The Limits of Limelight

I’ve known Margaret Porter for several years and have admired her writing as well as her kindness and support to other writers in the historical fiction community.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of reading her latest novel The Limits of Limelight. Like Margaret’s earlier novel Beautiful Invention, the story of Hedy Lamarr, The Limits of Limelight transports the reader to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a world of glamour and glitter where the stars were beholden to their studio bosses and wannabe stars struggled to be discovered.

I asked Margaret several questions about her novels and her writing.

  • What fascinates you about the golden age of Hollywood?

It’s my father’s fault. He was a massive fan of cinema, and never stopped watching the classic black and white movies of his youth. So I was very familiar with them as well, and all the great stars of the era, female and male. When I took a break from my stage career to earn my M.A. in Radio-Television-Film, my course work included classes and seminars and writing papers on film history. And I was regularly seeing movies at the big city art house cinema and the one on campus. 

But many years went by before my early interest and my later acquired knowledge transferred to my writing career.

  • You’ve chosen women like Hedy Lamarr, Ginger Rogers, and Phyllis Fraser. What is their appeal? Why did they stand out for you?

Their appeal can be summed up in this phrase: “More than meets the eye.” Each one of them had to make their way in a Hollywood that placed a premium on feminine beauty, and a studio system that created stars and controlled them. But these women managed to break through and/or break out of the mold, in different ways. 

Hedy used her intelligence and information about innovations in munitions development, obtained in Austria during her first marriage, to collaborate on the invention of frequency-hopping and spread spectrum technology. Her motivation was to create an undetectable torpedo that could evade Hitler’s U-Boats, which were bombing transport ships carrying children and women across the Atlantic from England to Canada. She wanted the Allies to have a secret advantage in the war.

Ginger left high school at fourteen to become a performer on stage, and eventually the screen. But she wasn’t content to simply dance and sing in musical comedies. A great reader, she educated herself through books, fiction and nonfiction, and she read dictionaries, memorizing words and definitions. As her fame increased, she not only fought for better contract terms and a higher salary, she also insisted on more challenging, dramatic roles. She stepped away from her iconic partnership with Fred Astaire, and by doing so earned her only Oscar for Kitty Foyle. She was also an artist, a sculptor, and an avid photographer.

Phyllis went along with her Cousin Ginger’s plan to turn her into a movie actress. But ultimately realized that her heart wasn’t in it. Her first love was writing. That led to scripting and producing radio drama, then becoming an author of children’s books. And her editorial career reaches its apex in her collaboration with Dr. Seuss as co-founder of Beginner Books. You can thank Phyllis, in part, for The Cat in the Hat, and many of the Seuss books that followed.

  • How does writing in this era affect your research process?

It certainly adds to the research workload! Unlike the centuries I previously inhabited, the 17th and 18th, there is an almost terrifying wealth of information available to the author of 20th century celebrity biographical fiction. Movies, newsreels, newspaper interviews, movie fan magazines, and all the many photographs, candid and promotional. I create multiple timelines: Hollywood history, character history, and fictional storyline. Then I weave it all together into a single unit, selecting and discarding incidents that either serve to create conflict or bust long-held myths or to highlight an unknown aspect of the individual and her life choices and their repercussions.

My mantra is supposed to be “I only need to know what I need to know to write the novel.” But if it weren’t for a rabbit hole I fell into when writing Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr, I wouldn’t have discovered the fascinating story of Ginger Roger’s cousin Phyllis Fraser. So the wide-ranging research process, time-consuming as it can be, often produces buried treasure.

  • Why do you write under two author names?

I don’t, not really. My first eleven novels were published as romantic historical fiction, as Margaret Evans Porter, and those backlist titles are still available and some have been re-published in various formats and languages over the years. But when I finally realized my adolescent ambition of writing historical biographical fiction, I wanted to differentiate from my earlier pen name. So—with my parents’ understanding—I dropped my maiden name. Margaret Porter fits a bit better on a book cover! And whether or not future projects are biographical in nature, I think that’s the one I’ll keep.

  • You’ve written novels in other eras. What different challenges do these eras represent?

I do miss the 17th and 18th centuries, which is why I’m going back in time. I’m starting a wholly fictional story set in 17th century France, in a region familiar to me. I suspect this is a product of nostalgia and longing, stemming from my inability to return there due to restricted travel during the pandemic. Although a significant character happens to be a real historical woman, and an amazing one, the main characters come from a different source, which I’m not ready to reveal. I’m having lots of fun letting my imagination run without having to conform so much to known history. And already in progress is a historical biographical novel set in the theatrical realm of 18th century London. It is extremely research-intensive. Fortunately, I completed all my on-site investigations in England before the pandemic! For quite a long time I had been gathering material from primary sources in the British Library and the Folger Library and other collections. 

Researching people and events and locations from two or three centuries in the past has its own challenges. Tracking down documents, portraits, memoirs and letters (not necessarily in English, which means translating, often in archives or private collections), is a mammoth task. And the more famous the character, especially if he or she inspires diverse opinions, the harder I dig in order to determine the best way to present him or her. In so many cases, the records of female lives are either deeply buried, lost or discarded, or simply nonexistent. That is a curse, in that curiosity can never be completely satisfied. But also a blessing, because it leaves enough of a void to be filled in by the author’s imagination and creativity.

I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll juggle these two very different books, in terms of my writing schedule. For a little while longer I’ll continue working on them simultaneously.

I’m excited to hear about these future novels, Margaret. And equally excited that The Limits of Limelight is ‘out there’ for readers. Ginger and Phyllis are deeply fascinating characters. The story has wonderful twists and turns, and the world of Hollywood truly comes alive.

The Limits of Limelight by Margaret Porter ~~ Hollywood turned Ginger Rogers into a star. What will it do for her cousin?

Pretty Oklahoma teenager Helen Nichols accepts an invitation from her cousin, rising movie actress Ginger Rogers, and her Aunt Lela, to try her luck in motion pictures. Her relatives, convinced that her looks and personality will ensure success, provide her with a new name and help her land a contract with RKO. As Phyllis Fraser, she swiftly discovers that Depression-era Hollywood’s surface glamor and glitter obscure the ceaseless struggle of the hopeful starlet.

Lela Rogers, intensely devoted to her daughter and her niece, outwardly accepting of her stage mother label, is nonetheless determined to establish her reputation as screenwriter, stage director, and studio talent scout. For Phyllis, she’s an inspiring model of grit and persistence in an industry run by men.

While Ginger soars to the heights of stardom in musicals with Fred Astaire, Phyllis is tempted by a career more fulfilling than the one she was thrust into. Should she continue working in films, or devote herself to the profession she’s dreamed about since childhood? Which choice might lead her to the lasting love that seems so elusive?

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Transported to Hedy Lamarr’s Time and Place

Beautiful Invention is Margaret Porter’s 13th novel. It features the story of Hedy Lamarr, famous Hollywood actress and co-inventor of a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. How’s that for talent? I asked Margaret to tell us about Hedy’s world and how she incorporated it into the story. Over to you, Margaret.

~~~~

Any author writing the past strives to depict long-ago time and people so believably and viscerally that the reader is immersed. With Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr, I present a character who is both obscure and well-known, depending on whether a person is a fan of classic cinema from Hollywood’s Golden Age, or perhaps viewed the recent documentary Bombshell, or possesses knowledge of female inventors in general and the fact that Hedy is responsible for frequency-hopping and spread-spectrum technology specifically. What motivates a fan of historical fiction to read a novel about Hedy? Is it curiosity about her life as a film star? Interest in her abilities as inventor? Or simply random selection from Amazon or a bookstore shelf?

Whatever the reader’s impetus for choosing Beautiful Invention, I was responsible for re-creating my heroine’s experiences, adventures, and conflicts—of which there were a multitude, far more than I could fit into three or four novels! I was also determined to fill in the gaps left open by her biographers, those who produced works in print and on film. Not only did I use primary research as a foundation, I relied on informed speculation, and most importantly, I used my imagination. Selectivity was key, but once those selections were made and the story was structured, I had to do the world-building. And in many respects, it was an unfamiliar world. My areas of study—since my teens—have chiefly been 17thand 18thcentury Britain and France. My research habits were formed long ago, as historian and as an actress in period plays, and my M.A. studies in cinema history were a useful foundation. Fearlessly I stepped into the 20thcentury to explore Austria and Hollywood in depth.

This is my 13th work of fiction, and Hedy by far is the most challenging character I’ve ever written. There are multiple reasons, more than I’ll take time to explain, but a significant one was writing from a single viewpoint. Being in Hedy’s head All the Time was a big change for me. In prior novels, I used two or three—and in the one before this, as many as four—viewpoint characters. For any given scene, I could pick and choose the person whose perspective best suited the action and represented the conflict. This time, I had nobody else to turn to. It’s Hedy’s story, her reality, all the way through. No single person accompanied her through the years 1932 to 1949, from Vienna to Hollywood. So I spent my days and nights asking myself, “What would Hedy think? How would Hedy react? What did Hedy know at a given time? How would Hedy feel about this?” Everything had to be filtered through that one and only individual.

To my joy and relief, one reviewer stated, “It seems to me (and I have read several Lamarr biographies) that this author nails down her personality very clearly; much more so than anything else I have seen.”

I accessed numerous memoirs, biographies, histories, and scholarly works that aligned with Hedy’s private and public personae. I could read just enough German to get by, and relied on Google Translate as a useful backup. The period after World War I and before Hitler’s annexation of Austria—the Anschluss—was one of transition and uncertainty and the rise of autocrats. Austria’s high society clung to its old ways—revering an aristocracy that wasn’t legally allowed to use hereditary titles. Vienna remained culturally focused, with its opera balls, concerts, and theatres. At the same time, modernism was on the rise, with avant-gardeplaywrights and musicians and writers and artists coming to the fore. Post-war disarray and destruction fueled innovation. It was an exciting time to be a creative and ambitious young person, and the teenaged Hedwig Kiesler was very much a product of her between-the-wars generation.

The armchair and physical travel aspect of the novel was important—mentally or bodily I roamed from Vienna to Venice to Paris to London to the ocean liner S.S. Normandie to the Super Chief train to Hollywood. Even during Hedy’s lifetime, the places she knew changed considerably, but I located plenty of first-person and historical accounts that fell into the time span of my novel. Because Hedy was so unfamiliar with America and with Hollywood, my discoveries as researcher and writer were directly transferred and translated into her experiences as an immigrant actress.

In nearly every book I write, I find a way to do some historical myth busting. This one is no exception. Hedy’s newspapers and magazine interviews were numerous, and from each one I gleaned a powerful sense of her personality, her conflicts—personal and professional—and her aspirations. Hedy’s versions of her own history can’t necessarily be trusted, because she told different versions of the same story. And MGM was famous—or infamous—for recreating life stories for their stars. Hedy allowed publication of her memoir, Ecstasy and Me, which she later repudiated for its salaciousness and lack of truth, and she sued her collaborators. And though I discarded many incidents as unlikely, her voice and her thoughts were evident. As were her opinions of her husbands and of studio mogul L.B. Mayer and of her fellow performers—Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable and James Stewart.

Additionally, I was able to draw on my own past—my professional work in theatre and film. I well remember examining costume sketches and standing like a statue for fittings, and the thrill of receiving visitors to my dressing room after a stage performance. And what it’s like to stand in a studio, waiting for the producer and the technicians to complete their tasks so I could begin mine. I certainly never achieved the fame of Hedy Lamarr, but in some ways our experiences aligned. That was sheer serendipity—always a welcome component.

On Hedy’s arrival at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio in 1937, she immediately discovers that her escape from a controlling Austrian husband and an encroaching German dictator hasn’t conveyed the independence she sought.

Behind an enormous white curved desk raised high on a plinth sat L.B. Mayer. Four white phones were lined up beside him. Everything else in this bastion of power was white—the carpeting, the textured walls, even the piano.

“Do sit down,” he invited her. “We spared no expense getting you here, so you should’ve had an easy journey.”

“It was long.” Unsure what to do with her roses, she placed them in her lap.

“The food on those trains is good, they say, but I hope you didn’t eat too much of it. We need to slim you down before putting you in front of the camera, because the lens adds pounds to a woman’s figure. Ida can give you a diet sheet.”

At that moment she was experiencing intense hunger, and the prospect of limiting her meals sounded like a punishment.

Howard Strickling joined them, bending to kiss her cheek. He sat down beside her.

“As we’ve discussed, you’ll be having English and diction lessons,” Mayer continued. “You’ll enroll in an exercise class. Might as well have dance lessons, too. As soon as possible, you should get a Hollywood agent. Have you read the morals clause in your contract?”

“Yes.”

“We make clean pictures. We want clean actors. It’s important that you do nothing to undermine our efforts on your behalf. Right, Howard?”

“That’s right, L.B. Unless somebody from my department is with you, Hedy, don’t speak to reporters or columnists, or have your photo taken.”

“I won’t.”

“When we’ve created your biography, we’ll assign a p-publicist,” Howard said.

“Am I not to make the biography? It’s my life.”

The two men exchanged glances. “When introducing a newcomer to the p-public,” Howard said, “all the information must be favorable. In your case, we need to explain why you’ve left your husband and your country.”

“To make movies.” It was too obvious to require explanation.

“True. But a p-publicity campaign requires considerable finesse.”

“I won’t tell lies.”

“You’ll shade the truth, just a little. We’ll tell you what not to say. It’s in your own best interest.”

“You may come and see me,” Mayer added, “whenever you have concerns or questions. And if there’s a serious problem, Howard will fix it.” He shoved a stack of papers across the gleaming white desktop. “Your contract. Here, use my pen. It’ll bring you luck.”

The typed words ran together, clause after clause after clause, all in English. Printed beneath the blank lines on the last page was her legal name, Hedwig Kiesler Mandl.

She signed, instantly altering her status from refugee to employee.

 

Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr by Margaret Porter – Hollywood Beauty. Brilliant inventor. The incredible story of a remarkable and misunderstood woman. Hedy Kiesler, Austrian actress of Jewish heritage, scandalizes Europe with her nudity in the art film Ecstasy. Her hasty marriage to a wealthy munitions merchant disintegrates as he grows increasingly controlling and possessive. Even worse—he supplies deadly weapons to Hitler’s regime.She flees husband and homeland for Hollywood, where Louis B. Mayer transforms her into Hedy Lamarr, an icon of exotic glamour. Professional success clashes with her personal life as marriage and motherhood compete with the demands of studio and stardom. Motivated by the atrocities of World War II, Hedy secretly invents a new technology intended for her adopted country’s defense—and unexpectedly changes the world.

Many thanks, Margaret. Beautiful Invention has all the right ingredients for success. And how fortunate to have background as an actress! I’m sure readers will love the story.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.