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.
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.”