Dreams, Fairies, and Silent Hollywood: A Q&A with Kathleen Rooney, author of ‘From Dust to Stardust’

Interview by Meredith Boe

For more than a century, movies have inspired us to expand our imaginations and connect with arguably the most captivating visual art form. While Hollywood was and is full of disappointment, it became the mecca for young hopefuls, looking to become transcendent. A dreamland sitting at the end of a dull, prude, and pious country.

Colleen Moore was one such teenager with stars and fairies in her eyes. She struck gold, becoming one of the silent film era’s first sweethearts. But she eventually left show business for a much humbler pursuit—building a fairy castle full of miniatures and touring it around America during the Great Depression for charity. The castle now rests in the Museum of Science and Industry on Chicago’s south side, where author Kathleen Rooney first encountered it as a child. 

The inspiration for A Star Is Born, author of a book of financial tips for women, and one of the world’s most famous flappers, Colleen Moore left a legacy that flourishes in Rooney’s new novel, From Dust to Stardust. The book, full of hope, is an elegantly told fictionalized version of her life, under the new name Doreen O’Dare. I had the privilege of sitting down with Rooney to talk about some of the book’s most powerful themes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You explain how you first encountered Colleen Moore’s fairy castle as a child in your Author’s Note. But can you talk more about why her, and why this story?

I saw the castle when I was eight years old, and I think any kid who sees it will be smitten. I grew up watching Mr. Rogers, and he always said, let’s not just learn about glasses, but let’s learn about the people who made the glasses. And he would take you to see the lens grinder and everything. The first time I saw the castle, I thought, “Who made that?” The museum at the time had all this text and additional overlay of artifacts explaining who Colleen Moore was. All the way back then, I was taken by this person who I think had enough superficial similarities to me—she was close to her grandmother, she was Irish Catholic, she was raised with a real sense of wanting to be an artist but with a sense of duty to the bigger world, and she had that childlike wonder. 

You have to be somebody who’s very in touch with magic and enchantment to undertake a project like a one-ton miniature portable fairy castle that you’re going to tour around to help people during the Great Depression. In 2016, when things felt very dark, the national mood felt so low. I was thinking about Colleen, and how she, in the face of the Great Depression, wanted to tour her fairy castle. On the one hand, it seems completely silly, and on the other hand, it’s completely brilliant. And I think you can’t have one without the other—every brilliant idea has a little silliness to it. Her silly brilliance came to me in a dark time.

What was the process like of separating Doreen O’Dare from Colleen Moore? And how much did you have to separate them? 

For me, unless it’s an actual super prominent historical figure, I like to change their names. I like being able to make stuff up to make a better story. If I had kept it Colleen Moore, I wouldn’t have been able to change the things I wanted to change, and I would have been tempted to do the biographer thing of describing every single movie she was ever in. I wanted to give myself that paper-thin wall of separation, not just to respect the real woman—to be clear, this is not a biography—but also to give myself the freedom as a creator to not be boring. What we want in a biography is different than what we want in a novel. 

Similarly, you use some characters’ real names and changed others. How did you make those decisions?

I figured I wanted to keep the people who were the closest to her—her family and her loved ones—as different names since I had changed hers. But others, like her friends Marion Davies and Lillian Gish—a lot of my readers will be able to say, “Ah yes, Lillian Gish, I love her in Broken Blossoms.” Or, “Marion Davies, way funnier than Citizen Kane made her out to be.” But a lot of readers will think, I don’t know who these people are. I wanted to have both there, to satisfy the fans and also teach people. If every character is round, you can’t write a book, and I figured with those flat characters, I could just stick to the real Hollywood stuff. And for the other main movers, I didn’t want to stick as laboriously to the minutiae. 

In the novel, Doreen has to deal with a lot of the hostile, sexist issues that many women still face today when trying to ascend professionally. She thinks after an encounter, “Even though the awkwardness was all his fault, I felt that I was to blame.” Can you talk about how you approached writing those scenes?

Something that was on my mind when I was writing this was, why of all the possible silent movie stars, and especially all the flappers, is Colleen Moore the one who speaks most to me? I love Louise Brooks and Clara Bow, but I think they are more sexpot flappers. I love them both and hope that by reading my book, people want to check out these other flappers. But what struck me about Colleen and her construction of her persona onscreen—and from what I can tell, off screen—was that she could protect herself and be who she was: a little more wholesome and girlish, not quite innocent, but not overly provocative either.

When I watch her movies, what strikes me in addition to her comedic timing and amazing hair, is the intelligence that comes through. I tried to depict her in the book as someone who was like, “I know I’m going to be harassed, I know there’s going to be casting-couch expectations and pressure to be a certain way. I’m going to try to play the game in a way where I don’t actually have to do things that I don’t want to do, even as I see people around me feeling they have to do them.”

Doreen wanted to have her own money from a young age. She was hyper-focused on gaining independence, and she realized that money was the way to do it. Was she rare for her time?

I didn’t know this when I saw the castle for the first time, and I didn’t know it when I watched her movies, but I realized she had also written this book called How Women Can Make Money in the Stock Market. Some of it’s dated, but a lot of it is really good advice. Her whole point is that a woman or someone who’s not necessarily been raised around financial privilege often thinks, “Oh, the stock market’s not for me.” She says all you need is a little extra. It doesn’t have to be tens of thousands of dollars, just a little bit every month. And you can do quite well, and you should, because you shouldn’t rely on a man.

The other thing that was intriguing to me about her story was that she was the inspiration for A Star Is Born. It’s not #MeToo exactly, but she fell in love with this producer/publicist, and she was already so clearly talented and had proven herself so many times. But as we know as practitioners of creative arts, it’s not enough just to be really talented. There are so many other stars that have to align. The fact is, she got involved with him, a) because she loved him, but b) with the side benefit that he could give her that last mile. She was so close to being a superstar, and he put her over. But then, he also was probably bipolar, certainly an alcoholic, and certainly tried to kill her. To see her figure out how to get out of that was fascinating to try to depict.

With this first husband, Jack, even with his alcoholism and repeated attempts to kill her, was she unwilling to let go of the benefits he provided for her career, too? Or did she simply remain hopeful?

Yeah. I want the novel to show lots of reasons. Both in Colleen’s life and the life I’ve given to Doreen, it’s a question that comes up all the time about abusive, codependent relationship dynamics. Why doesn’t she just leave? If it were that easy, obviously everyone would do that all the time. I tried to depict multiple reasons she stayed—she is ambitious and has achieved her professional goals, so she doesn’t want to take away anything that maintains it. As many people say who have been to the top, getting to the top is hard enough, but then staying there is harder. There are so many stories—in Hollywood and rock n’ roll and hip hop and the art world—of people making it to the summit and then tumbling catastrophically, and we devour those stories because there’s something fascinating about that. It’s partially that—she’s at the top of the mountain and doesn’t want to fall off. If she leaves, she wants it to be on her terms.

But also, love. I think she really loved him, and I hope I showed that in the book.

Let’s shift for a second and talk about fairies. What else do fairies, which were introduced to Doreen by her Granny Shaughnessy, represent for her throughout her life?

The fairies were one of the things that pulled me in as a kid. When I went for my first visits in the late 80s and early 90s, the castle at the Museum of Science and Industry was surrounded by receivers—little black telephone ear pieces you picked up and held. And Colleen’s voice came through—she provided the narration. She would say things like, “Now we’re in the library, and this chair is tilted this way because there’s a little fairy child who likes to read with his feet in the air.” Or you’d see the spiral staircase, and she would say, “You might wonder why there are no railings. That’s because fairies balance themselves with their wings.” Even as a kid, I wondered how much she was kidding. How much does she believe this? 

I want the book to not totally leave you with an answer. I think that more than not, she believed it, and more than not, the book believes it. I think one of the things the castle does, and that wonder does, and that film does and that art of all kinds does, is say, this isn’t all that there is. The visible world is not the end, and the gray, grim disenchanting reality that we are told that we have to accept because it’s just the way it is, is a lie. We can dream something different. 

What did the fairy castle mean to her and how did it empower her? 

What I tried to depict is that building a castle like that is like being a director. Women rarely got to be directors. What I saw, with the creation of the castle, was being a director and even a producer, and having all the say in who gets to work on it, and all the moving parts synced together. That’s the empowerment. 

Also, both in life and in the novel, when she builds the castle and gets the idea to tour it for charity, she gets to be the dispenser and not just the beneficiary of magic. Her grandmother, her husband, and friends in the industry helped her toward the destination she desired. But then she realized, what am I really doing for other people? I’ve been Cinderella, can I now be the fairy godmother? 

Part of why she was touring it was to benefit disabled kids, so she would always have them come and see the castle in sessions of their own, and not have to pay to be able to appreciate it. She wanted kids with disabilities to be able to see it without competition or crowds, and even blind kids to see it by touching replicas of the miniatures in the castle. I prefer people who are generous and who realize that giving stuff to people is itself a gift for you.

Doreen says, “Like any art, the castle is a fossil of a feeling I’d had. The structure has remained the same even as everything else has changed.” It’s almost like she’s saying, this is what I was meant to do. Would you say for Colleen and/or Doreen, did she feel like that was more of her purpose at the end of her life versus acting?

Yeah, that’s a great question. One of the things that struck me about the real person is this joie de vivre. She was a really joyful person, and I tried to capture that in Doreen too. One of my favorite trashy books is Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, where he tells the most scurrilous, disgusting rumors about early Hollywood. And that kind of tawdriness has its appeal, I’m not going to lie. I watched VH1’s Behind the Music, and I always love it when they have the creative differences and they have an intervention—it’s fascinating to see that side of things. 

But what I like about Colleen, and one of the reasons I wanted to tell her story as Doreen and for people to rediscover her, is that her story doesn’t fit that mold. It’s not like she rose and fell equally catastrophically. She rose, and then walked away. And walked away into another life that was awesome. And then walked from that life into another awesome life. She just kept walking. I think that’s kind of exciting. Not to sound corny and say that happiness is a choice, but it kind of is. That realization feels exciting and upsetting. I wanted to pick this character who wanted to keep choosing happiness. 

Another thing that interested me about this time period is that Colleen, and Doreen, were flappers. Now we go to parties and wear some fringe to be a flapper. But it’s hard to overstate what a cataclysmic societal shift that was for women, even the fashion—taking off their corsets and not wearing a bra, not being in what was basically as restrictive as a cast for their whole life. They make out with men they might not marry, smoke a cigarette, drive a car. Her movie Flaming Youth was banned in Boston, and at least one theater proprietor got put in jail for showing it. It was a scandal. I was interested in the person who spent her life pushing boundaries and said, no this is better. Let’s do this.

From the novel: “Hollywood was being run by a pack of children, or at least by the childlike: those who had not yet lost the capacity for wonder, who could dream during the daytime, who refused to draw the line between what was real and what was possible.” Doreen found her place there because she was the same—a dreamer. But did the dream-like qualities also end up causing problems for her? I’m thinking about Hollywood as dreamland, even while the air always stunk from burning film in the background.

One of the things I was trying to convey about Hollywood is its Edenic quality, which is specific to Hollywood but also to California. Even today, with all its issues, when you get to Hollywood or California you think, this is a dream. But then, it begins to erode. The thing that fascinates me about her as a character is that she was born right at the turn of the twentieth century. She was there at the right time to do this bizarre profession that didn’t exist when she was born, and didn’t exactly exist when she died. The silent era was so short, and she was synced up to have her coming of age and first triumph align perfectly with that. So, more even than just Hollywood itself being a dream, I used the metaphor of a pioneer. Being a pioneer is exciting, but it’s also problematic. By your very presence you’re destroying something or erecting something that’s going to have within it the seeds of its own corruption and its own change and its own downfall. 

One of the things that really struck me about the end of her time as a film star is that she could have kept going. But she thought, this isn’t fun anymore. Partially because of the technology—we’ve all seen Singin’ in the Rain when they’re talking into the plant with the microphone hidden inside. There was some of that. But also there was, especially for women, this massive power grab on the part of the studios, from 1929 to 1934 as they figured out talkies, to take away a lot of the power women had. When you go back and watch these movies, they’ve got problems—a lot of them are sexist, or racist, or classist, or all three. But, there’s a lot more of them that have pretty significant agency for women than gets depicted sometimes even now. The male bosses did so many women dirty using talkies as an excuse to say, “We’re breaking your contract. We don’t want to pay you that much and you don’t have control anymore.” Not a dream.

Before reading the book, I didn’t realize that over half of Colleen Moore’s movies had been destroyed. In the novel, Doreen says that she wants people to remember her films and her dollhouse, and that she made them. Why does legacy concern her so much?

What was interesting to me from a historical perspective about the silent era is that nobody doing it thought of it as the silent era. They didn’t think about what they didn’t have, just what they had. Silent movies were so mind-blowing that no one who saw one was like, “I wish they could talk.” It was so magical anyway. But as a result of it being so on the forefront, truly avant-garde, at first people making them didn’t realize legacy was a thing they should think about broadly. So many of the movies that got made got recycled for the silver nitrate of the film. You make them, you show them, you make your money off them, then melt them down, get the chemicals, and reuse it.

Gradually as they got better, the performers started realizing that, wait, I’m doing something worthwhile, and the directors did too. They started preserving them. I love the history of ideas and how attitudes shift. I think now, if people hear that ninety percent of movies made before 1929 no longer exist, they feel sorrow. At the time, people were like, why would we keep them? The movies that Colleen was so sad about losing were not some of the flapper movies, but the more serious ones. She wanted to be a serious actor too and not just a cutesy comedienne. 

She made this movie So Big that was based on an Edna Ferber novel. She loved the novel. She was especially devastated at losing the film because then So Big won the Pulitzer, and she thought, I made an art thing. I’m sad I can’t see that movie either. But it’s gone.

I’m an outsider of this industry, but as someone who’s interested in art and the question of legacy, I think there’s a desire to believe there’s a meritocracy, which there really isn’t. And a lot of people want to think that even if there’s not a meritocracy in real time, then in the long run, the cream will rise to the top and history will have its day. The fate of so many silent movies reveals that this might not be the case either. We don’t know what we don’t know.

About the interviewer: Meredith Boe is a Pushcart Prize–nominated writer, editor, and poet based in Chicago. Her short prose collection What City was a winner of Paper Nautilus’s 2018 Debut Series Chapbook Contest, and her creative work is forthcoming or has appeared in Passengers Journal, Chicago Reader, After Hours, Burningword, Mud Season Review, Midwestern Gothic, From the Depths, and elsewhere. Her critique has appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Newfound, and World Literature Today, and she is a contributor to the Chicago Review of Books. She sometimes writes poems on a typewriter at events around Chicago with the poetry-on-demand group, Poems While You Wait.