Lee Rene is a Los Angeles-based, jazz-loving writer who grew up in the City of the Angels as the child of two fervent movie addicts. Lee has studied and researched classic Hollywood for a number of years and spent much of her writing career as an entertainment journalist and movie reviewer in print, on-line, and on the radio. She co-authored a biography of Sarah Bernhardt, The Diva and Doctor God, which Poverty Row Entertainment has recently optioned for a feature film. Lee has also co-written an article for the prestigious British publication, History Today, and had two articles published in The Lancet. Lee collaborated on The Soul of Los Angeles, the history of African Americans in Los Angeles, published by the Los Angeles Convention Bureau. Lee is member of Romance Writers of America (RWA) and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Lee is a contributor to the Simply Sxy on-line magazine. Loose Id published her erotic romance, The New Orleans Hothouse, in 2015 and Solstice Publishing is releasing her Depression-era romance, Mitzi of the Ritz, later this year.
Mitzi of the Ritz
Pops is dead, the Stock Market has crashed, and the wolf is at the door. When Mitzi Schector crosses the threshold of the Broadway Ritz for a lowly usherette job, little does she know that she has just stepped into her future. Mitzi’s life is about to change into a world of movie moguls, platinum-blonde bombshells, and romance.
Welcome to Mitzi of the Ritz, a raunchy and often humorous romantic mystery set in Depression-era Hollywood. The manuscript was a semi-finalist in the 2011 ABNA and a top-twenty favorite with Swoon Reads. Publishers Weekly wrote, “The dialogue is so telling of the era and the mind-set of a young girl. This writing is filled with the specifics of the era, the feelings, the bits and pieces of a girl caught up in a situation that is moving and engrossing, sad and fearsome at the same time.”
In the fall of 1930, the plucky eighteen-year-old protagonist meets a handsome young theater owner named David Stein. Their attraction is immediate, but David is married, a fact that derails their romance before it begins. The feisty teen soon finds herself the unwilling object of the affection of a local mobster. His unwanted advances push Mitzi and her older sister to flee New York for Los Angeles, the scene of a Schector family tragedy. In the early 1920s, Mitzi’s uncle, a handsome film extra, lost his life in a studio fire. While crossing the country aboard the famed Santa Fe Chief, Mitzi meets a cast of the characters who will change her life. Her arrival in Los Angeles coincides with the film industry’s transition from silent dramas to talkies. During this period, known as the Pre-Code, racy films flourished in spite of the constant threat of censorship. Mitzi soon reconnects with David. Their path to love is a long and rocky one, but David finally discovers his humanity, Mitzi transforms from teen to woman, and solves a decade-old Hollywood mystery.
Welcome Lee. I recently introduced my husband to the films of Claudette Colbert and he was taken by their racy nature. Shall we begin with a definition of the Pre-Code era?
First I must say that Claudette Colbert’s Pre-Code films are a terrific introduction to a very provocative era in Hollywood history. The term Pre-Code is a bit of a misnomer because from the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers pushed the envelope, and local film censorship boards to keep them in line. Silent films often had provocative subject matter and even nudity, but since there was no dialogue, local censors could snip out objectionable scenes with no problem. The issue became serious when a series of Hollywood scandals in the 1920s threatened the existence of the movie industry. Hollywood producers took matters in their own hands and created their own censorship board with a man named Will Hays. They also had a list of dos and don’ts which filmmakers pretty much ignored. The issue became problematic with the arrival of sound. Moving pictures were no longer silent, the language became rawer, and local board couldn’t just cut out provocative dialogue or a titillating scene without destroying the continuity of a talking picture. Also, producers were looking to Broadway for plays with explosive subject matter. A Catholic priest and a layman created the production code in 1929, but producers were able to maneuver around it or just ignore it until Joseph Breen, or “Mean Joe Breen” as he was known around Hollywood finally implemented it late in 1934.
The Jazz Age promised social freedom through abandon, joy and booze. Then the shoe dropped with the Depression. What draws you to this age?
I’ve always loved so much about the Jazz Age, flappers, the birth of the automotive industry, Prohibition (I had a bootlegger great-uncle who made a fortune as a very young man), and the birth of the film industry. I grew up in Los Angeles near some of the larger studios. I loved the classic film tours of Hollywood and Beverly Hills and seeing the mansions where major stars lived. When I became a journalist, I actually visited those same studios. In addition to Pre-Code films, I also loved listening to the Depression stories my neighbors and relatives shared and watching the fabulous films. I also love the silent cinema which I watch on TCM or film society screenings. Thank goodness for Turner Classic movies and the amazing stars of the 1930s.
Tell us about Mitzi Schector and the qualities that help her navigate that tantalizing landscape in MITZI OF THE RITZ.
Mitzi is a plucky eighteen-year-old New Yorker whom I based on several women I met through the years. The story begins in New York in 1930 after the Crash has wiped out the fortunes of so many. Her father’s death leaves Mitzi and her older sister, Leah, destitute. Leah takes a job as a taxi dancer, something that was well-paid, but not respectable at the time. The times force Mitzi to drop out of college and look for work. When she answers a newspaper ad for a theater usherette, the drama begins the minute she crosses the threshold of a huge New York movie palace, the Broadway Ritz.
She meets a handsome young theatre owner named David Stein, a young man much like the actual boy genius, Irving Thalberg, who has been running his late father’s theater company since he was barely out of his teens. David’s attraction to Mitzi is fiery and immediate, but she doesn’t return his feelings. In addition to being controlling and cynical, David is a married man, a reality that derails any hope for romance. Mitzi also finds herself the unwilling object of affection of a local mobster who will stop at nothing to make Mitzi his. Mitzi and Leah flee New York and board the Santa Fe Chief heading for Los Angeles. The two girls meet people who will change their lives and begin their adventure.
I loved writing Mitzi and her two older sisters, Leah and Zisel. I wanted to create a plucky heroine who speaks in the parlance of the time. I also loved adding Yiddish slang to the mix, writing a Jewish romance, and exploring the racial politics of a different time and place.
I see you coauthored a biography of Sarah Bernhardt that has been optioned. Do you find collaborations more satisfying than working in solitude? Do you go off on your own when you write?
I wrote the Sarah Bernhardt project with a doctor who lives in Australia. We worked together online. I’m used to writing solo, but I enjoyed getting another perspective on Sarah’s life and times. My collaborator is French fluent and visited Paris frequently. While I made a number of great connections online, she was able to get the book published in French and make a lifetime connection with people who helped us on our journey.
Mitzi of the Ritz is the latest in a career begun in print, on-line and radio journalism. When does it come out and does it mark the beginning of a career in novels?
I’ve already had another novel published, an erotic romance. I worked with a small publishing house and went through an extensive editing and proofing process with experienced editors. They sent me a style guide that I continue to use. The problem with erotica is that it’s difficult to find reviewers, and some people feel uneasy with it. There has also been a glut of erotic novels since Fifty Shades of Grey became a success and it’s next to impossible to break out of the pack. While I like writing erotic romances, I wanted to try another direction with a more conventional romance although my newest bends genre, crime drama and romance. Mitzi is New Adult with a moderate level of heat. I also write Young Adult novels under a different pen name.
I watched a “thriller” over the weekend that featured some very talented actors sitting around a table watching flat screens as other actors effected change through push buttons while also watching flat screens. Do you think our gadget infused culture robs characters of useful things to do? Is that why we’re seeing more recent past stories being published and then made into film?
Look at the popularity of shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, shows with vibrant action and intriguing characters yet nary a computer in sight. Look at Outlander, a time-travel romance based on a popular series of books.
Once upon a time, I’d go to moves two or three times a week and when I was a reviewer, I was out five nights a week during movie season. Now, I pretty much skip them and get screeners. Marvel Comics, remakes, and films for the teen market pretty much dictate what’s out in theaters. I don’t have an issue with them, they aren’t my type of film, but if I want provocative fare, I won’t find it at the movies. I go online with Netflix or Amazon, watch premium cable or God forbid, read.
Ed. – Lol. I hear ya!
Is the Code alive and well? Are we better when we go around it?
The Code ended in 1968, but now studios are playing it safe with remakes and comic book adaptations. The most interesting projects are usually I think the premium cable and online studios like Amazon and Netflix are creating the most provocative works, but certainly not film or network television. I understand the issues with censorship, but I think we’re better off without it.
Any WIPs in the works, or are you taking a well-deserved break?
I’m always working on something. I have four unpublished manuscripts that I’m presently querying and I’m writing a YA story set in New Orleans in the 1950s. I also started outlining a wild, contemporary saga set in the meth amphetamine capital of California. I hope to write more novels set in the same fictional movie studio in West Hollywood that I used in Mitzi. I’d like to write a generational saga that looks at the movie industry from the silent era to the 1950s. I plan to create different characters, but the setting will be the same studio.
REVIEWS FOR MITZI OF THE RITZ
“The dialogue is so telling of the era and the mind-set of a young girl. This writing is filled with the specifics of the era, the feelings, the bits and pieces of a girl caught up in a situation that is moving and engrossing, sad and fearsome at the same time.” – Publishers Weekly
“I enjoyed the story and loved the how the early 30’s were brought to life. I liked the heroine but it did take me a little while to warm up to the hero (although he was worth the wait). I thought the story was well paced and the imagery vivid. For me, the end was a little abrupt. I guess I would have liked one more scene with David and Mitzi – then again that could just be me being greedy. That being said, I really enjoyed Mitzi of the Ritz and would recommend it.” 🙂 – Nicole – Swoon Reads
“I’m a few chapters in. The quirky dialogue and descriptions feel authentic to the era. Great cover too.” 😉 – Kristy Brown – Swoon Reads
“Okay, that’s it. I’m officially in love with this book. It’s awesome! The style is so well done, historically accurate, a very distinct voice, I’m impressed. As for the story and the romance, they kept me at the edge of my seat, waiting to see what would happen next. I would totally buy this book and reread it, I love it 🙂 Also, it reminds me a bit of Anna Godbersen’s Bright Young Things which has the same tone and glamour. Thank you for writing this, it’s perfect!” – M.C. Frank – Swoon Reads
“Wow!! I felt like I was in the olden days! The writing was easily to follow along and smooth and the characters were lovable. I wish I had some criticism, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and can’t really think of any to give! Great job!” – ABNA
“I felt like I was transported back in time to a strange place that somehow felt eerily familiar. I remember my grandma telling me stories of life in depression-era LA. Lee Rene captures the feeling perfectly. I loved her characters and the way the story unfolded. Her characters seemed real and not stereotypes. I couldn’t put this down.
I wish it were longer.” – Peter Taubkin – ABNA
“I’m a fan of romance, a dedicated Twihard. I love to be transported to different places and times. Mitzi of the Ritz delivered. I learned about Hollywood during the Depression, a dark time in American history. It brought a much-needed smile to my face and is worth Five Stars!” – Amazon
“I don’t normally read romance novels and was a bit leery of starting this one. Luckily, it’s not a traditional historical romance, no bodices are ripped, no hyper-sexuality. Instead, it’s a funny look at a dark era in American history, the Great Depression. I felt very much a part of the action, loved the characters, the banter, the 30s slang. A real winner.” – Swoon Reads
Thanks for joining us today, Lee. Count on a lot of us checking out MITZI AT THE RITZ!