Sparkling Vintage Fiction. Among other things.

Monthly Archives: October 2013

Sunday Serenade: River of Jordan

I hope you enjoy this glimpse of a river baptism in West Virginia in the 1940s, accompanied by “River of Jordan” by country music’s “first family,” the Carter Family. The original Carter Family (A. P., Sara, and Maybelle) started recording their distinctive brand of gospel music in 1927.

 

Miley Cyrus vs. the debutante ball

miley cyrus2As a writer of historical fiction and a lover of all things vintage, I spend a lot of my time with my head in the past. Admittedly I often fail to keep up on what’s happening in today’s world, especially on its outer fringes, where I consider most celebrity “news” stories to reside. So it should surprise no one that I’m only just now formulating my thoughts on the whole Miley Cyrus fiasco that’s old news to the rest of the planet.

Did you ever wish you could scrub your mind clean of an image or a fragment of knowledge it didn’t contain before? That’s how I feel about the word twerk and everything associated with it. (Even though my word processing software underlines twerk with a red squiggle, I’m refusing to dignify it by adding it to my online dictionary. I’m such a rebel.)

Yet in spite of the nausea, I haven’t been able to get this story out of my head and my heart. Why? I don’t even know Miss Cyrus. I’ve never watched a single episode of “Hannah Montana.”  I don’t have a daughter to be influenced by her, or a son who might find that sort of behavior appealing.

After mulling it over, I think one reason (out of many) that Miss Cyrus’s story upsets me is that it equates becoming an adult woman with becoming a blatant sex object. I certainly don’t hate Miley Cyrus, but I hate what she represents: the hyper-sexualization of young women in our society. So much of the commentary surrounding her recent performance had a “little Miley, all grown up” slant. I seem to remember similar comments about another former child star, Britney Spears, when she started flaunting her sexuality. It’s as if acting in this immoral manner is some sign of growth or maturity, some sort of accomplishment, and an inevitable step on the path to womanhood.

Then I had an idea: What if “twerking” is the 21st century version of that age-old coming-of-age ritual, the debutante ball? debutante-ball-1

That shocking thought sent me scurrying to the 1922 edition of Emily Post to find out what debutantes were all about.

Put crudely, the debutante ball–like the outrageous performances of Miley and so many others–advertised a woman’s sexual availability. But very unlike today’s young celebs, a debutante was, ideally, only sexually available to one man through marriage. What a concept.

The debutante ball (or dance, or party, or picnic) signaled a young woman’s change of status to society. At age 18 or so and finished with school, she was considered ready to be married and start raising the next generation, and young marriage-minded men of suitable caliber would now have permission to call on her. Yes, to those who looked closely, the debutante ritual had pragmatic undertones of placing young women “on the market,” so to speak. But for the most part it was just a fun, wholesome coming-of-age ritual that preserved the dignity and purity of everyone involved–young men and young women alike. The debutante ball also served to introduce this freshly-hatched grown-up to her parents’ friends and acquaintances, who were likely to be relatives of the eligible young men in question. So making a good impression on the “older folks” was important, too.

As feminism took hold, and as college and/or career supplanted marriage as a girl’s post-high-school goal, the debut tradition gradually died out.  The expense of throwing a lavish party also contributed to its demise. But even way back in 1922, Emily Post made the case that making one’s debut to society wasn’t necessarily about the party. She wrote:

debutante-ball-2“Any one of various entertainments may be given to present a young girl to society. The favorite and most elaborate of these, but possible only to parents of considerable wealth and wide social acquaintance, is a ball. Much less elaborate, but equal in size and second in favor today, is an afternoon tea with dancing. Third, and gaining in popularity, is a small dance, which presents the debutante to the younger set and a few of her mother’s intimate friends. Fourth, is a small tea without music. Fifth, the mere sending out of the mother’s visiting card with the daughter’s name engraved below her own, announces to the world that the daughter is eligible for invitations.”

Although the debutante ball persists in some areas, it has largely been replaced by the sweet-sixteen party, the quinceanera, and the high school graduation party. These days the average age for a woman’s first marriage is 26 (28 for men), so these parties celebrate milestones without implying any readiness for marriage.

Emily Post offered this bit of advice to the young ladies of 1922:

“Since the day of femininity that is purely ornamental and utterly useless is gone by, it is the girl who does things well who finds life full of interests and of friends and of happiness. The old idea also has passed that measure’s a girl’s popular success by the number of trousered figures around her. It is quality, not quantity, that counts; and the girl who surrounds herself with indiscriminate and possibly ‘cheap’ youths does not excite the envy but the derision of beholders. . . . Instead of depending on beauty, the young girl who is the “success of today” depends chiefly upon her character and disposition. . . . A gift of more value than beauty is charm, which is another word for sympathy, or the power to put yourself in the place of others; to be interested in whatever interests them, but not to occupy your thoughts in futilely wondering what they think about you. Would you know the secret of popularity? It is unconsciousness of self, altruistic interest, and inward kindliness, outwardly expressed in good manners.”

That seems to me a far classier alternative to twerking on the dance floor. Don’t you agree?

 

Sparkling Vintage Faces: Nancy Carroll

Nancy Carroll

Nancy Carroll

I’m basing the physical appearance of my lead character, Marjorie, on 1920s screen icon Nancy Carroll. I chose Nancy partly because I think she’s pretty, and partly because I wanted Marjorie to look very different from her friend Dot, who is described as looking like Louise Brooks (right).

Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks

Here’s a write-up on Nancy Carroll from a 1930 book, Stars of the Photoplay:

“Nancy Carroll is a real daughter of the big town. As Nancy Lahiff she went to parochial school in New York City, where she was born, November 19, 1906. and at 17 went on the stage as a dancer in Shubert musical shows. She married Jack Kirkland, a newspaperman, who is now a Hollywood scenario writer. Her big film chance came in “Abie’s Irish Rose.” Nancy is 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 118 pounds. She has red hair and blue eyes. The Kirklands have a little daughter.”

Not realizing Nancy had red hair (hey, there are limits to black-and-white photography!), I made Marjorie’s hair brown. Marjorie is also bigger than Nancy, which gives her a little trouble when trying to fit into narrow 1920s fashions. As Marjorie might say, “I have the perfect figure–for 1910,” not such a great thing in 1925.

Later sources tell us that Nancy Carroll’s birth name was Ann Veronica Lahiff, that her ancestry was Irish, and that her musical background came in handy when silent films gave way to talkies and musicals. In 1930 she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for The Devil’s Holiday. Fans loved her, but the studios didn’t, because she had a reputation for being difficult to work with. In the mid-1930s Paramount released her from her contract, and in 1938 she stopped making films and returned to the stage. In 1951 she appeared in a film version of “The Egg and I,” along with her daughter, Patricia Kirkland. Nancy was married three times and died in 1965.

Had you ever heard of Nancy Carroll or seen any of her movies? Celebrity is so fleeting, isn’t it? An actor or actress can be a huge star to one generation and virtually unknown to the next. What do you think of her looks? Does she look anything like you imagined Marjorie would look? 

Marjorie’s Story: Let’s start at the very beginning . . .

From time to time on this blog, I’ve posted random scenes from my first novel, which I’m calling You’re The Cream in My Coffee (inspired by this song).

Until now I haven’t been able to share the novel’s opening chapter because it was entered in contests where anonymity was paramount. Now that all the contests have concluded, it’s finally safe to post it. Here, then, is the very first scene of Marjorie’s story.

 

***

marjorie2

Marjorie

First off, I need to set the record straight. In a middle-western town the size of Kerryville, rumors have a way of catching fire and burning a hole straight through the truth.

Despite what you may have heard down at Madge’s Cut ‘n’ Curl, the fact that I, Marjorie Corrigan, fainted in the balcony at the Orpheum during the Sunday matinee had nothing to do with the movie’s gruesome Great War battle scenes. Or the steamy romance between an American soldier and a pretty French farm girl. Or the scandalous appearance of a curse word right there in black and white for the whole world to see. It had nothing to do with Myrtle Jamison’s off-tune piano accompaniment, or the refreshment stand running out of Coca-Cola even before the feature started.

Above all, it had nothing—absolutely nothing—to do with my being in the “family way,” a rumor as mortifying as it was untrue. Honestly. I realized the good ladies of Kerryville thought my engagement to Doctor Richard Brownlee had dragged on entirely too long, but spreading malicious rumors was not the way to speed things along.

Here’s how it all began. On an unseasonably warm April afternoon, the theater grew close and stuffy, especially up in the balcony where my younger sister Helen orpheum2and I were seated. The new air-cooling systems, all the rage in city theaters, had not yet made it to little Kerryville. I pressed my handkerchief to my face and debated sneaking down to the lobby for a cold drink. I knew the picture by heart, anyway. Helen and I had already watched John Gilbert in The Big Parade a few times, as the feature selection at the Orpheum changed with glacial slowness. Still, I hated to annoy people by crawling over their legs in the dark, so I stayed put and watched a favorite scene in which the soldier and the French girl first meet in the village near her family’s farm.

As the doughboy and farm girl flirted onscreen, I mentally recast the scene. The French village became Kerryville, the farm our family’s dry goods store, and the French girl was me, stocking thread and cutting fabric on an ordinary day, when in walks a handsome stranger, ready to change my life forever. What would it be like to have my whole world turned upside down by this stranger, his dazzling smile hinting of adventure and mystery? What if he invited me to run away with him? What if he held out his hand to me and said—

“Stop hogging all the Jujubes.” Helen reached over and snatched the candy from my hand. With a start I snapped back to reality, guilty I’d been caught daydreaming, especially since the stranger in my fantasy clearly bore John Gilbert’s face and not that of my fiancé, Richard. With a sigh I relinquished the sweets. Real life wasn’t anything like the movies.

I tried to imagine Richard in the soldier role, but it didn’t quite work. For one thing, Richard hadn’t served in the war. For another, he was not prone to impulsive romantic gestures. Our courtship proceeded on a steady course, free of drama. Silently I recited his good qualities, a habit I’d acquired of late. Richard was kind. Generous. Faithful. Prosperous. Toss in thrifty, brave, and clean and he’d make the perfect Boy Scout. In fact, he made perfect husband and father material. Everyone said so. If together we seemed to lack a certain, well, spark, then so what? A girl can’t build a future on castles in the air.

At sixteen, Helen still firmly believed in air castles. Beside me she mused, “I wonder if our brother fell in love with any French girls during the war.”

Or if Jack did, I thought against my will, then chased that thought straight out of my head. Remembering my old flame invariably brought on useless comparisons between then and now.

“Not likely,” I whispered to Helen. “Charlie’s never mentioned any girls.”

helen2

Helen’s high school picture.

“Not that he’d tell us, of course. You don’t tell that sort of thing to your sisters.”

“Sssh! Watch the picture.”

Helen fell silent, but she’d seen the movie too many times to become engrossed. Minutes later she whispered, “I wish you and I could travel to France.”

“Maybe we will. Someday.”

She snorted. “You say that now. But once you’re married, we’ll never get to go anywhere or do anything fun, ever again.”

This time the “Sssh!” came from the row behind us.

My sister’s words echoed in my head. Never do anything fun again. All of a sudden, in spite of the heat, shivers that had nothing to do with John Gilbert’s dreamy dark eyes raised goose bumps on my arms. The screen blurred. The flocked-velvet walls closed in on me. My pulse pounded. I needed air.

I nudged my sister. “Come on. We have to leave.”

Helen gaped at me in the flickering light. “What’s the matter?”

The rows of seats rearranged themselves in dizzying patterns.

“Now, please. I’m—I’m not feeling well.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I just feel—strange.”

She gestured toward the screen. “But the soldier and the French girl—”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Helen,” I hissed, gripping her arm. “How many times have we seen it? War happens, he leaves, he comes back, they kiss, end of story.”

“Ow. Stop it.” Helen yanked her arm away, swatting the man in front of us. He turned and glared. “Sorry,” she whispered, then to me, “See what you made me do.”

The theater dipped and spun. “I mean it, Helen. I have to leave. Now.”

She peered at me. “Jiminy crickets, Marjorie, you don’t look so hot.”

I stood and lurched over legs and handbags toward the exit. “Sorry. Sorry.”

And the next thing I knew, I was lying flat in the aisle, Helen rubbing my wrist, a pockmarked usher shining his flashlight in my face, and Eugenia Wardlow, the town’s biggest gossip, leaning over me with a look of delighted concern.

***
Check back for more morsels of Marjorie’s story, coming soon to a blog near you.

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