“My Smart-Talking Gal Mystery Heroine: A Joan Bennett Birthday Tribute”
It’s only natural to honor Joan Bennett on her birthday by explaining her powerful influence on my writing. A lot of this influence goes back to my earlier years watching old movies. As a kid, I started out hooked on Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and the rest of the stable of Universal and RKO horror films – God Bless Val Lewton! The mystery and otherworldliness of black and white film, the smart dialogue, the clever twists of plot that other forties and thirties film genres shared with horror lured me into a liminal world like a perpetual deep summer night. I was further captured by classic films’ biting wit, challenging plots, and independent women – especially in what I came to know as film noir. And who showed herself the queen of this world? Above them all, Joan Bennett.
I must admit that I first came really to know Joan when she appeared in Dark Shadows. Her Elizabeth Collins Stoddard was formidable, reminding me of my mother when I was in deep trouble. How could vampires, werewolves, and witches withstand her powerful, regal stare? Still, like my Mom, there was deep feeling and love for her daughter and her family. However, only in film did I discover Joan displaying one of the traits I loved best about my Mom: that witty, smart-talking-gal sense of humor. In outright comedy, Joan could drop a clever line with style and intelligence, but even in some of her darkest dramas that wit came through. What a delight to see her wield that humor to put firmly in their places anyone trying to crush or bamboozle her. In The House across the Bay, she undercuts a smart-mouth chorine who harangued her, “Cheep, cheep, cheep” with “Where’s the birdseed?” When the obnoxious woman tries to go after her physically, Joan rakes her over the coals with, “Just a minute, Miss Dimwit. I was silly enough to apologize, but now that you want to make something of it, I’ll give you a good reason. You’re a phony, you’ve got a voice like four panes of cracked glass, and about as much appeal as a can of embalming fluid. I could go on, but that ought to give you a rough idea of how I feel about you.” Eight years later, when Paul Henreid tries to disparage her cynicism towards him in The Scar with a deprecating, “You’re a bitter little lady,” she puts him in his place with a world-weary but tough, “It’s a bitter little world, full of sad surprises, and you don’t go around letting people hurt you.” In The Man I Married, Joan’s not even daunted by Nazis, telling her husband-turned-fascist, “Heil heel” when he promises to dump her and take their son. Her feistiness isn’t limited to verbiage, either. Take a gander at this picture.
Like my Mom, Joan played women of wit, strength, humanity, and confidence – not just what the New York Times dubbed her gallery of “hydrochloric dames.”
So, in my twenties, when I decided to take my writing seriously than developing Victoria Holt knock-offs or spoofs of Dark Shadows, I turned to 1940s style mysteries to inspire my own adventures of romance, danger, suspense, and wit. Interestingly, as a writer influenced by film, I found I could better create distinct, believable characters by casting them as actors with whom I was familiar, blending their traits with some of the people I knew (including myself!). I also knew that I didn’t want my heroine to be wimpy, weepy, and inclined to faint in the final reel or pages, which, unfortunately, did often happen on the page or screen in the ’40s and ’50s. Guess who I saw as perfect for the role of Jessica Minton, a smart, independent, quick-with-a-quip forties gal? Someone who had a sensitive heart and a strong sense of responsibility, but didn’t take guff from anyone – and would smack said guff out of the ballpark with whip smart humor.
I do see a lot of myself in Jessica – and in Joan’s less nasty roles – or maybe an idealized version of myself, anyway. I know that mischievous banter with those I love and pointed barbs for those I don’t is something I share with Jess, which Joan plays to perfection. However, I doubt that like Jessica, I’d have the guts to hold onto a mysterious package left by a mysterious and handsome British stranger at the risk of being liquidated by Nazi fifth columnists – to disguise myself as a maid to get into a criminal’s apartment while he’s still there (!) to retrieve a gun used to frame a friend – to grab a gunsel by the lapels and threaten to turn him into a soprano if he ever threatened my cat again – to show up in a shadow-draped room and wittily bargain with a gun-toting femme fatale and her hired gun to trade stolen jade for my friends’ lives – or to slip into a cove and explore a beached and rotting ship while layers of ocean fog swept in around me. I might dare to weaponize a banana-cream pie, but I can’t guarantee my aim would be as good as Jessica Minton’s. I can guarantee you that any fans of our Joanie could picture her carrying off these adventures with verve and wit, though not without human trepidation.
Those of us who love Joan Bennett and appreciate her talents would also, as Sam Fuller writes, see her as “a sensitive actress” enough to also believe her playing Jessica’s distress at being torn between loyalty to an old boyfriend and to a new man who brings her adventure and love; a sister who gets annoyed with her older sibling’s foibles leading them into danger but sticking by her to the end (though not without a smart quip or two exchanged between them); a sweetheart waiting to hear news of a fiancé lost in the war, then a wife supporting her husband’s struggle with memories from that war. And Jessica loves her cat. I know Joan was a dog person, but heck, there’s still part of me in Jessica Minton. So, she’s a cat person!
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject, but if you’d like to take a peek at some passages from Bait and Switch or Letter from a Dead Man, click on the links on the titles and have fun picturing Joan working her magic as Jessica Minton. Oh, and by the way, I cast her sister Elizabeth as Rosalind Russell (and my sister-on-law). Can you imagine what a grand ride it would have been to catch Joan and Roz trading quips with each other, then marshaling their humor to take on Nazis, criminally corrupt American aristocrats, femme fatales, underworld crooks, and crooked cops? And I’ve got two more books on the way! Viva Jessica Minton and Joan Bennett!
If you love mysteries on the screen or on the page, especially centered on the golden era, click here to go to my web page where you can find lots of interesting stuff – including my Joan Bennett tribute page!
Photos: Author’s collections
Once school was out- permanently for me now! – I had more time for readings/talks/signings. One of my first events was the Local Author Book Fair in Worcester at the Wesley United Methodist Church. This was a signing and chatting rather than a reading. I had a wonderful time. I met lots of new readers and also got to talk with many other local writers. Jean Grant and I did a book trade, so I’m looking forward to reading her A Hundred Breaths this summer. I also saw some old friends. Kate Zebrowski, whom I know from my time at Worcester State, had the table next to mine where she was promoting her time-slip fantasy Sleepwalking Backwards as well as her poetry. Tom and Barbara Ingrassia were at the other end of the auditorium with tables for their work as well – Barbara on copyright law and Tom with his “supreme” books on the Supremes (Reflections of a Love Supreme) and self-help (One Door Closes). By the Bye, Tom’s One Door Closes is being turned into a film that is nearing conclusion. Stay tuned for more on that!
In June, I returned to my alma mater where I earned my BA, then ULowell- now UMass-Lowell, to give a talk on becoming a published author through the school’s LIRA (Learning in Retirement Association) Program. To my delight, the talk was at the South Campus (originally Lowell State), where I did all my course work. We were in Allen House, a beautiful old building on a rise overlooking the Merrimack River. There are some wonderful views, as you can see from this photo that my cameraman and husband, Yang, took.
I can remember going to some receptions here back in the mid to late ’70s when I was an undergraduate- a child undergraduate, that is. The place was entirely redone after having been abandoned for a long time after I had graduated – no connection. The room I presented in was done beautifully in dark wood paneling with floor-to-ceiling doors looking out on a green and then down to the river.
The presentation was loads of fun, with a packed house and an audience who had great questions for me on my personal experiences as a writer and on the travails of finding a publisher and promoting my work. I especially loved sharing with the audience the powerful influence of filmed and written mysteries of the golden age and film noir on creating Bait and Switch and Letter from a Dead Man. Of course, I made sure to give a tip of my mightily feathered hat to my favorite smart-talking gal Joan Bennett and her influence on the creation of my heroine Jessica Minton. I also got some nice comments on my hat and suit! The nylons with the seam up the back (from the WWII Museum in New Orleans) were a big hit, too!
Look here. I CAN walk and talk at the same time! Thank God no one asked me to chew gum! One bridge too far.
Interestingly enough, I also met some people who knew folk I with whom went to grammar school and high school! And people laughed at my jokes, too! So, the summer has started off nicely in terms of doing readings and such. Now, it’s on to Pettee Memorial Library in Wilmington, Vt. on Saturday, 6/22. Hmm, which hat and suit should I wear. Any suggestions?
Last week or so, my good friend Tom Ingrassia (savant of all things Motown) posted on his Facebook feed that Scherrie and Susaye, former ladies of the Supremes (FLOS), who had united with Joyce Vincent, were going to be performing a free concert at the Waltham Summer Concert series. Being a Supremes devotee, I was primed for that concert! It was the perfect way for Yang and I to kick off our anniversary celebrations. Still, the monsoons of rain besetting New England this summer had us on tenterhooks. Would the outdoor concert be cancelled? No! It was moved to the high school field house, a modern and pleasant set up. We were on for a supreme night of entertainment!
Yang and I were delighted to find our friends Tom and Barbara almost immediately; and, after some fun chatting, we settled down for the opening act of a local band, the Reminisants [sic]. Then, after intermission our favorite ladies appeared looking glorious, glamorous, and elegant to let us in for a full hour and a half of high energy Motown magic. Scherrie, Susaye, and Joyce performed with vivacity and delight. They were having as a good a time as the rest of us in the audience, as we bounced and bopped along with them to Supremes’ hits and new songs. Their harmonies were impeccable and exhilarating; when each lady took the lead, her powerful voice carried the feeling and life of the song. It was especially fun that they did some of the hits by Dawn, the group that Joyce helped make famous. So good to hear her come out of the background. She has a strong and beautiful voice. I can’t stress enough how good these ladies sounded. Interestingly, as Susaye and Joyce were telling me later, when Mary Wilson left the Supremes, the group was supposed to continue with Joyce as a member. Isn’t it a pity that Motown hadn’t let us have a great two-for-one-split: solo Mary Wilson and Susaye, Scherrie, and Joyce continuing the Supremes. At least we have them together now! They haven’t lost a jot of their talent – or energy! See: in this picture, Scherrie and Susaye are moving so fast that they are going interdimensional!
Thanks to Eric Iverson and a suggestion from my friend Tom, Yang and I were also able to stay and meet all three ladies afterwards, along with other fans. What a treat! These women are so down to earth, gracious, and good-hearted! They appreciate their fans’ appreciation and were interested in us as people. When it came up that I write mysteries, Susaye and Joyce immediately wanted to find out how to get Bait and Switch. When Scherrie later found out, she wanted the same information. They took interest in another woman’s writing, as well. I was excited to hear more about their plans, including an upcoming concert tour in England and a possible album. Scherrie also shared about her play in production in L.A. (A Lady in Waiting) and the screenplays that she has written and is working on getting optioned. (Check out her interview on Tom Ingrassia’s radio show.) Maybe Sisters in Crime might be a good group to network those screenplays! I wish I could remember what I said to make her crack up here!
I’m also happy to say that I made some wonderful new friends amongst the other fans, discovering I had unexpected connections with the other folks who’d come back to “meet the Supremes.” Everyone there, audience members, Supremes, members of the Supremes organization, just had a warm, fun time. Yang and I appreciated that Scherrie was talking with him about speaking Chinese. By the way, she said, “I love you” in Chinese very well. I had quite a long chat, as well, with Joyce and Susaye about the group and writing. I was so touched later when Susaye Greene spontaneously gave me a big hug. I think we bonded over our creative tendencies, love of music, my incorporating Supremes music into teaching composition, and our enjoying the humor of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I know I’m gushing, but it was just such a great experience. It’s something we have to appreciate in these times when so many people think it’s acceptable to be cruel.
If you get a chance to see Susaye, Scherrie, and Joyce perform, do it! They have energy and wonderful voices! Here’s a link to their web site so that you can keep up on what they are up to. Treat yourself! And thank you Joyce, Susaye, and Scherrie for sharing your talent and being good kids (as my Mom would say)! And special thanks to Eric Iverson for bringing these wodnerful ladies East and to my friend Tom Ingrassia for putting me wise to this whole experience. Listen to Tom’s radio program!
Last weekend, we had a mini-vacation in Vermont, connected to my day at Bookstock. What a great time! We’re so fortunate to be living in New England. Friday afternoon, we took a leisurely drive up to Brattleboro to have an early supper at our favorite bakery on Main Street. In a space overlooking the river and mountain, we watched a thunderstorm roll in while we enjoyed a scrumptious olive tapenade/goat cheese/walnut salad and a cappuccino. The storm passed; we rolled out for Springfield, Vermont and the Toonerville Rail Trail. It’s not a long trail, only seven miles round trip, but it runs along the Black River and through some gorgeous Vermont mountain and woodsy scenery. I even managed to spot some Phoebes and Thrushes! The river ran fast and muddy. I’m not sure if that was just from the recent rainfall. Whatever the case, there were some notable rapids. This should be a nice ride in the colorful New England fall.
The next day was my stint at the Sisters In Crime-New England Table on Woodstock Green at Bookstock. I had a wonderful time with two of my favorite writers, and pals, Leslie Wheeler and Connie Johnson Hambley. Leslie has a new book out in Rattlesnake Hill and Connie has completed her Jessica trilogy. If you’re looking for some exciting and enjoyable summer reading, these are great choices – as are Letter from a Dead Man and Bait and Switch! We have the best conversations on writing, the great stuff to do in New England, our families, etc. We also had a lot of fun talking to and getting to know readers and writers visiting our table. I can’t say enough about the great opportunities Sisters in Crime offers both readers and writers (published or not). And one of the best benefits is meeting the other members of the group. I’ve made some swell (as Anne Sheridan would have put it in a movie) friends here. At our booth, the three of us couldn’t help telling interested readers how enjoyable we found each other’s writing!
Last day of our vacation, Yang and I went to Shelburne Falls and visited the Bridge of Flowers. If you’ve never been there, this is an old foot bridge that has been planted on either side of a central path with all kinds of different, beautiful flowers and shrubs.
There are zinnias, roses, red hot poker, delphinium with bachelor buttons, Rose of Sharon, bee balm – you name it. Here are some lovely lilies.
These dahlias and the sunflower are all set for the Fall !
Here I am, delighted to be with a shrub with which I share a name!
You can see from the pictures how gorgeous the flowers are. Several years back, a terrible flood wiped out the bridge garden; but, as you can see, it has been restored with resounding success. Some of the flowers will last several seasons of the year, while some are more seasonal and will be replaced with flowers and plants appropriate to the autumn, later.
So many people enjoy the garden! However, as I will show you, humans aren’t the only ones who delight in the Bridge of Flowers. Yang got several wonderful pictures of one of the many Tiger Swallowtails taking a sunny Sunday brunch on the Bridge.
There was also a Hummingbird Hawk Moth, which people frequently mistake for a Hummingbird. Gorgeous and otherworldly, isn’t it?
Then, we got some shots of the real deal: this female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. She adored the Bee Balm and the Red Hot Poker! She was also fairly undaunted by most of the humans at her restaurant. Yang got some superb shots, didn’t he? I’m happy to say that we also saw another such bird on our stroll through town and that the hummingbird who usually visits us each year at home has made several appearances already! All in all, a delightful weekend!
Wood Thrush Image: https://www.freeclipartnow.com/animals/birds/Wood-Thrush.jpg.html
All other images, author’s collection
In between the raging blizzards of this spring, I was fortunate enough to be able to join some wonderful fellow mystery writers to promote our books and make connections with readers and neophyte writers. The first such adventure took Yang and I to the far north (of New York, anyway) to Ithaca and Buffalo Street Books. Here, my friend Lisa Lieberman and I presented “An Evening of Noir,” where we not only talked about our books but about the noir films that inspired us! Lisa’s husband Tim created this gorgeous poster for our adventure. Note that it features my favorite femme fatale and/or smart-talking gal, Joan Bennett! Didn’t he do a superb job?!
Lisa and I had a fun program. I had prepared a cd of background music to help create the mood of dark, mean streets; tough detectives; mysterious dames; and haunted pasts. Our playlist contained multiple versions of “Laura,” “Harlem Nocturne,” “Penny Blues,” “Drink Dirty Water,” “Peter Gunn,” and even Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” to name a few. And, of course, we dressed the parts, with Lisa’s swanky mink stole and slinky mystery-lady dress and my Claire Trevor femme fatale black suit with swag, complimented by red velvet and black feathered cap. Watch out Phil Marlow and Sam Spade!
We had loads of fun talking with our audience about the trademarks of film noir and how they influenced our novels, especially in terms of specific films. Lisa detailed how her experiences in Hungary and the film The Third Man inspired the tense and dark atmosphere and tight plot twists of her Burning Cold. I shared how the wit, surprising reversals, and slippery characters in films like The Scar; Murder, My Sweet; and Double Indemnity shaped the latest adventures of Jessica Minton in Letter from a Dead Man. And both us ladies of noir had a great time sharing trivia and background about the filmmakers and writers of our favorite noir films with our audience. We had such a wonderful time, we’re thinking of adding film clips and “taking our act on the road”!
My other recent appearance was on a delightful panel, with an equally delightful name: “Stealing from the Dead.” This Sisters-in-Crime Panel took place at Atria Bay in Barrington, RI. I was pleased to join Frances MCNamara and Steve Liskow for a fun presentation at the community. Both writers have fascinating books, with Frances’s latest series set in early 20th century Chicago and Steve’s in Connecticut and New York concerning the brutal reality of human trafficking. Do click on each of their names to check out their work in greater detail. You won’t be sorry! You can see from the picture on the left that I had a wonderful time. If you ever want to book a Sisters-In-Crime panel for your library, school, or other such group, you can contact Leslie Wheeler at the Speakers Bureau.
I also want to extend my thanks to Margaret Shand of Atria Bay for setting up the panel. the audience had intriguing questions and great comments for us. My thanks to Margaret for the photo at the top of the paragraph.
Yang took what is probably the best shot of me, below.