The Z Axis

San Francisco novelist Glen David Gold demonstrates how a storyteller can build a world from a newspaper clipping.

I traffic in secrets for a living, so it is with mixed emotions that I expose this one: a chief appeal of dealing in historical fiction is that no one asks whether it's autobiographical.

When a story from the past causes us to start in recognition, the reason might be the plot—but more often it's how we have to guess a little at the unspoken feelings the figures in question must have had at the time. We put ourselves in their skins, instead of the author’s. I don't know if that's what drew Steve Martin and Edie Brickell to the story behind BRIGHT STAR. But having their show here in San Francisco, a place shoehorned with more curious historical stories per square foot than even two centuries should allow, gives us a chance to reflect on how even a few scraps of newspaper can allow an unexpected life to emerge.

One of the few known photos of Homer Curran.

One of the few known photos of Homer Curran.

This occurred to me when researching the record left behind by Mr. Homer Curran (1885–1952), founder and impresario of this very theater. It is clear he did not wish to be found, in spite of the seven-hundred-plus mentions of his name in the Chronicle archives. Not one of those contains a direct quotation; in Los Angeles, where he turns out to have really lived, a theatrical gossip column contains but one such gem. And in the very next column, a retraction: Curran says the columnist misunderstood him. From there until the grave, respectful silence.

He slipped up once. And that is where the world of making-stuff-up begins.

Long ago, an acquaintance who reads everything and travels hardly at all told me that the novels of Carl Hiaasen were perfect descriptions of South Florida, not just as guidebooks but as reliquaries of the feeling of the place. “When did you go there?” I asked. “Oh, never,” he said. I started to ask, “Then how do you know…” but I didn't finish, because, as suddenly as if whacked by a two-by-four, I understood.

I have not yet been to the American South, but I have read Flannery O'Connor and so I believe I have been there. I find the St. Petersburg of Dostoevsky's The Eternal Husband as authentic as my memories of growing up on the beaches of Corona del Mar. In the right creator's hands, character and geography are like the X and Y axes of a habitable world I can enter only by leaving my own.

So it is with time. History is the secret Z axis. It can leaven an author's voice. I should mention that “voice” is a term with definitions people can't quite agree upon. For now, let's call it the intangible quality that makes you want to absorb yourself in a story. (Or in a drama, dance, movie, painting, etc.) Placing a narrative in history provides an authoritative backbone, a voice, as follows. “Homer Curran took steps to never be found” isn't a bad opening line, but I like better: “Beginning in 1916, during his final, disappointing round of cotillion season in San Francisco, Homer Curran took steps to never be found.”

History is the secret Z axis. It can leaven an author's voice.

Adding a time and a place, rooting it in history, gives the story a sheen. If I'm claiming it happened then and there, I'm suggesting that not only did someone think enough of it to record it then, but it's still worthy to be talked about now. And research does show that Curran was a society-gala attendee more than a hundred times, sometimes as escort, sometimes as guest, sometimes as host. We don't really know if he was disappointed—that is fiction's contribution to this story so far—but the newspapers reflect that after a while, the dances stopped and instead the parties he threw consisted of dinner, the theater, and then ice-skating for all. One nameless girl sighed, “At least that will give us something other to do than dancing,” and I'm going to guess that this was his goal.

For there is a secret language to the society page, as you might already know. The way the names are laid out give hints as to engagements inconnus, alliances, bonds between families. Homer never moved into the engagement column, and was never paired with a specific girl for more than a party or two. His name eventually drifted to the end of the recurrent articles, on a short list among the others who were, though it was never said so bluntly, confirmed bachelors.

Perhaps that's enough for you, a cloudy lens upon the time. For some, the need for accuracy will preclude entertainment that deviates from what history inscribes in stone. Edith Wharton herself was busted for historical flim-flamming in The Age of Innocence. In response, she protested that slavish accuracy "must necessarily reduce the novel to a piece of archeological pedantry instead of a living image of the times."

In the century since, too many pieces set in the past have settled for citing some popular culture and the itch of crinolines, with the hope that we'll believe the rest. My favorite send-up of this tendency came when The Simpsons recreated 1983 by having their own, better-known Homer strutting down the street singing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” while fiddling with a Rubik's Cube. The past is not an accumulation of details. “A living image” must include the vital nature of life itself, which means the most powerful lubricating force of all art: human emotions.

And should we rely exclusively on the record, we can say nothing about Homer Curran's emotions, which is a shame. In April 1927, the papers record the newsworthy fact of him driving his mother to Los Angeles. In 1930, they mention that he “was said to spend most of his time” there. In 1934, he almost got Mary Pickford out of retirement to play Mary, Queen of Scots on stage. He co-wrote one hit, SONG OF NORWAY, and one miss, MAGDALENA. And that, except for an incredible number of other productions researched, speculated upon, announced, performed, held over, and closed, is that.

Except for one tiny thing.

In November 1932, the Chronicle announced that he had “signed a contract bringing the German picture, Maedchen in Uniform, to the Geary Theater for Christmas day.” There is no part of this sentence that is not bizarre. As far as I can tell, he never produced nor distributed another film. Since the advent of talkies, German films had been dead at the box office. The Geary was a house for popular, rousing films, and Maedchen in Uniform was the kind of dreary that Emily Dickinson would have pegged as oppressive, like the heft of cathedral tunes. And to open it on Christmas? This was a present no one wanted. None of this makes sense.

Further, the Chronicle didn't just mention this once. Homer Curran was an important advertiser. They ran thirty-nine(!) pieces about the film during its brief run, turning up the fires each time. Ultimately they declared it “A work that has been acclaimed all over the world as one of the greatest films ever made,” which it hadn't been. It was an important film, true, well-reviewed, and a landmark even today, but in a certain niche. And this might give us a clue as to what was going on.

A scene from "Maedchen in Uniform"

Set in a girl's boarding school at the end of the Prussian era, Maedchen in Uniform was one of the first films to show lesbian relationships in a sympathetic—albeit tragic—light. It was held up by the censor board for months; most of America didn't get a chance to see it until 1933, and only then when it was spoken up for by, fittingly, Eleanor Roosevelt. If early descriptions of what Curran brought to San Francisco are accurate, he seems to have shown the uncensored, thematically darker, more explicit version. The entire cast was women, it was written and directed by women, and advertisements were, to say the least, circumspect—one tagline was What is its strange appeal?

It played three weeks (the Chronicle said it was four), perhaps to the packed houses that were claimed, but perhaps not. More than one squib in the paper emphasizes that there are indeed English subtitles, but the action is so powerful you don't even need to read them, which strikes me as a little desperate. The theatrical version, GIRLS IN UNIFORM, was produced with a gigantic cast in New York City and lasted all of twelve performances.

When we rely only on history, Curran's promotion of this odd little film ends there. We have no evidence to support anything further, so the literal-minded may disembark as desired. But I would like to take up Wharton's call for a “living image of the times.” The secret of using history in a fictional work is to change the nouns and keep the verbs. What I mean by that is that all good fictional narratives, including those set in history, are in some way autobiographical. And I find an almost electric thrill when I can disguise this while imagining the complex interior lives of someone who existed. Though the names, the places, and the events in a historical fiction are taken from the past, they reflect the emotions the author has had. He has grafted them upon his characters in hopes that the audience will ache with empathy.

I have not been Wharton’s Archer, nor Dostoevsky’s Velchaninov, nor—now that I think about it—Homer Curran, but I believe I have felt the passions that they have felt.

I have myself written several long narratives, each springing from incomplete, strange stories from history. One was about Charlie Chaplin being spotted in over eight hundred places simultaneously in 1916; one about an elephant hanged for murder; one about children flocking to the rails to see President Harding's funeral train as it sped past. In each case, I felt a strange tug to know more, as well as the knowledge that there would be no more that history could actually tell me. The only way to understand was to imagine.

There is a Chronicle article, just three sentences in length, that appeared in March 1933, shortly after Maedchen in Uniform faded from its run at the Geary. It says that only now does its author, Christa Winsloe, have the “courage to admit that its subject matter is largely autobiographical.” The tale was from her youth, the girls involved were girls she'd known. By then the Prussian school system shown had been subsumed by National Socialism, making her story historical fiction.

Imagine, then: Homer Curran in New York, September 1932, when, according to the New York Times, the film debuted in America. He had producer friends who recommended the film, and perhaps all of them saw it together. But then each would have very private experiences. Imagine hearing the passionate teacher on screen declaring to her superiors, aware of how her statement might resonate, “What you call sins, I call the great spirit of love, in all its forms.”

She says it in German, and there are English subtitles, but as we've been told, the film is so powerful Curran doesn't even need to read them to know what she's really saying. He sees, unfolding with patience and tremulous anticipation, a slow goodnight kiss between teacher and student, not sisterly but unmistakably erotic. He touches his cheek with his fingertips, unconsciously, aware he hasn't shifted in his chair, nor has he even blinked. What am I seeing? What have I just seen? Did we all just see that? Are we allowed to see it? Can I help others see it?

It's a fake moment, done between actors, based on a real moment long past, and Homer sees the secret text, reads both the history and the fiction.

Film was more beautiful then, and also more dangerous, made of silver nitrate—highly flammable—that made theaters glow as if under the light of the full moon. If I were telling this story, I would have Homer, after the lights come up, gather himself immediately. He would be canny enough not to ask whether he could just distribute it himself, right now. Instead, I would have him joke, awkwardly, about the danger. “The right man would be taking quite a risk,” he’d say, and there, that's the moment that his friends would all agree. Make it about money. Make it about being bold.

This only makes sense if you, like myself, have felt the need to hide in plain sight. It's a way of admitting that life has secret meaning. And that is how the stories that stick with us tend to be told.

Glen David Gold is the author of the novels "Carter Beats the Devil" and "Sunnyside," and of the forthcoming memoir "I Will Be Complete."

Join us for Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's BRIGHT STAR, November 28-December 17 at the Curran.