Author: Fiona Davis
Publisher: DUTTON / Penguin Random House LLC; 2019
Keywords: World War II; McCarthyism; Anti-Communism; Broadway; Hollywood
Fiona Davis is a best-selling author known for writing about iconic New York City buildings whose history – or even very existence, as in The Masterpiece – has been lost to time. Typically, she writes her stories from two different time perspectives, the past and the near-present. (See the list at the end of the post.)
Veering from her typical two-period structure, in The Chelsea Girls Davis takes us on a linear, if interrupted, journey through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Beginning with a USO tour in Naples during World War II, Hazel and Maxine, two women with starkly different personalities, form a seemingly unbreakable bond, which they expect to last a lifetime. And it does…sort of. A tragic event involving a young German man, a synchronistic link with Hazel’s deceased brother, and newly discovered talents that emerge during their wartime experience provide the foundation for a deep and rich relationship cherished by both women.
After the war, Hazel and Maxine rent rooms in the famed Chelsea Hotel, home to many actors and bohemian artists – as well as (mostly well-meaning but misguided) communist sympathizers – and again team up in show business. Hazel, the fictional protagonist inspired by the successful real-life playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, has become a first-time author and director bringing her dramatic play, Wartime Sonata, to Broadway, with Maxine playing the lead. Each woman enters into a romance with men vastly different from each other, and each relationship has consequences that not only upset, but reroute, both women’s life plans.
The underlying theme is McCarthy-era anti-communist fanaticism, circa 1950, which derailed careers and ruined lives, resulting in the blacklisting of many in the entertainment industry in New York and Hollywood. This storyline serves as a cautionary tale for our current divisive political times by exposing the damage that can be caused by extremist ideology. One pointed, particularly revealing scene features minor character Roy Cohn, a real-life attorney that rose to prominence as Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel and a U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor at the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, later executed as communist spies in 1953. (Cohn also represented Donald Trump during his early business career.) In the scene, he interviews the fictional Maxine as part of his role on the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The scene reveals the psychological tactics used against the vulnerable, the weak, and the otherwise at-risk individuals cowed into submission, and worse, by a first-rate manipulator. Initially, Cohn acts abashed and nervous at meeting a famous actress, sliding gradually into bullying behavior that leaves Maxine bewildered and terrified for her movie and stage career, the reputations of those she loves, and the lives of all of them.
This interview begins a series of cascading events that twist the main characters’ lives into a form none of them could have predicted. One of the far-reaching consequences will permanently alter the course of Maxine’s dear friend Hazel’s career and life. By the end of the book, we witness some victory, but in the wake of devastating defeat for some of the characters. It’s chilling…primarily because such tactics wreaked havoc in America for several years.
Fiona Davis writes with a skillful, somewhat light hand, which makes her books highly engaging and readable. By intertwining the personal stories of her characters with real events, people, and places, she leads us, absorbed, into imagining the rich lives her iconic buildings once housed. Despite the delicate touch, however, Davis grapples with deeply serious subjects, such as the rabid, soul-destroying hatred in The Chelsea Girls. And not all of her characters get happy endings.
So if you like your historical fiction approachable, educational, and mixed with fascinating fictional, near-fictional, and real-life people, places, and events, Fiona Davis’s books will delight you.
The Dollhouse (2016) is the Barbizon Hotel for Women, the former home to successful and would-be mid-century models, editors, and secretaries. As with many of Davis’s books, this one is set in two time periods – the 1950s and the early 2000s.
The Address (2017) is set in the famous Dakota, former home of Leonard Bernstein, John Lennon (who was fatally shot outside the building), and many others. It, too, is set in two time periods – the 1880s, when it was built, and the 1980s.
The Masterpiece (2018) takes place in a virtually forgotten part of Grand Central Terminal, which, as most of us don’t know, once housed an art school on the upper floor. Like its predecessors, this book takes place in two time periods – the 1920s and the 1970s.
And the upcoming The Lions of Fifth Avenue (2020) is set in the New York Public Library in 1913 and 1993.