Caroline Preston is the author of four novels and lives with her husband, the writer Christopher Tilghman, in Charlottesville, Virginia. They will be reading at The American Library on June 26 at 7:30.
In Woody Allen’s recent movie Midnight In Paris, an American writer Gil (played by Own Wilson) has a fantasy of time traveling back to the 1920’s Left Bank so he can chat up a few glamorous expats including Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. I admit that I have always harbored such a fantasy, which inspired my new novel, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, which is the recreation of a 1920’s scrapbook.
My love affair with 1920’s Paris started with an improbable family connection. My grandmother, the very proper wife of a Chicago lawyer, had been childhood best friends with Sylvia Beach, who later opened the Left Bank bookshop Shakespeare and Company that became a famous expat hangout. They were such good friends that my grandmother named her first child (my mother) Sylvia, and made Sylvia Beach godmother.
When I was a little girl, I spent hours looking through my grandmother’s scrapbooks of her various Paris visits. There was a 1924 photo of my mother, age 6, and Sylvia Beach in a back room at Shakespeare and Company, snapped by Adrienne Monnier. There was another photo of Sylvia Beach standing with a gaunt man sporting a jaunty fedora and an eye patch. That’s the notorious writer James Joyce, my grandmother explained. Sylvia Beach had dared to publish his banned book Ulysses when every other publisher in America had refused.
In fact, Grammy confessed, Sylvia Beach sent large trunks of contraband Ulysses to her Chicago house, which she then wrapped in plain brown paper and sent on to various subscribers. I found the idea impossibly romantic– my grandmother with the white hair and big white pocket book had once been a smut smuggler!
My absolutely favorite item in Grammy’s scrapbook was a 2 foot coil of dark auburn hair– a souvenir from when she had gotten her hair bobbed at Elizabeth Arden on the Rue St. Honore. She then splurged on a slinky sheath coat from Premet which she said was “the dernier cri”—in bottle green velvet trimmed with sable cuffs and collar. The hair has survived but, alas, the coat has not.
In 2009, I started my fourth novel about a young woman in the 1920s with aspirations to become a writer and pulled out my grandmother’s scrapbooks for some inspiration. Once again, I felt transported and wondered how I could create a novel that was as vivid and visceral as a scrapbook. And then I had a sudden inspiration—why not create a novel that was a scrapbook? Not a metaphorical or digital scrapbook, but a real scrapbook, made up of real stuff – letters, postcards, tickets, clippings, menus, fabric swatches, magazine covers, fashions spreads, candy wrappers, and sheet music – that I cut up with scissors and pasted together with glue.
Making a scrapbook novel turned out to be a ridiculously ambitious and multi-stepped project. First I made up a fictitious character—Frances Pratt who journeys from a small New England village to Vassar, Greenwich Village, and the Left Bank of Paris in search of love and success. Frankie’s story begins in 1920 and ends in 1928—those whiz-bang years when every aspect of American life was upended and reinvented.
The next step was to assemble Frankie’s scrapbook item by item—in all I collected over 600 pieces of original 1920’s ephemera. Some I found in my grandmother’s scrapbooks, the rest I tracked down in antique stores, flea markets and on eBay. Some of my favorite finds for the Paris chapter are vintage Cunard luggage tickets, a 1924 Paris Blue Guide, a beaded flapper purse, a Bakelite cigarette holder, a Folie Bergere ticket, a dust jacket from a 1926 Sun Also Rises , and a Spirit of St. Louis bade handed out on the streets of Paris when Lindbergh landed.
I am thrilled to have the opportunity to read from The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt at the American Library on June 26. I like to think that Sylvia Beach would be pleased that the letters and photographs she sent my grandmother nearly 90 years ago are making a return to Paris.