Sybil: Trapper of Men

Sybil Trapper of Men by Mildred BarbourGoodness gracious, what did I just read?  If anyone is looking for a revenge fantasy mixed with a romance novel and written in 1927, then I think I’ve found it!

Sybil:  Trapper of Men was written by Mildred Barbour for newspaper syndication in 1927, with Grosset and Dunlap publishing a hardcover edition with identical text that same year.  HathiTrust digitized Sybil: Trapper of Men but it remains search only until January 1, 2023 due to current copyright restrictions.  My copy of Sybil:  Trapper of Men comes from Yesterday’s Gallery and Babylon Revisited Rare Books.

The few Mildred Barbour novels that Grosset and Dunlap published in hardcover are only the tip of the iceberg for her titles.  From searching the NewspaperArchive database, other syndicated stories published under the name Mildred Barbour include Borrowed Husbands (1921), The Mortgaged Wife (1922), The Man Tamers (1923), The Marriage Scales (1924), The Darling of Destiny (1925), The Indispensable Husband (1926), The Unwilling Adventuress (1927), White Butterflies (1928), The Love Myth (1929), and more.  One of Barbour’s stories, Borrowed Husbands, was adapted into a 1924 silent film, now lost. The newspapers that included her stories ran ads promising “A Barbour serial forms the Barbour habit.”  Reader beware, I do have reason to believe that “Mildred Barbour” authorship may have evolved into a house name with more than one contributing author.

It’s worth talking about the life of Sybil’s author, who I believe could be the original Mildred Barbour, even if the details are a little hazy.  Using the Newspaper Archive database and Ancestry Library Edition, I pieced together as much as I could.  Mildred Barbour was born in Washington, D.C. as Mildred Marshall Koonce.  Her year of birth varies depending on what source is consulted, but a 1920 passport application says she was on born May 29, 1894.  A rough IMDB biography states that she attended the University of Michigan, and sure enough, I was able to find a Mildred Marshall Koonce of Washington, D.C., listed in a “Calendar” of the University of Michigan 1913-1914.  Miss Mildred Koonce of D.C. is mentioned in several newspaper articles as being active in suffrage efforts around 1914, including a photo obnoxiously captioned, “Beauty at Suffrage Headquarters.”  A photo of Mildred Koonce of Washington, D.C. is included in the National Women’s Party Records online at the Library of Congress.  She wrote for The Washington Herald as a society editor and married Irwin Barbour on March 29, 1917. There is a divorce granted record from Alexandria, VA, in 1921, stating that Irwin Barbour was by then living in California and the divorce was granted based on desertion and abandonment.  Irwin Barbour, living in California and listed as still working for a newspaper syndicate, remarried before the end of 1921.

That brings us to Sybil Ross.  Sybil hates men.  Sybil:  Trapper of Men begins with Sybil and a young man on a train to New York, but quickly jumps back to the origin story of Sybil’s hatred. Starting with her father and two brothers, Sybil observes that men are a bunch of rotters who lead women to misery and ruin.  When Sybil is ten, Sybil’s father leaves Sybil’s mother for a teenaged neighbor.  The Ross family is plunged into scandal.  Ten-year-old Sybil is socially ostracized, but her brothers aren’t.  As she grows up, one of Sybil’s brothers squanders the fortune of a rich woman in town and then flees before the law can catch up with him, and the other marries a homely rich woman for her money.

Sybil learns that she, her mother, her neighbors are who pays the price for her father’s scandal, “but the man and his sons were exempt from punishment” (37).  She observes first-hand what her brothers think of women, first hearing one of her brothers be “suave, handsome, gallant, chatting with graceful deference” when talking to a woman but within half an hour, “joking brutally, vulgarly” when he’s talking to his brother about her.  As Sybil approaches adulthood, her father returns to town a hero, and Sybil’s mother takes him back.  Sybil takes a job to help her mother support her unemployed father, and once she’s out in the world, her long simmering plan begins to take shape.

The trope of the revenge-to-redemption story follows a predictable plot arc:  motive, the revenge plot gaining steam, the plot’s acceleration, the protagonist overstepping and becoming ethically compromised herself, and then redemption.  What makes Sybil:  Trapper of Men an amusing read is when Sybil’s plans begin gaining momentum.  At one point, it feels like she’s juggling her victims at a ridiculous speed.  The other highlight of Sybil:  Trapper of Men is Cousin Agatha, Sybil’s rich, eccentric cousin who also hates men and bankrolls Sybil.  My favorite Cousin Agatha moment was when as an aside it’s mentioned that she “had just engineered a successful political campaign in the west which had defeated a well-known male legislator and put a woman in his place” (203).  Way to go, Cousin Agatha!

Sybil’s first four victims are fairly straightforward:

  • Dan Brady: the “best-known and most-feared lawyer” (58) in Sybil’s small town.  He’s a sexist, ageist bully, known to treat his wife terribly.  Sybil begins working for him, and he asks her out repeatedly, finally proposing Sybil stay in a hotel in Chicago for a week with him.  In her fury, Sybil picks up an inkwell and chucks it straight at Dan Brady, ink splattering all over his immaculate clothes.  Humiliated, Dan Brady scuttles out of the office and stays home “ill” for several days.
  • Arthur Winslow:  the son of the president of the biggest bank in town.  Sybil’s next job is at the town’s bank, where Arthur Winslow quickly takes an interest in her.  He asks her out, but is careful not to be seen with her in polite or fashionable society because of her family history.  He doesn’t want to marry Sybil and proposes they run away to New York together.  Sybil seemingly accepts.  As soon as they’re in New York, Sybil thanks Arthur for paying for her trip and ditches him for a room at the Y.W.C.A.  Arthur, alone in New York, is far from home and quickly disinherited by his wealthy father.
  • Serge Patton:  an aspiring violinist and phony.  Pretending to be Hungarian, Serge’s real name is actually Sam, and he left behind his family’s pickle business to pursue his musical career.  His mistreated wife stands dutifully by him while he neglects her in pursuit of beautiful women he claims “inspire” him.  Sybil sponsors a concert for Serge, knowing he’ll be a flop, but he remains undaunted by the terrible reviews.  Sybil then gives him a devastating verbal lashing.  Serge leaves, defeated, his “art” crushed.
  • Oliver Dearborn:  a man about town and business associate of Arthur Winslow’s.  He treads carefully with Sybil but would never dare have an honorable intention.  He proposes that he and Sybil live together in an expansive summer home, Seaview.  Sybil asks for a blank check to make renovations to the home.  Oliver Dearborn arrives at Seaview for his tranquil summer with Sybil only to find she’s nowhere in sight and has transformed the house into a summer retreat for the local orphanage, promising Dearborn’s mentorship to the youth.

Sybil made quick work of those men, but doesn’t quite know what to do with Dick Shelton, a military man, who has none of the pride and conceit of her previous victims.  He’s honorable, charming, gallant, nice, and a little boring.  He proposes marriage and means it.  Finally, Sybil learns of a girl Dick Shelton left back home to pursue his career in the military and considers that motive enough for her plans.  She tells Dick she’s in danger when he can’t get leave, compelling him to desert the base and face severe consequences.  He… ends up shooting himself.

Dr. Maxwell arrives on the scene and saves Dick Shelton’s life, and later his career.  At this point, the emotionally distant doctor has appeared a few times throughout the book, each time ignoring Sybil or seeing her in what appears to be a questionable spot.  He’s dismissive of her, not fawning over her looks, and is curt as well as businesslike.  After obtaining Sybil’s confession that she manipulated Dick Shelton to his tragic downfall, Dr. Maxwell takes an interest in her.

It’s a lot.  On one hand, Sybil knows she went too far in destroying Dick Shelton.  On the other hand, her previous efforts had worked like a boomerang.  Dan Brady learns to appreciate his wife, and treats her better.  Arthur Winslow makes his own way in New York City, earning his own success and eventually reconciling with his father.  “Serge” Patton returns to the family pickle business and also finds success.  Oliver Dearborn becomes known as a well-regarded philanthropist and breaks into a new social circle that had been previously inaccessible to him.

What did Sybil’s efforts accomplish, besides amusing Cousin Agatha?  Even though her efforts didn’t destroy her victims she as intended, the men Sybil “traps” learned either to treat the women in their life better, or picked up another admirable quality such as charity or a work ethic.  The men in Sybil’s family remain unchanged.  Sybil’s father continues to freeload off of her mother, one of her brothers has completely drained the bank account of his formerly wealthy wife, and the other brother is still on the run from the law.  The story doesn’t really adequately address Sybil’s observations about women who accept perpetual mistreatment and abuse in exchange for the occasional crumb of affection, besides to say that it’s just a thing that women in love will endure.  Also, the actions of one woman don’t bring about systemic change.  While some of Sybil’s grievances are clearly exaggerated for the purposes of an over-the-top story and dare I say parody, some holds true a century later.

The story ends, of course, with Sybil falling in love with Dr. Maxwell.  She attempts to jeopardize his career with a desperate plot involving illicitly obtained morphine, but it backfires when Sybil overdoses and nearly dies.  Hurt by her own plot, Sybil is overcome with shame and remorse.  She returns to her home town, and Dr. Maxwell follows her.  He declares that he’s loved her from the start but needed Sybil to burn through her vindictive energy before they could be together.  Now that she’s given up on her revenge plot, they can live happily ever after.

The closing line is Dr. Maxwell’s.  “I’m caught in the trap.  But, ah, Sybil, you are caught with me” (313)!

Announcement:  On Tuesday, May 11th at 5 p.m., I will be participating in a virtual event, Owning It: A Roundtable for Young Collectors, hosted by Swann Galleries in conversation with the Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize founders and previous winners.  Please do join us!  Learn more about the event and register here.

Copies of Mildred Barbour’s works are available for purchase here.

Posted in 1920s, Grosset and Dunlap, Mildred Barbour | 1 Comment

Love Past Thirty

Love Past Thirty by Priscilla WayneLove Past Thirty is the type of book that I’m always convinced I’ll never find, until I do.  Thank goodness for notifications from bookselling aggregate websites!  Once the notification arrived, I couldn’t buy this book quickly enough, in part because it was listed by a source I know and trust, ReadInk.  Finding Love Past Thirty was one of the good things to come out of 2020 and as a bonus, it’s signed by the author!

Do I really need to explain why I’m interested in a story with an “older” protagonist?  Caroline Burt is thirty-four.  Reading this book in the weeks leading up to a mid-thirties birthday was a bold choice.

Before I learned the premise of Love Past Thirty, I had envisioned a story of a career woman, like some of the Faith Baldwin protagonists.  What I found instead at first was a story of a woman competing for her childhood sweetheart against her own eighteen year old niece, hardly an empowering feminist narrative.  Upon reading it, however, I found a more complicated story about a woman who grows to assert her own boundaries and find her own happiness.  Caroline Burt is a protagonist to root for.  Fair warning though, Love Past Thirty definitely uses language like “Caroline’s cold little spinster heart” (113) and there is even an entire chapter titled, “Yes, Carrie’s a born old maid” (60).

Love Past Thirty by Priscilla Wayne was published as an A.L. Burt first edition in 1932.  (That’s right, the publisher A.L. Burt was NOT just a reprint house – a select few first editions do exist!)  A full-text scan of the book is available in HathiTrust, so feel free to read along for this one!  As noted in The FictionMags Index, a much earlier draft of this story was published ten years before in the July 1922 issue of McCall’s, with a full-text scan of the magazine available via the Internet Archive.  The short story version was titled “Old Maid Caroline” (cringe) and was credited to Priscilla Wayne’s real name, Besse Toulouse Sprague.  Most of the initial premise of the original story is there: Charles Browne left his small Iowa hometown sweetheart behind many years ago to seek his fortune.  He had tried to summon Caroline but in the meantime, Caroline’s family had needed her after her brother Lon’s wife passed away and left two motherless children.  After many long years, Charles Browne returns to his hometown, and the rumor is that he’s back for his sweetheart.  Embarrassing gossip stings Caroline’s pride, and her eighteen year old niece Zelda makes a play for Charles.

In “Old Maid Caroline,” Zelda’s flirtations are resolved when Zelda tries to crash Caroline and Charles’ walk to a nostalgic spot and Charles tells her, “time little girls were in bed.”  Zelda pouts, and is gone.  However, that hardly fills a nearly 300-page novel.  In Love Past Thirty, Zelda is more manipulative, and more successful at it.  For most of Love Past Thirty, Zelda wins the affections of Charles Browne as Caroline is heartbroken and humiliated.

Honestly, the first hundred pages of Love Past Thirty are a painful read.  Caroline Burt dutifully keeps house for her brother’s family and works at his general store in her linen smock while her niece Zelda gallivants around town with Charles Browne.  Townspeople stop by the store to simultaneously ask Caroline when she’s marrying Charles, and what she thinks about Charles playing so much tennis with Zelda.  Zelda does things like intercepts orchids sent to Caroline from Charles, tells Caroline that Charles sent them for Zelda, boasts about them to Caroline, and then tells Charles that Caroline didn’t want them but that she (Zelda) likes them.  

Charles is flattered by and receptive to Zelda’s overtures.  It’s made explicitly clear that Zelda likes the idea of Charles’ established wealth more than the man himself.  Aside from Caroline, Zelda’s boyfriend Sam Adair is also rather unhappy with the situation.

The town hosts a party for Charles at the Burt house.  Caroline does most of the work to host, and Zelda drives to a neighboring town to obtain a new dress she can’t afford.  Charles and Zelda sneak out of the party.  The small town gossips notice their guest of honor is missing, along with Zelda.  Zelda returns late and everything comes to a boil.  Again, it’s painful.  “Why, Aunt Carrie, you hadn’t any more chance with a man like Charlie Browne than a last year’s birds nest has with an up-to-date bird” (97).

The second act of the novel takes place in Chicago.  After the Burt family fight, Caroline leaves town and stays with her fashionable cousin Beth.  In the first vacation she’s had in decades, Caroline gathers the perspective that she has given too much of herself to her brother’s family, to the point where there’s nothing left of herself.  Caroline decides that those times are done, and that she’s going to be her own woman and live her own life.  Beth encourages this, facilitating both a physical and emotional makeover.  Even before Caroline’s metamorphosis, she attracts the attentions of a kind doctor, Dr. Donald Meredith.

An unrecognizable Caroline Burt returns to Midport, Iowa.  She returns not to win back her childhood sweetheart, and not to keep living as she had been, but rather to wrap up loose ends with her funds and show everyone that she’s not to be seen as a pitiable heartbroken character.  She surprises the townspeople by returning unannounced, looking ten years younger, and then not returning either to her brother’s house or store.

The plot line of “old maid returns home as babe, men drool over her” would make for an obnoxious story.  What makes the last act of Love Past Thirty much stronger than that is the boundaries Caroline asserts, the independence she enjoys, and the happiness she discovers.  Love Past Thirty acknowledges the mental load Caroline had been carrying in both her paid and unpaid labor.  Without her, the Burt family home is dirty and a cook is needed.  Tasks go undone.  Zelda resents having to provide a midday meal for Lon and his son Junior, and they in turn resent the subpar job she does of it.  And at the store, Lon needs to hire an extra clerk while Junior takes on additional responsibilities.  The window display remains unchanged and becomes unseasonal.  The inventory is a mess.

By the time Caroline is settled in to Midport, she has three suitors: the kindly doctor from Chicago, a Midport man with an overbearing mother who had been trying for Caroline’s affections since before she had left, and shockingly, Sam Adair, Zelda’s spurned teenage boyfriend.  It’s that final suitor that has the town gossips talking.  Since she doesn’t return to work at the store, Caroline has time on her hands, and since Zelda broke up with him, so does Sam.  They begin spending time together.  It’s a little weird, and Caroline doesn’t really mean anything by it.  However, Zelda does not like when it’s her turn to feel hurt and humiliated by seeing her boyfriend around town with her aunt.  Sam Adair is no longer the doting boyfriend to Zelda, and Zelda falls for him once more.

Charles Browne slowly has the epiphany that he’s been foolish.  It starts with the town gossip getting to him, that feeling of seeing a group talking and knowing he’s the subject of conversation when they abruptly go quiet upon seeing him.  Then he tries to convince Caroline to take him back, and offers to break his engagement with Zelda.  Charles and Caroline finally have the honest conversation about the years they waited for each other and the barriers that kept them apart.  Still, Caroline says no, as breaking the engagement would hurt Zelda.  Then Zelda elopes with Sam Adair.

Charles tries again.  Caroline rejects him, thinking of the handsome face and admiring words from the interested kind doctor from Chicago.  Then comes the most cathartic line of the book, when Lon asks Charles how it went.  “I got, Lon, exactly what was coming to me” (282).

Then comes the ending.  I have mixed feelings about it.  Caroline deserved her happily ever after.  But did Charles Browne?  I mean, the book talks about the long years he’s worked hard, missing his childhood sweetheart, and why he instead went for Zelda’s easy charms but like…  Let’s be honest, I was rooting for Dr. Don Meredith from Chicago.  Even the slightly pompous fuddy-duddy with the overbearing mother who was all wrong for Caroline ranked higher on my list than Charles Browne did at certain points in the story.  Also, what happened to Caroline’s newly found independence?

I “get” why Charles Browne was Happily Ever After endgame, even if I’m not on fully board.  He was the childhood sweetheart and the love interest from the earlier drafts of the story.  He’s the nostalgic choice, as he and Caroline are reunited when they meet where they first declared their love together.  It’s supposed to be sweet, but it’s abrupt.  They declare their love, make a joke about how their younger dates nearly killed them with strenuous dancing, and that’s it.  The last line, however, is a great one.  “Even when one is PAST THIRTY, everything can yet be all right with the world” (288).

One last thing to mention about Love Past Thirty is that it was adapted into a 1934 film.  The film is not lost but it does appear to be rare.  The only copy I’ve located is a 16 mm film reel from a televised re-issue of the movie, located at the Library of Congress.  Thanks to the pandemic, I’m not able to visit the Library of Congress.  However, I have reached out to the Library of Congress about it and heard back within a business day.  Once our world is a little safer and the Library of Congress re-opens to in-person researchers (late 2021? sometime in 2022?), I’m planning on making a viewing appointment at the Moving Image Research Center.  If the film reel is in good enough condition, I’ll be able to see how the movie stacks up to the book.

Babylon Revisited Rare BooksCopies of Priscilla Wayne’s works are available for purchase here.

Posted in 1930s, A.L. Burt, Priscilla Wayne | 1 Comment

The Flagrant Years

Cover art by R.F. Schabelitz“The flagrant years! Waiting just around the corner to despoil them. Time, the relentless tide that waits for no woman.”

I have a soft spot for novels about women building a career and finding their way in a new town.  Sometimes, the city or professions represented vary, but the career narrative reflects the professions open to women at the time of their publication.  The Flagrant Years bills itself as “A Novel of the Beauty Market.”  It’s the first “cosmetics fiction” novel to be covered by this blog, but hopefully not the last!

In addition to being a unique entry in the career romance sub-genre, The Flagrant Years has the distinction of being one of Samuel Hopkins Adams’ lesser-known works.  Who is Samuel Hopkins Adams?  A few years after he wrote The Flagrant Years, he wrote a short story titled “Night Bus” for Cosmopolitan magazine, which was adapted into the film It Happened One Night starring Claudette Colbert and Clarke Gable.  Under the pseudonym Warner Fabian, Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote risqué stories, most famously Flaming Youth, which was adapted into a silent film starring Colleen Moore.  Samuel Hopkins Adams was a prolific writer, and his works include muckraking reporting and a fictionalized account of the Harding administration.

The Flagrant Years made its first appearance as a serialized story in Cosmopolitan, followed by a hardcover edition publication by Horace Liveright, both in 1929.  The Liveright hardcover edition features cover art by R.F. Schabelitz.  The Flagrant Years is included in Archibald Hanna’s A Mirror for the Nation and its citation is Hanna 19.  My copy of The Flagrant Years came from Between The Covers Rare Books, and as of this writing, they have another copy available that is in pristine condition, absolutely stunning.

Connie Bartlett is a new arrival in New York City, searching for a job and down on her luck when she meets James Ipsydoodle Smith, often called Ipsy.  Her new eccentric friend attempts to recruit Connie for Hollywood and failing that, recommends she join the cosmetics industry.  There is a misunderstanding about where to find employment as well as what happened to Ipsy’s personal referral for Connie and as a result, Connie first tries to find a job elsewhere on her own merits.  She is unsuccessful.  Eventually, Connie locates the beauty parlor where Ipsy’s letter of recommendation is waiting, and she is hired based on the shop’s owner owing Ipsy a favor.

Through work, Connie meets a cast of various characters.  “Nine-tenths of the shop’s patrons were over thirty, a large proportion over forty, and no a few determined and invincible fighters beyond the half-century mark” (179).  Some of the regular patrons are referred to as:

  • “The Valkyrie” aka “Sweetie,” an elderly patron who would buy any potion or device offered for sale, but insists on looking at least twenty years younger than physically possible.  Some of Connie’s coworkers create optical illusions with soft lighting in order to make this happen.
  • The Grease-Pots, “overfed, pampered, gone soft from their slothful acceptances, to weak-willed to help themselves and now reduced to paint, powder, and dye.”
  • The Business Women, hurried and in on a lunch hour or before work.
  • The Neurotics or the “rest facials,” who come to the beauty salon for their nerves.
  • “Hairy Apes,” or men.

A great deal of whether or not an employee of the beauty salon is considered successful is dependent on how much product she sells.  Connie’s not great at selling products but she gets by with a roster of regular clients in part by taking inspiration from a piece of “office flair” Ipsy gifts her: an owl figurine that always has its eyes open and mouth shut.  The author’s muckraking career probably influenced some of his opinions on the products being sold, as decades before he had written about patent medicines.  Adams seems to take an ambivalent approach to it all, that the products may be bunk, but that visiting the beauty salon does seem to help women push back against “the flagrant years,” at least for moments after their treatment.  There is also an awareness of some of the tactics the beauty industry uses to make women feel bad about themselves in order to sell a product.  For example, when Connie herself first visits a salon, she is made to feel bad about her pores, something she had never before considered.  The beautician who made Connie worry about her pores later becomes her friend, and admits that it was only sales talk.

Connie meets two more men on the job: Waller Daniels and his nephew Gerald “Rowdy” Pontefract.  Waller Daniels is famously wealthy and known around town to be massively unpleasant.  Rowdy is his nephew, and earns his nickname through his unfortunate alcohol-induced destructive tendencies.  Rowdy is instantly smitten with Connie, and tells her that he would stop drinking if only she asked him to do it for her.  Waller Daniels offers Connie a great sum of money if she can keep his nephew sober for six months.  Connie weighs this but is indecisive about clingy, needy Rowdy and the likelihood that she won’t succeed with the task of keeping him sober, paired with her affections for Ipsy Smith.

Like in so many other novels with the trope of the second suitor living the fast life, Rowdy Pontefract is killed off.  Ipsy Smith had been seen around town in fights with Rowdy over Connie, and is named a suspect.  He’s innocent, but Waller Daniels is convinced of Ipsy’s guilt.  Connie knows Ipsy is innocent, although there is one night missing in Ipsy’s alibi: the night he and Connie stayed up all night working on the jingle for the flagrant years advertising campaign.

Connie solves the mystery of Rowdy’s death, and Waller Daniels professes his love for Connie.  The difficult man had become her favorite client, but she gently turns him down.  Life slowly lurches back to normal and with the Rowdy-related suspicion and gossiping winding down, Ipsy returns to town.  He stops by the beauty parlor for a full treatment, and for his happily ever after with Connie.

Bonus review:  While writing this post, I stumbled across another blog’s review of The Flagrant Years.  Check it out!

Copies of Samuel Hopkins Adams’ works are available for purchase here and here.

Posted in 1920s, Horace Liveright, Samuel Hopkins Adams, Warner Fabian | Leave a comment

Kitsy Babcock: Library Assistant

Kitsy Babcock: Library Assistant by Joan SargentThis post has been co-written by Jess and her mom, Jane.

In happier years, this weekend would have been NYC Rare Book Week.  For the past few years we (Jess and her mom) have travelled separately to meet in NYC and tear up the city a little.  With the two of us, there are always shenanigans and somehow everything becomes an inside joke. 

Why go to the same event every year?  No two years are exactly alike.  We enjoy seeing each other as well as the other regular attendees of NYC Rare Book Week, from book dealers to fellow collectors to other librarians.  There are too many Rare Book Week regulars to list here, but we always have a blast seeing them.

Last year, NYC Rare Book Week was our last big adventure for a while.  To commemorate the one year anniversary of our last hurrah, we’re writing a joint blog post.  Rather than waxing sentimental about just how overpriced those salads were at that one place last year, we decided to read a book together and write about it.  We know that there’s a virtual book fair happening this weekend, but consider this our version of our own small virtual adventure.

For a co-written blog post, Kitsy Babcock: Library Assistant by Joan Sargent (aka Sara Jenkins) is really THE book to write about.  For us, it’s iconic.  We first saw Kitsy together more than a decade ago, at an open house hosted by Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, during Jess’ graduation weekend.  We saw it through a glass case, fell in love, and the hunt was on.

The issue with searching for a rare book is that well, it’s rare.  Good luck finding it!  We had no luck finding any copies of Kitsy for five years.  (In retrospect, Jess thinks it’s quaint to be unable to find a specific title for a mere five years, and wishes more sought after books would have the courtesy to turn up within a decade.)  Then in 2015, it happened.  Jess snapped up a copy of Kitsy Babcock, didn’t say anything about it, didn’t open it, and waited for her mom to visit.  She handed her mom the unopened package and nonchalantly said, “here, open this.”

Because life is weird, a second copy of Kitsy Babcock surfaced a few years later.  While the first copy is also an ex-library copy, the second copy is a reading copy only.  It features a hideous green library buckram binding and odd splatterings on the pages.  Jess read that copy, and doesn’t wish to know what those splotches are.

We both read Kitsy Babcock: Library Assistant, an Avalon career romance.  The basic premise is that due to a tuition increase at the university, Kitsy Babcock gets a part-time job as a library page.  She takes well to her new job, and does not only page work, but other tasks as well.  When an important collection of historically significant rare documents are stolen, Kitsy and her friend Don are on the case.  The novel ends with the documents being returned to the library, Kitsy being promoted to a library assistant, and Don becoming her new beau.

After reading Kitsy Babcock: Library Assistant, Jess and Jane had a discussion about the book, which is roughly transcribed below.

Jane:  For the blog post, are you going to include the picture of me opening my copy of Kitsy?

Jess:  I mean, I wasn’t planning to.Mommers surprised

Jane:  You should.

Jess:  Okay.

Jane:  This was a weird book.

Jess:  Agree.  At least it doesn’t plod on like some of the other career novels we’ve read.  Other career focused novels’ plots sometimes suffer from having too large a time span covered.  “And then she went to college, and then she went to library school, and then she was middle aged… etc.”  Kitsy Babcock covers only one season.

Jane:  Let’s talk about the salaries.  I did think it was interesting how it was woven in there, didn’t you?

Jess:  You mean like the Library of Congress salaries listed, taken from a reference listing or something?

Jane:  Yes!  Those were hilarious.

Jess:  Kitsy’s page job starts at $1.16 an hour.  I’m going to get the inflation calculator.  $1.16 when this book was published, in 1958, was equivalent to $2.77 when you were in library school.  Did you have a job then?

Jane:  I did.  I worked at the School of Public Health Library, as a page.  I don’t remember the wage though.

Jess:  In 2011 dollars, when I was in library school, that $1.16 would have been equivalent to $8.93.  About that, am I allowed to say [REDACTED]?

Jane:  No.

Jess:  In January 2021 currency, that would be $10.61.  Moving on, Kitsy gets the job.  Have you ever noticed that in these career books, the person always gets the job because someone gives them a personal recommendation?  That’s also the case in the next book I’m reviewing on this blog.

Jane:  Yeah.  She gets the job… and other duties as assigned!  Good old “other duties as assigned.”  That’s such a thing in the library world.

Jess:  I think it’s more than just the library world.

Jane:  The way Kitsy is working those events reminds me of your first full-time job.

Jess:  The way Kitsy accidentally broke a glass bowl or vase at that event reminds me of my first job!  After all, that’s where “it has now been zero days since my last glass-breaking incident” came from.

Jane:  The part about her mixing up the names of the authors was weird.

Jess:  Was it though?  Think of how many white middle-aged male authors, especially those with glasses, get mistaken for Jonathan Franzen.

Jane:  There are such interesting bits of discussion of librarianship sprinkled throughout the book.  For example, there was the part about the role a library plays in serving patrons who are experiencing homelessness.  (e.g. page 33)

Jess:  Yes, and the librarianship aspect was discussed in a different way than some of the other career series.  I remember in one book the narrator takes on a morally superior tone to library staff who are there for a paycheck rather than fully passionate.  I remember another one that gets into some of the classism and horrible gate-keeping about librarians with a Master’s degree versus non-degreed support staff.  Kitsy mentioned the degree as a stepping stone to a career, but there wasn’t the level of snobbery or didacticism sometimes present in comparable books.

Jane:  The strangest part about this book was the burglary.  The violence of that thief putting Kitsy and that old man in the hospital, and then the way Kitsy and Don were taken hostage at that hotel for hours.

Jess:  Yeah, that’s one we haven’t read before in a career novel intended for young adults.

Jane:  We should wrap this up by linking to the other library career novel posts. I love our shared collection of librarianship in career fiction.

Jess:  Thanks Mom for joining me on this post!  And thank you to our readers who have read this far into our post!

Other posts highlighting Jess and Jane’s shared collection of library novels include Butterfly Takes Command, Marian-Martha, Jinny Williams: Library Assistant, and Books on Wheels.

Copies of other books with a career focus are available for purchase here.

Posted in 1950s, Avalon Books, Joan Sargent | 3 Comments

Mad Marriage

written by Laura Lou Brookman, cover art by Skrenda“Jilted by the man she loved, Gypsy McBride married an utter stranger the day after she met him.”

With that front cover blurb, Mad Marriage has one of the funnier premises in my collection.  Mad Marriage had been a long-term resident of my to-be-read pile after joining my collection nine and a half years ago, but no more.

While brainstorming this post, I fell into an internet-fueled rabbit hole about Laura Lou Brookman.  Ancestry Library Edition and the Newspaper Archive, both available courtesy of my public library, enabled this.  Brookman was born in 1898 in Vermillion, South Dakota.  Ancestry has a scan from the University of Missouri’s 1920 yearbook with Brookman’s picture and the blurb, “She says S.D. is a great state, but her fame lies elsewhere.”  Brookman worked on news publications around the country, working in Des Moines, Cleveland, and Baltimore.  Her journalism career included reportorial columns, syndicated features (like Mad Marriage!), and editorial responsibilities.  Brookman worked at the Ladies’ Home Journal for twenty-eight years, several years of which she was a managing editor.  In addition, Brookman owned a bookshop in Delaware from 1953-1967.  In 1972, Brookman gave an interview with the Doylestown Daily Intelligencer reminiscing about her mother’s suffrage activism in South Dakota, but speculated that her mother and the other suffragists would have been “absolutely horrified” by the women’s liberation movement of that time.  Brookman cited Eleanor Roosevelt and Shirley Chisholm as women she particularly admired.  Laura Lou Brookman passed away in January 1975, at the age of seventy-six.

Mad Marriage, published in 1931, is one of Brookman’s many titles that were syndicated in newspapers before being published in a hardcover edition.  Using the Newspaper Archive database, I did a spot check on several Mad Marriage chapters and they appear to be identical in text to the Grosset & Dunlap edition.  What Grosset & Dunlap added to this novel was its excellent Skrenda cover art.  According to OCLC, Mad Marriage by Laura Lou Brookman is currently held in only three libraries:  Ohio State University, the Library of Congress, and The British Library.

The last thing to note about Mad Marriage before diving in is that yes, the main character’s name is Gypsy, and the book explains the nickname in a cringe-inducing passage.  I don’t think that word is an appropriate modern term, and use it in this post simply to refer to the preferred name of the protagonist.  Gypsy McBride (Wallace) does have another name, but that name is barely mentioned in passing once or twice.

Anyway, Mad Marriage opens with nineteen year-old Gypsy McBride at work eagerly awaiting the return of her sweetheart, Alan Crosby.  Alan had been studying art abroad in Paris for about a year and a half, and before he had left, he had asked Gypsy to marry him.  Gypsy eagerly meets him at the dock, only everything is all wrong.  Alan is distracted, and falsely claims ignorance to Gypsy about a beautiful woman who waves farewell to him.  Sure enough, Alan has attached himself to the waving society woman, who in turn is merely seeking a younger handsome social escort who is easily “manageable.”

Knowing the premise of being jilted and then entering a hasty marriage, I was initially concerned about the pacing of Mad Marriage, but I needn’t have been.  Sometimes a book will plow through its entire hook by page eight, leaving the rest of the story to plod along. Brookman takes her time in winding up the inevitable punch, and it is the marriage part that follows swiftly thereafter.

After being dumped by Crosby and impulsively quitting her job, Gypsy reluctantly accepts an invitation to a dinner party hosted by her cousin.  The party is awful.  Gypsy is trying to make a subtle exit when she witnesses a man entering through an open window in one of the guest rooms.  Gypsy thinks the man is an intruder, but he is a house guest who is willing to crawl through a window to avoid the very dinner party Gypsy is looking to escape.  The man is Jim Wallace, and earlier that night his fiancée, Marcia, left him for a millionaire.  He immediately proposes marriage.

“Listen, this will be the most sensible marriage you ever heard of…  Doesn’t it strike you ask coincidence that out of this whole city full of people you and I should meet tonight? And that both of us should be trying to forget something else?… Instead of mooning over him, prepare for your wedding morn-” (72).  

With no job, few friends, and not many belongings, Gypsy agrees to this plan.  She is married to Jim Wallace and on a train out of town by midday the next day.  They arrive to a very frosty reception from Jim’s Aunt Ellen and a much warmer greeting from Pat, Jim’s terrier dog.  Aunt Ellen much preferred Jim’s ex, and what follows is a domestic battle.  Eventually, Aunt Ellen moves out of the house and Gypsy can redecorate the home to her taste.  Jim Wallace proves to an amicable and considerate husband, and he and Gypsy slowly get to know each other.

Gypsy settles into her new home of Forest City.  Where is Forest City?  Jim Wallace tells Gypsy that Forest City is “five hundred miles westward” of NYC with a population of 200,000.  Cleveland, Ohio, fits the description of being five hundred miles west and had the nickname The Forest City, but had much too large a population in 1930 to fit the description of the town in Mad Marriage.  So “Forest City” could be Cleveland, a different “Forest City,” or an entirely fictional town.  I digress.

There’s a story within the story of a murder trial, where Jim Wallace is the lawyer representing the accused.  Gypsy bonds with the imprisoned young woman on trial for murdering a doctor, and solves the mystery of the doctor’s death.  She convinces the true murderer to confess.  The Wallaces take in the newly freed woman for a short time, and see her off.

One recurring theme is wealth and social position.  Both Gypsy and Jim’s significant others leave them for someone with more money.  Gypsy worked to earn a modest living, which is one of the reasons the extended Wallace family looks down upon her.  This comes to a head at a disastrous dinner party.  Even Nina Roberts, the woman falsely accused of murder, goes through her ordeal in great part due to lack of financial resources and lower social position relative to that of the true killer.

Because Mad Marriage is a truly fictional story  that seeks closure, both Alan Crosby and Marcia Phillips come crawling back to Gypsy and Jim respectively, each in their own way.  Marcia’s millionaire husband suddenly dies during their elaborate honeymoon, and Marcia returns to town, staying with Aunt Ellen Wallace.  Alan Crosby, having devoted his time and energy to social climbing, loses his job and is dropped by the fast crowds with which he was attempting to associate.  He sleeps on the streets until his old landlady takes him in as a dishwasher.

Both Marcia and Alan are sent away in turn, but of course unevenly.  Jim Wallace sees Marcia behind Gypsy’s back.  He kisses her.  Gypsy overhears rumors while at the hair salon that Jim is leaving her.  She is talked about, and Jim isn’t very subtle.  Marcia even pays Gypsy a house visit, and nastily tells Gypsy to let Jim go.  By comparison, Alan Crosby shows up from out of town.  Jim Wallace figuratively kills him with kindness, inviting him to stay for lunch.  Gypsy sees him once more in a public place to tell him goodbye.  However, this is too much for Jim and he suggests divorce without really stating a reason.

Gypsy and Jim nearly go through with their divorce, with Gypsy packing to leave.  However, she sentimentally snatches a pair of Jim’s old house slippers to remember him by, and the terrier Pat digs them out of Gypsy’s suitcase for Jim to see.  Kudos to Brookman for having the dog bring this couple together in the end.  Gypsy and Jim reconcile, admit their love for each other, and begin planning the honeymoon they never were able to have six months earlier.

Copies of Laura Lou Brookman’s works are available for purchase here.

Posted in 1930s, Grosset and Dunlap, Laura Lou Brookman, Skrenda | Leave a comment

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 | 3 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