Monday, April 9, 2018

"The Magnificent Esme Wells"

Adrienne Sharp is the critically acclaimed author of the story collection White Swan, Black Swan, a Barnes & Noble Discover Book and a national bestseller; and the novels The Sleeping Beauty, named one of Booklist’s ten best first novels of 2005; and The True Memoirs of Little K, which was a finalist for the California Book Award and a Historical Novel Review Editors’ Choice.

Sharp applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Magnificent Esme Wells, and reported the following:
When Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Club was closed down by order of the mob in early 1947 because it was hemorrhaging money, Meyer Lansky himself came out to Las Vegas to find out what the hell was going on. On page 69, Lansky and a fictional associate I created for him, Nate Stein (handsome, Roman nose, big head of black hair), watch a rehearsal of the floorshow in the shuttered nightclub. No detail of the property or its activities was too small for their inspection. While the Andrews Sisters croon “Near You,” my main character, Esme, fifteen years old and one of the Flamingo dancers in her red high-heeled shoes and pink feathers, finds Nate looking at her, looking away, looking back. He’s fifty. And after rehearsal, at Nate’s instigation, Ben Siegel reluctantly introduces Nate to Esme. She can tell he’s not happy about doing this “because I was Benny’s Baby E and Nate was staring at me in this certain way and Ben could see what lay ahead and he didn’t like it.” Esme shakes Nate’s hand and tells him her name, her stage name, first time she’s used it, Esme Wells. He laughs. “He knew exactly who I was, Esme Silver, fifteen years old, practically unschooled, a nobody, but he understood my affectation, even approved of it. All these men approved of ambition, of reinvention.”

Which is, I suppose, the theme of the book—reinvention. Esme’s mother is girl from Boyle Heights who took a few dance classes at Daddy Mack’s studio and became a Busby Berkeley girl in a blond wig and shoes with satin bows and a chiffon dress. Esme’s father is a bookie who haunts the parking lot of the Hollywood Park race track and now works as a gofer for Mickey Cohen and Ben Siegel. First in Los Angeles and then, later in the book, in Las Vegas. Reinvention. The men who made their money in scrap metal, rags, and nickelodeon houses at the turn of the twentieth century are the men who created Hollywood—Goldwyn, Mayer, Lasky, Fox, Warner. And the men who made their money in the Midwest during Prohibition are the men who opened casinos in Las Vegas in the thirties and forties, places like the Desert Inn, the Dunes, the Stardust, the Flamingo.

The Flamingo itself, like all of those other hotels before their demolition, has been reinvented many times—currently it’s a hodge-podge neon nightmare, but in 1947, it was a beautiful place, a glass-backed bar filled with liquor bottles, the ceiling a pocked gorgeous blue-green like some magnificent moon, and a marble spiral staircase. The casinos back then were small, with a just a few tables and slot machines, and the hotels themselves were long and low, the old school motels where you pulled your car up to your room. The pool out back was spotted with pink-painted fake flamingoes. The real ones Siegel imported had died in the desert heat. So, reinvention with plastic and steel.

Siegel’s reinvention as a casino magnate was short-lived. He was murdered a few months after Lansky’s visit to Vegas.

But for Esme, that visit is the catalyst for her own personal reinvention—with her stage name, with her promotion from cigarette girl to show girl, and with her introduction to Nate Stein. She moves from soundstage rat cloaked in her mother’s jewelry--a little girl so neglected she barely attends school and suffers from impetigo from lack of bathing, a little girl women everywhere take under their wings to wash her face or to comb the snarls from her hair-- is now about to become the mistress of one of the most important men in Las Vegas and through him a headliner on the Strip. But for now she’s dressed “like a piece of candy in a candy-colored costume, my face orange with Pan-Cake and my lashes an elongated black, my hair as long as a child’s.”

Half girl, half woman, and page 69 is her pivot, the moment she makes the transition from one thing to the other, from girlhood to womanhood, from powerlessness to a certain kind of power, adulthood with all its treacherous pleasures. She recognizes this herself. “One day you were a child and then, all at once, you weren’t.”
Learn more about The Magnificent Esme Wells.

--Marshal Zeringue