Title: Big Red
Author: Jerome Charyn
Published on: 23 August 2022
Genre: Fiction (Historical)
Rusty Redburn, an impetuous, second-string gossip columnist from Kalamazoo, Michigan, is summoned to Harry ‘The Janitor’ Cohn’s office. Harry wants her to spy on Rita Hayworth aka Big Red and her husband Orson Welles aka ‘boy genius’.
Rusty, an outlaw who can see beyond the prejudices of Hollywood’s male-dominated hierarchy, becomes disgusted with the way actresses, and particularly Rita, are exploited by men. When she meets the couple for the first time, she finds Rita to be quite friendly. But Rusty has a job to do – spy on Rita and report to her boss ‘The Janitor’ every wednesday at 4pm. Soon, Rusty takes up the responsibility to keep Rita safe, protect her from dirty gossip columnists and ruffians.
With Rusty as our trusted narrator and iconic Hollywood characters such as Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, Big Red gives readers a theatrical experience of a lifetime.
Where do I start? I only have praises and more of it for this marvelous, fantabulous masterpiece by Jerome Charyn. The story begins with Rusty summoned to the head of Columbia Pictures’ office. He has a task for Rusty. He wants her to spy on Big Red aka Rita Hayworth and her latest boyfriend Orson Welles. Rita moved in with Orson within weeks of courting. As Rusty inserts herself into Rita and Orson’s lives, she takes the responsibility to protect Rita from desperate men, gossip columnists and ruffians.
She learns of Rita’s childhood – the incestuous relationship she was forced to have with her father and her first role in a movie which finally lead to her stardom. Eddie’s Hunt with whom Rita eloped when she was a teenager – he paid for her electrolysis, changed her hairstyle and color and introduced Margarita Carmen Cansino as Rita Hayworth to the world. Rita and Rusty get along well at their first meeting. Rusty also meets Orson and his ‘valet’ Shorty Chivallo.
Then comes a day when Rita comes face-to-face with Louella Parsons, a notorious gossip-columnists. She knows Rusty’s secret. Rusty must act before her role in Rita and Orson’s lives is made public. So she makes a plan. Revenge is never sweet, not in Hollywood!
After Rita and Orson get married, Orson decides to try his hand at politics. As his visits to the DC and White House increases, Rita finds herself alone at home – and lonely. Rusty helps her in getting ack her self-esteem. But Rita is still scared of meeting the First Lady. After the birth of their daughter, Rita and Orson drift apart.
Rusty remains Rita’s loyal companion. Though their relation is tested many times, Rusty remains Rita’s most loyal aide. As the story proceeds, we see Rita turn from the girl who loved to sing and dance to a woman who has only tears in her eyes.
Apart from the tumultuous life of a famous Hollywood actress, we readers are also given a glimpse of the other side of Hollywood – sex and sleaze, rumors and gossip selling like hot cakes, and much more.
I absolutely love Jerome Charyn’s writing. He’s a master storyteller. Through the eyes of Rusty, Jerome has narrated a story that a reader will remember forever and ever. I would love to see this book being made into a movie – I already watched it in my mind’s eye once. But I would love to see it on the big screen.
If you are looking for an engrossing and entertaining read that is part fiction and part facts, I would highly recommend you to give Big Red by Jerome Charyn a try.
Interview with Jerome Charyn
Hello Jerome and welcome to my blog, The Book Decoder. Please tell me and my readers more about your latest novel Big Red.
History has disappeared. Later generations remember nothing about what happened 20, 30 years ago, and yet, Hollywood supposedly had a Golden Age. I was born into that Golden Age, but it wasn’t so golden.
African-Americans were either caricatured or invisible, women were totally sexualized and men had to play stupidly romantic roles. They were either utterly brutal or powerless. Yet I loved the films I saw from 1943 to about 1955. I learned everything from the movies. How people talked, how they ate, how they smoked, how they kissed. I believed that every married couple lived in single beds side by side. I believed that bathrooms didn’t have toilet seats because Louis B. Mayer of MGM demanded that no toilet should ever be seen in a film. The first time we see an actual toilet bowl in a film is in Hitchcock’s Psycho – well into the 1950s. Hitchcock could get away with it because his films were always successful.
But I wanted to write about this Golden Age because it was more of a home than I ever had. My father hated me, and I could see his hatred in his eyes. So I watched Robert Mitchum instead.
I was originally going to write a novel about Orson Welles, because he was the lone genius of that Golden Age and the greatest filmmaker that Hollywood has ever produced. But he was so in love with himself that I realized I couldn’t write a novel in his voice. So, I thought of Rita Hayworth, his second wife, but she was utterly voiceless, except for the magic panther-like motion of each dancing step. I had to find a narrator to tell their story.
Why did you focus on Rita Hayworth in your latest novel and what did it feel like to capture Rita’s life through the eyes of Rusty Redburn?
As I did my research I felt more and more moved by Rita, by her silences and the absolute song of her movements. Rita had been ravaged as a child. Her own father had danced with her when she was 12 and made her his sexual pawn. And it was her story that I finally wanted to tell. I knew Orson, I knew every breath he took, every shot he made in every film. But I didn’t know Rita and I wanted to learn.
And so I invented a narrator. That first sentence came into my head “I was an actress who couldn’t act, a dancer who couldn’t dance, a singer who couldn’t sing. So, I went straight to Hollywood . . .” I had my narrator now. She is well-equipped to tell Rita’s tale and she knows how to get around Orson’s jive.
What kind of research did you do to write Big Red?
I already knew everything about Orson’s films before I wrote a single line of the book, but I wanted to learn every single detail about his life; and so I read each biography that was available, including actor/author Simon Callow’s three-volume homage to Orson Welles. I felt I could reproduce each sentence he ever spoke. I knew his voice in my dreams. But how to find Rita’s voice, when she had none? That dilemma I left to Rusty, because Rusty picked up all of Rita’s details.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a novel about Maria Callas. I saw a documentary about her and fell in love with every inflection I saw on the screen. I was Maria Callas. Even though I didn’t have the aromas of her voice. But I learned as much as I could. She was an artist who crucified herself every time she appeared on stage. She lost her life bit by bit as she performed. And there’s never been any other diva like her – with the same intensity and the same melody in every motion she had on stage. I was willing to fail, but nothing was going to stop me from writing this book.
Thank you, Jerome.
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