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Twenty-five years in the making, a first novel that has already been compared to The Sun Also Rises and The Last Tycoon, Cheat and Charmer is certain to be one of the most admired literary debuts of the season. Written by Pulitzer Prize—winning biographer Elizabeth Frank, Cheat and Charmer is a masterful and richly detailed work of fiction–a Tolstoyan novel of marriage, sisterhood, art, politics, compromise, and betrayal set in Hollywood, New York, Paris, and London of the 1950s.
Dinah Lasker grew up in the shadow of her sister, Veevi, a stunning beauty and emerging star who enchanted both the Hollywood set and its imported New York literati. But Veevi’s home was also a hotbed of political activity, owing to her marriage to Stefan Ventura, a Bulgarian filmmaker and high-profile Communist. At the end of the 1930s, when things go badly for him in Hollywood, Ventura and Veevi flee to Paris and into the lengthening shadows of Hitler and fascism.
Cut to 1951, when Dinah is subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which threatens to ruin her husband, Jake, and derail his successful career as a Hollywood writer, producer, and director unless she cooperates. Can Dinah live with herself if she names Veevi–whom she both loves and loathes–in order to save her husband and preserve her idyllic married life? The choices Dinah makes set in motion an unforgettable chain of events. Like Anna Karenina, Dinah must face the consequences of her choices and her needs.
Written with elegance and style, Cheat and Charmer grippingly dramatizes the interior lives of Dinah, Veevi, Jake, and their social circle. Spanning decades and following complex characters on their impassioned pursuits through America and Europe, this is a novel of grand scope, about love and deception, idealism and accommodation, the lies we live, and the truths we cannot avoid.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Elizabeth Frank won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for her biography Louise Bogan: A Portrait. She is also the author of Jackson Pollack and Esteban Vicente. She has written many articles and book reviews on art and literature for The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, and Art in America, among others. She is the Joseph E. Harry Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at Bard College.
From the Hardcover edition.
[ 1951 ]
The band launched into an old swing tune and the other couples fell away, clearing the floor for Jake and Dinah Lasker, who were dancing with tremendous rhythm and style. Tall and broad-shouldered, his thinning hair black and wavy, Jake led smoothly, his timing practiced and understated as he released his wife in an outward spin and then snapped her back toward him in an inward spiral. Under her flaring green satin dress, Dinah’s legs and ankles were what any dance director would have considered professionally great—long and well proportioned, with slender, graceful ankles. She wasn’t otherwise especially beautiful, at least not by the impossible standards of the motion picture industry, but she was a comely woman, with regular features and warm, guileless eyes. She wore her brown hair in a pageboy, with a side wave swept up and locked into place with a simple gold barrette. Had she been two inches taller, she could easily have had a career as a model; good clothes looked wonderful on her, and she danced with the same naturalness and trust in her body with which she walked and gestured.
After a wave of applause, Irv Engel, the tuxedoed president and head of production at Marathon Pictures, returned the baton to its rightful owner and beckoned the Laskers to join him. Engel was strikingly tall and thin, round-shouldered, with transparent eyeglass frames and, at the moment, a big horsy smile that seemed inconsistent with his furrow-browed demeanor at the studio. “God, it’s fun watching you two dance,” he remarked, as he clamped his long arms around both Dinah’s and Jake’s shoulders and steered them from one table to the next, each with a pink damask tablecloth and napkins, heavy silver, and gardenias afloat in a crystal bowl from whose center rose a small flickering candle. It was early summer and, like most Southern California evenings at this time of year, fragrant with ocean air, pine trees, and night-blooming jasmine.
It seemed to Dinah that Irv was unusually attentive tonight, flattering her in front of all the guests, oohing and aahing about her great legs, and going on and on about her as a paragon of Hollywood wifeliness. Nevertheless she hung back, keeping her eyes on Jake, wanting the night’s glory to be completely his. She took in the sound of voices low in conversation, the gusts of sudden, often profane laughter, and the familiar scents—perfume and coffee and cigarette smoke, brandy and cigars. Finally, seeing an opportunity, she slipped away from Irv and her husband and headed toward a round table otherwise deserted except for a lone woman who was staring out in unfathomable melancholy at the turquoise depths of the swimming pool.
As Dinah swept the folds of her dress to one side, let her satin high heels drop to the terra-cotta tiles, and put her stocking feet up on the empty chair beside her, the woman, a small blonde, glanced at her with interest. “My, my, Dinah, you and Jake certainly look good on the dance floor.”
“Thanks, Anya,” Dinah gasped. “But I forgot I was wearing high heels. I damn near k-k-k-killed myself.”
“The two of you have such style together. It’s a pleasure to watch.”
“We’re having such a good time tonight, Anya. It’s a wonderful p-p-p—Jesus, I can dance but I can’t say this word!” She screwed up her eyes with effort and tried again. “P-p-p-party. There. I got it out.”
Dinah withdrew a Camel from a pack inside the beaded cigarette case in her black satin clutch, pausing for a moment, as if she had seen something unexpected inside the bag. Dinah was always conscious of her stutter around Anya Engel, and always uncomfortable, no doubt because Anya herself had a most peculiar problem. Although she had well-formed, delicate features, her mouth was twisted to the side of her face, and looked like a porthole, through which words were issued with a muffled precision—the result, Dinah had heard, of a sudden stroke after childbirth from which Anya had all but completely recovered, except for this single affliction. Dinah had learned early in life never to avoid mentioning her stutter. Consequently, her patience with people who kept silent about their so-called defects, imperfections, or handicaps had its limits, and in all the years Dinah had known her, Anya Engel had never once mentioned hers. Dinah would have liked her better if she had, but from the beginning she had regarded the wife of her husband’s boss as an East Coast snob who considered her an uneducated shiksa, a nobody from nowhere whose great legs were an enviable but nevertheless suspicious sign of her lumpen origins. Anya Engel had always let it be known that she was a Radcliffe graduate and an artist, aloof from and superior to the movie business. During the many evenings the Laskers had been guests at the Engels’ Pacific Palisades hacienda, Anya had often disappeared after dinner without explanation, and on weekends at their Palm Springs “compound,” as Irv called it, Irv talked movies and politics with Jake, Dinah knitted sweaters, and Anya stood at an easel set well apart from the conversation, painting landscapes of the mountains and the desert and correcting Jake’s pronunciation when he complimented her on her “fauve” palette.
Dinah was perfectly clear about one thing. This was not the night for a heart-to-heart about the trials of having flaws in a town that worshiped physical perfection. Tonight belonged to Jake. The Engels were giving this party to honor the thirty-nine-year-old producer-writer-director, the huge success of his recent picture, Cousin Jonnycake, and the three-picture deal that Jake had signed earlier in the week. And so Dinah had to make conversation with Anya, never an easy thing to do.
“Do you and Irv like to dance?”
“Well, we never had much of a chance. He was always the bandleader, so I danced with the other fellows. And he hated that.” She smiled, and Dinah thought, She’s telling me how much her husband loves her. “It’s how we became engaged,” Anya continued. “ ‘Just so they know you’re taken,’ he used to say.”
“Cute,” said Dinah. “Very c-c-c-cute.” She glanced at the large square diamond next to Anya’s wedding band. Imagine being able to afford a rock like that during the Depression, she said to herself—not for the first time, either.
“Tell me, Dinah, what do you hear from Veevi these days?”
“She’s fine,” she said, surprised. She had not been thinking about her sister.
“Beautiful girl. Really,” Anya went on, “the most beautiful creature I ever saw.”
“It’s true,” Dinah readily agreed. “When people see her for the first time, it’s as if they’ve been thrown from a horse. Knocks the breath right out of them.”
“It must have been hard for you.”
Dinah looked straight at Anya with her large brown eyes. “Hard? How so?” She knew perfectly well what Anya meant. This is why I can’t stand her, she said to herself. She does it every time; she reminds me of the old days, the awful nothing days.
“Well, if I had a sister who was the most beautiful girl in the world . . .”
“Oh, I think I’ve managed pretty well,” Dinah said, lighting a cigarette, her voice brittle.
“Of course, I don’t know about you,” Anya said carefully, “but it was certainly hard for me. Coming out here right after we were married and finding everyone in Irv’s family positively smitten with her. I remember Lionel and Edy sent a car for us and we drove up to the house, and they were all there to meet us, and there was Irv’s poor brother Talcott, standing there with his arm around a girl dressed in a dirndl. She had the most stunning face I’ve ever seen. Don’t think I didn’t see Irv’s jaw drop. He moped around the house, took long drives by himself, could barely look at me. Imagine, me a new bride, and I come out here, and suddenly he’s got this enormous crush on Veevi.”
“Well, he wasn’t the only one,” Dinah said. “Every writer in Hollywood was cr-cr-cr-cr-crazy about her.”
“But I said to him,” Anya continued, “ ‘Look here, if you don’t snap out of it I’m going right back home to New York, and I mean tonight.’ ” She laughed. “That did it.”
“I guess it worked,” Dinah said. “But she did have that effect on people.”
“She certainly did.” Anya reached across the table and patted Dinah’s hand. “I remember so well what you were like all those years ago. It wasn’t easy for you, dear, and I’m so glad to see you . . . finally getting . . . well, you know, what you deserve,” she said, the words coming thickly but distinctly through the moist porthole.
“Thank you, Anya,” Dinah said, withdrawing her hand. She understood now. Anya was reminding her, on this night of Jake’s triumph, of the days when Dinah wasn’t Mrs. Jake Lasker but just Veevi Milligan’s older, not-quite-beautiful sister, a poor, unmarried secretary working for an oil company. What business was it of Anya’s to keep watch over her life and bring up that miserable past? What are you, she wanted to say, my fucking biographer? She wanted to strike back, say something coarse and cruel—How do you manage to go down on Irv with that thing? But of course she said nothing of the kind.
“Is Veevi still married to Michael Albrecht?”
“St-St-St-Still? Yes, of course.”
“That must be some marriage—the most beautiful girl in the world and the most talented man of our time. I’ve read all his novels. He won’t let Irv option any of them. Imagine,” Anya sneered, “someone brave enough to turn his back on this town! Does he love her very much? Is she divinely happy?”
“Divinely,” Dinah said, and grasped at once that Anya was not divinely happy, whatever else she may have been. “She’s divinely, magnificently, sp-sp-spectacularly happy, in Paris, away from Hollywood.” Yes, she told herself, that’s what it is. Anya wants Europe, and she’s stuck here in L.A. She smiled. “Excuse me, dear,” she said, standing up and sliding her feet into her heels. “I’m off to the powder room.”
Anya Engel’s dark eyes, vivid and alive in her tortured little face, became dreamy. “How I’d love to live in Paris.” She sat back in her chair and looked out over the swimming pool. “She’d be a fool ever to come back here.”
“Oh, but I don’t think she ever will. She hates this t-t-t-t-town even more than you do,” said Dinah, leaving Anya sitting by herself, with something inconsolable in her expression.
Inside the house, a Negro maid wearing a black uniform and a starched white organdy apron and cap led Dinah to the powder suite, where she stretched out on a chaise longue after asking for aspirin and water. Her head throbbed, and she dug her knuckles into her temples. Her breathing was rapid, and the light hurt her eyes. She had a horrible taste in her mouth.
After the maid returned, and again disappeared, Dinah lay back, waiting for the aspirin to start working. Suddenly she sat up, opened her black clutch, and withdrew a folded piece of pink paper. She read what was written on it, and quickly put it back in her bag.
Earlier that day, Dinah had been sitting in the breakfast room watching the bulldozer scoop gigantic mouthfuls of earth out of what, until only a few days before, had been a formal English garden with a brick retaining wall and a stone lion’s head that gushed a stream of water into a small oval pool. A crew had invaded and ravaged the clipped box hedges and the beds of flowers—snapdragons, asters, pansies, chrysanthemums—that Dinah had lovingly tended since she and Jake had moved into the house the year before. Her dismay growing, she watched as the orange and lemon trees were ripped out by the roots and promptly thrown into the incinerator. In their place rose heaps of black dirt beside a big rectangular hole that grew bigger and deeper every day. Dinah didn’t like to swim. When she was twelve, her father, who had promised to teach her how to swim, tossed her off a pier into the too-deep waters of Lake Arrowhead. Somehow she had managed not to drown, but she had feared the water ever since. Once it became clear that Cousin Jonnycake was going to be a hit, however, Jake had insisted on putting in a pool. He’d been sent to camp every summer on Lake Michigan and, later, had been a member of the swim team at the University of Chicago. Though the war in Korea had made it much more expensive to buy concrete and tiles, he was going to have his pool.
Most of the year, it was light and sunny in the breakfast room, but in June the morning fog almost never burned off until lunchtime, and a gray glare hovered outside the window. It depressed her, reminding her of the Pittsburgh of her earliest memories—humid summer days, damp winter twilights, chapped, frozen upper lips, she and her sister keeping each other awake all night with whooping cough, their chests smeared with foul-smelling mustard plasters. This descent into the past—the only thing that threatened her contented daily routine—was halted when the doors separating the breakfast room from the kitchen swung open and Gussie Crittenden, the Laskers’ Negro housekeeper, chanting “Coming through,” flew in to set down the day’s mail on the black-and-white marble lazy Susan, and flew out again, too busy to hear Dinah’s thank-you.
The mail wasn’t particularly interesting—the trades, a large manila envelope from the business manager with checks to sign, a ballot for Jake from the Screenwriters Guild. For her father there were two items—an envelope from his Masonic Lodge and a blue tissue-paper-thin airmail letter from Veevi. Dinah would keep both of them in a kitchen drawer, along with the rest of his accumulated mail, until the next time his Airstream pulled into the driveway, and there was no telling when that would be. God only knew what wilderness he’d taken off to—Death Valley, maybe, or Yosemite, or redwood country. He would disappear for months on end, send a postcard with two lines, and then show up without warning, in a worn denim shirt, dusty hiking boots, suspenders, and an old canvas hat. The next morning he would come into the kitchen all dressed up in the same dark blue woolen pin-striped suit he had worn on the train to California in January 1922, take his mail out to the garden, and commence the solemn ritual of reading the letters his younger daughter, Veevi, had written him from Paris.
From the Hardcover edition.
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