Thursday, May 28, 2020

"The Beach Scene": An Edwardian Holiday

Some authors use music, others draw on films and TV series, still others turn to paintings for inspiration for their novels. I soak up ideas and images from all of the above. When it comes to my new novel Dreamland, I reveled in not only the turn-of-the-century photographs of Coney Island and Manhattan that I found but also some intriguing paintings.

In   Dreamland I write about two worlds in Coney Island, the raucous one of roller coasters, hotels in the shape of an elephant, circuses, and other attractions and then the other one: the privileged elite gathered at such luxury hotels as Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach, and the Oriental.




Samuel S. Carr (American pastoral and landscape painter) 1837 - 1908
Beach Scene, ca. 1879
oil on canvas
30.5 x 50.8 cm. (12 x 20 in.)
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, United States
"Beach Scene" depicts Coney island when it was a fashionable and popular resort in the late 19th century. Several details in Carr's composition hint at the growing commercialism of this site: the photographer taking a family portrait, the man giving donkey rides and the Punch and Judy show. Carr, however, omits the beach signs that were then common, including advertisements for hotels, saloons, acrobatic shows, shooting galleries, and hot dogs.
Originally from England and trained at the Royal School of Design in Chester, Carr settled in Brooklyn in 1863 and is primarily known for his genre scenes of Coney Island and Brooklyn parks. As was his practice, a number of figures in "The Beach Scene" are repeated in other paintings.
The jewel-like colour accents and complex placement of figure groups make this one of Carr's most successful paintings.
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Originally from England, he relocated to the U.S. (specifically, New York City, where he later studied mechanical drawing in 1865) around 1862. He is recorded as having lived in Brooklyn from 1879 to 1907, during which he developed an eerie style of painting where shapes would be repeated, flipped, and rotated over and over, while still remaining lifelike. He lived in Brooklyn along with his sister, Annie, and her husband, John Bond. He never married. He was, at one time, the president of the Brooklyn Art Club and a member of a Masonic Lodge. He is a fairly well known artist, with some of his paintings having sold at auction alongside the likes of Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth, to the tune of over US$70,000, and often signed his pieces as "S.S. Carr".

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Interview With Mystery Author Mariah Fredericks


Death of an American Beauty is the third in Mariah Fredericks' excellent series featuring ladies' maid Jane Prescott, set in New York in the 1910s.


The novel is winning glowing reviews, including from the Wall Street Journal, which said, "Ms. Fredericks’s tour of old New York—from a seedy Bowery dive to the gilded palace of a department store—is eye-opening, and her mystery well-spun. But what makes this book a stand-out is its affecting depictions of interactions that transcend race, creed, gender and generations.."


I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Mariah on her new novel and her thoughts on late Gilded Age New York and the craft of writing a historical mystery.





Did you come up with time and place for your series first--New York City in the 1910s--or did the idea of your character, ladies maid Jane Prescott, come first?

Jane came first. One day, the first few lines of A Death of No Importance, “I will tell it. I will tell it badly” came into my head and with them, the teller of the tale, Jane Prescott. The fact that she apologized told me this wasn’t someone used to being heard. I had the idea that this was someone no one noticed who somehow knew the truth about a famous crime, which brought me to the idea of a servant. Her tone was a little formal, indicating the past. I needed an era when servants were common, but not so distant that she would have no freedom of movement. I live in the city, our time has a lot in common with the Gilded Age, and that’s how we got to New York in the 1910s.


The family that Jane works for is nouveau riche New York. What appealed to you in focusing on this particular family and are they based on anyone?

I wanted Jane, who has worked in a great house for a number of years, to know things her employers didn’t. It explains their trust in her when it comes to solving little problems like murder. It’s the old Jeeves and Wooster, smart servant, dim master dynamic. The younger daughter Charlotte shakes things up when she pursues the scion of an old family; the tension comes from the fact that she is an outsider. So does her drive and ambition. The Benchleys’ aspirations sometimes make them ridiculous, but also sympathetic. You see why Jane would go out of her way to help them. Most of us can relate to being an outsider. Certainly they’re inspired by Edith Wharton’s comedy, but no, they’re not based directly on anyone.

What buildings and attractions in New York City remain from this time period and how does it feel seeing them more than 100 years later?

There’s more and less than you would think! The Theodore Roosevelt home on 20th Street is a complete recreation. But Sagamore Hill still stands. Obviously, you have the Frick, the Morgan library—which you wrote about so beautifully—the Tenement Museum. But you can stumble over Gilded Age luxury any number of places. The National Museum of the American Indian is in the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, built from 1902 to 1907. There are rooms in there that will blow your mind.

If I really want to go back into Jane’s world, I head downtown to the tip of Manhattan. The strange twisty streets of the Wall Street area, the old ferry terminal, built in 1903. You can look out at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, be reminded of people’s journey to this country and just feel transported.

The New York Herald building, where a key character works


In this book you split the narrative between the privileged world of Jane's employer and a refuge for "fallen women," or former prostitutes, that her uncle operates. Was it difficult to switch back and forth?


In a word, yes. Originally the book was more weighted toward the refuge and Lower East Side, but my editor felt—rightly—we shouldn’t neglect Louise Tyler and her society lady circle. They’re engaged in putting on a pageant at one of the city’s most lavish department stores. The two storylines do converge, both in plot and theme. But the pageant storyline is more comic, and sometimes it was a struggle to keep the tone consistent.

The number of prostitutes in New York City at the turn of the century was enormous. What did you learn about their lives in researching this novel?

One thing that struck me is the range of women who engaged in sex work. You think of it as the last resort of the poor, desperate, dysfunctional, and that’s not untrue. But the fact that women were barred from so many professions meant that even women who were at one point secure in life could engage in sex work if there was a downturn. 

Another angle I found intriguing was the adverse impact of the reform movement. By shutting down brothels, they shifted the profession from the control of madams who ran brothels to men who “provided protection” for women when they were forced on to the streets. This made sex work far more dangerous. I have a terrific book, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, that I use as a bible on this subject, in addition to my ultimate bible, Greater Gotham by Mike Wallace.

Women did not then have the same protections against domestic violence, and puritanical groups could be threatening toward women they disapproved of/ How did you incorporate this into the plot and make it historically accurate without stopping the plot to have to explain context?


In the book, there is a religious community group that violently objects to the presence of the refuge in their neighborhood. Once a prostitute always a prostitute is their view. The more suspicious think Jane’s uncle is running something very sketchy; one man and a group of women who once sold themselves? That sounds fishy! It creates a tension, a group of people ready to accuse the Reverend Prescott once the murder occurs. Unfortunately, I think we’re drowning in mob judgment these days, so Mrs. Pickett and her puritans will be recognizable to the reader.


But even though the “Committee for Moral Rectitude” as Jane snidely dubs them is mostly a malign force in the book, I did want the reader to have some understanding of the frustrations that would lead people to join such a cause. People who lived in poor, underserved neighborhoods could feel that the city dumped its dysfunction in their areas. Why do they have to deal with it? Put the refuge near Frick’s house, let's see how he likes it.

Your plotting and pace are very good in this book. Do you plot extensively ahead of writing?

Thank you so much. I can get lost in the history and inside Jane’s head, so I have a rule that something must happen or must be learned in every chapter. I do a chapter by chapter outline, so that keeps me honest. And I can be an impatient reader myself, so I’m sensitive to the need to keep the story moving.

Jane has a new man in her life who could be a love interest going forward. How do you balance romance with mystery?

A very smart friend once observed that all good detectives are lonely on some level. I think that’s true. I also think that mysteries are stories of peril and romance poses an emotional risk for the protagonist. It’s a different kind of investigation: who is this person? What’s their agenda? Can I trust them? The protagonist learns something about their own blind spots and strengths in the process.

I love Leo Hirschfeld. He is a musician and they have their dangers, but he has a joyous shamelessness that’s very fun to write. His entire approach to life is…let’s do it, why not? Very different from Jane.

What's next for Jane?

The next book is set in 1914 and originally, I wanted everyone in Europe for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—arguably the most significant murder of the era. But my editor felt it would be best to stay in New York, so we are off to Broadway! Louise gets involved in a musical production, and where Louise goes, Jane follows. The vision of a young America singing and dancing while the world goes up in flames worked out very well. I’m a theater geek, so this involved all kinds of great research
.

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To order Death of an American Beauty, go to bookshop.org, where each purchase shares proceeds with a fund for the independent bookstores.

Click here to find out more.

The novel is first in the list "Glory in the Gilded Age."

Friday, March 27, 2020

'Dreamland' on Discount: 99 Cents for Ebook

I'm pleased to share news of an excellent savings--my new novel DREAMLAND is priced at 99 cents for the ebook in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The price is lowered for a Bookbub promotion, but anyone can take advantage of the 99 cents price.

To order, click here.



New York City, 1911: Rebellious young heiress Peggy Batternberg reluctantly accompanies her family for a holiday at the luxurious Oriental Hotel, on the Atlantic Ocean. But less than a mile away, Coney Island, “America’s Playground,” beckons with forbidden delight — and danger for Peggy and those she loves most.

The reviews:


“I could practically taste the salt-water taffy and smell the ocean air as I read Bilyeau’s latest, set in 1911 Coney Island. Beautifully written and impeccably researched, DREAMLAND is a rollicking ride.” — Fiona Davis, bestselling author of 'Chelsea Girls'

“DREAMLAND is like the best chocolate: rich, dark and satisfying.” — Libbie Hawker, author of The Ragged Edge of Night

"A Must-Read Book for Winter 2020" — Town & Country magazine

"A marvelous book!" 
— Ellen Marie Wiseman, author of What She Left Behind

“This fast-paced, engrossing novel from Bilyeau gives readers an up-close and personal view of New York’s Gilded Age” — Library Journal (starred review)

'Bilyeau is at the height of her talents in the immersive and gripping DREAMLAND' 
 Heather Webb, USA Today bestselling author

'Bilyeau’s thrilling novel plunges deep into Dreamland’s maze of pleasure and menace' — Marlowe Benn, bestselling author of Relative Fortunes


'An outstanding thriller...This fascinating portrait of the end of the Gilded Age deserves a wide audience.' 
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Sunday, March 22, 2020

My Story on the Romanovs and the Windsors

I'm pleased to share the link to my story on Town & Country on the last full meeting between the Romanovs and the Windsors on the Isle of Wight in 1909.



Two families sat down to dinner aboard the yacht Victoria and Albert on August 2nd, 1909, to be served an exquisitely prepared meal: cold quail, timbales of pear, and glace. The table, set for 44 guests, was dotted with vases of red roses. Such a presentation was only to be expected.

Not one but two crowned monarchs were dining that evening: England’s King Edward VII and his nephew, Russia’s Czar Nicholas II. It was a seismic summit. The British Empire held sway over some 400 million people; Nicholas ruled one-sixth of the world. But it was also a deeply personal event.

That very morning, the Russian Imperial family—41-year-old Nicholas, his wife, 37-year-old Czarina Alexandra, and five children, ranging from 13-year-old Olga to the 5-year-old Tsarevich Alexei—had arrived at the rendezvous off the Isle of Wight on their own yacht, the Standart.

The two families were intertwined twice by blood: Nicholas’s Danish mother, Marie, was the sister of Edward’s wife, Queen Alexandra, while Czarina Alexandra was the favorite granddaughter of Queen Victoria, King Edward's mother.

The four-day visit was far from the first meeting of these two royal families. For a generation, various members had gathered in England, Russia, Germany, and Denmark for weddings and funerals and summer holidays, just like any other set of relatives. But this was to be the last such coming together of the two full groups.

The Romanovs’ 1909 journey, when they all made a point of going ashore to the Isle of Wight to see Queen Victoria’s once-beloved Osborne House, took place towards the end of the Edwardian Long Summer, a time marked by leisurely teas and emerald-lawn garden parties and novels by E.M. Forster. But storm clouds were gathering on this summer visit. In addition to growing tensions within their respective countries, Russia, Edward VII and Nicholas II did not have the easiest relationship.



Read the full story here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

'The Ghost of Madison Avenue': Free for 2 Days


One of the most challenging aspects of the coronavirus crisis is our feeling of helplessness. I live in New York City, one of the hardest-hit regions. We are staying in our apartment except to buy food and other necessary supplies. My son has had to shift to online learning at his college and my daughter has lost her part-time job as a public library aide working with children. It's a super anxious time.

So... what can I do? One thing is to make a book free. Everyone's reading more right now, but we might not have bottomless-pit wallets. The only one of mine that I control the price of: THE GHOST OF MADISON AVENUE. For March 18th and March 19th, it's free.

THE GHOST OF MADISON AVENUE is set in 1912 New York, and tells the story of a young Irish American widow who eagerly takes a job at J. P. Morgan's private library. She soon discovers it is a place like no other, with its secret staircases, magical manuscripts, and mysterious murals. But that’s nothing compared to a person Helen alone sees: a young woman standing on Madison Avenue, looking as if she were keeping watch. In learning the woman’s true link to the Morgan, Helen must face the pain of her own past. She finds herself with a second chance at happiness—if she has the courage.

Download the free ebook here: https://amzn.to/2YFjbmG

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Loving the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval!

I'm thrilled to report that the venerable Good Housekeeping magazine included DREAMLAND on its list of "The 20 Best Books of 2020 to Add to Your Reading List ASAP." The magazine's review:

Don't sleep on this beautiful novel that twists and turns like the Cyclone through Coney Island. Socialite Peggy is sent to spend the summer there, and she's not happy about it – that is, until she falls in love with one of the artists on the pier. When bodies start piling up in the summer heat, Peggy has to untangle a web of deceit before she or those she loves end up asleep forever. 

Here it is on the magazine's website:




The full list is here.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Brooklyn's Gilded Age: The Grand Hotels on the Atlantic Ocean


The Oriental Hotel, Brooklyn, opened to the public in 1880.

More than 100 years after Coney Island earned the nickname of "America's Playground," it is still a famous place.

Far less well known is the trio of large hotels that rose in Brooklyn less than a mile away from the amusement park. They were built in the Victorian age and intended to serve discriminating guests in the most elegant manner. Many of their guests never set foot in Coney Island's competing amusement parks of Steeplechase or Juno--or Dreamland, after it opened in 1904. They existed in a parallel world, sharing the beach on the Atlantic Ocean with Coney Island but little else.

The phrase "New York Gilded Age" summons up images of dazzling Vanderbilt mansions, Grand Central Station and the Plaza Hotel, all in Manhattan. But the hotels on the ocean in Brooklyn played a crucial role in this period. They were widely admired, visited by presidents, famous inventors like Thomas Edison, and European nobility.

People today can travel to Coney to ride the Cyclone or the Wonder Wheel or devour hotdogs at Nathan's. The hotels, however, were finished by the 1920s and today they are physically gone. Houses, apartments, synagogues, and the Kingsborough Community College sit atop the hotels' foundations. Theirs is a lost world.

I set my historical mystery Dreamland in not only Coney Island but the Oriental Hotel, the most elegant of the three and attracting the wealthiest guests from 1880 to 1916. Families would stay the entire summer at the Oriental. In this article, I'll share my research into this fascinating time and place.


A postcard of the Oriental Hotel, from the collection of the Coney Island Museum


The first of the grand hotels to be built was the Manhattan Beach Hotel. Picking this spot went beyond catering to people's fondness for an oceanfront resort. In the 19th century, people believed that the region was good for your health, even curative.

In the 1870s, railroad tycoon Austin Corbin spent some weeks at a small oceanfront hotel owned by William Engelman because his son was in poor health. While there, he decided the property was ripe for development and he formed a syndicate of investors to snap up the land.

The biggest challenge was transportation. But once that was solved--use steamboats and build railroad lines leading right to Coney Island--a vast hotel was designed by architect J. Pickering Putnam. It was all wooden, 400 feet long. President Ulysses Grant attended the opening ceremony for the Manhattan Beach Hotel, which was within a year dubbed "the best hotel on the Atlantic Ocean." Souza wrote a song expressly for the hotel.

It had 300 guest rooms, a ballroom, a bandstand, and a restaurant that could seat thousands. In its long veranda, it resembled the larger hotels in Saratoga Springs.

A Scribners Magazine correspondent wrote about the hotel:


What a charming view of the sea. A wide esplanade between is green with turf and gay with flowers--geranium, helitrope, lobelia...In the center is a music stand shaped like a scallop shell. The beach below is full of parasols and summer costumes bright against the water. 

Businessman James Jordan leaped in to compete with Corbin, building the Brighton Beach Hotel. It's believed that Corbin was trying to outdo the man who was struggling to outdo him when he built the Oriental Hotel.

 
Postcard of Brighton Beach Hotel. From the collection of the Coney Island Museum.


The Oriental Hotel, some 1,000 yards east of Corbin's Manhattan Beach Hotel, was the most opulent of the three, with a "Moorish" motif.   It was six stories high, 478 feet long, with eight large circular towers surmounted by a minaret. There were about 480 sleeping rooms, and an elevator.

During the day some guests would swim in the water, using the "bathing pavilions" to change. Hot air balloon rides also beckoned, as well as bicycling and tennis. In the evening, people dressed for dinner, dining on lobster, littleneck clams, lamb and other such dishes. There were fireworks at night, concerts, and spectacles acted out on the lawn.

One year The Brooklyn Eagle said about the Oriental Hotel guests that the descendants of four American presidents were staying  there as well as "the usual quota of barons, dukes, counts and foreign attaches."

According to The New York Times, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford met for the first time in 1896 at the Oriental Hotel, while in Manhattan Beach for a conference. "It had the greatest men of the day as its guests," said the paper.

Yet all this time Coney Island was exploding nearby as a resort drawing the factory workers and office workers, the middle-class families of New York for day trips. People came intending to enjoy themselves--and they did.


Women at Coney Island, 1899


There was little if any mingling. The hotels employed Pinkertons and other guards to keep the Coney crowd out. Worse, Corbin was an anti-Semite who said publically that Jews were unwelcome. Blacks were discriminated against as well.

After Corbin died in 1896, some of the bigotry eased. But stylish tastes were changing. The richest families in New York preferred Newport or other out-of-town resorts. Still, many men with means continued coming out for the season to follow the horseraces--there were three large racetracks in the region, making Brooklyn the horse-racing capital of America. The Vanderbilts and "Diamond Jim Brady" favored the Coney Island Jockey Club.

As the large hotels began to fade in popularity, the amusement parks of Coney Island reached their peak in the fantastic and the imaginative. People came from all over the world to see them. It was hard to think that hotel guests would be completely satisfied with sea bathing and concerts with these larger-than-life amusements so close at hand.


Luna Park, Coney Island Museum
Dreamland, Coney Island Museum.

When gambling was banned in the state in 1910, it dealt a fatal blow to the grand hotels. The Manhattan Beach Hotel was demolished in 1912; in 1916 the Oriental Hotel fell to the wrecking ball.



The era of the grand hotel in Brooklyn was no more. 

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Nancy Bilyeau's fifth historical novel, Dreamland, is set in 1911. Rebellious young heiress Peggy Batternberg reluctantly accompanies her family for a holiday at the luxurious Oriental Hotel, on the Atlantic Ocean. But less than a mile away, Coney Island, “America’s Playground,” beckons with forbidden delight — and danger for Peggy and those she loves most. A story of corruption, class, and dangerous obsession.
The novel received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.

To order, go here.