Wednesday, April 20, 2016

LIZ SMITH: "Lilac Girls" Blooms

Who's the greatest star? Maureen O' Hara definitely gets some votes.
by Liz Smith

"Lilac Girls" Blooms as One of The Best Reads of The Year ... Our Readers Chime In: Who WAS The Greatest Star? 

"HE PULLED me close, and for the first time in so long, I felt the compact go click."

That is the last line in Martha Hall Kelly's remarkable and compelling new novel, "Lilac Girls." If you have made it to the end of this tale without stopping to ponder your inexplicable tears, or perhaps a forgotten sense of moral outrage, this denouement will put you on the floor.

Click to order Lilac Girls: A Novel.
The click of a woman's compact can indicate a variety of things. It can be a dismissive click — this conversation is over! It can be purely vain — I look perfect. But within the context of "Lilac Girls" the compact click, which becomes something of a motif, the click indicates a woman in love, sure of herself but not over-proud, madly besotted, comforted, at peace. (The author herself dedicates "Lilac Girls": "To my husband, Michael, who still makes my compact go click.")

This book, which is fictionalized fact, tells of three women, beginning in 1939, on through the late 1950's. Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite and ex-actress looking for more than the pleasant superficialities that her position offers ... Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager who ends up in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, and Herta Oberheuser, a young doctor who wants a career in medicine, but ends up being a "good German," and does exactly — down to the last horrible detail — what the Third Reich wishes her to do.

All three were real women. Author Martha Hall Kelly has read their correspondence, poured over transcripts of the Nuremberg trials, and interviewed other survivors of Ravensbruck. With these materials she fashioned an emotionally compelling story that brings these three women together, in body and spirit.
Kasia, the Polish main character in Lilac Girls, grows up in Lublin Poland, as many of the women who were arrested in the underground and sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp did. Here is a map (by Holly Hollon) of her world as seen in the book.
The tale of Poland's Kasia (and her tormentor Herta) is itself, a stand-alone work — so profound, human, heartbreaking and powerful that the book has to be placed aside occasionally. But — in my case, at least — I couldn't put it aside for long. I had to go on.

The author imbues all her women with souls we can recognize on some level; it is lyric, but accessible writing of the highest quality. And it's a first novel, too!
Caroline Ferriday in her acting days.
If I had one misgiving, it would be the author's decision to give Caroline Ferriday a dashing French love interest, who occupies her for a good deal of the novel. The real-life Caroline was an extraordinary woman, powerfully motivated to "do something" with her life. She never married. But her legacy is heroic. I understand Martha Hall Kelly's reason for "opening up" Caroline's life, for the purposes of fiction, but somehow this is the one aspect of the novel, although still beautifully written, that doesn't quite add up. The on and off, off and on of Caroline and her handsome Paul Rodierre, is maddening and somehow diminishes Caroline for a good deal of the novel — in my opinion.
Martha Hall Kelly.
If "Lilac Girls" is optioned for the movies, and I have a feeling it probably already has been, and the author has any say in the screenplay, she might leave M. Rodierre out. Kasia's long arduous love story is enough. Not every heroine needs a man to pine over. (Caroline's incredible work with the Ravensbruck women is passion enough, for one life!)

That very minor cavil aside, "Lilac Girls" is one the best reads of 2016, and most who come to it will probably love Paul. Their compacts will click!
A photo of the some of the women Martha writes about, in later, happier times.
AS Martha Hall Kelly does in her Author's Note, I urge all who read "Lilac Girls" to dig further and look at the real lives of the women around whom she has fashioned such artful fiction. It did happen. It is still happening in places and to people we don't  think we should care about.  It can happen again — in places and to people we DO care about. Be alert. Never depend on "civilization" or become over-electrified, falsely stimulated, by the cult of personality.
MY invaluable, longtime aide, Mary Jo McDonough, solved the mystery of the residual checks we've been getting for years, which were for my work in something called "Hot Dog Stand."

Turns out these remunerations arrive for a short-lived 1998 TV series called "V.I.P." in which I made a blink-and-you'll-miss-me appearance. The episode is titled "Beats Working at a Hot Dog Stand." "V.I.P." was about a woman named Vallery Irons, who accidentally saves the life of a celebrity, and is then hired to be a bodyguard for an agency that solves crimes.
Liz's blink-and-you'll-miss-her appearance in "Hot Dog Stand."
Pamela Anderson played Vallery Irons. I played myself. Bryan Cranston was in it too.

And no, I don't remember doing this, nor do I remember Bryan at the time, although he became really big in a little show called "Breaking Bad" — and he became a charming friend, as well.
Pamela Anderson as Vallery Irons in "V.I.P."
I wonder if Bryan is receiving the same checks for "Hot Dog Stand?" My latest one was for the whopping sum of ... 96 cents. But don't get me wrong, I love show business.
Bryan Cranston as Colt Arrow.
MAIL! It's still pouring in about Barbra Streisand's coming movie remake of "Gypsy."

Reader Dennis Gallagher opines: "It's got to be Barbra Streisand as Rose (who else really?) ... Lady Gaga as Louise/Gypsy ... Bill Murray as Herbie ... Taylor Swift as June ... Patti LuPone as Mazeppa ... Andrew Rannells as Tulsa ... Bernadette Peters as Tessie Tura ... Amanda Lepore as Miss Electra and Stephen Sondheim as Grandpa." (Composer Sondheim, really? Mr. Gallagher must be kidding.)

He also suggests David LaChapelle as director. Mr. LaChapelle is best known for directing and producing music videos. He did direct 2005's dance movie, "Rize" which came and went all but unnoticed.

Barry Levinson is supposedly on board to direct Barbra, but as I've said, while I hope it happens — I hope Barbra can will it to happen — until the first day of filming, until the first bump-and-grind, this is still "in talks."
Barbara Stanwyck "could do anything."
ALSO RECEIVING a lot of response to our query "Who's the greatest star?" My wonderful friend, the legendary ad man Peter Rogers wrote: "Today's column was fab. Barbara Stanwyck gets my vote. She could do anything."

Laurie Scholl: "Easy choice for me — Elizabeth Taylor. All the women you mentioned brought something special to the table, but Taylor brought it all."

David Cuthbert gives the top spot to Lana Turner: "Lana Turner WAS Hollywood. THE most legendary discovery ... THE most notorious scandal. And in-between came more good-to-great movie appearances than most of the MGM girls." (I have to say, Lana was much underrated because of her glamour and party-girl image. Not to mention that grisly scandal. Also, Lana loved being Lana! More than most any of the others, she inhabited her image, joyfully. Turner also had the most exquisite posture of all the ladies.)

And Vicky Scheiderer volunteers Maureen O' Hara, but adds: "Why choose one? How fortunate we are to have so many to consider. Let's celebrate that!"

I've said it before, I'll say it again — I love my intelligent, involved and passionate readers.
Lana loved being Lana!

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.