James Stewart • WildBlue Press

By James Stewart

I always wanted to be a writer. However, when I first attended college, in Louisiana State University in the 1970s, I chose a “practical” specialty that would have opened the door to certain jobs in my hometown. I had to follow my intuition and take a step towards my ultimate goal – to become a professional writer – by graduating with a degree in English or journalism. I didn’t follow those intuitions and joined the Navy after college. I had no plans for the Navy to become my career, but things are changing, and I have spent the next twenty-five years traveling in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. I had a good career and eventually served as commander of the amphibious ship USS MOUNT VERNON. I retired as captain. Over the years, I have occasionally tried to write, but work and the lifestyle of the Navy usually take everything, and I was distracted by other interests such as art. But writing remained my main goal and I knew I would come back to it.

After retiring from an active position and settling in San Diego with his family, I went back to school and this time I did the right thing – I got a bachelor’s degree in English at the National University, then UFA Creative Writing from UC Riverside. The latter is the best rated small residency program, where most of the work is done online, supplemented by intensive ten-day residency periods twice a year. In 2012, in preparation for the program in Creative Nonfiction Literature, I began looking for a thesis subject. I have been reading criminal literature ever since Heroes Skelter appeared back in the 70s. Over time, I gained an interest in telling non-fiction Cold blood by Truman Capote, especially on ancient crimes such as The devil in the white city by Eric Larson. So, I started looking for an old crime, preferably one set near home in San Diego, because I knew the investigation requirements would be high.

Almost immediately, I found an article by San Diego historian and author Rick Crawford, The Death of a Dancer, originally published in 2011. San Diego Union-Tribune, about 1923 the murder committed in San Diego. I was surprised that no one was writing a book about this case. I started reading a few hundred accounts of modern newspapers. The more I read, the more I was fascinated.

1923 Month of January. The half-naked body of the amazing twenties interpretive dancer Fritzie Mann was found on Torrey Pines beach under mystical circumstances. On the first day, two good suspects appeared, an unhealthy doctor and a Playboy actor, both with motives and trembling alibis. Police learned that on the night of her death, Fritzie and one man checked into a La Jolla beach cottage with alleged names, raising two big questions – what was the mysterious “Mr. Johnston? “and what happened that night at Blue Sea Cottages? I was obsessed with learning the answers, which turned out to be quite challenging.

In addition to the mystery of murder with unusual characters, I was more attracted to the story. For me, the age of jazz is the most exciting period in U.S. history, and not just because Mr. Fitzgerald painted a frivolous world of jazz, language, straps, and shoe makers. It was also the era of yellow journalism that provoked and falsified news by selling newspapers; the evolving but hugely popular Hollywood film industry, shaken by a string of well-known scandals; and the flaw of the ban and the corruption that seemed to hang on everything. It was also a time of great change after a terrible war and flu epidemic that claimed millions of people and disappointed generations. The new attitudes of the young, especially women, clashed with the Victorian code of morality and touched on the cultural war of the early 1990s with vivid parallels a century later. What fascinated me most, though, was Fritzie Mann, a talented young woman from an immigrant Jewish family who practiced exotic and now lost art, loved the wrong man, and ran out of opportunities. She had to tell her story. I underestimated the challenge of filling the gaps in the historical record and analyzing the fact from the yellow fiction, but nine years later The secret of the Blue Sea cottage is the result.