The Silver Shirts was a neo-Nazi organization founded in 1933 by one William Dudley Pelley, a native of Massachusetts whose life story for decades had been forgotten and buried, until the internet (and today’s neo-Nazis) revived it. Pelley was basically a Depression-era wacko with artistic inclinations, whose obsessions ranged from occultism to poetry to, bizarrely, full-on Nazism. He was, in other words, a bit of a mess. Pelley had little to no impact on society (after a failed presidential run in 1936), and he died in 1965. A biography of Pelley was published a few years ago, and it is a depressing read.
But Pelley, this forgotten, chaotic nut, now figures as a looming and threatening presence in first-time author Anita Mishook’s new novel Helen ($16.95, Berwick Court Publishing), which is set in L.A. in 1936 and revives the strange days of the Depression, when Hitler’s rise to power caused a dust-up of homegrown Fascist activity in some U.S. cities; these included the Yorkville section of New York, with its large German-American population, and Los Angeles, which saw the growth of a few Nazi-goofball clubs of its own.
History tells us that these groups were fond of gathering at the Deutsches Haus restaurant in West Hollywood. Postcards of the restaurant exist from that time, circa 1935, showing patrons seated at the tables with beer steins in hand, wearing Nazi uniforms.
Mishook’s novel, the tale of a young Jewish woman who agrees to spy on these groups in L.A. for the Anti-Defamation League, also brings in real-life figures from those weird-old-days such as the leaders of the German American Bund, a nationwide network of Nazi sympathizers, some of whom would eventually be sent to prison by the Roosevelt administration for spying for the Hitler government.
Incredibly, the Bund attempted to make inroads into Hollywood, even though comedy film producer Hal Roach personally informed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini face-to-face, in Rome in 1937, “Look, the motion picture business is a Jewish business.”
Helen, our heroine, is a New Yorker of Polish-Jewish background who arrives in sunny Glendale in 1936, moves in with her sister Sarah and takes a job at her brother-in-law’s liquor store; basically, she’s just marking time.
“Her nephew’s bunk bed in Glendale – that’s where she was. She sucked in another lung full of California air and let it out between pursed lips. As she kicked the thin quilt off her legs, she said, ‘Los Angeles,’ careful to make the ‘g’ soft, the way she had heard it on the radio ….”
Eventually, Helen is recruited by the local ADL to spy on and, if possible, subvert the Bund in L.A. The novel is filled with scenes of suburban cocktail parties and the awkward, close-call conversations between Helen (a pale-skinned beauty pretending to be German) and various Silver Shirt and Bund operatives, all coming on to her in various creepy ways.
Along with politics, Helen is in some ways very much a feminine novel; the book is intimate, domestic and cozy (gemütlich being the exact German word), redolent of female domestic pleasures in balmy, prewar L.A., with much attention paid to period details: household furnishings, elegant ’30s dresses and what I guess you could call “finery.”
“Across the hall, she saw her sister Sarah standing at the kitchen stove. It was an O’Keefe and Merritt, one of its burners occupied with a black enamel saucepan ... which Sarah stirred, balancing 6-month-old Rachel on one hip. … Sarah wore a white cotton blouse, ironed creaseless, except where it was tucked into the calf-length black skirt …”
I was surprised to find myself not annoyed, for the most part, by these girly details: “Helen returned to the kitchen in gray slacks and a short-sleeved brown sweater, both urgently needing dry cleaning ...”
Should I invoke Maupassant or Joyce here, when Mishook describes Helen “pulling down her underpants to sit on the cold seat, then changing into pajamas in the dark …”? Yes, maybe Joyce: “In the small bathroom … Helen perched on the toilet seat and sighed. … Wanting to peek around the corner to see what was going on. That had always been a problem of hers.”
The crux of this story comes when Helen is informally recruited to do some intel-gathering on local Nazis and their fellow travelers, which she would rather not do. “I never went to spy school,” she protests. “Give them that look of yours,” one of her ADL handlers tells her, “and make something up. Get flirty.”
Mishook makes sure to include a character here who happens to live at the so-called “Nazi House” complex, built by a Nazi-loving couple back in the ’30s up in Rustic Canyon near Malibu, and which is now a graffiti-shat-upon ruin. It’s a bullet-point that feels a little bit too pat, but no harm done.
I wouldn’t call Helen a cliffhanger; it’s too quiet a story for that. The book is very dialogue-driven and reads at times more like a script than a novel, the author’s repeated descriptions of the “pursed lips” of her characters seeming to occur on virtually every other page. Helen is all extreme close-ups: pursed lips, mouths turned downward, fingers gripping wrists. It’s a drawing-room drama, except the rooms are inside Spanish-style L.A. bungalows.
“Look. Stalin is nothing but trouble for the Jews. I don’t care what my friends say. But Hitler is so very much worse.” (Yes, that’s how people talked in those days, “so very much worse…”)
Reading a book like Helen sharpens for us what it was like back then, when so many people were so hung up on “race,” even the so-called race of European Jews, that they could conceivably want to banish them to Madagascar (as Hitler initially intended to do) or kill them (as he did do).
The book arrives at a moment when it’s worthwhile to ask: How anti-Jewish were Americans in the pre-war 1930s? It’s a question that’s hard to answer, but whatever the reality, it was definitely contradictory, since the American public was clearly gaga over Hollywood and the movies and vaudeville and popular songs and Broadway, all of which were largely Jewish creations with roots in Yiddish Kultur. There were, of course, pockets of anti-Semitism, especially once the Depression hit and resentment over “rich Jews” percolated, at least in some quarters. Hitler’s example overseas clearly emboldened some haters-with-a-capital-H to put on dumb uniforms and parade around like seedy idiots.
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To say the book is timely is, obviously, an understatement. With the recent pillaging of Jewish cemeteries here (a phenomenon that until now was a European thing), it’s a reminder that Jew-hatred is always lurking somewhere on Earth, whether it’s in the Arab world or Paris (where Jews are physically attacked on the streets by Muslim extremists routinely), or in the secret basements of all-American, antisocial losers.
But remember, back then we were the good guys. Recall the words of President Franklin Roosevelt: “We shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogance … the Nazis have now announced their plan for enforcing their new, German pagan religion all over the world, a plan by which the Holy Bible and the cross of mercy would be displaced by Mein Kampf and the swastika and the naked sword,” he said. “There never will be successful compromise between good and evil.” Serious times back then; life and death were at stake.
Helen ends with one more nod to the weird old days, when the swastika could still be remembered as an ancient, innocent Indian symbol: “Helen left for the store, kissing her nephew and niece on the head as she walked out of the kitchen. …(A)s she walked she tried to re-pin a stray lock of hair, but dropped the bobby pin near the foot of the streetlight ... She leaned over to pick it up but almost dropped it again. The iron filigree work on the light’s base was a swastika pattern …”
“The city meant nothing sinister by the design. Still her heart was pounding ….” Strange days indeed.