Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In Defense of Mary Pickford

The many faces of Mary Pickford
According to biographer Scott Eyman (Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart), Pickford was "criticized by the highbrows for her extraordinary appeal to the masses." Her audiences were mainly women and children. She was the "girl next door," and she didn't go too far afield because she knew who her fans were and what they wanted.

Personally, I'm not sure it's fair to criticize Mary for that. It makes good business sense, and Mary was a shrewd businesswoman.

Certainly Mary Pickford was more conservative than her swashbuckling husband Douglas Fairbanks, and she worked on a smaller scale. But that was her choice. Eyman contends that she could have done more, been more versatile.

"My career was planned," Mary said later. "There was never anything accidental about it. It was planned; it was painful; it was purposeful. I'm not exactly satisfied, but I'm grateful."

What more can anyone ask?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On Meeting My Cover Artist

When I first saw the painting that would be used on the cover of my upcoming biography, Laura Secord, Heroine of the War of 1812, I became curious about who the artist might be.

His name was Henry Sandham, and he lived from 1842 to 1910. The painting, titled "Laura Secord," can be seen on the Collections Canada website where it is part of a set of reproductions, "Canadian Historical Paintings," that feature the works of C. W. Jeffries and Henry Sandham.

Henry Sandham was born in Montreal where his father and two brothers had a house-painting business in the Griffithtown area of the city. Henry decided against going into the family business, determined instead to pursue an artistic career. His father strongly disapproved and withdrew his support, leaving the boy on his own. At fourteen, Henry got a job as an errand boy at the studio of Montreal photographer William Notman. By the age of eighteen, Henry became the assistant to John Arthur Fraser at the Notman Studio.

Although there was no art school in Montreal at the time, Notman added an art department to his studio in 1860. Henry got his training there though his contact with John Fraser and three other local artists. He married Fraser's sister Agnes in 1865, and by 1868 he was head of the art department.

Henry Sandham's watercolours and oil paintings were part of the landscape movement that characterized Canadian art at the time of Confederation. 

In 1877 Sandham illustrated his first article in the New York magazine Scribner's Monthly. A painter, illustrator, and photographer, he was made a charter member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art in 1880. Sandham eventually settled in Boston where he was able to concentrate entirely on his art. In 1901 he moved to London, England, and he died there in 1910.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

On Switching Gears

I've had to do some switching of gears lately. I am preparing for presentations and launches, and readying myself to answer questions about a number of different books I've written.

Now, a journalist is doing an article about the early movie industry in Trenton that was the subject of my first book, The Movie Years, back in 1989. Can we arrange a time to talk about it? I dig through the pile of boxes that hold my research notes. NOTE TO SELF: Keep that box on top. Every few months someone inquires about the story.

With the publication of my biography of Mary Pickford still fairly recent (it was released seven months ago) and still very much on my mind, I am about to launch the biography of Laura Secord. I am giving a talk on each of them on successive days. Sometimes I worry about  getting the significant dates in Mary's life mixed up with those in Laura's!

At least it's easier to keep track of the names of the characters in the biographies. Last month saw me delivering a talk to school children about one of my middle grade novels. I had to keep reminding myself that Joel was the name of the main character in that particular story. Not Martin, or Jesse, or Mark.

But I do remember that it was Laura Secord who rescued her husband from the battlefield at Queenston Heights, and Mary Pickford who won the first Oscar for an actress in a talkie.

Friday, April 6, 2012

On Making Laura Ingersoll Secord "Real"

A young Laura Ingersoll Secord.
For me, one of the challenges in writing about a life that has been over for 144 years is how to make the subject live again, to make her story interesting.

Laura Ingersoll Secord had three different mothers by the time she was fourteen. Her birth mother died when the girl was only eight, leaving behind Laura and her three little sisters. The loss of her young mother was a tragedy made even more devastating when, a week later, Laura's father arranged for the baby, six-month-old Abigail, to be adopted.

Within fifteen months, Thomas Ingersoll married again. Although it was said of this wife that she introduced the art of needlework and drawing into the Ingersoll home, she died of tuberculosis after only four years.

Four months later Thomas married for the third and last time. This marriage lasted until his death in 1812 and produced seven more children.

In writing Laura Secord: Heroine of the War of 1812 I had the liberty of dramatizing a number of events in Laura's life — providing those events actually happened. One thing I did not do, however, was put any words into Laura's mouth that could not be documented. Writing these scenes helped me in my desire to breathe life into this Canadian heroine, to make her "real" for my readers.

The first scene I chose to dramatize is the one that opens the book. It takes place on that day when Laura learns that her baby sister is not coming back. I wrote the scene through the eyes of that eight-year-old child.

Look for Laura's story in bookstores in May!