Debutante Stand-In

Written by Judith Grovner Wright (Lois Bull), cover art by Corinne Malvern“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.

Babylon Revisited Rare BooksCopies of Judith Grovner Wright’s works are available for purchase here.

Posted in 1930s, Corinne Malvern, Hillman Curl, Judith Grovner Wright, Lois Bull | 4 Comments

Our Dancing Daughters

Dust jacket art by SkrendaHappy Tenth Anniversary to thegoodbadbook!  On December 17, 2010, I tentatively wrote my “Awkward First Post,” immediately followed up by my first book review, “The Good Bad Girl.”  A thing or two has happened in the intervening decade, and I think it’s safe to say I’ve found a few more books for the collection.

Rather than subjecting the readers of this blog to a decade “life in books” retrospective, I’ve decided to go back to the beginning: reviewing a novel by Winifred Van Duzer.  Three of Van Duzer’s novels were published as hardcover books, and several additional novels were written for newspaper syndication but not subsequently published in codex form:  The Constant Flame (1928), Half-Wives (1929), Judy (1930), and Murder at Eagle’s Nest (1931).  Winifred Van Duzer wrote The Good Bad Girl, the book I named this blog after, and now I’m back for more.

Behold, Our Dancing Daughters!

Our Dancing Daughters is a 1928 Grosset & Dunlap photoplay edition, complete with a fabulous Skrenda dust jacket.  Grosset and Dunlap’s hardcover photoplay editions tend to include several glossy photo plate illustrations throughout, and Our Dancing Daughters is no exception.  What makes this book a little unusual is that the film wasn’t adapted from the novel, but rather Winifred Van Duzer novelized the film.  Josephine Lovett wrote the story and screenplay for Our Dancing Daughters.

The 1928 film, Our Dancing Daughters, remains one of the more famous silent films of the era.  It enjoyed an all-star cast of Joan Crawford, Anita Page, Dorothy Sebastian, and Johnny Mack Brown.  Immortalized by Joan Crawford’s dancing, this film survives and is readily available on DVD or streaming platforms.  The main song of the film’s synchronized soundtrack, “I Loved You Then as I Love You Now,” is available on the Internet Archive.

Possibly because the movie came before the novelization, they’re fairly similar.  All of the major plot points are more or less the same in each, and happen in the same sequential order.  The book version expands upon the film, giving characters more depth or explaining why they’re at a certain location.  For example, part of the film takes place in a wilderness lodge with zero explanation.  The book sets the stage for this summer outing, complete with a backstory for the conniving chaperone.  One derivation of note is that the last names of the protagonist and the romantic lead have changed from the film to the book:  Ben Blaine in the film becomes Benny Black in the book, and Diana Medford becomes Diana Rand.

The basic premise for Our Dancing Daughters is that Benny Black moves to town and is quite taken with the bold, “dangerous” dancing Diana Rand, and the seemingly sweet and timid but actually calculating Ann Evart.  Believing unbecoming rumors about Diana to be true, Benny finds himself marrying Ann.  Their marriage is an unhappy one, ending in tragedy.

The outwardly flirtatious but inwardly virtuous flapper juxtaposed with the supposedly pure cheat is a trope that we’ve seen before (e.g. Party Girl by Vivian Grey), and I’m sure we’ll see again.  Diana is the center of every party, full of energy, and easy with her kisses.  Ann is cloying, dishonest, disliked by many, and is primed by her mother to marry the richest man she can land.  A third character, Diana’s best friend Beatrice, adds another dimension to this morality tale:  Beatrice is faithfully devoted to her husband but has a past from before she met him.

Benny Black’s character is expanded upon in the book, and not all of it is flattering.  He moves to town to expand his family’s shoe factory to a new part of the county, and the book has a weird subplot where he’s obsessed with drawing Diana’s feet.  He’s occasionally described as “priggish” and tends to be vaguely sexist.

When Benny and Ann marry, Diana is heartbroken but takes small comfort in that she had “dipped no standard” (129) and didn’t resort to lies or trickery as Ann had.  As for Ann, her true colors begin emerging after her marriage.  Shortly before roping Benny into an engagement, Ann tells him she wants “a home, a husband, and babies” but once they’re married, insists on renting a place at the Manor Arms apartment hotel, where a “fast” crowd lives, and dismisses the home with the yard and scoffs at the idea of being tied down with babies.  Ann continues an affair she has with Freddie, and descends into alcoholic tendencies.  She attempts to cut her mother off financially but is roped in by blackmail, up until her mother decides to move back West to try her fortunes with a rich suitor of her own, at least in the book.  The movie leaves the future of Ann’s mother open-ended.

Benny is made to suffer for his poor choice of bride.  In his hesitation about Diana’s character, Benny says to Ann, “a man wants to be sure his name and his honor will be safe in the hands of the girl he marries” (115).  Of course, that’s exactly the opposite of what happens with Ann.  Ann sends love notes that Freddie laughingly reads to his friends, dragging Benny’s name through the mud.  Town gossip abounds about the newlywed couple, and it’s noted that Ann Black has no friends.

Speaking of marital misery, Diana’s best friend Beatrice marries Norman Gregory.  She hesitates to marry him, but after being honest about her past prior to meeting him, Norman declares that all that matters is their love, and they marry.  However, Norman doesn’t let it go.  He’s constantly suspicious and jealous.  I think he’s downright abusive. He isolates Beatrice from her friends and controls her every move.  When the situation deteriorates into verbal abuse and Norman belittling Beatrice in public with his false accusations, Beatrice decides to leave him, even though she’s now expecting his child.  She secretly hatches a plan to escape Norman and flee to Paris, and Diana decides to join her.

It is at Diana’s farewell party that the drama of Our Dancing Daughters reaches its peak.  Ann drunkenly crashes the party with Freddie.  She finds Diana and Benny together, but not before Benny had observed Ann’s arrival with Freddie.  Diana, Benny, and Ann have it out publicly.  Freddie slinks away.  Diana declares that she does love Benny but hasn’t interfered with Ann’s marriage and still intends to leave for Europe.  Ann tries to wrangle a public spectacle out of the situation to gain favorable divorce terms and declares that she will make Benny miserable for as long as she lives.  Of course, that means that she doesn’t live long.  After insulting the janitorial staff at the Yacht Club, Ann falls down a flight of stairs to her death.

Norman arrives on the scene, first to try to help Ann home safely and then failing that, to summon a doctor for her.  He has supposedly seen the error of his ways and reconciles with Beatrice.  A combination of a few scenes in the film and some passages in the book made me think that Diana and Beatrice could have been perfectly happy together in Europe, but that of course isn’t the ending 1928 had in mind.  Diana spends a solitary year in Europe, “alone but not lonely, pensive sometimes, but not happy” (210) before returning to America.  Shortly after her return home, Diana is reunited with Benny for their happily ever after.

Here’s to the next ten years!


Copies of Winifred Van Duzer’s works are available for purchase here.

Posted in 1920s, Grosset and Dunlap, Skrenda, Winifred Van Duzer | 2 Comments

Those Difficult Years

Dust jacket by Nana Bickford RollinsAn early Faith Baldwin novel about the marriage of a librarian who grew up in Michigan?  Yes, although it’s worth noting that Leslie, the protagonist, quits her job shortly before getting married.

Faith Baldwin is one of the most famous and prolific romance novelists of the era I collect.  This blog has covered her work before, but not since 2013, and other blogs have written really great posts about her in the intervening years.  I strongly recommend checking out The American Past: NYC in Focus’ post on “Faith Baldwin of Brooklyn” as well as The New Antiquarian’s post on “Collecting Faith Baldwin.” 

Those Difficult Years by Faith Baldwin was published in 1925 by Small, Maynard & Company, and the cover art is signed by Nana Bickford Rollins.  As of this writing, this is the only Nana B. Rollins dust jacket in my collection.  Most of what a cursory internet search for Rollins brought up was greeting card art, some of which was rather religious.  And of course, I always feel it’s worth mentioning that this ninety-five year-old first edition novel with its dust jacket in such great condition came from Yesterday’s Gallery and Babylon Revisited Rare Books.

Those Difficult Years opens with the neighbors of Tom and Leslie Haddon preparing the Haddon home and welcoming the newly married couple back from their honeymoon.  The Haddons are greeted by a joyous crowd on the train station platform, and return home to find their house full of food and presents.  This opening sets the homey tone of the novel, which is set in a small town in New England.

For a book literally titled Those Difficult Years, this is really a wholesome and uplifting novel.  Various chapters present episodic struggles, but the main characters and their families all love each other and form a community.  Financial struggles are about Leslie struggling to balance a checkbook, but the Haddons employ a cook, a gardener, and eventually a visiting nurse for their son.  At one family gathering, Leslie’s cousin Ruth ponders what I consider to be the central theme of the novel, “It’s just love and family and threads that interweave.  Dull and commonplace and real,” (196).

One narrative thread involves Leslie’s family.  Her cousin Ruth, a successful interior decorator in NYC, suffers from a heartbreak and comes to the Haddons’ to recuperate.  She likes staying in town so much that she extends her stay, rents a home, and invites her Aunt Della in from Detroit.  Aunt Della’s response reads, “may I bring cat” and Bubbles the haughty cat joins the story, but I digress.  While Ruth is in town, Leslie decides to set her up with Tom’s business partner, Amos Allen.  Ruth and Amos clash on their original meeting, and argue about one of Faith Baldwin’s continuing topics of concern:  women with a profession entering matrimony.

The entire exchange between Ruth and Amos is on pages 103-107.  It really does set the stage for several of Baldwin’s subsequent novels, and was a personal subject matter for the author.  From Amos, “if [a woman] loves a man enough to marry him she will love him enough to exchange the swivel chair of authority for the needle and cotton.”  Ruth responds, “the business woman is thoroughly equipped to be her husband’s companion.  The parasite woman is not, even if she can darn socks properly.”  The argument continues and then Amos concedes that some women could continue working after marriage, notably writers (ahem, Faith Baldwin) and artists, especially since they are able to create at home.  A bit more than a hundred pages later, Ruth sacrifices her career and life in NYC to marry Amos.

Baldwin also touches upon pregnancy-related anxieties and the difficulty of caring for a newborn.  Other storylines include seeing the good in everyone despite rumors of their past, weekly visits with the in-laws, Tom falling ill with measles (!), and eventually the passage of time.  The narrative arc of Those Difficult Years isn’t so much a set of defined challenges within the first years of marriage where the main characters learn a lesson or two (e.g. The Love Debt or Younger Sister) but rather a slower progression of life events.

Something I missed until around the final hundred pages is that Those Difficult Years isn’t set in 1925 but rather a span of years around 1910-ish.  However, one of the neighborhood children makes a reference to silent film star Norma Talmadge (page 255) when she would have been nearly completely unknown.  Shortly after that, at which point several years have passed since the beginning of the story, it is mentioned that the current year is 1911.  So was the film reference incongruous with the novel’s setting, or was the reveal that the novel was slowly leading up to the outbreak of World War I a last minute addition?

Speaking of long spans of years and time, this story of Tom and Leslie Haddon’s marriage, published in 1925, will finally be entering public domain on January 1, 2021.  Most everyone is likely going to be all about The Great Gatsby when the 1925 copyrights expire, but don’t let him hog the spotlight!  Several important romances of the era, including The Flapper Wife by Beatrice Burton and Chickie by Elenore Meherin are also 1925 publications.  In fact, on January 1, 2021, for the first time, every single title listed in American Fiction, 1901-1925: A Bibliography by Geoffrey D. Smith will be in the public domain!  (Those Difficult Years is listed in that bibliography, and its citation is Smith B-112.)

Babylon Revisited Rare BooksCopies of Faith Baldwin’s works are available for purchase here.

 

Posted in 1920s, Faith Baldwin, Small Maynard and Company | 2 Comments

The Love Debt

The Love Debt by Claire Pomeroy“Fannie and Larry Holt were satisfied with love and marriage and a cozy little home – at first.  But ambition hurled them into the dizzy circle of the sportier younger set.”  So begins the plot summary of The Love Debt.  

I’ve been able to find relatively little information about The Love Debt.  The artwork looks like it’s probably by Modest Stein and could be from a cover of Street and Smith’s Love Story Magazine, but until that’s listed on FictionMags Index or found otherwise, that has to be my best guess.  Also, who is Claire Pomeroy?  She’s written books for Chelsea House, Grosset & Dunlap, and Macaulay.  I see nothing in her Library of Congress name authority file about an alternate name, but the OCLC record for The Love Debt, and that title only, contains the following note:  “Written by Loyala Lee Sanford. – Document in Street and Smith editorial files.”  I’ve reached out to the Special Collections Library at Syracuse, which houses the Street and Smith files, to follow up on this and will update if I learn more.

What I do know is that The Love Debt is part of Chelsea House’s “Love Story” line, and was published in 1932 in-between Honey, the Hostess by Vivian Gray and Julie of the Lazy J by Ellen Hogue.  The Love Debt is held at two libraries in OCLC:  Syracuse University and Ohio State.  Tracking down nice copies of these Chelsea House romances has been challenging, so it’s definitely worth noting that my nearly perfect copy of this very obscure title comes from Yesterday’s Gallery and Babylon Revisited Rare Books.

Like the summary states, The Love Debt is about Fannie and Larry Holt’s marriage, and their ambition to run with a more fashionable crowd.  It’s a cautionary tale that hits on many concerns of the era:  living beyond one’s means, gambling large sums of money (whether in cards or the stock market), alcoholism, and infidelity.  As far as cautionary tales go, The Love Debt was successful in dramatic tension and pacing.  Since this story has a – spoiler alert – Happily Ever After, everything comes to a tidy and improbable quick resolution that makes little sense.

The opening chapters of The Love Debt see the Holts freshly married and living in a bungalow purchased by Larry’s father.  Larry is a recent law school graduate working as a law clerk.  All of that is thrown off course when Larry’s college friend, Ted Shaw, tells the Holts that they’d live much more fashionably if Larry quit his law profession to be in the bond business with Ted’s father.  Larry declines, but when Ted sells Fannie on the idea, Fannie implores Larry to go along.  There’s no “let’s sleep on this,” moment nor any “let’s talk about this in private, without Ted hovering” discussion.  Instead, Larry reluctantly agrees to give up his career and becomes belligerently drunk.

Even with Larry’s greatly increased salary, the next phase of this novel piles on the economic anxieties as the Holts live beyond their means.  They give up their house to rent in a more expensive neighborhood and buy new furnishings on credit.  Fannie wracks up extensive credit accounts at various stores and gambles away her allowance at cards.  Money becomes a fraught subject until Larry takes up a shady unknown business, which is very strongly hinted to be bootlegging, with a new acquaintance, Joe Criswell.

Dane Tucker drives half of the infidelity plot, and orchestrates the other half.  Mr. Tucker has several similarities to Van Robard from The Love Feud.  Different authors, different publishers, and yet both Dane Tucker and Van Robard are rich, well-connected, suave, dangerous womanizers, each with a servant who is characterized as a completely unacceptable racist stereotype.  In fact, Dane Tucker is such a trope, that at one point Fannie sees a film where the handsome villain reminds her of him.  Where The Love Feud only hints about Van Robard’s past, The Love Debt spells it out about Mr. Tucker.  “Dane Tucker’s what is commonly known as a roué – a rake… He couldn’t be faithful to one woman.  They’re his hobby – women” (21).  When Dane Tucker sets his sights on Mrs. Fannie Holt, he conspires with Sonia Redfield that she should lure Larry away.

Throughout this novel, Fannie and Larry become increasingly miserable.  They hardly see each other except to share a tense meal, and Larry is often hungover in the mornings.  He lies about his whereabouts, and Fannie catches him kissing Sonia Redfield fairly early on.  As Fannie’s marriage disintegrates, she’s forced more and more to turn to Dane Tucker, eventually resolving to leave Larry for him.  The infidelity plot on both sides is rather difficult to read:  Dane Tucker pays off Fannie’s debts from her favorite fashionable boutique, she accepts jewelry from him, Larry gambles away his inheritance in the stock market in the hopes of winning enough riches to run off with Sonia, both Larry and Fannie match outfits with their new interest during a costume ball, and both can’t be found for more than an hour at that same ball.

The climax of the novel is where the story goes from being melodramatic but believable and tense to overly outlandish.  When Larry loses his fortune in the stock market, Sonia immediately dumps him and tells him that his wife is with Dane Tucker.  Larry arrives at Mr. Tucker’s mere minutes after Fannie has arrived, fresh from leaving him.  Larry beats the stuffing out of Dane Tucker and Fannie flees.  While Dane Tucker is unconscious, his servant murders him and then kills himself.  Joe Criswell, the bootlegger, witnesses the murder and is so shaken by it that he flees town immediately, which in turn frees Larry of any future involvement with him.  Sonia leaves town for Europe.  Fannie disappears for a while and Larry is so hysterical at losing Fannie that he goes into a nervous fit for weeks but emerges out of it permanently sober, done with alcohol forever.  Fannie is eventually located working at a department store, and is brought home.  The Holts get their original house back.  Larry’s old job and professional career track are completely restored.  It’s a lot.

The Love Debt ends with the Holts enjoying a cozy Christmas Eve together in their original home.  They’re living within their means again, “no more horrid old bills” (252), reflecting on the errors of their previous ways, and Fannie announces that perhaps the guest bedroom should be converted into a nursery.

Babylon Revisited Rare BooksCopies of Claire Pomeroy’s works are available for purchase here.

Posted in 1930s, Chelsea House, Claire Pomeroy | 1 Comment

I Lived This Story

A collegiate novel by Betty White?!?! Kind of, but not that Betty White.

In fall 1929, Doubleday Doran and College Humor magazine (no relation to the aughts-era website) co-launched a contest for a “Campus Prize Novel,” for the best story of American college life, written by a current undergraduate or very recent graduate. The winner received $3,000 – estimated at over $45,000 in 2020’s handy inflation calculator – and saw their novel serialized in College Humor as well as published by Doubleday Doran. Betty White won with I Lived This Story, which was published in 1930 and the contest was run at least twice more. The next few years saw I Jerry Take Thee Joan by Cleo Lucas and Cotton Cavalier by John Thomas Goodrich as the Campus Prize novel winners.

My copy of I Lived This Story is, alas, an early reprint. It is a Doubleday Doran edition but is missing a first edition statement. The rear dust jacket flap advertises the Campus Prize Novel Contest closing on October 15, 1930.

I read I Lived This Story during the back-to-school season, in part as a coping mechanism from the news about the 2020 season. It was a comforting read during uncertain times, even if it was supposed to be somewhat edgy for its time with drinking, smoking, petting, and in general, poor decision making. The more things change, etc. Like when did students start stuffing a towel at the bottom of the door to smoke in their rooms? I have no idea, but it’s done several times in this 1930 novel.

I Lived This Story is the tale of Dorinda Clark’s four years of undergrad at Colossus in Chicago, based on Northwestern. It has some pacing issues. 136 out of 308 pages are spent on freshman year, while her junior year is covered within a few passing pages of Dorinda trying Greek and then Economics (and hating both). Dorinda dislikes the general course of study and prerequisites she’s stuck taking her freshman year, but never really seems to pursue a major course of study with much interest. She falls in and out of different social groups, and finally lands on regularly hanging out at a professor’s house.

At the start of freshman year, Dorinda immediately rushes and joins the Gamma Theta sorority. Being initiated into this sorority means the world to Dorinda, and she definitely drinks the Kool Aid. As the novel progresses, she’s becomes less enamored with her sorority sisters and the Greek system, finding it hypocritical and shallow. At one point, she writes a scathing article about it in the school newspaper and has to live with the consequences of the article, literally, in the hostile Gamma Theta house. While Dorinda becomes cynical over the course of the novel, I found it largely accurate with the collegiate experience: no two semesters are ever exactly the same, and sometimes the things that matter one year fall to the wayside the next.

What I didn’t love about her sorority, even before Dorinda cooled on it, was its stance on women of different religions, much less women of different races or ethnicities. During the rush week “hash” meeting one girl is taken out of the running for having a Jewish parent, and in a different year another girl is blacklisted for being Catholic when the sorority house has already reached their four Catholic limit. Unfortunately, it’s not just the sorority that has these views, as reflected in Betty White’s language choices or portrayal of certain characters. This is hardly unique for one of the novels in my collection, but it’s always jarring and off-putting when it happens.

I Lived This Story was certainly less wholesome than a novel like Last Semester by Phyllis Crawford, which had been written for a young adult audience and took place at a much smaller university. Dorinda drinks until she’s sick, and frequently hangs out with a drinking crowd, prohibition be darned. One of her friends has to drop out of school for being pregnant, a scandal. While the protagonist of Last Semester might not graduate because she can’t focus on her coursework, Dorinda almost doesn’t graduate because she had been caught going to a hotel with a married Economics professor. While Dorinda gets cold feet and makes a hasty exit from the hotel, she’s thrown out of the university, although that decision is eventually revoked with the help of a few prominent alumni friends.

The ending of Dorinda’s time at Colossus captures the feeling of it being time to move on from school, but not gracefully. As mentioned, she’s very nearly expelled, and the professor who she regularly hung out with – not the professor she went to the hotel with – won’t be returning to the university next fall, but is moving East. The professor’s wife suggests Dorinda marry the graduate student who had been a recurring character throughout the book, and shortly after graduating, she does.

School-themed and collegiate novels are available for purchase here.

Posted in 1930s, Betty White, Doubleday, Doran, and Company | 5 Comments

Love Feud

Cover Art by Mach TeyCollecting obscure authors from yesteryear presents many joys and challenges.  Some of those challenges include locating copies of titles, or finding much about the author’s life.  

Mabel McElliott wrote short stories and a handful of articles of newspapers during the 1920s and starting in 1931, wrote a novel each year for newspaper syndication:  Love Feud (1931), The Man Hunters (1932), Darling Fool (1933), Married Flirts (1934), and Summer Sweethearts (1935).  The newspaper syndication of the stories varied in appearance from newspaper to newspaper.  For example, some newspapers included photos of a cast of characters, while others had text-only versions of the stories, sometimes to be found adjacent to the comics section.  It also meant that these stories were divided up into smaller segments than those serialized in magazine and pulp publications.  While I can’t find any evidence that her final novel was published, I’m pleased to share that I own a dust jacketed copy of each of her four published books.

This brings me to the other bit of information I found about Mabel McElliott:  her New York Times obituary is terrible.  Per the convention of the era, she doesn’t even get her own name, and her accomplishments are downplayed.  The headline reads, “Mrs. R.W. Clarke, Wife of Daily News Editor.”  Also, from the article, “Mrs. Clarke was the author of two novels.”  Excuse me?  I’m pretty sure that Mabel McElliott’s FOUR published novels are in my collection, with the fifth novel partially saved from a newspaper database in fragments on my computer.  This may have led to a mini Twitter rant, and I’m honestly considering sending a correction to the New York Times.

This summer, I read Mabel McElliott’s first novel, Love Feud. I snagged my copy way back in 2011, and have always found the Mach Tey dust jacket somewhat awkward yet delightful. As a novel, it’s not great, but I’ve definitely read worse. The main character, Liane Barrett, reads as childlike and frustratingly naive.  Also, it’s like the author wasn’t sure which book she was writing and threw dozens of plot points very quickly at the wall to see which would stick. The book is busy, but without being exciting.  Tropes that I’ve seen used to bring other novels to a dramatic climax are simply another episode in Love Feud: a dramatic crime scene with guns, a blackmailing attempt, a kidnapping, a marriage of convenience, running away from said marriage and nearly starving to death, etc.  There’s also an entire sub-plot about Liane’s guardian being her aunt rather than her mother, with her estranged father’s family wealth waiting to be inherited by the end of the novel.

Love Feud opens with Cass Barrett, an aging stage actress, raising eighteen year old Liane while barely scraping by.  A wealthy patron of theater, Mrs. Cleespaugh, offers Cass a summer job at a theater in the fictional Willow Stream, Long Island, and by extension Liane works at the theater’s box office.  Once in Willow Stream, the cast of characters is slowly introduced including Liane’s spoiled coworker, Muriel Ladd, as well as the handsome and mysterious Van Robard.  Upon hearing that Liane has met Van, Cass is horrified and makes Liane promise never to speak to him again.  This only sparks Liane’s curiosity and the promise is swiftly broken.  Various episodes during the summer include the theater getting held up at gunpoint.  At the end of the summer, Mrs. Cleespaugh offers to let Liane stay with her as a companion and the Barretts accept.

The love feud of Love Feud is more like a love square, or possibly some other polygon, only without much love.  Clive Cleespaugh wishes to marry Liane to fulfill the terms of a wacky will which stipulates that he’ll only inherit his great wealth if he marries before turning twenty-five.  However, Tressa Lord would prefer to marry into the Cleespaugh fortune herself.  Meanwhile, Liane has a “case” (i.e. crush) on playboy Van Robard and only agrees to marry Clive because Van Robard becomes engaged to Muriel Ladd, who in turn elopes with Chuck Desmond.

About the middle third of Love Feud follows the various antics and shenanigans that Tressa Lord tries to thwart Liane from marrying Clive.  She tries to have Liane blackmailed, but Liane’s police friend runs the blackmailers out of town.  She has Liane kidnapped, but the kidnappers are pursued and Liane escapes. She resorts to putting a thumbtack in one of the tires of the Cleespaugh family car and arranging for Van Robard to rescue a stranded Liane from the side of the road.  Finally, on Liane’s wedding day, she gives Liane a note from Van Robard and implores Liane to go to him.  None of these plans work out, and Liane marries Clive without any expectation of romance.

What follows is then one of the more discontented marriage of convenience plot lines.  Liane continues to pine after Van Robard.  It’s revealed that Van Robard is Liane’s half-step-brother.  When that’s somehow not an instant and complete dealbreaker, Van Robard’s character is abruptly killed off in a drunk driving accident.  Liane reacts by running away for six weeks, working in the stocking department of a large store until she faints from hunger and exhaustion.  She’s reunited with Clive, but they’re still miserably contemplating divorce.

Liane and Clive’s happy ending comes from an unlikely source.  When Tressa Lord returns to make a final play for Clive, she unintentionally drives Clive and Liane together.  They declare their feelings for each other and continue their marriage, but no longer as a business arrangement.  The novel ends with a time jump and Muriel paying a social call to Liane and admiring Liane’s newly born baby.

Babylon Revisited Rare BooksCopies of other Grosset and Dunlap romances can be found here.

Posted in 1930s, Grosset and Dunlap, Mabel McElliott, Mach Tey | 3 Comments

A Romantic Proposal and a Setback

Proposal

I said “yes” on September 6, 2019.

Daniel’s proposal was one that I knew was coming, and yet it caught me by surprise.  I knew that Daniel had a very specific ring that we had recently sized to fit me.  However, we were hitting the road on September 7th to visit the place where we first met, so I erroneously assumed that Daniel might propose there.

Unsuspecting, I had stayed a little late at work to chat with a few coworkers, and even stopped at a store to pick up candy for the trip ahead.  For the past few years, bringing a box of Dots on the road has become a tradition.  I came home and was singing the hello song to Thomas the cat (don’t judge), when I saw it.

On the counter was a set of instructions.  It was a scavenger hunt!  I was to be given a clue, and the answer to each clue would lead me to the title of one of my collectible books.  Admittedly, it took me a hilariously long time to figure out the first clue.  I insisted that I know my own books, and that there was no way I had a book titled The Best Man.  Eventually, Thomas walked over, sat in front of The Best Man, and meowed at it until I got the hint.

Within each book was a bookmark with the next clue written on it.  Each book led to the next, and the moment grew and grew as I guessed where this was headed.  My own collection of romances novels was now telling the story of my real life love.  The last book’s bookmark read, “open the bottom drawer,” and I found a beautiful leather journal.  “… because the most timeless love story of all is the one that we’re writing together.”

The proposal was classic Daniel: sweet, clever, and sentimental.  Without me noticing, he had studied the titles of my books until he wove them into our own narrative.  A few of the titles he picked have even been featured on this blog!  There are also a great many titles that I’m glad are NOT part of our narrative:  FickleSecond Choice, the list goes on.

As I said yes, Thomas cheered us on in excitement.

Our wedding date was supposed to be August 9, 2020.

We know what happened to that plan, and if you don’t know, I bet you can guess.  Daniel handled it better than I did, and wrote a beautiful note to our families and our friends announcing the change of plans.  It’s a delicate subject still, and I will forever give the stink-eye to anyone who spouts the cliches like “love isn’t cancelled.”

So now it’s August 9, 2020.  We had celebrated what we thought was our in-versary (inverse anniversary) in the months leading up to this date.  This was supposed to be the day we said, “I do.”  We’re spending today together, feeling so close to yet so very, very far away from what we expected.

Our new date is in summer 2021.

Tomorrow, we’ll move forward with our new plan and continue planning our future together.  But today, we need a moment.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Younger Sister

Younger Sister by Kathleen NorrisIt’s about time this blog covered a Kathleen Norris novel!  A prolific romance writer of the era, Kathleen Thompson Norris is one of the more (relatively) recognizable names in my collecting scope.  A handful of her novels were adapted into film, and her husband was Charles Gilman Norris, another novelist.  Grant Overton’s The Women Who Make Our Novels includes a brief biography of her.

To be perfectly honest, what called to me about Younger Sister in particular was the photographic dust jacket by Paul Hesse.  Also, the cover says “A Summer Romance,” so what better time to read it?  I decided to dive into this novel shortly after it arrived from Yesterday’s Gallery and Babylon Revisited Rare Books.

One mystery surrounding this title is its copyright page.  Published by Doubleday, Doran, & Company and printed at the Country Life Press, my copy is a stated first edition but also says, “Copyright, 1928, 1932.”  Usually that would mean it’s a reprint, but the stated first edition made me suspect the 1928 copyright could be its original serial publication date.  However, I couldn’t find any evidence of serialization in The FictionMags Index.  I figured that could either indicate a hole in the index (these definitely exist in the romance genre) or that the novel was serialized under another title.  Sorting through Kathleen Norris’ serialized stories in the index, one 1928 title jumped out at me as a possibility:  The Make-Believe Wife.  Based on the story itself, I could see that being the title, but how could I definitely prove that it was?  The hunt was on to find the text of any one of nine Collier’s weekly magazine containing a segment of the story.

HathiTrust Digital Library has hundreds of volumes of Collier’s available.  The Make-Believe Wife is still a few years away from entering the public domain, so “full view” was not an option, but I figured I could still do a search for character names.  However, Murphy’s Law clearly states that the volume I need won’t be available and as such, HathiTrust has over one hundred volumes of Collier’s but is missing volume 82, the second half of 1928.  Searching in Worldcat to see what libraries might have volume 82 was a nightmare, and so many libraries are closed right now anyway.

When all else fails, there’s eBay.  And sure enough, an affordable copy of Collier’s from September 1, 1928 was available for sale.  After confirming that there was a Kathleen Norris story in that issue, I ordered it and hoped for the best.Make-Believe Wife

When it arrived, I breathlessly flipped to The Make-Believe Bride.  I landed on a page mid-way, saw the protagonist was named “Bee,” and knew my hunch was correct.  And sure enough, The Make-Believe Bride is the story of Beatrice (Bee) and Houston (Hugh) Challoner.

Now onto the story!  This is a weird one.  The main premise is that Bee marries Hugh for his money in order to save her ailing sister, but then Hugh’s son, Bert, returns from abroad and falls in love with his new step-mother.

The power dynamic of Bee and Hugh’s courtship unsettles me as a modern day reader.  He is Bee’s boss, and is twenty-eight years her senior.  He’s a wealthy well-known architect, and she’s twenty years old with a family living in borderline poverty and a sister in ill health.  Hugh is older than Bee’s mother, and Bee is younger than Hugh’s son.  When Bee lives among Hugh’s family in their county homes for the summer, she’s closer in age to his nieces.

Bee marries Hugh for his money and loves him for everything he does for her and her family.  Her past life seems like a distant dream and Beatrice enjoys the luxuries of her new life.  During the first year of their marriage, Bee suffers a miscarriage and spends the spring convalescing, growing closer to her new husband with each day.

Hugh isn’t entirely satisfied with his new marriage.  He complains to his wife that none of it seems entirely real.  “You are playing a part, like a little girl playing house” (74).  Bee is devoted to him, but he’s often skeptical and jealous.  He asks her repeatedly if she loves another man, and then asks her if she’d tell him if she did.  Hugh often doesn’t recognize the repetitiveness of his own reassurance seeking behaviors until Beatrice starts finishing his sentences for him, “I know this one, too” and informs him that he’s asked the same question “about two hundred times” (164).  He even complains to his mother that his wife is a child.  Well, duh.  This grown man asks a woman twenty-eight years younger than him to marry him and then is upset because he perceives her as being immature?  It reads like something out of Reddit’s relationship page.

More trouble comes when Hugh’s jealousy, Bert’s ill-advised crush on his stepmother, and an old trouble-making family friend get mixed up.  Bert’s introduction is when he arrives at the end of his father’s wedding, meets his new stepmother and remarks, “well, that’s that, isn’t it?”  He’s known to be unable to hold down a job for a sustained period of time, and occasionally leaves the icebox door open.  His crush is picked up on by Aileen, a dear friend of Hugh’s deceased first wife who absolutely despises Beatrice.  Bert’s crush is then also picked up by Beatrice, who is so startled and embarrassed by it that she begins acting funny, only heightening her husband’s suspicions.

There’s a slight mystery regarding missing architecture plans for a prestigious competition, and during the confrontation over who hid Hugh’s plans, tempers run hot.  Hugh accuses his son of running around with Beatrice and sabotaging the contest entry.  Then suspicion falls on Aileen for hiding the plans, with a dramatic reveal (spoiler alert) that is was Beatrice who hid the plans and ruined Hugh’s chances.  After having been accused of an affair with her own stepson, Beatrice storms off and catches the next overnight train out of town.  The confrontation makes Bert realize the gravity of the wrongness (and possibly weirdness?) of crushing on his stepmom.

As soon as Bee arrives in the city, she’s lost without her husband.  She finds an unfamiliar hotel room and is perfectly miserable with her rash decision, realizing that she’s done exactly as Aileen would have wanted.  However, it takes only a few hours for her and Hugh to find each other.  They reconcile and it’s revealed that Hugh has won the architecture design contest after all, helped in part by him being friends with the judges who accepted his late entry.

The wealth and power dynamic were completely unequal, but Norris makes sure to wrap up Younger Sister by leaving no doubt to Hugh and Bee’s future happiness together.  By having a falling out and nearly losing him, Beatrice insists she now loves Hugh, “in a new way.  As a wife.  Not as a very much spoiled baby” (297).  By moving to complete the newly won architectural contract, the Challoners will also be much closer to Bee’s mother and recuperating sister.

Babylon Revisited Rare BooksCopies of Kathleen Norris’ works are available for purchase here.

Posted in 1930s, Doubleday, Doran, and Company, Kathleen Norris | 3 Comments

The Ring Cost a Dime

The Ring Cost a DimeOf all the various sub-categories of romances within my collection, few are as fun to read as the delightfully ridiculous romance with the outrageous plot.  Most of the outlandish plot romances I have are from the 1930s, with a majority but certainly not all of them representing the latter half of the decade.  The Ring Cost a Dime is no mere bauble, it is a shining gem within these treasured stories.  One marriage of convenience plot isn’t enough for this story; The Ring Cost a Dime has two!

My copy of The Ring Cost a Dime was a New York Rare Book Week 2019 find from Yesterday’s Gallery and Babylon Revisited Rare Books.  Written by Rob Eden (aka Robert and Eve Burkhardt), The Ring Cost a Dime was published in 1939 by Gramercy.  OCLC only lists one copy, at Ohio State.  Combining the scarcity of this title with the excellent condition of my copy, well, there’s a small running joke that this book seems to have picked up in my family:  “The ring cost a dime… the book did NOT.”

My favorite part of any Rob Eden novel worth its salt are the small amusing moments thrown in, and The Ring Cost a Dime doesn’t disappoint!  In order, the three best moments of this book are:  3.  Upon sharing their first dinner together, the protagonist (Janice) tells the love interest that she doesn’t like the short collars on his shirts or his taste in ties.  2.  The first time Janice is in her future husband’s apartment, she goes to his bookcase and determines that she does approve of his taste in books.  1.  The first time Janice writes her ex to say they’re through, she does it while on the clock at work.  Using company stationery.  A coworker reads it over for her and approves.

This book was the quarantine read I needed, a breath of fresh air.  Discussions of wealth, women’s careers, and how finances are negotiated within relationships are incorporated into Janice Garth’s story.  Her story begins with her fiancé reading the will of his recently deceased rich aunt.  Yes, this story has a wonky inheritance plot!  Aunt Martha Dorian left Howard one million dollars, but only if he marries his aunt’s protegee, Betty Wallace!  Before this, Janice and Howard had created a careful budget with their combined and equal salaries, determining that they’d be able to marry in two years time.  However, with this will, Howard insists on marrying Betty and simply divorcing her a year later to keep the money.  Betty pretends to be on board with this plan until after “I do,” when she dramatically informs Janice that she intends to keep Howard.  Janice is heartbroken.

Despondent, Janice takes the bus and walks home in the rain, and is pleasantly surprised when a stranger from the bus offers to share his umbrella.  She discovers they are neighbors, and then her new friend, Van Emerson, admits that he’s in trouble at his new job.  His employer only hires married men, so Van lied about the existence of a Mrs. Emerson to get the job.  Now, Van’s new boss’ wife wants to pay a social call to Mrs. Emerson, and I think everyone can see where this is going… a second marriage of convenience!

The title for The Ring Cost a Dime comes from Janice buying a ring at a dime store to pass off as her wedding ring.  When the wife of Van’s boss pays Janice a house call, she comments that it is strange Janice doesn’t have a ring.  Janice says it’s getting resized and wears her dime ring to a company party.  Later on in the story, Van produces a more suitable ring.

Even though it’s a sham marriage, Van immediately insists on providing Janice with a weekly allowance of $50 ($5 more than what her job pays), pays her rent, makes her the beneficiary of all his accounts, and gives her a key to his apartment.  “All good wives should have keys to their husbands’ apartments” (142).  So starts the married life of Janice and Van.  They settle into a happy routine of sharing meals and evenings together in peaceful companionship.  Meanwhile, over at Howard and Betty’s, Betty is renovating the oppressive Dorian family mansion while Howard continues to insist that everything will work out all right with him and Janice in the end.

Along the way, Van declares his feelings for Janice, which she doesn’t immediately reciprocate because of Howard.  They have a falling out period, but reunite at the end of the story when Van agrees to visit Janice’s family with her in her small hometown for Christmas.  As soon as Van and Janice get their happy ending, a few paragraphs before the book ends, Van tells Janice to stop working.  “He turned his head quickly to look at her as if he expected resistance.  He got none.  ‘Yes, I’ll quit working, and be a real wife.'”  As a modern reader, this is a bit of a let down for me.

Just before returning Van’s love, Janice sends Howard a telegraph saying they’re through.  Betty had been finally willing to move forward with the divorce but now…?  There’s no resolution there, and it’s just as well.  The Ring Costs a Dime simultaneously uses marriages of convenience as a major plot element and lightly condemns such unions, warning that they may stick for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.

Announcement:  I’m participating in an online group exhibit with the Grolier Club this summer!  For the exhibit, I’ve shared three books, two of which haven’t been previously shared on this blog.  The New Members Collect 2020 exhibit can be found here.  Please check it out and as always, thanks for reading!

Babylon Revisited Rare BooksCopies of Rob Eden’s works are available for purchase here.

Posted in 1930s, Gramercy, Rob Eden | 3 Comments

Sally’s Shoulders

Sally ShouldersEarlier in the year, I wanted to kick off the Roaring Twenties in style.  I gravitated towards one of the books on my shelves with great flapper fringe dress cover art, Sally’s Shoulders by Beatrice Burton, published in 1927.

Part of my Beatrice Burton collection, this book was purchased in 2019 from Brian Cassidy a few months before he and Rebecca Romney founded Type Punch Matrix.  Speaking of, Type Punch Matrix released their first print catalog this spring, and I highly recommend taking a look at it here.

Sally’s Shoulders promises “a story of unjust burdens carried with a smile” and delivers just that!  What I read was just under 350 pages of Sally Jerome getting constantly dumped on.

At the start of the book, Sally lives with her mother, brother, and sister in a crowded flat. She takes care of all of the housekeeping (cleaning, cooking, sewing, etc.) and holds down a part-time job with Mr. Peevey, who is nearly exactly as he sounds.  Every member of the Jerome family is useless.  Sally’s brother and sister, who we’ll get to later, also work but are spendthrifts who rely on Sally to pay the rent and often bum funds off of her.  Sally’s father left the family when Sally was a child, because Sally’s mother did a poor job of keeping house.  Gosh forbid he learn to cook or clean.  Instead, he just up and left.

One exception I take to Burton’s characterization of the Jerome family is Sally’s mother.  Sally’s mother suffers from poor health, and sits around all day reading contemporary novels (e.g. Showboat by Edna Ferber).  It’s more or less stated in the book that Mrs. Jerome is either faking her symptoms, or would be cured if she only ate better and exercised more.  What a flaming heap of garbage!  I’m not a doctor, and Mrs. Jerome is a fictional character, but I know that many real people with chronic illnesses often hear this, and it’s bogus.  Mrs. Jerome could easily have a chronic illness, perhaps one that wasn’t easily diagnosed in 1927, and through that lens, her treatment in this novel isn’t entirely fair, even if she is a very manipulative character.

Beau Jerome, Sally’s good-for-nothing brother, has a storyline that illustrates some of what I found frustrating about this book.  He’s endlessly enabled by Sally and her mother.  One storyline involves Beau asking his neighbor for a $10 check, tampering it to be $110, and when confronted, writes the neighbor a check back for the $110, which bounces.  When the neighbor confronts Sally, she borrows the funds from her employer, which will take her about a year of garnished wages to pay off, and gives the money to Beau to return to the neighbor.  Beau promptly skips town with the funds, eloping with his girlfriend.  Later, he steals and gambles away $1,000 from the bank where he works (Sally asks, “One grand?  How much is that?” – it was still a relatively new idiom) and Sally goes back to the same employer to get those funds for him to replace before it’s noticed.  The employer gifts her the funds, and that storyline magically drops.  Then Beau begins running around with other women, after his wife Mabel gets an office job to pay for things and get out of the home.  Sally is left to care for their baby.  This storyline ends in the so-called sensible aunt advising Mabel, “You never should have worked a day in an office after you became Beau’s wife.  You should have become a clinging vine – a very clinging vine.  You should have thrown all the responsibility on Beau” (329).  His storyline is resolved with the implication it’s now Mabel’s responsibility to make Beau honest, and that by cleaning their home and not working, she’ll accomplish this.  Yeah, right.

Sally’s sister, Millie, snaps up the love interest of the story that Sally had been mooning over since page ten.  She picks up a few gentlemen suitors and attempts to play them all off of each other, which eventually backfires.  Her story wraps up when she writes that she’s married a rich man from Buenos Aires, and could she please have the family silver?

Sally’s dancing skills are a minor aspect of the story for about the first 200 pages.  Leading up to that, Aunt Emily launches a restaurant business out of her home and Sally begins to work for her.  The restaurant more or less has a tumbleweed rolling through it and is about to go out of business when Sally’s neighbor friend recommends she dances.  She does, and business begins booming.  Her family responds by moving into the inn uninvited and bumming even more money off of her, all while shaming her for dancing in public.

The rejected suitor role in Sally’s Shoulders is Ted, Sally’s neighbor friend who continually hits on her and doesn’t take no for an answer.  He first proposes when Sally is working in the kitchen, and more or less says that he wants her to clean his kitchen instead.  Ted is often handsy with unwanted advances.  The final time Sally rejects his offer of marriage, she lets him have it, but not in a way I would have found cathartic after 300-plus pages of his nonsense.  She calls him out because he would want her to continue to work and earn an income.  “It was all YOUR idea that you’d marry me and give me two jobs instead of one!  No thanks!  When I get married I expect to work hard at my own job of being a wife and raising a family – and I expect a man who’ll see things the way I do…  I still want to be the old-fashioned kind of woman who makes pies, scrubs floors on her knees, and goes to market pushing a baby carriage” (321-322).

Sally’s supposed love interest, John Nye, has spent most of the book dating Millie.  He doesn’t have many interesting qualities about him, but he’s rich, tall, and good-looking, so he’s the prize of the novel.  One of his first demonstrated acts of interest in Sally is when he literally shakes her and scolds her for dancing in public.

In the final hundred pages of Sally’s Shoulders, there’s a lot of hand-wringing about Sally dancing in public.  Sally enjoys dancing, she’s good at it, and it saves her aunt’s business from certain ruin.  That doesn’t stop her from getting dragged through the mud for it, with one of her suitors (the one who told her to dance in the first place! what nerve!) that men watching her dance is, “like flies crawling all over you, somehow” (314).  It’s finally concluded that Sally’s dancing has transformed the business, the one literally named “The House by the Side of the Road” into a roadhouse, which is unacceptable.  After catching on that their patrons are breaking prohibition laws, Aunt Emily cracks down on her patrons, fires the band, and closes her business.

Finally, John Nye comes around and sweeps Sally off of her feet.  It’s rather sudden, and is supposed to be our happy ending.  However, considering that Sally is still giving her family all of her money and hasn’t established any personal boundaries with them, the happy ending rings hollow.  John Nye has plenty of money, sure, but the reader is left with the feeling that his fortune will be squandered away by the extended Jerome family.

I started this book for the cover art, but stayed with it for its prohibition side-narrative and frustrating views on female performance and the male gaze. I’m glad I have Sally’s Shoulders in my collection, and I’m glad I’ve read it.

Copies of Beatrice Burton’s works are available for purchase here.

Posted in 1920s, Beatrice Burton, Grosset and Dunlap | 1 Comment