As a devotee of the Turner Classic Movies Network, I have always been mesmerized by the high-cheekboned, raven-haired starlets of the 1930s and ’40s such as Jennifer Jones and Linda Darnell. Even though their performances smoldered with deep emotion, the women themselves were the ultimate fabrications of the Hollywood studio system with names, accents and biographies as fake as their eyelashes.
In her big-hearted first novel, “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures,” Emma Straub follows a similar actress’s 50-year journey from summer stock extra to screen star to has-been. It’s a witty examination ofthe psychic costs of reinvention in Hollywood’s golden age.
The book opens in 1929 in Door County, Wis., where sunny 9-year-old Elsa Emerson hangs around backstage at the Cherry Country Playhouse run by her father. Mostly, she plays confidante to her diva big sister Hildy, who confesses her grandiose plans to escape to Hollywood. When a tragedy ends Hildy’s dreams, Elsa takes on her sister’s ambitions as her own.
Nine years later, Elsa elopes with an unpromising Cherry Country player named Gordon Pitts, and they board a bus for Hollywood to seek fame and fortune. Gordon ends up with bit parts at Gardner Brothers Studio, and Elsa ends up with a baby and another on the way.
But Elsa then has a stroke of good fortune right out of, well, a Hollywood script. At the studio’s Christmas party, Gardner’s wunderkind producer Irving Green spots the hugely pregnant Elsa and says those magic words: “Have you ever thought about acting?” He instructs her to have the baby, lose 30 pounds and change her name from Elsa Pitts to the mellifluous “Laura Lamont.”
Under Irving’s tutelage, her milkmaid-blonde hair is dyed a deep brunette, which better suits the dark, dramatic roles he’s selected for Laura Lamont. Before long, Irving has rewritten the script of Laura’s personal life as well, penciling out Pitts and inserting himself as her husband, with a house in Beverly Hills, a camera-ready family of her two renamed daughters and, eventually, a son, Irving Jr.
Laura’s star-is-born story is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In fact, it resembles that of Jennifer Jones and her Svengali husband, David O. Selznick, which Straub has said provided the initial inspiration for her novel. Like Jones, Laura develops acting chops through the kind of over-the-top leading-lady roles that were de rigueur in the 1940s: a Revolutionary War nurse, a love-sick nun, the mistress of a Spanish conquistador, and a trapeze artist in love with an elephant trainer.
Straub, the daughter of writer Peter Straub, is terrific at capturing the gilded cocoon created by the Hollywood studios for its stars that was both seductive and insidious. Elsa/Laura slips all too easily into a life where every detail is stage-managed for her: the silk and sequin wardrobe provided by the studio designer, the chauffeured cars that whisk her around town, the schoolhouse her children attend on the studio back lot, her catered dinner parties, and the out-of-central-casting black maid who spanks the children so their mother doesn’t have to.
But even Irving Green can’t protect Laura Lamont from the hard truth that starlets have a limited shelf life: “In ten years, women went from ingenues to wives, from wives to matrons, from matrons to hags.” The final third of the novel documents Laura’s rude descent back into real life with troubled kids, money problems and ever-shrinking roles.
Straub cannily captures the ersatz actress’s voice, but ironically this also proves a weakness. The passive and compliant personality that allows Elsa to seamlessly become Laura makes her at times a maddeningly incurious narrator, unwilling to acknowledge any unpleasantness lurking beneath the sun-dappled surface. Even though she considers Harriet the maid her closest friend, she never bothers to find out where she lives or goes on her days off. Laura tells us that her beloved Irving had been orphaned, but she’s never asked him for any details. “She never thought about that — why?” Why, indeed?
By the novel’s satisfying conclusion, though, Laura realizes the cost of being “so quick to throw it all away, to swim inside a new body and a new name.” The reader can’t help but admire Laura’s willingness to admit complicity in Elsa’s demise, “When I was young, I made movies because people told me to, and hit my marks, and spoke my lines,” she says. “I chose this . . . but I chose everything else, too.”
Preston’s most recent book is “The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel in Pictures.”
Emma Straub will be at Politics and Prose on Sept. 29 in conjunction with the Fall for the Book festival. 5015 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Call 202-364-1919.
LAURA LAMONT’S LIFE IN PICTURES
By Emma Straub
Riverhead. 306 pp. $26.95