Author Laura Pederson is a tough customer.
A one-time professional gambler way back in the 1980s, while she was a mere teenager, Pederson went on to parlay those steely nerves and scary mathematical talents into a lucrative career as a stockbroker, banking her first million dollars before she was old enough to buy a drink. Since then, she’s become a New York Times columnist (the youngest woman to ever do so), has written several books (Play Money; Street-Smart Career Guide; Going Away Party), and landed a job hosting the popular Oxygen personal finance show “Your Money and Your Life.” The native New Yorker, raised in upstate Buffalo, could not have achieved such accomplishments without possessing a serious set of killer instincts. Still, unlike Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, the sexy Jazz-era murderesses from the estrogen-charged new movie Chicago, which Pederson and I have just watched, in all its immoral glory, Pederson has never actually killed anyone.
“Not yet, anyway,” she laughs when I ask her. “Though I’ll admit that when you’re making and losing 1.3 million dollars in a single afternoon, which happened to me in the crash of ’87, your emotions do run high and people do get desperate. When there’s a lot of money at stake, tempers run hot. That’s why there are such stiff fines for fighting on the Stock Exchange floor, because there are some real knockdown, drag-out fistfights from time to time. I had more-than-a-few close goes myself.”
As she speaks, there is a wistful tone in Pederson’s voice, a leftover shred of nostalgia for those good old Stock Exchange days, when adrenaline and fortune ran as high and free as the gin poured and the bullets flew back in the days of Roxie Hart’s Chicago. In her latest novel Beginner’s Luck (Ballantine, $13.95, now out in paperback), Pederson lets fly with a warmhearted comic yarn about Hallie, a wily, teenage card sharp whose fortunes take a turn when she meets the refreshingly offbeat Stockton family, a clan-full of oddballs and very strong women, whose little eccentricities provide the fertile ground that Hallie needs in order to find her own sense of inner power. It is, of course – guess what? – a fictionalized version of Pederson’s own story.
“I was always moving in the opposite direction of the crowd,” she admits. “My parents raised me with all the freedom and independence and rope-to-hang-myself-with that I wanted. I was not exactly sheltered from the ways of the world.” Perhaps that’s why she enjoyed Chicago, the story of two women whose individual career paths include killing their rotten-scoundrel lovers and using the notoriety to become stars of the stage. “I think everybody loves a rags to riches story,” she says, and maybe that’s part of why she identifies so much with Roxie Hart. “Women know that, historically speaking, ‘the system’ has given us a hard time. We’ve been taken advantage of because we were female, and made to feel that we had no power. So when we go to a movie like Chicago, and we see a woman craftily using her wiles to beat the system, it’s hard not to want to cheer her along.”
“Even though she’s, you now, killing people?” I have to mention. “She’s cheating and lying and using everybody in sight.”
“Hey, whatever it takes,” she replies. “In the scene where the women on Death Row all perform the Cell Block Tango, singing about the men they’ve killed, ‘He had it comin’, He had it comin’. He only had himself to blame,’ there’s a big underlying sense that these women have been put through a lot by those men. Not that all men are bad or all women are saints. We’re not. But I have to tell you, when those women stand up there, without apologizing, and tell those stories, I wanted to cheer like we all did when Chief Brody finally blew up the shark at the end of “Jaws.”
“It was just,” she laughs, “so satisfying to watch.”
Chicago, which stars Renee Zellwegger as Roxie, Catherine Zeta Jones as Velma, and Richard Gere as their equally unscrupulous lawyer, is jam-packed with women who display creative methods of getting ahead. Joining Roxie and Velma “Main Murderess One and Two” are Big Mama (Queen Latifah), the graft-inclined Matron of the cell block, the ignored housewife driven to murder by her husband’s incessant gum-popping habits, “I got the shotgun and I fired two warning shots,” she explains, “right into his head,” and a European Immigrant who still seems terrified of her husband, even after she kills him.
“When I look at the women in a show like Chicago, Pederson points out, “a show set in the early part of the Twentieth Century, I realize that a lot of these women’s behavior was in direct proportion to the opportunities available to them at that time. Basically, there were no opportunities. Even later on, in the 1950’s, a woman’s choices were limited. You could become a nurse, or a teacher, or maybe a secretary, and you didn’t earn very much at either one of those occupations. So it’s hard to judge these women in Chicago unless we look closely at the time period and the opportunities that were available to them at the time. I always think about that whenever I see a movie like this one, that depicts women trying to climb their way to top, using all kinds of back doors and unseemly methods, because sometimes the regular channels just weren’t open to them.”
Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Pederson herself was aware that educational and business opportunities for women were gradually increasing, but her neighborhood was still overpopulated with women who’d become young housewives instead of going to medical school or law school.
“But I could watch the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’,” she reveals, “and I could dream that I would be like Mary. I’d be single for a while. I would get a job where I could laugh with my co-workers, many of them men, like in Mary’s newsroom. And to tell you the truth, I got it. I got the Mary Tyler Moore life I saw on TV. I’m among the first generation of women who could go down to the floor of the Stock Exchange, and be judged on how much money I’d made, on how well I traded, and nothing else.”
All without committing a single murder…at least, not yet.
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to the movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.