Friday, May 6, 2011

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Looking for Love, Chicago 1890s

This Chicago 1890s novel could have been titled the Gay Nineties, which is what the period was called then, but that term would kind of mislead people now. The stories were passed down in my family, and then I added fiction. Some are true as they stand, some are exaggerated, and some are pure fiction and on pain of painful death at the hands of family members, I won't say which is which.

But here is how I heard the stories:

When I was very small, and the great-uncles smelled of whiskey and cigars, and the great-aunts gossiped about each other, I heard snippets of stories that were way too fascinating for the ears of children and so my sisters and cousins and I did a lot of pretending to be busy reading in a corner after Sunday dinner at my grandparents' house. The house was, and still is, in Chicago, a three story house built by an ancestor for his young immigrant bride. They were married in the 1870s, and I have a photo of their children sitting on the porch with their 4th of July decorations, 1885. The house is in walking distance from Lincoln Park Zoo. The street's name has been changed but the house is still there, converted into offices for a non-profit.

Over the years I played with the stories, did mountains of research, starting with snippets of memories. For instance, my grandfather remembered seeing Evelyn Nesbit as the closing act at the vaudeville, swinging out over the audience on a swing with red velvet ropes. Oh yeah, of course she was fully clothed, this was vaudeville, not burlesque. She sat motionless in the swing, and never smiled. “Saddest face I've ever seen,” he told me. But Evelyn, once a favorite model of Gibson, later married to a millionaire, became the center of a scandal that rocked Chicago and left her with no other means of earning a living. All the audience wanted was a chance to see her. They didn't expect talent. (The 1950s movie titled Girl in the Red Velvet Swing starred a very young and gorgeous Joan Collins as Evelyn.)

And there was the cherry bomb story, and stories of the stage door Johnnies and the broken marriages and the screaming fights, all tales to clutter up our young minds.

So that's how my Chicago 1890s novel started. If you watch Coronation Street, well, drag the theme back to Chicago 1890s when the Columbia Exposition opened and all the little boys in the neighborhood first saw and fell madly in love with Lillian Russell, including my great-uncles.

- Phoebe

About the Mucha poster of Mrs. Leslie Carter in the sidebar: it was displayed at an art museum in Seattle. When the curator learned of my interest in the actress, she kindly sent me the museum's photo of the poster.


July 4, 1885, a photo of the house and some of the family. Note the bicycle.