Steven S. Drachman: I write stories, when I have a chance, about a time roaming gunman named Watt O’Hugh the Third. The difference between a time Roamer and a time Traveler is that, while both Travelers and Roamers can see and visit the future and the past, a Roamer can do nothing about them.
In the first novel, The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh, Watt and his fellow Roamer, Madame Tang, meet Oscar Wilde in the early 1870s.
“Poor Oscar,” Madame Tang says, as they say goodbye to him at the train station, and Watt notes, to himself, The problem with being a Roamer is that everyone you meet is a tragedy.
A future and a past each sweeps out in front of poor Madame Tang, and she sees everything, and the tragedy is inevitably what lingers.
I wrote that line back in the 1990s, before the Internet, before we all became Roamers.
I suffer from insomnia, and I used to watch a lot of old films on Turner Classic Movies, back when I had cable, and from time to time I would come across an actor or actress I’d never heard of in some silent or early talkie, and I would wonder why I’d never heard of her before, so vibrant was her screen presence. Once the internet came along, unfortunately, I could find out, and the answer was never a happy one. Because if someone was that magnetic on screen, she would have been a star, unless something downright awful had happened.
At the end of Andy Hardy’s Double Life, in 1942, we meet someone called “girl on the train,” a beautiful and happy young woman who lights up the screen for just a little while, who was played by an actress named Susan Peters. You’ve never heard of her – after her momentary appearance in the Hardy movie, she was signed to a big movie deal, even snagged an Academy Award nomination, before a hunting accident left her paralyzed. Her marriage broke up and she died from chronic alcoholism and anorexia, at 31. I imagine the fans who loved her tried to put it all behind them, because vibrant youth was what defined her. Who could enjoy her films after that? Who could even talk about it?
One night, I watched the original silent version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I wondered what had ever become of the vivacious Martha Mansfield. Of course – during filming of a later movie, in 1923, her very flammable Civil War costume went up in flames. Eddie Cantor’s leading lady in 40 Little Mothers, the magnetic Rita Johnson (in a role that didn’t really require it)? Naturally, a hair dryer fell on her head in 1948, causing brain damage that destroyed her career, and the alcoholism that ultimately killed her. Lupe Vélez, the “fiery” leading lady of Douglas Fairbanks’ great silent film, The Gaucho? What about the dad from the original TV version of The Goldbergs, Philip Loeb, who was such a perfect foil for Gertrude Berg’s Molly? I really cannot get into it.
What they all share is that tragedy cut their careers short; in many cases, as with the comedian Freddie Prinze, the tragedy erased the legacy. Who, in 1978, could still laugh at a Chico rerun? The Goldbergs didn’t survive in reruns, in part because of the Loeb tragedy. Who, in 1945, could watch the beautiful and funny Lupe Vélez mugging with Laurel and Hardy and not think of … well, Google it. It isn’t pretty. And the slanderous (and completely false) rumor that you will inevitably find on the web is worse still, as it subjected her to ridicule over the nature of her death.
Thirty years ago, you might watch an old movie on TV in the middle of the night, and if a long-dead actor momentarily piqued your interest, he was forgotten by the time you fell asleep. Today, the horror of his awful life is available on the internet, at your fingertips, and you probably won’t look away.
Knowing everything there is to know is not a good thing, it turns out. We’re all Roamers now, and everyone you meet on the web is a tragedy.
Steven S. Drachman is the author of The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is published by Chickadee Prince Books.