Synopses & Reviews
Kirkus (STARRED review)
"Churchwell... has written an excellent book... shes earned the right to play on [Fitzgerald's] court. Prodigious research and fierce affection illumine every remarkable page.” The autumn of 1922 found F. Scott Fitzgerald at the height of his fame, days from turning twenty-six years old, and returning to New York for the publication of his fourth book, Tales of the Jazz Age. A spokesman for Americas carefree younger generation, Fitzgerald found a home in the glamorous and reckless streets of New York. Here, in the final incredible months of 1922, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald drank and quarreled and partied amid financial scandals, literary milestones, car crashes, and celebrity disgraces.
Yet the Fitzgeralds triumphant return to New York coincided with another event: the discovery of a brutal double murder in nearby New Jersey, a crime made all the more horrible by the farce of a police investigationwhich failed to accomplish anything beyond generating enormous publicity for the newfound celebrity participants. Proclaimed the crime of the decade” even as its proceedings dragged on for years, the Mills-Hall murder has been wholly forgotten today. But the enormous impact of this bizarre crime can still be felt in The Great Gatsby, a novel Fitzgerald began planning that autumn of 1922 and whose plot he ultimately set within that fateful year.
Careless People is a unique literary investigation: a gripping double narrative that combines a forensic search for clues to an unsolved crime and a quest for the roots of Americas best loved novel. Overturning much of the received wisdom of the period, Careless People blends biography and history with lost newspaper accounts, letters, and newly discovered archival materials. With great wit and insight, acclaimed scholar of American literature Sarah Churchwell reconstructs the events of that pivotal autumn, revealing in the process new ways of thinking about Fitzgeralds masterpiece.
Interweaving the biographical story of the Fitzgeralds with the unfolding investigation into the murder of Hall and Mills, Careless People is a thrilling combination of literary history and murder mystery, a mesmerizing journey into the dark heart of Jazz Age America.
"University of East Anglia literature professor Churchwell (The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe) evokes the Jazz Age in all its ephemeral glamour and recklessness in her latest book. Drawing on newspaper articles, correspondence, diary entries, scrapbooks, and newly discovered archival material, the author presents 'a collage' of Scott and Zelda Fitzgeralds' world and a social history of the times. Churchwell focuses on 1922 the year the couple moved to Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island, and a gruesome, unsolved double murder (the Mills-Hall case, 'the crime of the decade') took place in nearby New Jersey. She excels at providing rich period details drugstores selling illegal liquor, ubiquitous car crashes to show how the patchwork quality of the times affected Fitzgerald's thinking as he composed The Great Gatsby. Indeed, the book highlights how accurately Fitzgerald intuited what was to come: the damage being done to American society by focusing on wealth; the way mass media would give rise to a celebrity culture. Yet, in an effort to find a new angle on The Great Gatsby, Churchwell strains to establish a close connection between the Mills-Hall murders and Fitzgerald's work on the book, with little evidence to support the tie, other than the fact that they occurred around the same time. Illus. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
The Wall Street Journal:
"Careless People blends biography, scholarship and literary journalism to generate a narrative that is almost novelistic in its urgency….Ms. Churchwell is committed not only to digging up long-forgotten historical nuggets but also to telling a well-crafted story....The finest achievement of Careless People may be to return The Great Gatsby to its moment. Time, place and the material world necessarily feed the imagination, and Ms. Churchwell presents a wealth of historical material that ought to inform any reading of Fitzgerald's great novel as a product of its era.”
“[A] compelling biography….The book is stuffed with wonderful and quirky cultural nuggets….Above all, Churchwell does a fantastic job of conjuring the magic of the Jazz Age, as well as its more lurid side. Regardless of how much of Fitzgerald's great novel was the result of fate, coincidence or pure imagination, it is fascinating to read about the era that shaped him, and to see how brilliantly he captured the happenings of his time.”
The Washington Post:
“[A] rewarding work, a history of 1922 as it was lived by the Fitzgeralds and their circle, as well as by the fictitious cast of The Great Gatsby. Like the jazz that defined the era, the book tells its story through digression and repetition, building up a pattern of internal references and refrains."
“[T]he liveliest contribution to Fitzgeraldiana to come my way in years... [Churchwells] delight in everything she's dug up renews the novel's enchantments even for the Gatsby-wearied likes of me... a vivid and often witty account of all the zany, sad, ridiculous things that Scott, Zelda and their fellow Jazz Age glitterati got up to during the boozy summer and autumn of 1922... impressively researched.”
“If you put all the books about F. Scott Fitzgerald in a stack, the resulting tower would be—apologies for the scientific jargon—really, really tall. In fact, it would almost certainly fall over. So it takes a bold writer to try tossing another one on the pile—and here comes one now! Sarah Churchwells Careless People concerns the writing of The Great Gatsby and the cultural and societal forces that inspired its superdrunk author. The books an unusual mix of criticism, biography, and true crime, all of it bound together by Churchwells lyrical prose and, frankly, the sheer force of her will. Not everything is new here (how could it be?), but it's an evocative read. It belongs on the tower, even if somebody elses book has to come off. A-”
“Sarah Churchwells zesty cocktail of history, biography and literary criticism (with a dash of philosophical musing) so vividly captures the disordered existence of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald during the 18-month sojourn on Long Island that inspired his greatest novel, many readers will close her book astonished that Scott managed to write The Great Gatsby at all....She does a brilliant job of re-creating ‘the world that prompted F. Scott Fitzgerald to write The Great Gatsby,'….Insights such as this make Careless People a book that anyone who cares about The Great Gatsby will want to read.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“Churchwell introduces real-life equivalents of Fitzgeralds characters, and she follows the stories in their morning papers. The results are often as glamorous, lurid, depressing, and fun to read as one would imagine… [Careless People] brings 1920s New York City vividly to life.”
“A thoughtful book thatll be catnip to all Gatsby lovers….were given fascinating glimpses of social history.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune:
“Sarah Churchwell, in this utterly pleasing and thorough ‘biography of a book, brings the two views together in a worthwhile effort at achieving whole sight…. Re-read The Great Gatsby, read Careless People and, if you still have any lingering doubts, go see ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.”
“The latest to fall under its spell is the scholar Sarah Churchwell, whose own seductive style borrows liberally from the novel….Grounded in archival evidence, but also richly speculative, her book is delightful reading for lovers of the novel and a provocative introduction for everyone else....[an] often fascinating reconstruction….Churchwells narrative has three principal strands: an account of the murder investigation, biographical information about Scott and Zelda, and a smart critical reading of the novel itself.”
“Fascinating….Churchwell has produced an intriguing glimpse into how his mind worked, as he mined the Jazz Age innovations that still shape our world.”
The Daily Beast:
“Sarah Churchwell proves herself a master mixologist combining meticulously researched historical detail, equally tantalizing biographical tidbits and a subtle reading of Gatsby—the resulting cocktail is an intoxicating biography of a novel.”
“Sarah Churchwell has done something almost unimaginable: She has discovered something new and she has written something fresh and revealing about the most chewed-over piece of fiction in the American canon….Churchwells book is handsomely illustrated and her research into the existing source material is prodigious….A literary journalist and author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Churchwell even unearthed a few morsels than no Fitzgerald scholars were aware of—most notably a letter by Fitzgerald about his intentions in Gatsby that was quoted in a lost review of the novel by Burton Rascoe. Churchwell, clearly thrilled by her spadework, calls Fitzgeralds letter ‘a tiny, heart-stopping treasure…. Careless People is a delightful blaze of a book….One of the chief virtues of Careless People is the way it leads the reader back to its source material.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred):
"Churchwell... has written an excellent book... she even manages to find fresh facts that escaped previous scholars... At times, Churchwell attempts Fitzgeralds lyrical style—one chapter-ending sentence alludes to “the vagrant dead as they scatter across our tattered Eden”—shes earned the right to play on his court. Prodigious research and fierce affection illumine every remarkable page.”
“[Sarah Churchwell] evokes the Jazz Age in all its ephemeral glamour and recklessness in her latest book….She excels at providing rich period details….the book highlights how accurately Fitzgerald intuited what was to come: the damage being done to American society by focusing on wealth; the way mass media would give rise to a celebrity culture.”
The London Review of Books:
“Churchwell brings… a lively curiosity, a gift for making connections, and an infectious passion for Fitzgerald and his greatest novel…. A suggestive, almost musical evocation of the spirit of the time.”
The New Statesman:
“The first readers of The Great Gatsby thought it was all about themselves, a book of the moment. Today, we tend to admire its enduring mythology of aspiration and undoing. Churchwell brilliantly brings these two perspectives together as she holds in counterpoint the sprawling stuff of Fitzgeralds daily life and the gleamingly taut prose poem that emerged from it… Fitzgerald offered the year 1922 as the chief exhibit when he tried to explain the meaning of the jazz age. It is an exhibit worth looking at very carefully. Careless People does so with a mixture of patience and panache and it would take a long time to get bored of that particular cocktail.”
“The wonder of Careless People ... is that it rewinds the years and allows the reader to appreciate again just how well Fitzgerald reflected his times.”
"A literary spree, bursting with recherché detail, high spirits and the desperate frisson of the jazz age."
"A treasury of new material. Churchwell adds considerably to our understanding of the early 1920s, and how life for Fitzgerald played into the development of his art."
“Not a second is wasted in this 350 or so page-turner. Careless People was fascinating. . . .Its utterly smashing.”
“The Great Gatsby, like all great cultural highpoints, evolved, and Churchwell manages to infuse them all, boring and not, with an energy and drama that turns the book into a page-turner. . . . We feel so close to the action that we almost forget we are reading a history and not a daily diary account of the goings-on. Churchwell takes what could have been a treasure for literary theorists and turns it into a potboiler that could make great beach reading (or ski resort fireplace reading, I guess, given the season). Careless People is a highly recommended read for all. A thriller that combines history and fantasy is a rare and beautiful thing, and this book is just that.”
andldquo;(A) lively, provocative historyandhellip;.a well-written effort that makes the most of its source material on two levels, both as true crime and as social commentaryandrdquo; andmdash;Publishers Weekly
andquot;Alice and Fredaand#39;s tragic story gives a fascinating glimpse of 19th Century Americaand#39;s attempts to comprehend passion it has no language to acknowledge. Hauntingly enhanced by Sally Klannand#39;s illustrations, Alexis Coeand#39;s skillful research and documentation never distract from her heartbreaking narrative.andquot; andmdash;Elizabeth Wein, New York Times bestselling author of Code Name Verityand#160;andquot;Though the history recounted inand#160;Alexis Coeand#39;sand#160;Alice + Freda Foreverand#160;is captivating in its own right, Coe also provides a larger context for it, elevating this to the level of a societal indictment. This story of a star-crossed love with a violent ending at times reads like a microcosm of Memphis at the end of the 19th century. As Coeand#39;s narrative delves into perceptions of sexuality and the ways in which the case touched on different aspects of daily life, it never loses sight of the tragic romance at its core.andquot; andmdash;Tobias Carroll, Managing Editor, Vol.1 Brooklynand#160;andldquo;With prose that simmers with intellect and longing, conscience and sly eloquence, Alexis Coe has finally granted Alice and Freda the one thing they so desperately lacked in life: the grace of a story beautifully told.andrdquo; andmdash;Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books and#160;andquot;Alexis Coe rescues a buried but extraordinarily telling episode from the 1890and#39;s that resonates in all sorts of ways with today. That in itself would be an accomplishment. But this is a book that is truly riveting, a narrative that gallops. Lizzy Borden eat your heart out. Hereand#39;s a real crime of passion. Or was it?and#160;andquot;And so Alice carried the razor around every day in her dress pocket, just in case Freda came to townandhellip;andquot; I dare you to pick this one up and try, just try to put it down.andquot; andmdash;Peter Orner, author of Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge and Esther Storiesand#160;
*Starred Review* andquot;This is a captivating account, and readers will quickly become absorbed in the suspense surrounding Fredaandrsquo;s murder. Additionally, the book provides a foundation for discussion of sociocultural themes, such as how LGBT relationships have historically been viewed by society, gender and femininity, and even journalism.andquot; - School Library Journal
andquot;The murder was a national sensation at the time, but is little known today. ....Alexis Coe retells it here with the color and liveliness of a novel. Her account is accompanied by illustrations of the people, scenes, and artifacts that populate this story of forbidden love.andquot; - The New Yorker
andquot;The story of a Gilded Age-era homicide that stunned a nation with its sheer violence and tabooed origins. Haunted for years about the case, media columnist and historian Coe chronicles a 19th-century, Memphis, Tennessee-based ordeal of coldblooded murder and the jilted lesbian love that inspired it. andhellip; A historically resonant reminder of how far societal tolerance has come and that it still remains a work in progress.andquot; - Kirkus Reviews
andldquo;[A] lively, provocative historyandhellip;.a well-written effort that makes the most of its source material on two levels, both as true crime and as social commentaryandrdquo; - Publishers Weekly
andquot;This thoroughly researched exposandeacute; considers a murder that took place in Victorian-era Memphis. andhellip;This selection might attract fans of true crime, such as Erik Larsonandrsquo;s Devil in the White City (2003), although the content concentrates more on the historical setting than intrigue or suspense. This could also serve as a gritty rebuttal to idealized period romances extolling the virtues of demure and genteel femininity.andquot; - Booklist
andquot;Alexis Coeandrsquo;s intricately researched, nonfictionand#160;Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis depicts the destructive power of love. It centers on the relationship between Alice Mitchell, 19, and Freda Ward, 17, two girls living in Tennessee during the 1890s.and#160;andhellip;While Coe establishes a thrilling, almost lurid tone (andldquo;Razor in hand, she sprinted back up the hill, leaving the love of her life bleeding on the railroad tracksandrdquo;), once sheandrsquo;s whet the appetites of her readers, she uses the relationship and murder as a springboard for exploring deeper issues of gender and sexuality during the 19th centuryandhellip;.and#160;Reminiscent of Peter Jacksonandrsquo;s filmand#160;Heavenly Creaturesand#160;(which in turn was based on actual events), an account of two teenagers who are compelled to murder to protect their intense, almost incestuous friendship,and#160;Alice + Freda Foreverand#160;will not only attract teens and adults alike for its gripping treatment of love gone dreadfully wrongandmdash;it will force them to think critically from both a historical and sociocultural perspective.andquot; - School Library Journal, Curriculum Connections
*A Must-Read Book for the Fall* andquot;A case of a teenage murderess and a forbidden love? This real life tale by historian and columnist for The Toast has it all. Based on rich research, including the love letters between Alice and Freda, their relationship was going to break boundaries, until it ended in tragedy. Gripping and fascinating.andquot; - Flavorwire
andquot;Alexis Coeand#39;s historical nonfiction Alice + Freda Foreverand#160;tells the real andmdash; and tragic andmdash; story of 19-year-old murderess Alice Mitchell, who in 1892 killed the young woman she was engaged to when they were forced apart after their relationship was discovered. The book includes 100 illustrated love letters, maps, artifacts, historical documents, newspaper articles, courtroom proceedings, and intimate domestic scenes.andquot; - Popsugar, Books Weand#39;re Dying to Read
andquot;Withand#160;Alice and Freda Forever, Alexis Coe takes this fascinating true tale and brings it to literary life through love letters, newspaper articles, courtroom testimonies, maps, and school catalogs andmdash; all culled into one vivid narrative. With shimmering prose, careful research, and eloquent analysis, Coe weaves an absorbing tale of crime and passion, violence and discrimination, gender and femininity, lust and the all-consuming power of love andmdash; a tale that gives these teenage lovers a voice to echo above the clamor of a scandal.andquot; - Bustle
andquot;Alice and Fredaand#39;s tragic story gives a fascinating glimpse of 19th Century Americaand#39;s attempts to comprehend passion it has no language to acknowledge. Hauntingly enhanced by Sally Klannand#39;s illustrations, Alexis Coeand#39;s skillful research and documentation never distract from her heartbreaking narrative.andquot; - Elizabeth Wein, New York Times bestselling author of Code Name Verityand#160;andquot;Though the history recounted inand#160;Alexis Coeand#39;sand#160;Alice + Freda Foreverand#160;is captivating in its own right, Coe also provides a larger context for it, elevating this to the level of a societal indictment. This story of a star-crossed love with a violent ending at times reads like a microcosm of Memphis at the end of the 19th century. As Coeand#39;s narrative delves into perceptions of sexuality and the ways in which the case touched on different aspects of daily life, it never loses sight of the tragic romance at its core.andquot; - Tobias Carroll, Managing Editor, Vol.1 Brooklynand#160;andldquo;With prose that simmers with intellect and longing, conscience and sly eloquence, Alexis Coe has finally granted Alice and Freda the one thing they so desperately lacked in life: the grace of a story beautifully told.andrdquo; - Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books and#160;andquot;Alexis Coe rescues a buried but extraordinarily telling episode from the 1890and#39;s that resonates in all sorts of ways with today. That in itself would be an accomplishment. But this is a book that is truly riveting, a narrative that gallops. Lizzy Borden eat your heart out. Hereand#39;s a real crime of passion. Or was it?and#160;andquot;And so Alice carried the razor around every day in her dress pocket, just in case Freda came to townandhellip;andquot; I dare you to pick this one up and try, just try to put it down.andquot; - Peter Orner, author of Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge and Esther Storiesand#160;
In 1892, America was obsessed with a teenage murderess, but it wasn't her crime that shocked the nationand#8212;it was her motivation. Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell had planned to pass as a man in order to marry her seventeen-year-old fiancand#233;e Freda Ward, but when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden from ever speaking again.
Freda adjusted to this fate with an ease that stunned a heartbroken Alice. Her desperation grew with each unanswered letterand#8212;and her fatherand#8217;s razor soon went missing. On January 25, Alice publicly slashed her ex-fiancand#233;eand#8217;s throat. Her same-sex love was deemed insane by her father that very night, and medical experts agreed: This was a dangerous and incurable perversion. As the courtroom was expanded to accommodate national interest, Alice spent months in jailand#8212;including the night that three of her fellow prisoners were lynched (an event which captured the attention of journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells). After a jury of "the finest men in Memphis" declared Alice insane, she was remanded to an asylum, where she died under mysterious circumstances just a few years later.
Alice + Freda Forever recounts this tragic, real-life love story with over 100 illustrated love letters, maps, artifacts, historical documents, newspaper articles, courtroom proceedings, and intimate, domestic scenesand#8212;painting a vivid picture of a sadly familiar world.
About the Author
Alexis Coe is a columnist at The Awl, SF Weekly, and The Toast. She has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, The Millions, The Hairpin, LA Weekly, The Bay Citizen, Mission at Tenth, The Paris Review Daily, and other publications. She has participated in panels at the Commonwealth Club of California, Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and Sarah Lawrence College. In 2012, she received a Creative Capacity Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation. Before moving to San Francisco, she was a research curator at the New York Public Library, where she co-curated the most popular exhibition in the library's 101 years, and a project-based oral historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Alexis holds an MA in history from Sarah Lawrence College and graduated from the honors college at the University of California, Santa Barbara.