When Patricia O’Brien decided that her next novel would be a Hollywood love story centered on a true event, there was no question what that event would be. What could be bigger, grander, more legendarily troubled and exultant and expensive—more Hollywood—than the making of the 1939 Civil War-era film Gone With the Wind?
A Touch of Stardust, written under O’Brien’s sometime-pseudonym, Kate Alcott, follows the fictional Julie Crawford as she moves to Los Angeles from Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1938 and finds work on the infamously plagued set of Gone With the Wind. She soon goes from pumping out press releases on a mimeograph machine to working as the personal assistant to Carole Lombard, the charismatic heroine of 1930s screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey and Nothing Sacred. At the time, Lombard was also engaged to Gone With the Wind star Clark Gable, and the real romance between Carole and Clark becomes as much a focal point of the novel as the one raging onscreen between Gable’s Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara, the hero and heroine of Gone With the Wind.
As the novel progresses, the real and the made-up begin to blur. Gone With the Wind, after all, is about a woman who must step up and break with her traditionally prescribed role—a dainty thing on the cusp of womanhood, more decoration than substance—when war breaks out in her native Georgia. Julie, too, learns to shed her proper Midwestern upbringing to pursue her dream of becoming a screenwriter—meeting the pioneering Frances Marion, who became the first writer to win two Academy Awards, in the process.
“I often have a woman who is trying to succeed on her own terms against pretty big odds,” O’Brien says of her novels, which include The Dressmaker(written as Kate Alcott), about a seamstress who survives the sinking of the Titanic, and Harriet and Isabella, a historical novel centered on the relationship between Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and her sister.Of her new novel, O’Brien adds, “I wanted to have a vehicle to open up old Hollywood, and people like Frances Marion, who nobody remembers anymore. She was a brilliant screenwriter.”
Of course, a novel built around the making of Gone With the Wind cannot avoid the controversial aspects of the film, which has long been accused of glorifying the slavery-era South. “Race was the big shadow over the making of that movie, over the whole nation, really,” O’Brien says. In A Touch of Stardust,O’Brien nimbly weaves together fact and fiction—including an incident on the set in which black and white crew members were assigned separate toilets until Gable found out and intervened, furious. “I realized as I grew older that we were all in a way rooting for a not-terrifically-admirable heroine or hero,” O’Brien admits, “and yet Clark Gable an d Vivien Leigh just gave such life to those parts.”
O’Brien grew up in Los Angeles, although she hadn’t yet been born at the time in which her novel is set. But she didn’t have to go too far for inspiration—her late husband, Frank Mankiewicz, who died in October, was the son of the legendary screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who penned Citizen Kane, and the nephew of the prolific director Joseph Mankiewicz, whose films include All About Eve and Suddenly, Last Summer.
In addition to watching screen tests from Gone With the Wind and reading the unpublished memoir of a good friend who happens to be the daughter of the director William Wyler (Roman Holiday, Funny Girl), O’Brien drew from her husband’s Hollywood childhood. “We’d been married 26 years, and he would tell me some of the inside stories in Hollywood,” she says. Once, Frank took her to his father’s house in Beverly Hills, the site of many legendary parties. Later, when O’Brien was writing A Touch of Stardust, her husband drew her a floor plan of the house, which turns up in the book when Julie attends a party there.
Of all the real-life elements in the book, O’Brien most successfully captures Lombard’s famously fiery spirit. “I fell in love with Carole Lombard,” she says. Like O’Brien’s own pseudonym, which she adopted after she had trouble finding a publisher for The Dressmaker, the Carole Lombard of A Touch of Stardust begins to take on a life of her own. “I wasn’t sure at first if I could corral her for a story. She just kind of bounced in and took over the computer keys,” O’Brien says. “She was friendly. She invited me in.”
Lara Zarum is a writer living in New York. Her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Slate, the L.A. Review of Books, Guernica, and Splitsider, among other publications.