It's all about...popular girls...rec rooms...summers at the lake...dates with wealthy, thrill-crazy antiques...small town political corruption...and finding your true path in life. The Paris Hat considers the sometimes frothy, sometimes serious world of novels for teenage girls from the 1950s and 60s.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Little Monsters

Title: Junior Miss
Author: Sally Benson
Publisher: Random House, 1941
Setting: New Yorker-land
Provenance: formerly the property of Marjorie Tremblay, a present from Cousin Albert, 1941
Fun: playing "Stepano, a drunken butler" in The Tempest; lily of the valley perfume; Pink Beauty, a (dead) trained mouse
Quote: "Look, Fuffy!" Judy exclaimed, "There's George Wade's house. Did you ever see anything like it? They haven't got a furnace or anything and they live there all winter. They throw their cans in the front yard. We can come down and get some if we want them for anything."
"They have lice," Lois said.

I bought the cheapest, most smudged copy available on Ebay and got a reward.
Sally Benson wrote the stories that were turned into the movie Meet Me In St. Louis. Those stories were originally published in the New Yorker, as were the Junior Miss stories. (Junior Miss was turned into a Broadway play which ran for two years and had a subsequent life as a movie, radio series and tv show.*) All this would lead one to believe that Junior Miss will be winsome and cheerful and all about the magic of being a young lady. This illusion is destroyed 4 pages in:

[Judy] was tall for her twelve years and heavily built. From her shoulders to her knees she was entirely shapeless, which gave her a square, broad look in spite of her height. Her summer tan had faded and her face had rather a ghastly yellow tinge. Below her skirt, which was too short for her, her legs were hard, muscular and covered with scratches. Her dress, a soft blue one, smocked at the sleeves, was supposed to hang gracefully...but instead looked as though she had been stuffed into it. She wore two rings on her fingers -- an aquamarine and a turquoise in gold settings. She had outgrown them and they drew her fingers in at their bases and made them look like sausages. She wore two charm bracelets of a brassy color and a locket and chain fastened so tightly around her neck it seemed it might throttle her. In the locket was a rather dim snapshot of a kitten and a clear picture of Tyrone Power. Her dark brown hair hung straight below her ears and was held in place by numerous bobbie pins and two ready-made bows. Her toenails, under her wool socks and scuffed brown oxfords, were painted with a decadent pink mother-of-pearl polish.
She sucked in her stomach, held her breath, and pulled her dress in at the waist. And, while the change in her silhouette reflected in the mirror was almost imperceptible, her eyes shone with a terrible optimism.

The reader is not being invited to identify with Judy, but to scrutinize her, and to discover that she's fat, vain and sentimental about kittens. This, I think, puts Junior Miss outside the realm of teen novels, one of the basic concepts of which is self-identification on the part of the reader. Junior Miss' origin in the New Yorker would seem to support this, but I can't for the life of me figure out whom the book was written for. Judy and her sister Lois think about little but nail polish, facials, beauty tips from magazines, and growing up as quickly as possible so they can wear stockings, perfume and "perfectly stunning" cruise clothes. Some writers can make this sort of thing charming, but Benson keeps sticking the knife in. The reader is made aware not just that these obsessions are frivolous but that they are complete failures. There's a moment in each story when one of the characters -- usually one of the parents -- will glance obliquely at the futility of life in general, and then smooth everything over and move on. Did sophisticated New Yorker readers in 1940 find this soothing? Did they think Judy and Lois amusing creations just like their own daughters? Did the irritatingly mournful comedy of the stories make them chuckle? I can't really answer that, any more than I can decide if this is a book you're supposed to enjoy or one to send a chill up your spine.

*Per Wikipedia, Junior Mints candy, introduced in 1949, was a play on "Junior Miss," which was still going strong on the radio at the time.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Beyond the Dream

Title: Follow Your Dream
Author: Marjorie Holmes
Cover Art: James Talone
Publisher: Westminster Press, 1961
Setting: Hometown Washington, DC
Fun: Hamsters in the refrigerator; Georgetown grande dames; a crazy cat lady
Quote: "Beside her, holding a monkey, stood the tallest, handsomest and quite the most terrifying man Tracey had ever seen."

The authors of many of these novels, most of whom, according to the jacket blurbs, were the mothers of teenagers themselves, seemed to know very well that marriage did not preclude a career. In fact, in book after book, they are fully in sympathy with girls who want to do something or make something of themselves. Follow Your Dream is a textbook example of this -- there is never any doubt that Tracey will become a veterinarian. The twist is that Tracey wants a man as well.

We first meet Tracey Temple when she is being told, by a school Career Day speaker, that women can't be veterinarians. Tracey proceeds to heckle him, and is reprimanded by the principal. Being a vet is not just her dream, but her destiny, and when school ends, she is thrilled to get a summer job with Dr. Jane Baldwin, Washington D.C.'s only female vet. On the first day there, however, she falls in love with Whit, a third-year vet student. Whit, as it turns out, is in love with Diana, another student. And then there's Jeff, Tracey's old flame, who also falls for Diana, and good old Dudley, the boy next door. In short, it's a full-fledged love...well, pentagon, which winds through the story and pushes the animal-hospital vignettes into the background.

Tracey is a strong characters and Follow Your Dream never for a moment suggests she would be happier getting married and settling down. But what Tracey wants is Whit and a career, and what Follow Your Dream does suggest is that Tracey will never get both. Whit goes off to finish his education at the end of the book, hinting that Tracey ought to "stop knocking herself out over the wrong things. The things that were never meant for you." And Follow Your Dream leaves it at that. There is a future for Tracey, but, as with any of us, it may not be the one we anticipate.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Title: The World of Ellen March
Author: Jeannette Eyerly
Jacket: Charles Geer
Publisher: Lippincott, 1964
Setting: The Upper East Side; Cedar City, USA
Provenance: Formerly the property of Bridgeport Public Schools
Fun: Dover sole at the Plaza; hoodlum Johnny Ajax; how to make a fake i.d.
Quote: "I thought I could explain why your mother and I are doing what we are, but I...I find I can't. Right now, I don't think our reasons would be, well -- your reasons. Sometime, after the divorce is final and you come to visit it will be easier for you to understand."

Like most parents in divorce-themed teen novels (the early ones, anyway), Ellen March's parents announce the impending event without using phrases like "no-good bum" or "gold-digging floozy." Everything will work out fine. We still love you, we're just not going to live together, etc. Ellen's parents then get the best of all possible divorces -- the Sophisticated New York City kind. (Ellen even lunches at the Plaza with her father after the Big Talk.) Their exact reasons remain maddeningly vague. But if The World of Ellen March is not quite upfront about the messy details of divorce, it's very good with the emotional after-effects.
Ellen's mother, to "establish residency," moves them to a small Midwestern city where Ellen is afraid to confess to the other girls in school the reason her father won't be at the annual Dad's Dinner. These chapters are more realistic than the main plot, in which Ellen decides to kidnap her little sister and disappear, hoping this will bring her parents together. This, of course, goes awry in a way that involves a runaway juvenile delinquent and a car accident, only for it all to end happily, with Ellen waking up safe in the hospital to see her father standing over her bed.
Or...not so happily. The last chapter of the book is almost like the beginning of another book entirely. Ellen's parents are not getting back together -- in fact, her father is furious and her parting with him presages years of therapy. Everyone at school knows what she has done. She's left alone in the hospital with only the remote sympathy of a military nurse -- and the friendship of one Alex Quiner, who offers to update her in the requirements of how to get along with divorced parents:

"There's more -- if you'd like to sign up for the course: 'How Not to Act When Your Mother Remarries,' 'How to Be Unpopular with Everybody,' 'What to Call Your Stepfather Besides "Hey," ' just to mention a few."

Both the military nurse and Alex are remarkable hints at a different world -- a kind of outcast community, which has seen beyond Dad's Dinners and getting married right after high school. It is clear this is going to be Ellen's world, too. And it's clear it's not such a frightening world, after all.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Queens of the Genre, Part II: Beverly Cleary

Title: Sister of the Bride
Author: Beverly Cleary
Publisher: William Morrow, 1963
Setting: Bayview, California, just over the cloverleaf from Berkeley
Fun: folk songs, Tootie Bodger; the Latin Club Banquet; burlap placemats
Quote: "At the end of each semester there is a party," continued Rosemary with a mischievous smile. "That is when the girls who work while their husbands go to school are awarded their Ph.T. degree." Barbara had heard of a Ph.D. degree, but never of a Ph.T. This was a new one. "What does that stand for?" she asked, pulling on her nightgown. "Putting Hubby Through," answered Rosemary, laughing.

Beverly Cleary had already established herself with Henry Huggins and the first Ramona book when she began writing teen novels in the late 1950s. (She also worked on the novelization of Leave It to Beaver around that time, so perhaps she was willing to turn a hand to anything that would find a ready market.) The result was four novels -- Fifteen, Jean Loves Johnny, The Luckiest Girl and Sister of the Bride -- which have remained in print. All of these novels are fairly simple romances with fairly typical characters. And yet they have the mysterious characteristic of looking ahead, not backwards. They are time capsules -- right down to the cost of a can of tamales at Safeway (4 for 39 cents) -- but they don't read like them. Consider this passage from Sister of the Bride, describing the guests at Rosemay's bridal shower:

"Although the sisters had always lumped the Amys together, there was actually a variety of women in the room -- the Amy who wore leather sandals and wove her own skirts, another who was active in the League of Women Voters, the mother whose calm was never disturbed by her six children, the mother who wanted to write but couldn't find the time, an Amy whose rough hands and deep tan were the result of hours spent in her hillside garden."

It's hard to read this without a sense of recognition, even 50 years later. And so it goes with the plot of the book. Barbara's parents are teachers (her mother teaches "slow" students) in a hilly suburb of San Francisco. Her brother wants to be a folk singer. Her sister Rosemary, who is without a trace of political consciousness, attends Berkeley. Her fiance works in the "Rad Lab," there, helping to smash atoms. And upon hearing that her sister is engaged, Barbara naturally dreams of silverware patterns, a country-club reception and catching the bouquet. But then the book opens up. Barbara visits her sister's prospective new home -- a slovenly apartment they will occupy rent-free in exchange for playing landlord. She begins to think about marriage beyond the magazine covers, and about the two boys who sometimes occupy her attention. Suddenly they don't look much like marriage material -- if she wants to marry at all.

"Life was interesting, something to be explored, and suddenly a wedding did not seem nearly so desirable...She did not even know which she preferred, Bill's thoughtless exuberance or Tootie's fumbling seriousness. But she did know one thing -- it was going to be fun to find out."