Tag Archives: 1950s America

Executive Suite: Cameron Hawley (1952)

Competence is a whip in the hands of a taskmaster,  and the lash cuts all the deeper when the whip is held by a perfectionist.”

Cameron Hawley’s novel, Executive Suite, a story of ambition and workplace politics opens in New York with the unexpected sudden death of 56 year old Avery Bullard. Bullard, who’s in New York to eliminate a man as a prospective executive vice president for the Tredwell Furntiure Corporation, suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies in the street as he is about to enter a cab. The man who was interviewed for the job witnesses the death and immediately dumps his stock in the Tredwell Corporation, and at the same time a woman passer by picks up and steals Bullard’s wallet. Bullard’s last act was to wire his secretary and order an emergency meeting of his five vice presidents so while the police in New York try to discover the identify of the dead man, back in Millburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Tredway Tower, the corporation’s company headquarters, the five vice presidents are supposed to dump their plans and prepare to gather together.  Everyone involved knows the meeting is to announce the new executive vice president, so no one can refuse. The last Executive VP died of a heart attack a few months before and the seat has been naggingly vacant ever since. The question on everyone’s mind is : who will Avery Bullard select? While the five men mull over their positions, we readers know that Bullard is dead and the bigger question is who will take over as the new president?

Loren P. Shaw: Vice president and Comptroller-ruthlessly ambitious, and of all the five vice presidents, his mask “was the best.”

Jesse Grimm: Vice President for Manufacturing: “his one weakness … demanding perfection from his machines but too quick to excuse the lack if it in his people.”

Fred Alderson: Vice President and Treasurer. The oldest of the vice presidents, he’s due to retire in 4 years.

J. Walter Dudley: Vice President for Sales–“practiced master of the art of winning quick friendships.”

Don Walling: Vice President for Design and Development. The newest of the five vice presidents. A self-made man ‘discovered’ by Bullard

The story goes into the minds of each of these men as they contemplate who will be selected as executive vice president, little knowing that with Bullard’s death, the stakes have drastically changed. Through these different minds, author Cameron Hawley explores just what work means to each man. Jesse Grimm, for example, no longer feels any satisfaction from his job and he has plans to retire imminently. J. Walter Dudley has recently found new zest in life through a no-strings relationship with a furniture shop owner, and Alderson thinks he deserves the executive VP spot since he’s been there the longest. Of course, the great irony is while the 5 VPs scramble around in various power plays assuming that the stake is the Executive VP spot, with Bullard’s death, the stakes have suddenly become much greater.

executive suiteAvery Bullard is, of course, absent after page one, but his presence dominates the lives of everyone who knew him. Originally a furniture salesman, he salvaged the Tredway Furniture Company from bankruptcy after the suicide of its founder and eventually merged seven other furniture companies which then formed the Tredway Corporation. He was a remarkable man who spent an energetic lifetime building his corporation while discovering and mentoring people. VP Don Walling was ‘discovered’ by Bullard, and it’s a debt Walling thinks he can never repay. Even Tredway’s largest stockholder, Julia Tredway Prince owes a tremendous debt to Bullard’s willpower and generosity. A few minor characters also exist to show what a powerful personality Bullard had–there’s loyal secretary, Erica Martin–“always in the bufferland between Avery Bullard and his vice-presidents,” and even an elevator man who’s devoted to the company president. But while Bullard demanded total and complete loyalty from his employees, some people–usually the wives, resent Bullard and his domineering presence in their lives. Mrs Alderson, for example, dreads the idea that her husband may become executive VP as she feels that she has already ‘lost’ her husband to the company. They live in the old Bullard home, a house she hates, because, according to her husband, “Mr. Bullard thinks it’s what we should do.”

But even the house, bad as it was, had not been the worst thing that Avery Bullard had done to her. Put in its simplest terms–and all of the years of loneliness had given Edith Alderson plenty of time to reduce everything to the simplest of terms–Avery Bullard had taken her husband away from her. He had turned her life into a meaningless sham of being married to a man whose first loyalty she could not claim.

This is very much a novel about American business. In some sense, Executive Suite reminded me of John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick–the story of Joe Chapin, a lawyer who is already dead when the novel begins, but whereas Joe Chapin was ‘steered’ through mediocre life by class, Bullard, a titan of industry, definitely created his own fate.

In its depiction of ambition, back stabbing office politics, and the issue of balancing home life with career, the book is relevant today. The novel can be faulted for its depiction of the female characters, but this is inevitable since this is a book about men and their careers while the wives linger in the sidelines. At one point, Walling praises another woman, glowingly to his wife, saying that she ‘thinks like a man,’ while another wife remembers only those people who’ve come to dinner, and she can recall the menu served down to minute detail. In this novel, Hawley asks some big questions: what do men ‘get’ from their careers, is it possible to balance work and home and still be successful, and what exactly brings job satisfaction? One character discusses compartmentalizing work and home and there’s the idea that one of the reasons the divorced Bullard was so admired was because he seemed to have achieved something with his life that other men envied. Ultimately, the novel argues that emotional choices in the workplace must be overridden by rational decisions; we don’t necessarily have to ‘like’ those we pick for the job.

I read some descriptions of this book as a page-turner. I found the book slow-going and it seems best read in big chunks rather than picking it up and putting it down as there are a lot of characters to keep track of here. One final thought–books written today about career and the workplace environment seem much more cynical. We see workers, anonymous and replaceable in a large corporate setting, doing anything but work. Thinking here of Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan.

Cameron Hawley (1905-1969) also wrote the novel Cash McCall which was also made into a film.

Review copy

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My Face For the World to See by Alfred Hayes

For its bleakness and its Hollywood setting, I loved My Face For the World To See (1958)–a dark tale of a tangled relationship between a married screenwriter and a very damaged would-be actress. At 131 pages, this New York Review Books release doesn’t waste words, and there’s the sense that this tale has been pared down to perfection. The story flings us right into the drama with an opening set at a beach house party with various Hollywood people in attendance. The screenwriter, who remains nameless throughout the story is bored and feeling alienated when he goes outside and spots a woman stepping into the ocean. He thinks he’s seen the girl before, but then again perhaps not. She looks, after all, like so many other pretty, leggy desperate young women who drift to Hollywood. He realizes that she is trying to commit suicide, so he pulls her out of the ocean, and the drama begins.

My face for the world to seeThe screenwriter, who’s in his late thirties, is well paid but not particularly happy. His wife of fifteen years, a woman he’s no longer attracted to, lives in New York with their child. He rents an apartment that’s a “little too bridal,” and has the occasional affair. He’s not a wolf by any means or a predator, but he’s used to being alone with his cynicism:

I thought of my wife. She was at a distance. The distance was in itself beneficial. I supposed I was being again uncharitable. She was what she was: I was what I was. That, when you came down to it, was the most intolerable thing of all. If only she weren’t, now and then what she was, always. If she’d let up a little or knock it off a little or hang it out for a good airing once in a little while.  God, marriage. No: it wasn’t marriage. There wasn’t, even on close examination, any other available institution, any other available institution you could substitute. There seemed to be nothing but marriage, when you thought of it, and when you thought of it, my god, was that all there was? That, and raising a family. That, and earning a living. That, and calling the undertaker.

This bleakly abbreviated view of the meaningless of life says a great deal about our narrator. He finds his tired marriage, strained by “something that resembled a truce,” suffocating; perhaps he married too young, and he has yet to find anything to substitute for any sort of meaning to his existence. Yet his attitude towards life extends beyond his marriage, and he hates New York, “that immense slum.” Hollywood isn’t much better as far as the screenwriter is concerned. He dislikes Hollywood and the money it generates. To him the town is “rotten” and its immense wealth has a “phantasmal quality.” In a town driven by money, power, and fame, all three leave him cold.

At this very moment, the town was full of people lying in bed thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous, and even more famous if they were; or of becoming wealthy if they weren’t already wealthy , or wealthier if they were; or powerful if they weren’t powerful now, and more powerful if they already were. There were times when the intensity with which they wanted these things impressed me. There was even, at times, a certain legitimacy to their desires. But it seemed to me, or at least it had seemed to me in the few years I had been coming and going from this town, there was something finally ludicrous, finally unimpressive about even the people who had all the things so coveted by all the people who did not have them. It was difficult to say why. It might have been only a private blindness, a private indifference which prevented me from seeing how gratifying the possession of power or the possession of fame could be. 

The meeting between the screenwriter and the young woman grows into a relationship. The woman lives in spartan circumstances, but she’s proud of what she’s accomplished while the screenwriter finds that he’s “wandered into a ‘unsuccessful’ life again.”  He senses that “something quite heavy, quite immovable, weighed her down.” When questioned, he’s frank about his marital status, and an affair begins–with the young woman accepting that what they have is a dead-end with no future. Not a great deal happens during the course of the affair–a few dinners, a disastrous trip to Mexico, and, of course, confidences, which include the woman’s troubled past, are exchanged.

Author Alfred Hayes chose to keep his two characters nameless–although there’s one point in which the woman refers to herself as Miss V. It’s much more difficult to write about a book in which the main characters are nameless, but what’s interesting here is that the lack of names adds to the general feeling of anonymity. These people live in Hollywood–a town, “true to its rhinestone self,” in which names are of paramount importance. The last thing anyone connected to the movie biz seeks is anonymity, but that’s exactly what these two characters have. The woman, of course, seeks fame–she wants to hit the Big Time with “my face for the world to see,” whereas the man doesn’t care for any of the usual gilt covered carrots that drive ambition in Hollywood. Then there’s the issue of the affair….  Why, oh why, would anyone be insane enough to get mixed up with this emotionally damaged woman? Yes, she’s attractive and available, but as the narrator points out, the town in swamped with beautiful, attractive women eager to make connections and more than happy to attend Hollywood parties. The screenwriter’s introduction to the young woman, her suicide attempt, should tell him all he needs to know. This is not a stable young woman, and an affair can only end in disaster for both of them. Why then, given the benefit of all the warning signals, does he take the green light and begin an affair? Vulnerability can be a weapon, and it can also be a magnet.

In Love is the story of two people in a relationship that sours even as it goes nowhere. My Face For the World To See, the finer book of the two, is the story of a relationship that goes to hell. Alfred Hayes has a self-interruptive style which is only occasionally apparent in My Face For the World to See whereas this style is pervasive in its repetitive uncertainty in In Love. This is a sparsely, beautifully written tale of damaged souls, with sentences that lap over our senses and recede slowly, leaving behind an emotional stain:

There was a noisy rush of water from the bathroom, and she appeared, ready for the evening, a smile she had chosen, I thought, from a small collection of smiles she kept for occasions like this, fixed upon her face.

Praise goes once more to New York Review Books for resurrecting a lost gem. How do they find their titles?

review copy

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Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins has written a number of Nathan Heller novels which focus on real events, including the assassination of Huey Long, the Black Dahlia murder, and the Lindbergh kidnapping. In common with the Nathan Heller series, The Seduction of the Innocent, is also inspired by true events. Collins explains, however, that while the Heller books “hew religiously to actual events” he opted to take a different tack with this latest release from Hard Case Crime, and if you read the book, it’s easy to see why (more of that later). In his latest novel, Collins appears to have a lot of fun with his characters, and as a result, The Seduction of the Innocent is laced with the sort of humour that reminds me of Donald Westlake.

seduction of the innocentMeshing fact and fiction into a perfect blend, the novel centres on the comic book industry–specifically our narrator Jack Starr, part owner of The Strip Joint, a Manhattan restaurant that’s just one part of the Starr Syndicate’s business concerns. Stripper Maggie Starr, known professionally as Libidia Von Stackpole, is Jack’s sexy stepmother who is the brains of the operation, and since she owns 75 % of the Starr Syndicate, she’s also his boss. The Starr Syndicate is also involved in the comic book business, and that’s a prickly business to be in as comic book crusader Dr. Werner Frederick  has made it his mission to clean up comic books and their perceived bad influence on children. Frederick’s book Ravage the Lambs is getting a lot of press in a society in which censorship and blacklisting are the results of the vicious, paranoid politics of the times, and with a grand jury investigation about to begin, those within the comic book industry are feeling a lot of pressure. With tempers running high, a murder occurs, and the killer left a calling card which implicates that this is a crime committed by someone in the comic book biz. Jack Starr steps up to investigate, and along the way he tangles with a few colourful characters and a very sexy dame.

On one level, this is a great pulp story, full of eccentric and sometimes badly behaved characters: there’s Will Allison, a promising young artist, Bob Price, a comic book publisher who naively believes that testifying before the grand jury will help argue his cause, luscious artist Lyla Lamont and her abusive boyfriend, Pete Pine, and sexy psychologist, Sylvia who admits to mixed feelings about Dr. Frederick. While she disagrees strongly with Frederick’s position on comic book censorship, she admires other aspects of his career.

While Seduction of the Innocent is a great romp through the comic book scene of the 50s, it’s a lot more than that, and the novel also addresses the issue of censorship with one cast of characters arguing vehemently against any policing of their industry, and Dr. Frederick arguing that comic books poison the minds of children. Dr. Frederick seems to be a rational enough, even open-minded human being, but get him started on comic books, and we see a normally reasonable, gentle man go ballistic:

“I do not dispute that the comic strip,” he said, mildly irritated, “has blossomed in its limited way in the greater garden of the American newspaper. But its bastard child the comic book is a poisonous weed that infests our newsstands. A dozen state legislatures have worked to ban or limit this blight upon our children, and many parents have risen up, even having public burnings of these wretched pamphlets.”

And here I thought the doc didn’t like the Nazis….

With emotions in the comic book biz running at an all time high, it’s no wonder that someone ends up dead, and it’s Jack Starr’s job to make sure that the right man (or woman) takes the rap for this dastardly crime.

One of the aspects of this book that I enjoyed the most was the way the author used the facts of the times to create a good, solid pulp story which manages to include some very serious moral questions, and we see the catastrophic results of one man with a few credentials seizing the moral high ground, “riding the comet of a controversy of his own creation,” while the rest of the characters struggle to justify their existence. The real life comic book crusader, Dr. Fredric Wertham is, of course, the model for the fictional Dr. Frederick, and Wertham’s expose book was called Seduction of the Innocent (hence the tongue-in-cheek title of the book). So here Max Allan Collins turns a tense period of history into a crime zone that could so-easily have happened with just a little stretch of the imagination. While some of the aspects of the fictional Dr. Frederick character may seem over-the-top or bizarre just go read about the person this character is based on and you’ll see that this is not an exaggeration. In one part of the novel, our fictional Dr. Frederick has a fit over the content of several comics. He sees evil and smut where it doesn’t exist and conversely, he fails to see evil when it stares him in the face. Dr. Frederick shows glimpses of homophobia in his gross misinterpretation of some of the comic book heroes:

The undercurrent of homosexuality in the Batwing comic book,” he said as if tasting something sour, “is extremely damaging to impressionable minds, and children are inherently in that category.”

“Homosexual?” I asked.

That got me another flash of a look from Maggie.

“Impressionable,” he said sternly. “And the Amazonia comic book is rife with fetishistic bondage, and the lead character herself is clearly lesbian.”

“She has a boyfriend, doesn’t she?” I asked innocently. Some captain in the army or air force?”

“Amazonia is a closeted lesbian, frequently shown participating in semi-clothed frolicking with other lesbians.”

I never get invited to the good parties…

Dr. Frederick also sees comic book hero Wonder Guy as a “reprehensible exhibition of the Nazi theme of the Superman.”

Anyone that reads that much dirt into a character who is a patent do-gooder like Wonder Guy deserves to be handcuffed, gagged, dressed in latex, and spanked by someone named The Gimp. But I’d guess that Dr. Frederick would probably enjoy that too much.

To complement the subject, there are several appropriate illustrations throughout the novel, and in the afterword, Max Allan Collins talks about his “fact-inspired” novel, the real comic book crusade, Dr Wertham and comic book censorship along with further reading suggestions on the topic.

Review copy.

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Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

“How easy it is to slip out of a harness. You just slip out of it, that’s all.”

Author Cynthia Ozick seems to have had a tangled relationship with Henry James. James’s later novels were the subject of Ozick’s Master’s thesis, and at one point she felt that James’s influence had managed to spread to the dialogue of her first novel Trust. I’ve never read any Ozick, so this was the first for me. I decided to read Foreign Bodies because it is loosely based on James’s The Ambassadors, and I’ve also seen the book described as a retelling of the classic tale. I’ll admit that if I hadn’t started out knowing about the James connection, I don’t think that I would have jumped to the conclusion that Ozick was leaning on James. That’s a compliment to Ozick since she was apparently influenced by James’s novel, using it as a springboard for her own tale but then updating it to 1950s America and Paris.

Foreign Bodies begins with a few lively letters back and forth between divorced Bronx schoolteacher Bea Nightingale and her wealthy California-based brother, Marvin. Here’s Bea at the beginning of the story, forty-eight years old and firmly entrenched in a rut:

She was one of that ludicrously recognizable breed of middle-aged teachers who save up for a longed-for summer vacation in the more romantic capitals of Europe.

Bea and Marvin have been estranged for years. There’s no one single infraction–no great wound or fight that drove them apart; it’s more a question of distance and a difference in temperament. Marvin is married and lives in a mansion that resembles a transplanted castle; his dotty wife Margaret is locked up in some sort of asylum (euphemistically styled a ‘rest home’), and he has two adult children, Julian and Iris. Julian is apparently living the bohemian life in Paris and refuses to come home while Iris is a promising chemistry graduate student. Unexpectedly Bea gets a letter from Marvin, and he basically orders Bea to get to Paris, search for Julian and bring him home. Marvin is, he claims, too busy to see to the problem himself, and it’s obvious that Marvin’s letters are designed to guilt Bea into action:

You ought to be in touch more. When I see how thick Iris is with Julian, I realize how derelict my own sister’s been.

Marvin’s request is, of course, intrusive both to Bea and to Julian. Julian, who’s now involved with a displaced Romanian refugee (“human debris discharged from the diseased bowels of Eastern Europe” ) has no intention of returning home to his domineering, obnoxious father, so Bea’s attempts at ‘rescue’ fail miserably. Tenacious Marvin doesn’t give up easily, however, and he ascribes Julian’s refusal to return to Bea’s failure as an aunt, a sister, and as a human being. Julian’s sister Iris enters the mix, and even Bea’s ex-husband, Leo, a man Bea’s been divorced from for over twenty years and who is now a wealthy Hollywood music theme writer, enters the drama. Within a short period of time, Bea’s quiet, orderly life is in chaos.

There’s a lot going on this book. The New World vs. the Old (one of James’s themes, of course), but here the New World is sliding into McCarthyism along with bigotry to European refugees who have uncertain pasts. Not that it’s a great deal better in Paris and a few scenes paint a vivid portrait of a ‘charity’ devoted to relocation of refugees to somewhere…anywhere else. The story is also about familial relationships and how we put up with so much bad behaviour from relatives with whom we have very little in common.

There’s subtle humour here as Bea is thrust into the hub of her brother’s family dynamic. She’s the person least responsible for the mess, but she finds herself accused of being responisble for the chaos that ensues. Not too surprisingly, given their father’s temperament and his drive to dominant, both Julian and Iris experience a sort of liberation in Paris and have no desire to return home. Left to their own devices in Paris, unemployed Julian writes dark tales while Iris becomes mixed up with a charlatan.  But lest I make the mistake of making Bea seem the victim here, I should clarify and say that she isn’t. While she’s largely acted upon, frustrated and annoyed she takes matters into her own hands. There’s one moment when Bea acts in an  incredibly authoritative way when she makes a decision she has no right to make. Interestingly, the events provide liberation of sorts for Bea too.  

While Bea and her choice of modest career is ridiculed by both her brother and her  ex-husband, Bea is far more content with her lot than either Marvin or Leo. At first Bea feels no curiosity or obligation towards her niece and nephew, but she’s slowly dragged into the family drama through a role that’s scripted by her rude, selfish, domineering brother–an impossible man who pens his autocratic demands on fancy notepaper which boasts a fake crest.  

Ozick’s tale illustrates that family drama escalates as it leaks out from the nuclear family and spreads to Bea on the other side of the country. Foreign Bodies is not so much about the corruption/enrichment of the Europe experience but rather it’s about the complexities and absurdities of familial relationships. When Bea reaches out to her unknown nephew and niece, she’s treated to rebuffs and ridicule, and this of course highlights the idea that people frequently treat family members–even unfamiliar ones–poorly. Both Iris and Julian view Aunt Bea as their father’s sister–his emissary, and they don’t recognise her individuality or even question why she’s estranged from her brother. Bea becomes the convenient scapegoat for the family’s morass of tangled drama

There were several points in the novel I wondered why Bea bothered. Marvin’s letters to Bea are so rude, so patronizing, I found myself asking why on earth Bea bothered with this temperamental lot. Marvin, a quintessential bully who finds people either useful or expendable, was obnoxious when he was young and in the assurance of an affluent middle-age, he’s impossible. There’s no in-between. Hence the wife in the asylum, and this section is laced with comedy and tragedy. This brings me to the novel’s subtle observations on relationships between siblings. Marvin thinks Iris and Julian are tight. Iris agrees. This second relationship between siblings comes under scrutiny at the novel develops. Foreign Bodies argues that sometimes it takes a family crisis to reveal the truth about dodgy relationships between family members we thought we knew so well.

Kindle copy courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via netgalley

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