The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century

Margaret Talbot

Using the life and career of her father, an early Hollywood actor, New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot tells the thrilling story of the rise of popular culture through a transfixing personal lens.

The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century

Publisher: Riverhead
Price: $28.95
Author: Margaret Talbot
Length: 432 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-11
Excerpted from The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century by Margaret Talbot by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Talbot. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter 1: Learning to Cry

The boy grew up in a hotel for traveling salesmen across the street from the train station in a very small town. The hotel was white clapboard, two stories tall, plain and neat, set about by trees that in the summer grew over the windows and cloaked the downstairs in thick shade. The boy liked to lie on the front-parlor carpet, tracing its wreaths of faded roses and listening for the train whistle, then for the traveling men as they alit, swinging their creaking leather sample cases, then for the smack of their wingtip shoes as they stepped up to the front door. The traveling salesmen wore bowler hats and hounds-tooth vests and watch fobs. They sat downstairs at the long cherry-wood table, packing away the gravy-soaked meals his grandmother and the hired girls cooked for them, holding their sides and laughing. They’d been to Omaha and Kansas City and Chicago. They’d seen skylines ablaze with electric lights and gone to plays—oh, plenty of ’em, and sure, there were pretty girls even in a little burg like this one, they’d tell one another, but, oh brother, how about those gals on the stage? The traveling men never stayed long in Brainard—a night, maybe two. They gave the boy peppermint candies and distracted pats on the head. They hummed little snatches of ragtime while they trimmed their magnificent mustaches.

The boy did not have his own room. His grandmother wanted to keep most of the rooms available for the commercial men, and the few left over for the hired girls, whose fathers sent them to work in the hotel so they could learn how to cook from Mrs. Talbot. The girls were seventeen, eighteen years old, farm girls, from Czech families, though this was before there was a country of Czechoslovakia, so they were called Bohemians or, less kindly, Bohunks. At night, the boy crawled in with whichever of them would have him, snuggling down under their white comforters, listening to their soft snores and the words they muttered in Czech, smelling the faint whiff of onion and caraway on their curled fingers. In the summer, the breeze from the open windows stirred the lace curtains and the tendrils of hair pasted against their necks. In the winter, he pressed as close as he could to their warm backs. He knew only a few words of Czech, but the phrase he remembered all his life was “Hezká holka, dej mi hubička.” “Pretty girl, give me a kiss.”

The hired girls woke in the smudgy light before dawn—Mrs. Talbot was a strict employer—but he scrunched down under the cov¬ers, hoping he wouldn’t be ejected. At night, the girls laughed, and let him watch as they brushed out their long hair, heavy and glistening as horses’ tails, but in the morning they were snappish and yawning, and told him to run along. He did little jigs, sang them a stirring Irish song about a boy and a girl with an ocean between them, told them about how he tried to ride the Jersey cow and how she’d tossed him. At night, the hired girls listened and sometimes clapped their hands with delight, but in the morning, he could try the same routine and they only sighed, stony-eyed, and shoved him out the door. None of them was his mother, after all.

His mother, he knew, was dead. He knew this because his grand¬mother told him so, and because every so often she called him to her side and took from a small velvet-lined box a lock of his mother’s hair. It was pale gold and feathery, like a butterfly’s wing. The first time he saw it, he felt nothing in particular, except confusion, because when his grandmother looked at it, she wept, and she was not generally a weeping woman. But the boy, whose name was Lyle, did not remem¬ber his mother; he had been just a baby when she died. When he did not cry, his grandmother told him he would get a beating unless he did—“Think,” she said, “of your poor mama”—and then she took him over her knees and paddled him. The next time she brought out the velvet-lined box, he thought of the beating and how his bottom had stung, and he managed to squeeze out a tear. It wasn’t quite good enough for his grandmother, but it was a start. The time after that, he screwed his eyes shut as tightly as he could and thought not so much of his poor mama as of his poor self, facing another paddling and unable to feel what his grandmother so urgently wanted him to feel. He produced a choking sob, and then, to his surprise, an increasingly per¬suasive crescendo of them. His grandmother sat back in her chair, exhausted. “That’s my boy, Lyle,” she said, and then closed her eyes.

The boy grew up to be my father, and when he told me this story, it was without apparent rancor or shock, so matter-of-factly that it was years before I realized what a cruelly perfect apprenticeship it was for acting. He was born in 1902, and grew up in a time and a place— small-town Nebraska—that was in some sense pre-psychological, a time in which people did not yet customarily explain one another’s actions and motives with the kinds of concepts— repression and projection, anxieties and drives—that would become so familiar to people a couple of decades later. The language of child development—of children’s distinct emotional needs—was not common parlance. A mother could die and a bereaved child be told she had gone away to a better place, without a good-bye, or else be told the truth but also not to speak of her; it was better that way. In his remarkable autobiographical novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, the writer William Maxwell describes his mother’s death during the influenza epidemic of 1918 when he was ten and growing up in a small Illinois town. His father would walk from room to room and he would follow him, hoping they could talk to each other, but they never did. “When my father was an old man,” Maxwell writes, “he surprised me by remarking that he understood what my mother’s death meant to me but had no idea what to do about it. I think it would have been something if he had just said this.” A child could be adopted and never be told—that was common practice until the 1960s. A son or daughter could be written off as a loss and shame, and that writing-off announced in the local paper, as this father did in the David City, Nebraska, newspaper in 1907: “Owing to the disobedience and incorrigibility of my son, Benjamin Wertz, I hereby notify the public that I have given him his time, and I will not be responsible for any of his acts or deeds and will not assume any of his obligations or liabilities hereafter.” And a mother whom a child had never known could die and that child be expected to counterfeit the sentiment thought proper, or else endure a beating.

Much of what was done to children without regard to its lasting impact was irredeemable and indefensible, but sometimes there were surprising comforts to be wrung from a pre-psychological innocence. To our minds, for instance, the idea of sending a boy of six or eight to sleep in the beds of unrelated teenage girls seems deeply peculiar— arousing, perhaps, and therefore confusing. Yet my father remembered the girls fondly; they did not abuse him; they were kind to him; some were lovely to gaze at; his memories of them were the wellspring in him of a lifelong love of women. (His favorite book to read aloud to me when I was a kid was My Ántonia, Willa Cather’s nostalgic masterpiece about a Nebraska boy’s chaste love for the older Czech hired girl who was his childhood playmate.) Why his grandmother didn’t take him into her own room, I don’t know, but bedding down with the hired girls undoubtedly helped him sleep through the raw Nebraska nights as a motherless little boy. As an adult, he saw that his childhood bed-sharing was something one would no longer do—but he was amused and matter-of-fact about it, not ashamed.

And my father would lead a resolutely unexamined life ever after. He did not speculate about what his grandmother could possibly have been thinking when she brandished that lock of hair or how it was that he could call her “a great old gal,” which he did, and still vividly remember the tears she blackmailed out of him. The story he told about his growing up was not one of surviving childhood damage—the death of his young mother, the forced separation from his father, the alienating rituals of his grief-stricken grandmother. The story he told, always, was about becoming an actor. It was about the privilege, the thrill, the sensual benediction of holding people, for an hour or two, in thrall. It was about how a handsome face and an ingratiating disposition could propel a boy from Brainard, Nebraska, to Hollywood in the hectic, shimmery heyday of the movie industry. It was about vaulting from a life hunkered down in a cold climate among hardworking Czech and Irish immigrants—farmers, grocers, brakemen—to a life of gin parties in rented villas in Beverly Hills, starlets in creamy satin dresses, week¬ends at Hearst Castle, days spent impersonating bootleggers and gang¬sters and society swells, all amid the orange- scented Mediterranean lushness of Hollywood in the 1930s.

Photo from the Contributor’s page
of The New Yorker

Margaret Talbot has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2003. Previously, she was a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and an editor at The New Republic. She lives in Washington, D.C.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.