Masculine Women, Feminine Men

I ran across this article today: In the Early 20th Century, America Was Awash in Incredible Queer Nightlife (Subtitle: Then Prohibition ended, and the closet was born.) It’s an interesting read while also tying in very well to some of the themes I’ve explored in writing my historical romances.

When I started researching Such a Dance, one of the things that struck me was that history doesn’t move in a straight line. I mean, yes, there’s the linear march of time, but progress is more circular. This article outlines things like the drag balls of the 1920s—although drag performance had existed for long before that—and how they were part the mainstream to a degree.

Such A DanceI think we tend to think of gay rights as starting with Stonewall, but the truth is that, prior to World War II, it was possible to be openly LGBT to some extent (even if they wouldn’t have called it that at the time). But, of course, society always reacts to progress in a two steps forward, one step back fashion. So it went with women, too, incidentally; women in the 1920s had unprecedented freedom that was pulled back in the subsequent decades. What was called queer or pansy culture at the time followed a similar pattern. It thrived, and then sodomy laws were beefed up or enforced, pushing a lot of men (and women) into closets, shutting down the speakeasies and clubs where they had been allowed to flourish previously.

I find these patterns fascinating. I see a lot of reader reaction to LGBT historical fiction implying it’s hard for them to buy a happy ending, but happy endings were possible, even in America, prior to the 1930s. There were sham marriages, sure, but there were same-sex partnerships, too. (In Such a Dance, for example, I think the Mob is a greater threat to Lane and Eddie’s continued happiness than anything else. A gay couple in the 1920s could have built a good life for themselves in Greenwich Village or Times Square or Harlem.)

Also, unsubtle plug: Such a Dance is currently 99¢ if you haven’t read it yet but your interest is piqued.

Moonshine Monday: Fashion

moonshinemonday Welcome to Moonshine Mondays! In the lead up to the release of my Jazz Age-set romance Such a Dance on October 27 (TOMORROW!!), I’m rolling out some history, photos, background info and other special features relating to the book.

It’s probably not a secret that I love fashion. Shortly after I moved to NYC, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute held an exhibit of Chanel fashion that I returned to twice because I loved it so much. Chanel has become synonymous with tweedy suits and Karl Lagerfeld, but Coco Chanel came into prominence in the flapper era, and for me, some of her most stunning work was put out in the 1920s.

House of Chanel (French, founded 1913) Evening dress, 1924–26 French, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Edward G. Sparrow, 1969 (2009.300.1345)

House of Chanel (French, founded 1913)
Evening dress, 1924–26
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum

I’ve personally always liked the flapper style. It represented a new period of freedom for women. The invention of the bra meant women could take off their corsets and wear clothing that gave them more freedom of movement. I love Chanel in particular, but Paul Poiret was one of the first designers to play around with looser clothing and the boxier silhouette of the era, and designers like Jeanne Lanvin, Madeline Vionnet, and Callot Soeurs were designing sparkly, elegant dresses and gowns for the fashion-minded flapper. The other interesting thing about fashion of the era is that it began to be copied and mass produced, which made fashion available to middle class women for the first time. Many women shopped in department stores—the Herald Square flagship Macy’s had opened in 1902, for example.

Chanel Evening Gown, 1926, also from the Met collection.

Chanel Evening Gown, 1926, also from the Met collection.

This was a revolutionary time in fashion. Women cut their hair into bobs, skirts were shorter than they’d ever been, silhouettes were radically different. Fashion took a more conservative turn during the Great Depression, meaning flapper fashion was kind of caught in amber, rarely to be revisited. When you see someone dressed like they just walked off the set of a Great Gatsby adaptation, you know exactly where those clothes came from.

Men’s fashion of the 1920s also became a bit more casual, as clothing normally worn to play sports made its way into daily dress. Golf and tennis were particularly influential. Men of the era wore stylized trousers as well, including wide-legged baggy trousers, called Oxford bags, that were all the rage for part of the late 1920s. Fitted jackets and trousers were trendy, too. And, of course, no man of class ever left the house without a hat.

Casual men's fashion of the 1920s

Casual men’s fashion of the 1920s

Fashion plays a role in Such a Dance in that I think clothes have a lot to say about how a person carries himself. Lane is always well-appointed, in sharp suits and a fedora he pulls over his eyes when he needs discretion. Eddie wears modified trousers he can dance in, both on stage and in the club. Eddie’s dance partner Marian indulges in the excesses of fashion; I imagine her wearing Chanel gowns out when she needs to be seen.

I’ve got a ton of Jazz Age fashion compiled on my Jazz Age Pinterest board. Here are some more links if you want more:

More on men’s fashion of the 20s
18 fashion icons from the 20s

And Such a Dance hits shelves tomorrow!!! I can’t wait.

Moonshine Monday: The Ziegfeld Follies

moonshinemonday Welcome to Moonshine Mondays! In the lead up to the release of my Jazz Age-set romance Such a Dance on October 27, I’m rolling out some history, photos, background info and other special features relating to the book.

Broadway impressario Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld most famously brought forth his Follies, a vaudeville variety show inspired by Paris’s Folies Bergère. There were imitators—the closest was George White’s Scandals—but Ziegfeld’s show was the biggest and flashiest.

Ziegfeld and SandowZiegfeld was born in Chicago in the 1860s. His father owned a night club called the Trocadero, and it was here Ziegfeld got his start as a producer, bringing in legendary strong man Eugen Sandow to attract crowds during the World’s Fair in 1893.

Ziegfeld moved to New York and produced the Follies from 1907 until 1931. The Follies featured some of the biggest names in entertainment of the day, including music composed by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Jerome Kern. Stars included W. C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Josephine Baker, Fanny Brice, Bert Williams, Bob Hope, Will Rogers, Ruth Etting, Louise Brooks, Marilyn Miller, and Sophie Tucker, among others. The Follies were also famous for their tableaux of beautiful women, the most elaborately costumed chorines on Broadway.

Ziegfeld New AmsterdamFrom 1913 until 1931, the Follies ran annually at the New Amsterdam Theater, which also hosted the Follies’ sexier sister show, the Midnight Frolic in its rooftop garden. The theater opened in 1903 and was run by producers Klaw and Erlanger, and it still stands on the south side of 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. Along with the Lyceum Theater, it’s the oldest theater currently on Broadway. You may know it as the theater that Disney bought and restored in the 90s, and it has been home to The Lion King, Mary Poppins, and currently Aladdin.

Ziegfeld also opened his eponymous theater on 6th Ave between 54th and 55th Street in 1927. (The current Ziegfeld Theater was built over the old one, which was demolished in 1966. It’s now a movie theater.) The Ziegfeld hosted Show Boat, which Ziegfeld also produced, and this show is widely considered to be the first modern musical.

In Such a Dance, Eddie dances in the Doozies, kind of a low-rent knock off of the Follies. The Doozies are fictional, but the production is based on the many that tried to grasp at Ziegfeld’s success. Ziegfeld was a clever promoter and knew how to put on a good show, though, so no one could compete. There’s a scene in which Eddie auditions for Ziegfeld, even; in my head, Ziegfeld is domineering and difficult to impress, which is how I portrayed him in the book.

For further reading, I highly recommend Ethan Mordden’s biography, called Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business. I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg here; Ziegfeld’s life was tumultuous and fascinating.


Ziegfeld and his Ziegfeld Girls

Moonshine Monday: The Mafia

moonshinemonday Welcome to Moonshine Mondays! In the lead up to the release of my Jazz Age-set romance Such a Dance on October 27, I’m rolling out some history, photos, background info and other special features relating to the book.

Sicilians in New York referred to the mafia as La Cosa Nostra: “our thing.” Here’s a quick and dirty history:

Sicilian and other Italian immigrants were members of the New York gangs that terrorized lower Manhattan around the turn of the century, including the notorious Five Points gang. The mafia, loosely organized, committed extortion and other crimes in Harlem, Little Italy, and Brooklyn until Prohibition. During the 1920s, the Mob in New York was mostly controlled by Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, although his rule was challenged by Sicilian immigrant Salvatore Maranzano, and there was no love lost between them, and an enormous amount of violence was committed on their behalves.

mafia lucky luciano

Lucky Luciano

Masseria’s right-hand man was Charles “Lucky” Luciano, but Luciano’s friend Meyer Lansky was not much loved within the organization, given that he was a Polish Jew and not Sicilian. Still, Luciano, Lansky, and their associates like Frank Costello, Arnold Rothstein (who fixed the 1919 World Series), and Jack “Legs” Diamond expanded mob operations to include not just extortion and gambling but also bootlegging, and organized crime as we now know it was essentially born.

The mafia had a specific structure. Here’s a pretty good explanation.

In Such a Dance, Lane is a member of the fictional Giambino crime family, recently promoted to caporegime, reporting mostly to David Epstein. Epstein is very loosely based on Meyer Lansky, a insider within the ranks of the Mob, but not family. Lane is a made man, meaning he is family, related to the family’s boss via his father, which affords him some protection.

And so it is that, at the beginning of the novel, Epstein offers Lane something incredible: a club catering specifically to men seeking men.

In reality, dance halls and “resorts” for gay men had existed in New York since the late nineteenth century, particularly along the Bowery and in Greenwich Village.

In the novel, Epstein tells Lane that, by opening the Marigold Club, he’s filling a niche, since so many of these places had been raided and shut down in the last decade or two. Epstein isn’t really interested in giving homosexual men a space specifically; he’s an opportunist who sees profit potential.

Indeed, the actual mafia started opening gay clubs in the 1930s purely because, as with bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling, they saw profit in illegal businesses. (Until Stonewall, it was essentially illegal to be gay in New York City, and gay men were routinely arrested for lewd conduct.) So Epstein was just a few years ahead of his time.

The Stonewall Inn was, in fact, opened in 1967 by the mafia. I modeled the Marigold on Stonewall a little; in both instances, the mafia paid off local law enforcement to overlook all the same-sex dancing. In the case of Stonewall, one of the factors in the famous 1969 raid that sparked the riots was that the police were cracking down on mafia activity and not necessarily homosexual activity. There’s more about that here and even more here.

The mafia plays a big role in Such a Dance and had a role in the gay rights movement that shouldn’t be overlooked.

For further reading, David Wallace’s Capital of the World is a great overview of New York City in the 1920s, including a few chapters on the mafia and more information about Luciano and Lansky (as well as information about LGBT subcultures in NYC in the era).

Moonshine Monday: Prohibition

moonshinemonday Welcome to Moonshine Mondays! In the lead up to the release of my Jazz Age-set romance Such a Dance on October 27, I’m rolling out some history, photos, background info and other special features relating to the book.

“…the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”

This is from the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, otherwise known as Prohibition. It went into effect in January of 1920, effectively heralding in the Roaring Twenties.

The reasons Prohibition came about are complicated, and I can’t really do all of them justice in a blog post, but here’s a quick summary: In the late nineteenth century, alcoholism was seen by some as a moral failing, and though alcohol has always been an integral part of American culture, organizations like the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union began campaigning to dry up the United States. In New York City in the 1890s, Theodore Roosevelt, as police commissioner, began to enforce the tremendously unpopular Sunday Laws, which prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays in an effort to clean up crime in the city. But there were other factors contributing to the movement toward Prohibition as well. In part, the movement was xenophobic, a reaction to the immigrant cultures arriving in the U.S. in the latter half of the nineteenth century, primarily cultures in which alcohol played a key part (Irish and German mostly, but Italian and Jewish as well). In part, Prohibition was also an offshoot of the women’s movement. It was common in some pockets of society for a man to go to the local saloon after work, blow half his paycheck on booze, and then go home and beat his wife or otherwise mistreat and neglect his family. Many of the women involved in the suffrage movement took up the cause of temperance as well to prevent this very thing from happening. Some advocates of the suffrage movement got involved in the temperance movement as a kind of compromise position when full suffrage seemed unlikely.

tumblr_nb1szdvBHH1trrbo0o1_500In fact, one of the reasons women were finally granted the vote is that dry politicians counted on women to vote for Prohibition.

In theory, after January 1920, alcohol was no longer available, though there were legal exceptions, among them sacramental wine and alcohol used for medicinal purposes. More to the point, though, the new law, known as the Volstead Act, did not provide for Federal enforcement of Prohibition. Instead, the Federal government was mostly reliant on local governments to enforce the new ban. Prohibition agents were hired, but most of them were poorly trained.

All eyes were on America’s biggest city, New York, as enforcement went into effect. Many of the poorly trained agents accepted bribes to look the other way as speakeasies popped up all over the city. In 1920, half the new agents had to be fired. With so much media attention focused on New York, the city was forced to divert police resources to enforcement, but many of the cops accepted bribes as well. (Hence Officer Hardy in Such a Dance, an old cop who happily accepts bribes not to raid and shut down the Times Square speakeasies.) Ultimately, Prohibition in New York City was a spectacular failure.

The unintended consequence, of course, was the rise of organized crime. Many of the Mob bosses you know from popular culture got their start as part of the gangs running rampant in lower Manhattan around the turn of the century, but trafficking alcohol turned out to be the sort of lucrative business venture that encouraged them to organize. Brooklyn’s own Al Capone made a killing (har har) in Chicago. (I want to talk about the Mob more in a future post, but for now, the relevant piece of information is that Prohibition essentially made the U.S. mafia.)

Drinking actually increased across the country during Prohibition, with speakeasies quickly replacing saloons as nightly gathering spots. Arrests for Volstead Act violations tied up the courts and jails, preventing them from dealing with larger crimes. Mob-related activity and other crime went up in the era. Prohibition was a failure, and an increasingly unpopular one at that. It was repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment.

For further reading, I recommend Daniel Okrent’s excellent book on Prohibition, Last Call.

Moonshine Monday: The Hotel Astor

moonshinemondayWelcome to Moonshine Mondays! In the lead up to the release of my Jazz Age-set romance Such a Dance on October 27, I’m rolling out some history, photos, background info and other special features relating to the book.

Although Such a Dance is populated by a number of fictional locations—Lane’s club, the Marigold; the James Theater where the Eddie dances—I used a number of real locations, too. One of the most notable is the Hotel Astor, which was once a luxury hotel in Times Square, on the block of Broadway between 44th and 45th Streets.

Vintage postcard of the Hotel Astor

Vintage postcard of the Hotel Astor

In the novel, the hotel’s proximity to Lane’s speakeasy on 46th Street is important, but I included the hotel in the book specifically because of the Astor’s notorious hotel bar. Starting in the 1910s, it became a meeting place for homosexual men. It wasn’t subtle, either; an entire section of the bar was set aside for gay men, and they were welcomed as long as they were discreet (for the time). It was part of the thriving gay culture in Times Square in the era, a logical evolution perhaps from the music halls and dive bars for men seeking men that cropped up in the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village in the late 19th Century—gay culture essentially followed the Theater District uptown. By the 1920s, both gay culture and theater are thriving in Times Square, and though the Marigold is fictional, clubs like it existed at the time. (More on this in a future post, but for now I’ll say that a straight line can be drawn from the Bowery music halls of the 1890s to Stonewall, with some points along the way you might not expect.)

Anyway, with this history in mind, I set a pivotal scene in the book at the Astor. For more, here are some exterior photos. And here are more photos, mostly interiors.

The hotel was torn down in the late 60s and today, the block is dominated by a monolithic office tower that is home to MTV studios and the Minskoff Theater (currently home of The Lion King). (Wikipedia.) Next time you’re in NYC and walking through Times Square, imagine a previous era when this block was dominated by one of the most luxurious hotels in the city, and think about who might have been meeting each other at the hotel bar.

Moonshine Monday: NYC Then and Now

moonshinemondayWelcome to Moonshine Mondays! In the lead up to the release of my Jazz Age-set romance Such a Dance on October 27, I’m going to start rolling out some history, photos, background info and other special features relating to the book.

New York has changed quite a bit in the 90 years that have passed since the book takes place. Such a Dance takes place almost entirely within a few blocks of Times Square. We’ll get into some of the specific locations from the book in the coming weeks, but first, I thought I’d set the scene by sharing some photos showing how NYC used to be.

Consider this: in 1927, there was no Empire State Building. There was no Rockefeller Center, no Chrysler Building, no Lincoln Center. There were still elevated trains running down major arteries in Manhattan and whole subway lines that hadn’t been built yet. It’s Prohibition, but though it was illegal to sell “intoxicating beverages,” liquor flowed freely in speakeasies all over the city. It was a seminal year for Broadway as well, with more shows opening that year than any year before or since. Vaudeville was on its way out and Broadway as we know it today, with shows like Showboat opening that year, was taking shape.


Here are some links to posts with photos of Jazz Age New York:

Spotlight on Broadway: The Great White Way—Some fantastic photos of old Times Square

Then vs. Now: 1920s New York—Photos showing NYC in the 1920s and now

Stock footage showing NYC in 1927

I also have a Pinterest board showing NYC in the 1920s.

Tune in next Monday for more!