What do all three have in common? No, not the letters AN. It’s JUANITA SHERIDAN!
Angie Tudor is the Chinese female lead in Sheridan’s first novel WHAT DARK SECRET co-written in Hawaii with the Michigan transplant dentist Dorothy Dudley. In many ways Angie Tudor is the precursor to Lily Wu. She’s beautiful, cosmopolitan in outlook, daring and brilliant. But she is not as fully formed as Lily — being one of those “unwanted Chinese babies” she was dropped off at a mission on Kauai and has no Chinese family background to hearken back to. She is a University of Hawaii graduate, has a couple of advanced degrees from Peiping, speaks 12 different Chinese dialects, is the best reporter on the staff of the local paper, is a “bit of a sleuth” and respected enough by the haole elite to be the only Asian invited to a dinner party made up of island high society, ex diplomats and military brass. Of course the dinner party is interrupted by a very bloody stabbing murder during an island wide blackout drill (interestingly this was written before Pearl Harbor). WHAT DARK SECRET has other wonderful period details of Honolulu life and is chock full of scandalous intertwining love affairs.
Soon after my search began, I picked up a copy of the out of print title on Ebay. From the Schantz’s biography, I knew Sheridan had written the book prior to leaving Hawaii, so I searched through the Hawaii newspaper index to see if I could find any articles mentioning Sheridan or the book. An entry for a Honolulu Advertiser article printed on September 26, 1940 looked promising: “Fomer Disney Scripter Writing Hawaiian Mystery.” A quick microfilm search brought me an amazing sight — staring out of that humming antiquated lightbox known as a Microfilm reader was the author herself . It was my first sight of Juanita Sheridan and I gasped so loudly that everyone around me turned around.
“She’s cute and thin and has a cat!” is what I wrote in my journal that day. I was surprised because Janice Cameron, the first person narrator of the Lily Wu novels who is the fictional stand in for Sheridan, is constantly talking about her weight problems and troubles with men. I was particularly thrilled about the cat at the typewriter. I also like to write with a cat next to me.
I printed up the hazy microfilm photo and pasted it to my desktop printer for motivation. I printed up another copy to put in my briefcase, meaning to whip it out to whenever I met an older Chinese woman and ask, “Does this woman look familiar?”
The actual article, written by Naomi Benyas, was loaded with possible leads to follow up on. Juanita is referred to as Johnny Elliot (a nickname that she uses in the dedication to THE CHINESE CHOP). She and co-author Dr. H. Dorothy Dudley are planning to enter their finished mystery novel that includes “all the gory details” In Farrar Rinehart’s $30,000 contest. The are also planning to send the published book to Anna May Wong in hopes that she will “consider it a suitable story for her talents and make it into a movie.”
I had just seen a TCM special about Anna May Wong and knew how Wong had struggled to get decent acting parts. My esteem for Juanita Sheridan went up a notch thinking of how progressive she must have been for her time to create a strong leading role for a Chinese woman.
The article goes on to give a wonderful description of early working conditions at the Walt Disney Studio: “Mrs. Elliot was the first script girl with the Walt Disney studios eight years ago. She was also the only woman working there in the midst of the 125 men, and “had myself a time.” A slim, tanned, jolly person, Mrs. Elliot began with the Disney group back when Mickey Mouse was in his heyday, when the studio was just built and her typewriter and desk were shiny and new. Once she was the voice of a goldfish in one of the cartoons; another time she was the voice of a little pig. Anything and everything in the way of work was the Elliot responsibility: to steer the movie stars about the studio, to take notes from three directors at once, to be the offstage voices. Story conferences were really something, held in a huge room with a piano and a long table. Present were the director, the musical director, the artists, the gag men, the pianist and the stenographer, Mrs. Elliot. Often, she says, she used to lie on the floor and take her notes. Conferences would last for two or three days, with “cokes” and candy bars being shipped in to step up the process of script writing. Everything was very informal, very free and easy,” she said. “If I came to work in a new dress, a caricature of me was up on the bulletin board in five minutes and everybody laughed at me.” Those conferences were free-for-alls with everyone arguing fiercely, then acting out their ideas. Mrs. Elliot was supposed to take notes of all the ideas and straighten the whole thing out for the drawings, with photographic angles taken into consideration. Each artist had the scenes he could do best and those too she had to keep straight — which artist handled the dance scenes, which the burlesque, which the dialogue. Once for six weeks she had to dance the minuet up and down the halls to show the artist how to draw that minuet correctly. He was a German and didn’t know minuet steps. At that time she wished she were German, too, so she wouldn’t know them either. Eventually Mrs. Elliot wrote two scripts on her own and sold them to Disney, both based on myths. They were not so successful financially since people come to Disney cartoons not to be educated but to be amused, she said.
Sheridan’s books have great visual details and I have to think that her experience at Disney influenced the way she wrote them. I’ve often thought that the Lily Wu books would make a great film series. Like THE THIN MAN goes all female and part Chinese. They would be sardonic, sexy, and a great vehicle for 1930’s fashion items, deco interiors, and Django Reinhardt music. Ironically one of Sheridan’s Lily Wu books was turned into the pilot for the TV series HAWAIIAN EYE, but the female characters were turned into men. The Anna May Wong version of Sheirdan’s books has yet to be made.
So… I had the nickname, I had the past Disney career, I had the cat. I still didn’t have a clue about the Chinese women friends. The search must go on…