One of my finds in doing research for BEGUILED was discovering the 1920s bookseller and playwright, Frank Shay. Miriam, the protagonist, meets him on her first visit to her friend Minerva in NYC, while the girls were peeking into a theater in Greenwich Village. Frank is depicted as someone who knows everything about GV bohemian literati and is her conduit to studying acting and to meeting Eugene O’Neill and many other writers and artists. And, coincidentally, his Bookshop is right down the street from where Minerva lives on Christopher Street.
According to the records, Shay and his wife Fern pack up the bookstore in “Parnassus on Wheels” and travel to their home in Provincetown every summer. So, Provincetown becomes a setting for BEGUILED, when the girls visit and become part of the social scene there.
And a famous red door in Frank’s Bookshop is housed at the University Library in Austin, TX. The door has signatures of many of those literati that people the story of BEGUILED. The library is a repository of biographical information about the signatories. So, many allusions to those people … Dos Passos, O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Frank himself … come from that library.
How can a writer handle that information and still write fiction? Since it’s public record (and what isn’t these days?), one can allude to Shay’s alcohol problem without endangering a lawsuit from his estate. But, what about describing his personality and ways he relates to his friends? Those, of course, are left up to the author’s imagination. And it’s imagination that drives the story line, with the backdrop of what we can glean about historical figures.
I tried to depict the breezy, effusively enthusiastic, talented man as a big force, not only for Miriam and her friend, but in the literary and artistic life of Greenwich Village and P’Town. But, he also had his downside, especially when he had too much to drink of his favorite Prohibition-era concoctions.
As a writer of historical fiction, this melding of the “real” and imaginary was a constant source of delight. “What would Frank have done,” I asked myself.
I’ll muse about other real people in BEGUILED in another post, but Frank, since we know so much about him and his coterie of intelligentsia, became a real character and had immense impact on the star-struck girls in the novel.