Fictionalised lives of famous people can be hit or miss. Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley), was well-researched and believable. I enjoyed it immensely, being rather a sucker for fiction set in Paris in the 1920s!
When I saw the cover of The Chaperone, with the unmistakable and gorgeous 3/4 profile of Louise Brooks on the cover, I grabbed it with both hands and eagerly turned to the back cover to read the publisher’s blurb. Disclaimer: I love Louise Brooks. For those of you who don’t know her, she was the most beautiful and talented film star in the 1920s, too intelligent to be entrapped in the studio system; too intelligent for her own good. Louise grabbed obscurity from the jaws of stardom more than once, but when her star shone it shone with incandescence. Nobody looked as good on screen. Nobody moved as naturally, acted with such subtleness, and said so much with her eyes. She was the queen of the silents. If you want to know more, search for her on YouTube.
The Chaperone is based on a fact: when she was fifteen, Louise Brooks travelled from Witchita, Kansas, to New York City to spend the summer at the Denishawn Dance School. Her ambition was to be a dancer, and she had caught the eye of the Denishawn team, who ran arguably America’s best modern dance school. Were she successful at the summer school, she would become one of the troupe, who travelled across the USA performing modern dance.
At fifteen Louise had to be chaperoned – never mind that she was way older than her years mentally and could run intellectual rings around people twice her age. In real life her chaperone was Alice Mills, described by Louise as ‘a stocky, bespectacled housewife of thirty-six’ according to Barry Paris’ excellent biography of Louise. In The Chaperone, Louise is accompanied to New York by Cora Carlisle, also stocky, also thirty-six, but fictional. The first three quarters of this book covers the pair’s time together in New York City, drawing upon fact whenever possible when it comes to Louise’s behaviour, believably fictionalising events and conversations.
Love Louise Brooks as I do, she is not the most likeable character in this book. I suspect she wasn’t in real life either, particularly as a young, haughty, occasionally obnoxious girl who arrogantly knew she was already the best dancer in Wichita and had every confidence of being accepted as part of the Denishawn troupe. (Had I been Louise’s contemporary and known her as a teen/young woman, she would have both ignored me and scared the hell out of me.) Cora is left feeling belittled by her young charge on several occasions. Louise is a handful; men already turn to look at her on the street; she is a born flirt.
Cora, in trying to control Louise, urges her to keep her virginity, and is stunned when Louise tells her she had lost it at the age of nine to a paedophile called Mr Flowers and since then has had an affair with her Sunday School teacher Mr Vincent.
As Louise has such secrets in her past, so does Cora.
While Louise spends several hours a day at dance class, Cora tries to unravel the truth about her own childhood. As a young girl she lived as an orphan in The New York Home for Friendless Girls before being sent on a ‘adoption train’ west with other children to find new parents. While the Home still exists, the sisters who run it will not give her access to her own records. She has no idea who her real mother is, and wants desperately to find out, whether the truth is good or bad. The Home’s handyman, Joseph, agrees to help her access her file, and a friendship builds between them, turning into an affair over the course of the summer.
Cora has secrets that she hasn’t told Louise – or anyone except Joseph. She is married to a homosexual, Alan, who wed her to avoid suspicion about his sexuality. She has borne him a set of twins but they have slept in separate bedrooms since the twins were born. Alan is still seeing his lover of many years, Raymond, and an uneasy menage a trois exists between them.
When it’s time for Cora to return to Wichita Joseph and his young daughter Greta return with her. She tells Wichita Joseph is her half-brother, and tells Alan and Raymond the truth. Joseph and Greta move into the house with Alan and Cora, living in subterfuge and living a lie to the outside world. For me, the book gets less interesting and drags a little after Cora leaves Louise in New York. It becomes a family saga.
At this point, Louise Brooks largely disappears from the narrative; this is, after all, Cora’s story. From time to time she reappears: a mention of her films, a mention of gossip about her.
Louise returns to Wichita in the 1940s, broke and gin-soaked, and sets up a dance school which fails within months. The depiction of her, when Cora goes to visit her, is faithful to fact, hard and uncomfortable as it is. It is Cora who gives her a metaphorical kick and tells her to get out of Wichita and seek happiness. Louise, later, sends her a postcard from New York with the word ‘Thanks’ on it.
Cora’s life is a long one; she outlives her husband, her lover and one of her sons. I found the last chapter of the book, after Louise goes back to New York and leaves Wichita for the final time, a little like Barbara Taylor Bradford on speed, with several decades crammed into the chapter. The initial premise of the book – that trip to New York in 1922 – is well-scripted and crackles with the excitement of the jazz age in America’s biggest city. Cora and Louise go head to head and Cora shows determination you initially don’t expect from her; the (imagined) conversations between them both are far superior to the narrative of the years which follow. I would have liked to have seen the book end when Cora and Louise part company in 1922.
Cora witnesses several historical issues (e.g. prohibition, gay rights, racism, birth control) and many historical events, on which she invariably has an opinion, particularly in the part of the book set back in Wichita. In a way this detracts rather than adds to the story as some of these seem a little contrived as a plot device. If I want a history lesson, I’ll read a history book. A successful blend of history and fiction is subtle rather than obvious.
I suspect that Cora’s life was drawn out to the final end so Louise could once again weave into it. Cora learns in 1958 that Louise has drawn a cult following and is the toast of Paris and that she published a book Lulu in Hollywood in 1981. Cora’s own secrets remain secrets forever.
Overall, I enjoyed this well-researched mix of history-meets-fiction but did skip very quickly through the final chapters. Louise Brooks’ character has the sharp wit you expect her to have. Cora is initially an unlikely heroine compared to her glamourous charge but develops strengths and self-awareness of her own capabilities.