I Spy

I was born at the tail end of 1953. Throughout my life, I sort of forgot how close my birth was to the end of World War II. Not even 10 years between the end of the war and the birth of this blogger. I can remember things that happened eight years ago — 2011 — like they happened yesterday. That must have been the way my dad and mom felt. My dad, in particular, served in the United States Navy at the end of the war, and his marriage and birth of my sister transpired only a couple of years later. Those days must have felt like yesterday to him, also.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read a couple of novels that take place in the 1950s, during the Cold War, and they got me to thinking about my childhood in the 1950s. I do remember the Cold War. I will admit that I have no memory of atomic bomb drills in school, but I certainly remember praying for the conversion of the people of the Soviet Union. Perhaps in a Catholic school, conversion took precedence over what were likely completely useless duck-and-cover drills.

I have only a fleeting memory of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the subsequent so-called Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. My sister Bec, who is five years older, remembers both events clearly, as well as the tension and fear in the room as they watched the television and prayed. Being only 8 years old at the time, I was probably way more interested in playing with my Tiny Tears doll in the bedroom I shared with my sisters, clueless as to how quickly and enormously my life could have changed. While my dad was not a fan of President John F. Kennedy, I think that he supported the tough stand he took against Castro and Khrushchev.

Both of the books that I read —  The Chelsea Girls  by Fiona Davis and more recently The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott (which I will review on Friday) dealt at least in part with the espionage angle of the Cold War. Again, I was a mere urchin when Sen. McCarthy was holding his Senate hearings and everyone was worried that their neighbors might be Commies. But the decades between the presidency of Ike and President Reagan’s order: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,  are etched clearly in my mind. There were stories almost daily in the news, especially during the 1960s. But more than that, at least as it related to my pre-teen and teenage self, the books and the movies that dealt with spies and espionage and government secrets were plentiful.

So plentiful, in fact, that when the Berlin Wall did come down and the Soviet Union crumbled, authors and movie-makers didn’t quite know what to do. Who should be the villain now? How could you have secret agents and secret double agents when there was nobody on whom to spy? September 11, 2001, provided an enemy for a while, but Americans never had the appetite to make Iranians or Iraqis or Afghans evil in their entirety in the way they could with the Soviets.

My take-away from these two books that I read was that the idea of spying on the Communists for the United States government sounds really cool. I’m pretty sure I could have played the part of a nondescript woman who carries secret documents in her ordinary J.C. Penneys handbag and discreetly and successfully drops them in the potted palm to be picked up by another spy. I would have had a little pearl-handled pistol and a cyanide pill in my billfold.

Alas, instead I am a gray-haired nana who has nothing but a little bottle of water and breath mints in my purse.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Chelsea Girls

Author Fiona Davis writes novels about historic locations and addresses in New York City.  The Dollhouse is about the famous Barbizon Hotel, a safe place to live for young women in the 1920s and 1930s who were alone in NYC and trying to make it on their own.  The Address is a fictional account of a group of folks living at the Dakota Apartments, which was THE place to live in the late 1800s. The Masterpiece told the fictional story of an art institute that at one time was located in Grand Central Station.

In her most recent novel, The Chelsea Girls is located in — no surprise — Hotel Chelsea in NYC. The hotel at one time was the address for artists of all types, from actors to writers to visual artists. It is also the home of our two protagonists — Maxine Mead and Hazel Riley. Both aspiring actresses, they meet working as part of a USO group entertaining troops in Naples at the very end of World War II. Maxine is strong-headed and confident while Hazel lacks confidence. Nevertheless, they become fast friends.

At the end of the war, Hazel returns to New York City and finds a residence at The Chelsea. Maxine goes to L.A. to become an actress. In 1950, she returns to New York, and is integral in getting a play that Hazel has written into the hands of an interested producer. Not only that, but Maxine convinces him that Hazel should be the director. He agrees, provided that Maxine be the leading lady.

Trouble begins when Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare turns to the entertainment industry to seek out communist sympathizers. Both Hazel and Maxine get caught up in the trials, leading to a fascinating and educating story that shows both sides of the issue.

I have read all of Davis’ books, and The Chelsea Girls is far and away my favorite of the four. I love books set in the 1950s. I love books set in NYC. And I love books from which I can learn some history. The Chelsea Girls meets all of those criteria.

The characters were complex and interesting. Surprises abounded. A touch of romance and a touch of mystery.

It will probably be one of my favorite books in 2019.

Here is a link to the book.