The Chelsea Girls

By Fiona Davis

Dutton. 368 pp. $27

Reviewed by Michele Langevine Leiby

Historical novelist Fiona Davis sets her books in famous New York City buildings — among them the Dakota apartments and Grand Central Terminal. It was only a matter of time before she got to the Chelsea Hotel, which devolved from the height of glamour to the depths of seediness in a matter of decades. The hotel was home to luminaries in show business and the arts, including Arthur Miller, Stanley Kubrick, Janis Joplin, and Sid Vicious (who killed his girlfriend there).

But the novel doesn’t track this rise and fall so much as explore, in sometimes gripping fashion, friendships and betrayals in the 1950s, the red-baiting McCarthy era. It tells the story of Hazel Ripley, an aspiring playwright, and Maxine Mead, an acclaimed actress and eventual movie star, as they strive to make it in the world of theater. They first meet in Naples in 1945 on a USO tour. Initially, Hazel hates both Italy and Maxine. But the two women quickly make a connection that matures into a lifelong bond.

Hazel is a plain-Jane blonde who blends into the background, best known for being an in-demand understudy on Broadway and good-luck charm (if she’s cast as an understudy, the lead never gets sick). She has never actually appeared onstage. Maxine is an all-eyes-on-me, brash redhead, oozing sex appeal. Their friendship endures through war and, when they return stateside, the tribulations of the McCarthy era.

Back home in postwar New York, Hazel, on a whim, decides to move into the Chelsea Hotel, which Maxine described to her as a wonderland for actors, writers and creative types. It is “a safe haven for artists, for activists, for freedom.” And there she discovers herself as a playwright with the help of an eccentric older actress, Lavinia Smarts, a well-connected grande dame who has agreed to read Hazel’s play. Hazel goes from zero to Broadway in 1950 when she attempts to get her first show mounted on the Great White Way.

In an unlikely and unexpected reunion, Maxine leaves Hollywood and becomes Hazel’s star. At this point, Joseph McCarthy is just picking up steam and the entire entertainment industry is holding its breath, waiting to see whose name will be next to appear in Red Channels, a pamphlet that lists suspected Communists who should be blacklisted. As a result, liberals and agitators are targeted, dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, censored, silenced, and taken down. “Because of this we lost a generation of talent. Screenwriters became typists to earn a buck. Brilliant actors sold shoes to make a living,” Hazel says. “This is how a society is corrupted, from the inside out.”

Davis tells a very good story. The former actress is a meticulous researcher and her attention to detail lends fullness and context to plot lines and characters.

The author says her novel was inspired by interviews with a 98-year-old actress. The book deftly portrays the McCarthy era as a time when personal grudges and jealousies — a casual culture of denunciation — had disastrous consequences for the lives of innocent people.

Michelle Langevine Leiby wrote this review for the Washington Post, where it first appeared.