When silent film star Louise Brooks was just fifteen, she left her hometown of Wichita to attend a summer program at Denishawn, an acclaimed dance school in New York City. Laura Moriarty’s “The Chaperone” explores what happens that fateful summer when Louise’s future as a star began, telling the story through the eyes of Ms. Brooks’s chaperone.
Louise’s absentee mother asks Cora Carlisle, a 36-year-old housewife, to accompany the budding starlet on the cross-country journey. Cora jumps at the opportunity to leave Kansas and her empty nest to visit the Big Apple, but there are deeper reasons for Cora’s desire to go on the trip, and eventually what she learns about her past will change her life forever.
The novel continues long after Cora and Louise’s time in New York, following Cora and her family through the roaring twenties, the Great Depression, WWII and many other changes.
Moriarty took the time to discuss researching the scandalous film star, summer reads and which character she’d rather take on vacation.
KC: What gave you the idea to write a book about Louise Brooks and her chaperone?
LM: I was browsing in a bookstore when I came across a nonfiction book called Flapper by Joshua Zeitz. After a fascinating introduction, the book is divided into chapters devoted to famous flappers: Zelda Fitzgerald, Clara Bow, etc. I was pretty hooked by the time I got to the chapter on Louise Brooks. Zeitz wrote that out of all the flappers, she was the most rebellious. She was smart, cultured, talented, self-destructive, funny, and also not always very nice. She was incredibly beautiful, of course, and she was born in Kansas. She grew up not far from where I live now. When she was fifteen, in the summer of 1922, she left Wichita to spend the summer in New York City in the company of a chaperone, a thirty-six-year-old housewife who was not her mother. There’s little to nothing written about this chaperone – at the end of the summer, she went home to Wichita while Louise catapulted to fame – and that gave me the opportunity to invent a character and tell the story about two very different women in a new environment at a really interesting moment in history.
KC: How long did it take you to research and write “The Chaperone?”
LM: I had to do it all pretty quickly – I teach at the University of Kansas, and I had time off to really devote myself to research and write this book, but it was a limited time. I had the first draft done in a year, but I was researching obsessively the whole time. There were books all over the house – books on Louise, books on the 20s, books on the orphan trains, books on early cars – they were in every room, taking over. I watched silent films, sometimes at home, sometimes up on a big screen at an old theater in Kansas City. I studied old clothing catalogs and an old tourist guide to New York. And I drove down to Wichita and walked around the old Union Station, where Louise and her chaperone really did wait for their train to New York back in 1922.
KC: Is Cora’s story entirely fictional, or based on Louise’s actual chaperone for that first trip to New York?
LM: Everything about Louise is true – based on information from her memoirs or her biographies. But everything about Cora is invented. Louise’s chaperone’s name was really named Alice Mills. There wasn’t much written about Alice Mills – she lived an anonymous life. In Louise’s memoirs, she only writes, “I tolerated Mrs. Mills’ provincialism because we shared a love of theater.” But honestly, I didn’t go looking for more information on the real chaperone, and if I would have discovered more, I probably would have ignored it. I liked the assignment I gave myself – sticking to the facts of Louise’s life but completely inventing this other person, who would be the actual heroine. I wanted the freedom of an imagined chaperone, and I knew I would feel more comfortable doing that if I changed her name, so Alice Mills became Cora Carlisle.
KC: What was the most difficult scene in the book to write?
LM: You’d think it would be the scenes involving the most research, but actually, the scenes involving romantic love were the most difficult to write. It’s a nearly universal experience, and a woman of 1922 could of course feel the same lust and draw and fascination that a woman today would, so you wouldn’t think it would be so tough. But it’s the very cliché of the experience that makes it a dangerous territory for a writer – when you’re falling in love, your heart really does pound, and you really do notice every detail of the beloved’s eyes, and you really might feel scattered and changed or completely humbled in that person’s presence. A writer needs to convey all that without letting the prose get saccharine, or, well, cliché.
I saw an interview with a screenwriter once – I forget who it was, but he’d written a love story that felt true and right to him but that someone else might criticize as being too romantic – in the interview, he said something to the effect of how somewhat implausible, bizarre storylines are acceptable ways to affect a character and that’s called ‘realistic’ in fiction, but in actual real life, probably a million people fall in love everyday somewhere on the planet, and some of that falling is life-changing and important to the lovers – it affects them profoundly, and it seems important to try to write about it. I’d written three novels before I wrote The Chaperone, and I’d never tried to write about a character falling in love with someone who loved her back. But I agree with that screenwriter completely. The task for a writer, it seems, is to acknowledge the power of that not-so-rare experience while making it seem true and specific to the characters.
KC: Cora never tells Louise the real reason why she wants to go to New York. Do you think Louise would have looked at her differently if she’d told?
LM: I don’t think so. Louise is all momentum at that age – she’s caught up in her own story, her own arc. Some of this is because of her age, and some of this is because, well, she’s Louise Brooks. She’s deadly smart and she’s talented, and of course she’s so beautiful, but she’s also full of herself. She wouldn’t have had much room for a more complex view of Cora, even if she’d been given more information. Cora senses this, and doesn’t bother to tell her.
KC: The orphan trains are something that many Americans probably don’t know about. What surprised you the most when you researched this aspect of the book?
LM: When I first learned about it, I was just stunned that this happened to over 200,000 kids in our country. I was also moved by its lottery aspect – some of the survivors had such happy stories about being adopted into loving homes, and others had horrible tales of abuse, near starvation, and isolation. And it all just depended on luck – who happened to walk up to you at a particular train stop. Your fate would be completely decided in a moment, and you would have no control. The trains had an impact on the population here – when I give a reading in Kansas, there’s almost always someone in the audience who is descended from or at least remembers someone who came in on the trains.
KC: Decades later, Cora still seems to feel an attachment for Louise, even defending her to other people in town, despite the fact they haven’t spoken since she left New York. Why do you think this is?
LM: She got to know Louise as a human being. A lot of people in Wichita were somewhat satisfied to see Louise fall after she’d climbed so high – she and her mother were pretty snobbish, and really, it’s hard not to imagine any community not gossiping with glee over that kind of downfall of someone so beautiful and arrogant. But Cora had spent so much time with her, and Louise’s suffering is real to her. Cora is a bit provincial, as Louise said of her real chaperone, but Cora is also compassionate and thoughtful, and I think she’s grateful to Louise for making her less provincial. She’s also a loyal person.
KC: Who would you rather go on vacation with: Cora or Louise?
LM: That’s a tough one. People think they’d want to hang out with Louise, but she could be pretty harsh – also, you’d probably end up holding her coat or her drink while she danced. She could be moody and demanding and full of scorn. That would get old pretty quickly. But you’d probably learn something from her, as Cora did. I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere fun with Cora in 1922, but later on, when she’s older and wiser, I think she’d be the best traveling companion ever.
KC: What’s on your summer reading list this year?
LM: I just finished The Woman Upstairs by Clair Messud, and it was amazing. I’m just reeling from it. I’m listening to Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and I love that – she’s definitely one of my favorite writers. I’ve also started reading a few novels that I haven’t been compelled to finish, and that’s always instructive for a writer – to consider what it is that makes her not so interested in seeing a story though.
KC: What’s up next for you?
LM: I’m not sure yet. I’ve been researching a slightly different time period, but I’m still just thinking about people and their stories.