Dress Down Sunday: Mortgage on Life by Vicki Baum


published 1946


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


Mortgage on Life 1


[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 Mortgage on Life 2out 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.

Baum was an extraordinarily successful writer (and actually not a refugee, but a migrant) and is most famous for the novel Grand Hotel, which started a genre (following a group of varied people combined in one place over a period of time, from high to low and from comedy to tragedy), and was made into an Oscar-winning film starring Greta Garbo. I’d not read her before, and hadn’t heard of this one – but it was also made into a 1949 film, one starring Maureen O’Hara and Gloria Grahame, and known sometimes under the title above, and sometimes as A Woman’s Secret (presumably the film people didn’t like the book title either - more below). Apparently it was a flop, despite Herman J Mankiewicz as writer, Nicholas Ray as director, and Melvyn Douglas in another main role. Ray and Grahame met on this movie, and married not long later.

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.




















Comments

  1. It does sound rather good. But, yes, terrible title. A Mortgaged Life, not bad, but not A Life in Pawn, because of how it sounds when spoken aloud, something that should always be considered when choosing a title.

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    1. Oh Chrissie how hilarious, I hadn't thought of that at all. OK we'll ditch that one!
      And yes the book is not essential reading, but it is good fun. I am going to read her Grand Hotel soon. (Well, soonish... we'll see... )

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  2. Couldn't agree more about the title,Moira. But the book itself sounds really interesting, if unusual. And, when it's done well, that sort of ambiguity about characters can be engaging.

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    1. Yes, Margot, that's exactly what I liked about it - a kind of twist in the moral tone, a look at things from a different angle. It might be more remembered if it had a better title.

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  3. What a wonderful find! Sounds intriguing. Have to keep my eyes peeled for it.

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    1. Yes, it is pretty much unknown, but worth grabbing if you ever see it Kate, I think you'd enjoy it for what it is.

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  4. There's one on Amazon with a great cover but I'VE bagged it.

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    1. I want to know which cover you liked so well, Lucy.

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    2. Tracy, I have added a picture of Lucy's cover above.
      Lucy, it is indeed excellent. Completely out of time for the setting of the book, but that always adds to the joy...

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    3. Lovely. That is one of two covers that I liked when I was checking the title out on ABEBOOKS.

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  5. I want to read some of her books, but don't have any on hand. This one sounds good. And the movie sounds interesting.

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    1. I found both very interesting, Tracy, and am now going to embark on Grand Hotel - the book and I expect the film too. Have you seen it?

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    2. I have not seen the movie, Moira, although I have seen bits and pieces of it shown on TCM over the years. I do want to see it though.

      Also, I forgot to say before that is a lovely picture of Ginger Rogers. I was not quite sure if that was her when I first saw the picture.

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    3. I think I've seen it some time in the past, but I may be imagining it!

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  6. What is "a little sports hat" in this context? Google is very unhelpful and just shows me lots of baseball caps.

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    1. It reminds me of Michael Arlen's immensely popular The Green Hat. This green hat is described as 'pour le sport'. The book was published in 1924, so it will have been a cloche hat.
      The Baum book was published in 1946, but maybe it describes an earlier period? Lounging pyjamas sound twenties/thirties.

      Clare

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    2. 'Sport' clothes meant something plainer and more streamlined than fancy clothes, but not really anything that you would play sports in - the finer 'sports' lines often turn up in white silk, doubtless dry-clean only, NOT something you would be doing a workout in. Coco Chanel's clothes were sport clothes in this sense. So a sports hat would be something plain and close-fitting, not a fancy hat with frills or a big brim. Something plain, not (it must be said) like the hat in the second picture.
      Clare - I too am a big fan of The Green Hat - it was one of the inspirations for the blog, though when I featured it I chose a green hat that was not at all the one Iris would have worn...A Mortgaged Life is set very specifically in the present - it starts in the 30s, then takes in the War, the action above is very much post-War, with the fallout from a tour to entertain the forces in Europe. HOWEVER what you suggest is very interesting - Baum's glory days were the 1930s, and I wonder if she carried on writing what she knew, putting the date as 'now' but visualizing her characters 10 years ealier...

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    3. In 1946 fashion had basically been at a standstill since the late thirties. Though I'm assuming America didn't suffer the same rationing as Europe, fashion did not get up and rolling again until Dior introduced his New Look in 1947. And what a shock that was, all that fabric squandered on one skirt.
      What I'm trying to say is: it's quite possible that Baum's characters were still wearing something quite close to what they had been wearing in the thirties, though a bit boxier with broader shoulders.
      The dress in the photograph has more of a fifties feel.

      Clare

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    4. Thanks Clare - very good points. We can tend to forget that everyone does not wear 'this year's fashions' in older books - any more than most people's living-rooms looks like a magazine version of now trends. People change their clothes slowly and turnover is slower in times of stress like war depression and austerity. The dress is from 1950 - I allowed myself to jump forward a year or two because I was so pleased to find an actual shantung outfit in approx. the right colour.

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  7. Replies
    1. Not going to argue, even though it is less of a 'woman's novel' than it might seem.

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