Big Red: A Novel Starring Rita Hayworth & Orson Welles

Jerome Charyn. Liveright, $28 (256p) ISBN 978-1-324-09133-2

Charyn (The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King) plausibly recreates another chapter in American history in this affecting and searing portrait of Silver Screen superstars Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles. Rusty Redburn, “an actress who couldn’t act, a dancer who couldn’t dance, a singer who couldn’t sing,” struggles to make ends meet in Los Angeles. She takes a job in the publicity department of Columbia Pictures, tasked with digging up dirt on directors and actors, including those employed by the studio. Her adeptness in the role leads studio head Harry Cohn to plant her in the household of Hayworth and Welles to spy on them while working as their secretary. Redburn finds the assignment challenging, especially after she becomes aware of the shy, insecure personality Hayworth’s assured exterior conceals. She sympathizes more and more with her quarry as she learns of Hayworth’s past as a victim of abuse by Hayworth’s own father and of her desire to improve herself intellectually to be a better match for Welles. Charyn offers rapid-fire dialogue and slapstick action (“So it’s a bit of blackmail,” Orson says at one point, “lunging” at an adversary though he “wasn’t much of a gladiator with his big flat feet”) along with affecting character development. It’s a rewarding paean to some of cinema’s greats. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt, Inc. (Aug.)