In celebration of Sarah-Jane Stratford’s Red Letter Days hitting bookshelves everywhere today, we’ve got an exclusive excerpt from the novel to share!
In the 1950s, during the Red Scare, anyone even remotely associated with communism was marked as un-American and a danger to the free world. Red Letter Days takes a specific look at the life of a Hollywood screenwriter who finds herself on the blacklist and ostracized from society.
And so, if she wants to try to achieve her goals, she’ll have to grin and bear the constant sexism thrown her way and do whatever it takes to re-establish herself as a talented professional. (Sounds familiar, huh ladies?)
The excerpt below details a short interaction between Phoebe, the book’s main protagonist, and a friend she’s hoping will help her. But, true to the typical 1950s atmosphere of sexism and anti-communism, that interaction isn’t without blood-boiling remarks about Phoebe’s marital status and value as a woman.
This scene is just a small taste of what Red Letter Days has in store for readers and it will certainly make you want to feast your eyes on the rest of the novel.
Read an exclusive excerpt from ‘Red Letter Days’ by Sarah-Jane Stratford
Much too early on Saturday, Phoebe got ready to meet Hank. She spent a long time patting the puffs under her eyes, using every trick she’d ever learned from a magazine to brighten her features. She had to put a good face on things. She applied her makeup liberally, wrestled her hair into place, and put on her good suit. She concentrated on keeping her shoulders back and head high as she marched down Perry Street towards the restaurant.
Desiree’s was as pretty as she hoped, and another time, Phoebe would have been thrilled to walk into such an elegant little room, with dark tables and flocked wallpaper. But she only had eyes for Hank, who pumped her hand with his usual force and pulled out a chair for her. She saw his gaze flit around the room.
“Worried you’ll be seen with a Red?” she asked, hoping it sounded like a joke. His smile was tepid, and she realized she might be closer to the truth than she thought.
“Must be a good life, being a G-man,” she said. “Spend your days hanging about, watching people do not much of anything, going to nice restaurants on the taxpayers’ dime.”
“Stop it, Phoebe,” Hank scolded. “They work damn hard trying to keep the country safe.”
She recoiled. It wasn’t his words so much as his tone. He sounded rehearsed. Protecting himself, maybe? No, then he’d keep away from her altogether. So maybe he believed it.
He reached out and caught her wrist. She hadn’t realized she was half-standing, preparing to run out. She sat down again, sliding her hand away, resisting the urge to wipe it. Whatever game he was playing, she had to believe Hank was still her friend. She had to.
“Listen, Phoebe, do you know how to find someone who’d put their name on one of your scripts and take it for the rounds, pretending it’s theirs?”
“They’re called ‘fronts,’ Hank, I know the lingo,” she said.
“So?” he pressed.
She considered. Perry Street was full of hungry writers who would take a percentage of a fee for performing that service. The thought came and went. She couldn’t.
“I thought I’d submit stuff directly, using a pseudonym,” she said. It still galled her, but was better than anyone else knowing her shame.
“You can try,” Hank said. “But you’d have to provide a body if that name gets called in for a meeting.” He poured wine. “No matter how it gets sliced, Phoebe, it won’t be easy. People a lot bigger than you are all washed up, even if they never get subpoenaed.”
“What part of this is meant to make me feel better?” she demanded.
“Phoebe, you’re a nice girl, you’ve got a lot to offer. Wouldn’t it be easier if you were married?”
“Well, my schedule has just opened up.”
“I’m serious. Maybe this is a sign it’s time to move on to the next stage of your life. You should be able to find yourself a nice fellow.”
“Even if that’s true, it won’t happen before I run out of money,” she said, fiercely glad she’d ordered the most expensive item on the menu, even if she couldn’t pronounce it and had no idea what she was eating.
“I know it won’t be easy, but—“
Phoebe slapped down her knife and glared at him.
“Look, I could move into a flea-bag room in a women’s hotel, take a job cleaning up crime scenes. But you were the one who agreed with me back then, saying I had talent, and that I was going places. You meant up. Not down, and not out. This isn’t right.”
“No, it’s not, but it could be worse. Most of the men on the blacklist, they’ve got wives, kids. People depending on them.”
Phoebe bristled. Hank knew all about her sister Mona.
He had the grace to look abashed. “All right, sure, but you know it’s not the same thing. You said yourself Brookside would keep Mona just to study her. They’re not going to boot her now. You can’t compare your situation to a man with a wife and kids. You know that.”
“Apparently I know all sorts of stuff,” Phoebe said. “A miracle for a gal who never got to college.”
“Answer me straight, kid. Who’ve you been working for besides me?”
Phoebe looked down. Hank was the first man to ever hire her and though she worked the rounds as dutifully as any other writer, her other radio bits never panned out into anything regular. She refused to believe it meant she wasn’t good. Hank wouldn’t use her so often if that were true. Possibly it was a woman’s name on her scripts that kept her from getting ahead. Which was an argument for the front, if everything about it didn’t make her want to tear apart the FBI headquarters with her bare hands.
“Look, if you’re determined to keep on with writing, I’ve got a lead,” Hank whispered. “No guarantees though.” He slid over a piece of paper: Hannah Wolfson, Executive Producer, Sapphire Films. Cadogan Square, London. Hannah. A woman. “Used to be sort of a high-flying journalist, apparently. Married, if you can believe it, with two kids.”
“Like all those men so much worse off than me,” Phoebe said.
Hank narrowed his eyes but she could see a faint blush. “Anyway, word is she’s bought some scripts from fellows on the blacklist. You could contact her.”
A married woman with children, running her own studio. Phoebe couldn’t comprehend it. “Do you think she knows they’re blacklisted?”
“That’s the point. She’s a New York lefty herself. You know, the type who cares.”
Phoebe ran her fingers over Hannah’s name. There was no shortage of New York lefties who weren’t sticking their necks out to help anyone on the blacklist. Being in London must make it easier to take that risk, but it was still really something.
“I’ll tell you this,” Hank said expansively, pointing his cigarette at her for emphasis. “If you’re still at it when I get that next job, the good one, I’m bringing you on, blacklist or no blacklist. That’s how we can break this thing, you know.”
Phoebe’s spirits skyrocketed. It was like being in school, when she was the only one who knew the answer.
“Hank, that’s it! If you do that now, if you tell Mr. Kelvin you’re determined to keep me, and with my name, he’ll have to agree, he can’t afford to lose you. He’s the type to play the hero angle then, it’ll be great for a small network like Adelphi, saying they’re bucking the blacklist cause I’m okay. Sure, some sponsors will run, but there’s always others who like to back a renegade. People will see the money, they’ll see the Soviets aren’t coming in with tanks, and then the blacklist will be broken by Howdy Doody time!”
Hank was shaking his head. “Phoebe, sweetheart, I’m in no position to do that now, you know that. You have to stay reasonable.”
“But…but if…” She recognized his smile – the smile of a man about to pat a very silly girl on the head. “Right,” she managed to say. “Of course. I understand.”
She did, too. She understood that it was a hell of a lot easier to stay reasonable when everything you’d built up for years hadn’t just been taken away from you, and there was nothing you could do to fight back.
“Good girl,” he said, and slid over a fat brown envelope. Puzzled, she started to open it.
“Not here!” he yelped. “Wait till you get home, dummy.”
“How very clandestine,” she marveled. “Though I must say, if you’re trying to keep yourself out of the soup and me looking innocent, this isn’t the best course.”
“You really can’t keep your trap shut, can you?” Hank was actually raging at her. “I bet you mouthed off to the wrong person once and that’s how you got yourself into this mess.” He smacked the envelope. “Take it before I change my mind.”
Her heart chilled. He truly thought she had done something to deserve this. Phoebe tucked the envelope into her bag, wishing she had the courage to throw it in his face, wishing she didn’t need his gift or his favor. But she did.
When they left the restaurant, Hank pumped her hand again. “Listen honey, I always liked your work, but you oughta just get yourself married. I’ve never known a woman who wasn’t happier when she was married.”
Phoebe was tempted to ask how many women he actually knew, but only smiled and let him wring her hand till he felt he’d done the right thing. Now more than ever, her reputation mattered. She may be blacklisted, but she had to maintain a good name.
From Red Letter Days by Sarah-Jane Stratford, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2020 by Sarah-Jane Stratford.
About ‘Red Letter Days’ by Sarah-Jane Stratford
Nineteen-fifties America is bright and full of promise, and Phoebe Adler, a New Yorker brimming with talent and ambition, is forging her way as the rarest of things: a female television writer in Hollywood. But fears of a growing Red Menace cloud the optimism, egged on by the hate-mongering of Senator McCarthy. A blacklist is created to cast out communist sympathizers, smashing careers and ruining lives. When Phoebe finds herself caught in the hysteria’s web, she flees to London.
Though postwar London is struggling and work is precarious, Phoebe finds camaraderie with other Americans living in exile, including the restless and ambitious Hannah Wolfson. Determined to fight the injustices of the Red Scare, Hannah is a successful producer who hires blacklisted writers at great risk to her career and company. Together Phoebe and Hannah successfully fight unfair bias and sexism, but danger still looms in this supposed sanctuary. And when their families and friends—their very lives—are threatened, they will have to make impossible choices.