Writing books

I write books that nobody reads.

No, that’s a little harsh. I write books that only people who are deeply into a very specific subject would ever want to read. I’ve written about power grids, diesel engines, chicken processing, commercial real estate, logistics in the Gulf War
the first Gulf WarHarvard Business School, and many others. Each has attracted more fanatics than fans. Most of the world’s readers don’t care much about the evolution of the fractional horsepower motor, for example. But a tiny subset cares a great deal, and those people consume that book voraciously. Some of them thank me for getting such an important story right. Others scold me for getting it all wrong.

This is how I meet Doris. Note that Doris and I are on a first-name basis, in my mind, living in the present. Doris
Kenyon, I should say, to introduce you properly. Doris is a minor character in a book I once wrote about a man named Albert Lasker, who is largely forgotten today but played a key role in American life in the early 20th century. She was the second of his three wives, he was the third of her four husbands. So this, I figure, was mainly a transactional relationship in both directions. I probably won’t deal much with Albert in this storyanother first-name relationshipbecause the marriage was doomed from the start, not even surviving their transatlantic honeymoon on the Ile de France. Also, bringing Albert into these pages would risk overshadowing Doris, because Albert is far larger than life. Although is she glamorous, Doris is more like the rest of us. More life-sized.

But then again, we’ll have to see. Knowing Albert, he may insist on being included.

Why does Doris catch my eye? In a flashy fast-changing demimonde populated mostly by brilliant drunkards, single-minded entrepreneurs, flat-out rascals, and advertising geniuses thrown off balance by greed and ambition and alcohol and mental illness, she stands out as both honorable and stable. She is an actress, stage and screen, and a light operatic singer from about the time of World War I through the late 1930s. The daughter of an implausible father
a protégé of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who gave up the ministry to become a successful editor and poet in New York CityDoris grows up in privilege. She is brainy and beautiful, multilingual, musically gifted, surely destined to succeed. Time passes and her career progresses. She marries a famous movie star who builds her a mansion in the clouds above Los Angeles, on a secluded hilltop planted with resplendent gardens, where for a brief while life is sunlit and perfumedcertainly too good to be enduring.

I decide that I want to dig deeper and tell her story. Maybe it’s a story that people will read. I learn about her, which as it turns out is not so hard to do. Even as a second-tier star, she has attracted a lot of attention and earned a lot of ink.

And then one day in a cramped Los Angeles antique store, Helen
so differentpushes her way into this fairly simple story I’m trying to tell, and of course I have no choice but to welcome her. But as I gradually discover, Helen’s life is far harder to decipher than Doris’s. There are many reasons. She is less successful, less visible, less well documented by the star-making machinery in New York and Hollywood. Helen also obscures her own story. She throws the picture out of focus. She changes her name several times before settling on “Worthing.” Taking advantage of Kentucky’s casual record-keeping, she lies about her birth date to shave off four, seven, sometimes even nine years. She fools even the Census Bureau. She tells tall tales about her father, about her volunteer service during the Great War, about her short-lived first marriage, and about many many more things.

She is charming and maddening. I like her already.