Elsa Lanchester, Herself (Interview And Book Giveaway) | Haute Macabre

Elsa Lanchester, Herself (Interview And Book Giveaway)

It’s hard to know when imagery so striking, so wonderfully eerie, so utterly iconoclastic as the one presented by Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Frankenstein, first becomes embedded in one’s memory. When was I not aware of this astonishing creature, this electric-tressed beauty, robed in ghostly whites and the most elegant bandages ever glimpsed on screen? That intensely penetrating gaze, those severe slashes of eyebrows, that exquisite jawline!

Elsa Lanchester the actress, and the human, much like her character in The Bride of Frankenstein, was more than the sum of her extraordinary parts; in her fantastic 1983 autobiography Elsa Lanchester, Herself one beholds the creation of, and rise of this independent, liberated woman from her bohemian upbringing by radical socialist parents, to her life in film, two world wars, stage acting in London, her dance career and her marriage to actor Charles Laughton. Reading the actress’s reminiscences and observations, in her own words, on everything from her hilarious vignettes describing her early family life, to the many profound personalities she met from the first half of the 20th century, is akin to sitting for a coffee with your cattiest, most witty friend, spellbound by their enthralling gossip and stories. Not only are these recollections penned with warmth, wit, and delightful candor–the lady could write, too! I don’t think I’ve ever read a more eloquent, wonderfully worded glimpse into a celebrity’s life. I would have recommended Elsa Lanchester, Herself to everyone I know–but, unfortunately until just a few weeks ago, this fabulous memoir was out of print.

Of course, I didn’t even know the book existed until I began following Tom Blunt’s “Reprint Elsa” campaign a few years ago.  Drawn to the fringes of the odd and the mundane, Tom is a writer, producer, and performer who shares his unique perspectives on culture, history, and LGBTQ issues. With these credentials then, it may not surprise you to learn that Tom is also part of the team over at our dear friends and purveyors of esoteric perfumes and potions, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. Tom has been the Lab’s Relationship Coordinator since 2016 or so and assists in terms of marketing, licensing, and event planning.

It is with great joy and sincere congratulations to Tom that I share our interview with you today– for, as of April 2018, Tom’s campaign was an overwhelming success and Elsa Lanchester, Herself was reprinted by the Chicago Review Press. Read on for Tom’s wonderful insights into this striking and unusual Golden Era entertainer and his quest to ensure that so many decades later, she finally finds her people.

Be sure to leave a comment on this post, for the opportunity to win a brand new copy of Elsa Lanchester, Herself–as well as two related scents from the generous folks at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab! A winner will be chosen two weeks from today. Good luck, and thanks for reading!

 

About Elsa Lanchester’s autobiography, and the actress herself, Vincent Price wrote, “A very special person tells a special tale of an extraordinarily special life and she tells it brilliantly in her own special way.” I can’t help but to agree, after having read it for myself. I’d love to hear why this extraordinary person was special to you.

What’s strange is that she wasn’t really special to me before all this happened. Since childhood I’ve always been drawn to Bride of Frankenstein as an icon of ferocious, maligned womanhood, but those were the days before you could look someone up on IMDB and see what else they’d been in. I’d seen some of Elsa’s later movies, but never connected that distinctive face and voice to the hissing Bride, and didn’t know her book even existed until I found a copy in a thrift store.

“If this is any good whatsoever,” I told the friend who was shopping with me, “I’m going to do a whole show about her.” This was back when I was producing and hosting a variety show in New York City, revolving around undersung women in film.

I think I only read about five pages before reaching out to the programmer at our venue, the 92nd Street Y, to pitch a show, which I called “The Elsa Monologues.” The idea was that I’d conscript a bunch of actors and nightlife types to perform excerpts from the book, and we’d share clips from Elsa’s film career, maybe throw in a burlesque number. (By the night of the event, our lineup included a milliner who’d designed a couture hat inspired by The Bride’s hair.)

Toward the end of the book, I began to get funny uncanny tingles about it. More than anything she achieved in film, Elsa felt her true calling was in cabaret singing — funny, character-based songs that were sometimes poignant and often quite filthy. As a teenager she even started her own cabaret nightspot in London, which she called the “Cave of Harmony.” And now here I was a century later, a struggling wannabe artist trying to create my own ridiculous scene, with drag queens and musicians and famous character actresses. She did everything first, and better. I was in awe.

So she became special to me through this book, through all these disarming stories that resonate with tremendous sadness, which she masterfully sows with comedic jolts. There’s nothing better than a book written by someone who’s a born entertainer.

Not to make too big a deal out of it, but the timing of all this felt fateful to me, and I wanted to make sure she finally found her people.

Elsa Lanchester, Herself was originally published, I believe in 1983. What were your thoughts, when reading it for the first time? What was it about the woman– her life, her words, her experiences–that struck you as relevant and compelling and not only worthy of a reprint, but perhaps vital, at that particular point in time?

I read lots of what I like to call Star Lady Memoirs. A lot of them! While nearly all of them are worth reading, it’s not very often that I feel someone’s life force so strongly in their words.

Perhaps it’s because Elsa wrote this book at the end of her life, when she had nothing left to lose. It’s not in her nature to simply complain about all the pain and disappointment in her life — she spins an enthralling story out of every misery, dropping certain details so candidly they just leave you stunned. There’s a rare art to baring your soul to people in a way that actually leaves them wanting more.

I was particularly struck by the torment she weathered as the long-suffering wife of a closeted gay movie star — and Charles Laughton was a much bigger star then she was, so she labored in the shadow of his greatness for decades. On top of that, he seemed genuinely threatened by her success, and sabotaged her in a million ways, large and small.

She wrote this book after Laughton’s death, and while she pulls no punches against him, she still manages to profess an enduring love and tenderness for him, and an appreciation for his suffering as a human forced to spend his whole life in hiding. That really broke my heart. Marriages like these are still happening today. People need to hear these stories.

However, back in ’83, there was almost no hope of a book like this finding an audience. People believed women even less than they do now, and it was considered tasteless to “speak ill” of a famous loved one who was no longer alive to tell his side of the story — especially if you appeared to capitalize on it. As you may have noticed, Hollywood is notoriously closed-mouthed about certain things and detests people who blab.

On top of that, women weren’t the major literary marketing target they are now, nor were LGBTQ people. So, telling these stories about her marriage wasn’t seen as an act of bravery among movie buffs. It was more like embarrassing faux pas made by an avowed eccentric… to the extent that anyone cared at all.

As I read the book, I marveled at some of the crucial ways in which the world has changed since Elsa died. If anything, she’s much more famous than Charles now — The Bride’s image still echoes through pop culture, and people will always trace that back to her. Today we find ourselves looking back at everything we took for granted about the 20th century, examining it through the eyes of all the women and queer people whose stories were never told, or amplified so they could actually be heard, and be part of the record. Elsa managed to document the very special sort of hell she and Charles occupied together, and left a record of it for future generations, in case anyone cares.

I think time and history were actually on her side all along. I think we do care, and I decided to make sure the stone got kicked just a little bit further down the road so that a new generation of monster-lovers would find out about her, and older ones would see the bizarre events of her life through fresh eyes.

The book was reprinted by Chicago Press just this year (congrats!), and with your social media coverage and campaigns, you were instrumental to the process. How did you become involved? And how do you even approach something like this? Getting a book back into print can be extremely difficult, especially when the author is no longer alive to promote it. I understand that it was not an an easy road at any point–can you speak to some of the hurdles along the way?

After our Elsa tribute show, I basically picked up the tools I use for producing nightlife events — publicity, creativity, and a high tolerance for rejection — and set out to apply gentle (yet unrelenting) pressure on the powers that be, in hopes of guiding the book back into print.

I’m no expert in this area, but I interned at a publisher in NYC once upon a time, so I knew a thing or two about the challenges involved in reviving someone else’s book. One of the hardest parts is sorting through who really owns it, and that’s an area where you can’t take anything for granted, unless you want to end up in court.

I started out with the original publisher, St. Martins, but was informed the rights had reverted back to Elsa’s estate. I then spent years dealing with the organization that controls her estate, before discovering the rights had never actually reverted at all. They’d been tussling with me over a property they actually didn’t own in the first place.

That’s a great example of another huge challenge in the reprinting process: since no one stands to make a substantial amount of money, the parties involved can actually be so apathetic, they won’t take the time to perform a perfunctory search before answering any of your questions.

Along the way, I was even in touch with Elsa’s original literary agent from the ‘80s, who informed me that he’d been so charmed by the book that he adapted it into a screenplay — this actually exists somewhere, though I have yet to see a copy of it. His only paper copy was destroyed in a fire.

A couple of years into the project, my social media antics caught the eye of the Chicago Review Press, who reached out and ultimately joined the crusade, making an official bid on the rights. Even then, we remained in limbo for additional years.

At some point I basically divested and moved on to other battles. Even when CRP notified me that we’d won, and the book would actually be reprinted, I was still afraid to get my hopes up. It wasn’t until they began asking for input related to the physical book itself, such as who we could get to write a foreword (my friend Mara Wilson did a terrific job!) that I trusted it was a done deal.

Even so, I didn’t share any news with the hundreds of people following our Facebook group until I had an actual pre-sale link. There’s nothing worse than taking a victory lap and then discovering you can’t actually deliver what you promised.

But she’s here! And I did deliver, although credit is owed to the numerous people who participated and pushed alongside me. This is a team victory.

Now that Elsa Lanchester, Herself is in circulation again and new generations are learning of this fascinating, fabulous woman, what is it that you hope people take away from her story?

That nothing anyone thinks or says about you counts more than what you think and say about yourself. While I urged CRP to make sure there was a picture of The Bride on the book’s cover, (for marketing purposes, natch) readers will note that Elsa writes very little about her experience in that film. While she was grateful to have left her mark, she is open about the mixed blessing of being known for one major thing — and The Bride wasn’t her creation at all, she was mainly just a vessel for someone else’s makeup and costume design.

After the book was written, Elsa’s version of events was disputed by some of Laughton’s friends, such as Maureen O’Hara, who commented: “[Elsa] was witty, and down deep, she was decent, but she always seemed to want something outside her reach.” Well, who doesn’t?

You may never end up being known for your best qualities. Hell, you’re lucky if you can even identify them in yourself, or put them to any real use whatsoever, before you’re gone and buried. If Elsa hadn’t written this book, I doubt anyone would think to go back and listen to all the music she released — which is still currently available online, and contains the very essence of her talent and personality. In 1951, The New Yorker described her musical act thusly: “There is a desperate quality about her art; in some curious way, she takes her listeners out of a close, tidy world and into a disquieting place filled with sharp winds and unsteady laughter.”

I think that’s pretty punk rock.

What’s next on the horizon? You enigmatically remarked on your blog that ” …Elsa’s not the only incredible lady we’re interested in.” Any future projects involving extraordinary women that we should be looking out for?

I have schemes, but that’s about it. The next memoirist in my sights is Ann Miller, the tap-dancing starlet who fancied herself psychic, and whose screen career spanned everything from Easter Parade to Mulholland Drive. Her book Miller’s High Life (yes, that’s the real title) is fascinating, and I befriended a relative of hers who wants to help make a reprint happen. Will it happen? Will anyone care as much as I do? I’ve launched a Facebook group to get that ball rolling. Join it!

My dream is to start a literary imprint that revives more of these Star Lady Memoirs — there’s so much history and wisdom in these books, but they’re considered disposable once they go out of print. Shelley Winters, Pearl Bailey, Tallulah Bankhead — they bared their souls to us, and we’re just throwing these stories away.

If you asked me a year ago, I’d have said it was hopeless. But having managed to pull Elsa’s book out of the trash, I’m changing my answer to “anything is possible.”

Are you going to be in Brooklyn at the beginning of May? You’re in luck–there will be a screening at The Alamo Drafthouse to promote the book!  Celebrate the book’s re-release with Tom and friends at this special screening of the The Bride of Frankenstein, flanked by entertaining excerpts from Elsa Lanchester, Herself


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S. Elizabeth
S.Elizabeth is a fancier of fine old things, nostalgic whimsies and magics both macabre and melancholy.

132 Comment

  1. Wow! What an interesting story! She seems like a fascinating woman and it’d be so cool to be able to read all about her! Count me in!

  2. The Bride has always been a favorite of mine, I love how Elsa portrayed her beautifully. I would love to read this learn more about her.

  3. I’m ashamed to admit that I never sought out much information about Elsa Lanchester after loving her presentation as the Bride; bringing this book back to print is a wonderful opportunity to bring more attention to a stunning actress. Thanks so much for the interview and the giveaway!

  4. “An icon of ferocious, maligned womanhood”– what a great phrase, a wonderful way to express why Elsa is the Queen to this little darkling. I didn’t know about her cabarets??? I die.
    You guys are American Heroes for once again bringing her story to the world.

  5. Definitely interested in reading this! I think it’s going to have to go on the gift list for at least one friend this year as well!

  6. I’m fascinated. I’m seldom one for biographies, but I can definitely see an appeal in this one. The life of the actress who brought to life one of the seemingly more underrated and overlooked characters of classic horror film, who was herself overlooked in her time in favor of her more famous husband? Striking, how art can all too often imitate life.

    I’m also interested simply because stories of the classic days of Hollywood are always fascinating to me; there’s so much going on under the surface, so much drama that went on without the modern-day in-your-face of paparazzi, it would be interesting to see it through an unfamiliar set of eyes.

  7. I’m so excited to get to read this. I would love to see The Blackwater Series by Michael McDowell go back into print as well.

  8. I thank you for resurrecting Elsa from the bottom of my menopausal heart. I was fascinated with her back in the day, and am so happy to see her 1983 memoir has been brought back to life. She was most definitely ahead of her time, and did not receive the attention she deserved. I can’t wait to read her honest, raw, no-holds-barred accounting of her eclectic life. Win or not, I will definitely get my hands on this fascinating read. Thanks again for the opportunity.

  9. Wow, I’ve been so in the dark about her. Thanks for the factoid and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of her book.

  10. Bride of Frankenstein has been long time inspiration for my make up but had a big role to play in exploring my sexuality as a queer person. She is deadly & beautiful & avenging her marginalization.
    I think she is the best thing to come of Frankenstein reimaginings. Finally reading Frankenstein at 16 with the words “I will be with you on your wedding night” I was so let down that no resurrection of the monstrous female occured in the novel. I had grown up with the black & white films and I had expectations- dammit.
    Basically I am dying to read Elsa’s autobiography now. reading this interview has lit a flame.

  11. I have always been curious about Elsa’s life, especially after reading a copy of Boris Karloff’s biography “Dear Boris” that I found a few years back at a used book sale. I’m really excited to get a copy of this (either via the raffle or purchased) and learn more about her intriguing life.

  12. Wow she is so iconic and she sounds like an amazing woman. It would be so cool to read this book! Also BPAL scents are so fun! I would love to win this.

  13. Having been fascinated by feminine perspectives on the suppression of homosexuality from Carrington and Woolf, thank you for this timely introduction! Even if I don’t win I’m definitely getting this book, particularly as I will likely pass it along to a Frankenstein-crazy friend who will be as delighted as I am to expand our horizons.

  14. Oh my stars, I also love Star Lady Memoirs! Hey eyes are so intense and haunting. Whether I win a copy of this book or not, I’ll definitely need to get a copy. I loved her guest star role on “I Love Lucy.”

  15. Thank you for giving us a chance to meet this extraordinary woman! On her terms, in her own words. Even if I don’t win this book, you can be certain that I will be reading it, I’m bookmarking the page for future purchase.

  16. I am downright giddy with the idea of owning this book. As a huge fan of both the Bride of Frankenstein and Elsa Lancaster (isn’t she exquisite?), I applaud Tom for his efforts and success in bringing this book back to print. Thank you Haute Macabre for sharing this wonderful news, interview and opportunity to win a copy. Fingers crossed I win.

  17. I am seriously in love with Elsa. All of her imagery, of the Bride, informs my whole life. My whole life is lived Halloween every day.

  18. I’ve always been in awe of her, and honestly (maybe unfortunately) have to admit it’s been more through pop culture than unearthing anything more. This book seems to have the potential to act as a silver lining in my personal life at the moment especially. As a writer myself, I’d absolutely love to experience this book. One of my favorite lines in this article, her being able to capture this special hell they occupied together–that is success. Anyone with the ability to not only capture, but truly show, people something as intense as that.

  19. EL sucked up all the air in every scene she was in as The Bride. In later movies, she was also an excellent actress, but lurking behind those dimples and the sparkles in her eyes was the memory of That Bride from before, hauntingly. I was always prepared else She appear, unbidden, but not unlooked for.

  20. I have been obsessed with the classic monster movies since I was a kid, and the tragedy of the Frankenstein tale has continued to intrigue me as an adult. I love how the tale and it’s representations since have involved so many badass women, and I would love to learn more about Elsa’s amazing life.

  21. I have a tattoo inspired by Elsa as the Bride. Forever drawn to the beautiful women in the arts that have a bit of darkness surrounding them.

  22. Thanks for posting this interview. I would like to throw my hat into the ring for a copy of the book. I don’t know much about Elsa and her career other than her legendary role as The Bride and Tom’s interview breathes a new sense of curiosity and appreciation for a remarkable woman. If anything, the timing of her biography reaching a new audience is aptly timed and because of this, I want to read it even more. Also, I’m quite happy that a screening is actually local to me. I always seem to miss out on events like this due to location.

  23. I never thought of the Lightning scent in relation to the Frankenstein mythos for some reason but I am loving that image.

  24. I had no idea this book existed! I look forward to reading it. Thanks for the giveaway and for all Tom’s hard work in getting Herself rereleased.

  25. I am a huge fan of Elsa Lanchester! I will definitely have to read this! To win a copy would be great!!! Thanks for having this giveaway.

  26. This is me indulging my belief that reading biographies will make me smarter.

    Also the Mary Shelley BPAL perfume smells like pure goth.

  27. Intriguing woman and I would love to read all about her. Whether I win or not. I will seek out this book. Thanks to everyone for bringing her out of the dark.

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