The Abortionist’s Daughter: Women on B’way in the 1910s

Fanny Brice, Ziegfeld Follies

Melanie Daniels has little chance of a happy life in Muller’s Corners. As the daughter of a convicted abortionist, she has already been stigmatized. Her chances at marriage are slim, and she is bullied by a gang of boys in town. Looking at Photoplay magazine, Melanie dreams of a glamorous life as an actress. But it is 1916, and she must obey the rigid societal rules of the period. How can Melanie escape and reach her potential as a free human being?

Elisa DeCarlo’s new book, The Abortionist’s Daughter, deftly mixes feminism, theater and the history of Broadway. Told in four parts, the story traces Melanie’s journey as awakens to the reality of her life as a woman in the early 20th century.

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Why was I born a woman?” The question ran in Melanie’s head. She had also seen women like Little Rose in Muller’s Corners. The mill hand’s wives, some of the women in the village… they were not free human beings by any means. What did it mean to be a free human being, for that matter? Melanie’s head started to ache. Was her mother a free human being? Was she?”

Running away to New York City with a new boyfriend, Melanie makes a horrifying set of mistakes. Her dream of being an actress seems even further away, despite her proximity to Broadway. Through a coincidence, she meets a Broadway actress who becomes a mentor and nemesis.

In an email interview, DeCarlo explains how she drew upon her research into the period, as well as her own  experiences as a writer, playwright and performer to create this compelling story.

The Abortionist's Daughter by Elisa DeCarlo
Scheduled to be released on Nov. 18, 2014.

What inspired you to write this book?
I wrote and performed sketch comedy with a team until I burned out. Then I got married. During my “retirement,” I decided to write the Great American Novel. My favorite authors were from the early 20th century. Their use of simple, straightforward language was what I aspired to. I’d written a comic novel, The Devil You Say, while performing with my team, so I knew I had the skills to tackle another one.

The setting came from my fascination with the period those writers depicted. I’m also conversant with silent film. My idol was Lillian Gish. Many of her films (and others) were made before America’s entry in World War One opened a new world. The theater of that time also fascinated me. The main character, Melanie, is a young woman trapped in a small town with no concept of the world beyond.

She wished she could be a Ziegfeld girl. Those fabled beauties adorned the fashion pages of the finest magazines, and Melanie devoured every detail she could about their lives. Bathing in champagne, millionaire boyfriends, ermine capes, jewels—and all they had to do was parade across the stage looking beautiful! How hard could that be?

The original theme was, how do you express sexuality when you don’t have the words for it? Young women were so sheltered they had no idea what it meant to be sexual beings. As Melanie puts it about books and magazines, “all passion seemed to die below the collarbone.” The abortion theme came a little later, when setting up her story.

When it was finished (two decades ago), everyone I showed it to hated it. So I threw it in a drawer.   I resumed my career as a writing performer. Until in 2000, I had writer’s block for five years. It was agony. I pulled The Abortionist’s Daughter out of the drawer and thought, “Hmmm, this is a good story. And I can make it better.” My life experiences in the interim helped humanize Melanie, my heroine. She’s not particularly likeable in the traditional sense. But to me, she’s true to being a flawed human being who wants more out of life.

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How did your own experiences in the performing arts influence the plot?
They were a tremendous influence. The moment Melanie first steps out on a stage, her stage fright, the backstage camaraderie are all taken from my life. I generally write what I know. I still suffer terrible stage fright, and I’ve been acting since high school! All of the auditions she suffers through in Part Four are auditions I’ve been on. It was almost embarrassing to recreate them.

Melanie Daniels!’ barked the casting director. Melanie followed him out onto the stage, clutching her sheet music. A skinny man sat at an upright piano. Several other men sat in folding chairs nearby on the empty stage. The atmosphere in the cavernous theater was musty, but Melanie didn’t care. She was standing on a Broadway stage! She peered up into the scenery hanging above, the edges like so many pieces of thick dark paper. After introducing her to the director, the composer, (who sat at the piano) the lyricist and himself, the casting director asked, “All right, Miss Daniels, what are you going to sing for us?”

Melanie smiled shyly at the composer. She didn’t know how she could sing with her throat so dry. But it seemed unprofessional to ask for a glass of water. The composer didn’t smile back.

“‘I Love A Piano’ by Irving Berlin. I’ve brought the sheet music,” she said.

“Very well,” said the casting director.

“What key?” asked the composer.

“I don’t know. Whatever key it’s in.”

The men glanced at each other. “Go ahead,” said the casting director, pulling up a folding chair.

The composer struck up a sprightly introduction that was completely at odds with the expression on his face. Melanie clasped her hands in front of her the way she’d seen chorus girls in musicals do, and started to sing.

Could that strangled croak be her voice? She hadn’t sounded that way in her room. She had never sounded so bad.

“I know a fine way

to treat a Stein‑way‑‑“

“Thank you!” said the director. The composer stopped playing.

Melanie stared at them. “But I didn’t finish the song.”

“You don’t need to, sweetheart. You can’t sing. NEXT!”

Broadway shows had enormous casts, as well as main road companies and second road companies. There was also summer stock, vaudeville, and the movies. It was an obvious career choice for a young woman who isn’t pretty enough to be a model.

Since the story had so many characters, I drew upon many people I knew, or composites. I’ve been around actors and comics all of my performing life. So it was easy to create the character of Bobby Blinkers, a slapstick comedian who is always “on”. Not to mention the other performers of various stripes, and the sense of cutthroat competition that is always under the surface. I performed as an “alternative comic” when that scene was huge. We all disdained traditional stand-up, but underneath we were all desperate to be on television.

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What is the most interesting/astonishing/surprising thing you learned about women in the arts in 1910? What should women in the arts today know about women in the arts from that era?
The most surprising thing was that an actress could make a living in the theater by doing jobs that don’t exist today. Both in large cast plays and movies up until the 1960s, there was a class of non-speaking actor known as a “dress extra.” Usually in the fancy party scenes. The extras wore their own evening clothes. That’s how Melanie gets her first job. She owns a silver crepe evening gown, so she is hired as a dress extra. The casts were so large, there were any number of non-speaking parts, or parts with only one or two lines. Not to mention chorus girls, dancers, and singers. People with “specialty acts” could tour vaudeville.

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The other surprise was how much power female stars wielded in the industry. Marilyn Miller was a song and dance girl, and her name was always above the title. Unlike today, with its emphasis on male leads and gigantic superhero epics, both the theater and movies ran on women’s star power. Ethel Barrymore was known as well or more than her brother John. The Abortionist’s Daughter weaves that into the plot. Patsy Underwood, a huge celebrity of the theater, is a drunk and possibly mentally ill. But if she isn’t the star, the show folds. The producers are fashioning a play for Gladys, the second lead. They intend to make a star out of her. If anything goes wrong, she has lost her one shot.

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Theater was the dominant entertainment industry throughout the country. It wasn’t until many years later that it was supplanted by movies and television. Women in the arts today should learn their history. It’s far more complex and surprising than most people suppose.

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Elisa DeCarlos (Photo by Ben Strothman)
Elisa DeCarlo (Photo by Ben Strothman)

As a writer that works in various forms, what made you write this as a book rather than a play?
The story is too sweeping to write as a play. If anything, it’s cinematic. It takes place over six months, in the Adirondack Mountains and New York City. There are countless locales. The tiny village Melanie grows up in, the hotels and boardinghouses she lives in as a struggling actress, not to mention the elaborate theater scenes. I have a need to write everything out completely, and to research the hell out of it. My favorite part is research. I read guidebooks to New York City from 1914,15 and 16. The Ziegfeld Follies in my novel is the actual Ziegfeld Follies of 1916. The backstage scenes in the latter half of the novel are as accurate as I could make them.

When writing a novel, I visualize everything as a movie playing in my head. When writing for the stage, I concentrate on the dialogue and interactions between characters. I’m aware that there will be space and budget limitations, and that the writing has to reflect that to a certain extent. When it comes to stage pictures, I’m not creative visually. That’s why I’ve never chosen to direct.

Is it harder to write male characters or female characters?
Both are easy, and both are hard. I’m a natural mimic, which has served me well as a stage performer. When I create a monologue around a character, I am that character. It’s necessary to get into their heads. I’ve also done a great deal of male drag.

Dr. and Mrs. Daniels are not my parents, but they have traits from other peoples’ parents. The same is true for many of the other characters. I’m a tad gender-fluid. Although I’m a heterosexual woman, I am somewhat male-identified. If anything, I have more problems writing self-confident, powerful women than men!