Now to what this blog is really supposed to be about: The Ardent Admirer. It’s a novel, 325 pages long, and set in New York in 1922.
It tells the story of Benton Dembow, the drama critic for a sinking newspaper, “The New York Courier.” Dembow is seeing his life slip away. his glory days of influence and prestige now behind him. His wealthy wife, Millcent, considers him to be a useless old fool. The modern post WWI world has passed him by and he is on the verge of becoming a curmudgeonly relic of the previous age.
Then, one evening, he sees a “moving picture,” called “Passion” featuring a Polish actress by the name of Pola Negri and, taken by her beauty and talent, decides that he can once again becoming influential by becoming the Svengali to her Trilby. He will take up her cause and become her knight in shining armor. He will forever be remembered as the man who discovers her.
But to do that he will have to lie, cheat, and break every rule he has ever believed in, while, along the way, becoming involved with a feuding German couple in the midst of a civil war; dealing with his jealous shrew of a wife and her blackmailing secretary; a back-stabbing gossip columnist; rival journalists, a cold-blooded gangster; and a persistent investigator who believes him responsible for a shocking murder-suicide. With scandals threatening to ruin his name and with the law closing in, Benton Dembow must find a way out of his dire predicament yet still champion the name of an actress who will one day become one of the most colorful stars ever in the history of Hollywood.
Hmm, just re-wrote my query letter at the same time.
The genesis for this story came from my obvious fascination with silent movies. I thought it poignant that one, about 90% of all silent pictures are lost and, two, that only a small handful of silent picture stars made it into the sound picture era. How many of those people, famous to moviegoers in their time, are remembered today? How could you be famous and rich one day and consigned to oblivion the next? I can’t even imagine the shock of disbelief at being rendered redundant. Add to that the Wall Street cash and most performers lost their homes and fortunes. Their ultimate fate is the stuff of Hollywood Babylon: Mae Murray was arrested for vagrancy and went cheerfully insane; Milton Sills drove his car off a cliff; Louise Brooks worked a spell as a prostitute; Marie Prevost drank herself to death and was partially eaten by her starving dogs before her body was found.
I read a lot of biographies, one by Pola Negri. I’d never really heard of her before. Only a handful of her American movies made from 1923 through 1929 exist, the majority having been lost back in the days when the studios were indifferent to film preservation. What was left behind were stills that showed me a very beautiful woman…perhaps the loveliest actress of the entire silent era. I acquired pictures showing her as sad, fierce, romantic, haunted and, in one astounding photo, smiling. Her autobiography, MEMORIES OF A STAR (she certainly had no doubt that she was one) can be said to be rather short on honesty, but it does show an indomitable woman who succeeded and failed on her terms, a true feminist and possibly the original movie star diva long who lived a life under no one else’s rules but her own. Add to that the 1920’s view of her through movie magazines and here was a fascinating creature, the kind of woman that Americans had never seen before and, let’s face it, Pola Negri…that’s a name that could only belong to a silent movie star.
Sure, I could have written about Clara Bow and Louise Brooks, two of the more memorable stars, but books have been written about that and they have their own cults. But who today remembers Pola? I thought she deserved to be remembered…or championed. Curiously enough, i set out to do the same thing that the lead character in my book does.
Originally, I intended to write her story in fiction, but frankly at the time i had no interest in rehashing the old stories about her. I have since decided to do a picture book on her with all of the images I’ve acquired, but that’s for another day. I thought about the public’s endless fascination with movie stars and I thought it might be interesting to speculate that really all started with Pola’s arrival in America…and wouldn’t it be more interesting to do a novel on Pola Negri without her actually being in it?
So, of course, it would have to be a love story. A writer once said in an interview that the best stories are about unrequieted love. Ain’t that the truth? So my lead would have to be someone who falls in love with Pola but will never get her or meet her. Enter Benton Demow…hello, novel.
But here’s the thing: my novel is actually only half of what I had planned. I wanted to spotlight Pola’s very brief engagement to Charlie Chaplin, the tale of, perhaps, the first media-driven celebrity romance. But since the first half of the book was so compelling, I decided to spin it off on its own. The second half, NEGRI JILTS CHAPLIN may also see the light of day at some point, but it’s an entirely different book with its own story.
Anyway, I’m embarking a on journey to get ADMIRER published. I hope it will be. I hope people will want to read it. I’ve already got the dedication:
FOR POLA, WHO I NEVER GOT TO MEET, AND FOR MARINA, WHOM I’M GLAD I DID.