The Sharpest Needle (Lillian Frost & Edith Head #4)



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Author's Note

Mild spoilers lie herein, so only read this after you've finished The Sharpest Needle.

“This is Hollywood, isn’t it? Everything’s a motion picture set. It’s all artificial. The costumes, the scenery, the people.”
                Marion Davies, Going Hollywood, 1933


    As with all the Lillian and Edith novels, there’s fact mixed with fiction in The Sharpest Needle. Comes now a few words about liberties taken and sources used. Any errors are our own.
    This book was inspired by Rosemarie’s long-standing appreciation for Marion Davies as an actress. Recent years have been kinder to Marion, with several of her films resurrected; we contributed to the crowdfunding campaigns that brought Beauty’s Worth (1922) and When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922) to modern audiences. We agree with Tallulah Bankhead, who told Marion, “If you hadn’t been so stinking rich, you would have become the screen’s number-one comedienne.”
    Researching Marion’s life begins with Fred Lawrence Guiles’s 1972 biography Marion Davies and Marion’s own book The Times We Had. The latter features an introduction by none other than Orson Welles, who expressed regret for the shadow that Citizen Kane cast over Marion’s life. He observed that Marion “would have been a star if Hearst had never happened. She was also a delightful and very considerable person.” Taylor Coffman’s annotated version of The Times We Had is available online, along with his book Hearst and Marion: The Santa Monica Connection. Lara Gabrielle Fowler is writing a new biography of Marion, and we thank her for sharing her time and expertise. We’ll be first in line to buy her book.
    David Nasaw’s The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst proved essential, in part for introducing us to the story of the alleged “mock marriage” between Marion and Charlie Chaplin that took place on a film set of a lion’s den. The movie in question has never been identified, but we assumed it was Zander the Great (1925) because Marion recounted a disastrous experience with a lion (and Chaplin) in the film’s circus scene. The only problem: there is no circus scene in Zander. However, Ed Lorusso, author of The Silent Films of Marion Davies, pointed to a Zander production photo unearthed by film historian Kevin Brownlow clearly set at a circus, with Marion in character. This photo indicates that such a scene had indeed been shot, only to be trimmed from the finished film. That’s good enough for us.
    The main reason we wrote this book was to fulfill Rosemarie’s lifelong dream of visiting Hearst Castle at San Simeon. We even travelled there by train from Los Angeles, as Lillian would have. Our days spent exploring those extraordinary grounds will not be forgotten. We were also lucky enough to receive a personal tour of the Marion Davies Guest House in Santa Monica, which along with the restored swimming pool is the last part of the original Ocean House still intact. (Two quick notes: while Marion and W.R. continued to entertain large groups of guests at San Simeon well into the 1940s, the days of lavish parties at Ocean House had ended by September 1939. But that wasn’t about to stop us. Additionally, the paintings on the ceiling of Lillian’s suite in Casa Grande are actually by Simon Vouet; for decades they were mistakenly attributed to Jean-Baptiste von Loo.)
    We wondered how were going to rope Orson Welles into these shenanigans. After all, Welles likely never met Hearst, no matter how much Welles relished the surely-apocryphal tale of sharing an elevator with the press baron the day Citizen Kane premiered. As it turned out, we didn’t have to stretch reality in the least. Welles really did prepare to direct Kane by watching Stagecoach repeatedly alongside the people who had made it, and Bill Ihnen was the art director on John Ford’s 1939 film. Among the many books written about Welles, two titles proved indispensable, Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane, and Orson Welles, Volume 1: The Road to Xanadu, the first installment in Simon Callow’s magisterial biography. Run-Through, the memoir by Welles’s onetime partner John Houseman, offers an intimate depiction of Orson’s wunderkind years. As for Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography lays bare the grim facts of his childhood in a distinctive voice.
   Thanks to our friend Leigh Wishner of the FIDM Museum & Galleries in Los Angeles for answering our vintage costume questions, and to Bonnie Biggs, professor at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, for not being thrown by some very suspect queries about paintings.
    We heartily recommend tracking down a copy of The Westmores of Hollywood by Frank Westmore and Muriel Davidson, not least because you’ll discover which of the seven basic face shapes you have. Mitchell Leisen’s contentious but ultimately respectful relationship with Edith Head is documented in Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director by David Chierichetti. Leisen has been called the man who drove both Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges to direct, but he deserves to remembered as a skilled craftsman in his own right. Watch Midnight and Remember the Night for proof.
    Lastly, our eternal gratitude to the people who have been on this ride with us from the outset. Our magnificently tireless and tirelessly magnificent agent, Lisa Gallagher. Everyone at Severn House, particularly Kate Lyall Grant, Sara Porter, and Natasha Bell. Edith Head’s trio of biographers, Paddy Calistro, David Chierichetti, and Jay Jorgensen. The staff at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s Margaret Herrick Library. The archivists at Paramount Pictures. And the booksellers, librarians, classic movie fans, and mystery readers who have supported Lillian and Edith.





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