The inspiration for the Art Deco Mysteries comes from my move to New York City just two weeks after 9/11. I witnessed firsthand how a city handles profound adversity: it was with a tremendous capacity for sacrifice and compassion, art, humor, an indomitable spirit, and cocktails. Inspired by the New Yorkers around me, I picked up a biography on Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who took office in 1934 and served for three full terms, and began to get a very different picture of the Depression era.
So much of America’s resilience during the Great Depression can be found in the complex character of La Guardia. It’s easy to overlook the power of humor, but it is the most persuasive form of communication and perhaps the most telling about the strength of a person in the midst of tribulation. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was a serious, hard-working mayor who always fought for the little guy. He was the People’s Mayor. But he had a tremendous talent for creating spectacular publicity stunts as well as a knack for creative problem solving. Which is a perfect avenue for humor.
“Fio,” Lane’s nickname for Mayor La Guardia, was often a first responder at major crime scenes, traffic accidents, and fires. He had police radios installed in his office, home, and car (which took up most of the front seat) so that he could listen to police activity. In the history I’ve researched, there aren’t enough energetic adjectives nor storm superlatives to properly describe him. Lowell Limpus, famed reporter, once wrote about Fio’s first week in office, “He had the nation’s biggest city dizzy. Brigades of bewildered reporters were unable to keep up with his chameleon mind.” His flare for theatrics shows in many an anecdote. In one story, Fio came bounding down the steps of City Hall frantically looking for his car. When he couldn’t find his driver, he spotted a police motorcycle and ran over, hopped into the sidecar shouting to the surprised cop on the motorcycle, “Go, go, go!” As they roared off, he yelled to the astonished crowd, “I am not a sissy!” He sawed off an inch of the front legs of his office chairs to keep guests just uncomfortable enough that they wouldn’t dawdle in meetings, he ran into fires to help the firemen, he got a tiger skin rug for his office to taunt the previous political institution (the Tammany Tigers), and he crushed illegal slot machines with his own sledge hammer. He even played his coronet, then unrolled a lordly scroll declaring the gangster Ciro Teranova, the Artichoke King, shut down for business. It’s safe to say Fiorello handled business with panache.La Guardia’s flare is symbolic of the stories that get left out of descriptions in the 1930s
La Guardia’s flare is symbolic of the stories that get left out of descriptions in the 1930s. I believe that the creativity and artfulness of the time is often overshadowed by the stories of the Dust Bowl, the shanty towns, and the soup lines. But the beauty in the midst of that adversity is breathtaking and challenges the general narrative of the 1930s. It’s so much more than soup lines.
I often talk with people about the underrepresentation of art, humor, and strong women in this era. I had pigeon-holed the Thirties into a narrow view that only had room for Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. But as I researched the era I found that there was a lively spirit that not only survived, but thrived in the midst of the trials. This is what makes writing the Art Deco Mystery series so inspiring to me. The vintage cocktails aren’t too shabby, either.
The Federal Works Project alone employed some of the 20th Century’s most renowned artists including Jackson Pollack, Thomas Hart Benton, and Willem de Kooning. In The Art Story’s article on the Federal Art Project, they highlight a quote from de Kooning an how much it meant to him and the surprising side effects it had on the community:
“The Project was terribly important. It gave us enough to live on and we could paint what we wanted. It was terrific largely because of its director, Burgoyne Diller. I had to resign after a year because I was an alien, but even in that short time, I changed my attitude toward being an artist. Instead of doing odd jobs and painting on the side, I painted and did odd jobs on the side. My life was the same, but I had a different view of it. I gave up the idea of first making a fortune and then painting in my old age.” —Willem de Kooning
The Encyclopedia Britannica cites that the WPA Federal Art Project, “…produced 2,566 murals, more than 100,000 easel paintings, about 17,700 sculptures, nearly 300,000 fine prints, and about 22,000 plates for the Index of American Design, along with innumerable posters and objects of craft.” This creative flowering was precisely because of the Depression, in that there was significant government funding for the arts to subsidize suffering artists.
The buildings we hold most dear today were designed and built right in that era, started and completed during the Depression: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall…Lane Sanders, my protagonist, often reflects on the fact that the art helped them express and understand where they’d come from and where they were going, that they didn’t just look at art, they got to walk through it on a daily basis.This creative flowering was precisely because of the Depression, in that there was significant government funding for the arts to subsidize suffering artists.
Of course the Thirties was very male dominated, but there were incredible women who were making strides anyway. And I love that. I knew that more and more women were entering the workforce at that time, some spurred by financial hardship, others by new opportunities, but before beginning my research, I hadn’t realized how many were doing extraordinary things. Emblematic of the complex position of working women in the 1930s is the first issue of Life magazine, issued in November 1936. The front cover photograph was taken by a female photojournalist: Margaret Bourke-White. (I actually have a copy of it! See photo.) Women were gaining new opportunities behind the bench, as well as behind the camera. In 1939, Mayor La Guardia appointed Jane Bolin, graduate of Yale Law School, as the first black female judge in the country—where she remained the only black female judge for over twenty years. Defying naysayers, Bolin, who appears in book three of the Art Deco Mystery series, The Pearl Dagger (releasing in 2019), was the only black student at Yale, and one of only three women. She was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law in 1931.
In my Art Deco mystery series, I wanted to create a strong female character for a protagonist who could hold her own and embody the plucky spirit of the working women in the Thirties, and could stand up to the strong female historical figures she encounters, including such women as Matilda (Dodge) Wilson, an amazing and industrious woman. As one of the two Dodge heirs, she was savvy, intelligent, and, even though life handed her many curve balls—some of them utterly tragic—she managed to create incredible beauty.
I love telling this underrepresented side of the story. That strength of women, the humor, and the art of that era brought the promise of a hopeful future to a beleaguered nation. It showed a vigorous spirit that not only survived, but thrived. And I think it says a lot for us today.