From the dramatic redbrick facade to the sweeping staircase dripping with art, the Chelsea Hotel has long been New York City's creative oasis for the many artists, writers, musicians, actors, filmmakers, and poets who have called it home—a scene playwright Hazel Riley and actress Maxine Mead are determined to use to their advantage. Yet they soon discover that the greatest obstacle to putting up a show on Broadway has nothing to do with their art, and everything to do with politics. A Red Scare is sweeping across America, and Senator Joseph McCarthy has started a witch hunt for communists, with those in the entertainment industry in the crosshairs. As the pressure builds to name names, it is more than Hazel and Maxine's Broadway dreams that may suffer as they grapple with the terrible consequences, but also their livelihood, their friendship, and even their freedom.
Spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s, The Chelsea Girls deftly pulls back the curtain on the desperate political pressures of McCarthyism, the complicated bonds of female friendship, and the siren call of the uninhibited Chelsea Hotel.
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Naples, Italy, April 1945
She hated Maxine Mead, and Italy, on first sight.
When Hazel had first auditioned for the USO tour, back in New York, she'd imagined arriving abroad and gingerly stepping off a plane to a cheering group of GIs. The stage would be a grand opera house or something similarly picturesque, like what she'd seen in the newsreels of Marlene Dietrich and Bob Hope entertaining the troops. Hazel would be sure to call them men, not boys, as the USO Actors' Handbook advised. After all, many of them had been fighting for four years now. They deserved respect as well as some wholesome entertainment, a respite from the fighting.
Upon boarding the Air Corps plane at LaGuardia Airport, Hazel was informed that she'd be replacing a member of an all-female acting troupe who'd come down with jaundice. Not until the noisy tin can of a cargo plane was aloft was she told her destination: Naples, Italy.
After a bumpy landing, Hazel lugged her two suitcases off the plane and stood on the tarmac, exhausted and confused, waiting for someone to tell her where to go, what to do next. The stifling heat was made worse by the fact that she'd been given the winter uniform, including wool stockings and thick winter panties. Every inch of her from the waist down itched as though she had ants crawling up her sweaty legs. Her uniform-a greenish-gray skirt, white blouse, long black tie, and garrison cap that she'd admired in the mirror back in New York-was now a stinking, wrinkled mess.
Finally, a soldier pulled up in a Jeep and called out her name. He tossed her suitcases in the back before helping her into the passenger seat.
They lurched off over a road battered by potholes, passing demolished apartment buildings and churches. Several women picked through a pile of garbage by the side of the road, stopping to stare at Hazel with dead eyes before turning back to their work. A group of ragged, emaciated children, one of whom sucked on his dirty fingers, watched the scavengers. Yet across the street, a tidy line of schoolboys walked past the desolation as if nothing were wrong. The air smelled of rotting vegetables; dust kicked into Hazel's nose and made her sneeze. Early in the war, the newspapers had published aerial photos of the city showing almost all of it up in smoke, annihilated by relentless bombing. While many of the inhabitants sought safety deep underground in the ancient Roman aqueducts and tunnels, at least twenty thousand people had been killed.
She tried to envision what it would be like if New York had been similarly decimated, she and her mother out with their shopping bags, stepping over chunks of concrete, going about their day. She couldn't imagine it. "This is terrible. There's hardly anything left," she said.
The driver shrugged. "Naples was the most bombed site in Italy."
"The residents rose up and resisted the Germans, right?" She tried to remember what she'd read in the papers. "Looks like they paid dearly for it."
"Sure did." He made a sharp left, off the main road. "They told me to take you directly to the stage."
She would have thought they'd give her a moment or two to freshen up after her interminable trip. "Is the acting company rehearsing?"
"Nope. It's a show." He nodded at the men trudging along the side of the road in the same direction, smoking cigarettes. "This is your audience." At the sound of a low rumble above them, every helmeted head snapped up, scouring the skies. But it was only thunder, from a slate-colored cloud to the west, far out over the sea. The helmets snapped back down.
A show. Good. She'd have a chance to watch the other actors. In New York, she'd been given the script for Blithe Spirit, which had been a big hit on Broadway four years earlier, along with instructions to learn the maid's role, and she had managed to memorize some of the lines during the flight.
The lines were the easy part for Hazel, as she'd been a serial understudy for the past few years. Hazel's hope, when she first auditioned for the USO, was to be able to break out of her understudy rut and finally act onstage in a real performance. This was her chance to try something new, so that when she returned to New York, she'd be taken seriously as a major actress, not just a backup to be called upon when the leading lady got the flu. Which, with Hazel's bad luck, had never happened. She'd even established a reputation among producers: Hiring Hazel Ripley as an understudy guaranteed that your leading lady would never miss a show. Twenty plays now under her belt, without going on even once.
Every night, she'd feel a guilty flicker of relief as the star flounced through the stage door, healthy and raring to go, but Hazel attributed her own reticence to her lack of experience. Surely, once she'd gotten a taste of performing in front of an audience, she'd become just as competitive and eager to take center stage as her brother and father had been. She was a Ripley, after all.
Her mother, Ruth, thought that joining the USO tour was a terrible idea, listing off the names of entertainers who had been injured or killed while abroad, usually in plane crashes. "And let's not forget that pretty Jane Froman, who almost lost both legs when her plane crashed into a river in Portugal," Ruth had said. "Accidents happen all the time. You know that's true."
Hazel had changed the subject fast, recognizing the dangerous quiver in Ruth's voice. But she remained undeterred. The opportunity to get onstage while supporting her country was too good to pass up, and she viewed it as a way to honor her brother's memory while, at the same time, stepping out of his shadow. Not to mention the pay was ten dollars a day plus meals. She'd filled out a long questionnaire, had her fingerprints taken, and gotten inoculated for diseases she'd never even heard of. And now, finally, she'd arrived.
The Jeep pulled into an enormous field, where Mount Vesuvius smoked away in the distance. Soldiers had taken seats on long benches facing a truck. One side of the truck bed was folded down to expose a platform furnished with a small table and four chairs; a drab-olive canopy was strung overhead. A flag hung from one side, with the words uso camp shows written in blue on a white background. This was the stage, although it couldn't be more than fifteen feet wide. A few hundred soldiers milled about, chatting and smoking cigarettes, with hundreds more still making their way across the field.
"Over there." The driver pointed behind the truck, where a large tent had been erected. "That's where the performers are." He helped her out and handed her the two suitcases. One held the remaining dastardly uniform and other sundries, while the other was full of her best dresses. The Actors' Handbook had listed a series of dos and don'ts: For the stage, bring dresses that you'd wear on an important Saturday night date. Travel as a unit at all times. If you behave properly, you'll increase your chance of making the better tours and improve your living and feeding conditions. Made them sound like livestock, that last one.
"I'd walk you in, but we're not allowed inside." The driver's neck turned red at the very idea. "Good luck."
"No! Don't say that."
The soldier's eyebrows knitted together with concern. "What?"
"You're supposed to say, 'Break a leg.'"
He broke out in a wide smile. "Right. Break a leg."
Hazel nodded goodbye and slid through the opening in the tent flap backward, awkwardly maneuvering her suitcases inside.
"Well, it's about time."
Hazel blinked, her eyes adjusting to the dark interior.
A woman around her age, with hair the color of fire, did a slow turn, the better to show off a curvy figure that oozed out of a green silk dress. Behind her, three women perched on low stools in front of a splintered mirror, applying the final touches of stage makeup.
The redhead's lip curled. "Hazel Ripley, where the hell have you been?"
At least she knew she was in the right place. "I came straight from the plane." She shrugged, lifting the suitcases a couple of inches to prove it.
"Get out of that and into something pretty. They just called ten."
"They just called ten minutes. That means it's ten minutes until showtime." The redhead took a dramatic pause. "Have you ever even acted before? I swear, Jaundiced Jenny is out, and in her place we get Hayseed Hazel."
The other women giggled.
Hazel stood tall. "I've acted before. I know what it means. But I can't go on."
This must be some kind of joke they played on all the newbies. "Because I haven't rehearsed and don't know any of the blocking." She put down her suitcases and brushed the dust off her skirt, realizing as she did so that it made her seem like a prissy schoolmarm. She let her arms fall to her sides.
"You're the maid. How hard can it be? Do you know your lines?"
"I studied them on the plane."
"Then you'll be fine. Just enter and exit when you're supposed to."
A voice came from outside the tent. "Miss Mead!"
"Yes?" the redhead called back.
"Someone to see you."
She looked at her watch. "Hayseed, get some makeup on and get out of that uniform. See you ladies in the wings."
Hazel waited a beat. Surely these women would all burst into laughter, now that the joke had been played out, but they just turned back to the mirror.
The redhead seemed familiar. Maybe Hazel had seen her in a show or at an audition back in New York. "Who is that?" she asked.
"That's Maxine Mead. Our fearless leader." The speaker, a tall brunette fitted out in a lemon-yellow dress, stood and shook Hazel's hand, introducing herself in a deep alto as Verna.
"Do we have a leader?" Hazel was still waiting for an acknowledgment of the prank. "I thought we were all second lieutenants."
"Maxine runs the show." Verna shrugged and introduced the other two ladies. Phyllis was a rotund milkmaid type with rosy cheeks, and Betty-Lou was a tiny slip of a girl, perfect for playing kids' parts, most likely.
"She's joking, right? About me going on?"
Verna shook her head. "No. We've been holding the curtain, waiting for you. You can get ready over there."
But this was ridiculous. No rehearsal at all? Hazel didn't even know which actress was playing which character. A lump lodged in her throat at the thought of all those men out there, waiting for the entertainment to begin. This had been a terrible idea. She'd be put on the next plane home, back to doing crosswords in the understudy's dressing room.
Trembling, Hazel changed into one of her plainer dresses, as befitting a maid, and tied the apron Verna tossed over around her waist. She turned away so the other girls wouldn't see her hands shaking as she looped the ends into a bow.
After standing in the wings for countless shows, watching others perform, this would be the first time she'd actually step onto the stage? Before thousands of people, with no rehearsal? She yanked the script out of her bag and leafed through the first scene, trying to imprint the cues in her head. The words swam around on the page as her heart pounded in her rib cage.
Another loud clap of thunder. "Will they cancel it if it rains?"
"You kidding?" said Phyllis. "Some of these men walked miles to get here. They ain't going anywhere."
Hazel followed the other girls behind the big truck. The rain was holding off, but probably not for long, judging from the soggy feel in the air. Hazel longed for a bolt of lightning to hit the truck and cancel the show. Anything to not have to go onstage in front of this sea of men, in a strange country, when she hadn't eaten or slept in what felt like a week.
She waited in the wings, which was really a small set of stairs that led onstage, forcing back tears. Betty-Lou handed her a tarnished silver tray. "Here's your prop." Hazel couldn't even whisper anything back-by then, her throat had closed up. She'd wanted desperately to act in a play, but not like this.
Even worse, her character had the first entrance.
The lights went up.
She couldn't go out there. Into the spotlight.
"What are you waiting for?" A solid shove from Maxine, who'd silently reappeared, propelled her up the stairs. Hazel placed the tray on a table downstage as Verna entered from the other side. Hazel had no idea what Verna said, her mind had fuzzed over, but she answered with "Yes'm," her first line. She managed to utter the next few, hoping she got them in the right order, before scampering like a dog with its tail between its legs back to the safety of the wings.
The soldiers roared with laughter. Backstage, Betty-Lou gave her a pat on the shoulder. "Not bad."
The show continued. The other members of the cast were loud and confident, especially Maxine, who was a force of nature as the psychic Madame Arcati. The two male parts were played by men, presumably soldiers who'd volunteered. Each time Hazel ventured out, she relaxed a little more.
When she wasn't onstage, she watched the eager faces of the soldiers in the first few rows. The men were desperate for entertainment, for something else to think about besides the war, and even when the rain began falling in sheets, no one stirred.
Unfortunately, in spite of the men's rapt attention, her performance was far from perfect. She stepped on the other girls' lines instead of waiting her turn to speak, and missed a couple of entrances.
But she'd done it. She'd acted on a stage, in front of people. Terribly, no doubt about that, but as the men whooped and whistled during the curtain call, Hazel managed a proud smile.
Reading Group Guide
1) The Chelsea Hotel is one of the main characters in and of itself. What does it represent? What is its personality and how does it change and evolve? How does it affect the lives of the other characters?
2) How do Hazel and Maxine use writing to make sense of the world around them? Where do you think their motivation to write comes from? Do you use writing in a similar way?
3) Do you think the political pressures of McCarthyism are still relevant today? Why or why not?
4) What did you think of Charlie and his desire to join the FBI? How do you think his relationship with his father shaped his ambitions? Were you rooting for him and Hazel? Why or why not?
5) When Maxine flubs her lines on opening night, her career doesn’t suffer, but Hazel’s does. Why do you think that is? How would you have reacted in Hazel’s situation? Do you think she has a right to be bitter about the success of Wartime Sonata’s revival, or should she be grateful?
6) If Maxine had not made the tragic choice she did, do you think she and Hazel would have renewed their friendship? If you were in Hazel’s shoes, would you forgive Maxine? Why or why not?
7) How do Hazel and Maxine subvert or conform to 1950s expectations and gender roles?
8) Do you think McCarthyism made romantic and friendly relationships difficult? Why or why not? If so, what were the complications and the consequences of having a relationship?
9) “Maxine’s bravery in the square, as well as now, with the major, astonished Hazel. She wished she were that brash. But she wouldn’t dare question an authority figure. Always the understudy, in life as well as in art.” How does Hazel transform throughout the novel, and does the word “understudy,” which she considers to have negative connotations, change in meaning as well?
10) What do you think influenced Maxine’s best and worst decisions in the book? Would you have made different ones? If so, in what instances and why?
11) The theater district was such a vibrant scene in the 1950s. Did you have a favorite setting in the book? If you could go back in time to any of the places mentioned, which would you choose?
12) How is theater represented not only on Broadway in the book, but also in the political arena today? Does the House Un-American Activities Committee reflect any views held today?