In 1945, in the dust of the desert on the site of the future Flamingo hotel, an eight-year-old girl sings and dances to a show tune from Oklahoma! for mobster Benny “Bugsy” Siegel. And so the stage is set for the story of Esme Wells, who, as the title of Adrienne Sharp’s latest novel states, is nothing if not magnificent.
Esme is intuitive, even at this young age, and realizes homespun is not Siegel’s vision for the future town of Las Vegas. He’s thinking glamour. World War II is over and, as Siegel sees it, “every GI and his wife was going to be looking for fun and adventure.” The chapter closes with the narrative voice that promises a story and will carry the book: “By the time Las Vegas was finished with me, I would be exactly what [Siegel] and everybody else wanted.”
The Magnificent Esme Wells was one of the first books executive editor Sara Nelson bought when she came to HarperCollins in July 2016. Nelson, too, was seduced by the opening: “ I fell in love with the book from this first scene, as the little girl dances for Siegel,” she tells me.
Nelson remembered Sharp’s work from a previous novel, The True Memoirs of Little K, about a ballet dancer who recalls her affair with Czarevitch Nicholas and her life during the last years of the reign of the Romanovs. Nelson, who was then at Oprah magazine, made Little K that month’s lead review.
So when literary agent Gail Hochman sent over Sharp’s new book, the story of a young girl growing up in the heyday of old Hollywood and the beginnings of Las Vegas, with movie stars and mobsters and the excitement of a seminal era, Nelson was definitely interested. She made the purchase in early fall 2016, when she was barely settled in at HarperCollins (galleys will go out the end of this month; pub date is Apr. 10, 2018).
“When I got the manuscript, I read 100 pages in one gulp and knew—the same way a reader knows—that I had to have more,” Nelson says. “I felt that Esme’s voice was as seductive as Little K’s: wise, mordant, and world-weary, even though Little K was in her 90s and Esme is barely out of her teens.”
Hochman had a similar experience with Esme. She tells me about taking half the manuscript away for the weekend (“I’m always carting manuscript pages—we all are”) and being frantic at midnight when she’d torn through the pages she had. With no internet, she says, “I couldn’t get to the rest until I was back in the city!”
Nelson and I have a long history. We met in the offices of Top Cops, a TV show one of our more clever colleagues called “Kabuki television,” but we bonded early on over books, reading them, reviewing them. Nelson’s had many incarnations in the industry since then. Though this is her first as a book editor, she’s always been passionate about books, and I trust her judgment—although we don’t always share the same taste.
With The Magnificent Esme Wells our reactions line up. We’ve all read those glowing editor letters—“I couldn’t put it down; I stayed up all night reading.” But for this book, for me, it’s accurate. Esme, as Nelson says, has all the elements: it’s a tender coming-of-age story, it’s got a great setting, great characters, great prose (“No one went to bed until the sun had bleached the neon to a pathetic pallor”), but basically it’s about relationships.
The story moves back and forth in time and place. There’s Los Angeles in the late 1930s, with Esme the observant narrator of her childhood. Her father, Ike, is a gambler and small-time bookie who falls in with mobster Mickey Cohen and later Siegel; her mother has movie star aspirations, dances in Busby Berkeley musicals, and takes to her bed when Ike pawns her diamond ring to pay the rent.
They’re dreamers, Esme’s folks, and she grows up at race tracks and on studio lots. Her mother’s shot at stardom is a screen test (won after an afternoon with movie star Robert Taylor), and when it doesn’t pan out, she gives up, until Ike, by now connected to Cohen and part of his muscle against Nazi meetings in L.A., comes through with a big diamond ring and a solo act in a local nightclub.
Tragedy and hope bring Esme and Ike to Vegas and into Siegel’s orbit. Savvy for her age, Esme can sum up situations, and she understands where she fits into the equation. In her first meeting with Siegel’s girlfriend, Virginia Hill, she’s aware that she’s inciting jealousy: “I found Virginia’s face two inches from mine, that block jaw of hers wide as a wall, her black painted eyebrows jammed together like an automobile accident.”
Esme starts her career at the Flamingo Hotel as an underage cigarette girl, becomes a showgirl at 15, and catches the eye of Nate Stein, a 50-year-old gangster and Vegas player. Stein moves, Esme tells us, “as if he were wearing a mink coat.... The man had a pinkie ring on his left hand and a cigarette in his right, and he transferred the one to the other as he approached and that’s how I knew he was going to touch me for the first time.”
After Siegel is murdered, Esme convinces her father to stay in Vegas, and, thanks to Stein, her life is sweet. But still she experiences rejection, channeling her mother, when she auditions as a showgirl: “It’s never easy, that rejection. It’s so personal. You. Your face, your body, I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. Get off my stage. Cow.”
Esme takes charge in the Vegas sections, and the plot careens into a follow-the-money mystery as the suspense builds. She becomes her father’s protector; he fears her associations but she does what she has to do. She’s headlining in a burlesque show but she’s not fooling herself. “I was... a stage show vulgarity in a satin dress and glass jewels,” she says.
Mob stories are reliably intriguing, and The Magnificent Esme Wells has historical and fictional mobsters, along with Hollywood stars and powerhouses, and the bond between a father and a daughter (Paper Moon comes to mind). Sharp sees her novel as a family story. I see that as well, but what I love most is this young woman who makes the world bend to her will. She’s street-smart and tough but vulnerable. As she sums herself up at one point: “If nothing else, I was used to slippery indefinable untrustworthy older men.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer said of The True Memoirs of Little K: “Sharp has taken equal parts truth and conjecture and put spinning at the center of her story a charming, willful, and, at times, unreliable narrator.” In The Magnificent Esme Wells, Sharp has created another memorable character in another unforgettable era.