From Hollywood, by Gore Vidal, 1990. (Novel 5 in the 7-novel "Narratives of Empire" series.)
Hollywood, set in 1917-1923, looks at the birth of the American movie industry and its effect on politics, as well as the events of the Wilson and Harding administrations, including World War I and the Teapot Dome scandal, which was until Watergate the greatest political scandal in American history. Empire's characters Caroline Sanford, Blaise Sanford, and James Burden Day all reappear in Hollywood. Historical personae include President Woodrow Wilson, President Warren G. Harding, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, and Jess Smith, a member of President Harding's "Ohio Gang."
From the beginning Carline Sanford Sanford and Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt were friends. For one thing, there was the ridiculous redundancy of their names.
Eleanor's Uncle Theodore, the President [had] decided that his tall gawky fatherless--and motherless--niece might "find herself" abroad in a way that she could not at home in Tivoli, New York, close to the Hudson River, less close to the edge of the great world--her world, because she could not have Hudson Valle friends to the house for fear that her alcoholic brother, stationed in his second-floor window, might open fire on them with a hunting rifle. Although he had, thus far, always missed, one could not rely forever on an alcoholic tremor to preserve life.
It had not been until such movie favorites as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks had taken to the market-place and sold Liberty Bonds to millions of their fans that the government had realized how potent were the inventors of Hollywood....
Lately, Jess had started to keep a notebook in which he recorded the name of every important person he met in the course of a day. In Washington his fingers soon got tired, adding up the day's score. Even so, he was looking forward to Mrs. Bingham's reception. A wealthy window, Mrs. Bingham conducted what Jess first thought was a political "saloon" like a bar and grill until it was explained to him what a salon was.
Now Eleanor [Roosevelt] sat before the fire in Caroline's drawing room, an assembly of furs about her neck, studying the schedule for the day. She is like a general, thought Caroline, every contingency prepared for in advance. She had a full-time social secretary, as well as women to look after her children, and, of course, she herself presided over the political wife's necessity, the cardcase, with which, each morning of practically every week, she must make the rounds, stopping at the houses of congressional, diplomatic, judicial wives in order to leave a card as an act of homage. In turn, they would deposit their cards on her vestibule table. Caroline was a near-Aboriginal and so seldom planted cards anywhere unless it was on someone older than she or a friend new to the city.
"We have," said Eleanor, "twenty minutes before we must appear at Mrs. Bingham's."
"You must. I just do. . . ."
Eleanor's laugh was high, while her normally pale gray skin suddenly became pale pink. Although Eleanor blushed easily, Caroline suspected that this was not the result of shyness, as everyone thought, but the weapon of a marvelous social tactician for whom the blush was an evasionary tactic like that of the sea-squid which could spread a cloud of ink all round itself and thus vanish in order to chart a new course.
Mrs. Benedict Tracy Bingham was Caroline's finest invention.
Caroline had helped Mrs. Bingham clamber along the heights of Washington society, an affair of mutually exclusive villages that tended to exclude the largest village of all, the government.... Caroline had encouraged Ms. Bingham to specialize in members of the House of Representatives, a group no Washingtonian had ever wanted to cultivate. [T]he statesmen were pathetically grateful for any attention.... Now, widowed, blind, malevolent of tongue, Mrs. Bingham had arrived.... I have a lot to answer for, thought Caroline, as she and Eleanor entered the drawing, where peacock feathers made Indian war-bonnets of a number of blameless Chinese jugs while Tiffany's largest lamps illuminated everyone's worst angle.
A Japanese butler showed Caroline into the living room, where Hearst was standing beneath a portrait of himself that looked more like Hearst than he did. All natural pink and gold, Marion sprang like a cat from a sofa and threw her arms about Caroline and kissed her, wine upon her breath. The Chief did not like to drink himself and did his best to discourage others. Marion was not easily discourage. "My movie . . ." The first "m" gave no trouble, the second did. But she went on, stammering breathlessly. ". . . doesn't start for another week. So Pops and I ar having a real holiday here in town . . ."
They shook hands. McAdoo said that he must wait for a White House car to pick him up. Out of deference to "gasless Sunday," each had come to the club in a horse and buggy. As Burde cross the high-ceilinged main hall, [he] found himself face to face with a white-faced Franklin Roosevelt, who had been weeping. Caught off-guard, Roosevelt managed a smile; then quickly covered his face with a handkerchief and blew his nose.
"You look," said Burden, "awful."
The face that emerged from behind the handkerchief was now its usual jaunty rather vacuous self. But the color was pasty; the close-set eyes glassy. "I've just got out of the hospital."
A cameraman had discovered that if black maline silk was placed over the camera lens years would be subtracted.... Lines vanished [and] Emma simply looked faded but spiritual, and that was what the plot of The Dangerous Years called for.... At the end, Caroline would commit suicide, something she very much looked forward to. Usually, she was to be seen at picture's end striding into the future during a long shot on a desolate moor, which was almost always the Burbank Gold Course after the mist-machine had disguised all the holes.
Outside the [Senate] cloakroom the sergeant-at-arms had thoughtfully assembled a number of army cots and blankets in case the senators filibustered today as they had the previous day, March 2, when La Follette of Wisconsin took the lead in exploiting the right of any senator to speak as long as he liked.
Through the steam, [Blaise] found his host. With only a towel wrapped about his head, this small muscular man was talking to another small less muscular man, with no towel. Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin [were] discussing their joint enterprise, United Artists.
"Mr. Sanford. Blaise." Fairbanks greeted him as formally as a naked man could. Blaise could not help but note, again, how much small than real life, in every way, these larger-than-life world fantasies were. He also noted that Chaplin was not, as everyone seemed to think, Jewish.
Although Caroline's teeth were set on edge by all political rhetoric, the reverent intoning of the national nonsense-word "democracy" most irritated her. The much-admired Harvard professor George Santayana, now retired and withdrawn to Europe, had noted the curiously American faculty for absolute belief in the absolutely untrue as well as the curiously American inability to detect a contradiction because, as he had written, an "incapacity for education, when united with great inner vitality, is one root of idealism." That was it--American idealism, the most unbearable aspect of these people.
Image: [Charlie Chaplin in The Bond.] 1918. From the website Starts Thursday!
Image: [Woodrow Wilson.] National Photo Company. c. 1913-1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. You can view and click to enlarge this item here on the website of 3-D-antiques.net.