Excerpt: All the World’s a Wonder by Melia McClure

Author Bio:

Melia McClure is the author of the novels All the World’s a Wonder and The Delphi Room. After a childhood spent dancing and acting, she has been seen on film, television, and the stage of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Favourite acting memories include a turn as Juliet in an abridged collage of Shakespeare’s classic and a role in the much-loved TV series Stargate Atlantis. Film and theatre along with visual art are the three muses that inspire her writing. They kindle her fascination with the book-to-film metamorphosis. Her fiction is a confluence of magic realism, black humour, and abnormal psychology, opening unexpected backroads to elements of the metaphysical. Melia is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where she was born. She now resides in Europe.  

About the Book:

A playwright possessed by her muses. An actress desperate to succeed. A doctor haunted by lost love.

Three people cross time and space to meet through the playwright’s bizarre creative process: to create, she must become her characters; to tell her tragic story, the actress must speak from the grave; to heal his harrowing past, the doctor must surrender to his patient—the playwright.

Set in the surreal landscape of the playwright’s modern Manhattan, the glittering, treacherous Broadway of the insatiable Jazz Age, and the tranquil, spice-scented escape of a Grecian paradise, All the World’s a Wonder explores the nature and cost of creating art, the devastating persistence of love, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

July 26, 1925

Ronny and Benny were here until a moment ago. They brought two cases of bootleg, so Robert and I are set for a short while. Speakeasies are fun and all, but one must have one’s own supply. Robert pays Stan, the elevator operator, some extra dough to let the boys up without asking questions. Robert always gets what he wants. Including me.

What a delight to have music! Robert bought me a Radiola Grand. Guess how much it cost, precisely? Three hundred and fifty clams. I’d never seen so much money. I’m sure he saw my saucer eyes.

“Sure, it’s an orchid, but what’s a pretty dame without pretty music?” he said as he handed over the cabbage. I feel I am living in a dream, and I hope I die before I wake.     

My favourite song du jour (I’m ashamed of how little schoolgirl French I’ve retained. I dare say the language of love is a far more hotsy-totsy tongue than la langue anglaise.) is “Down Hearted Blues,” as sung by Bessie Smith. Strange that such a blue song would captivate me when I am so wondrously happy.

Robert’s fingernails are always clean. A funny thing to love about a man, perhaps. Clean fingernails make me feel safe.

Shall I have a drop of giggle water before Robert arrives? He always visits on Sundays because his fish-eating wife spends the entire day at church. Religion can be charitable in unexpected ways.

Am I very bad, do you think? Should I be sorry? Robert says don’t ask the question if you don’t want the answer. He has been very lonely, I believe. His wife is cold. A cold wife, I imagine, could drive a man to do all sorts of drastic things. I confess I quite adore being one of his drastic things. If ever a choice must be made, better to burn out in a flash than die of boredom. Life is a play, after all, and who wants to watch a boring play?

Speaking of which, I have news of my speaking role. Oh, wait, let me pour that drop and splash around a bit while I write. Splashing and writing help distract me from this cruel swelter. God, New York City in the deep of summer smells like a trash heap.

I’m back, glass in hand. Golly, it has been too, too long since I’ve written. So very much has happened. Now about my speaking role—I don’t have one. Robert decided to give that play the hook when the temperamental leading man up and quit. I begged him to recast the role. He wouldn’t hear of it. The man is nothing if not uncompromising. You might think I should sound more devastated, but—BUT—I do indeed have a job. Soon I’ll be a Ziegfeld girl at the New Amsterdam, parading up and down flights of stairs for seventy-five dollars a week. Robert pulled the strings for me—I’m to replace a girl who’s in the family way. He arranged a meeting with Mr. Flo Ziegfeld Jr. himself, who is as charming and imposing as I imagined him to be. Mr. Ziegfeld gave me the once-over and proclaimed me “as lovely as can be.” I didn’t get to show him my acting talent, but a girl has to start somewhere. And really, this somewhere is pretty damn far up the ladder. Mr. Ziegfeld makes stars as fast as the heavens. I may be winking from the sky in no time.

The show just opened. I’ll get to strut my stuff all through the summer. It’s an enormous stroke of luck, really it is. Though I should have liked to have got in on my own merits. It’s damn hard in this town. That I got a walk-on part at my first audition is nothing less than the Eighth Wonder of the World. I would like to hold out for serious stage plays, not cheapen myself by parading around dressed as a bird. And since I’ve let Robert install me here on West Fifty-Seventh Street, perhaps it is silly to bother wanting my own seventy-five dollars a week. But I do. I came to New York to be an actress, not a concubine.

“Of course the Follies’d snatch you up. Look at that porcelain puss. But that’s not acting, it’s being a mannequin for pennies. I only pulled the strings to shut you up. I should never have wilted.” Robert ran a hand through his hair. It’s grey, his hair. He’s not bald, at least.

“I want to be on the stage. This is my first year in New York and I don’t want to stay in the shadows waiting for my big break.”

“You’re not in the shadows, you’re living a damned lucky life. That walk-on I cast you for? Tallulah Bankhead played that part, her first time out back in ’18. And now look at her, London loves her. Look at this apartment. How many actresses live in a place like so from day one in this crazy circus town? Huh? Answer me!” 

His face was turning red then, and I backed away. I pulled my new kimono tight around me. Silk, with butterflies.

 I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. No, that isn’t true. I knew what to say, I was just too scared to say it.

I fled into the bedroom, Robert in hot pursuit. He’s got a temper like Papa, and longer arms. Lucky I’m a damn fast runner with a talent for giving men the slip. That’s my father’s legacy and I’m not sure whether to thank him or curse him.

I launched myself onto the bed and rolled off, quick as a cat. Robert stood in the doorway, flushed and glaring.

“My old lady does whatever the hell I say,” he spat, a vein in his temple doing a spastic dance.

“I ain’t your old lady. If she’s what you want, then go home. I’ll find someplace else to live.”

“Don’t say ain’t, you sound like a damn rube.”

“Ain’t. Ain’t ain’t ain’t ain’t ain’t ain’t—”

In a flash he grabbed me by the shoulders, threw me against the wall. He was breathing hard. I held his eyes—I can beat anybody in a staring contest. My heart was coming out of my chest like a fist.

“Damn you little—”

And damn if he didn’t stick his tongue down my throat. Deep down, he’s a soft touch. Weak in the knees, at least for me. Being in love is the most wonderful, useful thing that has ever happened to me.

I think I’ll have a little drink to that. 

Giggle juice makes such a pleasant splash. Robert is late, but I don’t mind. I am happy writing and sipping and looking around at my little piece of heaven on West Fifty-Seventh Street. The walls of the smoking room—I have a smoking room!—are the most exquisite shade of turquoise, as though I am living in a tropical sea. As of three days ago, I have the most glorious silver evening gown to complement my walls. Or rather, the walls complement me, a lithe slip of metallic against the blue blueness and green greenness. Last night I stood all alone in my dress, sipping away, feeling quite the bee’s knees. I was part of the décor come to life. Never in my wildest imaginings.

And then I was frightened, so terribly, terribly frightened. Because I heard Papa’s voice, as I often do when I am alone. I thought of his last words, the last words he spoke to me before I left him forever.

“You’re just another dumb Dora with stars in her eyes. An actress? You think you’re tough enough for the world, all five feet two, eyes of blue. But remember: the world eats the pretty ones for breakfast.”