I’m thrilled to welcome Nancy Bilyeau to Miss Demeanors. Her latest novel, The Orchid Hour, delves into the glamour of Jazz Age New York and illuminates a time almost as liminal as our own. Society balanced between two world wars, between the Victorian Age and the modern one, between poverty and riches, with a malleable morality–look no further if you’d like to be swept away. Read on for some real life gems of NYC history that helped inspire this story.
The Orchid Hour, set in NYC in 1923, follows Zia De Luca as she tries to find answers to a pair of mysterious deaths by entering the shadow realm of The Orchid Hour, a glamorous Greenwich Village nightclub filled with enticements Zia has shunned up to now. She must contend with a group of players determined to find wealth and power in New York on their own terms. And in this heady atmosphere, Zia wonders if she, too, could rewrite her life’s rules.
Your novel is set in New York in 1923. Did you visit any locations that still stand that feature in your story?
I’m a big believer in visiting the places where my characters walked—or ran!—in my historical novels. I traveled to England and found the remaining gatehouse and brick wall of the priory where my 16th century nun lived in my debut novel, The Crown. It was considerably easier to do this location research for The Orchid Hour, as I lived in New York City for years.
My Jazz Age nightclub, The Orchid Hour, is imaginary but located on MacDougal Alley, which is real, and I’ve been there. Some of the places where my main character, Zia De Luca, lived and worked and talked to friends and neighbors are real. When the story begins in 1923, Zia works at the Seward Park Library, which is still very much a functioning library and I’ve visited. I don’t know if the library ever had a high-profile murder right outside though!
Zia lives with her in-laws above the cheese shop they own on Mulberry. I based it on Alleva Dairy on Grand Street, which opened in 1892 and I’ve been inside it over the years. Unfortunately, Alleva went bankrupt and closed recently. A couple of other places that were around in the 1920s in Little Italy and Greenwich Village play a part in my novel. The first is Ferrara Cafe, where today the third, fourth, and fifth generation can be found inside, and the second is Café Dante.
My story travels outside Manhattan, too, and I set two of my favorite chapters in Brownsville in Brooklyn and St John Cemetery in Queens. I’ve driven through or past both. St. John Cemetery is where some of New York’s most famous members of the 1920s mob are laid to rest. A New York Times headline described it like this: “Middle Village Journal: Sleeping With the Giants of the Mob.”
Are there any specific events or incidents from that time period that you found particularly fascinating or significant, and how did you incorporate them into your storyline?
I didn’t base the main story in The Orchid Hour on a specific real-life crime or unsolved murder. But because I tried to ground the novel in as much authenticity as I could, my characters mention events that were important at the time, whether it’s Yankee Stadium opening in The Bronx in 1923 or “The Charleston” dance jumping off the Broadway stage and into the Jazz Age bars that same year.
You used several real-life famous personages in your novel. Tell us about them, who they were, how they influenced New York of the time.
This was a formative time in the history of organized crime, and since The Orchid Hour is not only a historical novel but also a crime novel, I put several of them in my book. A few are important secondary characters, others are minor. In order of importance to the story, they are: Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Arnold Rothstein, Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, and Owney Madden.
I’m a bit of a student of the history of the mob in New York. I reported on organized crime at a former job: deputy editor at the Center for Media, Crime, and Justice. These people had an enormous affect on New York not just in the 1920s but reverberating decades later, whether it was Arnold Rothstein backing the gambling syndicate that “fixed” the World Series in 1919 and therefore made the sports world realize they had to have rules and regulation on gambling, or Luciano and Costello capitalizing on Prohibition to make a fortune out of supplying alcohol to New York City speakeasies and other consumers, or Buchalter infiltrating the unions with threats backed up with extortion and murder.
How does Zia’s story intertwine with the lives of these historical figures, and what challenges does she face because of who she is and who these real people are?
In my novel, the main character, Zia De Luca, was born Audenzia Lucania, and she is the cousin of Salvatore Lucania, known to posterity as Lucky Luciano. That draws her into a challenging environment to say the least. Her relationship with her cousin is a complicated one, they had a bond formed on the ship crossing the Atlantic when their families immigrated from Sicily to America.
In the early 1920s, you didn’t yet have the “Five Families” of the mafia, but you did have various criminal gangs making a lot of money out of Prohibition. Sometimes they were rivals, sometimes they cooperated to make even more money. You had Italian gangs but also Jewish and Irish gangs getting a piece of the action.
One of my goals in writing this book was to debunk some of the myths of the mafia. People think, watching The Godfather, that mob families were very proud of who they were and open about it. That might have been somewhat true in the late 1940s, when the novel and film took place (although I’ve read criticism of The Godfather saying the Corleone family acted more like the Kennedys than a mafia clan), but it really was a completely different story for the 1920s mob NYC. Both Luciano and Louis Buchalter (the only NYC mobster to get the death penalty) were in severe conflict with their families because of their early arrests. Their families weren’t proud—they were ashamed!
And some of the family judgment and rejection the men experienced affected them deeply. Later in his life, the real Luciano said he had never wanted children because “I didn’t want no son of mine to go through life as the son of Luciano, the gangster.” That doesn’t sound like Vito Corleone, does it?
Were there any surprises or unexpected discoveries you made during your research about these real people that influenced or altered the direction of your novel?
In my early research of Lucky Luciano, I discovered something that did change the direction of the novel. I won’t go into specifics because of spoilers, but Luciano got into legal trouble that threatened his budding criminal career. His mentor, Arnold Rothstein, gave him some advice on how to impress those who might have doubts about him. He suggested Luciano buy a large block of tickets for the boxing match of the year: Jack Dempsey vs. Luis Ángel Firpo on September 14. 1923. Luciano bought choice ringside tickets, gave them to important people, and showed his “guests” a good time afterward. You may think that “important people” meant powerful gangsters, but my research shows that the tickets also went to judges, Tammany Hall politicians, and even men high up in the New York police. That did surprise me. A boxing match was hardly a secret gathering!
The jazz age was known for its cultural and social transformations. How does this aspect of the time period impact your characters and their relationships within the novel?
My main character, Zia De Luca, goes through a huge transformation because of the time she lives in and what she goes through by using her connection to her cousin to penetrate the Jazz Age bar scene. In the beginning of the story, she is a young widow living quietly with family, her hair in a bun. She follows the rules. But because of what happens in the story, the way she looks, the way she lives, the possibilities she reaches out for—everything transforms by the end of The Orchid Hour.
Well, I don’t know about you, dear visitors, but I got a kick just from looking at all these photos and going back in time. Look how empty Times Square is… Wow.
Do you have any questions for Nancy? Let us know in the comments below.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.
When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.