Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The Girl on the Best Seller List by Vin Packer

published 1960

Girl on the Best Seller List 1

When she had finished dressing, Gloria stood before the full-length mirror in her navy blue suit with the saffron scarf tied at her neck. In her hand she carried the beige suede gloves and the navy bucket bag. She was no beauty, she realized that, but for once she felt that she had at last acquired good taste. Thanks to [her literary agent] Pitts.

“Never be obvious,” he had instructed her. “If you’re wearing a navy blue suit, avoid white at the neck and white gloves to match. It’s too much like a Polish maid’s Easter Sunday in Ida Grove, Iowa. Whatever color you wear at your neck, never let it match exactly your glove color.”

After she had bought the full-length mink, Pitts had said, “Very well, I suppose you had to buy mink. But remember, a lady never wears mink before five in the afternoon, or wool after five.”

She had returned the mink the following day.

commentary: Last week I did a post on Jacqueline Susann, her biography, and Valley of the Dolls (1966), and the subject of Grace Metallious’s Peyton Place came up.

They were very different: Peyton Place (1956) was about the horrors going on in YOUR town. These people could be your neighbours, and your community contains just as much sin and immorality as the book. Everyone has shameful secret lives. 

Susann’s books were about the rich, the famous – they were NOT like you, and you could console yourself that all that money hadn’t brought them happiness or love. And everyone has shameful secret lives.

Published 10 years apart, they were both bonkbusters before the term was invented, they were both stories of scandalous goings-on, they were both banned, and loved, and passed around among teenagers, and they were both massive bestsellers.

My good friend Chrissie Poulson suggested I should be re-reading Peyton Place for the blog: an excellent idea that I intend to act on. But in the meantime, here is an unexpected place-holder.

I first came across the book over at Tipping My Fedora, where Sergio has done an excellent review, and explained more about the author, her place in fiction, and the pulp background of the book: his post is highly recommended

It’s obvious as soon as you start reading the book that it is about a Peyton Place-type novel. Gloria Whealdon has written a startling take-down of her small town – a place where she seemed to be disliked and felt she had been humbled. She comes back from her glory days in New York, and it turns out everyone hates her – she hadn’t even bothered to disguise much in her descriptions, or even change the names that much (Milo for Miles). But does somebody hate her enough to kill her? TBH the chapters from many different POVs don’t leave you in much doubt – it’s a question of who gets there first.

The book is a roaring delight: it’s very short, it never lets up, and it is funny, wince-making and shocking at the same time, and has surprises throughout.

One husband, Freddy, asks his wife’s analyst if the two of them were really having an affair. Of course not, is the reply.
Freddy says “[if there was an affair] I’d feel as though Fern’s analysis was a better investment. At least she’d be getting something for my money, besides a lot of psychological jargon she’s not mentally equipped to grasp.”
Meanwhile the analyst is unconcerned about any of the sex scandals: his problem is that Gloria has revealed that as he is a psychologist, not a medical doctor, his treatment cannot be expensed on taxes, and this may have major financial implications.

It’s not just that the book-within-a-book (it’s called Population 12,360, and we get short extracts at the beginning of each chapter) so resembles Peyton Place – it’s also that if you know anything about Grace Metallious, Gloria is a picture of her. The real author died at the age of 39, drink-related causes, leaving little but debts. She was described by her publisher as Pandora in Blue Jeans, Girl on the Best Seller List 2and Gloria in the book dresses sloppily and casually (the scene above is a rare exception): she has her husband’s old socks in her hair (I am guessing this is a form of rag-curling, see this post); wears his shirts with blue jeans; and wears 'hideous space shoes’. These seem to resemble modern-day trainers or sneakers – I found a picture of the ‘space shoes’ that Danny Kaye wore for the benefit of the advertizers in the 1950s:

Girl on the Best Seller List 3

See the manufacturers’ site for more fascinating info. Of course all these (apart from sock hair) would look fairly normal today.

In the short sharp forward thrust of the book, there isn’t room for much of the style lessons above – I longed to know more about what her agent said to her to improve her appearance and manner, but it was not to be. Someone should write that book. (Sarra Manning, looking at you…)

I also think Pitt is being somewhat over-strict with his rules on mink and wool.

There is much discussion these days of ‘Girl’ books - Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While we would not now think that Gloria was a ‘girl’, this book couldn’t be more different from any of those current trends… It is enormous fun to read.

The 1950s suit outfit is from the Clover Vintage Tumbler.


  1. I did wonder what those shoes must be like - thanks for that Moira (and the every generous mention too). :)

    1. I'm so glad you pointed this one on to me Sergio! It's a little cracker, isn't it?

  2. Oh, this does sound like fun, Moira. That person-who-made-good, who then returns to the home town, is a great trope to use in a story. And it sounds as though there are all sorts of great secrets uncovered, and so on. Glad you enjoyed it.

    1. As you say, it contains several great fiction tropes in one short sharp crime book - quite the achievement.

  3. I don't mean to be nit-picky with your wonderful writing because heaven knows I make oodles of mistakes myself but I have to know if bonkbuster is an actual term or did you mean blockbuster? Because here in Oz 'bonk' means ...er to know someone in the biblical sense and I realise that could actually describe this book from the sounds of it

    1. Prepare to have your innocence busted Bernadette! The term bonkbuster was coined by a British journalist, Sue Limb, to indicate the kind of blockbuster that has a lot of sex in it. The word is in the Oxford English Dictionary, marked as 'British informal'. Definition: 'A type of popular novel characterized by frequent explicit sexual encounters.'
      And like all great coinages, sometimes it's the only word that will do, and we all wonder how we managed without it. I am hoping you are going to use it in your conversation frequently from now on...

    2. How did I manage to miss this for 49 and 3/4 years? What a great word and rest assured I will be peppering all future conversations with it. FYI the word is not in my Macquarie English Dictionary but my hard copy edition was a graduation gift in the late 80's.

      Language is so funny...I can remember using the word bonk when I first met American sister-in-law and she had never heard it used as other than a synonym for hitting someone - she assumed it was "another one of those crazy Australian words" and I just assumed she was right. Clearly not.

    3. I came across bonkbuster in Sue Limb's Dulcie Domum books - I REALLY want to reread those, because they had me in STITCHES, there were so many fantastic and very, very gleefully silly bits of wordplay. One of my favourites was a throwaway line about hiding all sorts of things from her feminist lesbian friends before they came to visit, just because of the wonderful alliterative quality of the second sentence.

      "Hide Bonkbuster. Hide barbaric and sinful Barbies and Sindies..."

    4. Bernadette - yes, it is a recent coinage, and in fact wasn't around for the initial publication of Valley of the Dolls or Peyton Place. But they so obviously fit the description...
      Daniel: Oh Dulcie Domum - haven't though of those in years, I read them in the Guardian week by week. She is a smart lady, Sue Limb - quite apart from her contribution to the language of litcrit.

  4. "But remember, a lady never wears mink before five in the afternoon"

    Unless she lives in Chicago, and it's January.

  5. I had never heard the word bonkbuster until I read it here either. Amazing, since it has been around so long.

    Well, I do hope I get to reading this book sometime soon because I liked it when I read about it at Tipping My Fedora and still haven't followed up on it. Just too many good authors and books, older and newer.

    1. AS I told Bernadette above, not been around that long. But a useful word! I'm sure you would enjoy this one Tracy - and it is short.

  6. Nearly tempted, but no. I don't think my life will be any the poorer for not reading it.

    1. It's more up your street than some of my recent reading, but you are allowed to ignore it!

  7. I have never heard that word before either, not until reading this post and the comment section. Interesting, not a word I'll be using often. Perhaps with a book-reader friend.

    However, bringing up Peyton Place, hmmm. When I was reading everything in sight as a teen-ager, and my friends were reading Peyton Place, I wanted to read it. My father, an avid reader, told me not to read it because it was "trash."

    I, being 15, wanted to read it even more because then it became tantalizing. And it showed a bit of rebelliousness on my part to diverge from parental reading advice. So, of course, I read it.

    Though I can't remember it decades later, I do recall that I thought it was junk reading, too. I had to do it, but I then learned that friends' recommendations don't a great book make, and that I had to decide what I would read for myself.

    And from what I remember it wasn't the substance abuse or the
    intimate relationships that turned me off. It was that these people lived hopeless, demoralized, petty lives -- with no interests, ethics, concern about anything but themselves.

    1. it's quite a bleak read as I remember it - and it hasn't even got the trappings of ridiculous wealth that cheer up Valley of the Dolls. But it certainly has something.

  8. Ha. Not a word in my lexicon. But what's wrong with "Big trashy novel", as we used to call them.

    I really think I'd like Girl on the Bestseller List.

    Meanwhile, I just have to share a post I wrote about Peyton Place, Girl on the Bestseller List, Sugar Doll and Laura Ryder's Masterpiece. What do they all have in common? Pandora in Blue Jeans


    1. Susan, I remember that post. It is a lovely post.

    2. What a fascinating post Susan, I have had a quick look and am bookmarking for reading in detail. Incredible pictures!
      Big trashy novel is a very useful phrase.

  9. Replies
    1. And there is always room for a big trashy novel in our reading lives...