28 Mar

Scandal Sells

About twenty years ago, I joined a Bay Area organization called The Institute for Historical Study because I was writing my first history play for adults, A SHIRTWAIST TALE, about a garment strike in Lower East Side NYC in 1909.  (see above)  I had written several fourth grade history plays, and in fact had compiled a teachers’ workbook, CALIFORNIA HISTORY PLAYS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE, that was selling well.  I hoped to absorb clues from a group of history-o-philes for how to include the right information, where to find it, and how to not contradict the preciously-garnered truth with false information.  I have found help with all of that from the Institute, a  group of people who search hard for “what really happened” and “who was there”;  but I also have found moral support of caring about those things, and for thinking an audience might care.


A well-known Bay Area architect of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Julia Morgan is the subject of one of my plays.  (She is best known for designing William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon residence known popularly as Hearst Castle.)  I chose Morgan because she was a woman; an Oaklander; the first woman to graduate from the Ecole de Beaux Arts architecture school in Paris; the first licensed woman architect in California; and the designer of some of California’s most beautiful and cherished buildings.


When I started my project, it wasn’t easy finding information about “Miss Morgan”, as everyone called her in her day.  Like many people well-known in their lifetimes, she had receded from the public memory.  “Who?” people asked me when I mentioned I was researching for a play about her.  I tromped around California, talking my way into her buildings, reading her mother’s letters in the UC San Louis Obispo library, interviewing Julia’s secretary’s daughter.


Doing all this was, of course, a romp;  I was almost disappointed when one Sara Boutelle put out a beautiful and highly informative book about Julia.  It was almost too easy.  She listed all 700+ of Julia’s buildings and gave lots of other hard information.


But what wasn’t easy was figuring out how to present Julia on a stage.  Her buildings were more than entertaining, but her life made a fairly dull play:  she worked, and then worked some more.  In her spare time, guess what? she worked.    She didn’t have romances;  she had buildings.  She didn’t have histrionic arguments;  she explained carefully why a proposed structure needed reinforcement or didn’t fit a landscape or expected use.  She got up early to travel to San Simeon, and worked late, fueled by coffee and chocolate, to redesign something that wasn’t working.  She wouldn’t do interviews.  “I want my buildings to speak for me,” she said firmly.


Miss Morgan helped support her parents and a mentally unstable brother, and had lunch with her sister—a lawyer—and consulted endlessly with clients and associate architects and craftsmen.  She spent enough time with William Hearst to annoy his mistress, Marion Davies, but here is no suggestion of scandal in their relationship.  They were just endlessly planning and replanning San Simeon, and a few other buildings around the state she did for him as well.  Julia’s letters to Hearst, and his to her, are full architectural issues, often a bit testy, and signed “Julia Morgan” and “William R. Hearst.”  She had many admirers among the builders, contractors, architects and craftsmen with whom she worked, but only because she was unfailingly careful, polite, determined to use the best materials, and paid well– and helped her employees with mortgage down payments and school tuitions for their children.  Not because she flirted.  She wanted to be a fine architect.  More than anything.


So several years ago, when I attended a reading of a new play about Julia Morgan, I wondered what the playwright was going to use as the central plot in her play.  I had long since decided to turn mine into a reading play, an informational piece, obtaining “tension” in each scene with the disagreements I had read about between others, and as much humor as I could find in the situations:  her mother and her mentor arguing about whether she should stay in Paris;  William and Phoebe Hearst arguing about whether a woman could design a large building so it would stay up.  I sat down to the reading of another playwright’s play a bit envious that she had discovered something important I had missed.


Imagine my shock when the first scene purported to show Julia meeting a daughter she had abandoned as a baby in Paris, after a love affair with the “Dean” of the Ecole de Beaux Arts!  That it suggested that that Dean fixed Julia’s failing grades so she could graduate.  In spite of elegant period costuming, the play was riddled with every sort of historic inaccuracy and gross misrepresentation.  (For example, The Ecole doesn’t have a Dean; and students get points, not grades, from projects they design in competition with each other, only if they are in the top ten.) It was disgusting;  I would have walked out but I wanted to hear the audience discussion when it was over.


Another shock.  “So imaginative”.  “Really dramatic and clever”.  I was tempted to speak but felt constrained by the upcoming readings of my play in the same venue—the Berkeley City Club of all places, one of Morgan’s most beautiful and beloved structures.  Finally after about ten agonizing minutes, a man in the second row stood, said he taught at the UC School of Architecture, and that he was appalled by the inaccuracy and slander in the play.  He opined that Julia and her mother would be devastated if they had any idea.  After that, two or three other people spoke up, agreeing with him.  The Director of the play then decided to jump up and ended the discussion with,  “We all have our opinions, and you are entitled to them, but the program says clearly that this is “an imaginative journey.”  Okay then, destroy someone’s reputation with your fab “imagination”.  That works.


My husband was sanguine, as always.  “This will die an early death.  It’s not well-written;  no serious theatre will want it.”


Wrong.  The play made it to production in avery reputable theatre in Marin last year.  Not only that, but it first had its debut in the very Berkeley City Club where it had a reading.  Evidently the Board of that building also is fine with slander.  They can get the rent money to preserve their building.


Audiences will come.  They are “sophisticated” and don’t mind rape, incest, murder; they know there is a baby buried in every back yard.  Of course Julia slept with the Dean;  how else could a woman get a degree?


As I write this, we are in the throes of a Presidential administration which is setting new lows for scandal and trash talk.  A blustering Hitler-wanna-be is swearing, using every sort of foul language and insult, invoking menstruation and female body parts, pestilent ethnic groups, and crude humor.  Entertainment rules.  Slander rules absolutely.


Is this what we are now?  People who don’t want to hear anything about women who work sixteen hours a day or women who march through snow for ten weeks, to accomplish a serious goal:  to build something beautiful; to help their siblings; to add something positive to the world?


Do you think of yourself as someone who helps carry our story as a people forward?  Who passes on the human saga for the next generation who wants to know “what really happened”?  I do.  And I also think of myself as particularly telling the real story of women, what we have done and therefore, can do.  But I feel like right now the good parts of our culture are being marched over, beaten down by people willing to say or write anything to be “famous” and “important.”  Is this your impression?  If it is, what can we, as some of the keepers of our country’s story, do about this?


Does anyone out there care?