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A captivating novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922, and the summer that would change them both.
Only a few years before becoming a famous actress and an icon for her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita to make it big in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle is a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip. She has no idea what she’s in for: Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous blunt bangs and black bob, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will change their lives forever.
For Cora, New York holds the promise of discovery that might prove an answer to the question at the center of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in a strange and bustling city, she embarks on her own mission. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, it liberates her in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of the summer, Cora’s eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.
The First time Cora heard the name Louise Brooks, she was parked outside the Wichita Library in a Model-T Ford, waiting for the rain to stop. If Cora had been alone, unencumbered, she might have made a dash across the lawn and up the library’s stone steps, but she and her friend Viola Hammond had spent the morning going door-to-door in their neighborhood, collecting books for the new children’s room, and the considerable fruits of their efforts were safe and dry in four crates in the backseat. The storm, they decided, would be a short one, and they couldn’t risk the books getting wet.
And really, Cora thought, staring out into the rain, it wasn’t as if she had anything else to do. Her boys were already gone for the summer, both of them working on a farm outside Win?eld. In the fall, they would leave for college. Cora was still getting used to the quiet, and also the freedom, of this new era of her life. Now, long after Della left for the day, the house stayed clean, with no muddy footprints on the ?oor, and no records scattered around the phonograph. There were no squabbles over the car to mediate, no tennis matches at the club to cheer on, and no assigned essays to proofread and commend. The pantry and icebox actually stayed stocked with food without daily trips to the store. Today, with Alan at work, she had no reason to rush home at all.
“I’m glad we took your car and not ours,” Viola said, adjusting her hat, which was pretty, a puffed turban with an ostrich feather curling down from the crown. “People say closed cars are a luxury, but not on a day like this.”
Cora gave her what she hoped was a modest smile. Not only was the car covered, it had come with an electric starter. Cranking cars, no business for a lady, was how the ad went, though Alan had admitted he didn’t miss cranking either.
Viola turned, eyeing the books in the backseat. “People were generous,” she allowed. Viola was a decade older than Cora, her hair already gray at the temples, and she spoke with the authority of her added years. “Mostly. You notice Myra Brooks didn’t even open her door.”
Cora hadn’t noticed. She’d been working the other side of the street. “Maybe she wasn’t home.”
“I heard the piano.” Viola’s eyes slid toward Cora. “She didn’t bother to stop playing when I knocked. I have to say, she’s very good.”
Lightning shot across the western sky, and though both women ?inched, Cora, without thinking, smiled. She’d always loved these late-spring storms. They came on so fast, rolling in from the prairie on expanding columns of clouds, a welcome release from the day’s building heat. An hour before, when Cora and Viola were canvassing, the sun was hot in a blue sky. Now rain fell fast enough to slice green leaves from the big oak outside the library. The lilacs trembled and tossed.
“Don’t you think she’s a tiresome snob?”
Cora hesitated. She didn’t like to gossip, but she could hardly count Myra Brooks as a friend. And they’d been to how many suffrage meetings together? Had marched together in the street? Yet if she passed Myra today on Douglas Avenue, Cora wouldn’t get so much as a hello. Still, she never got the feeling that it was snobbery as much as Myra simply not registering her existence, and there was a chance it was nothing personal. Myra Brooks didn’t seem to look at anyone, Cora had noticed, not unless she was the one speaking, watching for the impression she made. And yet, of course, everyone looked at her. She was, perhaps, the most beautiful woman Cora had ever seen in person: she had pale skin, ?awless, and large, dark eyes, and then all that thick, dark hair. She was certainly a talented speaker—her voice was never shrill, and her enunciations were clear. But everyone knew it was Myra’s looks that had made her a particularly good spokeswoman for the Movement, a nice antidote to the newspapers’ idea of what a suffragist looked like. And you could tell she was intelligent, cultured. She was supposed to know everything about music, the works of all the famous composers. She certainly knew how to charm. Once, when she was at the podium, she had looked down at Cora, right into her eyes, and smiled as if they were friends.
“I don’t really know her,” Cora said. She looked back out through the blurred windshield, at people ducking out from a streetcar, running for cover. Alan had taken a streetcar to work, so she could have the Ford.
“Then I’ll inform you. Myra Brooks is a tiresome snob.” Viola turned to Cora with a little smile, the ostrich plume grazing her chin. “I’ll give you the latest example: she just sent a note to the secretary of our club. Apparently, Madame Brooks is looking for someone to accompany one of her daughters to New York this summer. The older one, Louise, got into some prestigious dance school there, but she’s only ?fteen. Myra actually wants one of us to go with her. For over a month!” Viola seemed pleasantly outraged, her cheeks rosy, her eyes bright. “I mean, really! I don’t know what she’s thinking. That we’re the help? That one of us will be her Irish nanny?” She frowned and shook her head. “Most of us have progressive husbands, but I can’t imagine any one of them would spare a wife for over a month so she could go to New York City, of all places. Myra herself is too busy to go. She has to lie around the house and play the piano.”
Cora pursed her lips. New York. She felt the old ache right away. “Well. I suppose she has other children to look after.”
“Oh, she does, but that’s not it. She doesn’t take care of them. They’re motherless, those children. Poor Louise goes to Sunday school by herself. The instructor is Edward Vincent, and he picks her up and takes her home every Sunday. I heard that right from his wife. Myra and Leonard are alleged Presbyterians, but you never see them at church, do you? They’re too sophisticated, you see. They don’t make the other children go either.”
“That speaks well of the daughter, that she makes the effort to go on her own.” Cora cocked her head. “I wonder if I’ve ever seen her.”
“Louise? Oh, you would remember. She doesn’t look like anyone else. Her hair is black like Myra’s, but perfectly straight like an Oriental’s, and she wears it in a Buster Brown.” Viola gestured just below her ears. “She didn’t bob it. She had it cut like that when they moved here years ago. It’s too short and severe, a horrible look, in my opinion, not feminine at all. But even so, I have to say, she’s a very pretty girl. Prettier than her mother.” She smiled, leaning back in her seat. “There’s some justice in that, I think.”
Cora tried to picture this black-haired girl, more beautiful than her beautiful mother. Her gloved hand moved to the back of her own hair, which was dark, but not remarkably so. It certainly wasn’t perfectly straight, though it looked presentable, she hoped, pinned up under her straw hat. Cora had been told she had a kind, pleasant face, and that she was lucky to have good teeth. But that had never added up to striking beauty. And now she was thirty-six.
“My own girls are threatening to cut their hair,” Viola said with a sigh. “Foolish. This bobbing business is just a craze. When it’s over, everyone who followed the lemmings over the cliff will need years to grow their hair out. A lot of people won’t hire girls with bobbed hair. I try to warn them, but they won’t listen. They just laugh at me. And they have their own language, their own secret code for them and their friends. Do you know what Ethel called me the other day? She called me a wurp.That’s not a real word. But when I tell them that, they laugh.”
“They’re just trying to rattle you,” Cora said with a smile. “And I’m sure they won’t really bob their hair.” Really, it seemed unlikely. The magazines were full of short-haired girls, but in Wichita, bobs were still a rarity. “I do think it looks good on some girls,” Cora said shyly. “Short hair, I mean. And it must feel cooler, and lighter. Just think—you could throw all your hairpins away.”
Viola looked at her, eyebrows raised.
“Don’t worry. I won’t do it.” Cora again touched the back of her neck. “I might if I were younger.”
The rain was coming down faster, rapping hard on the roof of the car.
Viola crossed her arms. “Well, if my girls do cut their hair, I can tell you now, it won’t be so they can throw away hairpins. They’ll do it to be provocative. To look provocative. That’s what passes for fashion these days. That’s what young people are all about now.” She sounded suddenly stricken, more confused than indignant. “I don’t understand it, Cora. I raised them to have propriety. But both of them are suddenly obsessed with showing the world their knees. They roll their skirts up after they leave the house. I can tell by the waistbands. I know they defy me. They roll their stockings down, too.” She gazed out into the rain, lines branching beneath her eyes. “What I don’t know is why, what’s going on in their little heads, why they don’t care about the message they’re sending. When I was young, I never felt the need to show the general public my knees.” She shook her head. “Those two cause me more grief than all four of my boys. I envy you, Cora. You’re lucky to only have sons.”
Maybe, Cora thought. She did love the very maleness of the twins, their robust health and con?dence, their practical taste in clothing, their easy reconciliations after heated quarrels. Earle was smaller and quieter than Howard, but even he seemed capable of forgetting all worries when he held a racquet or a bat. She loved that they had both wanted to work on a farm, seeing it as an adventure in country living and physical labor, though she also worried they had no idea how much labor they’d signed on for. And she knew she had been lucky with her sons, and not just in the way that Viola meant. The Hendersons next door had a son just four years older than the twins, but those few years had made all the difference—Stuart Henderson had been killed in early 1918, ?ghting in France. Four years later, Cora was still stunned. For her, Stuart Henderson would always be a gangly adolescent, smiling and waving from his bike at her own boys, who were small then, still in short pants. Really, being lucky with sons seemed a matter of timing.
But whatever Viola said, Cora thought she might have fared just as well with daughters. She would have been good with girls, perhaps, using the right combination of instruction and understanding. Maybe Viola was just going about it the wrong way.
“I’m telling you, Cora. Something is wrong with this new generation. They don’t care about anything important. When we were young, we wanted the vote. We wanted social reform. Girls today just want to . . . walk around practically naked so they can be stared at. It’s as if they have no other calling.”
Cora could hardly disagree. It really was shocking, how much skin girls were showing these days. And she wasn’t some old prude or Mrs. Grundy; she was fairly sure she wasn’t a wurp, though she didn’t know what that meant either. Cora had been pleased when the hemlines moved up to nine inches from the ankle. Some leg showed, true, but that change seemed sensible: no more skirts trailing in the mud and bringing typhoid or who knows what into the house. And calf length was far preferable to the ridiculous hobble skirts that she herself had stumbled around in, all for the sake of fashion, not so long ago. Still, girls were now sporting skirts so short that their knees showed every time the wind blew, and there was no practical reason for that. Viola was right: a girl who wore a skirt that short just wanted to be looked at, and looked at in that way. Cora had even seen a few women her own age showing their knees, right here in Wichita, and really, in her opinion, these half-naked matrons looked especially vulgar.
Viola looked at her brightly. “That’s one of the reasons I’m joining the Klan.”
Cora turned. “What?”
“The Klan. Ku Klux. They sent a representative to the club last week. I wish you would have been there, Cora. They’re very interested in women joining up, holding positions.”
“I’m sure they are,” Cora murmured. “We vote.”
“Don’t be a cynic. They were much more speci?c than that. They know that there are serious women’s issues at hand, and that women need to be in the ?ght.” The ostrich feather bobbed as she spoke. “They’re against all this modernization, all these outside in?uences on our youth. They’re interested in racial purity, of course, but they’re just as interested in teaching personal purity for young women. We do need to keep our race pure, and Good Lord, we need to keep it going. My brother-in-law says a veritable takeover is coming, and it’s all being planned in the basement of the Vatican. That’s the real reason Catholics have so many children, you know, and meanwhile, our people have one or two or none at . . .”
Viola trailed off. She rolled her lips in. It took Cora a moment to understand.
“I’m sorry,” Viola said. “I didn’t mean you. Your situation is different.”
Cora waved her off. The twins were what she had. But both she and Viola were silent for a while, and there was only the tapping rain.
“In any case,” Viola said ?nally, “I think it would be good for the girls. Good, moral people to mix with.”
Cora swallowed, feeling short of breath. She had been wearing a corset day in, day out, for so many years that she rarely registered it as a discomfort. It seemed a part of her body. But in moments of distress, such as now, she was aware of her constricted rib cage. She would have to choose her words carefully. She could not come across as personally concerned.
“I don’t know,” she said, her voice breezy, not betraying her in any way. “Oh,Viola. The Klan? They wear those white gowns, those hoods with the spooky eyeholes.” She ?uttered her gloved hands. “And they have wizards and grand wizards, and bon?res.” Even as she smiled, she glanced into Viola’s small blue eyes, analyzing what she saw there. She had to consider her options, her best route to success. Viola was older, but Cora was richer. She would capitalize on that.
“It just seems a little . . . common.” She shrugged, apologetic.
Viola cocked her head. “But lots of people are—”
“Exactly.” Cora smiled again. She had chosen the right word, precisely. It was as if they were shopping at the Innes Department Store together, and Cora had shown disdain for an ugly china pattern. She already knew, with certainty, Viola would reconsider.
When the rain let up, they slid out and carried the crates in, sidestepping puddles, each woman making two trips. Inside, waiting for the librarian, they chatted about other things. They ?ipped through a pristine copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and smiled at the illustrations. They stopped at the Lassen Hotel for tea, and then Cora drove Viola home.
So many years later, this easy ride home with Viola would be the part of the story where Cora, in the telling, would momentarily lose the regard of a grandniece she adored. This grandniece, who at seventeen, incidentally, wore her hair much longer than her mother preferred, would be frustrated to the point of tears that in 1961 she was not yet old enough to join the freedom riders in the South. She often admonished Cora for using the word “colored,” but she generally showed her more patience than she did her own parents, understanding that her aunt Cora was not a hateful person, just an old woman with tainted language.
But that patience was tested when she heard about Viola. Cora’s grandniece couldn’t comprehend why her great-aunt would remain friends with a woman who even considered being part of the Klan. Did she not know what they did to people? Her grandniece would look at Cora with scorn, and with forsaken, teary eyes. Had she been unaware of their cowardly crimes? Their murders of innocent people?
Yes, Cora would say, but in the end, Viola never joined. Only because she was a snob, her grandniece would counter. Not because the Klan was repugnant. It was a different time, was all Cora could say, defending her old friend, who would be long since dead by then. (Cancer. She’d started smoking after her daughters picked it up.) Consider the numbers, Cora would try. That rainy day with Viola was in the summer of 1922, when the Klan was six thousand strong in the city limits—and Wichita only held maybe eighty thousand souls in total. That wasn’t unusual for the time. The Klan was strong and growing in many towns, in many states. Were people just stupider then? Meaner? Maybe, Cora allowed. But it was foolish to assume that had you lived in that time, you wouldn’t be guilty of the same ignorance, unable to reason your way out. Cora herself had only escaped that particular stupidity because of her special circumstance. Other confusions had held her longer.
There’s plenty of stupidity now, the grandniece said, and I know it for what it is. True, Cora conceded, and I’m proud of you for that. But maybe there’s some more, and you don’t know it’s there. Do you know what I’m saying? Honey? To someone who grows up by the stockyards, that smell just smells like air. You don’t know what a younger person might someday think of you, and whatever stench we still breathe in without noticing. Listen to me, honey. Please. I’m old now, and this is something I’ve learned.
After she dropped Viola off, Cora drove back downtown and parked on Douglas, just outside Alan’s of?ce. No one looked twice at her as she climbed down from the car. Just two years earlier, one of the most discussed events of the annual Wheat Show was the Parade of Lady Drivers. Even then, the organizers had no trouble ?nding almost twenty women anxious to display their competence behind the wheels of various cars. Cora had driven the ?fth car in the line, Alan sitting proudly beside her.
She had to push hard on the big door to his of?ce, and when she ?nally managed to open it, she saw and felt why. The big window in the front room was open to the rain-cooled breeze, and a huge electric fan was pointed right at her. On her left, two girls she didn’t know sat typing. Alan’s secretary stood behind another desk, using both hands to turn the crank on a rotary duplicating machine. When she noticed Cora, she stopped.
“Oh, Mrs. Carlisle! It’s nice to see you!”
Cora was aware of a pause in the typing, the typists looking up, taking her in. She was not surprised by their scrutiny. Her husband was a handsome man. Cora smiled at the girls. Both were young, and one was pretty. Neither posed any threat.
“Let me tell him you’re here,” his secretary said. She wore an ink-stained apron over her dress.
“Oh no,” Cora said, glancing at her watch. “Please don’t bother him. It’s almost ?ve. I’ll just wait.”
But the door to Alan’s office opened. He stuck his head out and smiled. “Darling! I thought I heard your voice. What a lovely surprise!”
He was already walking toward her, arms outstretched, a sight to behold, really, tall and trim in his three-piece suit. He was twelve years older than Cora, but his light brown hair was still full. She glanced at the typists just long enough to see she had their full attention, as if she were the heroine in a silent ?lm. Alan leaned down to kiss her cheek, smelling faintly of a cigar. She thought she heard someone sigh.
“You’re damp,” he said, using two ?ngers to touch the brim of her hat. His tone was lightly scolding.
“It’s just sprinkling now, but it might start up again.” She spoke in a low voice. “I stopped by to see if you wanted a ride home. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
It was no bother, he assured her. He introduced her to the typists, praising their skills even as he gently steered her back to his of?ce, his hand on the back of her waist. There were some fellows he wanted her to meet, he said, some new clients from the oil and gas company. Three men stood when she entered, and she greeted them all politely, trying to memorize faces and names. They were pleased to meet her, one said: her husband had spoken so highly of her. Cora feigned surprise, her smile so practiced it seemed real.
And then it was ?ve o’clock, time to go. Alan shook hands with the men, put on his hat, took his umbrella from the stand, and jokingly apologized for having to catch his ride home in a hurry. The men smiled at him, at her. Someone suggested a future get-together.
His wife could call Cora to see what would be a good evening. “That would be lovely,” she said.
When they got outside, the rain had indeed grown more serious. He offered to bring the car around to the front, but she insisted she would be ?ne if he shared his umbrella. They ran to the car together, huddled close, heads lowered. He held open her door and gave her his arm as she climbed up into the passenger seat, his umbrella over her head until she was safe inside.
In the car, they were still friendly, though the air between them was always different when they were alone. She told him about the library and the children’s room, and he congratulated her on her good deed. She said she hadn’t been home for most of the day. She would have to warm up some soup for supper, but she had been to the market, and she could make a good salad, and there was bread. A light supper would be ?ne with him, he said. It wasn’t the same, sitting down for a big meal now that the boys were gone, and yet they better get used to it. If they had a quick meal, he added, the two of them could go to a movie later, and see whatever was playing. Cora agreed, pleased with the idea. Hers was the only husband she knew of who would go see anything with her, who had actually sat through The Sheik without rolling his eyes at Valentino. She was lucky in that way. She was lucky in many ways.
Still, she cleared her throat.
“Alan. Do you know Leonard Brooks?”
She waited for his nod, though she already knew the answer. Alan knew all the other lawyers in town.
“Well,” she said, “his eldest daughter got into a dance school in New York. He and his wife would like a married woman to chaperone her. For the month of July, and some of August.” She rubbed her lips together. “I think I’ll go.”
She glanced at him only brie?y, seeing his surprise, before she turned back to her window. They were already close to home, moving down the tree-lined streets, past their neighbors’ pretty houses and neat lawns. There was much that she would miss while she was away: club meetings and ladies’ teas, the summer picnic in the Flint Hills. She would likely miss the birth of a friend’s fourth child, which was unfortunate, as she was to be the child’s godmother. She would miss her friends, and of course, she would miss Alan. And these familiar streets. But her world would still be here when she returned, and this was her chance to go.
Alan was silent until he pulled in front of the house. When he did speak, his voice was quiet, careful. “When did you decide this?”
“Today.” She took off her glove and touched a ?ngertip to the glass, tracing a raindrop’s path. “Don’t worry. I’ll come back. It’s just a little adventure. It’s like the twins, going to the farm. I’ll be back before they leave for school.”
She looked up at the house, lovely even in the rain, though far too big for them. It was a house built—and bought—for a large family, but given the way things turned out, they’d never used the third ?oor for anything but a playroom, and then for storage. Still, even now that the twins had moved out, neither she nor Alan wanted to sell. They both still loved the quiet neighborhood, and they loved the house, how majestic it looked from the street with its wraparound porch and pointed turret. They reasoned that it would be nice for the twins to be able to come home to a familiar place. They’d kept their rooms as the boys had left them, their beds made, their old books on the shelves, the better to lure them home for summers and holiday breaks.
“New York City?” Alan asked.
“Any reason in particular you want to go there?”
She turned, taking in his warm eyes, his cleft, clean-shaven chin. She had been just a girl when she ?rst saw his face. Nineteen years they had lived together. He knew the particular reason.
“I might do some digging,” she said. “You’re sure that’s for the best?” “I can speak with Della in the morning about coming in earlier,
or staying later. Or both.” She smiled. “If anything, you’ll gain weight.
She’s a far better cook than I am.” “Cora.” He shook his head. “You know that’s not what I’m asking.” She turned away, her hand on the door. That was the end of the
discussion. She’d made up her mind to go, and as they both understood very well, for them, that was all there was to it.
“It’s impossible not to be completely drawn in by The Chaperone. Laura Moriarty has delivered the richest and realest possible heroine in Cora Carlisle, a Wichita housewife who has her mind and heart blown wide open, and steps—with uncommon courage—into the fullness of her life. What a beautiful book. I loved every page.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
“What a charming, mesmerizing, transporting novel! The characters are so fully realized that I felt I was right there alongside them. A beautiful clarity marks both the style and structure of The Chaperone.”—Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab's Wife and Adam & Eve
“The Chaperone is the best kind of historical fiction, transporting you to another time and place, but even more importantly delivering a poignant story about people so real, you'll miss and remember them long after you close the book.”—Jenna Blum, author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers
I don’t feel much nostalgia for the past – I’m a big fan of voting rights, permanent-press clothes, and antibiotics – but I’ve always loved reading historical fiction. I like the way it makes me think about previous generations, and how their lives and worries were very different from mine. I also like the way historical fiction reminds me to think of my own era as simply another moment in time, one that will seem antiquated too someday. Not only did you have to create a whole world and a cast of characters, but you also had to capture the essence of a time you’ve never experienced.
And then, a little over two years ago, I fell in love with the idea for a novel that had to take place, most emphatically, in 1922. I’d already written three novels, but they were all set in places I’d lived, in times I’d experienced. My work drew on scenes I’d witnessed, in settings that I knew and understood. But this was different. This novel had to take place in 1922 because that was the year a bobbed-haired Louise Brooks, soon to become a silent-film star and an icon of her generation, left her hometown of Wichita for New York accompanied by a chaperone. Not much is known about the real chaperone except that she was a thirty-six-year-old housewife of good standing, but I imagined her as my heroine, a complicated woman who would have her own reasons for going to New York. I could imagine her character, and how impossible it would be for her to keep someone like Louise Brooks from impropriety. And I could imagine how the summer might change the chaperone’s life in ways she never anticipated.
But I couldn’t just imagine 1922. Or Louise Brooks. Because both really existed. And I had to get the details right.
Fortunately, I find the 1920s fascinating. It was a decade of rapid change for women, for technology, and social mores. Hemlines were rising, then falling again. Alcohol was both illegal and widely available. I plunged into reading. Documentaries, old photographs, and field trips were helpful, too. I read a 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home. I got my hands on an old tour guide to New York City, complete with subway maps and hotel and restaurant recommendations. I found a B. Altman catalogue for the summer of 1922 – it was full of fawning descriptions of mushroom hats and straw turbans, bathing suits made of wool jersey, whalebone corsets, boudoir caps, and middy suits for children. I went to a train museum. I read Louise’s autobiography and biographies about her. I drove into Kansas City to watch her finest film, Pandora’s Box, up on the big screen at the old Tivoli Theater, and I studied her expressions, the way she moved. I read archived 1922 articles from Ladies’ Home Journal and The New York Times, and I spent a winter afternoon talking with a friend’s mother, now in her eighties, who’d grown up in Wichita. The more I learned, the more I realized how much more I had to learn - but I began see and feel and hear and smell Louise and Cora’s world as vividly as if I’d lived in it myself.
And really, I knew the biggest challenge of writing this novel wouldn’t be getting the details right; it would be getting into the psychology of a woman born in 1886 – to truly understand how she would perceive the world. I didn’t want Cora to be a heroine with modern-day sensibilities trapped in 1922. I wanted her to be a woman of her time, struggling with what she thinks she knows, what she’s been taught, and what she comes to see for herself. At the same time, I didn’t want to think of her as so very different from me. Human emotions – longing, annoyance, jealousy, giddiness, disappointment, hope – are timeless, and stories about the past need not always feel historical.
Before I actually started writing, I drove down to Wichita. Wichita’s elegant Union Station, where Louise and her chaperone boarded the train for New York, was still there. It was boarded up, the doors padlocked, but I walked around it once, then twice, and I swear I could almost see them on the platform, standing together in the hot July sun, waiting for the train. The taller woman wore a pretty hat and long skirt; the girl was bareheaded, her dark hair bobbed. A train whistle blew in the distance. I could imagine the humidity, the squeeze of a corset, the guarded silence between them. I imagined until they were real, until I could feel their excitement, all three of us certain a great adventure lay in store.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the bestselling novels American Wife, Prep, and The Man of My Dreams, which have been translated into twenty–five languages. Here she talks with novelist Laura Moriarty about her experiences writing The Chaperone.
Curtis Sittenfeld: You tell the story of two characters whose trajectories overlap—Louise Brooks before she becomes famous, and quietly complicated housewife Cora Carlisle, who serves as 15–year–old Louise’s chaperone in New York in the fateful summer of 1922. Did you always know they belonged in a book together, or did you decide to write about one of them first?
Laura Moriarty: I always found Louise Brooks interesting. She was an icon of the silent–film era, and I knew she’d grown up in Kansas, and that she was smart and rebellious and sharp–tongued. But it wasn’t until I learned that she’d first gone to New York as a teenager with a 36–year–old chaperone that I saw a story I wanted to write. I’m drawn to intergenerational tension, and it must have been strong in the 1920s: I wondered how Louise’s generation of flappers appeared to the women who came of age at the beginning of the century—wearing corsets, long skirts, and high collars. This older generation of women had campaigned for suffrage and prohibition of alcohol; they must have been bewildered by the very different values and sensibilities of their daughters. I liked the idea of a chaperone, someone thrown into this dynamic all at once.
Curtis Sittenfeld: Were you a fan of Louise Brooks specifically, or of movies from the 1920s and 1930s generally, or were you exploring an art form unfamiliar to you when you started writing this novel?
Laura Moriarty: I wasn’t that familiar with silent films. I didn’t know, for example, how hugely popular silent films were in the 1920s, how people would go to the movies several times a week. While I was writing the book, I went to see Louise Brooks’s most famous film, Pandora’s Box, at the Tivoli in Kansas City, and it was a lovely experience. You can watch old silent films on DVD or even on YouTube, but it was a different feeling watching her up on the big screen, seeing the film the way people saw it all those years ago.
Curtis Sittenfeld: You’ve clearly done a lot of research. What form did your research take? Were there discoveries you made—about Brooks, or the early twentieth century, or Wichita—that particularly captured your imagination? Was there any incredibly juicy details you came across that just didn’t belong in the book?
Laura Moriarty: One of the first things I did, and maybe the most important, was drive down to Wichita and walk around Union Station, where Louise and her chaperone disembarked for New York in 1922. It’s boarded up now, but just seeing the physical place helped me see the story and the journey as real. I read Louise’s autobiography and Barry Paris’s biography of her. I read oral histories of Manhattan in the ’20s, and I read travel guides from that era as well. I spent a lot of time learning about 1920s fashion, not just what flappers were wearing, but what most women were wearing, what men were wearing. Overall I learned a lot of details about 1920s clothes, cars, kitchen appliances, and food. I had a character eating peanut butter in one scene until I learned that peanut butter wasn’t commercially packaged and sold until 1924. But the biggest challenge was probably getting into the psychology of someone living in that era—to know her values, and how she saw the world.
Here’s an interesting bit about Louise that didn’t get in the book: After she became famous, she and some friends were dining in a restaurant in Europe; she was bored, and she spotted a man she’d been friendly with, and she asked the waiter to summon him. The man didn’t come over right away because he was with a woman, and he didn’t want to be rude. When he finally did go over to Louise’s table, apologizing and explaining his delay, she picked up a bouquet of roses and sliced him across the face with it, the thorns actually cutting his skin so his face was dripping blood. This story, to me, says a lot about the dark side of Louise’s personality. Yes, she was beautiful and intelligent, and she could be very funny, but obviously there was a deep insecurity there, a real destructive rage and immaturity. I couldn’t work that scene into the book, but I knew what it told me about Louise, and I thought about it when I was writing her scenes with Cora.
Curtis Sittenfeld: One of your characters was part of the Orphan Train, which placed children with midwestern families (who also happened to be strangers!). Is her experience based on that of anyone real, or is it more of an amalgamation?
Laura Moriarty: The thing that got me about the Orphan Trains was that the experiences were so varied. Some of the kids went from neglect and hunger in New York to loving farm families who couldn’t wait to fatten them up, who gave them medical care, an education, affection. And some of the kids became the victims of terrible cruelty, and more hunger, and more neglect—it all depended on who adopted them off of the train. Because the experiences of the children were so varied, I wouldn’t say this character’s experience is an amalgamation, though she isn’t based on any one real person either. Her story is just what could have happened to a child, and what probably did happen to many of them.
Curtis Sittenfeld: Like Cora, you yourself live in Kansas, and you’ve set earlier fiction there. What do you like about writing and living in a place that’s not considered a literary hotbed? (Admittedly, I ask this as someone who lives in nearby Missouri!)
Laura Moriarty: I love my town, Lawrence, Kansas, so I’m glad I get to live here. I’ve never felt that wanting to write required me to live in New York. There are so many great authors living there, of course, but I can get their books here, or I can read their stories online or in journals. And there’s a great community of writers right here in my town. I teach creative writing at the University of Kansas, and I have creative colleagues and thoughtful graduate students, and I have a writing group I meet with almost every week. I suppose it’s a little humbling to write from Kansas. I know I’m not at the literary center of the universe. But that might not be a bad thing.
Curtis Sittenfeld: I want to ask you a variation of a question I’ve been asked. I wrote a novel, American Wife, that borrowed from the life of a real person—Laura Bush—but I changed her name. You’ve written about a real person—Louise Brooks—and used her real name, but she’s no longer living. Do you feel any moral qualms about portraying a real person saying and doing things that you’ve made up?
Laura Moriarty: I was so excited about this book when I started it that I didn’t have a lot of moral qualms. But the more I read about Louise and the more I wrote about her, the more I started to really care for her, and I did worry about getting her right, portraying her in a way that was accurate. I tried to keep my depiction true to what I learned from her autobiography and biographies about her. It’s impossible to know what she’d think of my portrayal, but I hope she would approve. In any case, I don’t think Louise Brooks ever lost too much sleep over what other people thought of her.
Curtis Sittenfeld: Your descriptions of Cora wearing a corset are incredibly convincing. Did you—for the sake of research, of course—ever try one on yourself?
Laura Moriarty: I don’t think I’ve ever tried on a corset, though a certain bridesmaid’s dress did require a torturous bustier that will stay forever burned in my sensory memory.
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