Category Archives: Caspary Vera

The Lady in Mink: Vera Caspary (1946)

“My type can’t afford to have anything to do with your type except in dreams.”

The Lady in Mink is a lesser-known novella (also known as The Murder in the Stork Club) from Vera Caspary, the author of  Laura. I read The Secrets of Grown-Ups Caspary’s autobiography a few years ago, and found a lot to admire and like in this remarkably strong, interesting woman. So I’m slowly reading Caspary’s work that remains in print, or is at least available:

Laura

Bedelia

Stranger than Truth

The Man Who Loved His Wife

The Lady in Mink is a fairly standard detective story which centres on the poisoning death of playboy Henry Pendleton. Henry, “the double-L type, ladies and liquor,” spent his last night at The Stork Club, mingling with celebrities and various women from his past. He became violently ill, and on the way home in a taxi cab, he died. Police Captain Mulvoy suspects that Henry met his murderer in the club, and that he was slipped the poison in plain sight. Henry, who was about to publish a book which included old love letters, had dinner that night with a mystery woman in mink. She’s now disappeared. Who was she, and is she the killer?

IMG_0715 (1)Private detective Joe Collins takes on the case and proceeds to worm his way into the club and into the lives of the main suspects. There’s Henry’s ex-wife Dorothy, Maggie, a former girlfriend now engaged to a millionaire, and the mystery woman in mink.

First-class, gilt-edged gold-digger” Maggie is a disarming combination of “artlessness” and artifice. Her “earnestness and shy pauses had the effect of calculation.” She appears to be reading War and Peace, but Joe isn’t sure if she’s reading it or if it’s an “adornment.” Pendleton’s ex wife, Dorothy mentions her psycho-analysis moments after meeting Joe: “She seemed to regard psycho-analysis as some sort of adornment like a permanent wave.”

The Lady in Mink is a snapshot of its time. Name dropping of celebrities who visit the club is interspersed with the fascination with mink coats. Every woman either has one or wants one. The murder investigation puts Joe’s marriage to the test. Joe Collins begins to question his wife, Sara’s fidelity and also, after catching her in a number of lies, whether or not he can trust her. Sara writes for radio and makes $500 a week. Joe doesn’t make nearly as much money, so Sara is the main breadwinner, and that causes tensions which float to the surface during the murder case. The investigation takes Joe into the world his wife left behind: a world of champagne, gold cigarette cases, and mink coats.

This isn’t Caspary’s best work, it’s not nearly so well crafted as either Laura or Bedelia, but it’s entertaining enough with some snappy lines thrown in.

Good Housekeeping hired Caspary to write the story, The Murder in the Stork Club. My copy was published in 1946 in the UK, so The Lady in Mink may have been the British title.

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The Man Who Loved His Wife: Vera Caspary (1966)

In Vera Caspary’s wonderful autobiography The Secrets of Grown-Ups, she detailed her interesting life, her struggles and her mistakes with intelligent sensitivity and just a touch of humility. I read The Secrets of Grown-Ups after reading both Laura (the book she’s most remembered for) and Bedelia. Like Laura, Bedelia was also made into a film, but while Laura makes many of those top-film lists, the film version of Bedelia has almost faded from view. Bedelia, incidentally, a wonderfully pathological tale of a female serial killer, is the book that convinced me to read Vera Caspary’s autobiography. And this brings me to The Man Who Loved His Wife, the story of a married couple whose life together changes drastically after the husband is diagnosed with cancer.

Fletcher Strode is a virile, affluent confident married wealthy businessman, at the prime of life at age 42 when he meets and falls in love with beautiful photographer’s model, Elaine Guardino, 19 years his junior. They meet by chance in a restaurant, fall in love, and three weeks later, Strode asks his wife for a divorce. His marriage wasn’t exactly on the rocks before he met Elaine, but it’s more or less a sham marriage with his wife and daughter living in the New Jersey suburbs while Strode leads a bachelor life (with other women) in New York. Strode marries Elaine 24 hrs. after getting a divorce.

the man who loved his wifeEveryone predicts doom for Strode and his new wife. Could be that age difference or perhaps it’s the whirlwind romance, but it’s initially a very happy marriage, full of passion, sex, and money, and then 5 years later, Strode is diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Strode’s larynx is removed, and he’s told that if the disease is discovered early, and treated aggressively, chances of survival are excellent. Unfortunately, Strode doesn’t grasp the physical and more importantly the psychological impact of the surgery. With his body still whole, Strode mentally minimizes the effects of the operation:

The loss of his vocal apparatus would be compensated for by different mechanics of sound production. His voice would be stilled for a time, but when the wound was sufficiently healed, he would learn to control a different set of muscles and would be able to speak in an altered voice. Examples were quoted to him, statistics read, stories told of patients who had overcome trauma and gone on with their work, enjoyed sports, eaten heartily, and made love to women.

During the mute period after the operation, he had been eager and positive that he would soon acquire a new voice. A breezy, self-confident man entered his hospital room to tell him, hoarsely, that many of those who had suffered the same operation had been able to return to work within a few weeks. This man, who had lost his voice box several years earlier, promised that with practice and patience, Fletcher would be able to speak as well as he did. Hell, I’ll do a lot better, Fletcher told himself. Thinking of the success he had achieved in business, the money he had made, the obstacles overcome, he knew himself the better man. He was both contemptuous of and amused by those sympathetic friends who, visiting him at the hospital, shouted at him or whispered, using their lips extravagantly as though he were deaf.

I’ll show them.

After he left hospital, optimism collapsed. There were too many changes. Smell and taste returned slowly and were never as keen as they had been. He had to breathe through a hole in his neck, a wound that could never be allowed to close now that his windpipe had been removed, there was no connection between the mouth and the nose with the lungs. He had to cough, sneeze, and blow his nose through this opening. There would be no more swimming for him, nor could he step into the shower carelessly. His loud and boisterous laugh was silenced forever. Every action required adjustment. Encounters with old friends left him morbid. Strangers appalled him. Going out became a nightmare.

Ironically, this is a situation in which Strode’s money works against him. If he needed to make a living in order to put food on the table, perhaps he would have pushed himself, made the best of a bad break, and got on with his life, but his amassed fortune allows him to stop working. He lacks the patience for voice therapy, and can’t stand this new social arrangement with him the student while others–healthy, full-bodied people he despises, teach him how to make sounds.

Fury and frustration robbed him of what little voice he had acquired. When he forgot himself and tried to shout in the old, authoritative manners, he could utter nothing but a string of unintelligible sounds.

He sells all of his business concerns, leaves New York, and with Elaine, moves to California.

It doesn’t take long before Strode’s marriage becomes more and more toxic. Elaine, still in her 20s, married a vigorous, passionate, energetic man, but now he’s resentful of the healthy, has become a recluse, and has a hair-trigger temper. Sinking into depression, Strode hates his new self, and obsessed with thoughts that Elaine, still young, beautiful, and whole, will find new lovers and remarry after his death, he begins a diary in which he pours his twisted thoughts. This is a diary of his suspicions and also his darkest fantasies; it’s in this diary that he relates his version of events and also his fantasies that Elaine will make his murder look like suicide….

The novel’s premise is extraordinary and is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith for its claustrophobic toxicity. The plot captures, with intense psychological insight, this rat-trap of marital circumstance, diminished expectations, and twisted resentment. Those marriage vows include the ‘sickness and in health’ provision, yet when Elaine married Strode, he was a completely different human being able to offer her a glamorous, romantic life. We bring our character and personality to any illness and disease; some people sink to their worst selves when faced with their morality, and this is the case with Strode.

The characters in the novel are mostly unpleasant, and the secondary characters could have benefitted from a little subtlety; there’s the feeling, from certain sentences, that Caspary couldn’t stand those secondary characters even as she shows empathy for Strode’s tortured psyche.  Strode’s selfish, immature daughter from his first marriage, Cindy, and her ne’er-do-well, sly hanger-on of a husband, unemployed lawyer Don arrive in California and move in for an extended vacation.  These two characters are so vicious & superficial, they just manage to veer away from caricature. The novel’s premise is extremely clever and unfortunately the very necessary characters of Don and Cindy (& Sgt Knight) don’t match the level of the subtle, sophisticated plot. They didn’t need to be quite this overtly venal, so transparent, or in the case of Sgt. Knight, so one-dimensional, and if their characters had been toned down a notch, they would be more appropriate to this otherwise fascinating book.

 

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Stranger than Truth by Vera Caspary

The editorial department was a garden of nepotism. Poor relations blossomed all over the place.”

There’s a great deal of Vera Caspary’s professional life in the crime novel Stranger than Truth, and so the title which could reflect the author’s experiences may have more than one meaning. This is the story of a murder and its solution, but the author takes a different approach, so that the crime, told through a range of voices, isn’t solved by the police or by a PI. Originally published in 1946, Stranger than Truth is back in print for the kindle after almost disappearing from the radar. Vera Caspary was a fascinating woman who lived through some interesting times, so for those who’d like to know more about Caspary, her autobiography, The Secrets of Grown-Ups is highly recommended. The blurb for the recently released kindle version calls Caspary’s autobiography “captivating,” and that’s really no exaggeration. But if you’re read Laura and Bedelia and you want to delve a little deeper into Caspary’s body of work, then that brings us to a lesser work,  Stranger than Truth.

stranger than truthJohn Miles Ansell works for BarclayTruth Publications. Millionaire Noble Barclay owns this large firm which publishes many different magazines, including Truth and Crime, Truth and Love, Truth and Health, and Truth and Beauty. When the novel opens, John, the new editor of Truth and Crime is rushing to meet a publication deadline, when he receives notice that his story concerning the murder of a man named Warren G. Wilson, a middle-aged recluse with an unexplained income stream, has been rejected.

I had recently become editor of Truth and Crime, and was still new enough to believe I could improve the magazine. Truth and Crime was just another of the fact-detective magazines, filled with hashed-over newspaper stuff and old police-blotter cases, served up with sensational titles and pious crime-does-not-pay endings.  The Wilson story has no ending, so I decided to use it as an Unsolved Mystery of the Month.

John doesn’t understand the reason behind the rejection–after all he was hired by Barclay at $125 a week to “lift the magazine out of its present rut,” and that’s just what John is trying to do.  Truth and Crime selects one unsolved crime for each issue, and John, rather than follow the regular format of rehashing a well-known cold crime, has written the piece on the recent murder of Wilson. John is intrigued by the story as Wilson is a bit of mystery man, “no criminal,” and yet a man who died violently, and curiously, a man who, according to the IRS does not exists. The story was pending approval for weeks, and now at the last minute, it’s rejected which leaves John angry for an explanation. This anger leads to John confronting Noble Barclay and his right hand man, the very creepy Edward Everett Munn. There’s the definite sense that Munn, in spite of his nice suit and job title, is there to perform any dirty work that his boss Noble Barclay wants. And as for Noble Barclay, the Guru of Truth, he may appear to be a very reasonable man, but behind that façade of benign, charismatic pleasantry, lurks a Totalitarian.

Noble Barclay is a self-made man, a millionaire who reinvented himself, wrote the inspirational book self-help, My Life is Truth and created an immensely successful publishing empire after a successful battle with alcohol. There’s something a little false about Barclay’s mantra about seeking the truth, and for a man who swears by speaking the truth, he’s much happier throwing distractions at John than explaining why the story was rejected.

After a close brush with death, John is offered a large raise and a promotion as the editor of Truth Digest, “truth in tabloid.” John takes the job and the raise but he’s still determined to discover the truth behind the Wilson murder. In the meantime, he finds himself becoming involved with Barclay’s daughter, Eleanor–a girl unhealthily devoted to her father. And what on earth happened to Eleanor’s mother?

One of the best characters in the book is Lola Manfred, a one time-poetess whose hair is “dyed the color of a Christmas tangerine.” Lola now works in Truth and Love, swigs whiskey hidden in a milk bottle, and despises “the modern Messiah,” Noble Barclay and Truth Publications. Lola and John find they share common ground as they both refuse to drink the Barclay-Truth Publishing cool-aid, yet in spite of Lola’s criticisms of her employer, she understands his mass appeal, and his apparent sincerity when it comes to his “formula for health and happiness” which he is ready to roll out to any listener if given the slightest conversational opening. Lola argues that Noble Barclay isn’t motivated by sincerity but by self-promotion and self-interest.

We are surrounded by people who can believe in anything sincerely as long as it brings them a good living. Fascists believe in Fascism, don’t they, especially the big ones whose attitudes pay a profit? There’s nothing in the world, my friend, so sincere as self-interest.

Stranger than Truth, in spite of a couple of stiffs and a poisoning, lacks tension. What’s interesting here is Caspary’s presentation of a different type of crime embedded into the phenomenally successful echelons of Truth Publishing, the way one man through the poor man’s psychoanalysis” creates and controls a workplace environment, and the sly references to the author’s early career in correspondence schools and advertising. Stranger than Truth was written several years after a disillusioned Vera Caspary left the Communist Party. Was Stranger than Truth, in its portrayal of a workplace environment in which employees were indoctrinated into a specific way of thinking, a metaphor for life under Stalin?

*The vintage cover shown is of an abridged version, but the e-version is not abridged.

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Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction ed. by Sarah Weinman

With the title Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction, how could I pass up reading this collection of 14 stories? And here’s the line-up:

  • Patricia Highsmith: The Heroine
  • Nedra Tyre: A Nice Place to Stay
  • Shirley Jackson: Louisa, Please Come Home
  • Barbara Callahan: Lavender Lady
  • Vera Caspary: Sugar and Spice
  • Helen Neilsen: Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
  • Dorothy Hughes: Everybody Needs a Mink
  • Joyce Harrington: The Purple Shroud
  • Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: The Stranger in the Car
  • Charlotte Armstrong: The Splintered Monday
  • Dorothy Salisbury Davis: Lost Generation
  • Margaret Millar: The People Across the Canyon
  • Miriam Allen Deford: Mortmain
  • Celia Fremlin: A Case of Maximum Need

Some of the names were familiar thanks to previous reading: Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, A Suspension of Mercy , The Cry of the Owl as well as a couple of short story collections) Vera Caspary (Bedelia, Laura, The Secrets of Grown-ups) and Dorothy Hughes (The Expendable Man, Ride the Pink Horse. I’d also heard of, and been meaning to read Celia Fremlin, Charlotte Armstrong, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Helen Neilsen, Margaret Millar (who seems to have faded from view while her husband Ross Macdonald remains widely read). Unknowns were: Miriam Allen Deford, Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Joyce Harrington, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. After reading the line-up, I knew I’d come away pleased to meet some old friends and delighted to find new names to explore. My expectations were fulfilled–although oddly enough, I was disappointed in the Highsmith story which was rather predictable, and the Dorothy Hughes story which fell flat.

Troubled DaughtersBut onward…

The gem of the collection here, and why am I not surprised, belongs to the Divine Vera Caspary. Yes, Sugar and Spice is a wonderful tale–either a long short story or a novella–it’s hard to tell on the kindle. This is a story within a story which opens with a California woman named Lissa who has a visitor one Sunday afternoon named Mike Jordan. He asks to put through a long-distance call to New York, and when he returns from making the call he asks Lissa if she would like to know who murdered the famous actor, box-office heartthrob, Gilbert Jones. This is an  unsolved murder, so naturally Lissa wants to know the answer, and Mike tells his tale which goes back several decades. In his youth, Mike made the acquaintance of two cousins–the very beautiful but very poor Phyllis, and the very plump, unattractive but very rich Nancy. These two girls grew up in bitter rivalry, and just how this rivalry plays out creates a tale of jealousy and revenge with Nancy and Phyllis fighting over the same man on more than one occasion. Phyllis, elegant, cool and slim looks beautiful no matter how poorly she’s dressed, and little fat Nancy wears the most expensive designer creations and always manages to look like a stale, overstuffed cupcake. This story would have made a great film, but that’s not too surprising given how many story treatments, screenplays and various adaptations Vera Caspary penned for the big screen.

Another favourite for this reader is “Louisa, Please Come Home.” This is the story of a young woman who flees her affluent home on the eve of her sister’s wedding. Is she motivated by fear, a desire for independence or is this simply an attempt to upstage her sister? I kept waiting for the motivation to be revealed, but author Shirley Jackson doesn’t take the stereotypical approach here, and instead the ending, which leaves more questions than answers, is deeply unsettling. Here’s Louisa, at a distance, keeping an eye on her disappearance through the newspaper stories:

I followed everything in the papers. Mrs. Peacock and I used to read them at the breakfast table over our second cup of coffee before I went off to work.

“What do you think about this girl who disappeared over in Rockville?” Mrs. Peacock would say to me, and I’d shake my head sorrowfully and say that a girl must be really crazy to leave a handsome, luxurious home like that, or that I had kind of a notion that maybe she didn’t leave at all–maybe the family had her locked up somewhere because she was a homicidal maniac. Mrs. Peacock always loved anything about homicidal maniacs.

Sarah Weinman’s introduction addresses the history of Domestic fiction, some of the best known names in the field, and the contribution to crime fiction by female authors. The stories in this collection address the rot within the domestic environment and also examines assaults against domestic security, so one story includes the Nanny from Hell while another story includes a nurse who simply can’t wait for her patient to die. We see women as victims, women as perps, women fighting over men, and while there are a number of deranged and damaged females in these pages, underneath the collection lies the unasked question: what happened to these women? Have they been damaged/driven to the point of insanity due to the constrictive roles handed to them by society? It’s an unsettling thought. In Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s excellent story, Stranger in the  Car, family patriarch, the very wealthy Carrol Charleroy, a man who imagines that he is ‘in charge’ of his household, discovers the hard way that he’s ‘managed’ by the women in his life, and he’s about to learn that he really knows nothing at all about these women–women he’s known for years. And finally, I have to mention Celia Fremlin’s wickedly nasty story A Case of Maximum Need, the story of an old lady who gets a phone installed in her apartment by a do-gooder who has no idea what she is dealing with. I particularly liked this story as I knew a woman in her 80s who masqueraded as a 29 year-old-woman in many internet courtship relationships with young males. I wonder what Celia Fremlin would make of that? Anyway, there’s a good range here, and this volume is especially recommended for those, like me, who’d like to discover some ‘new’ writers. It’s nice to see some of these names resurrected from obscurity.

Review copy

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The Secrets of Grown-ups by Vera Caspary

When reading a biography (or an autobiography), it seems impossible to conclude the book without getting an idea of whether or not I’d like the person I’m reading about. Sometimes the life story of another is incredibly sad (Barbara Peyton) or spectacularly disastrous (Nancy Spungen & Sid Vicious), but after reading the wonderful autobiography The Secrets of Grown-ups, I concluded that I would have liked Vera Caspary very much indeed. I liked her for her determination, her versatility, her intelligence and also for the fact that she frankly admits to telling some whoppers.

For those who’ve never heard Caspary’s name, she was an author, screenwriter, & playwright and is arguably most remembered  for her novel Laura (made into that very famous noir film), and there’s also Bedelia (made into a British noir film). But apart from those two novels, there are many more–now sadly out-of-print.

Vera Caspary was born in 1899 and died in 1987. That’s not so long ago, and yet when Vera’s story begins, she gives us a glimpse into another world. Her relatives were second generation Jewish German-Prussian emigrants, and Vera was the youngest of four children. Vera details her early childhood in Chicago in just a few pages, and while there’s nothing too unusual here, a picture begins to emerge of a strong, determined personality and an early attraction to writing stories.

Vera’s elder sister, Irma, who gave “second-rate candy to little girls whose grandparents had Russian or Polish accents” was 15 years older than Vera, but it was from Irma that Vera learned some valuable lessons about snobbery:

 Prejudice is as destructive to those who employ it as to its victims, and [that] devotion to material possessions is a waste of life.

The family seemed to be fairly affluent in Vera’s early childhood, but when her father suffered a series of financial setbacks, she enrolled at a business college rather than university, and it looked as though she faced a dreary, predictable future.

Vera started as a stenographer but always wanted a “writing job.” Most doors were closed to her because she was female, and she was never content with that–even though many of the jobs she had paid well and granted her a certain amount of autonomy. She worked her way into the advertising business, and at one point crafted a correspondence class in ballet dancing taught by the legendary (read mythical) Sergei Marinoff. Her adventures in advertising are absolutely hilarious; this woman had a natural talent for fabrication, so it’s no wonder she went on to become a writer. Inevitably Vera, who was far too intelligent for anything rote or repetitive, grew bored with advertising:

Whether I wrote coy sales letters in the name of the spinster sisters who manufactured cold cream, plotted a chicken tonic campaign or exploited a new sex book, it was all the same. I worked like a computer that produces variations when different buttons are pressed. I had considered my work creative until I realized that I was merely manufacturing sales devices.

 When writing the story of her life, Vera often seems to go for conveying the atmosphere of the times rather than offering intense detail. She describes her connection with the Leopold-Loeb case, the energy & insanity of prohibition, shoot-outs between rival cab companies, and the dreariness of the Depression.  The story is light on family details and the romances in her life (although men are mentioned). This is not a tell-all, gossipy bio; a few of men appear to have been significant for a various periods, but then they fade without mention. Not that I care how many men Vera slept with or when, but I had questions about a couple of people mentioned who then subsequently disappeared from the pages.

The emphasis goes instead to Vera’s incredible career. Frequently she opted for independence instead of a steady paycheck, and as a result, at times it seemed as though she faced running out of money, but work always appeared. That’s not to say that Vera sat and waited at home for fortune to knock on her door; she didn’t. This woman hustled, and at one point she even worked as a gypsy telling fortunes in a tea-room.

The book seems weakest in Vera’s explanation of her communist period. It reads like an apologia. Did Vera have unresolved questions about this period of her life or are there necessary gaps ( to protect others) here that weaken the explanation? Perhaps it’s because the sense of chagrin seems mismatched with the rest of her life. Vera’s interest in communism, which only lasted for a short period, seems perfectly understandable. At one point, prior to WWII, Vera says that stories were beginning to circulate about the fate of jews under Hitler. People told her this was Soviet propaganda. It’s fairly easy to see why Vera became a communist–many people saw a choice between being a Nazi or being a communist. Vera chose the latter. She paid the price for that when she was later gray-listed in Hollywood during McCarthyism. Sometimes moral decisions are difficult to unravel, but I still sense that the whole story just isn’t here. The Rosecrest Cell is described by its author as her “confession disguised as a novel.”

One of the marvellous things about this book are the vivid portrayals of people Vera knew who are now lost to history. Here’s one of Vera’s first bosses–a colourful character who recognised Vera’s intelligence and harnessed it for a while:

Schoenfeld was a man of the world, out of Bucharest by way of Paris, Berlin, and London. The books on his shelves and the periodicals that came to our office were in three languages. He wore a ring on his index finger, a fur-collared overcoat and a broad-brimmed black hat like artists in the Latin Quarter. As vice-president and manager of a wholesale grocery firm that specialized in imported delicacies, he ordered much of the merchandise through his own brokerage office, collecting commissions on goods he sold to himself. He felt no qualms about this double-dealing because he was a Socialist who enjoyed exploiting capitalists. So long as the system prevailed Schoenfeld profited by it. A middleman’s middleman, he practised the most cynical of capitalist tactics and laughed at the trickery. He subscribed to many Socialist papers, domestic and foreign, as were available in wartime and used their political prophecies to guide him in stockmarket investments. That he called his brokerage office Internationala was another of his jests. At the time I had not the slightest idea of its significance. Nor did his customers.

There’s also “New York legend,” Horace Liveright, one of the founders of  Modern Library. At the top of his game, and known as the “Casanova” of the publishing world, he off-handedly proposed to Vera with the fine print that he’d control her work. She laughily refused and within a few years, he was broke, alcoholic and dying when she saw him for the last time. There are glimpses too of the bizarre publisher MacFadden, a man who “collected freaks” and held an “unending opposition to the medical profession, devotion to muscle power and the sanctity of daily defecation.” Unfortunately, his opinions extended to his children, and it’s in these pages that Vera tells the tragic story of 19-year-old Byrne–a “story she always wanted to write.”

Here’s a quote I particularly liked from Vera after the death of her beloved father:

My father was dead. But the gold of the wildflowers was not dimmed and I could not be unhappy in May sunshine. It was a moment never forgotten, a lesson for the living. If I failed to relish the colors of the earth, to dance to its rhythms, I’d thwart the dear man whose last days had been lived in the hope of my happiness. That field of wild mustard, still green in my memory, has sustained me through disappointment and shock and a season of more grievous mourning.

The love of Vera Caspary’s life was Igee (Isidor) Goldsmith. He was a married man when they met, and sometime into their relationship, as a naturalised citizen, he was recalled to Britain (“All able-bodied males residing in foreign countries were called back to Britain” ). She gave him the “rights to Bedelia” with the understanding that she’d write the screenplay, and this agreement paved the way for her perilous journey by sea to Britain. She did not agree with moving the story from 1913 Connecticut to 1938 Monte Carlo & Yorkshire, but that’s what happened, and this marvellous gem of a film was made at Ealing Studios. Also detailed quite extensively is the production of Preminger’s Laura and Vera’s problems with the script and final product.

The book (published in 1979) continues for just one short chapter after the death of Igee in 1964, and yet Vera Caspary lived for 23 more years–a great part of her extensive body of work was produced in this lengthy, solitary period, so there’s the sense that life ‘ended’ in at least some fashion with the death of Igee.

Vera Caspary’s personality bursts from these pages, and I finished the book with the sense that I’d met her. This is a marvellous autobiography, a wonderful read for anyone interested in her work, and I’ll be reading some of her other novels before too long.

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Laura: Vera Caspary (1942-3)

My mind was foggy. I was going somewhere, but I’d lost the road. I remember asking myself about clues. What were clues, what had I looked for in other cases? A smile couldn’t be brought into court as evidence. You couldn’t arrest a man because he trembled. Brown eyes had stolen a peep at gray eyes, so what? The tone of a voice was something that died with a word.

Earlier this year, I read Vera Caspary’s novel Bedelia and then watched the British noir film version. I became interested in Caspary and admired the manner in which she adapted Bedelia for the screen, so it was just a matter of time before I turned to the more famous Laura–a book made into and then overshadowed by the noir film. Laura, the 1944 film from director Otto Preminger, is one of the first noirs I ever saw. Not that I knew what noir was at the time, but as I watched Laura, I realised that I was watching a film that was stylistically far removed from anything else I’d ever seen. Laura often makes top-ten film noir lists. It isn’t one of my top noirs, but it’s certainly a memorable, stylish film.

Once you’ve seen a film version of a book, and what’s more you’ve seen it several times, it’s impossible to completely eradicate the film images from your brain. As I read the book, I found myself comparing the lovely Gene Tierney with the fictional Laura, and of course comparing dapper, bitchy Clifton Webb with Caspary’s completely different vision of Lydecker. In the novel, Lydecker is a large man, portly, we can say, or fat if we’re feeling mean-spirited. 

Anyway here’s the plot:

New York police detective Mark McPherson is assigned to a murder case. The victim is Laura Hunt, an extremely successful and well-paid advertising executive. From the clues at the crime scene, it seems that late Friday night, she answered the doorbell in a negligee and was shot in the face at point-blank range. Ok, so there’s a dead dame–a beautiful corpse on the slab at the morgue, but apart from the fact there’s a nameless killer running around, there are also a few unanswered questions about Laura. On the night of the murder, Laura was supposed to dine with her long-term friend Lydecker, and then she planned to leave town and travel to her country home, returning Wednesday for her marriage to Shelby. Why did she cancel dinner with Lydecker? Why didn’t she tell Shelby? Why was she still in town? And why are there two dirty glasses discarded in her bedroom? 

As McPherson digs around the case, it’s clear that the people who loved Laura–her fiancé Shelby, her friend and confidante, Lydecker and her neurotic aunt, Susan Treadwell aren’t telling the truth. What are they hiding?

Caspary switches narrators and creates a three-part novel. One section is narrated by Lydecker, another by McPherson, and you can read the book to discover the third. For those who’ve seen the film, you know where the plot goes, but it’s well-worth reading the book to note the differences in characterisation.  The book includes an extensive foreword: Women Write Pulp which is not specific to Caspary but rather it’s a broad overview of the role of women writers in pulp and crime fiction. The afterword is a synopsis of Caspary’s career with an emphasis on Laura–Caspary’s “turning point” novel. Caspary was, apparently, not happy with the film portrayals of either Laura or Lydecker.

One of the biggest distinctions between the book and the film is found in the character of Waldo Lydecker. Caspary states that she based him on a character in a Wilkie Collins novel–The Lady in White’s Count Fosco (played nastily by the hefty Sydney Greenstreet in the 1948 film version). Here, in the Otto Preminger 1944 film, Lydecker is an effete, effeminate, fussy product of New York society, and there are some differences, too, in Laura’s character. But the differences aside, Laura is still a capital mystery, and we still have lonely detective McPherson falling in love with a dead woman.

Caspary allows us to get the measure of the main characters in just a few sentences. Here’s Laura’s aunt, Susan Treadwell–a woman who drips honey but spits acid:

In the mirror’s gilt frame Mark saw the reflection of an advancing figure. She was small, robed in deepest mourning and carrying under her right arm a Pomeranian whose auburn coat matched her own. As she paused in the door with the marble statues and bronze figurines behind her, the gold frame giving margins to the portrait, she was like a picture done by one of Sargent’s imitators who had failed to carry over to the twentieth century the dignity of the nineteenth. Mark had seen her briefly at the inquest and had thought her young to be Laura’s aunt. Now he saw that she was well over fifty. The rigid perfection of her face was almost artificial, as if flesh-pink velvet were drawn over an iron frame.

McPherson is under pressure to solve the case, but his approach to the crime includes more than a degree of fascination with Laura. He takes an instant dislike to Laura’s fiancé, Shelby, a man whose southern charm grates on McPherson’s innate view of male-female relationships. McPherson seeks out Lydecker–after all he seems to know Laura better than anyone else, and Lydecker also served as Laura’s unlikely confidant. McPherson becomes obsessed with Laura. This starts as a normal part of the investigation as McPherson pieces together a portrait of the victim. He begins by wondering what sorts of books she read, but then moves on to more intimate information:

Last night, alone in the apartment, he had made unscientific investigation of Laura’s closets, chests of drawers, dressing-table, and bathroom. He knew Laura, not only with his intelligence, but with his senses. His fingers touched fabrics that had known her body, his ears had heard the rustle of her silks, his nostrils sniffed at the varied, heady fragrances of her perfumes.

Caspary takes her characters: shallow Shelby, quirky Lydecker and Laura’s vain aunt and places them around the borders of the crime. Under McPherson’s scrutiny, they all hover around the life of the dead Laura–minor sycophants still bound in the orbit of a beautiful and strangely unfathomable woman. In spite of the fact she’s gone, her presence lingers in her home which is dominated by a large portrait painting of Laura. Just as McPherson begins to understand Laura and regret the loss of a woman he never knew, we too begin to regret the absence of Laura’s vibrant personality. Here’s Lydecker:

For me the room still shone with Laura’s lustre. Perhaps it was in the crowding memories of firelit conversations, of laughing dinners at the candle-bright refectory table, of midnight confidences fattened by spicy snacks and endless cups of steaming coffee.

It’s all too easy to underestimate Laura’s aunt, Mrs Treadwell. While she’s mired in the depths of mourning, she’s ready to assess her dead niece’s wealth and squabble with anyone who imagines they’re entitled to a slice of Laura’s estate. As with all the characters in the novel, there’s more to Mrs Treadwell than it first seems. She’s vain and has spent a lifetime seeking the attention of men. At the same time, however, there isn’t much she misses, but her self-centered, dramatically-inclined character makes her easy to underestimate. Here’s Aunt Susan dropping clues and bits of tasty gossip to McPherson without appearing to have any idea about what’s she’s saying. She’s a study in feminine guile masquerading as foolishness:

You don’t like Shelby very much, do you, Mrs Treadwell?

“He’s a darling boy,” she said, “but not for Laura. Laura couldn’t afford him.”

“Oh” I said.

She was afraid I’d got the wrong impression and added quickly: “Not that he’s a gigolo. Shelby comes from a wonderful family. But in some ways a gigolo’s cheaper. You know where you are. With a man like Shelby you can’t slip the money under the table.”

After reading the novel, I can see why Caspary was annoyed by Preminger’s portrayal of Laura. Caspary’s original fictional Laura can be seen in contrast to Aunt Susan. Aunt Susan, like Bedelia is another manipulative demanding woman who gets what she wants by projecting feminine submission to the men in her life. Aunt Susan and Bedelia appear to play by the rules in order to subvert the male structures that hold them, tenuously, in place. Laura is different. She’s a career woman who’s opted out of the marriage & children paradigm, but her loving, generous nature traps her in a relationship with a man who is ultimately not worth the price.

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Bedelia: Vera Caspary (1945)

I finally decided to pick up a copy of Vera Caspary’s novel Bedelia (published in 1945). This American author is best known for Laura–the book immortalized by the film of the same name. Bedelia held more appeal; how could I pass up the tagline emblazoned so cheaply across the book’s cover:

She Seduces Men…But Does She Kill Them?

A mystery about the wickedest woman who ever loved.

I have a thing about the film-book connection. The film and the book don’t have to be identical. In fact I’d rather that they’re not, but the best outcome occurs when the film brings a deeper understanding of the book and one acts as a complement to the other. This is certainly the case with Bedelia, and when it comes to the film-book connection, Bedelia has a big pay-off, but more of that later.

The book begins at a Christmas party in Connecticut. It’s 1913, and the very staid, very reliable Charlie Horst is hosting his first party with his new bride, the beautiful Bedelia. It seems that Charlie lives in the home that he grew up in, and that after his mother’s recent death (yes she lived there too), and “before the flowers were withered on her grave” he eagerly began a few modest, long-delayed remodelling projects for the house. Then he decided to go off on holiday for a change of scenery. And it was on holiday that he met, fell in love with, and courted a widow named Bedelia. In a way, I suppose, Charlie ‘remodels’ himself through marriage to this unpredictable woman.

Someone should have warned Charlie about holiday romances….

Bedelia appears to be a perfect wife. She has “a natural talent for housekeeping,” and keeps the house “like a pin.” But more than that, she’s also the perfect hostess. Charlie enjoys indulging her, and who can blame him? He’s entertained just watching her in the kitchen or walking across the room. Bedelia is not only beautiful, but she’s refined, gentle, and loving.  Oh yes, she’s perfection personified. And the little flaws she has– weakness for bright, shiny objects and a certain flightiness–well Charlie is only too happy to indulge her. He calls her “my little jackdaw” because of her love of finery. Here’s the opening of the book:

His wife came into the room and Charlie turned to watch her. She wore a dark-blue velvet dress whose sheath skirt was slit to show her pretty ankles and high-heeled bronze pumps.

The yule log caught fire. Flames licked the crusty bark. This was a great moment for Charlie. He had cut the log himself and had had it drying in the shed for a whole year. Bedelia perceiving his pleasure, flashed him a smile and skipped across the Orientals to the love-seat, perched beside him, and rested her head against his shoulder. He took her hand. The Yule log cast its ruddy glow upon them. At this moment, ten minutes after five on December twenty-fifth, 1913, Charlie Horst believed himself the luckiest man in the world.

I’ve read this passage now several times and while it seems modest, nothing too earth shattering going on here, these few lines set the tone for the book in its presentation of a happily married couple who have all the trappings of domestic bliss. Note how proud Charlie is of cutting the log himself, and the way Bedelia skips like a child over to sit next to him after perceiving his deep contentment.

Then shortly afterwards, the Christmas party begins and is attended by many of the locals in the Horsts’ social circle, including Doctor Meyers and his wife, insurance agent Wells Johnson and his wife, their new neighbour Ben Chaney, and Charlie’s cousin Ellen and her friend Abbie. Ellen who nurses an unrequited love for Charlie,  is a newspaper woman.

This evening, as it turns out, is significant for several reasons, and it’s also the day that the Horsts’ marriage begins to crack. Bedelia who’s been gracious, elegant, affectionate and attentive to Charlie begins to act peculiarly. Of course, there have been hints that Bedelia is … well… of a nervous disposition (she can’t sleep in the dark), but it’s at this party that her behaviour begins to disintegrate. And then within a few days, Charlie almost dies as a result of something he ate….

Gradually Bedelia’s story is revealed, and just who and what Bedelia really is a matter of great interest as the novel continues. There are so many things going on in this novel. On one hand it’s a mystery story, but it’s much more than that; the undercurrents beneath the novel’s top layer are fascinatingly subversive. At first, Bedelia seems like the perfect wife (and for that matter Charlie seems like the perfect husband), but there again, their relationship is based on the parent-child paradigm. While Bedelia is a good manager and an elegant hostess when it comes to her interactions with Charlie, she becomes a little girl, and of course that makes him the father. Bedelia is immature and undeveloped in many ways, but what does that say about Charlie’s approach to his wife? Here’s Charlie preparing to go to bed:

Charlie went off to the bathroom to wash and brush his teeth. When he came back, Bedelia was in bed, her hair loose on the pillow. His mother had always braided her hair at night, straining it back from a bulging forehead. For Charlie his wife’s careless tresses had sluttish charm. Her bedroom slippers were of rose-coloured satin with french heels. Her pretty lingerie, ribbons, embroideries, and scents delighted him. Before his marriage he had, like every respectable man, known a number of wantons. Looking back upon their seductions and comparing them to his wife, he saw the girls as drab unfortunates. Bedelia’s easy pleasure gave to the marriage bed a fillip of naughtiness without which no man of puritan conscience could have been satisfied.

Caspary’s novel is a mystery which emphasizes the psychological aspects of the relationship between Bedelia and Charlie while indirectly analyzing the pathology of the Horsts’ marriage. The implication is that neither of the Horsts are particularly healthy when it comes to what they expect from a spouse. In the exploration of Bedelia’s past and her drive to kill men, the subversive undertones that support the mystery make this novel rise above the ordinary.

The novel is loaded with descriptions of Bedelia as a “doll,”  “kitten,” “affected puss” and of course on the other end of the female spectrum is Charlie’s cousin Ellen–an intelligent, plain woman who doesn’t design her personality around the goal of snaring males. The book resonates with the idea that Bedelia’s negative characteristics are appealing to men, while Ellen’s positive character traits are a definite romance-killer. Bedelia’s excessive submission and her continual bending to Charlie’s opinions are also seen as admirable by their social crowd. At one point, Abbie actually cheers Bedelia’s submissive practices and calls her behaviour “more successful” than Ellen’s “feminist attitudes.”

My copy is published by the Feminist Press and this publisher has brought a number of forgotten pulp and noir titles back into publication. The book includes a foreword on the subject of Women Write Pulp, and the afterword from A.B. Emrys contains some interesting information about Caspary, her novels, and the films made from her books.

Caspary was a communist at one time in her life and was subsequently gray-listed during the McCarthy period. She acted as an advisor to the script of Bedelia and according to the afterword, she objected to the film version’s updating the action to 1938. Caspary felt that the original 1913 setting allowed less choices for Bedelia, but the film version, I think, works very well. Watching the film and reading the book were huge payoff experiences.

The book begins with the Christmas party in 1913. The film begins in Monte Carlo in 1938 and opens with Bedelia on her honeymoon with her ‘second’ husband. Right away we are dragged into her lies, and the film concentrates, quite rightly on the visual. Ultimately the book and the film acted as two interconnecting pieces of the same puzzle; the book provides the details of Bedelia’s past which are only sketchy in the film, and the tale becomes  increasingly claustrophobic as Bedelia’s lies unravel. The film magnifies the role of Ben Chaney to create a strong third character.

Finally, I am intrigued with Caspary–both as a person and as a novelist. Bedelia is a good book, but more than that it fascinated me for Caspary’s thought-provoking and subversive look at male-female relationships. I like how this author thinks. I wince whenever I hear someone say they’ve met Mr. or Ms. Perfect. There’s no such being, and I tend to think that whoever says otherwise is working from a checklist of characteristics that commodifies a human being. Bedelia may be a nut-job, but she’s a nut job that men want to be around, and what does that say about relationships? Bedelia acts the role of spoiled child, and Charlie then as the authoritative parent. He supposedly has all the power, but what happens when he realises that he doesn’t and that his little wife, consummate actress that she is, has been playing a role? As for the  book’s conclusion…chilling. And that’s as much as I am going to say.

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