Dinah Lasker grew up in the shadow of her sister, Veevi, a stunning beauty and emerging star who enchanted both the Hollywood set and its imported New York literati. But Veevi’s home was also a hotbed of political activity, owing to her marriage to Stefan Ventura, a Bulgarian filmmaker and high-profile Communist. At the end of the 1930s, when things go badly for him in Hollywood, Ventura and Veevi flee to Paris and into the lengthening shadows of Hitler and fascism.
Cut to 1951, when Dinah is subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which threatens to ruin her husband, Jake, and derail his successful career as a Hollywood writer, producer, and director unless she cooperates. Can Dinah live with herself if she names Veevi–whom she both loves and loathes–in order to save her husband and preserve her idyllic married life? The choices Dinah makes set in motion an unforgettable chain of events. Like Anna Karenina, Dinah must face the consequences of her choices and her needs.
Written with elegance and style, Cheat and Charmer grippingly dramatizes the interior lives of Dinah, Veevi, Jake, and their social circle. Spanning decades and following complex characters on their impassioned pursuits through America and Europe, this is a novel of grand scope, about love and deception, idealism and accommodation, the lies we live, and the truths we cannot avoid.
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About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Place of Birth:Los Angeles, California
Education:B.A., The University of California, Berkeley, 1967; M.A., 1969; Ph.D. 1973
Read an Excerpt
[ 1951 ]
The band launched into an old swing tune and the other couples fell away, clearing the floor for Jake and Dinah Lasker, who were dancing with tremendous rhythm and style. Tall and broad-shouldered, his thinning hair black and wavy, Jake led smoothly, his timing practiced and understated as he released his wife in an outward spin and then snapped her back toward him in an inward spiral. Under her flaring green satin dress, Dinah’s legs and ankles were what any dance director would have considered professionally great—long and well proportioned, with slender, graceful ankles. She wasn’t otherwise especially beautiful, at least not by the impossible standards of the motion picture industry, but she was a comely woman, with regular features and warm, guileless eyes. She wore her brown hair in a pageboy, with a side wave swept up and locked into place with a simple gold barrette. Had she been two inches taller, she could easily have had a career as a model; good clothes looked wonderful on her, and she danced with the same naturalness and trust in her body with which she walked and gestured.
After a wave of applause, Irv Engel, the tuxedoed president and head of production at Marathon Pictures, returned the baton to its rightful owner and beckoned the Laskers to join him. Engel was strikingly tall and thin, round-shouldered, with transparent eyeglass frames and, at the moment, a big horsy smile that seemed inconsistent with his furrow-browed demeanor at the studio. “God, it’s fun watching you two dance,” he remarked, as he clamped his long arms around both Dinah’s and Jake’s shoulders and steered them from one table to the next, each with a pink damask tablecloth and napkins, heavy silver, and gardenias afloat in a crystal bowl from whose center rose a small flickering candle. It was early summer and, like most Southern California evenings at this time of year, fragrant with ocean air, pine trees, and night-blooming jasmine.
It seemed to Dinah that Irv was unusually attentive tonight, flattering her in front of all the guests, oohing and aahing about her great legs, and going on and on about her as a paragon of Hollywood wifeliness. Nevertheless she hung back, keeping her eyes on Jake, wanting the night’s glory to be completely his. She took in the sound of voices low in conversation, the gusts of sudden, often profane laughter, and the familiar scents—perfume and coffee and cigarette smoke, brandy and cigars. Finally, seeing an opportunity, she slipped away from Irv and her husband and headed toward a round table otherwise deserted except for a lone woman who was staring out in unfathomable melancholy at the turquoise depths of the swimming pool.
As Dinah swept the folds of her dress to one side, let her satin high heels drop to the terra-cotta tiles, and put her stocking feet up on the empty chair beside her, the woman, a small blonde, glanced at her with interest. “My, my, Dinah, you and Jake certainly look good on the dance floor.”
“Thanks, Anya,” Dinah gasped. “But I forgot I was wearing high heels. I damn near k-k-k-killed myself.”
“The two of you have such style together. It’s a pleasure to watch.”
“We’re having such a good time tonight, Anya. It’s a wonderful p-p-p—Jesus, I can dance but I can’t say this word!” She screwed up her eyes with effort and tried again. “P-p-p-party. There. I got it out.”
Dinah withdrew a Camel from a pack inside the beaded cigarette case in her black satin clutch, pausing for a moment, as if she had seen something unexpected inside the bag. Dinah was always conscious of her stutter around Anya Engel, and always uncomfortable, no doubt because Anya herself had a most peculiar problem. Although she had well-formed, delicate features, her mouth was twisted to the side of her face, and looked like a porthole, through which words were issued with a muffled precision—the result, Dinah had heard, of a sudden stroke after childbirth from which Anya had all but completely recovered, except for this single affliction. Dinah had learned early in life never to avoid mentioning her stutter. Consequently, her patience with people who kept silent about their so-called defects, imperfections, or handicaps had its limits, and in all the years Dinah had known her, Anya Engel had never once mentioned hers. Dinah would have liked her better if she had, but from the beginning she had regarded the wife of her husband’s boss as an East Coast snob who considered her an uneducated shiksa, a nobody from nowhere whose great legs were an enviable but nevertheless suspicious sign of her lumpen origins. Anya Engel had always let it be known that she was a Radcliffe graduate and an artist, aloof from and superior to the movie business. During the many evenings the Laskers had been guests at the Engels’ Pacific Palisades hacienda, Anya had often disappeared after dinner without explanation, and on weekends at their Palm Springs “compound,” as Irv called it, Irv talked movies and politics with Jake, Dinah knitted sweaters, and Anya stood at an easel set well apart from the conversation, painting landscapes of the mountains and the desert and correcting Jake’s pronunciation when he complimented her on her “fauve” palette.
Dinah was perfectly clear about one thing. This was not the night for a heart-to-heart about the trials of having flaws in a town that worshiped physical perfection. Tonight belonged to Jake. The Engels were giving this party to honor the thirty-nine-year-old producer-writer-director, the huge success of his recent picture, Cousin Jonnycake, and the three-picture deal that Jake had signed earlier in the week. And so Dinah had to make conversation with Anya, never an easy thing to do.
“Do you and Irv like to dance?”
“Well, we never had much of a chance. He was always the bandleader, so I danced with the other fellows. And he hated that.” She smiled, and Dinah thought, She’s telling me how much her husband loves her. “It’s how we became engaged,” Anya continued. “ ‘Just so they know you’re taken,’ he used to say.”
“Cute,” said Dinah. “Very c-c-c-cute.” She glanced at the large square diamond next to Anya’s wedding band. Imagine being able to afford a rock like that during the Depression, she said to herself—not for the first time, either.
“Tell me, Dinah, what do you hear from Veevi these days?”
“She’s fine,” she said, surprised. She had not been thinking about her sister.
“Beautiful girl. Really,” Anya went on, “the most beautiful creature I ever saw.”
“It’s true,” Dinah readily agreed. “When people see her for the first time, it’s as if they’ve been thrown from a horse. Knocks the breath right out of them.”
“It must have been hard for you.”
Dinah looked straight at Anya with her large brown eyes. “Hard? How so?” She knew perfectly well what Anya meant. This is why I can’t stand her, she said to herself. She does it every time; she reminds me of the old days, the awful nothing days.
“Well, if I had a sister who was the most beautiful girl in the world . . .”
“Oh, I think I’ve managed pretty well,” Dinah said, lighting a cigarette, her voice brittle.
“Of course, I don’t know about you,” Anya said carefully, “but it was certainly hard for me. Coming out here right after we were married and finding everyone in Irv’s family positively smitten with her. I remember Lionel and Edy sent a car for us and we drove up to the house, and they were all there to meet us, and there was Irv’s poor brother Talcott, standing there with his arm around a girl dressed in a dirndl. She had the most stunning face I’ve ever seen. Don’t think I didn’t see Irv’s jaw drop. He moped around the house, took long drives by himself, could barely look at me. Imagine, me a new bride, and I come out here, and suddenly he’s got this enormous crush on Veevi.”
“Well, he wasn’t the only one,” Dinah said. “Every writer in Hollywood was cr-cr-cr-cr-crazy about her.”
“But I said to him,” Anya continued, “ ‘Look here, if you don’t snap out of it I’m going right back home to New York, and I mean tonight.’ ” She laughed. “That did it.”
“I guess it worked,” Dinah said. “But she did have that effect on people.”
“She certainly did.” Anya reached across the table and patted Dinah’s hand. “I remember so well what you were like all those years ago. It wasn’t easy for you, dear, and I’m so glad to see you . . . finally getting . . . well, you know, what you deserve,” she said, the words coming thickly but distinctly through the moist porthole.
“Thank you, Anya,” Dinah said, withdrawing her hand. She understood now. Anya was reminding her, on this night of Jake’s triumph, of the days when Dinah wasn’t Mrs. Jake Lasker but just Veevi Milligan’s older, not-quite-beautiful sister, a poor, unmarried secretary working for an oil company. What business was it of Anya’s to keep watch over her life and bring up that miserable past? What are you, she wanted to say, my fucking biographer? She wanted to strike back, say something coarse and cruel—How do you manage to go down on Irv with that thing? But of course she said nothing of the kind.
“Is Veevi still married to Michael Albrecht?”
“St-St-St-Still? Yes, of course.”
“That must be some marriage—the most beautiful girl in the world and the most talented man of our time. I’ve read all his novels. He won’t let Irv option any of them. Imagine,” Anya sneered, “someone brave enough to turn his back on this town! Does he love her very much? Is she divinely happy?”
“Divinely,” Dinah said, and grasped at once that Anya was not divinely happy, whatever else she may have been. “She’s divinely, magnificently, sp-sp-spectacularly happy, in Paris, away from Hollywood.” Yes, she told herself, that’s what it is. Anya wants Europe, and she’s stuck here in L.A. She smiled. “Excuse me, dear,” she said, standing up and sliding her feet into her heels. “I’m off to the powder room.”
Anya Engel’s dark eyes, vivid and alive in her tortured little face, became dreamy. “How I’d love to live in Paris.” She sat back in her chair and looked out over the swimming pool. “She’d be a fool ever to come back here.”
“Oh, but I don’t think she ever will. She hates this t-t-t-t-town even more than you do,” said Dinah, leaving Anya sitting by herself, with something inconsolable in her expression.
Inside the house, a Negro maid wearing a black uniform and a starched white organdy apron and cap led Dinah to the powder suite, where she stretched out on a chaise longue after asking for aspirin and water. Her head throbbed, and she dug her knuckles into her temples. Her breathing was rapid, and the light hurt her eyes. She had a horrible taste in her mouth.
After the maid returned, and again disappeared, Dinah lay back, waiting for the aspirin to start working. Suddenly she sat up, opened her black clutch, and withdrew a folded piece of pink paper. She read what was written on it, and quickly put it back in her bag.
Earlier that day, Dinah had been sitting in the breakfast room watching the bulldozer scoop gigantic mouthfuls of earth out of what, until only a few days before, had been a formal English garden with a brick retaining wall and a stone lion’s head that gushed a stream of water into a small oval pool. A crew had invaded and ravaged the clipped box hedges and the beds of flowers—snapdragons, asters, pansies, chrysanthemums—that Dinah had lovingly tended since she and Jake had moved into the house the year before. Her dismay growing, she watched as the orange and lemon trees were ripped out by the roots and promptly thrown into the incinerator. In their place rose heaps of black dirt beside a big rectangular hole that grew bigger and deeper every day. Dinah didn’t like to swim. When she was twelve, her father, who had promised to teach her how to swim, tossed her off a pier into the too-deep waters of Lake Arrowhead. Somehow she had managed not to drown, but she had feared the water ever since. Once it became clear that Cousin Jonnycake was going to be a hit, however, Jake had insisted on putting in a pool. He’d been sent to camp every summer on Lake Michigan and, later, had been a member of the swim team at the University of Chicago. Though the war in Korea had made it much more expensive to buy concrete and tiles, he was going to have his pool.
Most of the year, it was light and sunny in the breakfast room, but in June the morning fog almost never burned off until lunchtime, and a gray glare hovered outside the window. It depressed her, reminding her of the Pittsburgh of her earliest memories—humid summer days, damp winter twilights, chapped, frozen upper lips, she and her sister keeping each other awake all night with whooping cough, their chests smeared with foul-smelling mustard plasters. This descent into the past—the only thing that threatened her contented daily routine—was halted when the doors separating the breakfast room from the kitchen swung open and Gussie Crittenden, the Laskers’ Negro housekeeper, chanting “Coming through,” flew in to set down the day’s mail on the black-and-white marble lazy Susan, and flew out again, too busy to hear Dinah’s thank-you.
The mail wasn’t particularly interesting—the trades, a large manila envelope from the business manager with checks to sign, a ballot for Jake from the Screenwriters Guild. For her father there were two items—an envelope from his Masonic Lodge and a blue tissue-paper-thin airmail letter from Veevi. Dinah would keep both of them in a kitchen drawer, along with the rest of his accumulated mail, until the next time his Airstream pulled into the driveway, and there was no telling when that would be. God only knew what wilderness he’d taken off to—Death Valley, maybe, or Yosemite, or redwood country. He would disappear for months on end, send a postcard with two lines, and then show up without warning, in a worn denim shirt, dusty hiking boots, suspenders, and an old canvas hat. The next morning he would come into the kitchen all dressed up in the same dark blue woolen pin-striped suit he had worn on the train to California in January 1922, take his mail out to the garden, and commence the solemn ritual of reading the letters his younger daughter, Veevi, had written him from Paris.
Reading Group Guide
Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. What was McCarthyism? At what stage in the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigations does the novel take place?
2 What is Dinah's life like at the time she receives the subpoena? Where is her sister Veevi and how does Dinah feel about her? Is she prepared for the crisis she now faces?
3. What consequences does Dinah face if she refuses to testify? And if she agrees?
4. What picture of Hollywood do we get through Dinah's and Jakes's eyes? Is it at all different from the usual views of the movie industry we get from other novels, films and TV?
5. What picture of marriage in the 50's do we get from Dinah and Jake? Is Dinah "fulfilled" in her marriage? Do we see her marriage as she does?
6. What kind of relationship do Dinah and Veevi have? Does it seem typical of relationships between sisters? Are there hidden tensions between them?
7. Does Dinah come to her own decisions or is she manipulated by outside forces? Where in the novel does she exhibit independence? Does her marriage to Jake allow for such autonomy?
8. What political past do Dinah and Veevi share and what role does it come to play in their current lives? What does the author use twentieth-century history to tell her story?
9. Does Dinah's awareness of her life change, shift or grow throughout the novel? What are the unintended consequences of decisions she makes early on in the story?
10. Are any characters in the story completely good or completely bad? Do our feelings change about the characters as we get to know them? Do we ever get angry with Dinah? Jake? Veevi?
11. How do we feel about Jake and Veevi as the story develops? And how do the secondary or "supporting" characters function -- Dorshka Albrecht, for example, and Peter Lasker? Do they contribute something to the moral texture of the story and the complexity of relationships and feelings we are asked to share?
12. The book is narrated from an omniscient third-person viewpoint, although perspective does shift from character to character. Do you think the author passes judgment on her characters or does she allow their actions to speak for themselves?
13. In some ways, cities in this book are more than just geographic locations. How would you characterize Los Angeles? New York? Paris? Do people come to resemble the cities in which they live?
14. Race, religion, and- above all- social class prove pervasive themes in the novel. How are characters motivated by these factors? Do they affect Dinah's decision to testify? Is Frank's Hollywood a place where social barriers are enforced or overcome?
15. The book raises complicated questions about the intersection of the political and the personal. How can political acts shape our personal destinies? And how do our personal needs and choices play into our politics?
One way to recognize good writing is also to recognize its opposite and then to go one step farther and to say, ¿This is bad writing, and here¿s why.¿ This novel is so bad that it¿s useful and also a little bit entertaining to pick it apart and try to understand, ¿What was Elizabeth Frank doing here?¿I must admit from the beginning that I had high hopes for this novel: not unrealistically high, but reasonably high hopes. This sounded like the kind of novel I would really enjoy: a big-enough to sink your teeth into 1950s novel about Hollywood and the blacklist, written by a woman who had won the Pulitzer Prize for a biography that I had hugely enjoyed. I tucked into this novel with real anticipation of a great, entertaining read. Oh boy, was I ever disappointed.Probably it would be easiest to write about this novel if I separate the two major elements of ¿The Story¿ and ¿How the story was written,¿ or technique.The Story. Here¿s the story in a nutshell: It begins in 1951 with Frank's protagonist, 39-year-old Dinah Lasker, wife of the successful producer, writer, director Jake Lasker. In her young and foolish days, Dinah had been a very peripheral member of the Communist party. Dinah is subpoenaed to testify--you know the question: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?" To refuse to testify would endanger her husband's career--not to mention her "wonderful life," all the things that Jake's success is able to buy for the family. Although she hesitates, there is really no question that Dinah will testify. During her testimony, without really meaning to, Dinah names her sister as a "fellow traveler," the beautiful Veevi--Genevieve Milligan Ventura Albrecht, former Queen of Hollywood and currently living in France with her successful novelist husband. Fifty pages into the book I was already disappointed (and I should add here that the book is almost 550 pages long, so I had a long way to go). I didn¿t like any of the characters. Dinah¿s husband, Jake, is cad who is running around on his wife and having a high old time. No way you can like this guy. Do I like anyone so far? Not much. Dinah has been subpoenaed to testify in front of THE COMMITTEE--I guess the committee that blacklisted people in Hollywood for being part of the Communist party. Since I know NOTHING about the history the blacklist, I was left with relying on Frank to explain what it was all about. Did she? Very little.One scene (one?) particularly set my teeth on edge--the one where the protagonist's sister drunkenly gropes her nine-year-old nephew. For the love of God. It was at that point that I said, The End--why am I still reading this book? And yet I continued, much in the same way that it¿s almost impossible to turn away from a multiple car crash that¿s happening in front of your eyes. The scene with the drunken aunt groping her nine-year-old nephew may be the only unpredictable move in the entire story. As I was reading that scene, what went through my mind was, "What is Frank thinking of, where is she going with this?" Ick. It wasn't as bad as I feared, but the lead up was creepy.A New York Times reviewer referred to the plot as ¿wallpaper,¿ because of its endless repetition. What an excellent image to use for the plot of this book. Towards the end, when the reader is subjected to yet another description of Jake¿s infidelity, all I could think of was, "I¿ve read this scene before, written in almost exactly the same way, at least 16 times." I was never so glad to get to the end of a book.Technique:One of the things Frank does that I think is a little risky is to give her female protagonist a s-s-s-stutter. The device reminds me in a way of what John Irving did in A Prayer for Owen Meany--Owen had a strange, high-pitched speaking voice, so to distinguish his speech as "different," Irving wrote Owen's side of each dialogue in ALL CAPS. Irving's device didn't bother me, but I found that Dinah's stutter got in the way. Plus
This book is in desperate need of a good editor. The flow is terrible, the characters are unlikable and ill-conceived, and the plot is completely predictable and juvenile. What's more shocking is that the author compares her work to that of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, claiming that the three main characters (Veevi, Dinah, and Jake) in Cheat and Charmer are like Anna--'to be disliked and condemned, but ¿her passionate and complicated nature had brought her to her great transgression.' Veevi, Dinah, and Jake are hardly complicated--they're just banal and self absorbed. Ms. Frank may be excellent at writing non-fiction, but Cheat and Charmer surely isn't a contender for the Pulitzer.
Initially this appears a saga of the golden people in California with their beauty, magic and large than life images. Soon, however, it becomes how women deal with themselves, those they love, and the pain that exists around them. It is a sad story or betrayal, yet a look at commitment beyond what it should be. Why we do things is often found in our childhood or the very early years that we tend to either make worse or glorify as the best of the best. These characters grab you and take you into their existance and leave you with the emptiness they all feel in the end. To sustain pain and continue in life, or grab the glory and the hell with others. Which is the type of life you would lead? Neither style wins in this tale.
This book is both hilarious, moving, sad and satirical. Elizabeth Frank is an amazing story teller like the early Phillip Roth and sometimes like IB Singer. The characters in this book are conflicted, ambitious eccentric citizens of Hollywood. Who new that such complexity lies in the hearts and minds of the residents of Beverly Hills. The blacklist of 1950s America turns the life of this particular family, the Laskers, into chaos. The characters are fully alive with humor and broken hearts. The philandering husband, Jake can't resist sexual liasons and pastrami sandwiches in the middle of the night. Their kids Lorna and Peter remind me of Scout and Gem in 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' learning all about growing up, not among the poor and opressed, but among loneliness, neglect and the painful criticism of grown-ups. They have no Atticus Finch. But they have an amazing and imperfect mother, Dinah, who does testify before the HUAC to save her family while she is still able to demonstrate tremendous integrity in life. Dinah's rivalry with her gorgeous sister, Veevee grows more complicated and divisive as bothwomen grow older looking back at the folly of their former political involvement with 'The Party.' There are other great charcters and details in this book that one can only know as a reader. It is a beautifully observed story of a certain time and place. AM Weiss