Researching the historical climate circa 1927 leads me down one road and then another; it’s a fun way to get lost. Trying to conceive original characters depends upon a vision and then allowing the characters the flexibility to form themselves out of the mental “mud” you are spinning.
Thanks, Barbara Stanwyck and the Ziegfeld girls for providing me clues about a lifestyle for a principal character, Sally, in my second novel, Inside the Gold Plated Pistol. Are you curious how facts and fiction blend together to create the historical climate? Excellent.
My character Sally wants to be a performer especially in films. Vaudeville acts, traveling dance troupes, nightclub dancers and the high-class Ziegfeld Follies were ingredients in the Jazz Age across America. Though the Wild West was technically dead in 1927, no one told the 15,000 residents of Jerome, AZ. Copper miners, cowboys, Indians, dance-hall girls, and prostitutes fused with the best technology of the age and imitated urban entertainment like the New York City Ziegfeld dancers. While looking around in the New York Library public archives, I learned Billy Burke, the Good Witch of the North, was married to Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932). Several silent-era actors and actresses transitioned from the chorus line made famous on Broadway by Ziegfeld from 1907-1931. This is where Barbara Stanwyck comes in. You can read all about her life here:
Orphaned at four and a frequent run-away from foster homes, she and her brother were raised by her sister Mildred who was a dancer and not much more than a child herself. Barbara Stanwyck became a Ziegfeld dancer at fourteen and that led her to pictures and whose sixty-year career and 80-plus films in Hollywood made her a film legend. Imagining Barbara Stanwyck as the driven girl who possessed grit, sex-appeal, and survival instincts are traits I have placed into my fictional character, Sally. I speculate how young Barbara Stanwyck might have reacted when I send off Sally on her adventures in Jerome.
The pictures taken by Ziegfeld portrait photographer, Alfred Cheney Johnston, are exquisite. They reveal volumes about the costumes and personalities of the dancers within a male-dominated culture. They were human dolls to fantasize about and lust after in the name of beauty and art. The nude shots were artistic and beautiful, but I can’t help wonder if the girls liked the posing or if they felt they had to further their career or as a way to put food on the table. Sex appeal has been a central part of the success of a performer. This is fuel for plot development and character building for Sally. How will Sally react to exploitation?
The stories behind individual Ziegfeld girls deserve more attention. In addition to Billy Burke, there’s Canadian Mona Parsons who saved allies in WWII from the clutches of Nazis, and Pearl White, Barbara Stanwyck’s silent-film idol. Mona will become the source of inspiration for a different character in Inside the Gold Plated Pistol. Here’s an article I read about Mona Parsons:
What Ziegfeld stories do you know about? Do you have a favorite?