Hollywood is all about illusion, about redefining and re-imagining oneself. For young Elsa Emerson, Hollywood isn't just about the power of illusion but about the possibility of escape, too. The youngest of three sisters, when Elsa finally takes to the stage at her parent's Cherry County Playhouse in Wisconsin, she blossoms under the sound of applause, "the most beautiful song she had ever heard." Maybe if her much loved sister Hildy had lived to be a star, Elsa would never have left Wisconsin. But from the start Elsa has to play a game of pretend. Either she can tell the truth about the tragedy of Hildy and make everyone uncomfortable and awkward or she can pretend everything is okay. Elsa sets a precedent and ever after her life continues on the same trajectory. She chooses to please those around her.
"For Elsa, there was no other option after that moment--she saw her future as clearly as she saw the water of Green Bay. Even if she wasn't happy on the inside, the outside could be something else entirely. There was always another character to play."
And so begins Elsa Emerson's rise to stardom. Maybe in part to please herself, to feel that thrill of the applause but more to make up for what Hildy wasn't able to accomplish in her short life does she set her sights on Hollywood. Hildy was the most beautiful girl in Door County and dreamt of a life of fame. From May to September the Emerson's barn played host to summer theatre drawing both young actors from the East Coast and tourists from near and far. Elsa's mother sewed the costumes, her father directed the plays and acted in them, and Elsa's older sisters took on roles showing such promise until the lure of other summer jobs distracted them. At only nine Elsa was happy to do anything to help until she finally has her moment in front of the audience and then never looks back again.
When at barely seventeen she falls for a fellow actor from Florida she doesn't think twice about marrying and going with him to California. But is it love for Gordon Pitts or the draw of that unknown future and the many possibilities it holds for her? It's 1938 and when the first baby comes quickly Gordon is happy to let Elsa stay at home to care for their daughter despite their shared acting plans. When the second baby is announced Elsa wonders if Gordon ever really shared her dream, or did he rather prefer to follow his own and leave her at home. While he hob knobs with other actors, takes on movie roles and escapes the drudgery of domesticity Elsa is left to stare out the window imagining some other life.
A chance meeting between Elsa and one of the executives from Gordon's movie studio is the birth of Laura Lamont. A pregnant Elsa catches Irving Green's eye at a party. He tells her to find him when she is slim again and he'll turn her into a star. True to his word, Elsa becomes Laura, and in the talented hands of Irving she is molded into a star. And just as you would expect of a Hollywood story, fortune and happiness follow, though how much is true and how much is illusion? And how ephemeral is it all?
"How had Gordon made it through unscathed, with a name like Pitts? Maybe it was different for men, who could be any number of things: lumpy, foreign, scarred. Women had only two speeds at Gardner Brothers: beautiful and serious or beautiful and funny."
Laura must redefine herself, change her looks, play a part. Elsa was a pale blonde from Wisconsin, but Laura is a brunette, the elegant wife of Irving Green, a serious actress with an Oscar on the mantel top prove it. She meets with much success but always at a price. How many young people can enter the great machine that is Hollywood and come out happy and unscathed and without having not compromised themselves in some way.
Emma Straub's Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures is a glimpse at the golden age of Hollywood with all its shine and appeal, but for me it was more the story of how one woman chose to recreate herself, and maybe not always for the right reasons that I found so engaging. Although I shouldn't be surprised, it was quite melancholic. I might have titled this post 'scenes from a life' since the story follows Elsa/Laura through her youth, meteoric rise as a star and the onwards through the decades. When it comes to Hollywood, the public is nothing if not fickle. Wasn't it Andy Warhol who said everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame? Laura ends up with more than most when it comes to those moments, but Straub isn't telling a fluffy, gossipy sort of tale. It's everything else that defines Laura, and it's those other moments when Straub focuses, however subtly, on issues of identity, women's roles inside and out of the home, the need to please and how one goes about shaping their life to find happiness that the story really shines.
"Laura could remember the need to leave Door County, and the desire to see herself on the screen. Rather, she remembered Elsa's need for those things. Elsa Emerson: she's been so quick to throw it all away, to swim inside a new body and a new name. It was true that she had always loved to act, loved to pretend, but it was Hildy whose face should have been on the screen, her cheekbones projected, her beauty marks copied. It had always been for Laura's sister, this slipshod career. Elsa had done everything for Hildy, until Elsa got so lost inside the machinery that she could no longer speak."
Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures recently came out in paperback. I'm not entirely sure what I think of the choice of cover art for the paper edition (the second cover on the left). For me the glamour of the photo on the cloth edition seems to capture what I imagine Laura Lamont might look like and the feel of the story with all its elegance, sophisticaion and glamour (though maybe not the color scheme).
Many thanks to Melissa at Penguin for sending this my way. It had been on my list of books to read, but I was happy for the gentle nudge to get to it sooner than later. A good readalike if this appeals would be Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone, another story of one woman's life through the decades of the twentieth century.