Progress Is Not Straight Lines: On Happy Endings in Diverse Historical Romance

At RT, I was on a panel about historical romance set in America. One thing that came up from the authors who write romances with characters who aren’t white is that readers often react with, “I don’t believe these people could have a happy ending.” As someone who has written LGBT characters in historical romance, I’ve gotten this quite a bit, too.

I think we as Americans struggle with our own history, because we know the bad stuff (or think we do). I think that’s one of the reasons there are so few American-set romances right now. And while I do agree that one can’t set a book during the Civil War, say, and not address slavery, I don’t agree that it would be impossible for two African American people to find a happy ending during this era.

I think this idea that POC or LGBT people couldn’t have had happy endings comes from two misperceptions. The first is that, unless you were straight and white, everything has always been terrible. This contributes to the other misperception: that progress only ever moves forward, in straight lines.

The reality is that progress is circular, or it’s two steps forward and one step back. For example, African Americans made tremendous strides in the immediate wake of the Civil War that were undone by the abrupt end to Reconstruction and the creation of Jim Crow laws. But even before that, free men and women were activists and writers, held jobs from which they drew salaries, owned businesses.

Or, in the 1920s, women gained the right to vote. The invention of the bra meant they took off their corsets, which literally allowed more freedom of movement. They were allowed to patronize bars for the first time, to drink and smoke in public. Women got jobs they’d never had before. And a lot of that progress was undone by World War II and a return to traditional gender roles in the 1950s. The women’s movement didn’t begin in the 1960s, or even with Susan B. Anthony in the 1870s. Sojourner Truth, herself born a slave, gave her landmark “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech in 1851. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in England 1792, and she drew from the same philosophical writings that Jefferson did when writing the Declaration of Independence.

Every time a group makes progress, there is always pushback. And how we think about history is colored by how we’re taught it and who wrote it. (American history was written by white men, mostly, and the textbooks we all read in school are manipulated to tell a certain narrative. See also Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me.)

Our idea of romance is relatively modern; marriage for love rather than as a business or practical transaction is fairly new, although love as an emotion has existed for centuries, obviously. But I think if we can be moved by a story of love between, I dunno, a rakish veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and a shy bluestocking, in an era when most women married for financial security, we can also believe in a love story between two men or a man and a woman who aren’t white. And people have always defied the odds to find happiness. As humans, we thrive on hope, on the idea that everything will work out. Rebellions and political movements are built on the hope that we can change the world, are they not?

Newlywed couple, ca. 1900

So when a reader says, “I don’t believe two African Americans could have had a happy ending in antebellum America,” I find that problematic. For one thing, some states abolished slavery well before the Civil War. (Slavery was gradually emancipated in New York beginning in the 1790s and ultimately ended in 1827, for example.) This doesn’t mean African Americans didn’t face racism and adversity—they definitely did and still do—but there were places they could settle, make good marriages, have children. (“We’re all here, aren’t we?” is how Beverly Jenkins responded to this question on my RT panel.)

Or, take LGBT people. I had someone tell me once that LGBT people didn’t exist before the mid-20th century, which is of course completely false. LGBT people have existed as long as people have. To give a small example, performing in drag is hardly a new phenomenon. Female impersonators have been dancing on stages in New York City since at least the early 19th century, if not earlier. While it is true, even, that LGBT identities as we now think of them are relatively new—”homosexuality” was coined as a term in the 1880s around the same time scientists became interested in same-sex attraction—homosexual relationships are recorded in history going back millennia.

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle

I’ve had readers tell me, “I don’t like gay historicals because I don’t believe a gay couple could have had a happy ending in the past.” We assume that life for gay people was terrible and oppressive for all time. And, sure, it was not always easy. In London in the 1830s, for example, more men were hanged on sodomy charges than murder charges. Laws in New York City made it illegal to be gay and drink at a bar until the Stonewall riots. Sodomy laws remained on the books throughout the country into my lifetime.

But! From the late 19th century until about World War II, there were thriving gay communities in New York City, particularly in Greenwich Village, Times Square, and Harlem. (Other cities, too, but I’ve been primarily researching NYC.) The Hotel Astor in Times Square had a gay section of its famous bar during Prohibition, in fact, a little area that was roped off where men seeking men could find each other. (And drink “coffee,” because Prohibition.) There have been gay bars in New York for 200 years, even. By the 1880s, there were dance halls where men were encouraged to play around with gender, and patrons donned makeup and gowns. (And LGBT people were always creating art and new ways to express themselves. The companion book to the Museum of the City of New York’s Gay Gotham exhibit lays this out nicely.)

(I don’t mean to exclude the women, but society generally didn’t consider women to have sex drives, so it wouldn’t have occurred to many people in the 19th century that the two women sharing a house down the road were, in fact, carrying on a sexual relationship. Lesbians have also existed since the beginning of time, but flew under the radar to a certain extent. Men who had sex with men and anyone who was gender non-conforming were more frequently prosecuted.)

(And this is really all tip of the iceberg; I’m not being comprehensive here, just trying to make a point. For example, some Native American tribes had completely different ideas about gender. How amazing would it be to see an Own Voices narrative about that? And other groups have historically faced oppression in the US, everyone from the Irish to the Chinese to Eastern European Jews, and they should have happy endings in romance novels, too.)

But this is what I mean by circular history. George Chauncey, in his fantastic book Gay New York, argues that acceptance for LGBT people was more widespread prior to World War II than after, that what we think we know about how people have been treated historically is short-sighted or incorrect. The progress of LGBT people has not been a straight line, but rather a push-pull of circular progress over the last several centuries. Same for people of color.

The bottom line is that readers who struggle to accept happy endings in historicals for people of color or LGBT people could take a closer look at history, or could reexamine their own assumptions, particularly since so few readers think much of the proliferation of dukes in historical romance (particularly those who end up marrying governesses or maids). More to the point, if romance is the literature of hope, please believe that there was always hope.

(And none of this is to knock British historicals. My love of them is well-documented. But I’d love to see a lot of new American historicals, too, and I think it’s possible to write these well and still incorporate concerns about American history. I am a history buff who loves historical romance, and I’d like to see these integrated!)

But plausibility issues aside, if we can embrace stories about women owning businesses in Regency England or time-traveling Vikings or what have you, why can’t we believe all people could have happy endings in historical fiction? Is there an underlying belief that only some kinds of people could have (or are deserving of) happy endings? At the end of the day, a good story is a good story, so if we can buy werewolves and vampires, why not POC or LGBT people falling in love in the past?

Because I believe Hank and Nicky from Ten Days in August and Eddie and Lane from Such a Dance lived happily ever after—that Charles and Isaac from “Rebels at Heart” retired to their little farm in Pennsylvania to spend the rest of their days together—and I hope you do, too.

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.

one hero to rule them all…

Or something like that. I’m participating in Kensington’s Hero vs. Hero contest, a March Madness-style bracket of doom wherein the heroes from a number of Kensington books duke it out for heroic supremacy. Lane Carillo from Such a Dance is the nightclub owner, and maybe he’s not the brawniest, but he’s a mobster, so you know he’s got some tricks up his sleeve. You can vote at the abovelinked Kensington tumblr account, and you should. Early and often as Lane’s colleagues might say. Here’s his info:

FACEKate-McMurrayTEXTKate-McMurray

Our first fight is against a gambler named Damian from a Mary Jo Putney book. STIFF COMPETITION! Go vote and help Lane win! You have until midnight on 3/17!

In Case You Missed It…

I didn’t really do an organized book tour for Such a Dance, but I was all over the place this week, so here’s what you may have missed:

Let’s do non-Such a Dance related stuff first.

I wrote a flash fic for Halloween. Ghosts at a smallpox hospital, and yet it’s still more cute than scary.

Across the East River Bridge just went out of print, but I’m hard at work getting the second edition ready. Which isn’t a thing I said on the Internet this week, but I thought you should know!

I did a Friday Fun Five for Halloween on Elle Brownlee’s blog with Lyla Bellatas, Alyssa Cole, Poppy Dennison, and Elle.

And now, Such a Dance things you may have missed:

I took over the Kensington Books tumblr on Monday and Tuesday and posted some exclusive content. Highlights: Jazz Age slang, the Jazz Age playlist, and fun facts about 1927.

Postcard for the Cotton & France show, part of Jimmy Blanchard's Doozies (from SUCH A DANCE)

Postcard for the Cotton & France show, part of Jimmy Blanchard’s Doozies (from SUCH A DANCE)

I wrote a guest post for Ever After on what it was like to be gay in the 1920s.

In preparation for the Coastal Magic Convention next year, I wrote a flash fic featuring Eddie and Lane, in which I go with them to Coney Island. For reasons.

Such a Dance is now available!!

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Dance, everyone! Such a Dance is now available for purchase!

Such A Dance When a vaudeville dancer meets a sexy mobster in a speakeasy for men, the sparks fly, the gin flows, the jazz sizzles—and the heat is on…

New York City, 1927.

Eddie Cotton is a talented song-and-dance man with a sassy sidekick, a crowd-pleasing act, and a promising future on Broadway. What he doesn’t have is someone to love. Being gay in an era of prohibition and police raids, Eddie doesn’t have many opportunities to meet men like himself—until he discovers a hot new jazz club for gentlemen of a certain bent…and sets eyes on the most seductive, and dangerous, man he’s ever seen.

Lane Carillo is a handsome young Sicilian who looks like Valentino—and works for the Mob. He’s never hidden his sexuality from his boss, which is why he was chosen to run a private night club for men. When Lane spots Eddie at the bar, it’s lust at first sight. Soon, the unlikely pair are falling hard and fast—in love. But when their whirlwind romance starts raising eyebrows all across town, Lane and Eddie have to decide if their relationship is doomed…or something special worth fighting for.

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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) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/156050

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

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

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).