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AMERICAN MASTERS: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

Airs Sunday, May 20, 2018 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Elizabeth Marvel as Louisa May Alcott, who loved to run.

Credit: Liane Brandon

Above: Elizabeth Marvel as Louisa May Alcott, who loved to run.

Examine the literary double life of this celebrated author, who wrote scandalous works under a pseudonym.

Special encore broadcast airing May 20 in honor of LITTLE WOMEN on MASTERPIECE (May 13 & 20) and THE GREAT AMERICAN READ (May 22) on PBS. Originally aired in 2009.

Louisa May Alcott, the author of “Little Women,” is an almost universally recognized name. Her reputation as a morally upstanding New England spinster, reflecting the conventional propriety of mid-19th century Concord, is firmly established.

Raised among reformers, iconoclasts and Transcendentalists, the intellectual protégé of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Alcott was actually a free thinker, with democratic ideals and progressive values about women – a worldly careerist of sorts.

Most surprising is that Alcott led, anonymously and under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, a literary double life not discovered until the 1940s.

As Barnard, Alcott penned some thirty pulp fiction thrillers, with characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts – a far cry from her better-known works featuring fatherly mentors, courageous mothers and impish children.

In “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women,” the first film biography about the celebrated author, AMERICAN MASTERS reveals a remarkable woman, ahead of her time, who was much more than a writer of children’s books.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women: Preview

The author of "Little Women" is an almost universally recognized name whose reputation as a morally upstanding New England spinster masked a literary double life.

Combining elements of documentary, drama and animation, the film stars three-time Obie winner Elizabeth Marvel as Alcott and Tony-winner and Oscar-nominee Jane Alexander as Alcott’s first biographer Ednah Dow Cheney.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Liane Brandon Copyright: Nancy Porter Productions, Inc.

Jane Alexander as Ednah Cheney, family friend and Alcott biographer.

The dialogue is taken exclusively from writings or firsthand reports of conversations. The HD film is shot on original locations including Orchards House in Concord, Emerson’s house in Concord and Fruitlands in Harvard, site of the Alcott’s utopian experiment.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Liane Brandon Copyright: Nancy Porter Productions, Inc.

The Alcotts, filmed at Orchard House, Concord, Mass. (left to right: Daniel Gerroll (Bronson), Marianna Bassham (May), Elizabeth Marvel (Louisa), Dossy Peabody (Abigail), Linda Amendola (Anna).

Interwoven with dramatic scenes are interviews with Alcott scholars Sarah Elbert, John Matteson, Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, Madeleine Stern, Dr. Leona Rostenberg, Jan Turnquist, and novelist Geraldine Brooks.

Scene from Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

Louisa May Alcott offers a glimpse of the elements of her life she wrote into her masterpiece.

“Louisa May Alcott is best known as a children’s author, yet her own life was much harder than Little Women would suggest,” says Susan Lacy, series creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS, a seven-time winner of the Emmy Award for Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction Series. “Before Alcott became the J.K. Rowling of her time, she worked as a servant, a seamstress and Civil War nurse. She grew up in the thick of the abolition and woman suffrage movement (once signed herself 'Yours for reform of all kinds,' and lifted her family from dire poverty to great wealth."

Photo credit: Courtesy of Liane Brandon Copyright: Nancy Porter Productions, Inc.

Louisa May Alcott (Elizabeth Marvel) served as a nurse in the Civil War during the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg.

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CREDITS:

A co-production of Nancy Porter Productions and THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET. The film is directed/produced by Emmy Award-winner Nancy Porter and written/produced by Harriet Reisen, author of the biography of the same title published by Henry Holt and Company. Susan Lacy is the series creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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