A Lookery at: Laura Moriarty’s “The Chaperone”

The Chaperone

Laura Moriarty

Penguin Books (2012)

$26.95

The Chaperone, written by Laura Moriarty, is billed by many sources as one of this summer’s “must-reads”. This title was high on my reading list, so when it was featured as a Kindle Daily Deal at a fraction of the price of a hardback, I snatched it up and downloaded it immediately.

Setting off on an adventure of a lifetime, Cora Carlisle agrees to chaperone teenager Louise Brooks on a six week visit to New York City, where Louise intends to study dance with the famed Denishawn Dance Company. Thirty-six-year-old Cora is a well-regarded woman in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. She is married, the mother of twin boys bound for college in the fall.

Louise Brooks is fifteen, beautiful, arrogant and sexually precocious, and is anxious to leave the cultural confines of the Midwest. Louise sees no need for a chaperone, and defies convention from the moment she and Cora step foot in the Wichita train station. Her seductive nature and actions become even more pronounced as the women travel further east.

Cora has her own secrets and motives for visiting New York in the summer of 1922, known only to her husband. She explores both the vibrant city and her past – hidden from the conservative citizens of Kansas – while Louise practices with the dance company. But while Cora tries to keep Louise’s wild and artistic personality in check fearing that the young girl might sully her reputation, Cora’s eyes are opened to new possibilities for leading a more liberating life when she returns home.

After training for several weeks, Louise earns a spot in the Denishawn Dance Company before eventually heading to Hollywood. There she becomes a film star known for her beauty, her modern bobbed hair and her sex appeal.

Although it is Louise who moves on to great fame as a screen actress, it is Cora’s life that the reader explores in greater depth. Firm beliefs about hemlines, hairstyles, birth control (believe it or not, a well-known household disinfectant advertised itself as a prophylactic in the twenties), and racism are all tested while in NYC. Before returning to the Midwest, Cora makes a life-changing decision. She alters her outlook on the myriad of cultural possibilities taking place in American society. Louise is a flash-in-the-pan success in the film industry, while Cora seizes new opportunities. A respected woman in Wichita, Cora works to influence her community to embrace the progressive transformations emerging in more metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles.

Laura Moriarty has meticulously researched the material used in her novel The Chaperone. A bibliography illustrates how the author incorporates the tiniest of details into the fictional life of Cora, while staying true to the story of real-life film actress Louise Brooks. But rather than create a biography of Louise and her crash and burn career, Professor Moriarty shows how an average woman in the guise of Cora Carlisle – a mere chaperone – can change her life and that of others by an experience which exposes her to a life she might have never known as a privileged homemaker in America’s breadbasket.

An interesting look at the changes in society during the 20th century (particularly those concerning women), The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty has earned four eyes from thebooklookery. The bohemian life led by Louise seems more believable than the duplicitous life that Cora creates after her visit to the Big Apple, however; the overview of women’s history during the 20th century is excellent.

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A Lookery at: Gore Vidal, a personal memory

Author Gore Vidal passed away Tuesday, July 31, 2012, at the age of 86. Since his death, a plentitude of biographical articles have been written about his life, personality and achievements. However, I would like to take the opportunity to recall a personal encounter I had with Mr. Vidal while a student at UC Irvine. This post is not a political or social commentary about the writer, but rather a very likely flawed recollection of an event that happened over thirty years ago.

My manager at the university’s Lectures and Publications Department would book guest speakers for the annual lecture series. As an Administrative Intern in the department, it was my responsibility to attend to the menial tasks, such as making dinner reservations for the speaker, those who accompanied the person of note, as well as various administrators from the school. I also had to compose an introduction and present it to the audience prior to each lecturer’s speech.

Gore Vidal must have been one of the first speakers of the year, because I remember being very anxious to be properly prepared to interact with someone of his stature. I researched as much as possible about him, so that it would appear that I knew who he was. I had heard of him before – I think on “The Laugh-In” — as a child. I wanted to converse with Mr. Vidal somewhat coherently, if not intelligently, should he deem me worthy of a comment or two.

Since this was the P.G. (pre-Google) era, it required a bit of effort to look into a person’s history. I don’t recall what I found out about him, other than his blind, maternal grandfather was in politics and Gore used to escort him onto the Congressional floor as a youngster. I did decide to read one of his novels, 1876, to show him that I was familiar with his work.

My manager asked me to make dinner reservations for a small party (probably fewer than a dozen diners) at one of the very rare premier restaurants in the Irvine area at the time. I asked if I should include Mr. Vidal’s wife in the party, and my manager looked at me as though I were nuts, and said that no, that would not be necessary. I did not know then that Mr. Vidal was a confirmed bachelor. (This event occurred just as the gay movement was beginning to be discussed publically, and also at the time when AIDS was still referred to as “the gay cancer”.  I later learned that Gore had a long-time companion, and did not care for the term “gay”.)

When the evening arrived, I was a wreck. For some reason, I had to borrow a dress from a roommate, so I was not entirely comfortable in my clothing.  At dinner, I miraculously ended up seated next to Mr. Vidal in spite of being the only student in attendance. I did not know that this was traditional for the dinners. Later in the year I found myself seated next to Gloria Steinem and other well-known personalities.

The first question I asked him set the tone for the entire evening. Knowing that he was originally from the East Coast and had come to Irvine from LA, I asked him what he thought of Orange County.  His reply?  “Oh, it’s just a place I pass through on my trips to Carlsbad.” It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking anything at the time, or it would have been iced tea (not being old enough to drink alcohol yet), through the nostrils at the dinner table. “Carlsbad??” I asked him incredulously. “Why in the world would you want to go to Carlsbad, of all places?” To which he replied, “That’s where my sister lives.” I then told him that the little town by the sea was my hometown, and I couldn’t imagine that anyone important would ever want to go there.  He got quite a kick out of that.

Gore Vidal and I had a wonderful discussion during the meal. I knew that guests were expected to spend an equal amount of time speaking to the dinner partners seated on their left as well as right, but Mr. Vidal spent the entire meal talking just to me. He told me about his childhood, attending Phillip Exeter Academy, his grandfather, and so on. We talked about 1876 and books we both enjoyed. He put me completely at ease.

Later, when presenting him as the featured speaker, I raced through my introduction out of nervousness, and had to repeat it slowly so that the audience could understand what I had said. I was utterly embarrassed by the situation, but he came on stage, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and thanked me for the introduction.

Gore Vidal had gone out of his way to make me comfortable all evening, which was quite extraordinary given that I was the plebe and he was the guest of honor. I will always think of him fondly.

“I am exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” – Gore Vidal

Not so, Mr. Vidal. Not so.