As a writer, I am most noted for historical works–though as I and the world get older, history becomes more “wait–I was there” memory. My next novel, for example, is set in 1985, making it the first book I’ve written set in an era in which I actually lived.
The thing is, “history” is as recent as yesterday. And like yesterday, it has memory and feeling and life beyond that of a date or time or place recorded in a record or newspaper. It lives, somewhere, in someone’s memories … and if those memories were written down or spoken aloud–or commemorated in some way or shape or form–we who were NOT there, who did NOT share that particular bit of history-as-memory–can kinda sorta participate in it, too.
I’ve always been fascinated with history because I am fascinated with people. I want to know what someone thought and felt, what they experienced, how they enjoyed and how they endured. I try reach a point where I feel as though I recognize and understand that human truth, whenever it took place, and then write it so that my readers understand it, too.
One of the major tools I use to “channel” the past is by examining what it left behind–a sort of latter-day archaeology. Archaeology was a focus of mine while earning a Master’s Degree in Classics, and I’m one of those academics who support archaeology as an overall more trustworthy record than the written one. Writers have always embellished and propagandized … but pottery fragments rarely lie because they were not purposely placed or arranged. “Time capsules” buried fifty years ago don’t reveal the past–they reveal how the people in control of those capsuled wanted people in the future to remember the past.
So, starting today, I’ve decided to document some of the ephemera that I use for inspiration. This is stuff, mostly inexpensive originally, that survived the ravages of time without any certain purpose or agenda. I have traveled with some of these pieces and used them in talks, lectures and book signings, as I believe in the power of physical touch, of interaction with an object, to better understand and literally feel the connection we all have to what has come before us, whether it was a century, a decade or a week ago. Each piece invites us to use our imagination, our sense of empathy, our sense of communication. Each piece causes us to reevaluate our view of the past and our position in the system that created it. Each piece captivates us, challenges us and ultimately enriches our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. The “junk drawer” says more about human psychology than a metric ton of self-help books. Pouring through it can also be fun as hell.
So are you ready?
Up today is Gay Bobbie Pins from Gay Products in Atlanta. That’s a giant flip off to you, Chick-Fil-A …
I’d date these from the 1950s-early 1960s, based on the line drawing and the two-color printing. Plus, a dime for bobby pins was not that cheap, considering you could buy a burger for a quarter in the late ’50s. I can’t remember where I found them–probably at a flea market or estate sale. They’re also not used but, very importantly, they were KEPT. No one threw them away despite the fact that whoever originally owned them did not find them useful.
The answer as to why may be on the back. [NOTE TO TREASURE HUNTERS: ALWAYS EXAMINE THE BACK OF ANY “JUNK” YOU FIND]. In pencil at the top: “Cheer up — Do your hair! David”
Now things really start to get interesting. Did David write this contemporaneously? Or did he find an odd survivor of the past and write it at a later date? My view is that this is a contemporaneous note for a few reasons–one, he probably bought these because of the “gay” label as an effort to cheer up someone, and two, bobby pins haven’t been used to “do hair” in a very long time, and three, the idea that “doing hair” is undoubtedly a method of cheering up someone–presumably a woman–speaks to the era.
Still, I find David fascinating. He bought this for someone he cared about … who was it? He doesn’t address the person by name. That casual lack of address makes me think a wife or girlfriend. Why was she in need of cheering up? Why did he think “doing her hair” would fix whatever the problem was? My imagination runs amok with these bobby pins … I can see David as gay or straight, involved personally or not, a co-worker or a husband. I don’t see him as a brother, though that’s still possible, of course.
And then we are left with the indisputable fact that these bobby pins were kept, unused, for at least fifty years. Was it because they were a gift from David? I’m presuming he gave them to a young woman–who was she? What was their relationship? Why did she not use them–were they a treasure because they were a gift from him? Or was it all just an accident of time? What do you think?
Novels have been created around much less … such is the power of the junk drawer time capsule.
I’m turning 50 this week. I woke up and suddenly have been around for half a century. And that feels old.
This birthday is a tough one. All birthdays are, since I lost my parents, who (as an only child without any close extended family) were not only my best friends, but the keepers of my history and the validation of my memories. But the older you are—especially on “landmark” birthdays—the more those memories of where you’ve been and who you were become faded … and there is no magical Photoshop filter to recolor them.
The thing is, you’re supposed to become wiser with age—that’s the plus side. As a child and a teen, I was always told that I was “older than my years” … now, of course, I want to be told that I’m “younger than my years”. Hopefully my preternatural wisdom has now not only chronologically caught up with but has actually been enhanced by this half century of life experience. Herewith, then, are 50 observations, bon mots, precepts and aphorisms … certainly not the sum total of what I’ve learned at 50, but a few pointers along the way.
Character is built on the edge of despair. (My father’s favorite maxim.)
You may regret what you don’t do, not what you do … so do it. (One of my mother’s favorites.)
Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Tap it.
Honesty is not always the best policy, but it’s the only way you can maintain your own integrity.
Being hated by certain people is a compliment.
We are all part of the fabric of nature—sew and mend, don’t rip.
Be kind to all animals—including people.
Star Trek (original series, of course!) is the blueprint for our future.
Communicate by whatever means necessary, but always communicate.
Most business books contain one good point summed up in a pithy sentence, then spend 300 pages in embroidery.
Don’t be too hard on yourself.
No one, including the people who love you best, can read your mind.
Death is as difficult a process as life. Honor it.
Don’t strive to be perfect. Strive to be the best you can be.
Opinions are like anuses. Everyone has one.
Expand your tribe.
Every generation thinks succeeding ones are spoiled, soft and witless.
Lean on your friends and prop them up when they need you.
Pop your head outside of your customized box and discover something new.
Know your generation’s faults and vulnerabilities.
Set your boundaries and defend them.
Re-read the “Desiderata” regularly.
In fact, read more poetry in general.
Try not to judge too much—remember that other people may be having a rotten day, too.
Trust your instincts in any situation where you feel danger.
Tell your children that you believe in them, and show them that you trust them.
Don’t let any relationship become a habit.
Look up once in a while.
Always travel—it grows your brain and your heart.
If you can’t travel, read about other places, cultures and times.
Talk to elders and treasure their memories.
Life is not just. Understand that, but keep fighting to make it so.
Don’t live your life for someone else’s approval.
Hug a tree, and marvel at the wonders of nature.
There are some absolutes in life. Recognize them.
If you’re stuck in traffic, make the most of it—play an audio book or learn a new language.
If you spend too much time preparing for the worst, you’ve lost some of the best.
Leadership is not a macho catchphrase. It’s responsibility.
War is never a good option, but sometimes is the only option.
Always respect a uniform, but always question authority.
Remember compare and contrast? It still remains one of the most useful tools in the grade school era repertoire, and has lead the world to innumerable discussions on Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Paul McCartney vs. John Lennon, and Superman vs. The Hulk.
Film sequels provide a particularly apt opportunity to explore similarities and departures and, most importantly, lead to questions about why those decisions were made—both originally and the second time around.
Today, I’d like to riff on two films—one very well-known, the other not-so-much. If you haven’t seen either The Letter (1940), directed by William Wyler and starring the formidable Bette Davis, or The Unfaithful (1947), directed by Vincent Sherman and starring the under-appreciated Ann Sheridan, you might want to go do that now … spoilers abound below.
The Letter is considered (by TCM and most critics) an “essential”, a masterpiece, a quintessential viewing experience. It’s a beautifully made, chilling film, and Wyler’s direction is sublime. The Unfaithful—which was, indeed, a remake of The Letter—isn’t considered much at all, except by noir aficionados, as it was made in the noir-defining post-War years, and that’s the category into which it is generally lumped.
The basic plot line both films share is a short story (1924) and self-adapted play (1927) by W. Somerset Maugham, addressing the eternally fascinating subject of feminine betrayal. You might remember the theme—it’s been around since before Genesis.
The creaky tale has been filmed a number of times, both in English and other languages, with the Wyler/Davis version receiving the most critical attention and praise. The Unfaithful is a reworking of the same story … but oh, what a difference a war makes.
Auteurism and Bette Davis fandom aside, let’s compare and contrast the plots of these two films. Here’s a breakdown of the basic plot of The Letter:
A bored wife (Leslie Crosbie) is stranded in a foreign (colonialized) country while her amiable but physically and emotionally distant husband travels to his various rubber plantations and leaves her at home. One sultry evening, she shoots and kills a man whom she claims was trying to force his attentions on her (the word rape is never uttered); the act is committed in front of the native workers on the plantation and in front of the film audience.
Unfortunately for Leslie, her husband’s clerk makes it known that he knows of a letter in which she pleads with, cajoles and threatens the dead man, begging him to visit her the night he is killed. The letter is actually in the hands of the dead man’s Eurasian wife, who is willing to sell it while the clerk acts as a go-between. The couple’s best friend, an attorney, arranges for the sale, which empties her husband’s bank account (he’s oblivious). Leslie is acquitted of murder, but when the husband finally realizes the money is missing, he confronts her and discovers that a) she was in love with the dead man and b) she killed him deliberately out of jealousy, and c) she still loves him and isn’t sorry for it.
Leslie wanders outside in a daze, where she’s knifed and killed by one of the natives at the behest of the dead man’s wife, who now has both money and revenge. [The fact that Leslie must be punished is not in the original story, but was insisted upon by the 1940 Hays Code.]
Rather noir, right? Yet The Letter is usually described as a melodrama (which it is), as if it could only be one or the other.
Now, let’s take a peak at The Unfaithful:
Chris Hunter is living in Los Angeles in one of those swanky new ranch houses, waiting for her husband to finally get home from one of his many business trips. She seems happy and is viewed as “too good to be true” by her husband’s cousin Eve (Eve Arden, in a delicious turn); Eve, in fact, is the kind of audacious broad that throws herself a “Divorce Party”, which Chris attends.
On the way home, as Chris is walking to her door, she’s attacked by a man in the shadows, his hand over her mouth, and pulled inside the house. We see in silhouette a violent struggle.
Cut to her husband Bob waiting at the airport; she was supposed to pick him up. He phones, and we see from his face that the news isn’t good. Bob arrives, relieved that his wife is all right, but unsettled by the fact that she apparently killed a man in self-defense. Their best-friend attorney Larry arrives (he’s actually Eve’s divorce lawyer). Chris tells the cops that she didn’t know the dead man; that he’d shown up and demanded her jewelry.
At the precinct, she is confronted by the dead man’s wife; he’d been an artist and a not-very-good husband, prone to wandering off and not telling his wife about it. Still, the wife violently reacts to the accusation of attempted robbery, and hysterically accuses Chris of murder.
A bit later, Larry (played by the wonderful Lew Ayres) is contacted by a smarmy art dealer, who offers to sell him a bust of Chris sculpted by the dead man; the artwork clearly proves she knew him and therefore lied to the police. Larry confronts Chris, who admits she posed for the man but stopped when he tried to get “too personal.” Terrified that a scandal would hurt Bob’s business, she lied. Larry advises her to come clean; instead, Chris tries to buy the statue for $10,000, only to find that the art dealer has given it to the sculptor’s vengeful wife.
The wife eventually shows the piece to police, who arrest Chris for murder just as she’s confessing to Bob that she actually did have an affair with the sculptor, but that he truly was trying to kill her—and that she’d been lonely after their two-week old courtship and wartime marriage. Bob refuses to forgive her as she’s hauled away to face trial.
Larry gives an impassioned defense of Chris, reminding the jury that she’s on trial for murder, not adultery. Eve explains to Bob that he’s being a jerk by not forgiving his wife. Chris is acquitted, and, through Larry’s machinations, it looks as though Bob and Chris will at least try to start over.
The Unfaithful is a terrific film, and arguably less “noir” than its predecessor. So, without further ado, let’s compare and contrast.
1. Message movie vs. escapism
We know we’re not on a Malaysian rubber plantation from the opening shot of The Unfaithful. A palm tree-lined suburban street accompanies an omniscient narrator voice over that tells us “The problem with which [the story] deals belongs not to any one town, city or country, but is of our times.” The most fundamentally significant thing about the film is that it is seeking to be topical and explicitly, rather than implicitly, moralizing. We are told by the Voice of Authority that something is wrong with our present society, and we are shown a street in “Anywhere, USA” to prove it.
The “exotic” setting (and the concomitant, underlying racism) of The Letter has vanished, as has the escapism of the earlier vehicle. Malaysia may as well have been Oz for most American movie goers, and there is an obvious connection made both in The Letter’s script and direction between the oppressive heat and foreign (read “savage”) surroundings as contributing to Leslie’s crime. The Unfaithful does not portray a Joseph Losey version of Los Angeles in which a quiet suburban street can provide the same link between crime and setting that Wyler’s film does (see The Prowler); that would come later.
The Unfaithful is intended to pack a message; The Letter is intended as escapism.
2. Race and Gender
The gender roles, actions and implications of The Letter are unexamined and taken for granted; rather, the cultural tensions and explorations revolve around colonial practice and race, and, on one level, can be seen as upholding long-held racist beliefs; the wife sins when she is taken away from white society and left alone in a “savage” environment. The dead man was married to an Asian woman (changed to Eurasian in the film, as mandated by the Hays code—the character was brilliantly played by Gale Sondergaard); this alone was enough evidence for Maugham’s generation to understand that the philanderer was a lowlife.
Race is jettisoned in The Unfaithful, and instead, we are led to examine the interactions of both genders. Instead of a cold Bette Davis mercilessly gunning down her lover under a moonlit, sweltering sky, Ann Sheridan’s character is actually attacked; the audience is party to her vulnerability, not her guilt.
In fact, the film obliquely refers to a problem of violence against women, especially sexual violence. Though written in 1946, the film wasn’t released until June, 1947—six months after the Black Dahlia killing. Given the Los Angeles setting, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the dialog uttered by the detective was alluding to some of the crimes against women (i.e. Diane Sparks murder in 1946, etc.)
Maugham was uninterested in exploring issues of female frustration or loneliness or guilt and is, perhaps, most famous for one of the most misogynistic portrayals of a woman in the annals of literature—and that’s a lot of misogyny—in Of Human Bondage. Women in The Unfaithful move from centuries of blame and guilt to a more nuanced portrait in just seven short years.
3. Woman vs. Woman
In the 1940 film, Gale Sondergaard’s character has Leslie killed in retribution of the murder of her (cheating) husband. Before this, she humiliated Leslie by throwing the titular letter on the ground and making the woman pick it up.
The real dynamic here is woman vs. woman; they both loved the same weak and despicable man who was unfaithful to each.
There is no female bonding; no Letter to Three Wives and certainly no First Wives Club. There is just raw jealousy, depicted as an inherent state of female identity, leading to social chaos and murder.
The Unfaithful, however, offers a different dynamic in the character of the felicitously and symbolically named Eve. On the surface, she is bright and brittle, celebrating her new-found divorce and not particularly team Chris. She is perhaps the iconic woman, in contrast to the actual heroines of the story, who both bear names that could be either masculine or feminine (Leslie and Chris).
It is Eve who delivers the punch at the end, who provides the message we’ve been waiting for since the opening shot. It is Eve who offers a reasoned and reasonable explanation to Bob for his wife’s behavior, and it is Eve who tells him he needs to take some responsibility, too.
She is a woman who is defending another woman, just on the basis of being a woman in a difficult situation, not out of friendship (as does the attorney Larry); as such, it is Eve who is the clearest thinker and the most uncompromisingly moral voice—all this in the mouth of a (scandalous) divorcee.
4. Forgiveness Does Not Equal Weakness
Leslie’s husband in The Letter is a dope. He’s distant, he’s dim-witted, he’s a sap. He joins a long line of noir saps in being such a sucker for a dame that he’s willing to forgive and forget if she just tells him she loves him.
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Bette confesses that she still loves the dead man.
Queue up Gale Sondergaard.
Zachary Scott excelled at playing sleazy, villainous types, but in The Unfaithful he manages to project just enough decency to convincingly play a man who eventually understands that forgiving his wife does not mean he’s a sucker. He’s helped greatly in this by the fact that Chris is no Leslie; she loves her husband and actually was violently attacked.
Forgiveness is a powerful, powerful message, and one that must have struck home with the millions of couples who married quickly and, post-1945, repented at leisure.
5. It’s the War’s Fault
If The Letter could be said to have a moral, it would be:
A. Don’t trust women.
B. Especially out of the country and among “uncivilizing” forces.
C. They are inherently overly emotional, conniving, and devious.
Ultimately, the explicit lessons of The Unfaithful are as follows:
A. Divorce is bad, forgiveness is necessary and you should try to work it out (the post-War attempt to stabilize a society reeling from cataclysmic social changes).
B. Women aren’t all conniving gold-diggers and cheating hussies. They have feelings, too.
C. Don’t blame each other; blame the war.
When asked if it was “his fault” he was shipping out to another continent, Eve upbraids Bob thus:
“You knew you were going when you met her. Let’s face it, that’s why you married her—what you wanted was a whirl and a memory.You wanted a beautiful woman waiting for you, and you didn’t want anyone making time with her when you were away, so you hung up a no trespassing sign, like you’d stake a gold claim. You didn’t marry her … you just took an option on her.”
Bob: “She could have said ‘no.'”
Eve: “Listen, I was there. I saw you making with that uniform and that ‘today we live’ routine.And then you were off.”
David Goodis, a brilliant noir writer, helped pen The Unfaithful, which could just have easily been titled “The Unforgiven”. But the messages are less in character with what we think of as ‘noir’ (especially the ‘femme fatale’ trope) than they are in The Letter, which is much more rooted in 19th century melodrama.
One sought to titillate an audience desperate for escapism; the other, to reassure and pacify the jangled nerves and chaotic social structure that was post-War America. In so doing, The Unfaithful became a rara avis itself, a modest crime thriller/film noir that did not demonize women, but, instead, offered a sympathetic and far more realistic portrait of infidelity and the female homefront experience.
Nominally vacation—but actually research—the trip was phenomenal. Monterey, made famous by Steinbeck and Stevenson and a magnate for artists and dreamers for more than a century; both rural and urban, town and city, land and water. Smaller and slower than San Francisco, not as unforgiving, dominated by a sky that mirrors the sea and easily one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Travel is always educational—anything that plucks you out of your ubiquitous environment, your quotidian habits will, perforce, teach you something, if it’s only to take your sea sick pills one hour before boarding an ocean-going vessel. In fact, it’s the learning—that fantastic popping of brain synapses, the inspiration, the understanding, the wisdom gained—that, for me, makes travel as crucial as air and water and food.
So, without further ado, and with tongue only partially in cheek, here are five things I learned in Monterey. To be fair, some of the list I’d already learned, on other days and in other ways, but retaining knowledge requires repetition … if not a few days spent in Monterey.
1. Patronize people, places and businesses that strive to be better than they must. Our hotel, the Portola Hotel and Spa, is one of the few conference hotels in town. The location is ideal: just steps away from Fisherman’s Wharf and the State Historic Plaza of buildings, including the Custom House. And yet … the Portola is an icon of customer service, beautifully and thoughtfully designed rooms, and delicious food prepared according to the Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood guide. The hotel is better than it needs to be—and will always earn my patronage because of it. As a writer, I try my damnedest to follow the same rule: don’t crest at the minimum of excellence. Exceed your own expectations, and you will exceed everyone else’s.
2. The Earth likes balance. Balancing checkbooks, careers, family life, personal relationships, giving and taking and eating and sleeping and … yes. As 21st century adults, as global citizens, as human beings, we are pushed and prodded by the struggle for survival in an ocean full of predators. We act out that struggle on a daily basis, whether it’s managing a hostile work environment, trying to conquer feelings of anxiety or low self-esteem, or facing the dilemma of work demands vs. family needs. And through it all, we seek balance. Not too much of this, not too little of that.
The magnificent undersea kelp forests thrive on maintaining a balance, too. Like the redwood or saguaro cactus forests on land, they play host to a dynamic, intense and complex eco-system. Abalone and sea urchins eat kelp. Sea otters—a critically endangered species because they were once hunted to the very edge of extinction—eat abalone and sea urchins. Without the otters, the kelp forests will disappear. And with the kelp forests … oceanic life.
Balance. Yin and Yang. The secret to survival for us all.
3. You have choices. Make them count. The only unpleasantness I experienced on the trip was from a business that takes out whale watching cruises. Specifically, one man at that business. Their website lists “partners”, one of which was the glass bottom boat ride on Monterey Bay. My question was innocuous: because it was windy and the glass bottom boat booth was empty, I asked if they knew whether or not the boat was going out (their kiosk is within 50 feet of the glass bottom boat’s). His response was “Does this look like the glass bottom boat ride? Does this look like the same building?” etc. etc. Berating, abusive, bullying … because I was a tourist? Because I am a woman? As in all criminal behavior, the brain tries to find a rational reason for such ugliness, but, in truth, there is none. Criminality is all about the self—a profoundly anti-social attitude. When I told this man his behavior and attitude were unconscionably rude and that furthermore, his website suggested the businesses were connected, he demanded “Show me on the website where it says so.” Finally, he refused to give my anything but his first name.
I wanted to report him to his supervisor. And then I discovered that he owns the business … and that a close relative owns the glass bottom boat ride. Their family has been in Monterey for about fifty years, and apparently “give back” to the community. My response: So does Donald Sterling.
So, guess what? No patronizing his whale watching tour. No patronizing his family’s restaurants, which are in prominent locations on the Wharf and on Cannery Row. I exercised my right of choice and fervently hope others do, too.
4. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Nature, the ocean, other people. Exercising that choice above, we set off on an amazing adventure through the Monterey Bay Whale Watch. The sea was windy and dark blue and the swells were not small, but, oh, what magnificence. We encountered a krill bed, so dense with these small creatures that they turned the water pink. Everything seems to eat krill, from whales to salmon to penguins. Thankfully, they populate quickly. And as a bonus, they look like sea monkeys. 😉
If you’ve never experienced seeing a whale spout—or watching a blue whale, the world’s largest creature, execute a dive, its gray, massive body gliding effortlessly through the waters, about twice as long as your 70 foot long boat—then take a trip to Monterey. These massive, gentle animals eating and playing (we saw mother and calf humpback whales rolling over in the water in between dives) is what the word awe was made to define. And did you know that the Orca (Killer Whale) is a member of the dolphin family?
5. Truth lingers. Cannery Row was once Ocean View Avenue. When overfishing killed the sardine and canning industries that gave the street its nickname, Steinbeck his title and a raison d’etre to Monterey, tourism moved in, and the city changed the name officially in 1958.
Cannery Row today—especially on a warm weekend in May—is overflowing with tourists who wander aimlessly into shoddy amusement halls, chasing something they couldn’t put into words. Most of the time, they are there to buy: food, souvenirs, shells, stuffed animals. They are surrounded by a wonder of the world, with sea spray and roar and nesting cormorants and barking sea lions and the occasional back-swimming otter within easy view, but most of them stalk wide-eyed through the streets, the history and beauty of the place serving as window dressing for a snack, a t-shirt, a drink.
Many of them, fortunately, wander into the Aquarium, which does an amazing and near-miraculous job of balancing education with entertainment and amusement with protection. In order to engage the average tourist, the amusement must be there, make no mistake; but they serve up lessons with the show, not lectures, and in so doing they are playing an instrumental role in saving the world’s oceans.
Also in so doing, they are continuing the work of Steinbeck’s friend and pioneer ecologist Ed Ricketts, whose unassuming business and home stands at 800 Cannery Row, unnoticed by many of the snackers and shoppers, just as it stood in the middle of the giant canning factories and apron-wearing workers, whistles shrieking a call to can the latest catch.
Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was already gone when he wrote the book, but even it lingers in the morning and late afternoon, the shacks of the workers still preserved off the main street, the vacant lot, home to his idealized bums, still vacant. The book is not the best of Steinbeck, because he was trying to resuscitate something already gone and so he romanticized it, the Great Depression through the ash-covered windows of Hiroshima, the lost past of youth always more attractive than the presence of middle age. But here and there you still see it, the noise and the stink, both as it was and how Steinbeck portrayed it.
Truth lingers in places like San Francisco and Monterey, the truth of personal experience and even the emotional truth of memory.