An interview with LADY BE GOOD author Pamela Hamilton

Pamela Hamilton, Photo by @RobertClydeGrima

Tell us about your book.

Lady Be Good is a coming-of-age story about Dorothy Hale, the legendary 1930s socialite and actress immortalized in one of Frida Kahlo’s most famous and controversial paintings. At the dawn of the 1920s, she and her confidante, Clare Boothe Luce, break from conventions of high society to achieve success on their own terms and find themselves at the center of dangerous political intrigue. They’re remarkably beautiful, smart, determined women who forge their own identities as they rise to the upper echelons of New York society and to fame. They seem to have it all. But behind the public façade they contend with their tempestuous friendship, epic disappointments, and tragedy. It’s a story of love, betrayal, resilience, and living your dream.

The story also takes us behind the Gilded curtain of the 1920s Smart Set, “Polite Society,” which perhaps doesn’t always live up to its name. It captures the struggles women faced; the incredible glamour, fashion, and grandness of the time; and American culture at a pivotal moment in our history. To set the scene a bit, women won the right to vote in 1920 and had a new sense of freedom. But the culture hadn’t quite caught up the idea of equal rights and there were few opportunities for women. They were silenced, cast aside, easy targets – expected to be get married, give birth, and tend to their husbands. (And, in Dorothy’s rarified world, host charity balls.) I’m thrilled that we now have more opportunities to look deeper into women’s stories and celebrate their true legacies.

It’s been a great joy to celebrate their lives, honor their story, and introduce them to a new generation. Dorothy and Clare defied tradition to pursue their dreams on their own terms. They fought to succeed and find their voices in a society that silenced women. They celebrated each other’s successes, sparred, and broke each other’s falls. Vibrant, resilient, and magnificent in all their complexity, Hale and Luce define the modern woman of the 1920s—and the 2020s. I hope their courage will inspire readers to persevere and live life to the hilt.

I’m enraptured with the process of examining a characters’ life experiences and seeing the world through their lens. Ultimately, it’s an exploration of the human condition. Lady Be Good is filled with drama, heartbreak, high times, and a good dose of humor.

Researching the characters and the time, and writing the novel, took me on a great adventure through the era. For the reader, it’s both an adventure with the glitterati through the 1920s and 1930s and an intimate view into the hearts and minds of two women as they navigate careers, marriage, and the Gilded world.

During research and writing, I felt I had come to know Dorothy and Clare well. I think many of us can recognize aspects of their personalities that we aspire to and ones that we wouldn’t want to see in ourselves. Dorothy and Clare are dynamic, witty, vibrant, compelling women—I hope readers will feel deeply connected to them and experience a wide range of emotions.

What inspired you to write the book?

Many years ago, I rented an apartment in the Manhattan high-rise where Dorothy Hale lived (and died), but I had never heard of her. Before long I sensed something tragic happened there and finally decided to research the building’s history. I came across an article about Frida Kahlo’s portrait of Dorothy Hale; she’s wearing a black “Madam X” gown, falling from a window of my building. (If you haven’t seen it, brace yourself.) The brief account of her life intrigued me; she seemed to be a dynamic woman and was surrounded by the iconic figures of her time – figures in the arts politics, and Hollywood. But the explanations for her death seemed contrived, the tone dismissive, the assumptions grand—I had a visceral response to it.  “She took her own life, she died of a broken heart.” It would only be said of a woman. As a network news producer and curious person, it was only natural to do research and find out if there was more to the story. Indeed, there was, Every step of the way I would uncover a new fact, or new acquaintance, or more details that didn’t add up, and it drove me deeper and deeper into research. I didn’t set out to write a book, I wanted to find out what really happened.

Dorothy and Clare were fascinating women. I found their struggles, victories, and transformations remarkable, and it sparked a lot of emotions. The public accounts about Dorothy aren’t accurate; her real story is far more interesting, so I felt as though I’d found a hidden gem.

Spending those many years researching and writing kept me in an era that I had always been drawn to—it was a time of extraordinary art, design, and literature, a time of incredible creative and cultural combustion. Irresistible.

What’s the most distinctive thing about the main character? 

I did extensive research on Dorothy Hale and Clare Boothe Luce (and the other historical figures in the book), and it was a delight—they’re complex characters. For me, what stands out the most about Dorothy is her fortitude, courage, and ability to overcome adversity with grace. In her 33 years, she had dramatic, heart wrenching setbacks. She also enjoyed a charmed life, a lavish lifestyle, great happiness, and success. Frida Kahlo’s portrait of her depicts a tragic beauty; but in her life she was indomitable. Clare’s most distinctive trait, in my view, is her clever mind and ability to conquer her lofty goals, of which she had many. Creating their characters and writing dialogue was an absolute delight—I lost all sense of time.

The imagery in your novel has been praised time and time again. What did your creative process look like while developing such vivid scenes?

Research was the starting point for a more in-depth exploration of their physical and verbal expressions and their internal life. The fictional characters are drawn purely from my imagination and occasionally inspired by people I’ve known. Writers are observers, notetakers, armchair analysts; they’re curious and interested in detail. When you’re consumed by the story, you become each person and place yourself in the scene. You contemplate the traits or ticks that could illustrate their conscious and unconscious thoughts.

My interest in literature, music, movies, art, architecture, and fashion of the time gave me a good sense of the period, which was, of course, incredibly helpful when I decided to write a book and recreate that world.

What do you consider to be one of the most important messages in Lady Be Good?

Threaded throughout the book are themes about life purpose, friendship and betrayal, class and culture, and the price of fame. The most important message might be different for each reader, so I’ll touch on two that have been mentioned. The main characters, socialites Dorothy Hale and Clare Boothe Luce, defy tradition to pursue their dreams on their own terms. They’re vulnerable, and they struggle in a world where women are expected to stay in their place. They have lavish lifestyles, social status, and husbands, but it’s unfulfilling. As Clare wrote, “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can make you awfully comfortable while you’re being miserable.” Dorothy and Clare face their fears and insecurities and they’re resilient, which prove to be essential qualities on their rise to success and overall contentment. Their smarts, sense of humor, and joie de vivre also serve them well!

There are many misconceptions and inaccuracies in public accounts about them, which underscores an issue that resonates with readers: The simple stroke of the pen can raise one to the apex of the good life as easily as it can destroy a name. Truth isn’t defined by black, bold, headlines—there could be more to the story. As the narrative unfolds in Lady Be Good, we see how mindless gossip and the tabloid press can change public perception on a whim. Many people today are considering their legacy, and this story illustrates how delicate legacies can be.

Lady Be Good has won its fair share of awards since publication. Has its reception in the literary world been what you expected?

Its reception in the literary world has been a wonderful surprise! I’m deeply grateful for the acclaim and positive feedback from readers; it’s made me tearful on many occasions. Awards didn’t cross my mind while I was writing; I was consumed by bringing the story to life. I owe a debt of gratitude to John Koehler, who took a leap of faith in signing a debut author and has given Lady Be Good a splendid home.