The Magnificent Esme Wells
By Adrienne Sharp
Harper, on sale April 10, $26.99
Adrienne Sharp, nationally bestselling and critically acclaimed author, takes us to a golden age of show business in The Magnificent Esme Wells.
Sharp tells the story of a girl growing up in Las Vegas and Hollowood in the 1930s and ’40s.
Esme Wells is the daughter of a low-level gangster, Ike Silver, trying to make his way in Bugsy Siegel’s organization, and her mother is Dina, a wannabe showgirl.
This novel is a coming of age story with a tinge of noir and it evokes an era of culture rich with drama, and it is told through the beautiful, witty voice of the twenty-year old Esme.
One example of how Sharp captures Esme’s voice is when she writes about her father checking out a site in Las Vegas with Siegel: “They were all smiles, the two of them with their movie-star faces, dark hair combed back, dapper in their checked sports jackets. Jackets! Even as a child, I’d noticed that Mr. Siegel liked to surround himself with handsome, well-tailored men, the better to share his vision of a prosperous future. The war was over, he was telling my father, VJ Day an explosion of flags and confetti and bonfires and cars with the letters VJ painted on them cruising and honking their way down the Los Angeles streets, and now, according to Benny, every G.I. and his wife were going to be jumping into those cars looking for fun and adventure. And the town of Las Vegas was going to be that adventure, a glorious destination. Really.
“Because, to me, Las Vegas felt like a punishment. The dusty superheated ground quickly burned through the soles of my espadrilles. How long could they talk and look at nothing? At one point, I tried to get back into the car, but that was worse. In half an hour, it had become a killing box. There was no shade. None. And we hadn’t rented a hydrofan air conditioner to hang on the window of the car, either. We’d driven east with the top down.
“My father’s face turned death-ray red, but still the men walked and talked. I tried to get my father to look my way, but he wouldn’t. He only had eyes for Mr. Siegel. Here be the pool – I wish! I’d jump right in! – the lobby, the restaurant, the casino where my father would soon manage the off-track betting. An upscale gambling palace, a miracle, certainly, for just when my father had come to understand that Los Angeles was never going to make him his fortune, another city appeared in the east, new mirage, all for him.
“Mirage was right. You have to understand that back then, Los Angeles was everything. Vegas, in the early forties, was not much of anything. A small oasis, a railway depot, a little grid of streets by the tracks and then emptiness. Small town. Big desert. Big sky. Grit. Heat. Distant mountains. Stunted brown-needled cacti. Sagebrush. And Block 16, the red-light district that serviced the workers from the dam and the mines, with its gambling and its liquor and its girls, who sat on wooden chairs by the open doorways of their concrete-block shanties, waiting for consumers.
“But in Ben Siegel’s mind, this highway, Highway 91, sprouted one extravagant hotel after another, all of them in possession of casinos and restaurants and pools. And nightclubs, too, apparently, for after a while, Mr. Siegel called to me, waved me over from where I was pouting and flapping my hands at my hot face, saying, ‘Esme, come here and have a look at where your stage will be.'”
Esme Wells is brimming with historical detail. Sharp recreates the gaudy grandeur of Busby Berkeley sets, the death of Bugsy Siegel, and pre-war Hollywood political activism.
Here is where Esme recounts her mother being on a Busby Berkeley film set: “Just so you know, my mother was a showgirl, too, though never here in Las Vegas. She started out as a Busby Berkeley girl, one of the first, a gorgeous thing with a headdress four feet tall, ostrich feathers dripping like waterfalls, and satin bows rippling on her elegant shoes as she walked the great soundstages of Warner Brothers and MGM. She was not quite sixteen years old when Buzz came out to Los Angeles, looking to scrounge up some dancing girls for his first Warner Brothers picture, Gold Diggers of 1933, which had been a big Ziegfeld hit on Broadway. At her audition, Buzz called her over, measuring her leg from knee to ankle, instructed her to twirl, and then hired her on the spot. That’s all it took.
“For the Shadow Waltz number in Gold Diggers she wore a platinum blonde wig, gold metallic shoes, and a two-layered chiffon skirt stretched over a hoop. In the black-and-white photograph I keep of her in my dressing room, she looks like a little doll, her skin manufactured partly of white wax, plenty of alabaster. All she had to do in that number was stand with a hundred other girls on a tall staircase that doubled back on itself like a looped ribbon and pretend to play a lit-up violin while the camera sailed by, forty feet in the air. No wonder her audition was so brief.
“Shooting from above was Buzz’s trademark; he had done a hundred numbers that was back at Warner Brothers, in picture after picture like Gold Diggers and 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, his girls rotating like flecks in a kaleidoscope, making geometric patterns of stars or layer cakes or blossoming flowers. That’s all they did, but that wasn’t all they wanted. When the camera panned his girls’ beautiful faces, they smiled, one by one, into the lens, dying to be noticed. My mother was fourth in line, always yearning to be the first. The only. The magnificent. Just like me.”
Esme Wells has great cinematic quality, with scenes on film sets and cameos from stars like Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Gene Kelly.
Sharp writes of The Clover Club and its place in Vegas history, “Mickey Cohen and Ben Siegel were in the process of taking over the Clover Club, a nightclub up on what was then the somewhat desolate unincorporated Sunset Strip, which was soon to flower in a way my mother didn’t love to see, but my father and I did. To come were Ciro’s, the Trocadero, the Mocambo, the Chateau Marmont, Sunset Tower, the Players Club, the Garden of Allah, Club Gala, La Rue’s. At this point, though, there was just the Clover Club.
“The Clover was a deliciously beautiful place with red lacquered doors and white tablecloths, with secret panels, one-way mirrors, and a backroom illegal casino called the Bacon Club, where men with machine guns watched over the players and the money. The bacon. This was a club where photographers weren’t allowed, where David O. Selznick and Budd Schulberg gambled each night, a club Cohen and Siegel were in the process of wrestling from its owners, whereby Mr. Siegel had charged Mickey with wrecking one by one all of their gambling operations. Just as later Benny would muscle Billy Wilkerson out of his interests in the Flamingo, so now Benny took over the Clover Club. And my mother got her gig.”
The juxtaposition of fictional characters with movie stars adds a layer of glamour that pulls the reader back in time to the golden age of Hollywood.
The story moves between 1939 pre-World War II Hollywood and 1940s postwar Las Vegas, a time when Jewish gangsters and movie moguls were not dissimilar. Esme chronicles the rise and fall of her parents, who were masters at pulling off a good show or con, but whose delusions of grandeur lead them to being duped as well.
When Ike is offered a job in Vegas, he takes it, eager for a big break.
Esme joins as well and catches the attention of the powerful Nate Stein, and soon becomes the first burlesque dancer on the Las Vegas Strip.
Esme Wells is really a story of America’s promise and peril. Dreams are what loom large over the entire novel as we see each character reach for the stars, only to fall back into an unforgiving world. The one exception is the wide-awake, preconciously worldly Esme, who definitely earns her “magnificent” title.
Harper Executive Editor Sara Nelson says of this work, “I was familiar with Adrienne’s work from my time editing O, the Oprah magazine, when I came upon The True Memoirs of Little K, a faux-memoir of a famous Ballets Russes dancer in love with the Tsar. I loved that book within minutes – and fell in love with Esme in the same way. In my new role, I just had to publish it.”
For that, we should all be thankful, as The Magnificent Esme Wells might be the most entertaining novel. you read all year.