“Yes, sometimes even the great Garbo can’t endure the Klieg lights during long rehearsals, must save her strength for the final filming! Even front-page debutantes might need doubles!”
This book is a fun one! Debutante Stand-In is by Judith Grovner Wright, aka Lois Bull, and was published in 1937. My copy has a review slip pasted in, saying this copy is for pre-publication review with an expected publishing date of May 28, 1937. This book is from the Hillman-Curl Streamlined Romance line, “as modern as tomorrow for the woman of today.” A brief biography and publishing history about Alex Hillman, one of the founders of Hillman-Curl, can be found here.
When I featured this title in the Grolier New Members Collect 2020 Virtual Exhibit, I noted the cover artist was C. Malvern, as that’s how it’s signed. However, in retrospect I realize I should have expanded on that. The dust jacket cover art is by noted children’s book illustrator Corinne Malvern. Malvern illustrated one of the original twelve Little Golden Books (Nursery Songs arranged by Leah Gale), several other Little Golden Books, and many more children’s stories. The artwork style of Debutante Stand-In is consistent with other work Malvern was doing around that time, and I was able to find a listing for the August 1937 issue of Ladies Home Journal, which was signed C. Malvern in the same style as this cover, with the artwork attributed in full to Corinne Malvern in the table of contents.
According to OCLC, Debutante Stand-In is held by three libraries: the Library of Congress, Ohio State University, and the Bangor Public Library in Maine. My copy is from Yesterday’s Gallery and Babylon Revisited Rare Books, picked out when I visited them in 2019. I remember that Debutante Stand-In was the last book I added to the purchase pile, the one where I knew I probably had plenty of books already but just couldn’t leave without it.
Debutante Stand-In joins the ranks of top-tier late 1930s romance fiction with its far-fetched premise, general shenanigans, and happily ever after. The basic premise is that Nancy North, identical in appearance to wealthy heiress Cynthia Bray, is hired by the Bray family to be a stand-in for Cynthia in the days leading up to her debut. Of course the setup is more complicated than that, and the opening chapters are a bit drawn out and convoluted.
Nancy North’s family fell into hard times and she’s on her own when the Bray family first discovers her, two years before the story begins. Nancy’s first encounter with the Bray family ends tragically, and they pay her off to quit her stage career, since they don’t want anyone mistakenly thinking that she’s Cynthia. Our story opens with Nancy in an employment placement agency, where her fluency in Italian helps her win an excellent gig as an assistant for an important man visiting from Italy, Paul Poggio. Moments after she’s hired, Paul takes a call from Mr. Bray and Nancy flees to a different job, a photography agency advertising for a description she perfectly fits. Only, the photography agency is a front and the Brays have found her at last. Nancy agrees to the work for the Bray family and makes a flimsy excuse to Paul Poggio.
Meanwhile, Cynthia Bray is being pressured into the marriage market by her eccentric Aunt Augusta, who oversees the family fortune. Cynthia and the Bray family lawyer, Tony Burkhart, wish to be married, and Cynthia resents being leveraged for the social status of an important title. The suitor her aunt has selected for her is an Italian count traveling to America… one Paul Poggio.
Nancy and Cynthia get along immediately, and begin plotting. For while Aunt Augusta and Mr. Bray have approved of hiring Nancy for chores like dress fittings, Cynthia has a more ambitious task in mind. “You’re to be me, whenever I have to meet this prospective husband. It’s your job to get rid of him for me. I don’t care how you do it” (69). This includes several instances of Nancy impersonating Cynthia in social events, even passing as Cynthia at parties where members of Cynthia’s family are in attendance, all while trying to escape detection as the stand in. The novel includes many switcheroo scenarios, often with quick wardrobe changes, and varying degrees of supporting characters being accomplices or oblivious to it.
Of course, the wrench in the plan is that Nancy North has already met Count Paul Poggio, who has not forgotten her. He’s sharp and inquisitive, balancing his resentment of Aunt Augusta’s obvious social maneuvers and his business interests with Mr. Bray. He would also really like to know why “Cynthia Bray” posed as Nancy North looking for a job, only to disappear completely. Nancy makes up a story about impersonating “Nancy North” to try to get an early look at her suitor, but pesky details such as the fact Cynthia Bray doesn’t know Italian make the story only half believable at best.
It’s obvious where the story is headed as soon as Nancy tries to tell Cynthia that the suitor Aunt Augusta has in mind is actually rather handsome. The parts of the book with Count Paul Poggio and Nancy together are the story at its best. The banter, the intrigue, and the situations are all top notch. A personal favorite is when “Cynthia” and the Count sneak out to the same opera the Count declined to attend with Aunt Augusta… and are spotted.
Cynthia and young lawyer Tony Burkhart’s plans to elope on the night of Cynthia’s debut becomes a mad dash against the clock. She needs to wait to come of age to elope, but the Count, in love with “Cynthia,” would very much like to announce their engagement. Everyone in on the plan needs to avoid detection from Aunt Augusta, who begins to suspect that things are going a bit too smoothly with her usually troublesome niece, as well as keep the Count at bay, at least enough to avoid a scene that would blow Nancy and Cynthia’s cover. Meanwhile, the Count begins working out the mystery of Nancy North, working at an accelerating pace and keeping everyone on their toes.
The big showdown comes during Cynthia’s debut party, when Aunt Augusta, Mr. Bray, the Count, Tony Burkhart, Cynthia Bray, and Nancy North all have it out. The Count is declaring that he loves either Nancy North or Cynthia Bray – he knows the woman he loves by her hands, but doesn’t know which identity is hers – when the real Cynthia Bray arrives with Tony Burkhart to announce their successful elopement. The Count readily accepts that the woman he fell in love with was the stand-in, and it’s agreed that Nancy North will be introduced at Cynthia’s debut, not as “Cynthia” but as Nancy North, the Count’s fiancée.
I only have two quibbles with the resolution of Debutante Stand-In. The first is that a great deal of the showdown includes a Scooby-Doo ending overly explaining a mystery spanning centuries and continents of how Nancy North happens to be a distant cousin of Cynthia Bray. This whole subplot of the distantly connected families was less interesting than the main story. The second is that the story makes a big deal about Nancy’s upper class upbringing and education. The blurb on the cover promises us a story of “just another girl out of work,” but the novel often mentions Nancy’s exclusive education at an Italian convent, remarks on how well she fits into the society role with the Brays as a result of her heritage, and then there’s that whole bit again about how she’s distantly related to an important society family. I think that the story of “just another girl out of work” would have added a more modern and relatable element. However, there is an orange kitten in the story, which I think balances out any other complaints I’d have, except that it is not established whether or not the Count likes cats.
Copies of Judith Grovner Wright’s works are available for purchase here.