Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: stories from Dorothy Parker, Janet Flanner, Kay Boyle, Martha Gellhorn, John Steinbeck, et al.: IT'S A WOMAN'S WORLD: STORIES FROM HARPER'S BAZAAR edited by Mary Louise Aswell (Whittlesey House/McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1944) and THE GIRLS FROM ESQUIRE edited by Frederic Alexander Birmingham (Random House, 1952)

Eight years apart, two anthologies drawn from two roughly comparable gendered magazines, mixtures of fiction, essays and reportage (of a sort), both rather similarly divided into thematic subsections, one book published under wartime austerity (my copy being a Dollar Book Club [Doubleday] edition perhaps heightening that), the other in postwar (at least American) prosperity (two-colored printing within, and with a multicolor illustration on the boards front and back as well as the book jacket); one relatively sober and more or less meant to take women and their estate seriously (even with a sadly unsurprisingly condescending introduction by Philip Wylie, a year after the publication his anti-"Momism" screed, among other matters, in Generation of Vipers--perhaps thrust upon the book by McGraw-Hill's editors...with an eye to the bestseller lists), the other hoping, it seems, to encourage a return to as much condescension toward woman as will still allow for a fun evening and following morning in a swingin' bach-pad with the "girls" (when other terms aren't employed; "women" usually reserved for citations of irritation).  More of the Esquire book is crazy, even for the times.

It's a Woman's World: Stories from
Harper's Bazaar 
edited by Marie Louise Aswell 
(New York, London) Whittlesey House/McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

(OCoLC) 591788573
346 pages ; 24 cm

Foreword by Philip Wylie

Women in Love. 

Nuit Blanche / Colette ; 
The winds / Eudora Welty ; 
Romance / Dorothy Baker ; 
Lappin and Lapinova / Virginia Woolf ; 
Slews of love / Helen Howe ; 
Advice to the little Peyton girl / Dorothy Parker Harper’s Bazaar [v67 #2, February 1933]
The cure / Colette --

Women and children. 
The season of summer / Nancy Hale ; 
Consider the giraffe / Gladys Schmitt ; 
Child and the bird / Margaret Shedd --

Women and war. 
The canals of Mars / Kay Boyle ; 
The rented room / Josephine W. Johnson ; 
Home is a place / Bessie Breuer --

Women's professions. 
Gentlemen prefer blondes / Anita Loos ; 
Fashions in spies / Janet Flanner ; 
Movie star comes to New York / Cecelia Ager ; 
Sister / Margaret Case Harriman ; 
Mother's helper / Dorothy McCleary ; 
Young man in an Astrakhan cap / Edita Morris --

It takes all kinds. 
Love child / Maritta Wolff ; 
Like a field mouse over the heart / Elizabeth Eastman ; 
Late afternoon of a nymph / Victoria Lincoln ; 
The Hepburn girls / Lenore Cotten ; 
Ghostly father, I confess / Mary McCarthy ; 
Caput Mortuum / Edita Morris ; 
Horsie / Dorothy Parker Harper’s Bazaar December 1932
The will / Mary Lavin --

What women do when they are alone / G.B. Stern.

The two Dorothy Parker stories are witty and sad, of course. The latter, "Horsie" is the more cutting, detailing the period a visiting nurse spends with a young, conventionally pretty, wealthily indulged couple and their newborn infant; the young father particularly resents not only having to entertain the nurse at dinner (since these people seem to demand to eat with the owners of the household rather than the help), but simply resents any woman being to him unsightly, unlike his wife, who resents having to have the nurse with her through the bulk of the day...both are particularly put off by her equine face. The little they learn about her and her life doesn't make their sufferance of her disruption of their lives any more pleasant, even when they can invite old friends over for some mocking show and tell or when, impulsively, the husband brings along with his daily exotic flowers for his wife a few commoner flowers for the departing nurse, who is flattered beyond what the young couple thought was likely. Editor Aswell notes that we learn more than perhaps we should about the women in both the Parker stories, with no mention of what we learn of the hosts in this one, which seems an oversight, at best, if one we might suspect could happen in an Harper's Bazaar editorial office. 

Parker's "Advice to the Little Peyton Girl" (who is 19yo, but condescended to by everyone in her life and acts out in a girlishly insecure manner almost, one suspects, as a consequence) is a simpler story, mostly a dialog between Peyton and her elder mentor, almost extravagantly admired by the younger woman for her poise and worldly wisdom, some of it actually wise and worldly, but also no promise of a happier life than the young one is currently facing.

Janet Flanner's "Fashions in Spies" is a breezy nonfiction account of the nature of espionage and the women players at it the 20th Century, as opposed to earlier times when it was mostly a game of courtesans, contrasting the the careers of Lydia Stahl and Mata Hari, and how much better things seemed to go for the former, the better embodiment of what today's successful spy should aspire to.

I've read at best one or two Kay Boyle stories before, and remember liking them, so "The Canals of Mars" seemed inviting, even though its placement in the "Women and War" section didn't promise any surprising sfnal content. The last hours for a couple before his departure on a troop train from Pennsylvania Station, offers carefully improvisational conversational prose between a young woman and man, as they walk through a familiar neighborhood and take in or consider taking in various attractions, including a planetarium show, though she suggests that a screening of Pépé le Moko might be better than observing astronomical renderings of the once-mooted green canals or channels of Mars. Not his first dangerous departure, not her first farewell...they discuss, among other things, memories of their last night before his departure for Casablanca, in the manner of the Garbo film Queen Christina. Elegantly allusive, and grounded.

And C. B. Stern's "What Women Do When They Are Alone", suggested as particularly instructive to male readers, is a nonfiction piece that I suspect even at time of publication related more to what writers do when they are alone, on balance, than it does to what even all Anglophone women in Europe and North America do when on their own, even if many writers didn't worry as much about their knitting nor their weight as many non-writing  women might've.

The story and article synopses/assessments continue after the Esquire anthology's table of contents...

The Girls from Esquire edited by Frederic Alexander Birmingham
New York, Random House (1952)

xii + 308 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
"With 30 complementing Esquire cartoons"--Upper cover of dust jacket.

Woman : the necessary evil --
Babe : a story / by Bob Patterson --
A snake of one's own : a story / by John Steinbeck 
Esquire v9 #2, No. 51, February 1938 ed. Arnold Gingrich  full text
All for love --Ladies in stripes : an article / by Edward D. Radin --
The silence of Mr. Prendegast : a story / by Stuart Cloete --
About Shorty : a story / by Martha Gellhorn --
Lady of the evening : a true story / by Morris Markey --

Two legs for the two of us : a story / by James Jones --
The convert : a story / by Irwin Shaw --
New York is full of girls : a story / by Joseph Wechsberg --
The woman from twenty-one : a story / by F. Scott Fitzgerald --
The night bus to Atlanta : a story / by Brendan Gill --
The breaking point : a story / by Budd Schulberg --
No end to anything : a story / by Robert Switzer --

The lady speaks her mind --
It was good enough for father : an article / by Ilka Chase --
The secret of love: have American girls forgotten? : an article / by Betty South --
Blueprint for a divorcee : an article / by Mary Jane Shour --
Let him be lord and master : an article / by Cynthia Harris --
What has become of the old-fashioned man? : an article / by Helen Lawrenson --

Women of the world --
Art and Isadora : an article / by John Dos Passos --
The real Ingrid Bergman story : an article / by Laurence Stallings --
Gertrude, alas, alas : an article / by Elliot Paul --
Tears in the ladies room : an article / by Elaine Greene --
The legend of Dorothy Parker : an article / by Richard E. Lauterbach --

Sugar and spice --
What hath God wrought? : an article / by Robert Ruark --
Are husbands helpless? : an article / by Nathanial Benchley --
Heavenly and earthly love : a story / by Ferenc Molnar --
We were just having fun : a story / by F. Hugh Herbert --
What's wrong with our women? : an article / by Leland Stowe --
The savage beast in us : an article / by Paul Gallico --
Seven moments of love : a poem / by Langston Hughes --

Science and sex --
Marriage makes strange bedfellows : an article / by Lawrence Gould --
Have you a mistress? : an article / by Fred C. Kelly --
Do you know your women? : an article / by J.B. Rice, M.D. --
Glandbook for the questing male: with chart / by George Antheil --
She's no longer faithful if--: a survey / by Marcel Desage 

But if Ms. Stern is a bit blithely overconfident of the universality of her claims about women in the Bazaar anthology, what are we to make of Cynthia Harris's "Let Him Be Lord and Master", which confidently puts forth an argument for abusing wives by husbands...just up to the point of regular "shoving her around", mind you...that, say, even Marabel Morgan twenty-odd years later might find more than a little odd, though it does resonate with "John Norman" novels and the like, published during Morgan's heyday and since. Because, after all, "Anyone who has read at all knows that most women are masochists and delight in being dominated and even hurt once in a while if it is done in the right and artistic manner." Harris is apparently a woman, who doesn't suggest this at all humorously, even backhandedly humorously (actual backhanding encouraged), while assuming nearly all women want to be roughed up, at least, during periodic arguments (every two weeks is her prescription) so the women can meekly apologize afterward for their opposed to realizing that for every woman who likes some sort of rough sexual roleplay, there's a masochistic man, and men and women and others who like to play both ways, and many who don't want to do this at all...but most of her article is about her resentment of her husband who likes to do some household maintenance chores every night...perhaps a non-playful masochist for sticking with her. Then again, perhaps Harris just knew what would not only sell to the magazine, but what would be reprinted in an anthology from it.

I think this might be the highest peak of blithe berserkness in the book, but others are scaling similar heights. 

Happily, John Steinbeck in "A Snake of One's Own" tracks closer to sanity even in offering us a short suspense story involving an essentially thoughtless biochemist, who does terrible things to starfish, rats and others, and the enigmatic young woman who visits his low-budget lab one day, and basically freaks him out. She seems to enjoy the deaths of the animals he's causing, and seeking to hurry the process along, but not in any definitive way...mostly what she clearly wants is ownership of his largest rattlesnake, but for no clear purpose, other than to simply own it (while leaving it with him in his lab). The young scientist is utterly unequipped to determine if she has some sort of death fetish or simply enjoys behaving oddly to leave him befuddled...if the latter, she succeeds. It's a minor if deftly-told Steinbeck, not quite the oddball classic that his horror story about sentient chewing gum is.

While the only woman writer to be included in the fiction pages, Martha Gellhorn (too often known mostly as the woman who could put up with Ernest Hemingway the most) contributes what could be memoir rather than fiction in "About Shorty", an account of a young German woman who seems hapless but usually cheerful as she manages to weave her way through Europe and specifically the Spanish Civil War and the early years of World War II, apparently only to disappear. Gellhorn has sympathy for her, but consistently notes that she's the kind of innocent who seems to bring more trouble to herself and others in war zones particularly than anyone, another example of a woman scorned in the more general way. Esquire doesn't make a great case for itself with this volume at all, so far, despite the wealth of talent involved, even down to the cartoon selection, with minor examples of Syd Hoff's and Gardner Rea's work and abysmal examples by Barney Tobey and a few others, and the only multiple contributor in the volume to get more than one laugh is B. Sergmund. I certainly hope to find better among the fiction at least.

For more of this week's Wednesday stories, please see Patti Abbott's blog (and also see Megan Abbott's new novel, The Turnout)


Jack Seabrook said...

Quite a lineup in that Esquire book! Speaking of book clubs, I just enjoyed reading a Detective Book Club volume from 1958 with novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, John Bingham, and Doris Miles Disney. A lot of fun for about four bucks on eBay!

Todd Mason said...

Pretty comparable to when (even ten years ago) Detective Book Club omnibuses could easily be had for two bucks a hit at used bookstores, sometimes less at library sales...Alas, even though the ESQUIRE crew dug through their '40s as well as early '50s inventory, too much of what they chose to offer was not the best work...the HB volume is averaging better, so far. Good hunting! And thanks for stopping in.