Unbeknownst to her father, a small blonde Jewish child has hidden in the backseat of his Cadillac while he drives to a clandestine meeting of Nazi supporters at the Deutsche Haus in Los Angeles. It’s 1939, the dawn of World War II. The intention of her father, and mobsters such as Mickey Cohen, is to storm the meeting and beat the crap out of everyone in attendance—men and women who hate Jews and are devoted to Hitler. When the little girl walks into the meeting, she is mistaken for an Aryan and brought up on stage to wild cheers, introduced as the perfect example of a future Hitler Youth. She is seven years old.
Meet Esme Wells, the central character of Adrienne Sharp’s novel, The Magnificent Esme Wells (Harper, Mar. 2018). She’s the child of a beautiful, narcissistic mother, Dina, who dreams of movie stardom in the heyday of old Hollywood, and Ike, a hapless, unlucky gambler of a father who bets at the track daily and gets involved with the gangsters of the era. As Sharp writes of Esme, she is “a slip of a girl, a pickpocket, an urchin, a sound stage rat, used to gliding unnoticed around the backlot and the grandstand” where her troubled mother works as a dancer in Busby Berkeley musicals.
When Dina is admitted to a mental hospital for a few months, Esme is abandoned at an orphanage. Her father returns for her when Dina comes home, but the family continues to crumble. Not for the first time, Ike pawns his wife’s wedding ring as they are evicted from their house, all their furnishings left in the front yard.
As a teenager, Esme moves to midcentury Las Vegas—which is starting to turn from a sleepy desert town to the gambling and entertainment mecca it is today—with her father. Before she turns 21, she becomes a headlining showgirl and the mistress of a wealthy mobster.
Sharp, 60, is the author of The True Memoirs of Little K (FSG), which was named one of Oprah’s Book Club’s 10 Fantastic Books in 2010. She says she didn’t have to look far to find the basic premise of the novel: “This is really my mom’s story, with a twist. She grew up in Jewish Baltimore, and her dad was a gambler at the Pimlico race track. He was a very handsome, charismatic guy. My maternal grandmother was a beautiful wannabe flapper. They met, married quickly, and had a baby girl who was my mother.”
Sharp’s grandfather stole a check out of a mailbox and was sent to prison; on his release, Sharp’s grandmother was waiting for him. “They moved to L.A. and followed the [horse-racing] tracks so he could continue to gamble,” Sharp says. “For quite some time, they moved back and forth from coast to coast. Eventually my mother became an impediment because she had to go to school, and my grandparents wanted the freedom to gamble when they liked. They left her in an orphanage.”
Fortunately, some of Sharp’s aunts and uncles removed her from the orphanage and raised her in a stable, loving home in Baltimore. “But there was another child—a little boy, my uncle—and they traveled with him all around the West Coast,” she says. “He never went to school.”
Sharp’s uncle, who hawked his father’s tip sheets at the gates of the tracks, was finally able to escape his narcissistic parents by joining the Army. “So my uncle and mom kind of melded together into this character, Esme, who was dragged around by her parents and was scrappy and inventive,” Sharp says. She adds: “Esme was a boy and the story was told from the third person [in early drafts]. I rewrote the book a number of times—more than the usual amount. Esme took me five or six years to write. I had to realize there was so much potential in Esme as a woman, so much to explore.”
Sharp wasn’t intending to place most of the story in Las Vegas, either, but the original Flamingo hotel there plays a primary role in The Magnificent Esme Wells. Sharp and her husband, Todd Sharp, a reality TV writer and producer, first went to Las Vegas with his family when they were grad students in the mid-1980s. “We stayed at the Flamingo in a room that hadn’t been refurbished yet,” she says. “It had two beds and a nightstand, and one of those 1950s lamps. That wing must have been a remnant, because Las Vegas hotels don’t look like that anymore. I loved the way the city was back in the day.”
Sharp’s meticulous research gives the novel authenticity. She captures the design and atmosphere of 1950s Las Vegas down to the plastic ashtrays, the slot machines that took tokens, and the characters in the casinos. Sharp’s descriptions of the wildly popular showgirls of the era, who strutted and danced at all the hotels in Las Vegas as opening acts, are spot-on—from the bejeweled and beaded costumes that hid the women’s breasts before nudity was allowed to their bright red spike heels and beautifully styled hair.
The novel also captures how Esme is shaped by her experience. “She could have turned out to be such a lost, timid person,” Sharp says. “But she didn’t. Her family is always scrambling, but Esme has so much integrity. She believes in herself and is watchful; she learns from what she sees.”
With parents so distracted that Esme isn’t bathed regularly and goes hungry more often than not because they forget to feed her, somehow she learns to seize opportunities and build a life for herself in Las Vegas. “Esme uses her beauty and her brains to benefit herself,” Sharp says. “She has the ability to make people want to take care of her—there’s a certain vulnerability people pick up on. There’s a hole in her soul, but it’s filled with her father’s genuine love for her.”
Sharp’s mother and brother tracked her grandparents down some years ago. Her grandfather had already died, but the grandmother was living in a nursing home. They went to visit her, but dementia had set in and she didn’t really know who they were.
“I didn’t go see my grandmother in the home because I was still so furious over the pain she caused my mom, over which she had no regrets, no empathy,” Sharp says. “Something was broken in her. She never cared what happened to my mother.”
Still, Sharp’s mother, who, she says, “turned out fine,” always had the desire to be loved by them regardless of what her parents did to her. There is a thread of abandonment in her life, as there is in Esme’s, but neither of them ever stops loving and forgiving the people who hurt them the most. There is something magnificent about this indeed.