By Leslie Lindsay
Spanning the 1940s thru 1960s, THE CHELSEA GIRLS pulls back the curtain (literally) on the political pressures of McCarthyism, complex bonds of female friendships, and the creative call of the NYC Chelsea Hotel.
I’ve been a fan of Fiona Davis since her debut, THE DOLLHOUSE (2016), about The Barbizon Hotel, home of girls in secretarial school in the 1950s, and was thrilled to receive a copy of her forthcoming THE CHELSEA GIRLS, about another iconic NYC hotel. It’s elegantly shabby–there’s glam and glitz and danger in the 1950s Manhattan, following WWII. Many great artists, playwrights, musicians, actors, and poets call the Chelsea home, but something else stalks these halls.
Hazel Ripley has spent her life on the sidelines–always an understudy, never a lead. And she’s still reeling from the death of her beloved brother. She and Maxine strike up a friendship while on a USO tour and it’s through Maxine that she learns of the Chelsea Hotel as a mecca for creative types. When she returns to NYC after the war, she finds herself at the Chelsea and blossoms into a budding playwright full of promise. But she’s female and the play is about the war and there are a few other obstacles in her way.
But the Red Scare is sweeping across America and Senator Joseph McCarthy has begun a witch hunt for Communists and the theater/performing arts folks are scrutinized closely. This is a little known era/movement to me and I enjoyed (?) learning a bit about this slice of history.
THE CHELSEA GIRLS, told in a three-act structure: the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, thus a slight deviation from Davis’s typical dual timeline structure, we get a complicated glimpse at the friendship between Maxine and Hazel, an introduction to the theater lifestyle, but also darker aspects as well–spies, homosexuality in a less-accepting time, suicide, and Communism.
Davis’s research into the era and the colorful personalities at the hotel was evident. I felt the narrative truly came to life in the ‘third act’ (1967). It has me curious about the Chelsea Hotel and maybe a little inspired artistically myself.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Fiona Davis back to the author interview series.
Fiona! Welcome back. I cannot believe this is your fourth book—time flies! I know how near and dear the Big Apple is to you and so I’m always curious how you select the key location for your historical fiction. In this case: the legendary Chelsea Hotel. What was the driving force?
I knew I wanted to set the book in the 1950s during the McCarthy era, and the Chelsea was a hotbed of political and artistic intrigue at that time. Residents like W.E.B. DuBois and John Sloan were investigated by the FBI for their communist leanings and one – ACLU founder Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – was even imprisoned. On top of that, the hotel has had so many famous residents over the years, icons like Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Jackson Pollock, and Janis Joplin, which meant that its history would be filled with gold. I’m always looking for the things that surprise me about a building and its residents, and the Chelsea had everything I was looking for: an eccentric cast of characters and even a secret tunnel, which of course I had to incorporate into the plot.
I can see how it would be intimidating—overwhelming–to select an era or a particular art form. Should it be poets in the 1920s or playwrights in the 1960s or novelists in the 1940s? There’s a lot of ground to cover. Not to mention musicians! You chose to focus on theater and roughly the 1950s. Can you tell us how you narrowed it down? Was it the art form or the era that drew you? Both? Something else?
The idea for setting it during the 50s in the New York theater world came from an interview I did with an actress in her late 90s named Virginia Robinson. She very much inspired the character of Hazel, and talking to her piqued my interest in what happened on Broadway during the McCarthy era, which isn’t a story that’s been told much. We know all about the Hollywood stars who were blacklisted, but not the unknowns whose lives were destroyed. I spoke with Virginia, as well as acting teacher Michael Howard and film star Lee Grant, and each were just as angry about what had occurred as they had been 70 years earlier. I simply had to tell their stories.
“Featuring vibrant, witty characters who not only weather but thrive in a dark period of American history, Davis’s tale of one friendship’s strength will stun and satisfy readers.”
— Publishers Weekly
I have to admit: I don’t know much about McCarthyism. THE CHELSEA GIRLS helped bring some of that into focus. I do recall my grandmother being wary of ‘Russians’ even in the late 1990s. What more can you tell us about this aspect of the novel?
I learned from Virginia about Red Channels, a publication that was sold on newsstands and bookstores for $1 when it came out in June, 1950 in New York. It listed individuals and organizations that purportedly had communist sympathies, along with a list of the “offenses,” which could be as innocent as donating to a clothing drive for refugees fleeing Franco’s Spain. Red Channels became the bible of blacklisting, and if you were on it, you were in big trouble. Even worse, you could clear you name by paying $200 to the company that published Red Channels (a lot of money at the time) and then naming names – thereby jeopardizing your own friends’ careers. It was an absolute racket, and those who were named found it terrifying, with the FBI going through their trash, bugging their phones, and interviewing neighbors, all in an effort to dig up more dirt.
I’m always so intrigued with old buildings and architecture. Can you tell us more about the Chelsea Hotel? What year was it built? What are some distinguishing characteristics? Have you ever stayed there—even briefly?
The Chelsea was built in 1884 as a utopian cooperative – a place where electricians and plumbers could live next to musicians and painters, with 15 artist studios on the top floor. But that didn’t work out so well, and it eventually went bankrupt and was turned into a hotel, one where residents could live for years or even decades. It had a wonderful rooftop full of plants and trees, and the restaurant downstairs was known for its Sangria. I never stayed there, but I remember stopping in to see the lobby when I first came to New York. It was quirky and a little intimidating, with artwork all over the walls, as the resident manager/owner let the artists offer paintings in lieu of rent if they were short on cash that month.
I loved the epigraphs at the beginning of each act. They are very deep, poetic pieces that spoke to a certain ghostly appeal. I found several passages throughout the narrative that might suggest the Chelsea is haunted. Any truth?
Apparently, the hotel is quite haunted. The ghosts I mention in the epigraphs are all based on real people who stayed there and are said to have haunted it. One of the best-known is Mary, a survivor of the Titanic who lost her husband in the disaster and appears in the fifth-floor hallway. Dylan Thomas’s ghost is known to show up near his room, and guests have reported hearing the cries of Nancy Spungeon coming out of room 100, where she was allegedly killed by her punk rock boyfriend Sid Vicious. Very spooky.
What did you find the biggest challenge and greatest joy in working on THE CHELSEA GIRLS?
The greatest challenge was fitting the plot into the timeline of the events as they occurred in real life. A lot happened in 1950, from the publication of Red Channels to the start of the Korean War, and I wanted to make sure the story followed the sequence of events correctly. The greatest joy was incorporating my own love of theater into the novel. I came to New York as an actress and worked with a theater company that did three shows a year – one of them even went to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony. My friends from that decade are my friends still today, and it was lovely to step back in time and remember what that was like.
What is keeping you awake at night? It doesn’t have to be literary.
In writing the book, I found so many eerie parallels to what’s going on today, including talk of witch hunts and questioning the patriotism of those who don’t fall into line. The way we seem to repeat history is definitely keeping me up at night.
Read an excerpt of THE CHELSEA GIRLS here
Fiona, it’s been lovely, as always. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
I think you covered all the bases – thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity!
For more information, to connect with Fiona Davis via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE CHELSEA GIRLS, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fiona Davis is a USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction novels set in iconic New York City buildings. She first came to New York as an actress, but fell in love with writing after getting master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School. Her books have been translated into over a dozen languages and her last novel, The Masterpiece, was a LibraryReads and TheSkimmReads pick. Her forthcoming novel, The Chelsea Girls, will be published by Dutton on July 30, 2019. She’s based in New York City.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Dutton and used with permission. Special thanks to Kathleen Carter Communications. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. For more bookish news and images like this follow me on Instagram]