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.