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Silent Dreams

Mary Miles Minter, Sessue Hayakawa, and the Birth of a Novel

The Mansion, Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Children’s Institute, Inc.)

ISSUE:  Winter 2013

I first heard about Mary Miles Minter when I started to work in her house. She was supposed to be the next Mary Pickford. When Pickford, the most popular actress of the silent-film era, left Paramount Pictures in 1918 to co-found United Artists, Adolph Zukor signed Minter with the hope of grooming her to be his next big star. Minter was only sixteen when she signed with Paramount, but she had already appeared in more than thirty films. She would star in fifty-four movies over the course of her career—though only a handful of them have survived.

In photographs, Minter bears a surface resemblance to Pickford—the broad, sweet face, the blonde hair, the thick sausage curls. She is described by Robert Giroux in his book A Deed of Death (1990) as “a golden, peaches-and-cream kind of girl, in whom all the sweet, innocent charms of youth were embodied.” But Minter lacked the pluck of the more famous and gifted actress. Even in photographs, there’s a quality of sadness, a wry smile, as if she’d prefer not to be there at all. On film this quality translates into hesitation or slowness, as if she is moving through water. Minter was pushed into theater by her mother, Charlotte Shelby, who could have been the model for the stereotype of the pushy stage parent. Shelby controlled her daughter’s career—lying about her daughter’s birth date to skirt age restrictions for actors; moving Minter, her sister, and grandmother from Louisiana first to New York and then to Hollywood; pushing her into one project after another and then collecting all the paychecks. 

Because of, or despite, her mother’s interfering hand, Minter became a popular star of both comedy and drama and the frequent subject of profiles in fan magazines. Her favorite director was a middle-aged, Oxford-educated Irishman named William Desmond Taylor. Taylor was the head of the Motion Picture Director’s Association and directed such films as Huckleberry Finn, Davy Crockett, and Anne of Green Gables—the last of which was one of Minter’s most successful pictures. He was popular and well liked, and his accent and demeanor brought a dash of educated class to an industry that was struggling to be seen as respectable. Taylor was a mentor and father figure to Minter, whose own father had split with her mother when she was still very young. She was also unabashedly in love with Taylor, and tried in vain to win his affections—until he was murdered in his bungalow under mysterious circumstances on February 1, 1922.

Although Taylor’s death is now overshadowed by the Fatty Arbuckle sex-and-murder scandal of the previous year, it was a huge scandal of its own. The newspapers were full of breathless descriptions of the crime scene, and of items supposedly recovered from Taylor’s home: pornographic pictures of famous actresses, a collection of lingerie, and a pile of love letters from the nineteen-year-old Mary Miles Minter, as well as a nightgown with the embroidered letters “M.M.M.” Minter was initially a suspect, as was her overbearing mother, who’d often fought with her about the time she spent with Taylor. Charlotte Shelby remained the favored suspect of gossip columnist Adela Rogers St. Johns and Sidney Kirkpatrick, the author of one of the main accounts of the case, A Cast of Killers (1986). There were other suspects, too—the comedian Mabel Normand, who was also rumored to be involved with Taylor; a thieving former servant; a drug dealer who might have wanted to silence him for his stance against drugs in Hollywood. (This last theory was favored by Robert Giroux, who concluded that Taylor was killed by a hit man.) There were also suggestions that executives from Paramount tampered with Taylor’s bungalow, either to remove incriminating items or to add suggestive ones, in order to cover up Taylor’s rumored homosexuality. 

The Taylor and Arbuckle scandals rocked the early film industry, prompting nationwide editorials about the immoral atmosphere in Hollywood and leading to the restrictive Hays Code. The Taylor case was especially intriguing and maddening because the ground beneath it always seemed to shift. Many of the reported facts were inconsistent and contradictory. Was there a nightgown, or wasn’t there? Were there really pornographic pictures? Was Taylor gay, or was he a ruthless predator of young women—or both? It was impossible to separate fact from fiction. This hasn’t, though, stopped people from trying. In addition to the two books I’ve already mentioned, there was also a series of thoroughly researched and detailed newsletters published between 1985 and 2000 under the title Taylorology. Despite decades of innuendoes and suspicion, the murder has never been solved, and it eventually faded from public consciousness. But not without other casualties, including Minter and Normand, whose careers were destroyed by the scandal. 

In the summer of 1999, I took a job with a nonprofit children’s service agency in Los Angeles whose headquarters was a building that people referred to—and still refer to—as “the mansion.” A 20,000-square-foot, three-story, gray brick building that stands two blocks from the site of the Ambassador Hotel, the mansion has gone through several incarnations. Originally the private home of a prominent Los Angeles family, it has also been a rooming house for a local seminary and a recovery home for soldiers. When my organization purchased it in 1951, it was converted into a residential home for unwed mothers, and then a shelter for abused and abandoned children. Since the 1990s it has been a child and family service center providing early childhood programs, mental health services, and parenting classes. But from 1921 until 1932, it was the home of Mary Miles Minter. Described in the Los Angeles Examiner as a “magnificent old colonial home with … forty rooms,” it was purchased at the height of Minter’s fame and dubbed Casa de Margarita. 

The mid-Wilshire neighborhood where the mansion is located bears little resemblance to the grand place it once was. Today it is a poverty-stricken area, home to recent immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and Korea—full of drab, overcrowded apartment buildings with burglar bars on all the windows. Holdups and gunplay occur on a depressingly regular basis. Most of the classic homes in the neighborhood were torn down to make room for apartments, but the mansion stubbornly survives. Now divided and subdivided into cubicles and work stations, classrooms and therapy rooms, its elegant origins still manage to show through. The front door opens into a cavernous entrance hall framed in dark wood, with a fireplace dominating the back wall. A grand staircase wraps around the right side of the hall and up to the second floor, where several of the larger rooms still have fireplaces, built-in bookcases, and window seats. Much of the original molding remains throughout the building. And although the top two floors are covered now by generic industrial carpeting, the bottom floor still has its original chestnut-colored hardwood. The building is U-shaped, surrounding a beautiful courtyard that still boasts a working stone fountain; this space is used occasionally for lunches and press conferences, and daily as a playground for preschool children. 

There are pictures of Minter sitting in this courtyard with her mother—looking, as she often does, wistful. There are pictures of what some of the rooms used to look like, when they were used for meals or entertaining or sleeping, rather than for parenting classes, therapy, or tutoring. Although the building bustles with people—often, in the early evening, the lobby is packed with school-aged children and their parents—there are also hours when it’s spookily quiet. Our late-night staff and graduate research students have seen and heard strange things—a doorway closing at 2:00 a.m. long after everyone else has gone home; footsteps padding down the hall; the soft sound of a voice floating out of a room that, when entered, turns out to be empty. Twice, members of the maintenance staff have been startled in the basement by the misty image of a man dressed in an old-fashioned black suit and hat, pulling keys from his pocket. At least two people have suffered injuries falling down a narrow back staircase; they’ve described a feeling of being pushed or not wanted. On one occasion I went downstairs to greet a potential donor, only to have her step into the front hallway, turn white, and declare, “This building is haunted.”

In 1999, when I started working in the mansion, I’d never seen a silent film. But when I learned the history of the building and of its famous occupant, I was enchanted. In my first few months on the job, I’d sit in my office—a tiny room, probably a closet, off of what might have been a bedroom—and imagine what the mansion had been like almost eighty years before, when Minter and her family had lived there. I especially enjoyed being there late at night, when the phones had stopped ringing and the children were gone and a heavy silence enveloped the building. What would Minter have been doing at eight or nine o’clock at night? Would she have been reading by the fireplace just outside of my office? Or would she have already retired? According to the Kirkpatrick book, Minter told police that she’d been sitting in this very house, reading with her mother and grandmother, at the time of the murder. I also learned that she had tried to shoot herself once after a fight with her mother over Taylor, and that the bullets had lodged in the wall. She had used her mother’s gun, a .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver of the type that later killed Taylor. Would the bullets still be there, and would they match? After the murder, someone had supposedly emptied this gun and hidden the extra bullets on a beam in the basement. Might those bullets still be there, too? And had the gentlemanly ghost spotted by our maintenance staff returned to the house to retrieve them? Much later, in an issue of Taylorology that corrected 175 mistakes from A Cast of Killers, I learned that Minter had actually been at the other house the family owned on the night of the murder, and realized that the suicide attempt and bullet-hiding incidents had probably happened there as well. But by this time, the details didn’t matter. The mansion had already captured me; the seed for my own fiction was already planted.

In those days, my office window looked north toward Wilshire Boulevard, one block away; to the west I could catch a glimpse of the Ambassador Hotel, which then stood abandoned and empty. Sometimes, at night, I would imagine walking out the front door and into a streetscape from 1921, with shiny Packards parked along the avenue, and strains of music coming from the Cocoanut Grove as laughing people spilled out of the Ambassador. Many of the city’s old neon signs had been re-lit around this time, and so it was easy to imagine that you were walking down Wilshire Boulevard or near what was then Westlake Park in an earlier, more glamorous era. 

It wasn’t just work that pointed me to the silent-film era. I lived then in the Fairfax District, just a block away from the Silent Movie Theater—the sole venue in the country at that time dedicated to showing only silent films. I’d walk by the theater sometimes on my way to get food or coffee and look at posters for upcoming screenings. Some of the faces were familiar, such as Chaplin and Keaton, but most I didn’t recognize. I wanted to know about them, and about the era in which they lived and worked. And I wanted to know everything I could about Mary Miles Minter, William Desmond Taylor, and the murder that had resulted in the mansion passing out of the Minter family and eventually becoming the home of the organization I worked for. 

So I started to read about the murder, and then about silent films in general. I fell in love with the outsize personalities of the era—Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, the Talmadge Sisters, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Clara Bow. I fell in love with the era itself, the directors who’d largely come from blue-collar backgrounds before working in pictures; the stories of extras being picked up off the street; the sense of newness, of possibility, that matched the energy and verve of the young city of Los Angeles itself. I’d look at places I saw every day and imagine them in that earlier time—the grand church on Wilshire, one block from the mansion, where Charlie Chaplin makes a sharp left turn in City Lights; the Hollywood Hills, where Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino rode their horses; Sunset Boulevard, which had been a dirt road. When I bought a few films that had been reproduced for VHS, I also found I loved the movies themselves—the grainy film, the actors’ expressive faces, the development of narrative through image rather than speech. I loved the way that a silent film required the viewer to participate, to fill in the spaces between the title cards, in order to give the story order and meaning.


At the time I began my new job in the mansion, I thought my writing career was over. My first novel had been published in 1997, and while it didn’t sell well, it had attracted enough good reviews and favorable attention that I was sure I’d get my second novel published. The second book was much stronger than the first; it seemed the culmination of everything I knew about writing and life, the very best that I could offer. And people agreed that the second novel was a big step up from my earlier work—but nobody wanted to publish it. My naïve optimism started to wane after the first few publishers passed; this began a string of rejections that numbered more than twenty and extended over the course of two years. During this period, I’d moved back to Los Angeles from New York, where I’d been living when the first book came out. The effect of all this was that I was now living and working in a place where no one—not co-workers, not neighbors, not even other writers—knew that I had published a book. And because I wasn’t working on anything new, there was nothing to affirm my flagging idea of myself as a novelist. As the rejections piled up and my pen remained still, I felt a sense of discouragement I couldn’t bear to acknowledge. If that second book, which I’d worked so hard on and felt so good about, couldn’t be published, then why bother to keep writing at all? And so I didn’t, not for a year, then two, and I began to suspect that I might never write again. While I felt good about my job—I liked engaging in work that has a direct, tangible effect on people—I was still nagged by the sense that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing with my life.

That was when I discovered Mary Miles Minter. That was when I started to walk around the city at night, looking up at the neon signs and imagining that it was 1921. I write novels instead of short stories because I love the commitment they entail; I love imagining stories and characters I can inhabit for years, and creating intricate, complex, all-encompassing worlds that are more exciting—or at least just different—than the real one. And Los Angeles in the teens and twenties couldn’t have been more different from my daily life. The glamour and excitement of early Hollywood could not have been more removed from the tough, urban neighborhoods where I grew up and now spent much of my working life—and also wrote about in my first two novels. And the lives of actors and directors and crew members in the silent-film era were much more fun to contemplate than my everyday life of budget meetings, grant proposals, and personnel issues. Finding the story of Minter was like finding a mysterious, colorful flower in the midst of a barren desert. For the first time in two years, I wanted to write. I knew there was something in all of this intriguing, serendipitous history with which to create a novel—but I couldn’t figure out what it was. 

Sessue Hayakawa, circa 1929. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Unexpected Star

A few months into my crash course on the silent-film era, I learned that one of the biggest stars of the time was a Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa. Debonair, elegant, and impossibly handsome, Hayakawa starred in more than eighty films. He was number one in the Chicago Tribune’s 1916 most popular actor contest, and he was especially admired by women. His looks and brooding intensity made him Famous Players–Lasky’s first choice for the starring role in The Sheik—a role he turned down, only to see Rudolph Valentino accept it and become immortal. Hayakawa garnered the praise of critics and directors alike; the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, who directed him in his breakthrough film The Cheat, later referred to him as “the peer of such contemporary bright stars as Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and Mary Pickford.”

This was a stunning discovery. I was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a white American father, and I was well aware that the United States hadn’t exactly rolled out the welcome mat for Japanese immigrants. The history of the early twentieth century in California reads like a primer in prejudice. In the first two decades of the 1900s, a series of laws were passed to restrict the rights of Japanese immigrants and US-born Japanese-Americans, who were flourishing in the state’s agriculture strongholds and were thus perceived as a tremendous economic threat to white Americans. The California Alien Land Law of 1913 restricted agricultural land leases to three years and prohibited Japanese-born residents from purchasing property in the state; Japanese and Japanese-American children were briefly banned from public schools in San Francisco; and Japanese in Los Angeles were barred from public golf courses, tennis courts, and pools. Eventually, the “Swat the Jap” campaign of the early 1920s called for the economic boycott of all things Japanese.

The economic danger posed by Japanese immigrants soon evolved into a social one. The biggest fear, of course, was miscegenation. If intermarriage occurred between Japanese and whites—specifically, if Japanese men pursued the “pure maids of California”—it would be, one commentator wrote, “a sort of international adultery.” As Robert Daniels discusses in The Politics of Prejudice (1962), one troubled white farmer testified before the state legislature about the tremendous danger posed by, essentially, the likes of me: “Near my home is an eighty-acre tract of as fine land as there is in California. On that tract lives a Japanese. With that Japanese lives a white woman. In that woman’s arms is a baby. What is that baby? It isn’t a Japanese. It isn’t white. It is a germ of the mightiest problem that ever faced this state; a problem that will make the black problem of the South look white.”

This agitation coalesced into a movement for Exclusion—an end to immigration from Japan. In 1907, under pressure from the California delegation to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt forged a “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” under which Japan would stop giving new passports to laborers but would still offer them to families of laborers already in the US—a loophole that led to the rise of the “picture brides.” While there was a break in anti-Japanese activism during World War I—in which Japan was a US ally—Exclusion efforts resumed and grew after the war was over. Organizations such as the Japanese Exclusion League of California, the Los Angeles Anti-Asiatic Association, and the Native Sons of the Golden West all pushed for more systematic measures against Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans; their efforts were supported by politicians such as Senator (and former San Francisco mayor) James Phelan, who ran for reelection on a “Keep California White” platform. This movement ultimately led to a 1922 Supreme Court decision, Ozawa v. the United States, that denied US citizenship to “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” The ruling barred anyone of Japanese descent, even those who were US born, from becoming an American citizen. The Supreme Court decision was followed in 1924 by the Immigration Act—which stopped immigration from Japan for twenty-eight years.

Through all of this, Japanese immigrants in California and their American-born children tried valiantly, sometimes pathetically, to fit in. As John Modell describes in The Economics and Politics of Racial Accommodation (1977), Japanese civic groups arranged classes so that Japanese wives could learn to cook Western fare, and encouraged farmers “not to work so hard as to cause their neighbors to criticize them.” Individual Japanese suffered all manner of indignities, including working as man-servants for condescending whites; “Jap houseboys” were popular amongst the privileged set, and many actors, including Charlie Chaplin, had them. Still, the Japanese-American community did all it could to prove its loyalty. Japanese-Americans rallied behind the United States when the country entered the First World War, and Little Tokyo was the home of a massive drive to purchase Liberty Bonds—a show of patriotism that did little to blunt the hostility that later contributed to the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Clearly, the early twentieth century was not an easy time to be Japanese in America. And yet, this was the era in which Sessue Hayakawa was a star. Hayakawa was discovered in 1913 by the producer Thomas Ince while acting in a small theater production in Little Tokyo; he’d gone to Los Angeles after attending the University of Chicago, meaning to return to his native Japan. But once he was offered a chance at the movies, Hayakawa decided to stay. Japan, in this period before World War I, had an image of cultivated refinement, and despite how actual Japanese people were treated in California, Japanese art and customs held great interest for American audiences. Hayakawa, with his beautiful looks, Japanese manner, and familiarity with American ways, was a perfect vehicle for Western fantasy. His appeal to Western audiences was distinctly exoticised. “No one knows exactly who he is,” wrote one journalist, breathlessly, in Literary Digest in 1917. “His fine patrician face gives a hint of a thousand years of aristocratic ancestry in the proud old Samurai of Japan … Everything else about him is shrouded in mystery.”

But Hayakawa wasn’t only a popular star. He was also, more remarkably, a sex symbol. During the height of his fame, women fainted in theaters where his films were shown. The opening of one of his movies at Ebbets Field caused a stampede. Theater owners in the South, distressed at the stimulating influence this man of color was having on white women, banned his movies for their perceived effect on public morals. 

Hayakawa knew exactly how to cultivate his image. He adopted Western customs—favoring Western suits, smoking cigarettes, and living with his wife, Tsuru Aoki, in a Western bungalow—while still maintaining a mysterious “Oriental” air. (In one feature for Photoplay magazine, for example, he is pictured wearing a three-piece suit—and polishing a sword.) As his fame and fortune grew, his lifestyle became increasingly lavish. He owned a custom-made Pierce-Arrow as well as several other cars, and he and his wife purchased a huge Hollywood mansion of their own, called Argyle Castle, which was the site of many large parties. Hayakawa claimed to have bought a car filled with liquor just before Prohibition, and that this was the reason for his popularity—but whatever the reason, he was a frequent and successful host. He was also a notorious womanizer with a taste for white women—perhaps, to him, the ultimate Western possession. In an era when being Japanese meant being the target of racial epithets and restrictive laws and social rejection, Hayakawa seemed to smash through barriers and transcend prejudice. 

Or did he?

Hayakawa achieved true stardom after he signed with the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company (later Famous Players–Lasky, and then Paramount) in 1915. But the kinds of roles that he was allowed to play were limited. Sometimes he was cast as a hapless comic figure. More often he was cast as a villain. In these more dramatic roles, Hayakawa was a master of understatement. Many actors in the silent era gestured wildly to compensate for the lack of sound, twisting their faces into exaggerated expressions in order to convey emotion. But Hayakawa’s movements were economical, his face often completely still. “If I want to show on the screen that I hate a man,” he said in an interview, “I do not shake my fist at him. I think down in my heart how I hate him and try not to move a muscle of my face, just as I would in life.” He channeled his characters’ anger, lust, or rage into his piercing eyes; he expressed everything he needed to with a look. Recognizing his appeal and talent, the studio began to cast him in films as the romantic male lead, although of a particular and limiting kind.

In Hayakawa’s most famous film, The Cheat (1915)—directed by Cecil B. DeMille—he plays Hishuru Tori, a Japanese art dealer who lends money to a white woman, Edith Hardy, to cover a gambling debt. Her body is understood to be collateral. When Edith, played by Fannie Ward, refuses to submit, Tori is determined to collect his debt. In a scene that is shocking to view even today, he grabs her violently, bends her over, pulls her dress down off her shoulder, and presses a hot brand to her flesh to mark her as his possession. As smoke rises from her burning skin, he takes a fistful of her hair, jerks her head back up, and throws her to the floor. 

This scene dramatized the sexuality—and brutality—that many white Americans believed were the inherent characteristics of Japanese men; it allowed white women the fantasy of an erotic encounter with a beautiful man of a different, forbidden race.

The branding scene in The Cheat may have been Hayakawa’s most explicitly violent—but the suggestion of violence was always present, lurking just beneath the surface. It reflected the belief that no matter how polished the exterior of a “yellow” man might be, underneath was brutality and chaos.

Indeed, much of Hayakawa’s success and his appeal to Western women were directly tied to this intermingling of sex and violence. As French journalist Louis Delluc wrote in Le Film in 1917:

It is not his cat-like, implacable cruelty, his mysterious brutality, his hatred of anyone who resists, or his contempt for anyone who submits… . his strangely drawn smile of childlike ferocity, not really the ferocity of a puma or jaguar … The beauty of Sessue Hayakawa is painful. Few things in the cinema reveal to us, as the lights and silence of this mask do, that there really are alone beings. I well believe that all lonely people, and they are numerous, will discover their own recourseless despair in the intimate melancholy of this savage Hayakawa.

In fact, when Hayakawa tried to play against type—when he portrayed characters who were not sufficiently violent or mysterious—he was not as well received. Variety wrote, in its review of one of his less successful films, “Had this picture shown more of the Jap Secret Service with more Japs and their devious ways, it would have been vastly more entertaining.”

In Zen Showed Me the Way, his strangely opaque autobiography, Hayakawa largely brushes off the racism of the day and the indignities he suffered. “By and large, I have never been bothered by racial prejudice; and I have never paid much attention to it,” he wrote, arguing that “Public acceptance of me in romantic roles was a blow of sorts against racial intolerance, even though I lost the girl in the last reel.”

While he may not have disavowed the roles he played, it is clear he was conflicted about them. He struggled—unsuccessfully—to have changes made in his movies to more accurately depict Japanese clothing and customs. He was acutely aware of what he was not able to do. (“Sometime, just for once,” he confessed in his autobiography, “I would like to play the hero.”) And he was disturbed by the reactions of the Japanese-American community, which was understandably unhappy with him for portraying characters that cast Japanese men in such a negative light. Hayakawa was essentially disowned by his native Japan, where he was considered a national traitor. There, his name was sometimes indicated with dashes, as if it were too shameful to print. 

Hayakawa ultimately left Famous Players–Lasky and developed his own production company, Haworth, to have more control over his movies. He became more active in speaking out against stereotypical roles. But as he slowly became more accepted—and even embraced—by Japanese-Americans and Japanese, he fell out of favor with whites. Hayakawa was constantly juggling Western expectations of what it meant to be Japanese with his own hope of defining himself. Despite efforts to demonstrate his Americanization—he even joined his friends Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin in promoting Liberty Bonds during the First World War—he and Aoki always remained “other” in Hollywood. Not fully accepted in America, unwelcome in Japan, Hayakawa lived suspended between worlds. But as much as his stereotypical roles may have bothered him, he continued to take them; losing his stardom may have bothered him more. 

Director David Lean with Sessue Hayakawa, on the set of The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Becoming Nakayama

As I learned more about Sessue Hayakawa, and found photographs of him, and watched him in The Cheat, my interest in the silent-movie era evolved into real intrigue—the kind of pressing, unsatisfied fascination that can sometimes mark the birth of a novel. What was it like, I wondered, to be so famous, so well known, in the context of a society that hated you? What was it like to star in movies screened in theaters where you were not allowed to sit with the main audience? How could someone reconcile himself to such narrow, prejudiced characterizations—portrayals that did, however, bring him fame and fortune? What does an artist of color—or any artist who is considered “other”—give up in order to achieve mainstream recognition? What was the price of such conditional stardom?

Hayakawa’s own book provided no answers to my questions, but this was actually a blessing. As a writer I was less interested in the real-life man than in the questions raised by his stardom. I realized that a Hayakawa-like character could be my entry into the story that was starting to form in my head. For all the sheer fun I had learning about Mary Miles Minter and William Desmond Taylor, I didn’t identify with them; I couldn’t picture myself, or any character I could embody, in the white world of early Hollywood. But Hayakawa’s existence gave me permission to write about a person of color, an immigrant. It let me put myself in the story. 

So I imagined a protagonist named Jun Nakayama, loosely based on Hayakawa. 

At the start of what eventually became my novel The Age of Dreaming, Nakayama is seventy-three years old, a long-forgotten star from the silent-film era who is living in obscurity in Hollywood. Prompted by the opening of the Silent Movie Theater—the same theater that, in real life, stood a block from my apartment—a young journalist finds Nakayama to interview him, and then to offer him a way back into movies. Nakayama rebuffs him at first, but his interest is piqued, his ego stroked, and despite his protestations, he is thrilled. But Nakayama also worries that if the young man digs too deeply into his past, he’ll discover the reasons for the abrupt end to his film career in 1922. These reasons include the intensifying prejudice against the Japanese, which Nakayama is loath to acknowledge—but also his possible involvement in the unsolved murder of his favorite director, a man who counts as one of his other stars a young actress named Nora Minton Niles. The story alternates between the 1960s and the silent-film era and takes on a number of broad topics: the heady beginnings of the movie industry; the optimism and energy of upstart Los Angeles; and the social and racial divisions in southern California as well as in the country as a whole. 

But despite the large backdrop against which it is set, the story ultimately centers on one flawed man. And the core of his feelings, and failings, are my own. When I assumed his voice—when I became Nakayama—I was able to explore and depict feelings of frustration, of sadness, of failure that I could never have admitted to as myself. Jun last appears in a film when he is thirty years old—the exact age I was when my own writing came to a halt. As I imagined an old man who hasn’t acted in forty years, what I was really exploring was this: What happens to someone when he stops doing what he loves? What does he become? How would I feel later on in my life if I never tried to write another book? And what if my abandonment of writing had nothing to do with a lack of ideas or bottom-line-driven publishers but was instead just a failure to persevere?

I gave Jun some of my family’s stories. When Jun, in a flashback, meets a wealthy American couple vacationing in Japan and convinces them to sponsor him to go to the US for college, he is living my mother’s story exactly. And I gave him more of my own faults and struggles. His self-destructive romantic entanglements. His failure to act decisively in the key moments of his life. His discomfort with allowing others to get too close, despite his seemingly outgoing personality. His dismay that the outside world perceives him so differently than he perceives himself. Most of all, his inability to counter his sadness and despair because he can’t bring himself to admit that it even exists.

What I found was that it was easier, much easier, to pour my own deepest feelings into a character who appeared to be vastly different from me. The mask he provided allowed me to be real; the fictional actor allowed me to be an actor, too. The protagonists of my other novels have more in common with me on the surface—two are young Japanese-American women in inner-city Los Angeles; one is a mixed-race Japanese-American who spends part of her childhood in rural Wisconsin. All of these protagonists have been assumed to be “me.” But it’s Jun Nakayama—the seventy-three-year-old Japanese man—who is really based on me. It’s this book that feels the most like autobiography.

“I am far past the age of dreaming,” Jun says near the end of the story. “I am an old man now, simply living out his days.” These words—which refer not just to the silent-film era but also to his own vanished youth—are the words of a man who has reconciled himself to failure. But they are really my words, the words of a discouraged artist, writing a cautionary tale about how I might feel if I, like Jun, gave up on my art.

Since The Age of Dreaming was published in 2008, the most passionate responses have come from people over fifty, who seem particularly receptive to the book’s themes of regret, aging, lost love, and wasted opportunities. And there’s a special subset of male readers over sixty-five who identify deeply with Jun. One of them reported that he loved the book because “it sounded like me talking.” Apparently it really does sound like the voice of an older man—in the announcement of one of the first events I did for the book, the host organization described it as a memoir. 

The Players

Mary Miles Minter and Sessue Hayakawa were stars in the same era, but it’s not clear if they knew one another. They never appeared in a film together, and their social circles—to the extent that Minter was allowed to have a social life by her mother—were different. It’s likely they had at least a passing acquaintance, but if they did, I could find no record of it. Many of the records I did find were fragmented and inconsistent, contradictory and even illogical. Although I created my fiction from fact, so much of stated fact was clearly fiction. 

This was true even of the real-life inspirations, all of whom had assumed names, and some of whom had false stories of origin. Mary Miles Minter was really Juliet Reilly; her mother had her assume the name of a dead older cousin so she’d be old enough to meet minimum-age requirements for appearing in theater. Charlotte Shelby herself was born Lily Pearl Miles; she changed her name after divorcing Mary’s father. Sessue Hayakawa was born Kintaro Hayakawa, the son of a wealthy fisher-man. And William Desmond Taylor (it was revealed after his death) was really William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, better known as Pete. Taylor, or Deane-Tanner, had come from humble beginnings and had not, as he’d claimed, attended Oxford. Instead, he’d worked in Brooklyn as an antique furniture dealer until he abandoned his wife and child; his wife didn’t know what had become of him until she saw him, years later, in a movie. Taylor became a director, it was said, because he wasn’t particularly talented as an actor. Apparently he was more convincing than people realized.

Sessue Hayakawa worked in movies and television for another forty years. While my character, Jun Nakayama, stopped acting altogether in 1922, Hayakawa merely suffered a slowdown. The growing prominence of Japan as a world power and the more restrictive anti-Japanese laws in California caused him to fall out of favor in Hollywood. He left the US in 1922, traveled to Japan, Europe, and then back to the US, where he returned briefly in the late twenties and early thirties to appear in a few unsuccessful talkies. Eventually he settled in France, where he always remained popular. He might have stayed and made movies in Europe indefinitely if Humphrey Bogart hadn’t enticed him back in 1949 to appear in Tokyo Joe. 

And so began the second act of Hayakawa’s career in Hollywood. Middle-aged now, heavier, and no longer handsome, Hayakawa appeared in about a dozen Hollywood movies (and a handful of Japanese films) between the 1950s and 1970s, including the role for which he is best remembered today: Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which earned him an Oscar nomination. It is almost impossible to reconcile the thick, stern man of that movie with the handsome movie idol of the 1920s. In fact, many viewers of the day—and even journalists—had no idea of his earlier career. It wasn’t simply that my fictionalized Jun, who stopped acting at thirty, wasn’t Haya-kawa. Hayakawa wasn’t even Hayakawa.

After the filming of Tokyo Joe in 1949, Haya-kawa moved back to Japan and became a Zen Buddhist priest. He returned to the United States occasionally to work, but he made his home in Japan with his wife and three children and dedicated himself to religious study. One wonders how he reconciled his former flashy, luxury-loving ways with the humble tenets of Zen Buddhism. But Hayakawa was, if anything, a master of contradiction.

Mary Miles Minter’s life had a longer and sadder denouement. After the death of William Desmond Taylor, she retired from film. She owed Paramount two more pictures, but—depending on which version of events you believe—the studio either bought her contract out or simply let it expire. Either way, she never worked in movies again. For years she and her family were entangled in legal battles. As soon as Minter turned twenty-one, she sued her mother over her earnings, which Charlotte Shelby had controlled while she was a minor. Her sister Margaret battled with their mother as well, over everything from her choice of husband to whether Shelby owed Margaret money for protecting her during the inquiry into the Taylor murder. But the family had made enough savvy investments that—despite having to sell Casa de Margarita at auction in 1932—they were never destitute. Apparently Minter and her mother reconciled, for they lived together in a modest Santa Monica house until 1957, when Shelby died. Minter did eventually marry—after her mother died—and she and her husband invested in real estate and other business ventures until his death in 1965. After that, she lived alone for almost twenty years. Most of her neighbors had no idea that she had once been a famous actress. Her home was robbed several times—including once when the burglars left her badly beaten. She died in 1984, at eighty-two. Minter continued to give interviews late in her life—about her career, the unsolved murder, and her family. She loved William Desmond Taylor until the end.

Full Circle

I no longer work in the mansion. In early 2011, my agency opened a new campus, and I moved into it along with 130 of my colleagues. I go to the old mansion occasionally—we still run programs there—and see how much the neighborhood has changed. The Ambassador was purchased by the Los Angeles Unified School District, and now, on the former site of the grand old hotel, there is an elementary school, a middle school, a high school; kids from these schools walk two blocks to the mansion for after-school activities and counseling. I love our new campus—its open spaces, its light and color, its modern conveniences. The planning and development of this campus took up much of my working life for the last five years, and I’m immensely proud of what it’s brought to the local community; of its green building practices, its architectural awards. But it lacks the mystery and grandeur of the old place. It has no ghosts. 

The ghosts of Mary Miles Minter, William Desmond Taylor, and Sessue Hayakawa, though, still linger. More silent films have been found or restored in recent years, and snippets of Minter’s films, and Hayakawa’s, are now on YouTube. I also discovered an audiotaped interview of Minter from 1970. In it, describing the morning she went to Taylor’s bungalow upon hearing of his death, she insists with a passion unmuted by time, “I claim this man. He belongs to me!” 

I’m glad these resources weren’t readily available when I was working on my book. The things one doesn’t know—that one has to imagine—are a crucial part of invention. Minter’s story, by itself, did not touch something in me that needed to be expressed or exorcised. Neither, by itself, did Hayakawa’s. But by taking parts of both their stories while leaving whole swaths of them out, and adding elements from my life, I was able to create characters who became utterly different creatures; characters who, unlike their real-life inspirations, were deeply entwined in each other’s lives—as well as a story that was distinctly my own. 

In the year or so after my novel was published, odd links between my job and my book kept appearing, little postcards from the past, as if the silent-film era wasn’t quite done with me. 

My organization, like most nonprofits, works to raise private funds, and in this effort we are helped greatly by the support of several women’s auxiliary groups. One of them has been with us since 1950. Each year, this group hosts a gala luncheon as its primary fundraiser, where it honors luminaries of politics and show business. Audrey Hepburn was once an honoree, as was James Stewart and, more recently, Nancy Reagan. One afternoon a colleague brought me something she’d just uncovered from storage in the haunted basement: a slightly bent, baby-blue program for the 1951 event, with a dark blue cloth ribbon attached to the front. Turning it over, I read the names of the planning committee members. One of them was Cecil B. DeMille.

The chairman of our board of directors is a partner at O’Melveny & Myers, one of the city’s most respected law firms. Because our board meets at O’Melveny and because we do other business there, I drive to their Century City office three or four times a month. After my book was already finished, I found an article in a local library about the auction of Minter’s Casa de Margarita house. And who had handled the transaction in 1932? The O’Melveny firm. 

About six months after my book was published, I attended an elegant party at the home of one of our board members. The host brought a short, thick, kind-looking man over and said, “Nina, let me introduce you to Walter Grauman.” As the man shook my hand and told me how much he’d enjoyed my book, I was struck by two jarring realizations: that he must have been related to the Graumans for whom the famous Chinese theater is named, and that I had misidentified it as Mann’s Chinese Theatre in my novel. (The theater was known as Mann’s Chinese Theatre for nearly thirty years—but not in 1964, the “present” of my novel.) It turned out that he was indeed a member of the same Grauman family, and I was mortified by my error. The evening became even more surreal when he said, “You know, I once directed Hayakawa.”

Grauman, as I soon learned, is a producer and director of television and film, and among the dozens of tv shows he has worked on was an early 1960s road drama called Route 66. Ha-yakawa made a guest appearance on the show in the fall of 1963. His English, Grauman reported, was not as strong as it had been. But he was still a compelling actor and still, apparently, in his seventies, a tireless pursuer of female company. Spotting an attractive young woman who was working as part of the crew, the old man turned to his director and asked if she was available for hire.

And so, the real-life Hayakawa introduced himself to me in this amusing, unflattering way. Fact had been the basis for fiction, and fiction took me into a world where I was once again confronted with fact. It had been my job—the physical location of it—that had led to the birth of my story, and now, at this function related to work, it felt like things had come full circle.

Grauman’s story also underlined how different Sessue was from Jun. Jun, after all his misadventures with women, eventually rights himself. And despite the failures of his career, he ultimately has a chance for redemption. Jun never fully comes to terms with his lost years and squandered opportunities, but he is dignified—a gentleman—to the end. 

If Jun Nakayama isn’t Sessue Hayakawa, it turns out that he isn’t really me, either. Looking back at my artistic crisis of a decade ago, it seems a bit silly now. The second novel I despaired of ever seeing in print was eventually published, and I’ve published two more novels since then. Today, I am again between books, and coping with the same struggles and uncertainties, the same lapses of faith, that I’ve now learned are simply part of the process. I am living in that in-between moment where I’m not sure that I can pull it off again, but it doesn’t cause the panic it once did. And yet I’m glad for that earlier panic, the utter certainty that—at age thirty—my artistic life was over. That despair eventually became the impetus for my novel, the one I think of as my most autobiographical. 

James Baldwin wrote that, for a writer, the world sometimes seems like “nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent”—and much of the time this is true. But the world also offers gifts, if one is lucky, and willing to see them: the perfect piece of overheard dialogue, the precise and timely image. The mansion full of ghosts. Now, in my early forties, life is bigger and busier, and it’s more challenging than ever to write. But unlike Jun, I’ve managed to persevere. One of the unexpected results of my foray into the silent-film world was the satisfaction of facing discouragement and failure—and coming out the other side. I feel a stubborn, hard-earned optimism that eluded me in my thirties, and on good days, deep fulfillment, even joy. Squarely in middle age now, I’m writing with renewed energy, excited by the knowledge that I have more stories to tell. Over ten years after I thought I was done, I’ve rediscovered my capacity to dream. 


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