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June 11, 2018

Adrienne Sharp's Playlist for Her Novel "The Magnificent Esme Wells"

The Magnificent Esme Wells

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Adrienne Sharp's novel The Magnificent Esme Wells is an entertaining and poignant coming of age story.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Esme's dramatic and irresistible story sparkles with psychological nuance, sumptuous detail, and vivid historical perceptions as Sharp tracks the high wattage success and violence of tough Jews building movie and casino empires while Hitler bloodied Europe. With real-life figures, mushroom clouds rising from desert test sites, and arresting insights into the power and vulnerability of a daring woman performer, Sharp’s novel, like Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (2017), is propulsive and profound."

In her own words, here is Adrienne Sharp's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Magnificent Esme Wells:

In my recently published novel, The Magnificent Esme Wells, I write about the gorgeous young daughter of two gorgeous reckless parents who care more about their own ambitions than anything or anyone else, including Esme. When the novel opens, Esme’s mother is a Busby Berkeley dancer at MGM, strutting the glossy soundstages in her sequins and satin bows, and her father is a low-level bookie who haunts the racetracks of 1939 Los Angeles. Esme is a six-year-old soundstage rat (a school truant with her snarled hair and her arms strung with twenty of her mother’s bracelets and bangles), and wherever she follows her mother on the lot there is music.

“The Shadow Waltz,” sung by Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in the film Gold Diggers of 1933, finds itself the occasion for one of Busby Berkeley’s most famous and elaborate dance numbers, and Esme’s mother was one of his dancers, all of whom are attired in platinum blonde wigs and white chiffon bell-shaped dresses and who pretend to play illuminated violins as they assume various shapes and patterns, filmed from twenty-feet above, camera then sweeping alongside them and up a twisted staircase, rattled during one afternoon of filming by an earthquake that plunged the soundstage into darkness. The song possesses an oddly melancholy set of lyrics, but the choreography and the gimmicks Buzz loved to use don’t really seem to reflect that. In my novel, though, the mournful lines from the song speak of “Shadows on the wall/I can see them fall,” and Esme keeps a photograph of her mother costumed for that number taped to her dressing room wall, her mother more siren than protector and certainly a shadow. By this point in the novel, her mother has been dead a dozen years. “Here I am/Where are you?” Her mother died in 1939, while sitting next to the six-year-old Esme in a movie theater, quietly hemorrhaging to death after undergoing an illegal abortion at one of MOBSTER Ben Siegel’s Los Angeles abortion parlors. Esme, who realizes her mother has quietly passed away, arranges her mother’s arm around her and sits there close to her through the second part of the double feature. “Take me in your arms and let me cling to you.” Which is exactly what Esme does.

“Hotel California” is not a song mentioned in my book, but the Eagle’s haunting Spanish-inflected guitar music and the mention of the mission bell powerfully calls up early Los Angeles and the Spanish colonial structures that fleck every pocket of the city and its outskirts, even the Camarillo State Mental hospital, where Esme’s mother is briefly institutionalized. It has the ubiquitous bell tower, the white washed walls, the black iron work, and the tiled courtyards of every mission that once lured hungry natives to its kitchens and to its theology. The hospital is nestled between strawberry fields in Ventura County, where you can smell but not see the Pacific. The site, where men and women once bunked in locked wards and where therapies like farming, livestock raising, insulin shock and electric shock and hydrotherapy baths were once prescribed, is now Cal State Channel Islands, but not much about the physical plant has changed. It’s to this hospital Esme’s mother is sent following her breakdown after her father’s death and where she babbles about swaddled babies tucked high up in the treetops, after which Esme is plagued by dreams of her mother climbing the bell tower and trying to fly, trying to rescue those abandoned babies. Only when she is older does Esme understand her mother was worrying about the daughter she left stranded, Esme herself.

After her mother’s death, Esme and her father move to Las Vegas, a nascent city soaked in light and music, to help Ben Siegel launch his Flamingo Club.

“Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” a 1912 tune with lyrics by Grant Clarke, is the song Esme performs when she and her father and Bugsy Siegel drive out to see the future site of the Flamingo hotel on what would eventually become the Las Vegas Strip but is then just a two-lane highway through the desert, and the Flamingo is nowhere, nothing, just a sandy few acres with an old crumbling motel, abandoned long ago. But Siegel and Esme’s dad are full of plans, and eventually Siegel invites the red-faced, overheated, bored out of her mind and miserable Esme to sing right on the spot where the Flamingo Club’s stage will eventually be built. To please him, she dances to and sings the “Cowboy Joe” song she’s been practicing back in Hollywood at Daddy Mack’s studio, a song about a cowman who sings his sheep and cattle to sleep and dances a mean ragtime while packing a 44. “He’s a high falutin’, rootin’, shootin’/Son of a gun from Arizona, Ragtime Cowboy Joe.” Esme’s rendition is complete with hee haws and simulated ropings of cows. It’s a hootenanny. Because old Las Vegas was full of cowboys in their pointy-toed boots and red bandanas hitting the Glitter Gulch and the whore houses on Block 16, she thought the song would please Benny. But Siegel isn’t pleased—his vision of Vegas is a gleaming piece of Hollywood, a shining anomaly in the sandy desert, his new Vegas, and Esme was singing about the enemy, the old ranching Vegas, which will soon confront and be subsumed by this new Vegas very much against its will.

In the late forties and early 1950s, the Strip musicians would gather at the parking lot of Chuck’s House of Spirits to unwind after playing two shows and an extra late night gig. They’d sit on the hoods of their cars and drink the liquor they’d bought and talk music until dawn. In the showrooms, the singers and comics—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Rose Marie—would mingle with the showgirls who shared their stages and the band members who accompanied them. Some of that music made its way into my novel.

“Near You” is an Andrews Sisters hit of 1947 and in the novel the sisters perform the song for a small audience of mobsters at a dress rehearsal just before the Flamingo reopens in early spring. Siegel’s casino opened just after Christmas in 1946, and it lost so much money that night and over the next few months that Meyer Lansky (who hated Las Vegas and thought it a burning Hell, which didn’t stop him from investing in it) shut the place down and flew to town to inspect every nook and cranny of the hotel and its books before the place reopened—and one of the nooks and crannies he inspects is the showroom and its show. To the rendition of “Near You,” my character Esme, who has by now been promoted by Siegel against her father’s wishes from cigarette girl to Flamingo dancer, begins dancing some sinuous precursor of the type of burlesque work she will soon enough be performing on the Desert Inn stage. She’s bored by the old school sounds of the Andrews Sisters and by their cheerful presentation. Vegas, she thinks, should be about something different. So she twists languorously to “There’s just one place for me/Near you,” and the man near her in the empty nightclub, watching her, is Nate Stein, a mobster from Detroit. And once he takes her, he will always keep her near, never let her go and Vegas becomes “a special kind of heaven,” for her, “but only when I’m near you.” When she eventually tries to leave Nate, her find her good fortune and her father’s good fortune are stolen from them. But she doesn’t know that yet. For now she’s dressed like a piece of candy in a candy-colored costume, her face orange with Pan-Cake and her lashes an elongated black, her hair as long as a child’s. She’s fifteen, half girl, half woman, and in that moment she makes the transition from one thing to the other, from girlhood to womanhood, from powerlessness to a certain kind of power, adulthood with all its treacherous pleasures.

And finally, “This Town,” recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1967, his voice dark and bitter, seems to be the anthem for the Las Vegas Esme and her father find in my novel. “This town is a use-you-town/An abuse-you-town until you’re-down town.” The history of Las Vegas is a history of the murders of men who have seen their usefulness expire, and Esme watches a seemingly endless parade of men shot, car bombed, ice-picked, blow torched, or poisoned for their crimes of thievery and greed by men even greedier and more thieving than they are. And she observes, as well, the expiration date of a parade of women, some of whom walk away from their men once they fully apprehend their demonic dimensions, others of whom find themselves exchanged for a younger model. In Vegas, youth and beauty are a woman’s only source of power, and sooner or later, therefore, they are stripped of their feathers and sequins, plied with support hose, and pushed off the showroom stage and into the hotel coffee shop. From showgirl to waitress. Everybody is used, everybody is expendable, the desire for money and control is valued above human life itself. Esme could sing the lyrics “It’s a miserable town/And I am leaving this town,” at the end of the novel, where, following her father’s murder, she turns her car away from the Strip and the glare of one of those above ground nuclear tests whose luminosity rivals the morning sun, heading east, fleeing the dirty radiant light.

Adrienne Sharp and The Magnificent Esme Wells links:

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Publishers Weekly profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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