Kate Alcott’s new novel, “The Hollywood Daughter,” comes at a perfect time to remind us of what happens when conspiracy theorists and authoritarians are loosed upon the land. Set in the 1940s, the story unfolds in the Hollywood of big studio stars, with its attendant glitter, swimming pools and palm trees. The narrator, Jessica Malloy, is the daughter of a publicist whose main client is the Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman . He stewards her through legendary star turns in “Casablanca,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Gaslight,” for which she won an Academy Award. (That film coined the term “gaslighting” — much in use now — to mean the practice of abusive psychological manipulation that makes victims disbelieve their own eyes.)
Thirteen years old and starry-eyed, Jessica reveres Bergman. She studies movie magazines and gossip rags for any shred of information about the actress, especially about her marriage to Petter Lindström and their little girl, Pia. Bergman is everywhere depicted as a picture of saintly Nordic womanhood, the ideal mother.
When Bergman is cast as a nun in “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” Jessica’s father arranges for the film to shoot at Jessica’s convent school. Jessica is thrilled, but her mother, a devout Catholic with a prim disapproval of Tinseltown’s loose morals, fears for her daughter’s soul. Jessica observes the tension between her parents and wrestles with conflicted feelings about faith and religion, sex and sin. The local priest thunders on about Hollywood’s evils: “We, the Catholics of America, are at war with the vulgarity, the immorality, and the sinfulness of a grotesque land of perverted entertainment — the land we call Hollywood.”
“You know what that’s a cover for?” Jessica’s father says. “They hate the Jews; they fear anything and anybody who isn’t like them. And Washington? The House Un-American Activities Committee — look what they’re doing.”
When Bergman has an affair with director Roberto Rossellini, the political witch hunt soon affects Jessica’s family directly, as Alcott continues to weave her fictional story through the details of mid-20th-century history. She quotes Sen. Edwin Johnson denouncing Bergman on the floor of the Senate as “a horrible example of womanhood and, I regret to say, a powerful influence for evil.”
Young Jessica is deeply distressed by the unfair treatment of her idol and its fallout for her father’s livelihood and her family harmony. But the harsh political and religious climate causes the girl to seek her own truth, to define justice and kindness for herself. In the end she learns to speak out against the forces of intolerance. As she does, readers may find her tale strikingly relevant to our era.
The best book about the Hollywood blacklist is Victor S. Navasky’s “Naming Names,” which won a National Book Award in 1981. But a good place to begin learning the history of this time, especially for a young person, might just be “The Hollywood Daughter.” While the novel suffers at times from its adolescent tone, Jessica is a worthy heroine for our era. Kate Alcott — a pen name for journalist Patricia O’Brien and the author of “The Dressmaker” and other novels — reminds us that the real damage to home and homeland comes from fearmongering and divisive politics.
On March 25 at 3:30 p.m., Kate Alcott will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
“The Dressmaker,” by Kate Alcott
By Kate Alcott
Doubleday. 305 pp. $26.95