LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[there has been drama in the house shared by singer Marylynn and her manager Bess…]
To Bess, who suffered from an almost aching weakness for beautiful people and things, her face with its heavy and blunt features was nothing but a bad joke, and at this moment she had not only disliked but feared to look at herself and encounter all the new bitterness and hatred which a few minutes ago had exploded in that shot.
Mechanically she began to brush her hair back from her temples and up from the damp nape of her neck. I’ll have to put on a dress, she told herself; she had been in her green lounging pyjamas ready to go to bed when Marylynn had begun talking.
Methodically she went through the closet picking out a thin grey shantung dress, fresh white gloves, and a little sports hat.
The distance between one step and the next seemed immeasurably long and exhausting, and beyond the next step there was a total nothingness. A raincoat? She thought, and that made her grin at herself. People in prison had not much use for raincoats. The door to Marylynn’s bedroom stood open, and Bess braced herself and walked through.
commentary: You might think you’d come across every single variation of the stage/theatrical novel, particularly within the ‘two ambitious talented women’ subgenre. I would consider myself quite the expert, loving every theatrical work of art on the subject ever produced, whether picture, poetry, books plays or films. From Degas ballerinas to All About Eve, from Ballet Shoes to The Red Shoes, from The Dud Avocado to The Town in Bloom: if it has young women with high hopes and ambitions then I am caught. So this was a great book for me, and also unexpected, it went in some very different directions.
Two talented young women in New York, living in the same rooming-house. Bess is smart and streetwise and in love with her friend Luke, an aspiring songwriter. Marylynn is daft as a brush, incredibly attractive, and able to put a song across. The threesome form a team: soon, they are concentrating on Marylynn’s career, and working together to create her as a big star. But she is very much Bess’s creation, a way of achieving stardom vicariously.
|Added later - Lucy Fisher found this excellent edition of the book|
The book starts with a fight and a shooting – then one of the triangle is lying in a hospital room. As the police try to find out what happened, we go back and hear the full story of their relationships, before finding out what did happen in the shooting scene. It’s a melodramatic tale, and to my mind very unusual in its setup and structure. It has a fervent, exciting tone, and you’re never totally sure where your sympathies lie. Noel Streatfeild it isn’t: the rights and wrongs of the story are by no means clear, there’s an ambiguity which I think is not American or British, but very European. It’s a small curiosity - I enjoyed it a lot, though am not suggesting everyone should rush out and buy it.
Vicki Baum, Austrian by birth, seems to have written the book in German, though no translator is credited in my edition. Reading about her earlier years, I was delighted to find that she had studied the harp – I could place her straightaway, based on one of my favourite lines in Lissa Evans majestic WW2 homefront book, Crooked Heart, where Hilde the Austrian refugee complains of her new life:
This is not what I am used to. At home we had a pastry cook. I studied the harp.
I got hold of a copy, and watched it with interest. The film is somewhat bowdlerized and sweetened up – the book is quite tough at times – but the great cast do their best with the script, and it was very entertaining. O’Hara is, as ever, larger-than-life and stunning, and Grahame is always charismatic, partly because of her ability to look very plain in one shot and amazingly beautiful in the next.
About that title – it seems terrible to me. It’s not as if it’s a proper, existing, phrase, and it seems to suggest suburban homeloans rather than a glamorous fight for stardom and love. I looked up the German title of the book, Verpfändetes Leben, and then asked my team of expert translators J, L and S, to give me their thoughts . This is a summary of their findings:
Mortgage on Life would appear to be the accepted translation of the German. Where someone says they've got a mortgage on, usually, a house, the word mortgage has come to mean the loan from a bank with which they've bought the house. But the German word Pfand has the original meaning of "mortgage", the lender's claim on the house in case of default by the borrower. So perhaps a slightly better translation would be "A Mortgaged Life".This makes very good sense - the pledge or mortgage would seem to be that one of the young women (the goodlooking one) is going to be almost forced to achieve success by the other (rather plain), who pushes and pushes her, trying to make her devote herself to stardom and achieve vicarious acclaim, when perhaps she would rather give up and go and get married. Other ideas offered for the title were Forever in Debt or A Pledged Life or A Life in Pawn.
Gloria Grahame’s later years were the subject of the 1986 book Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, recently made into a film.
With thanks to the Guest Blogger Colm Redmond for giving me the book.
Ginger Rogers is wearing the pajamas – she would have made the most of a role in the film. Shantung dress from Kristine’s photostream.