BWW Interview: Author Jacqueline T. Lynch Talks About ANN BLYTH ACTRESS, SINGER, STAR
Author Jacqueline T. Lynch has just published Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain about the Mt. Tom Playhouse in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She interviewed me about three years ago, since I was born and raised in Holyoke and ... since I spent my childhood watching the Valley Players at Mt. Tom. The Players were my mentors for my odyssey through the acting world. It's a fascinating book. Lynch has also written the only biography in existence of movie and musical star Ann Blyth. In the following interview she talks about both books and her life as a writer.
Have you always been a writer? If not, when did the desire to write begin?
I turned to writing seriously when I was about fourteen and tried to write a novel suddenly one day, and never wanted to be anything else from that time. But as I look back now, I was always a storyteller from early childhood-with my toys and my imagination making up adventures for them; I just never knew that's what I was doing. But the bug hit as a teen when I dove into Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, and I wanted to figure out how they constructed their mysteries. I took them apart, much like a teenage kid tinkers with a used car, and was fascinated by the process. Through my teen years I likewise studied the great poets, and read plays, as well as novels (and wrote a lot too). It was a wonderful apprenticeship. I have a bachelor's degree in English, but I still feel that the exploration of my hometown library as a teen was just as important a grounding for a writing career.
Have you engaged in other occupations besides writing? If so, which ones?
My first job was in a library, but I've worked in offices and factories. I've worked as a columnist for a few different newspapers (I currently write a syndicated column on classic films called Silver Screen, Golden Years), and was assistant editor and office manager for a small monthly history magazine. I've been self-employed as well for many years as a transcriptionist. I'm branching out into proofreading for court reporters, and accepting new clients.
What is it about the profession that you love? Talk about your blog on classic films.
Just as when I was a teen taking apart the great works of master writers, writing is my way of figuring out the world, as well as entertaining myself. To be sure, I want an audience to enjoy my work and be educated and entertained by it, but I confess, first and foremost, it's for me. I actually have three blogs at present: Another Old Movie Blog, which is going to be ten years old in March; New England Travels, about the history and culture of New England, and this blog will be ten years old in September; and Ann Blyth: Actress, Singer, Star - based on my book on Ann Blyth, which is a way for me to connect with her fans and use some material that didn't make the book.
The movie blog started really just as sort of a whim. I've been a classic film fan since early childhood, and old movies have always been an education for me, a way to time-travel. My blog explores the films as windows on American pop culture in the decades these films were made: from the teens to the early 1960s. I don't really review the films per se; I analyze them in the setting of their eras and discuss their meaning in their times and the legacy they leave us. When I watch a movie, I invariably discuss it in my head, so the leap to writing weekly essays about these films just sort of happened as a way to exorcise these stupid running soliloquies I was having with myself on Bogart and cloche hats and running boards on Packards.
Have you always lived back East? Talk about New England and your roots.
Yes, I'm a New Englander; my family has lived here, different branches, for five and six generations. Some of my father's side came here in the early and mid-1800s; my mother's side came through Ellis Island in the years just before World War I. I've traveled a bit (I love to travel), but I've never lived anywhere else. In the town where I live there is a huge granite Celtic cross on the grounds of my church that was made by my great-great grandfather, who was a stone cutter and artisan. It's a lovely piece of work and we're rather proud of it.
You also have written a couple of books about New England. Talk about them and how they came to be.
States of Mind: New England is a collection of essays and articles that were originally published in magazines, or were posts on my New England blog. It was a way of re-using the material in another format. The period of history covered is from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, and looks at the mill girls who pioneered employment outside the home for women, to the first black woman pharmacist in Connecticut, through inventions, sweeping social movements. From the Civil War to the Civilian Conservation Corps, the book is about New England as an idea, rather than just a place.
The other New England book you perhaps refer to is about the Ames Manufacturing Company, which was an important supplier of arms to the Union Army during the Civil War, and discusses in particular three men who were connected with it: a machinist who left to join the army, served at several major battles and was later awarded the Medal of Honor; a worker in the foundry who in post-war years became one of the country's best known producers of bronze statuary in the country; and the owner of the plant, James T. Ames and what his family experienced as leading citizens in the town.
How did the biography of Ann Blyth come about? Had you always been a fan?
The Ann Blyth book started as a series of blog posts on Another Old Movie Blog. I had written posts about a couple of her films, and decided that I would like to write about a few more, so I got a list together of her movies to choose. Two things immediately struck me: one, I was unfamiliar with most of her movies, and this surprised me. I had been a classic film fan since early childhood and had seen a lot-a lot-of old movies, but I had seen only about a third of hers. Second, I discovered that most were not available on DVD or VHS, and were not being shown on Turner Classic Movies because they were from the Universal studio and TCM (without getting into legal details) does not have access to too many Universal films.
So, curious about all this, I decided to find as many of her films as I could, and this led to another discovery: Ann Blyth is a remarkably versatile talent, adept at drama, comedy, musicals, pretty much anything that was thrown at her. However, though she came to be called "a young Bette Davis" for her powerful dramatic roles, i.e. MildrEd Pierce, when the publicity department and gossip columnists got hold of the news of her quiet, church-going private life, they put a different spin on her career trajectory, and the studios relegated her to more lightweight roles. I guess they thought it would be hard for the public to accept her in villain roles when they were fed so many stories on her being a nice girl. She was as famous as anyone could be in the late 1940s, but today only diehard fans recall the range of magnificent work she did on screen. Fortunately, she enjoyed a second career in regional theatre, and concerts, as well as occasional television roles.
I decided to write a weekly blog post on one of her films or some aspect of her career for the entire year of 2014, and it wasn't halfway into the project when readers, who had from the start suggested I turn it into a book, finally convinced me that with all this material, it would be a good idea to turn it into book form. So, the book just sort of grew out of the blog. There is more material in the book, however, and lots of photos that do not appear on the blog. It was one of the most meaningful projects I've ever worked on, and very dear to my heart.
Did she participate in the writing by doing an interview with you? I assume you had to get her permission up front, so you must have contacted her.
I had contacted her representative early on, but Mrs.McNulty (her married name) respectfully declined through him to be interviewed, so I proceeded without her input, and I certainly understand and respected her preference to not participate. The book is not an authorized biography; indeed, it's not really a traditional movie star biography at all; it's more about her career than her personal life. This was the kind of analytical book I wanted to write, about the nuts and bolts of how a young kid who started in radio and on Broadway (in the seminal hit Watch On the Rhine-she was chosen for the role by playwright Lillian Hellman and the director, Herman Shumlin) got to become a huge star in Hollywood-where she was the youngest at the time to be nominated for an Oscar, and then easily transformed herself again to a post-Hollywood career on stage and TV where she could work around the needs of her family (so, no, to examine her work I did not require her permission). Actually, last year both she and one of her daughters contacted me with some very kind words about the book. Mrs. McNulty and I had a brief phone conversation, which was a terrific thrill for me. I'll always cherish the memory of her graciousness.
Interesting that no one has attempted a bio of her before. Her career was so varied with music and theatre as well as film.
I suspect that most film star biographies are written and published with the intention of exploiting the more sensational private life experiences of Hollywood figures, assuming that's what sells. Someone who had lived a quiet, stable private life, married with five children, might have less interest for a publisher looking for sensational material, even if she continues to have an army of devoted fans.
By the way, Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is also out as an audio book, narrated by Los Angeles area TV and stage actress Toni Lewis. She did a magnificent job, giving each figure in the narrative a distinct voice. A very elegant and impassioned reading.
Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain is a true treasure. What specifically inspired you to write this book?
The theater on the mountain is in my neck of the woods, and I am very interested in New England history as well as theatre history, so this was a nice chance to combine those two passions. Some years ago, a friend who deals in collectibles gave me some old playbills from a theatre company on Mt. Tom called The Valley Players, from the 1940s and 1950s. I knew very little about them at the time, but I was excited to begin research, and I knew that I might get an article out of it someday. What happened was I got a book out of it-that is the blessing of stumbling upon so much great material, most of which I found in the Holyoke (Massachusetts) Public Library in a collection donated by the founder of The Valley Players.
How is the reaction to Mt. Tom in Holyoke? I would hope folks will buy it. It is so comprehensive, enlightening and entertaining.
Thank you for the kind words, Don. I gave a talk in Holyoke recently that was well attended and there was much enthusiasm for the book. I've been giving newspaper interviews, and I have more talks scheduled in the months ahead. I'll also be doing some local television interviews.
What's up next for you? I would like to see you do a book on Storrowton and summer theatre back there. Does it still exist?
No, the Storrowton tent theatre closed in the late1970s. Funny that you would mention Storrowton: it has a prominent part in the Mt. Tom theater story as well, as they were in competition for a while. I don't have any plans at this point to write about Storrowton (what the future holds, I don't know), but I do have an upcoming project for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Library and Museums Association. I'm doing a walking tour through downtown to discuss the wonderful old theaters that once were part of the area. That will be in May.
You seem truly happy with the work you've accomplished. How do you feel about all of it so far?
First and foremost, let me thank you for your kindness and generosity by allowing me to share a bit about my books. I really appreciate it.
I also write fiction, and my novels include a historical story about the "lost" towns of the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts-those four communities that were disbanded and dismantled, and the people who had to evacuate in the 1920s and 1930s. Other novels set in New England as well include Meet Me in Nuthatch about a fictional town in the Berkshires of western Mass. and how they solve their financial problems by turning the town into a living museum set in 1905, with comic consequences. The Current Rate of Exchange is about a woman from western Mass. who travels to New Zealand to connect with long-lost relatives, again with some comic adventures, but also a few poignant messages.
I also have a mystery series (I never quite lost my fascination for the tales of Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie from my teen years) set in New England in the late 1940s and 1950s. Sort of like film noir "cozies". I'm currently working on the fifth book in the series. They feature the team of an heiress and an ex-con, neither of whom are detectives, but people keep bringing dead bodies to them and they are extraordinarily good at finding out "who done it". Actually, I use a bit of a different tactic with these stories. Usually in mysteries, the sleuth is very clever and always pulls a rabbit out of a hat by the end of the story; the reader never knows what's going to happen. I always resented that as a reader, because I'm stupid and could never figure out who the killer was, and was really more interested in the characters anyway. So these books are character-driven, and there are no clues kept from the reader. The crime-solving duo doesn't know any more about the crime than the reader does. They all come to the conclusion of the story together.
Then there's Myths of the Modern Man, a complete departure, a story about a futuristic time traveler who goes back to the Celtic rebellion against the Romans in Britannia in the year 60. I've heard advice to writers to the effect that one should pick one topic or genre and stick with it to be successful, and while that may be so, I prefer to write whatever I feel like and to try new things. Life is too short to limit yourself.
I also have several published plays, a couple award winners among them, that have been produced around the country and in Europe. I love the immediacy of playwriting. A novel is more like a marathon, you have time to reel out the story, but in a stage script, you have to hit the ground running. Each character must be fully fleshed out before you can tell the story, and each much have a purpose in every scene, every action and prop must have a reason. It requires some discipline, but I love playwriting. Most especially, writing for the theatre involves a collaboration with the director, the technical crew, and of course, the actors, and this is always fun because your work grows beyond your own ability to tell the story. Like a runner in a baton race, you must run only to a certain point, and then you hand off the baton to your teammate, and watch (and cheer for them) as they take the baton the rest of the way around the track and across the finish line.
Thank you again, Don, for this opportunity to visit with you and your readers, and thank you so much for sharing your connection with the Casino playhouse on Mt. Tom, and your memories for my book.
For more info and to buy copies of any of her books, visit JT Lynch's blog: