Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Jacqueline Susann: Her Life and Books

Lovely Me by Barbara Seaman

published 1987

[Also featured: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann published 1966

& How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, published 2014]

Lovely me 1Lovely Me 2

[From the biography of author Jacqueline Susann]

By the summer of 1966 Jackie was one of the most recognizable women in the United States. She was everywhere – in magazines and newspapers, on posters in bookstore windows and in buses, and, always, on television. Along with the talk shows there were panel and game shows and even variety shows. Omnipresent as Orwell’s Big Brother was that tough, striking showgirl’s face: the false eyelashes fluttering beneath white eyeshadow, the bright-orange lips and nails, the wardrobe of dark, lacquered, shoulder-length falls, the vivid Emilio Pucci print dresses, which she finally gave up because, although they “packed well”, they made her “boobs look too big”.

commentary: Jacqueline Susann was a force of nature, an icon, and her most famous work, Valley of the Dolls, one of the best-selling novels of all time, is also iconic: it’s a striking achievement. Valley is sometimes treated as a comfort read, a chick-litty romance: we expect the three girls whose careers we follow to have the usual division of spoils in the way of pluses and minuses. But in fact it’s a bleak and not very comforting book, with a very downbeat ending. It is also incredibly entertaining, and compulsive – at every point you want to know what is going to happen. Goodness knows what it was like to read it in 1966, when nothing like it had ever been published before. Like many people, I would say that I don’t love the book, or the film based on it, with a great passion, but I respect both of them, and am glad they are there as monuments of popular culture, and to the telling of women’s stories. (The feminist angle on them is always difficult to work out…)

Lovely Me, by Barbara Seaman, is an absolutely wonderful biography of Susann, one I have just lost a weekend to. It was recommended to me by Samantha Ellis, author of the terrific How to be A Heroine, a book that looks at the way the novels young women read inspire them and shape them. (It was one of my top books of 2014, and is one of my all-time favourite book-about-books.)

Samantha said it was a great favourite of hers, and my goodness I can see why. It is a textbook biography, carefully researched and referenced, yet intensely readable and gossip-y, full of extraordinary anecdotes. And Susann’s life is intrinsically full of interest – she was ambitious, she worked hard, she grafted: and she really, really wanted to be famous. She thought it might be her acting, but she never broke through. She tried writing a play. She never stopped working and trying to promote herself. And finally she did it: wrote an astonishing bestseller. The story of how she did that is beautifully laid out in Seaman’s book: the process, the amount of editing Valley needed, the snooty reaction of publishers and editors. She enjoyed her eventual fame enormously, wrote more best-sellers, then died of the cancer that had been threatening her for some time.

It is truly a story that belongs in one of her own books – her strange but loving marriage, her deals with God, her affairs with men and women, her dependence on pills, the sad sad story of her child. And Seaman does an unimprovable job describing it all, creating a whole world, decisive but not judgemental in her descriptions. It’s a terrific book.

And you can read more on Susann’s Valley of the Dolls – blogposts here and here.

Samantha Ellis’s How to be a Heroine is here on the blog.

And if you are up for a whole weekend of this (as I was) I would highly recommend the 1967 film of Valley of the Dolls and (even better) the Bette Midler film about Susann’s life, Isn’t She Great.

The Midler film was greatly derided on its release in 2000, was the subject of enormous criticism, and was a huge failure - and I’ve never understood why: it is an oddity, it doesn’t resemble any other film in format or structure, but it is tremendous fun, very funny, very entertaining. I personally would say that in my life I have seen at least 100 films that are much, much worse. Isn't She Great is splendid: warm and good-hearted and with some excellent character actors in it.

And truly, no film or book about Susann could be less than enjoyable…

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Live Alone and Like it by Marjorie Hillis

published 1936


Live Alone bedjacket

[Instructions for life as a single woman]

We would also like to say a few words about your bedroom wardrobe.

[You need] a luscious pink satin nightgown, well-cut and trailing. Next of course you’ll need negligees – at least two, one warm and one thin, and as many more as you can afford. Have them tailored or chi-chi according to your type, but have them becoming. And don’t think that four bed-jackets are too many if you belong to the breakfast-in-bed school. A warm comfortable one for every-day use and a warm grand one for special occasions. A sheer cool one for summer mornings, and a lacy affair to dress up in. You can make the last two yourself out of remnants, in practically no time at all. For the others, have one of quilted silk or Shetland wool, and another of padded satin or velvet in the shade that makes you most beautiful.

Live Alone 1 negligee

Case Study: [Miss P is receiving a guest in her bedroom] She was propped against pillows wearing an opalescent white satin nightgown with Alencon lace and a shell-pink velvet bed-jacket. The blanket cover on her bed was shell-pink too, with strips of lace.

commentary: Each informative and educational chapter in this book is backed up with ‘case studies’: anecdotes of women who either have or haven’t followed the good advice on offer. In the case of Miss P, she is trying to make an old schoolfriend, visiting the big city, envious; and has worked out that saying she is ill and receiving her in bed will be much cheaper and more effective than taking her out and about to smart restaurants. ‘During tea, Miss P was twice called on the telephone by beaux.’ We don’t even need to be told that this has been pre-arranged with some ingenuity.

Live Alone is fascinating mostly for the picture it gives us of a bygone age: working women living in Manhattan and heading off to the office in suits and hats. Of course the book was for women everywhere, but I kept seeing it as New York, and in fact visualizing Claudette Colbert or Katherine Hepburn or Ginger Rogers. Whoever they are, Marjorie Hillis is telling them  very firmly that they can enjoy life if they do things her way: the title represents her tone very well, with that slight air of bossiness. She is one of those people who thinks her own views are Just Common Sense, and that life is that simple. She would have fitted in well in 1970s and 1980s Cosmopolitan magazine – as it was, she worked for Vogue for years.

Some things don’t change. Marjorie (I feel we are on first-name terms) is very keen on decluttering: ‘Clutter is confusing and wearing’ and on self-improvement – there’s a lot of mention of evening classes. And if you are eating alone in your apartment you should do it properly, not just grab something in the kitchen. These instructions could come from any modern self-help book. But the book really is a period piece, to be read for fun.

I consider myself to be queen of the bedjacket, with many a happy entry with splendid discussions in the comments. But I still think the instructions above are over the top, even in a different era. Mind you, I can't imagine running up a little bedjacket out of bits and pieces, with or without the patterns above, but I'm sure some of my readers can: comments and boasts below, please.

The second picture is of Carole Landis, actress, starlet and (I recently found out) a great friend  and possibly lover of Jacqueline Susann, the author of the seminal work and blog favourite  Valley of the Dolls. It has been suggested that the character of Jennifer in that book is partially based on her. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

Death Wears Pink Shoes by Robert James

published 1952

Death Wears Pink Shoes 6

The door had been left open in an attempt to Death Wears Pink Shoes 4catch any passing breeze, and… a woman appeared and peeked in. Keith’s eyes popped, and he tried to keep his mouth from sagging. She was very tall with flaming red hair that curled up under an enormous cartwheel hat… the matching blue dress was so tight that it appeared that she must have been poured into it, and the plunging neckline had definitely gone out of bounds. Her sandals were a maze of narrow blue straps with the highest heels Keith had ever seen.

Death Wears Pink shoes 2Death Wears Pink shoes 3

[Later] Greta greeted everybody with her customary “Hello, darlings,” and dropped into a chair.

“Don’t you feel naked?” Gladys asked her.

Greta glanced down at her white sun dress. It started at the shoulders, ended abruptly, and for quite a space there was nothing but Greta, then it came to life again in an enormous circular skirt. “It’s hot,” Greta explained defensively.

“I didn’t mean that, but you have no hat.”

commentary: After recent outings with ballet – see here and here – this book seemed to follow the thread. The shoes are definitely pink ballet shoes, and the corpse is found wearing them on his poor dead feet.

But ballet doesn’t feature at all – the shoes are just there to add weirdness, there’s no real significance. However, it was a good read anyway: the inhabitants of an old brownstone in New York, now divided into apartments, assemble for a memorably awful building party. Everyone is horrible to each other, and the constant calls for more drink make this worse not better. An attempt at a dire party game ends in more bad feeling. The next day one of the guests is found dead. A nice cop comes to investigate, along with the dead man’s nephew. The residents include (of course) two nice young women in the basement.

There’s not a great deal of detecting to do, and by the time there’s been another murder, and we have decided to eliminate certain people from suspicion, there aren’t many suspects left (this book really is a closed circle – there are just about no other characters: no colleagues or friends, no shopkeepers or even passing strangers, no unexpected witnesses).

But the clothes are great, the sparky and ill-natured conversations among the tenants are always enjoyable, and there are some funny moments:
“They married in haste and it fell apart almost right away.” 
The two girls stared at her in astonishment. It seemed incredible that anyone should question a marriage of [X]’s breaking up.

Keith took time out to observe that he disliked pigheaded women, and Greta reminded him that he was lucky to have a choice because the girls were faced with 100% pig-headedness in men.
There’s one feature that I thought was unusual: we find out who the guilty party is, and then we get a full chapter of that person’s thoughts, explaining method and motive in an internal monologue. I’m sure there must be other examples of this in crime fiction, outside of first person narration, but I can’t think of any.

There is all kinds of interest in the book itself, as physical object.

Death Wears Pink shoes

may have been mistaken in expecting some ballet content, but at least I read the book and discovered my mistake, which I don’t think the designer of this cover did. This picture bears no resemblance whatsoever to any aspect of the book, apart from the existence of pink shoes. HOWEVER - it is fabulous isn’t it? (The actual skull is missing, so I’m not sure if it would fit the collection of TracyK: shout out if you want it Tracy, and I will send it on.)

The wrap worn by the skeleton features a pink print: the Death Wears Pink shoes 7repeated logo of the Doubleday Crime Club, who published the book.

The back cover contains a code of symbols by which you can tell what kind of crime book you are holding – in this case, big on character and atmosphere.

And - apparently Robert James was a pseudonym for Iris Little, an Australian writer with sisters (Constance and Gwynneth) who also wrote detective fiction. I recently featured comments by Leonard Holton on the differences between men and women’s crime fiction:
I'm not fond of bashing people around or shooting them, and casual sex I disagree with. On the other hand I have no real talent for the threads of detail which form the smooth and satisfactory web of the detective story as written by women writers.
Death Wears Pink Shoes definitely reads like a combination of the two: it is tougher than that title would suggest.

Clothes from Kristine’s photostream and the Clover Vintage Tumbler.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Secrets of a Little Black Dress…

The Story of Black by John Harvey

published 201

Black dress

Black dress 2

commentary: Simon Lavery, the proprietor of the Tredynas Days blog, recommended this book to me, and I am very grateful: John Harvey, an academic, has written two books on the colour black, and you can read Simon’s (fascinating) take on them both here.

I enjoyed The Story of Black very much – the author deals with every aspect of the colour: in art, in literature, in consideration of race, in its associations with sadness or death, and of course in clothes. I decided to run his story of the Little Black Dress above as is, with the photo, because of such interest to me and I’m sure to many of my readers… As explained in the text the fabulous photo is NOT from the era it represents, it is a modern reconstruction.

There are all kinds of riveting stories in the book – with my interest in clothes, I was also very intrigued by the history of what witches traditionally wore: the short answer is ‘not necessarily black’, as that is a modern idea.

It’s a lovely book, very well-produced and with many beautiful illustrations: When he describes something, you know you will turn the page and see what he is talking about. John Harvey is plainly a polymath, and his examples come from poetry, from the history of coal-mining, from East and West, from Ancient Greece, from Turner and Milton. A serious, academic and well-researched book, but accessible and endlessly entertaining.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen

published 2016

translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett

This is another version of a post I did for the Petrona Remembered website in memory of the still-missed Petrona, Maxine Clark. The book has also just won the Petrona prize. You can see the other version of the post on the site, and also look at other recommendations for great books while you are there….

Where Roses Never Die 3

It was New Year’s Eve 1976 and midnight had passed. It had been bitingly cold for Bergen, the thermometer had sunk to well below zero. All the adults were gathered in the function room in the architect’s house for the annual New Year party. The youngsters were asleep and the eldest children had been sent to bed, now the fireworks were over…

Champagne corks were popping in the function room as well. The food was eaten, they had danced, and spirits were high when Terje tapped his glass at around half past twelve. He kept tapping but it was only when Vibeke started clapping her hands beside him that he had the group’s attention.

Clothes maketh the man, the proverb went, but it was usually the opposite, people chose an outfit that reflected their character…

Randi herself and Nils were dressed in black, him in a black suit with a blue tie, her in ‘a little black number’, so short that she showed a maximum of what she knew was her best feature, her attractive legs. When she had danced with Tor earlier in the evening, he had patted her on the bottom and said the same: ‘The best legs in the room, Randi…’

‘We’ve decided it’s time for a party game,’ Terje said from the podium once he finally had everyone’s attention.

‘We?’ said Vibeke, looking at him askance.

‘Listen to him! Listen to him!’ Tor shouted.

‘We’re calling this the New Year games,’ Terje continued. 

Everyone was attentive now. This was something new.

commentary: I picked the right time to read this one. Compared with my crime fiction friends, I’m a novice when it comes to Scandi books, but a review over at Reactions to Reading convinced me to try this one – Bernadette, the proprietor, is always reliable. She doesn’t just write great reviews, she also matches my tastes. (Secretly I enjoy her slamming reviews of books she doesn’t like almost more than the good ones.)

Anyway, she did a good job selling this, and unsurprisingly I loved it – and then I surfaced from reading it to find it had won the Petrona Award. That’s the literary prize founded in honour of our much-missed friend Maxine Clarke, who blogged as Petrona and died a few years ago. The award is for a book she would have liked, and I think she’d have loved this one.

Varg Veum is a private investigator in the tradition and spirit of the great US crime books: maybe washed up, has a messy personal life, is an alcoholic, has made enemies. It is 2002, and he is asked to look again at the case of a 3-year-old girl who went missing from outside her house 25 years earlier. One of the remaining witnesses died in a strange and random robbery attempt, and the child’s mother was reminded that she is running out of time, a statute of limitations is about to impose itself.

There was a group of families living in a housing co-op: all friends, most with children. Many of the relationships didn’t survive the era of the disappearance, though Veum turns up other reasons for that. Slowly he works his way through the list of those involved, calling in favours and following instincts and intuition – his own and others. Norwegian life and ways are laid out for us in a most appealing way. The people are varied, some good some bad, all distinctive in their characters. Facts are teased out till eventually Veum reaches the truth. Sometimes, as in the extract above, we see the events of 25 years before through the other characters’ eyes.

There is some great dialogue – like this exchange with a retired colleague
‘But if there’s anything else you need, you know where to find me.’ 
'Yes, if you haven’t gone to the fjord, that is.’ 

‘I never go so far that I can’t find my way back.’ 

‘Wish I could say the same.’

And during an uncomfortable conversation:
Like two experienced synchronised swimmers we raised our cups of coffee at the same time, staring furiously at each other. Neither of us liked what he saw and we didn’t try to conceal it.
And sadly Veum breaks his resolution not to drink:
‘You can allow yourself one glass.’ 

‘Well…’ All of a sudden my throat was drier than a temperance preacher’s on the booze cruiser from Denmark. ‘One then.’
The little housing co-op is an important part of the book: much is made of the coloured houses, the closeness of the group, the function room where the New Year’s Eve party above is being held, the atmosphere and undercurrents of the group.
The five houses had been built in a kind of horseshoe shape. The tall two-storey facades, painted in strong contrasting colours, and the gently pitched roofs to the back betrayed their 1970s origins. The house forming the base of the horseshoe was the biggest. It had been painted red, as was one of the others; two were yellow and one was white.
And pictures of Bergen houses suggest that these colours were not unusual.

Where Roses Never Die 1Where Roses Never Die 2

I thought it was a marvellous book, I loved it. I’m faintly concerned by the fact that this was the 19th book about Veum: I don’t have time to commit to a new series! But it would be quite wrong to take against Staalesen (or his translator Don Bartlett, who seems very good) on those grounds. The tropes of this book are familiar, we’ve all read many books with similar setups, similar PIs, similar families, similar investigations. But Staalesen takes the ingredients and makes something magical from them, something very different. He surely deserves this prize.

The main picture is a shoe advert from 1977, and suggests a party very similar to the one going on in Bergen.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen

published 1934


Hell Said the Duchess

At this Mrs. Nautigale’s expression became so distraught that it was as though the powerful edifice of her face was being demolished with a view to structural alterations. As she dived once again on to the helpless reclining Mary, and as Miss Gool left the room, Wingless took the opportunity of doing very quickly and quietly what he thought he had to do.

Signing to Mrs. Nautigale to keep Mary occupied, his fingers searched deftly among the flimsy feminine things in her drawers and cupboards. From beneath a cloud of dainty knickers, the touch of which made him feel like a bull among ospreys, he drew out and slipped into his breast-pocket a slender blade about six inches in length curiously attached to a short handle which had been encased in rubber.

Then, kissing Mary affectionately and telling Mrs. Nautigale not to let her out of her sight until she was safely in Dr. Lapwing’s charge, he left the house for Scotland Yard.

commentary: We haven’t heard the last of these knickers. The following events are part of some riots in London.
Thus the charming but private details of a gentlewoman’s bedchamber became the derided objects of the rioters’ lust, and the coarse hands of the mob delighted to destroy the flimsy fabrics of a duchess’s intimate toilet. While London, on that wretched day, was not spared the degrading spectacle of Englishmen wearing in broad daylight a lady’s knickers as fancy headgear. 

But worse was yet to come…presently when a column of Fascists marched into Grosvenor Square from Carlos Place they were met by the disgusting spectacle of common men and women wearing on their heads the chamber-pots of some of the proudest families in England.
THESE were the images from the book I really wanted to show – but sadly no suitable pictures could be found.

I got hold of this book after recently reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links, which begins with a discussion of the 'Hell! Said the duchess' phrase – supposedly invented by a writer as the perfect eye-catching opening to a story, combining snob and shock value. (Christie gives it as a ‘well-known anecdote’.) I was fairly certain Arlen (a blog favourite) had written something with that title – but it turned out to be 11 years after the Christie. And it seemed like a good idea to read it.

It’s a novella, strange and discomfiting but very funny. There’s a spot of alternative history – London in the 30s has been taken over by Mosleyite Fascists, though this doesn’t seem essential to the plot. The Duchess, who has the excellent name of Mary Dove*, is a respectable young widow of the finest morals, a beautiful lady who does good works and goes to bed early. Except… It seems that she (or someone who looks just likes her) is out and about misbehaving in louche parts of London. And then things get worse – murders are committed by a sex-crazed Jane the Ripper:
It was, of course, obvious that this female fiend could not be an Englishwoman.
But soon it can no longer be ignored that there is evidence against the Duchess:
“It might be faked. It must be faked. Here is one of the best-bred and loveliest women in the world——” 

“So was Messalina.” 

“I am not talking about a Frenchwoman, but about the most gracious lady in England…”

The investigation goes forward – there is some funny business about the Duchess’s maid, and there is a very sinister man around:
“…He was proved beyond all doubt to be a man more gross and more depraved than any other man you ever heard of.” 

“What were these offences, Crust?” 

“Sir, I would not sully your ears.” 

“You do an injustice to the Colonel’s clubs,” said Icelin. “His ears have been sullied by experts.” 

“The man,” said Crust indignantly, “was a sapphist and a nymphomaniac.” 

“Must be an acrobat,” said Wingless. 
“He means,” said Icelin, “sadist and erotomaniac.” 

“Sir,” said Crust warmly, “that’s as may be, but this man Axaloe was a downright shocking chap, that’s what he was. You never heard of such goings on, and what those poor ladies must have suffered—or should have suffered if they had been brought up right—doesn’t bear thinking of…” 
 (I suppose there were writers of the era who might have expressed these sentiments entirely seriously, so I should point out that there can be no doubt of Arlen’s satirical intent throughout.)

The climax comes at a cottage in Leatherhead – Arlen always very good at picking the right Home Counties location for an event - owned by a seldom-seen recluse, who only went out at night and was known to be interested in research.

What started as a crime book tips into horror…. It’s a disconcerting mixture of fantasy and satire, in the end I didn’t know what to make of it, though it was a most entertaining read.

Michael Arlen’s most famous book is, always, The Green Hat – one of the original inspirations for this blog. He was of Armenian origin, but settled in Great Britain (and later America) and wrote unusual stories combining melodrama, satire, romance and sexiness in varying proportions. He was a best-selling writer in his day, but almost forgotten now.

*There is a character called Mary Dove in Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye, first published in 1953. She is the housekeeper.

Friday, 11 August 2017

House of Secrets by Sarra Manning

published 2017

House of Secrets 2

[A young couple who have just moved into a long-empty house find a hidden suitcase]

House of Secrets 1Scuffed brown leather covered in old-fashioned labels from far away places. Paris. New York. Los Angeles. Zoe had seen similar luggage selling for stupid amounts of money in the chicest vintage shops of West London.

‘Should we open it?’ Win asked, but he had already snapped open the clasps and lifted up the lid before Zoe could tell tell him that they should drop it off at the vendor’s solicitor. Still, she leaned closer, intrigued, as Win took out a parcel wrapped in tissue paper, which disintegrated beneath his fingers. He shook out the folded fabric that was nestled inside.

It was a bottle-green dress cut on the bias. Zoe reached out a hand to gently touch the material. It was made of rayon or crepe, one of those old fabrics slightly rough to the touch…

HOuse of Secrets 3House of Secrets 4

commentary: I was lucky enough to go to a glamorous and sophisticated party to launch this book last night: I am of course open to being bribed with unusual cocktails, fizz, and fabulous canapes – but luckily there was no need. I had already read the book and absolutely loved it, so could consume everything on offer with a clear conscience. (I pretty much knew in advance that I would love it – see my enthusiastic post about Sarra Manning’s last book, After the Last Dance, here on the blog.)

This one has a great setup – two distinct storylines, one contemporary and one in the 1930s, linked by a London house in a way that isn’t revealed to begin with. Zoe and Win, above, have moved into a long-empty house, trying to rebuild their relationship after something went badly wrong. They are doing it up, even if Zoe sometimes feels that they’ll be
working long past retirement age, coach parties swinging past to take pictures of the house that hadn’t been lived in for 80 years, then had the builders in for another 40.
Meanwhile, more or less alternate chapters tell us the story of Libby, the owner of the green dress, knocking round 1930s London (not in the house of the title…) after an unfortunate series of events of her own. We first meet her, quite splendidly, acting as the fake adultery partner in a divorce case – a fascinating feature of 1930s life that also comes up, memorably, in Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust, and is mentioned in Dorothy L Sayers Busman’s Honeymoon – see this blogpost for more details. (The arcane 30s divorce rules are laid out and explained in the book – I had never really understood them before.)

We follow the two stories in parallel – Zoe and Win are working out their own problems, while also trying to find out more about Libby, reading her diary which is in the suitcase, and watching the story unfold at the same time as we do. By the end there is a real cliffhanger about Libby’s story – I read a lot of crime novels, but few of them kept me as tense as waiting and hoping and dreading how things are going to pan out for Libby.

And, as in the earlier book, Sarra writes so well about women, and men, and their lives. These are real people, the kind you can imagine as your friends, they have faults and annoying traits, but they also have their charms and quirks. I thought the relationships in the book were very well done. When writing about After the Last Dance, I said about the heroine Rose
She is a great character – not a goody-goody, nor promiscuous, but somewhere in between. She is very sharp and smart and human. She also has an excellent interest in her clothes …
And that could apply to Libby too. 

There were various fine clothes moments in the book, but in the end I felt I had to go with Libby’s cherished green dress, which she wore to be married in. The drawing is from a collection of NYPL fashion illustrations of the 1930s. The photograph, from Kristine’s photostream, is a little too late, but seemed to be the right kind of green dress, and the mysterious head in shadow is in the spirit of the plot.

I took some photos at the booklaunch, but as is traditional with me they were all unusably terrible, so the photo of Sarra above is from her Twitter feed. She is a great friend to this blog – we met online, and are constantly swapping book recommendations. Thus, she has cost me a lot of money over the years – because anything she recommends I immediately buy – but I do forgive her….