Wednesday, September 9, 2015

That Book You Have to Write



There are books you write and tuck away. Practice books. Those with no current market appeal. Then there are the books you have to write...and...rewrite...until they are published.

LAST SUMMER IN EDEN, set in the mountain resort town Bethlehem, NH, in 1929, is the story I need to tell. The main character is Dorothy Brooks, 17, a young singer and member of the invisible class serving wealthy visitors. EDEN has flappers and bootlegging and theater and music and tender first love. And lots of pretty dresses. Has a decade ever had so many gorgeous clothes? Sequins, silks, beads, and embroidery--oh my.

Through her new friendship with a New York summer girl, Dorothy enjoys her foray into the resort's naughty fun. She wins a leading role in a romantic farce, where she must perform opposite the man who broke her heart. While fending him off, she falls for a new man--someone not quite "suitable," according to society's standards. She must make a choice, one that will define the rest of her life.

Bethlehem is beautiful and quirky, even now when most of the 30 hotels are gone. Eclectic cottages line the streets and there is an art deco theater, one of the last standing.  The air is still fresh and the views magnificent.

I used to walk the quiet streets on sweet summer nights, wishing I could get into a time machine and go back to...oh, 1929, maybe...  

Imagine standing in front of the Sinclair, a
four-story hotel that once filled a city block. Inside, a jazz band is wailing away. A flapper
and her companion slip out to the wide porch for a cigarette and a swig from a flask. They stand close together by the rail, shoulders touching as they flirt and laugh.

Below them, late night walkers throng the sidewalks. A surprisingly diverse crowd. Flashy, well-dressed Cubans. Proper Episcopalians in black tie and evening dress. Clusters of young men and women cruising the street, vying to see and be seen. And, strolling quietly, careful not to attract attention, an Orthodox Jewish family.

Bethlehem's pivotal role in New England tourism was colored by two serious issues: anti-Semitism and bootlegging. It's an ugly truth that religious bigotry was rife in New England hotels and vacation areas--not just in Bethlehem. It was never overt, but ads that state "Christian clientele" and "select clientele"are code for "no Jews welcome." The '20s were the time of a great shift for tourism, as motor touring rose and the hotel vacation went out of style. The formerly unwanted visitors saved the town during the Depression and World War II, when many other resorts shuddered to a whimpering demise. Bethlehem became a Jewish resort.

The booming hotel trade and proximity to Canada also meant a whole lot of illicit drinking going on. The town librarian told me how her father brewed beer and distributed it in a truck with fabric flaps so they could ditch the load when necessary. Accounts of car chases and shootings filled the local weekly. One elderly resident told me was also illegal gambling in the hotels. But with the amount of money that flowed into town, the hotels were left alone. In one hotel nearby, the spectacular Mount Washington Hotel, you can have a drink in the former underground speakeasy, the Cave.

LAST SUMMER IN EDEN explores that fascinating pivotal moment when old and new met, just before the jarring crash of 1929 and the end of the glorious Jazz Age.