Imagine if you could meet famous Haverhill historical figures, such as theater mogul Louis B. Mayer, or tour historical buildings long since demolished, like the Elizabeth Home for Destitute Children, without leaving the comfort of your Barcalounger.
Now you can, thanks to the imagination of New York writer Diana Altman.
Altman's latest novel, "In Theda Bara's Tent", examines the rise of fictional newscaster Harry Sirkus during the Golden Age of cinema from his origins as a street urchin in Haverhill to a national powerhouse within the Fox Broadcasting company.
The Queen Slipper City, for better and for worse, factors heavily into the growth of Sirkus as a teen in Altman's new book. Following the death of his parents, Sirkus finds himself transferred to the Elizabeth Home, a Haverhill orphanage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where he suffers under the torment of his peers until he discovers an escape in the local theater, The Gem. More importantly, he finds a kind soul in the building's owner, Louie. Sirkus also finds an enchanting allure through the fiction of the cinema in the curves of silent film starlet, and titular character, Theda Bara.
Altman said the majority of her inspiration for the novel came during her many hours spent researching Mayer at the Haverhill Public Library in the early '90s.
While pouring over countless historical documents, the name of the orphanage caught her attention and, in her opinion, demanded a story to somehow incorporate the location.
"It was the pride of Haverhill," she said. "They took good care of the children there."
Several key Haverhill streets, including Merrimack and Washington streets, as well the Merrimack River are referenced in the book.
Though she attempted to start the novel in the nineties, she said that her own inexperience as a writer made her retreat from exploring her characters further. It wasn't until a few years ago, while thumbing through a her old manuscripts, that she felt confident enough to invent the world of Sirkus once more through a combination of hard facts and fantasy.
"I could deal with certain things in the novel that I couldn't in 'Hollywood East,'" she said.
No stranger to the cinema's budding era, along with Haverhill's impact upon it, Altman's previous work includes the 1992 nonfiction book "Hollywood East: Louis B. Mayer and The Origins of the Studio System", which examined the people, places and innovations of movie-making along the East Coast.
Her personal history deeply intertwines with her work. Altman's father, Al Altman, was one of MGM Studio's talent scouts and assisted in the creation of the ad lib screen test.
"That meant anyone could be a movie star," she said.
In addition, Al frequently worked hand in hand with Mayer. Diane said that Mayer's theater's helped bring the culture and arts of larger cities like Boston into working-class mill cities like Haverhill through showings of opera and other traditional theater performances.
"I look at (Mayer) as a little bit of an American hero," she said. "I never heard (my father) say a bad word about Mayer."
Though Mayer plays a role model to the young Sirkus, Altman noted that Mayer's backing of the state-of-the-art, yet morally devoid film "Birth of a Nation" leads to Sirkus' disillusionment by creating a humanizing gaff in Mayer's judgment.
Currently residing in New York while pursuing her career as a full-time writer, Altman said she vividly remembers some of her time spent in Haverhill during her research. Especially, she notes, the food of the A1 Deli.
"It had this great corn chowder they only served one day a week," she said.
For more information, and to pick up your own copies of "In Theda Bara's Tent" just in time for the holidays, visit dianaaltman.com.