a frumpy, dried-up, effeminate history professor who solves crimes by applying historical references to catch murderers, was a great success. The fifth mystery of his Professor Montague Fairchild series, A Time to Reap, is enjoying its third printing. Meeting Tony for the first time one gets the impression that he stepped right out of one of his own novels, for he, too, is a frumpy, effeminate history professor.
Daniel Cousins—With his wild, wavy black hair and heavy facial features, there is a handsome ruggedness about him. But there is also an air of melancholy expressed through his big, sad, brown eyes. Daniel authored one quiet little novel, six years ago. It’s been said that he has shouted plagiarism at one time or another.
Stephen Shaw—He writes thrillers now, in a new form that deals with political and social unrest. Before taking on this new genre, he had worn the mantle of Muckraker. A rabble-rouser, Shaw, rather than beating down prejudice and corruption as Upton Sinclair has tried to do through his brilliant exposés, has managed merely to incite bigotry. His books are carelessly researched, and more than once he has been sued for defamation. Beefy, brawny, and pock-faced, Shaw is a wily, ginger-haired devil with a big mouth stamped with a smirk that brings to mind a scheming Iago.
Mark Wendt—A onetime Broadway chorus hoofer, Wendt has authored a string of Wild West novels that are very popular among the quasi-literate. Last year he wrote his first mystery featuring his rum-running sleuth, Mr. Tomato.
Ernest “Ersatz” Stringer—He authored the bestselling fiction novel, Blaze, back in 1922. Stringer aspires to write the Great American Novel someday, if only he can overcome his seven-year writer’s block.
Trevor Hunter—What strikes one on first meeting Hunter are his eyebrows. Positioned far below a high dome, they are striking and black and silky. Tall, imposing, this Oxford-educated disciple of Conan Doyle is an intellectual with many diverse interests. He is the author of psychologically driven real-life crime novels.
Did I have fun writing this? You bet I did.
Until next time,
The Great Gatsby, Rewritten By Agata Stanford
To experience a fascinating abomination that is cinematically stunning, one must see The Great Gatsby if only to confirm that F. Scott Fitzgerald lives on as the greatest American novelist of The Twentieth Century, and try as they might, the arrogance of misguided filmmakers cannot topple him from his pedestal.
Much more than a love story, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece shows the societal conflicts of the Roaring Twenties. It is a story of conflict between the old rich and the new, with a bay of water separating them; a struggle of a dirt poor Jewish boy’s attempt to fulfill his personal American Dream and to win back his first love. It is also a depiction of the blossoming of a post-war generation determined to ‘live for today because tomorrow we may all be dead.’ Above all this, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is a moral tale, and the filmmakers have fiddled with it. Baz Luhrmann’s 3D version of The Great Gatsby doesn’t depict the excesses of the 1920s as much as it glorifies them.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is startling. It rises above all of Luhrmann’s hoopla with a brilliant film portrayal of Jay Gatsby. He has brought to the role a touching vulnerability along with a driving power to engine his obsession to reclaim the past, to revive it and relive it in the present. It not his fault that Fitzgerald’s lean book has been contorted to such a degree into a screenplay that is rife with overstatements, constant explanations and glaring omissions that ignore the subtleties of the novel in an attempt to ram the story down one’s throat. No, DiCaprio is the one shining green light to watch in this film. (I have often wondered how much of the book was hacked away by Max Perkins, Fitzgerald’s discerning editor, but this director had no right to do it.)
An example of this foul play is screenwriter Craig Pearce’s treatment of Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, whom Craig has chosen to deposit into an ice encrusted sanatorium to tell his tale. Competently played by Tobey Maguire, Nick types his name at the bottom of the manuscript he has written entitled, The Great Gatsby! This contrivance undermines Nick, who serves as the moral compass of the story, finally leaving the dangers of New York to return to his Mid-Western roots in Fitzgerald’s book. In this train wreck scenario, Nick becomes a casualty of his time, ending up in a sanitarium, for god only knows what ailment plagues him. Alcoholism? TB? Alarmingly, the final scene depicted in Fitzgerald’s novel is once again ignored (as all prior filmmaker have done). It is the chance meeting of Nick and Tom, which is integral to the point of the book and for Nick Carraway’s enlightenment.
So much is revealed about the enigmatic Gatsby so early in the film, that the mystique of Jay Gatsby’s is diluted, and a still worse effrontery is that the last third of the novel is crammed into just fifteen minutes, as if the director realized he had to wrap things up quickly because he was testing the patience of the viewer. And so, it is that Luhrmann’s focus was more on filming spectacular, depraved, gluttonous Busby Berkley styled party scenes, than in paying cinematic homage to a great work of literature. These glimpses of the debauchery are laughable for their extremes not because they are witty and fun but because they are embarrassingly over-the-top silly.
Daisy is played very nicely by Carey Mulligan. She fulfils the role of the conflicted, moist-eyed heroine, who is fully aware of her culpability at story’s end. She makes Daisy’s lack of integrity a striking contrast to her sweet appearance. But, Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan, played villainously by Joel Edgerton (had his moustaches been longer he could’ve twirled them), are of the privileged class, the entitled. Daisy’s world will not be shaken, and she and Tom will carry on, taking their places among their fellow members of American aristocracy or “wherever people played polo and were rich together” as if nothing had happened. In spite of what’s happened. Beneath the pretty appearance and vacuous behavior, Daisy is the prime example of youthful moral decay, of all that is wrong with the 20’s mentality, while Jay Gatsby is a man clinging to his pure dream of love, albeit a fantasy of his own making. He envisions an ideal that has no basis in reality. Daisy is unworthy of his adoration. “Her voice is full of money” notes Nick Carraway, an observation that refers to the hollow, mindless, pointless chatter spoken by Daisy and her like; the tinkling of lose change in a pocket.
As well played as the leading roles are, and as hard as the actors tried, the moments when Gatsby and Daisy are seen together lack sexual tension and emotional connection. This may simply have to do with the chemistry between the actors on the screen. Or perhaps I was enthralled with the magnificent dress made out of glass crystals Daisy wore and was distracted from the love scene in the woods. Still, there is a forced aspect to these sequences. Where one should feel a surge of excitement and satisfaction for Gatsby’s dream coming to fruition, along with the hope for the couple’s happy future, one is left wanting. On the other hand, it’s the struggle between Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan that is full of passion, albeit a greedy competition over money, power and possession.
There was so much hype about the Jay-Z soundtrack that I expected to be appalled by the use of a modern film score. And yet, I wasn’t. I was just left wondering, “why? I have nothing against taking a story like The Great Gatsby and translating it into a modern setting. Like Romeo and Juliet the story lends itself to modern times. There was a lot about the 1980s that echoed the 20s: Yuppies, the Wall Street market boom, easy money, shoulder pads, Dynasty?
It comes right down to this: When you brazenly rework a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci with flourishes of your own, thinking you can make it better, more commercial, you only defile it. This is what has happened to a literary work of art. See this discombobulated film, if only to reaffirm the rule that art shouldn’t be fiddled with and to appreciate how very wonderful Fitzgerald’s novel is, for you will surely want to revisit it after you see the film.
I am contemplating the creation of new mystery series, and I really want to know the elements that you enjoy the most when choosing a mystery novel to read? What keeps you reading?
But first I will tell you what I don’t like in the genre, how’s that? Then you tell me, all right?
1) Bloodshed: I hate it when the narrative shifts into the mind of a demented, sadistic killer. As much as I loved the writings of Dean Koontz’s, with their heroic characters and their brush with supernatural forces, I have found myself sickened by the pleasure expressed by the killers and the play-by-play narrative set down before me when executing their victims. This makes for suspense, I understand, but it makes me cringe. It is a pornography of violence. I’ve stopped reading such books.
2) The detective: I love it when I find my detective/amateur sleuth is likeable, even if he/she is a complex mess. But, I often think that some authors want to make them too flawed. The anti-hero type. Give me Hercule Poirot, Roderick Alleyn, Inspector Morse, Sherlock, Brother Cadfael–flawed men all, but men who have superior intellect and superior skills than the average Joe! I have never found Dalgleish very interesting, and his antithesis, Aurelio Zen leaves me cold. Somebody please take Lord Peter Wimsey away.
Notice that I didn’t name any women sleuths? Except for Miss Marple, I have never bonded with any. Here are the two types of females sleuths that many writers choose:
a) The hard-boiled female Sam Spade type: 35-45 years old. She been around, is divorced, lives out of her car or in a dump, her office is in a slum, she can’t pay her bills so she’ll take that matrimonial case that invariably threatens to get her killed. These women usually sustain horrific injuries after confronting bad guys, but they always manage to hobble away. Booze and aspirin cures the ruptured spleen by the following morning, so they can go out and get beaten up again, don’t you know?
b) The cutesy girl types of the cozies: 30-40 years old. She owns a B&B, bookshop, gift shop, runs the post office, caters, or renovates old houses; some practice witchcraft as well as arts and crafts; she bakes cupcakes and invariably feels she must share with us the recipes; she has a pushy mother, a batty, air-head friend and one who’s down to earth bor-ing!, a handsome, but ineffectual boyfriend, and dogs and cats that are particularly chatty critters who invariably show them the errors of their ways and help them solve the mysteries. God help us!
3) The beating of the dead horse. I recently read a book in which the author would present a new situation at the beginning of each chapter and then backtrack with how the protagonist arrived there. I had the impression that the author was filling in words under each heading of his original outline. Who needs five pages of tell, when you can have five pages of show? And the constant re-hashing of previously told information was maddening. Was this British writer of some acclaim being paid by the word? The book lost all sense of immediacy.
4) Am I an imbecile? or, being written down to: Have you ever gotten the feeling that some authors assume because you chose to read their book that you are somehow mentally deficient? That you have no taste for the sublime? I want my mysteries not only to keep me entertained, but to challenge my intellect–at least a little bit. I want the dialogue to not always be clever or smart-alecky, but to be considered carefully, with style and with power, purpose and to move the plot along. Dialogue must express the humanity of a book’s characters. It must flow naturally and still fulfill its purpose of advancing the plot and revealing character. If I read one more “What do you mean?” or “Oh, really?” I’ll scream. John Dunning is the master of action and spot-on dialogue.
5) Ringing false: Now, I have to admit that while writing humorous mysteries I am always worried that I may fall into the trap of ringing false. A joke for a joke’s sake is a pitfall. Comic relief must stem from something in the story and eventually lead into advancing the plot. And timing is everything. I learned that lesson well as an actress performing comedy. So I have to hear the dialogue out loud and place the “she saids” in the right place so as not to lose the rhythm of the conversation. But people like Parker and Benchley and their gang from The Algonquin were real people who spoke like real people most of the time. They simply expressed themselves more often with a greater respect for the English language than most, during a time when conversation was an art. And if you have read my books you know that I ask the reader to suspend their disbelief at times.
6) I dislike police procedurals. But lots of people love them. And there are some great ones. I reach my quota by watching the terrific Law & Order franchise.
So you now know the qualities that I want for my main detective:
A detective who is not necessarily an alcoholic, wounded by the death of his father or wife, (or for the women sleuths, got screwed in the divorce and is in debt); is not living out of a car, has pets smarter than he/she is, or able to walk away with three bullets to the chest. He/she does not have silly, mindless friends, and does not insist on sharing her/his? recipes.
I am hoping to develop characters that interest me, but I really want to know which elements keep you interested and which turn you off. Your input can only make me a better writer and a better entertainer. Please let me know your thoughts. Use the comment box below and feel free to come back and comment on what others may say and to add additional thoughts you may have. I’m listening, as Frasier always says. Hey! there’s a thought! Two dilatant brothers who solve mysteries, live with their old dad who has a terrier who is smarter than all of them . . . hmmm . . . .
Until next time,
I sent the file of my new book, the sixth of my Dorothy Parker Mystery Series, The Murder Club, off to my editor, Shelley and my book designer Eric last week. So right now as I await their review, I feel a little like a pregnant woman approaching her ninth month, except for the water retention and the inability to tie my shoelaces. Actually, I don’t have to be pregnant to have those issues.
So the writing of The Murder Club proved an interesting experience for me. The idea for the theme and the setting presented itself with absolutely no great trial, it just sort of popped into my head one day: 1929, New York City (of course), a group of mystery writers who meet regularly, several murders, and the Skyscraper Wars on the eve of the Wall Street Crash. I had the title first, because I wanted to write about the increasingly popular genre of mystery stories that really took off in the 20s.
I wrote the opening chapter with absolutely no stops. The ideas and the words and the pictures rolled out of my mind and flew onto the page. And then—
Yep, and then.
Days, weeks went by, and I would always find something more pressing to interfere with my work. Truth is I felt like my muses, Mrs. Parker and Mr. Benchley, were beginning to fade from my subconscious mind. Was I just tired of their shenanigans? Or, had they had enough of me? Bored with my company, tired of my bon mots? Were they tired of prodding me on? I don’t know why they would want to abandon me. I was almost always, these past five books, working on my own steam. I didn’t need their gentle push to sit down and write. All I ever had to do was watch the movie of my story in my mind’s eye and type it in. Sometimes, even when I was not so sure what the scene would reveal, I would just sit down and write, and by the time I was finished for the day I would always wind up happily surprised that the team—my recurring real-life characters—had actually shown up and did what they did to advance my story! But now? Were they in hiding or something? Had they taken an excursion to New Jersey and not returned? Why, oh, why, would they cross the Hudson if not for Hollywood?
And then one day about a month ago, after I had defined my fictional characters in my notebook and in my mind, and I had done all the research I could make the excuse of doing, I had a little talk with them. Yeah, I know they are dead and are off doing better things than talking to earthlings, but I still had the talk because it made me feel better and I could lay the blame on them. Basically, my message was “show up and let’s get cracking, kids!” And although some of their replies were not suitable for publication, they agreed to comply with my needs.
The next three-quarters of the book poured out, everything I envisioned clearly, all the pieces of my intricate plot fit precisely without device in just a few weeks. And except for a four day break in order to decide the transition into the book’s denouement, I couldn’t believe how easily they had guided me to the home stretch. I am grateful for their guidance. I have come to truly love Dorothy Parker and my wonderful Mr. Benchley. And I should also confess something about this book—but I won’t, not now, not today.
All I can tell you is that, throughout this series I have often laughed hysterically, felt the joy of camaraderie with these people, but as I wrote the ending paragraphs of The Murder Club, I cried. Yes, I cried. I have often cried when writing, but never while writing this series. When it comes out in May I hope you will like it, and I hope it will not disappoint. Dorothy and the gang did not disappoint me this time around.
Until next time.
I heard a story this morning on the Today Show, and it made a point of what I
had been intending to write about:
“A Five thousand dollar fine . . . . A ten thousand dollar fine . . . . Add thirty days in jail.”
These were the words of a Florida judge who piled on the penalties on a young woman who brazenly flaunted her displeasure at sentencing. The thirty days in jail was the consequence of her “flipping the bird” at the judge.
Consequences. What happened to consequences? The judge reminded me.
Friends, people all around me have been talking about the rude behavior of young adults. I have been looking at our society, not with the eyes of a psychologist or a sociologist, but as a woman having lived a long time, a mother of a generation of children born in the 1980s, and with a little bit of knowledge through observation and experience of my own life and upbringing.
Looking back to seek better understanding of why rudeness has so pervaded our culture I see that I was a little girl of the 1950s, a teenager during the 60s, and a woman of the 1970s. Which means that I progressed through the building of the Post-War American Dream while a Cold War nuclear holocaust loomed threateningly on my horizon, through the revelatory Sexual Revolution and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and the Feminist and Peace Movements of the 70s. Wow! Which also means that I grew up the innocent child of the 50s, who was unquestioning and respectful of authority, to become an adult protesting that very same authority of my childhood.
But, we protested injustice, not so much those in authority, even though sometimes authority and injustice intersected. We didn’t use rudeness to appear cool. We weren’t brought up like that. We used humor, music and the art to express our distress at the suppressive factions in our society. We appealed to the heart and soul and sense of fair play of our reluctant citizens to affect change by doing the right thing.
So I ask why young adults are so rude? I had to understand the system, and yes, respect the older generation—we got smacked when we were rude to our elders—those misguided elders who built our Levitt Towns that fit us into a boxed up society. It was important to have knowledge of the history of how we had arrived to the point where things had to change before I, as an individual, could even approach making a protest against what I saw as suppression and injustice. So I look back further, now, and I see the cyclical attitudes. I see comparisons from the past to what’s going on today. And see the differences.
When Parker and Benchley and the Round Table gang owned the outrageous behavior of the youth of the 1920s, (most were in their thirties at the time), the world had just witnessed the misery of World War I, the pandemic of ’18, the restraints of Prohibition and finally, after an eighty year struggle, a liberating Women’s Suffrage. “Live today because tomorrow we will all be dead” was the mantra. After growing up under Victorian constraints, the nation’s youth behaved badly at times. Promiscuous sex—sex for sex sake without affection—became the thing to do. Say and do anything to shock, be outrageous, modesty, propriety be damned . . . .
Where the Sexual Revolution of my generation, the 1960s, was advanced by the development of new contraceptives, as well as the usual youthful rebellion, it was also in large part Flower Power. Love was at its center. Love and peace and compassion for our brothers and sisters were at the center of this in the time of war, of Viet Nam, an ongoing Cold War, and what was seen as the spiraling buildup of a heartless corporate capitalistic society.
As a parent of children born in the 1980s, I was strict in many ways, yet lenient in others. I let my kids make their own choices—how they dressed, wore their hair. I didn’t censor the airing of their opinions. The 80s were a prosperous decade, not unlike the 1920s. We had come out of a pointless war and women had a freedom carried through from the Feminist Movement. Children were tossed into daycare, children’s fashion demands ate through the family budget and MTV was now instructing our youth. Madonna chanted “Like a Virgin” to ten year old kids. When I was ten I had no idea what a virgin was other that the first name of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
By the 1990’s I watched as the cycle continued to where sexual relations between children in Middle School became the norm, and “hooking-up” had nothing to do with an expression of love and affection but only as notches accrued toward a badge of accomplishment. I was in the Girl Scouts. We earned our badges through more civic causes. Seinfeld was a show that made people laugh at its obnoxious characters who were blatantly self-concerned, demanding and often cruel people. Only Crammer had a heart, though misguided. We laughed because they would say out loud what we sometimes think but dare not say to another human being. Our kids watched the show, laughed, and then went out into the world and actually said the things we older folk had the sense enough to keep to ourselves. And Seinfeld was never a festival of bon mots, like Frazier was, rather the airing of observations of ironic situations vocalized by its cast. The Round Table crowd was never that obnoxious toward people outside their circle. Without humor, you were just crass.
I admit to having showed annoyance at the shop clerk who won’t get off the cell phone with her girlfriend to ring up my purchase, or the occasional GP who resents my request for a second opinion and the waitress who refers to octogenarian women at lunch as, “you guys” instead of “ladies”. But, I’m talking about something quite different.
So what have we wrought upon ourselves? A generation of self-centered, loudmouth, humorless, rude and insensitive Constanzas and Elaines? A culture of young adults who disregard the feelings of others, who flaunt authority, not because of any righteous cause or principle, but because there are no consequences to odious behavior and it lends them a sense of power when they feel powerless? Why are they feeling so powerless?
What is this phenomenon of widespread entitlement? Entitlement without ever having suffered through adversity? Perhaps these young people need a shock, a real cause to funnel their energies into, to build real character, I don’t know. As I said, I’m not a sociologist. I must remember that two thousand years ago Aristotle commented on the untoward behavior of the younger generation. In the early 1960s Paul Lind agonized in Bye Bye Birdie, “Kids! What’s the matter with kids today?”
I sing, “Adults! What’s the matter with adults these days?”
Until next time,
If you’ve ever seen the marvelous 1941 film version of the play, The Man Who Came to Dinner, you’ve probably laughed out loud at the disgraceful manners and cunning maneuverings of Sheridan Whiteside, who is the man who came to dinner. If there was no Alexander Woollcott, there would never have been that play. The play was inspired by the man who was the driving force behind the famous Algonquin Round Table gang, the Master of the Hounds to a consortium of newspapermen, drama critics, playwrights and Broadway stars who met most afternoons for lunch in the Hotel’s dining room over an astounding ten year stretch. They called themselves “The Vicious Circle” and their trade was an exercise in tossing about bon mots, vitriolic although it often might be. Among the members of the unofficial club were Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. That this motley crew influenced the progression of theatre, literature, music and art during the Twentieth Century is unquestioned, and Alexander Woollcott was at the center of the creative whirlwind.
One day, Moss Hart recounted to fellow playwright, George S. Kaufman, his frustration over the weekend he had hosted Aleck at his Bucks County home, where upon arrival, the demanding critic took over the house. Hart was glad to see the back of him when he left. And so this sparked the idea, what it would be like if Aleck slipped and broke his hip during a visit forcing him to stay on at his home indefinitely while recuperating? Woollcott? Most people today have never heard of him. So fleeting is fame. . . . Alexander Woollcott was the most famous man in America—or so he said. During the 20’s and for the next two decades, more people across the nation knew Aleck, even if they didn’t know the President. In the days when newspapers ruled it was his theater column and later, his radio show that brought him into the homes of people across the country. As the drama critic for The New York Times he was a star-maker. And he could close a show on opening night if he did not approve. The Shubert Brothers sued to bar him from their string of theaters because of he often panned their shows. They lost. But, when Aleck liked a show he did everything in his power to keep it afloat. Not only did he discover and promote the careers of Helen Hayes, Katherine Cornell, Eugene O’Neill, the husband and wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the king and Queen of Broadway for over four decades, he unleashed the fabulous Marx Brothers into the world.
The story from Harpo Marx’s memoirs, Harpo Speaks goes like this: The Marx Brothers, after nearly a decade on the circuit, were pretty much washed up as a Vaudeville team by 1920. Their schoolroom skit (or Skule-room) was old hat. The five brothers (back then Gummo was still performing) had few options left as the jobs dried up and their pay scale plummeted. Chico met a small time producer at a pinochle game and during a conversation Chico committed his brothers to work up an original show to open a new theater in Philadelphia (the theater owner wanted a show for his girlfriend to appear in–really! Sounds like a contrived plot used in dozens of movie and show plots.) It was their last ditch effort to keep the family act together. They reworked dozens of old skits, improvised new ones and in a few weeks time had a new comedy in which their names topped the marquee. They needed a name for the show, and the producer insisted it be no more than four one syllable words for the public’s easy recall. I’ll Say She Is means nothing in particular, just a catch phrase at the end of a joke to accentuate the punchline, so they tacked that on to the marquee. The show opened and later toured for a year all over the country before a decision was made to bring it to New York. Big Time! It being a broad comic play featuring Vaudevillians, no first-string critic at any of the twelve New York newspapers wanted to review it. But fate had it that the Broadway play Alexander Woollcott had expected to review had, at the last moment, cancelled the opening. Woollcott, decked out in evening attire and red-lined opera cape, had nothing better to do for the evening, so he decided to take in the “Vaudeville” show. He was flabbergasted. His review was glowing. And he did all he could to promote the show and its brilliant team of performers through his column. Harpo was his favorite—the greatest comic genius of their times, and was soon taken into the Round Table fold. (The character of Banjo, played by Jimmy Durante in The Man Who Came to Dinner is modeled after Harpo Marx.) They would become life-long friends.
Larger than life, Aleck was a force to be reckoned with. He could appear haughty, pompous, cantankerous, petty, spiteful and often dismissive, because he suffered no fools; he was easily wounded. He was wickedly witty. He could be extravagantly generous one moment, and at a turn, niggardly. But he loved his friends passionately and if you were his friend, he’d never let you down. He was easily wounded, lavish in his praise and condemning with his censure.
Aleck was a man of ambiguous sexuality, and although there never was evidence after an observer’s initial suspicion that he was a homosexual, his relationships with women were purely platonic. If questioned: “Mumps contracted as a young man,” he’d say. Groucho asked straight out, “When you were in France during the War did you get laid?” Aleck replied, “Infinitesimally.” When George S. Kaufman tried to describe Aleck to a friend who’d never met him he considered the critic for a time and then replied, “Improbable.” As a student at Hamilton College, Aleck organized its drama club, and insisted on playing all the female leads himself, so that he could dress up in makeup and gowns. Dorothy Parker referred to the opinionated and demanding gourmand as, “Vitriol and Old Lace”, and sometimes as ”Louisa May Woollcott”. You get the idea. Aleck not only inspired Kaufman and Hart, he was Rex Stout’s model for the character of Nero Wolfe, as well as the iniquitous Waldo P. Lydecker in the film noir version of the mystery novel, Laura. How many people can claim to be the inspiration for so many works of art? I love including the “improbable” Woollcott in all of my Dorothy Parker Mystery novels. Below is the composite photo of Aleck by Eric Conover as he appears in A Moveable Feast of Murder!
Until next time,
Today the church bells rang out across the nation. Twenty-six times. . . .
Charlotte DING. . . . Rachel DONG. . . . Daniel DING. . . . Olivia DONG. . . . Josephine DING. . . . Ana DONG. . . .
When I was six there was a child murderer on the loose in Queens. A little girl’s body was found in the woods not far from my home. Mama and Papa did what all parents have to do. They told me not to talk to strangers, not to accept candy from anyone, and never, ever to get into anyone’s automobile, especially if I was told they came to take me to my mother, because she would never send a stranger to get me. When my children were little, like all parents, my most pressing worry was for their safety. Even now that they are in their thirties, it still is. But when they were small and vulnerable I feared they could be kidnapped, abused and murdered at the hands of a predator. It was compelling enough for my husband and I to keep a constant vigil over them throughout the day, at the playground, on the way to and from school, and all the other possible routes towards their capture and violent end. Etan Patz had gone missing the year of my son’s birth, on his first walk alone to school. The news coverage showed the photo of the smiling little boy, and the camera shots of his parents—pale, ravaged by the ordeal of losing their child—hit home in a big way. There but for the grace of God . . . .
Madeleine DING. . . . Dylan DONG. . . . Dawn DING. . . . Catherine DONG. . . .
Even when they were in their teens, the fear never left me. A handsome son, a nubile and beautiful daughter. . . . My kids heard a constant warning: “Never leave the curb or lean into a car to give directions.” “If an adult asks for help in finding a lost puppy, or in carrying package from the trunk of a car run for home and . . . ” All parents know the drill they repeat over and over again.
And then there were drugs: “Don’t ever leave the party with boys who’ve been drinking.” “Never leave your soda cup unattended.” “Don’t get in the car!!! Call me to pick you up; no questions asked.” “Never leave the party/concert/alone!” They’d look at you like you didn’t trust them when you insisted on telephoning the parents of the kids who were having the party to make sure they were going to be chaperoning. “Hate me,” I’d tell them, “I’m doing it for your own good!” Angel dust and meth, were the big enemies. My prayers were full of “Please, Lord, keep my children safe from harm, from the fiends and the drug pushers who might ravish, kill or maim them!”
Chase DING. . . . Jesse DONG. . . . James DING. . . . Grace DONG. . . . Anne DING. . . . Emilie DONG. . . .
Never did I ever entertain the possibility of including in those prayers “. . . and keep them safe from mad gunmen in their classroom!”
Such is the world we live in today. Such is the nightmare of parents today! All those beautiful children!
Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it a million times: Guns don’t kill people; people with guns kill people. Right, sure. Mentally ill people with guns, too. What kind of a world do we live in that citizens feel the need to be armed with military/police enforcement-style weapons? When people accumulate arsenals of assault weapons, it begs the question, WHY? How many weapons do you need to kill a criminal who enters your home? You’ve only got two hands, Bozo. How many six-shooters can you handle at one time, cowboy? Logic begs, who needs so many guns and high-capacity magazines to stop a burglar?
Scenario: Bumps in the night. The house is dark. Husband turns to his wife:
“Whaddaya think, should I use the Glock or the Bushmaster? Let’s see—“
“Here’s an extra clip, sweetie. Oh, I hope they don’t take the Thomas Kincaid or the Keurig. . . .”
“Hand me the mini 14, will you; in the bedside table, honey . . . . Wait—”
“They’re on the stairs, Bill! I hear them coming up the stairs!”
“The AK 47! Armor piercing bullets, just to be safe!”
“Bill . . . .”
“Shush! They’ll hear us.”
“Out of the way, woman! This is a man’s job!”
A scratching on the bedroom door.
“Why, it’s just the cat, Bill. It’s just Snookums.”
Jack DING. . . . Noah DONG. . . . Caroline DING. . . . Jessica DONG. . . . Avielle DING. . . . Lauren DONG. . . .
Survivalists enjoy the fantasy of imminent governmental attack. They are at the ready. Perhaps someday they will be lucky enough to get their eager, dirty little hands on rocket launchers and drones to protect their neck of the backwoods. The hunter who uses an assault weapon to fell a deer isn’t very sportsmanlike. Those are the boys who hunt with their headlights on to blind the poor creatures before blasting them. That’s not hunting, that’s an ambush! And considering the numerous self-inflicted gunshot wounds and accidental hunter killings every year it’s no coincidence that the NRA offers free death or dismemberment insurance as a membership incentive to join their organization. From all I’ve just considered, it appears that outside of law enforcement, there are a lot of irresponsible trigger-happy morons walking around with guns. Everybody duck!
I don’t want to hear the lame argument that says a murderer who can’t get hold of a gun to do the deed will find some other diabolical weapon. Let’s not give the crazies the easy choice. The numbers have it that there are more than 300 million guns in the United States. One for every man, woman and child. Nice. And the cry that it’s the mentally ill who do these evil acts, well, yes, you’ve got to be a sick person to believe you can ease your own pain and anger by inflicting pain and death on your fellow man. Is that news? Killers can’t be stopped simply by seeing a doctor. You see, after last Friday’s massacre of children in Connecticut, I am perplexed that a woman with a mentally ill son (whom she had claimed was getting worse) would risk having even one gun in her home. She played a big role in the tragedy last week. So all gun owners, no matter how well meaning, have the potential to cause tragedies.
Whatever the arguments, whatever the interest of NRA leaders and the cow-towing congressmen who support their dangerous agenda (fearing that if they don’t, they will not win re-election in their gun-totin’ districts), it’s time to let reason win out. Our leaders have the power to take control, to take the guns out of the hands of irresponsible characters and dangerous criminals. If helping to protect our police from armor piercing bullets isn’t a strong enough reason, how about protecting our children? Putting armed guards in our schools is not the solution. I know that we can’t stop all of the crazies. But we don’t have to put guns and ammunition in their hands, either.
Mary DING. . . . Victoria DONG. . . . Benjamin DING. . . . Allison DONG. . . .
Until next time,
Usually, I can open a novel and after a couple of paragraphs tell if the author is writing down to his audience or raising the bar to meet his/her public on level or higher ground. I hate it when an author assumes I’m a dope who will tolerate the confirmation of that assumption by the very act of continuing to read the book. Sorry, Nicholas Sparks and his like who write for the mindless masses; schmaltz aside, a good romance doesn’t have to be silly. And then there are all of those ridiculous recipe/knitting/jelly jar/home repair/tea cake/ animal menagerie mystery writers of cutesy, mindless, witless and ultimately boring “buddy” cozies that flood the mystery market. Old ladies write them for slightly dimmer old ladies to read, I suppose, because you can always guess who wrote them by the mundane dialogue and middle school narrative. Enough, already, Rita Mae Brown! Enough, Lilian Jackson Braun of the Cat Who Did This or That series! (If she hadn’t passed away last year at age 97, there might have been more tired Qwilleran and his darn Siamese cats mysteries! I loved the first three books in the series. In 2007, a clever writer wrote The Cat Who Killed Lilian Jackson Braun!) You have to know when to retire a series, not wait until you’re dead to relieve the tedium. Agatha Christie had sense and knew when Poirot had to go, for cry’noutloud! Although I never tire of Hercule . . . .
Now for an exception: If you want a fun romp through Manhattan with an intellectually superior Labrador Retriever, Randolph, and his rather dense owner, check out a really clever cozy that I found delightful with J.F. Englert’s, Dog About Town, and his Bull Moose Dog Run series. Funny, with a cosmopolitan twist.
When I discovered the great mystery writer Ngaio Marsh (pronounced “Nigh-O”)—I found her to be a far better writer than Agatha Christie; Marsh wrote 33 mysteries, all tightly woven tales and with a thread of dark humor running through them. I felt like I’d discovered a treasure trove of jewels. Her books have been reprinted in paperback, and are worth the read.
Now, a dozen or more years ago I read a mystery novel in which the police detective owned a used bookstore. I enjoyed the book very much, but as is often the case with me, because I read so much, or perhaps because I was distracted back then, due to a period of what I call “life turbulence”, I failed to remember the title or the book’s author. Some books stay with you, for whatever reason. This mystery was so unique and had such style and was written with great skill, that I thought for sure I might track it down by just asking, “The mystery novel about a detective who owns a used bookstore, who wrote it?”, but I never found anyone—librarians or bookstore owners—who knew what the hell I was talking about. Last year, while riffling through books at a library book sale, there it was! At last! The title and author clearly displayed on the book jacket: Booked to Die by John Dunning! I was thrilled, and soon reread the novel, and delighted once again, I poured through the rest of “the Bookman” series.
John Dunning is one of the greats: A brilliant writer who raises the mystery genre to an art form. Lots of mystery writers win awards, as has John Dunning, but not all are equally skilled. His dialogue is crisp and engaging and intelligent and hysterically funny and honest. His character, Cliff Janeway (the cop turned antiquarian bookseller), possesses high moral convictions, and even though he could get away with a few indiscretions, he is ethically driven. And what woman wouldn’t fall for the clever man? And what man wouldn’t want to be him? And there is the inclusion of the fascinating world of the collectible book market. I have recommended the series to my mystery reading friends, and they weren’t disappointed.
Some months ago I wrote to Mr. Dunning as a fan to tell him how much I enjoyed his work, and to ask if another Janeway mystery was in the works. He wrote back, explaining he’d suffered a few health issues that made writing difficult, and that he wasn’t so sure there’d be another novel. I wrote back to say, I hoped so, and blatantly added, “I think you will write another”. Nervy of me. Shameful, really, I realized after I sent the note, because I know how much energy and hard work it takes to write a book, and who am I to say to another author what is possible? I suppose it was the Selfish Agata who wanted him to give me another Janeway adventure.
Now, I had waited twenty-plus years for Jack Finney’s sequel of Time and Again! to appear. From Time to Time was fun, yes, if a tad disappointing. And I am reminded of the misguided money-driven mistakes of the Gone With the Wind and Rebecca sequels! Let’s say, sequels most often undermine the original work. Some books should stand alone. But our appetite for more is the way of most series fans: You just don’t want to let the characters in the series go!
Today, John Dunning’s first editions (forget the signed editions) are valuable collectibles. Rightly so! P.S. Christmas wish list.
I have never been a fan of police procedurals, but I have read a few from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series and admire Ed Mc Bain, who was really Evan Hunter, who was really, Salvadore Albert Lombino, before he changed his name; a nice Italian boy, a friend of my sister’s, and a very serious author. The 87th series was his bread and butter series, but there was more to Mr. Hunter than the authoring of tightly plotted big city crime novels. Besides the popular series, he wrote The Blackboard Jungle and the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s, The Birds. And then there was Lizzie, the definitive account of the Lizzie Borden murder case. But many years ago I read a spectacular novel, which he considered his finest work, entitled, Streets of Gold. It is a remarkable and touching portrait of Italian immigrant life at the turn of Twentieth Century New York City. It’s one of those compelling books that stay with you for a lifetime, like Henry Roth’s, Call It Sleep, or Mario Puzo’s, A Fortunate Pilgrim. If you can find a copy of Streets, grab it.
Until next time,
A couple of years ago, a cousin of mine visited from Italy. On a tour of Manhattan, we pointed out the various new buildings and revamped landscapes replacing the ones we had shown him on his last visit twenty years before. Unlike the great, ancient cities of Italy, New York City is constantly changing. When asked for his impressions, he stated, truthfully, “Let me know when it’s finished.”
So, this past weekend while visiting with my good friend, Jeannette, she gave me a tour of all the places in Queens I had not visited in more than twenty years, and I was amazed at the transformations. Where had all the factories gone? The waterfront of Long Island City on the East River has a spectacular view of Manhattan’s skyline (East 42nd Street just across the way), is a place I had never been to, because it was years ago a run-down factory area and rather forbidding waterfront. What a surprise! What an upscale, trendy neighborhood it had become. I saw the Silvercup sign, and the smell of bread baking instantly drifted into my mind, if not my nostrils, from the days when I “rode the rails” (the subway) to and from my home in Whitestone to Performing Arts High School on West 46th Street in Manhattan. Now it is a movie studio. Only a few places remain pretty much intact: Queensview and Ravensview, where several school friends grew up back in the 1960s. And the beautiful tree lined streets and stone and stucco and Tudor style homes of Forest Gardens, like a centuries-old English village; it is oddly nestled within 142 acres and is one of the oldest planned community developments in America, consisting of eight hundred homes, apartments and townhouses dating back to 1908. Charming!
I am returned from the city and continuing work on the sixth novel of my Dorothy Parker Mystery Series. The books are a labor of love, because the venue, the soul of each book is the city in which I was born. I was born in Manhattan, went to school in Manhattan, lived and worked in Manhattan, and it is a part of me. I always thrill at the sight of its skyline as I approach over bridge or sail up its harbor. I imagine my father’s arrival by ship in 1921 and his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. I never fail to get up early when I’m returning from an ocean voyage to stand at the ship’s rail to see the welcoming Lady Liberty. The first time I flew over Manhattan it was at night, and it was like looking down at the stars. I am always enthralled by its history, its progress, its ever-changing and expanding spirit of enterprise. A few weeks ago my friend Jane posted on Facebook Dorothy Parker’s reflections of New York City in a 1928 McCall’s Magazine essay. It was timely, and I had to smile, because in the first scene of my first chapter of this new novel, I expressed Dorothy Parker’s sentiments about New York with the same fervor as she had but without ever having read the article below. We, and all those who love New York City feel this connection. To all who have lived here, it speaks for us:
“My Home Town”
It occurs to me that there are other towns. It occurs to me so violently that I say, at intervals, “Very well, if New York is going to be like this, I’m going to live somewhere else.” And I do—that’s the funny part of it. But then one day there comes to me the sharp picture of New York at its best, on a shiny blue-and-white Autumn day with its buildings cut diagonally in halves of light and shadow, with its straight neat avenues colored with quick throngs, like confetti in a breeze. Someone, and I wish it had been I, has said that “Autumn is the Springtime of big cities.” I see New York at holiday time, always in the late afternoon, under a Maxfield Parish sky, with the crowds even more quick and nervous but even more good-natured, the dark groups splashed with the white of Christmas packages, the lighted holly-strung shops urging them in to buy more and more. I see it on a Spring morning, with the clothes of the women as soft and as hopeful as the pretty new leaves on a few, brave trees. I see it at night, with the low skies red with the black-flung lights of Broadway, those lights of which Chesterton—or they told me it was Chesterton—said, “What a marvelous sight for those who cannot read!” I see it in the rain, I smell the enchanting odor of wet asphalt, with the empty streets black and shining as ripe olives. I see it—by this time, I become maudlin with nostalgia—even with its gray mounds of crusted snow, its little Appalachians of ice along the pavements. So I go back. And it is always better than I thought it would be.
I suppose that is the thing about New York. It is always a little more than you had hoped for. Each day, there, is so definitely a new day. “Now we’ll start over,” it seems to say every morning, “and come on, let’s hurry like anything.”
London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it. There is excitement ever running its streets. Each day, as you go out, you feel the little nervous quiver that is yours when you sit in the theater just before the curtain rises. Other places may give you a sweet and soothing sense of level; but in New York there is always the feeling of “Something’s going to happen.” It isn’t peace. But, you know, you do get used to peace, and so quickly. And you never get used to New York. – Dorothy Parker
Until next time,