Were the 1950s “the Good Old Days”? The Great Pretenders by Laura Kalpakian
A historical novel’s appeal lies largely in how it brings to life a time that’s past and one about which we perhaps know very little. When I began reading The Great Pretenders (Berkley, 2019), I realized I knew next to nothing about Hollywood in the 1950s, despite having watched numerous films produced during that period. And while I’ve learned about the McCarthy era and the racism that led to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States through other reading, I didn’t appreciate how these struggles influenced the movie industry.
Author Laura Kalpakian tells how she became much more aware of the Hollywood blacklist era after watching renowned director Elia Kazan receive a special award at the 1999 Academy Awards. Kazan’s honour angered many viewers because he had once testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and disclosed names of former comrades in the Communist Party, which altered their lives forever.
I asked her how she went from that moment to creating this novel.
“That was a long time ago, but the image certainly stayed with me, the uproar within the starry gathering, and more vocally, out on the street,” she said. “I had read Victor Navasky’s Naming Names (to my mind, still the best overall book on the subject) and returned to it; this time, though, I was moved as well as shocked to read the stories he tells in those pages.
“The creation of The Great Pretenders began with conversations I had with an editor who was interested in novels about women in media. I was reminded of a minor character in a book I had published in England (Three Strange Angels, Buried River Press, 2015). This character became an agent in Hollywood in the 1950s; that’s basically all I had said of her, but she intrigued me. I kept wondering: what would her life have been like in the perilous era of the blacklist.”
As the granddaughter of a film studio mogul, Roxanne Granville’s life should have been problem-free. As Kalpakian puts it: “She comes to the page trailing her glamorous youth and childhood, her connections to Cyrano de Bergerac, her headstrong ways, her confidence undermined by the stain on her cheek. She is sassy and occasionally shallow, but she grows into maturity and bravery.”
Instead of opting for marriage to a man deemed eligible by her sister and grandfather, Roxanne decides to become a career woman, representing writers of screenplays. She eventually founds her own agency, which her Hollywood connections placed on the path to success, but she made two brave decisions that the establishment could not stomach. These decisions, and their repercussions, are the meat of the book, so to say any more would spoil the plot. What I can say is that parallels can be drawn between what happened in The Great Pretenders and recent events in America.
Kalpakian said many readers have commented on how prescient the book is in the current climate.
“For one thing, the entertainment industry is once again completely upended with the advent of streaming and the struggles between the new giants, Netflix, Amazon and Apple. They are doing to the entertainment industry what television did when those first spindly antennas began appearing on roofs all over the [US].
“The [accusations against] Harvey Weinstein . . . started unspooling while I was in the throes of writing the novel. That certainly made me think of how Roxanne would have fared in an industry that took women’s sexual compliance more or less for granted. Being the granddaughter of a powerful man would not have spared her. Roxanne has her Me Too moment that colors and makes more dramatic the moment where she casts the scripts off and quits her job, and insists on going independent.
“Every time I hear on the news the phrase ‘contempt of Congress’ I feel a little jolt of déjà vu on behalf of my characters. While I do not use the term McCarthyism in the book, the fears [Joseph McCarthy] inspired affected government, the armed forces, publishing, education. [In The Great Pretenders,] I concentrated on what was happening in Hollywood so I used the term blacklist era. But it is no small irony that Roy Cohn, a major figure in the ugly chapter of McCarthyism, was a mentor to the current US president.”
To better understand the blacklist era, Kalpakian read at least a hundred books. She says she was astonished at the amount of material published on the topic, and even more astonished at how partisan much of it was.
“This era was also the beginning of the modern civil rights struggle, beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” she said. “The names that every American school child knows, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, this is where all that started. Researching the Montgomery Bus Boycott was eye opening too: for more than a year these citizens stood their ground. I made up the phrase about their shoes giving out, but not their spirit.”
Terrence Dexter, a pivotal character in the novel, is a journalist who travels from California to Alabama to report on the events unfolding there. His experiences give Roxanne her first glimpse into what life was like for those not born into a white, wealthy, influential family.
I asked Kalpakian what she hopes readers will take away from The Great Pretenders.
“The Fifties are often nostalgically invoked as the Good Old Days, circumstances we ought to return to. I would like readers to walk away from the novel with a deeper understanding that those days were fraught with tension and injustice, just as our own era is. That the past is not smooth, sheeted plain; to the people who live through these events, they are every bit as tumultuous as the present.”
About the contributor: Claire Morris is the HNS web features editor. She served as the managing editor of the HNS journal, Solander, from 2004 to 2009, and helped to start the HNS North American conferences.