Saturday, January 31, 2009

Memoirs of a film obsessed bookseller

On a personal note: Earlier this week, I lost my job. I was laid off from The Booksmith, a San Francisco bookstore. . . . Feeling a little bit nostalgic, I thought I would devote this blog to looking back at my "career" as a film obsessed bookseller. I'm in the mood to take stock of what I've been working at and have tried to accomplish over the last decade. I'll try not to wander too far off-topic – with the usual topics being Louise Brooks, silent film, books, movies, and all things Lulu.

I've worked at The Booksmith for more than 21 years. And for the last 10-plus years, I served as the store's event coordinator. "What's that," you may ask? Basically, I set up, promoted, and hosted all of the author events. Over the last decade, I managed nearly 1000 readings and book signings. Obviously, I really love working with books and authors. I would not have done it otherwise. I've hosted many notable and bestselling writers, and even some historic events (among them Allen Ginsberg's last ever reading, and the first ever San Francisco bookstore events with the likes of Chuck Palahniuk, Sarah Waters, China Mieville and others). It was a great run. And my position as event coordinator was a great job, while it lasted. It was fun, even thrillington at times. Once, I got to meet Paul McCartney - a childhood hero, at a reception.

Because of my interest in film and film history, I've always tried to include related authors in the events program. It was a very small part of the program - but I always felt it was important to give film historians, biographers, and scholars - and the occasional film world personality - a platform, be it ever so humble. Fortunately, the store's previous owner was supportive of this "secret agenda" of mine, and allowed me to develop a series. Thank you, Gary Frank! You were a truly fine employer.

Through the years, the store managed to sell a lot of film books. And it's film section acquired a strong reputation around town. For example, I'm certain that The Booksmith was the only store in the San Francisco Bay Area that carried titles from McFarland - publishers of expensive and rather specialized books on the movies. And was it 800 or 900 copies of Louise Brooks: Portrait of an Anti-Star that the store sold in the early 1990’s? I seem to remember four foot tall stacks of that title in overstock. We sold them all. (I think The Booksmith single-handedly drove the book out-of-print and into the realm of a scarce collectible.)

So here goes, the rambling memoirs of a (silent) film obsessed bookseller. . . . 

First and foremost – and the personal highlight of my tenure as events coordinator – was the event with Louise Brooks biographer Barry Paris. Here’s how it came about.

For years, I used my position as a bookseller to lobby and even nag publishers to bring Paris’ outstanding biography of the actress (as well as Brooks’ own Lulu in Hollywood) back into circulation. Each had fallen out-of-print, and each was becoming increasingly hard-to-find. By the mid to late 1990’s, Brooks’ cult following – spurred by the explosion of the internet, was creating renewed demand for these two titles. I was aware of the interest, and I figured it was my responsibility – both as a bookseller and as director of the actress’ fan club – to try and get them back into print. Finally, after years of phone calls to editors, emails to marketing types, and conversations with sales reps and anyone else who would listen (along with a petition drive launched by the Louise Brooks Society), it happened.

In 2000, the good people at the University of Minnesota Press took a chance and brought both books back into print. The LBS received a prominent acknowledgment in each new edition, and the press rewarded the bookstore where I worked with a rare event with Barry Paris – one of the finest film writers going IMHO. He is also one of the coolest people I’ve ever met – and a brilliant raconteur. I could listen to him talk all day long.

In November 2000, the University of Minnesota Press flew the Pittsburgh, PA journalist to San Francisco, and those who attended his Booksmith talk (some from as far away as Sacramento and Los Angeles) were treated to a memorable evening - a once in a lifetime event. Paris spoke about his biography, and revealed information and anecdotes about the actress not included in his book.

Happily, both the Paris biography and Lulu in Hollywood have gone on to do quite well. Each is in a third or perhaps even fourth printing. A few years back, the director of the press told me each was among their best-selling backlist titles. To this day, I cherish my autographed copies of Louise Brooks. Admittedly, I own three signed copies (a hardback first edition published by Knopf, the paperback reprint – a now worn working copy which I carry around to libraries and archives, and the University of Minnesota reissue). Below is a scan of my signed paperback edition. Barry Paris rubber stamped it with Brooks’ image and wrote “To Thomas – who resurrected me & LB the way Tynan did in The New Yorker.” 

Half a dozen years later, I was able to score another significant Louise Brooks event. In 2006, the year of the Brooks’ centenary, I was pleased to host the first bookstore event for Louise Brooks: Lulu Forever with its author, the internationally renowned film writer Peter Cowie. Cowie is an accomplished film historian who has known and worked with many leading figures in the movie world. He was, for example, one of the few film writers to attend Ingmar Bergman’s funeral – check out his new book on the Swedish director, or his other new book on Joan Crawford, which I recently blogged about.

It was something of a coup to get Cowie, as he lives in Switzerland and doesn’t get to the States that often. Initially, his publisher, Rizzoli, scheduled him to do media and a small tour of east coast venues like the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. With enthusiasm, I managed to lobby the publisher to bring Cowie further west. 

In November of 2006, just a couple of days before what would have been Brooks’ 100th birthday, The Booksmith and the LBS co-sponsored a special event at the Balboa Theater in San Francisco, where we screened rare films and Cowie spoke about the actress and his new book. Since then, the store has sold dozens and dozens of copies of Louise Brooks: Lulu Forever, a not-inexpensive coffee table book and a fine addition to the Louise Brooks bookshelf. 


As with Barry Paris, it was a pleasure to meet Peter Cowie. I had the chance to sit down over dinner and talk with the author about Louise Brooks and film in general. Not only did Cowie correspond with the actress – his letters were the basis for his book, but he was the person responsible – as I learned – for getting an image of the actress on the cover of A Dictionary of Cinema, published by Barnes in 1968! The Cowie event proved to be another memorable evening, and a treat for the fans who attended it. Fortunately, many of the actress' most devoted fans secure a now rare autographed copy of Cowie's lavish book.

The one other event I set-up with a more-or-less direct connection to Louise Brooks was with Frederica Sagor Maas. For those for whom her name does not ring a bell, let me mention that she was a screenwriter during the 1920's and 1930's. Maas wrote a handful of films starring the likes of Clara Bow and Norma Shearer, as well as the scenario for the now lost 1927 Louise Brooks' film, Rolled Stockings. Today, she is perhaps most well known for having written the 1947 Betty Grable movie, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. That film, Maas' last, was also the name of her 1999 memoir.


I came across an advance copy of her delightful book in May of 1999, at the annual booksellers convention. I was scouting for interesting new film titles and nearly fell over in disbelief when Leila Salisbury of the University of Kentucky Press started telling me about this "unusual" memoir. It was unusual because the author was 99 years old, and had just penned her first book! When I noticed references to the many silent film stars Maas had known and worked with - everyone from Erich von Stroheim and Clara Bow to Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford - I could hardly control my excitement. Determined to meet the author, I wormed my way into a luncheon the next day at Musso & Frank's in Hollywood. That was where I met Maas for the first time and made a connection with the publisher.

Eventually, I managed to secure a July event with the screenwriter, who was then 99 years old. (Maas is still alive, I believe, and is 108 years old.) Though hard of hearing and with impaired vision, Maas sat down in front of a Booksmith audience and answered questions posed by myself. What was it like in 1920's Hollywood? Was von Stroheim as difficult as his reputation suggests? How did you come to meet Joan Crawford - then named Lucille LeSeur - when she first arrived in Los Angeles? And what were your impressions of Louise Brooks? Everyone in attendance was delighted and amused - and perhaps even a little taken aback as this frail but still sharp tongued 99 year old women referred to Crawford as a "tramp."

The next day, Mass appeared at San Francisco Silent Film Festival, an organization with whom The Booksmith had worked with for more than a decade. Mass spoke briefly, and then signed books for a throng of people fascinated by her experiences in Hollywood. After it was all over, we managed to sell more than 100 copies of Maas' remarkable book. Pictured above is a snapshot of Maas along with my bobbed-haired wife and I. The picture was taken at the historic Castro Theater, home to the annual festival.
Over the years, there were two other film events I set up with contemporaries of Louise Brooks. One was with Diana Serra Carey, the child star known as Baby Peggy. Born in 1918, Carey started in films at the age of three and rocketed to international fame during the silent era. Her film career, however, had largely ended by the time Brooks' was beginning in 1926. Later in life, she went on to write a handful of insightful books, including the delightful What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood's Pioneer Child Star as well as a biography of her contemporary, Jackie Coogan. I also had the opportunity to host Gloria Stuart (born 1910), for her autobiography, Gloria Stuart: I Just Kept Hoping. As an ingénue, Stuart made a splash in films in the early 1930’s and later found renewed fame for her role as the 101 year old Rose in Titanic. After each event, I asked both Carey and Stuart if either had known Louise Brooks. It’s something I always ask. I am a nerd that way. As I recall, neither had met the actress with whom I am so "obsessed," but each remembers knowing of her back then. For me, that is perspective I find interesting.

Brooks' contemporaries, or near contemporaries, are few and far between these days. And so, for the events program (and in pursuit of my "secret agenda"), I mostly booked talks with biographers, historians and scholars who have written about early film. I love movie history. And as any one who reads this blog knows, I also love reading biographies. Booking film-related authors into the events program was one way to meet people who shared my passions.

Most every one of the film writers I set-up events with has authored other books. Here, I'll mention those titles for which they appeared at a Booksmith event. Some of those I hosted include David Stenn (author of Clara Bow: Runnin Wild), Suzanne Lloyd (Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter and the co-author of Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian), Robert S. Birchard (author of Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood), Matthew Kennedy (author of Joan Blondell), Jeanine Basinger (author of The Star Machine), Steven Bach (author of Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl), Carol Hoffmann (author of The Barrymores), and Arthur Lennig (author of Stroheim). I will never forget the time when my wife and I took Lennig out to dinner after his event and he told us stories of meeting Bela Lugosi when he was just a boy. Of course, Lennig went on to write (and rewrite) The Count, the great biography of the actor who played Dracula. It is another favorite book.

There were also events with the prolific author John Baxter, the distinguished photo historian Mark Vieira (author of Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood), John Wranovics (author ofChaplin and Agee: The Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer, and the Lost Screenplay), Mark Cotta Vaz (author of Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong), and Emily Leider (author of Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino). A special thanks goes to Leider, who has long championed my efforts as a bookseller and who introduced me to Kevin Brownlow over brunch at her house in San Francisco! Thank you Emily.

I also hosted a couple of events with “my doppelganger,” Mick LaSalle (the San Francisco Chronicle film critic and author of two fine books on pre-code film, Complicated Women andDangerous Men). I call him my doppelganger because we look a little alike, and have even been mistaken for each other on a few occasions. When we first met, LaSalle was decidedly (and notoriously in some quarters) not swayed by Brooks' reputation. But, as he told me a year or so ago, his opinion of the actress is changing. Over the years and on a handful of other occasions, I also had the honor of hosting the internationally renowned, British-born film writer David Thomson. He is a splendid fellow, very knowledgeable, and a great raconteur. And, he has written a handful of laudatory pieces on Louise Brooks. I hosted him for The Biographical Dictionary of Film and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, as well as The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, his book on Nicole Kidman, and most recently for “Have You Seen?:” A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films.

As mentioned earlier, film-related writers made up only a small part of the over-all events program. Mostly, I arranged readings with novelists, poets, artists, musicians, and other literary and non-fiction writers. However, that didn't stop me from pursuing my "secret agenda" - and a Louise Brooks connection. As documented in Louise Brooks in Contemporary Fiction, more than a handful of contemporary writers are more than a little interested in the life and films of the actress. For example, Robert Olen Butler, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, is a fan of Louise Brooks. I have hosted him a number of times, and he told me so.

On various occasions at Booksmith events, I've also chatted with other authors about Louise Brooks. Again, I'm a nerd that way. One of the most memorable such events was with Don Bachardy, the world renowned artist who for decades was Christopher Isherwood's life partner. Isherwood, of course, authored The Berlin Stories, which eventually became the musical and film, Cabaret (which bears its own Brooks connection). For his Booksmith event, I interviewed Bachardy before an assembled crowd of a few dozen and asked him about his then new book of drawings and diary entries, Stars in My Eyes (University of Wisconsin press, 2000). That books features the written and drawn record of Bachardy's (and Isherwood) weekend with Louise Brooks. Check it out if you want to know more.

Some of the other writers I've chatted-up include the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (a member of the LBS), novelist and Lulu on the Bridge filmmaker Paul Auster (author of The Book of Illusions), horror and fantasy author Clive Barker, novelist and screenwriter Jerry Stahl (author of I, Fatty), novelist and social critic Theodore Roszak (his novel Flicker is a must read), and the acclaimed poets Bill Berkson and Mary Jo Bang (author of Louise in Love). Nearly each of these writers have included Louise Brooks in their work - either as a character, a reference, or an allusion. And each did events at The Booksmith.

Berkson - one of the so-called New York School poets - told me of the time he and Frank O'Hara went to see Prix de Beaute in New York City in 1961. Each later wrote a poem inspired by the actress. (Another New York School poet, John Ashberry, once told me at The Booksmith of the time he met Louise Brooks in a hotel in Paris.)

Because I love literary ephemera, for the Mary Jo Bang reading (as with the Barry Paris and Bill Berkson events), I printed a limited edition autographed broadside celebrating the occasion. Depicted below is the triptych of Mary Jo Bang broadsides, as well as an autographed Mary Jo Bang trading card. The Booksmith used to produce such cards for each of its author events.

Another writer and fan of the actress is Neil Gaiman, who I've hosted four or five times. Gaiman is the popular author of the Sandman graphic novels as well as works of fantasy likeNeverwhereStardust, and Coraline (which is just about to be released as a film). A few months back, I hosted Gaiman for The Graveyard Book, which this past week won the Newberry Medal. After his October reading, I presented the author, who I have known for a long time, with a Louise Brooks pin as a small token of our friendship. He immediately attached it to his black leather jacket! That made me feel good. Pictured below is a long ago snapshot of Gaiman, myself, and my wife taken after one of his Booksmith events.

As you may notice, I am wearing one of my Louise Brooks t-shirts! Neil Gamain has referenced the actress in interviews as well as in two of his books, Smoke and Mirrors and the multi-award winning American Gods. As well, The Books of Magic (DC Comics, 1993) features a character somewhat inspired by Louise Brooks. One of my prize possessions is this autographed copy of that graphic novel.

One of Gaiman's literary idols, the late experimental novelist Kathy Acker, used to be a Booksmith customer. I remember chatting with her about Louise Brooks on a few occasions; once she told me about a Brooks-inspired play she wrote called Lulu Unchained. To this day, I am still searching for a copy of the text.

Earlier in this rather long blog - and I sincerely thank anyone who has read the whole thing, I mentioned the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. For more than 10 years, my wife and I helped organize the book-table and signings which took place at that annual event. It has been a truly wonderful experience. Not only have I been able to see some great films and meet Festival guests like Fay Wray, Leonard Maltin and Sydney Chaplin (Charlie's son), but I had the pleasure of helping arrange booksignings with a score of esteemed authors and film writers. Pictured below is one of them, film & television actor / producer William Wellman, Jr. - son of the great film director and the author of The Man and His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture. Not only did Wellman Sr. direct such notable films as WingsThe Public Enemy and A Star is Born, he also directed Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life.

The group of authors I helped bring to the SFSFF includes my late friend Emil Petaja (author of Photoplay Edition), Frank Thompson (author of Lost Films), Cari Beauchamp (author ofWithout Lying Down), Anthony Slide (author of Silent Players), William Mann (author of Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines), Allan R. Ellenberger (author of Ramon Novarro: A Biography of the Silent Film Idol) and others.

And thanks to Gavin Lambert (author of Nazimova, who I telephoned out of the blue one day), Richard Dyer MacCann (author of The First Film Makers), and Eve Golden (author of Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara) who each generously autographed bookplates so their readers and fans could get a special signed book at the festival. I've always enjoyed brings books and readers together. For me, that's what it was all about. Making connections. (Back in 2007, journalist Michael T. Toole interviewed me for the TCM website about my participation in the Festival. That interview can be found here.)

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with not only distinguished authors but also with a swell bunch of editors, publicists, and event organizers. I would be remiss in not thanking my wife, Christy Pascoe, who helped with and attended so many of these happenings. And Jim Barter, my erstwhile co-worker at The Booksmith. And Gary Meyer, owner of the Balboa Theater. And Leila Salisbury, formerly with the University Press of Kentucky and now with the University Press of Mississippi. And Kathryn Zuckerman, outstanding Knopf publicist. And a huge thanks to Stephen Salmons, Melissa Chittick and Stacey Wisnia of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. All of you helped make all of this happen.

So where to from here? I hope to spend some time working on both the Louise Brooks Society website and RadioLulu (each long overdue!) as well as some Louise Brooks projects I’ve long had in mind. As I have been telling people lately, after having advanced the cause of so many other authors’ work, it’s time to take a couple of months off and work on my own book or two or three.

There is a song I love. It’s “Closing Time,” by a now defunct late 1990’s group Semisonic. (That band evolved out of Trip Shakespeare, who recorded a song and CD called Lulu. And at the Booksmith, I once hosted an author event with Semisonic’s drummer, Jacob Slichter. . . . ) Well anyways, the song’s lyrics conclude like this: “Closing time - every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end...” For the time being, that’s my motto.

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