Excerpt from The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Girls in the Picture

by Melanie Benjamin

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin X
The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2018, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 22, 2019, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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Chapter 1

Frances

Spring 1914

"Mary? Hey, Mary, here's that girl artist I was telling you about."

Owen Moore thumped on the door, cocked his head, listening. He held up a finger. "Hold on, she's cutting," he informed me dismissively. "Wait here. She'll yell when she's ready."

"Are you sure this is a good time?" I patted my long skirt, sneezing as reddish-brown California dust came flying out of it, and touched my head to make sure my cartwheel hat was still pinned into place. Oh, if only I could have brought my sketches! But the Santa Anas had been too fierce this morning. They would have blown my sketch folder right out of my hands, and of course I didn't own a car, so I'd had to take the trolley, and I had no idea what number to telephone to postpone the appointment—and I wouldn't have done so anyway, not for the world.

So I'd had to leave my sketches behind, and I felt as if I'd misplaced a baby, so used was I to having something in my hands—a sketchpad, a diary, a book, knitting. Restless hands, Mother had always scolded. Daughter, you have restless hands to match your restless mind.

"Sure, sure, it's a good time." Owen could barely contain his impatience; I knew he'd regretted setting up the meeting the moment he suggested it. "Mary?" Owen hollered again. "Hurry up!"

Still no sound from behind the closed door, until gradually I became aware of a whirring, clicking, mechanical noise. Owen Moore—Mary Pickford's devilishly handsome husband—patted his smooth, rosy cheek. On his delicate white hand, a ruby ring twinkled from his pinkie. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. What a ridiculous dandy!

"My wife thinks she's God's gift to movies." He rolled his eyes nearly to the heavens; a movie actor's exaggerated body language. A bad movie actor's, at that. "She's merely a pretty Irish girl with an adequate little talent—hardly cerebral, if you ask me."

"I didn't, actually. Ask." Shifting my feet, I tried to find a stance that showed my disapproval but didn't offend him. I couldn't stand Owen Moore from the moment he'd sidled up to me at the party, flashing that ruby ring, and I loathed him even more now. To talk that way about his own wife! He was just another small man afraid of an intelligent woman—the world was full of such fools. Yet my future was held in this particular fool's overmanicured hands.

"Well, it's the truth."

"I think she's a major talent." I couldn't hold it in any longer. "I've always loved her movies, even before I knew she had a name. Even when she was only The Biograph Girl, Little Goldilocks."

"You would," Owen said with a sneer; he had not liked it when I turned down his advances at the party, but still, he'd managed to get me the invitation I coveted. With one last exaggerated grimace of disgust, he turned. "I'm wanted on set, so you'll excuse me." Then he stalked off toward the "set"—whatever that was.

Left alone, I had to pinch myself; I'd never been in a movie studio before. Studio. That was quite a fancy word for what was really a collection of flimsy barns and sheds, so obviously hastily built I was surprised they were still standing in the force of today's winds. When I'd arrived, I'd given my name to a disinterested man, makeup visible behind his ears, who served as a sort of a gatekeeper. After consulting a list, he told me to go inside the largest of the sheds to wait for Owen.

This shed was a maze of rooms partitioned so haphazardly that there seemed to be no real hallway. From one corner of the cavernous building I could hear hammers assaulting nails and saws chewing through wood; from another, violins scratching out "Hearts and Flowers." Bare lightbulbs swung from long, fraying cords. Shouts rang out from every corner; cries to "Watch that flat!" or "Are the damn Indians shooting craps again?" or "Is Sylvia wearing that costume we need for Lita's dream sequence?" Outside, through windows and open doors that let in enough dust to coat every surface a quarter-inch thick, I glimpsed a row of tall cubicles, each with three walls but, oddly, no ceiling save a gauzy sheer fabric draped over some ropes, like a canopy. Each was done up in a different fashion—a living room, a bedroom, a western saloon, a Victorian dining room. In front of some of these cubicles, where the fourth wall should have been, clusters of people huddled around a man diligently cranking one single camera. Next to the camera, men or women clutching megaphones bellowed directions as people with ghostly painted faces—pale, almost white skin tinged with an undercurrent of yellow, but dark, dark eyes and mouths—moved about stiffly in the odd ceilingless rooms illuminated only by the reliable California sun. Owen had headed out a door toward one of the cubicles; could that be the "set"?

Excerpted from The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin. Copyright © 2018 by Melanie Benjamin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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