For those familiar with the silent-film era, the name Louise Brooks will conjure up dozens of images – the silent-film heroine, her signature jet-black bobbed hairstyle and mesmerising eyes, and her rare smile – or as she is pictured on the cover of Laura Moriarty’s latest book, The Chaperone, with a touch of colour and exotic silk. Laura Moriarty’s book is not specifically about Louise Brooks, though (of which there are many others) but instead about the start of Louise’s career, how she moved from rural Kansas to New York City to get her first break as a dancer at the prestigious, and demanding, Denishawn Dance Company. In fact the book is about Cora, Louise’s (fictional) chaperone on this trip – for while she undoubtedly had a chaperone, Cora Carlisle is a fictional character, chosen by Moriarty to represent all the change that America as a whole was going through.
Cora Carlisle is a “train orphan” – abandoned to a New York orphanage as a baby, she knew of no other world outside its walls until at the age of five or six she was put on a train with a number of other girls and taken around the country in order to be placed in a family. Often these train orphans ended up in unpaid service to the families they were placed with, but Cora falls on her feet and ends up with the childless Kaufmann couple who bring her up lovingly in a town outside Wichita, Kansas. She marries lawyer Alan Carlisle and has twin boys, settling down very nicely in Wichita. When the opportunity comes up to chaperone Louise on her trip to New York City, Cora sees it as an opportunity to find out more about her own background, perhaps find out who left her at the orphanage and find out some family history and know more about her place in the world.
Louise Brooks, on the other hand, while brought up in relative luxury in Wichita, has a mother – Myra – and father – Leonard – who have no interest in raising children. The children, of which there are several, seem to roam around with no discipline or love from their parents and have learnt early on that they must rely on themselves to make their way. When Cora sees this she feels every maternal instinct sharply and tries to impart some social wisdom to Louise on the long train ride from Wichita to New York, at which she fails completely. But Louise will have her own story, and so Cora turns instead to her own dramas and succeeds in tracking down the orphanage where she spent her first years, and what’s more, a helpful maintenance man who might just offer her something more. In fact Cora discovers so much more in the city, from refugees to stockbrokers, the first all-black musical theatre and a friendly Italian diner owner who makes her own red wine in the thick of Prohibition.
As the story moves on, from the 1920’s through to Cora’s eventual death in the 1980’s, there is a feeling that it’s not really about Cora as much as it is about the rapid pace of change that America experiences. Films with spoken parts, another World War, and the right for citizens to access contraception are all rapidly passed through while Cora remains. It’s an interesting book, for its historical point of view, and though it will hold no surprises for fans of Louise Brooks, it is a nicely told tale of social and cultural change in the twentieth century.
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