Last month, IU Press published a fascinating book. It is called Love and Loss in Hollywood: Florence Deshon, Max Eastman, and Charlie Chaplin, edited by Cooper C. Graham and Christoph Irmscher, Provost Professor of English and Director of the Wells Scholars Program at Indiana University. Aside from a few minor/undated items, the book contains every letter and telegram sent between Florence Deshon, a brilliant and beautiful actor, and Max Eastman, a poet and editor of the radical magazines The Masses and The Liberator, from the beginning of their relationship in 1917 to shortly before her death at the age of 28 (possibly by suicide) in 1922.
Graham, a film historian and retired film curator at the Library of Congress, explained to me in an interview conducted over email why displaying the totality of their correspondence, which resides in the Lilly Library as a part of the Deshon manuscripts, was a unique opportunity: “It is very rare to be able to read both sides of a correspondence, and so gain as many insights into two complex and interesting characters such as Max and Florence. Such an opportunity should never be thrown away lightly.”
Graham went on to note that, “If the correspondence had been three times as long, perhaps edits would have been necessary. Since Max’s and Florence’s correspondence was [for] — tragically — only about four years, editing was not necessary.”
As befitting a book dominated by two different points of view, Graham and Irmscher have different accounts of how they came to collaborate. Cooper said that he assumed that Irmscher contacted him about collaborating because of his knowledge of the political and cultural history of the United States in the years leading up to and following World War I. But Irmscher — who transcribed Deshon and Eastman’s correspondence during his research for his previous book, Max Eastman: A Life — recalled that Graham “had helped me obtain a copy of Dollars and Sense [one of Deshon’s films] and, the way I recall it, suggested that I should do a separate book on Deshon, and I then said that I wasn’t ready to undertake such a project on my own,” leading to their collaboration. They worked on the book from November 2017 until publication.
The correspondence between Deshon and Eastman is fascinating. Their letters are by turns joyful and heartbreaking, witty and mundane. They include everything from an immersive account of Eastman’s harrowing, narrow escape from a violent group of people who intended to lynch him to Deshon’s exuberant description of a day she spent flying in a plane (in a letter that is one of Irmscher’s favorites). The correspondence is a dramatic look into the melancholy dissolution of a once passionate relationship, but it is also an entertaining window into the minds of two interesting people.
The most famous person in the book — Charlie Chaplin — is also the most elusive. He was a close friend of Eastman’s but began an affair with Deshon after Eastman introduced them. Unlike the verbose Eastman, Chaplin never wrote to Deshon. Graham notes that, without Eastman’s memoirs, “there would be precious little to show that Chaplin inhabited the same universe as Florence.” But traces of their relationship do exist — most prominently in the Max Eastman Collection at the New York Public Library — and Chaplin never denied having an affair with her.
In addition to presenting their correspondence, Graham and Irmscher include commentary that provides a clearer narrative of Deshon and Eastman’s relationship in addition to putting it into its proper historical context. They also provide descriptions of interesting things about the physical letters Deshon and Eastman sent each other. These facts range from whether they wrote the letters in pencil or ink to what kind of stationary Deshon and Eastman used. Most poignantly, Graham and Irmscher note that an older Eastman, when cataloguing the correspondence he had taken from Deshon’s apartment after her untimely death, marked several of the envelopes that contained Deshon’s moving love letters to him as “special.”
While Chaplin and Eastman continue to be well known, Deshon’s legacy has not enjoyed a similar degree of fame. This is not due to a lack of talent — Graham noted that Dehson “had that certain charm and style that the really great stars had” — but the majority of the films that she made during the Silent Era have become lost. For example, she had a role in the silent film The Auction Block (1917) that Graham called “Shakespearean in intensity if not poetry,” but the only thing that survives of her performance are film stills that show her to look “as dangerous as a cobra.”
After praising Deshon’s qualities as an actor, Graham noted that he hoped Love and Loss in Hollywood would lead to the discovery of more of her films. But this book marks a great addition to Deshon’s legacy in a different way that would probably have pleased her. Graham and Irmscher note in their introduction that Deshon always wanted to be an author, but never had the chance to write a book. Deshon herself expressed that desire in her correspondence with Eastman. Now, a little under a century after her death, people will finally be able to read a book that contains not only Deshon’s letters, but two short poems that she wrote (the lyrical “The Scare-crow” and the feminist “Susan B. Anthony”) as well as a short story satirizing the film industry called “A Great Art” which Moving Picture World published in the month of her death. This book will ensure that her unforgettable voice will do for contemporary people and generations to come what Eastman once told her she did in her own lifetime: “Enrich the world.”
Love and Loss in Hollywood: Florence Deshon, Max Eastman, and Charlie Chaplin is available now from IU Press.
Many thanks to IU Press, Cooper C. Graham, and Christoph Irmscher!
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.