Friday, April 22, 2016

Flappers and Flickers

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Rare Objects, a new novel by Katherine Tessaro set in Boston during the Great Depression. My latest interview looks at the decades before the stock market collapse of 1929. In 1914, when Olive Thomas moves from Pennsylvania to New York City, prohibition is not yet the law of the land, the theater district is thriving, and what will become the movie industry is just getting started. Europe may soon be at war, but the United States will not join the fray for several years. Meanwhile, a beautiful girl in New York finds her way from shop clerk to artist’s model to dancer with the renowned Ziegfeld Follies. From there, Hollywood beckons, and a silent movie star is born.

Poor Olive had to wait yet again for her moment in the sun while I announced the release of The Swan Princess. No doubt, she would consider that par for the course. But her story is, from the beginning almost to the end, tremendous fun, and the time is long past when she should receive an Academy Award of her own.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

A ghost haunts the New Amsterdam Theatre, near Times Square in New York. She wears a green outfit in flapper style, and she’s just a little annoyed to realize that no one is scared of her, even though she mostly rearranges the scenery rather than clanking chains or leaping out and scaring people. Her name is Olive Thomas, and she is one of the first silent movie stars, although her early death means that she is much less famous than her sister-in-law, Mary Pickford.

Born near Pittsburgh, Olive moves to New York to escape a teen marriage and a life raised in poverty. After winning a contest as the Most Beautiful Girl in New York, she becomes an artist’s model before securing a position with Flo Ziegfeld, the mogul behind the Follies. Ziegfeld takes a shine to Olive, and soon she is not only dancing for him but has become a regular in the much racier Midnight Follies. Before long, she and Ziegfeld are involved in an affair, but when Ziegfeld goes back to his wife, Olive takes off for Hollywood. In Santa Monica, she runs into Jack Pickford, Mary’s younger brother, and discovers her kindred spirit. To the great distress of his family, the two of them drink and party their way around movie sets on both coasts. Over the course of four years, Olive makes twenty films, including The Flapper—the film that introduced that term into the national lingo. Then she and Jack decide to vacation in Paris …

The Forgotten Flapper: A Novel of Olive Thomas (Sepia Stories, 2015) brings this forgotten actress back to life. Laini Giles vividly captures both the culture of those early days when films were still called “flickers” and Olive Thomas’s complex, charming, and compelling personality. The ostrich scene alone is—dare we say it?—unforgettable.

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