Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures has all the 1930s Hollywood glamour you could ask for. Elsa Emerson has always dreamed of being an actress, and now that wish seems to be coming true. Dip into the beginning of the journey that sees her become a Hollywood star called Laura Lamont.
Elsa was the youngest Emerson by ten years: the blondest, happiest accident. It was John, Elsa’s father, who was the most pleased by her company. His older daughters already wanted less to do with the Cherry County Playhouse, and it was nice to have Elsa skulking around backstage, her white-blond hair and tiny pink face always peeking out from behind the curtain. Elsa was a fixture, the theater’s mascot, and the summer crowds loved her.
The Cherry County Playhouse, so named because of the cherries Door County produced, was housed in a converted barn on the Emerson property in Door County, Wisconsin’s thumb. The barn was two hundred feet off the road, which had been renamed Cherry County Playhouse Road in honor of Elsa’s parents’ efforts and because there was no real reason not to. From May until September, tourists from Chicago and Milwaukee and sometimes even farther afield drove up and stayed in the small wooden rental cabins for the entire summer. After days spent on Lake Michigan or Green Bay, they would pile into the old barn and sit on wooden pews cushioned with calico pillows sewn by Mary, Elsa’s mother. John directed and often starred, his booming baritone carrying into the surrounding trees, all the way to the road. The older girls, Hildy and Josephine, who had been such promising Ophelias and Juliets in their early teens, had instead taken jobs at the Tastee Custard Shack down the road and could most often be found handing over cones of frozen custard. Elsa was nine years old and happy to participate. She tore tickets, swept the stage of errant leaves and clods of dirt, and doted on the barn cat, who hated everyone, especially children.
The actors and crew members all moved onto the Emersons’ land for the entire summer. The boys from fancy schools on the East Coast, the ones with drama programs and crew teams, and all the delicate young women moved into the main house; the men with sturdier constitutions slept in tents and cabins scattered around the property, which gave the whole place the feeling of a summer camp. Elsa loved cuddling up to the beautiful young women, who would do her makeup and brush her hair for hours on end, all for the low cost of listening to them talk about their sordid and endlessly complicated relationships with men back home.
Hildy, Elsa’s second-oldest sister, was nineteen and had few interests outside of her own body. She would sometimes borrow her mother’s sewing machine to make new dresses, but would give up halfway through and leave the fabric limping off to one side like a wounded animal. Hildy was given to the dramatic, despite having forsaken the theater.
“Mother, I could not possibly help you with the dishes. My headache is the size of Lake Michigan,” Hildy said. It had previously been the size of the kitchen, the size of the house, and would soon be the size of the entire state of Wisconsin. Elsa sat underneath the long barn-wood table and watched Hildy waggle her knees back and forth.
“Excuse me,” Mary said. “There is no room for talk like that in this house.” Elsa could hear Mary’s tired hands shift to her hips, where they would roam around, pressing into the sore spots with her wide, blunt thumbs. Mary woke at dawn and made breakfast for the entire cast and crew—that summer, it was twenty-seven people, all of whom would groan loudly if given the chance. The girls’ mother ran a tight ship. Elsa often thought that her mother would have made an excellent homesteader, as she seemed happiest when conditions were tough and the going was hard.
Hildy rubbed her temples. She had always had headaches—all the Emerson women did, blackout, knock-down headaches that crowded the sides of their skulls and didn’t let go for days. One of Elsa’s chores was dampening a washcloth and placing it over her mother’s and sisters’ closed eyes, then tiptoeing out of the room. Elsa couldn’t wait to be a woman, to feel things so deeply that she too needed a dark room and total silence. She’d asked her sister about the headaches once, when she could expect them to start, and had been laughed out of the room.
“Honestly, Mother, honestly.” Hildy was the most beautiful of the three Emerson sisters, though Elsa was so young that she hardly counted. Josephine was the oldest and the most like their mother, with a wide, flat face that hardly ever registered any expression whatsoever. It was what their father called A Norwegian Face, which meant it had the look of a woman who had seen fifteen degrees below zero and still gone out to milk the cows. Josephine was inevitably going to marry a boy from one of the cherry farms down the road, and no one thought that they would be anything more or less than perfectly fine.
But Hildy was better than fine. Elsa loved to look at her sister, even when Hildy was having one of her episodes and her blond hair was wild and matted against one side of her head from all her flipflopping and thrashing in her sleep, and her pale pink skin had flushed and broken out into a crimson red. When she wanted to, Hildy could look like a movie star. It hadn’t come from their mother—that was a fact—neither the raw good looks nor the knowledge of what to do with them. Hildy pored over all the magazines she could find, Nash’s and Photoplay and Ladies’ Companion, and practiced putting on the actresses’ eyeliner in the mirror for hours every day until she got it right. When Hildy was feeling light, as she put it, and the headaches were gone, she wriggled through the house in castoff costumes, and Elsa thought she was as beautiful and lost as a landlocked mermaid.
The first play of the summer was an original, which the audience never liked as much as one it knew, but John thought the story was relevant and so said to hell with it. They would do A Midsummer Night’s Dream in August like they always did, and that would satisfy the fogeys. The new play, Come Home, My Angel, was about a wounded soldier returning from war to find that his girlfriend had married his best friend. In the end, the soldier shot himself, but the couple was happy. It was dark, but sometimes people liked that. John had found exactly the right actor for the wounded soldier, a young man from Chicago who looked hurt all the time, but never without looking handsome. His name was Cliff, and he was a brooder. Hildy was in love with him the second he walked into the house. The feeling, if feelings could be judged by noises coming from Hildy’s bedroom in the middle of the afternoon when no one else was around, was mutual.
The Tastee Custard Shack couldn’t compete with Cliff’s sturdy biceps, and so Hildy was once again home for the summer, running lines with the actors and helping her mother with the sewing. Elsa quickly won a new job as well—she became the messenger, and would deliver hastily handwritten notes to and from the young lovers, dashing between the barn and the house, running up and down the stairs. She was filled with urgency, and would sit, panting, once she arrived, her ragged breath proof of her dedication. Hildy would draw her close and set Elsa on her lap while she read the newest missive, sometimes reading bits out loud, but only if it was something she thought Elsa was old enough to hear. That meant that there were long pauses in between when Hildy just read to herself, sometimes covering her mouth with her fingers, or sticking a knuckle in between her teeth. During those sessions, Hildy hadn’t forsaken the theater at all, only reduced her audience to one. The point was still the reaction, the tailoring of the performance to the crowd. Later on, it was clear to Elsa that Cliff had practiced this particular art before, but at the time, neither she nor Hildy could see it, and the girls were desperate in their hope that Hildy’s own juvenile attempts at love on paper would match up.
“‘. . . and then, at last, the sweet and creamy skin of your upper thighs . . .’” Hildy read aloud. Cliff was slowly working his way up her body, and Hildy stopped there. She lay on her stomach with her knees bent, her pointed toes waving back and forth with pleasure. Elsa sat in the small chair at the foot of the bed and tried to imagine Cliff without his shirt on. His hair was so dark that it was almost black, with curls the size of quarters. “Oh, my God, Else,” Hildy said, and grabbed Elsa’s wrist. “Oh, my God.” Then Hildy flipped over onto her back and snapped her fingers for Elsa to bring her a new sheet of paper, on which she immediately began her response. Relationships with the cast and crew weren’t forbidden—it had simply never been an issue. The girls had always been just that, girls—their parents seemed not to have noticed Hildy’s swift ascension into womanhood. Though Josephine was older by a year, she had not transformed the way Hildy had, and seemed to still be plodding her way through life without a sudden influx of feminine hormones.
It was warm in Hildy’s room with the door shut, and there were pockets of sweat behind Elsa’s knees. Even so, Elsa loved summertime best of all. In the off-season, Door County emptied out and got so quiet that Elsa sometimes forgot that there were other people living in other houses, that the kids at school went home to other families. Everything was cold and tight. Her entire world got bigger in the summer—when the ground went from white to brown to green, when the birds started talking to one another at dawn, when the trees all around the house would sprout new leaves and flowers and just beg her, beg her to climb them. Elsa knew every inch of the land her parents owned, every rock and root. Hildy and Josephine were too old to have any interest in running around with her, too wrapped up in their own teenage lives, and so Elsa had to do it all herself. She counted butterflies and fireflies and made bouquets for the weddings of her dolls. But when the actors arrived—that was the best of all. Even though Elsa loved her parents, her father in particular, she sometimes wondered when one of the actors would see her and recognize her as his own, and she would be rescued. In her daydreams, there were never any brooms or washcloths; there was only the theater, with a full house, everyone clapping for her.
Author Emma Straub at Book Expo America