Monday, April 30, 2012

Master of Ceremonies

Katharine Brush’s last published novel, The Boy From Maine, debuted in 1942. Phil Stong, writing in The Saturday Review, called the novel “a heroic effort to take the gay, brittle, and slightly desperate survivors of the last war [World War I] and bring them up to date.” Beatrice Sherman of The New York Times thought the book contained “quick and realistic sketches of the social upheavals of the last twenty-five years, all laid on by a competent brush” (Did you catch that last pun?)

I just re-read the book, and I think it’s Kay’s best. It has more of the depth that the critics found lacking in Don’t Ever Leave Me, a sentiment that Miss Sherman shared. It’s a pity that Kay didn’t live longer to write more.

Above: The first edition dust jacket in dire need of some good art direction. Disembodied heads; and no music note ever looked like that. The result of War-time economies?

The Boy is one Hobey Hadley, a bumpkin born Hobart Higgins, on an Island off the coast of Maine at the turn of the last century. After fleeing the poverty and utter bleakness of the island, and surviving a requisite patriotic stint in the US Navy (he lies about his age to get in), Hobey lands in New York, and decides to stay, at the urging of benefactress (Fairy Godmother is really more like it) Ruby, who runs a smart cabaret, and whom Hobey meets right off the boat, even before the salt spray on his uniform has had a chance to evaporate. Our Boy eventually works his way up the ladder of show business, first as MC and erstwhile crooner at Ruby’s, then as a radio announcer, and, finally, at the ripe old age of 40, Hobey leaves the spotlight and becomes a successful radio executive.

Broadway Gave The Boy From Maine Everything But the Girl He Loved

1945 reprint
And all the while he yearns for his childhood love, Rosalie, whose family used to summer on Hobeys Island. While Rosalie is genuinely fond of Hobey, both know there can never be anything between them. Or, rather, Hobey knows it; it would never occur to Rosalie that such an idea could even exist. Rosalie is rich and glamorous (she’s a Katharine Brush heroine, afterall), and Hobey is a hick.  A lovable hick, but a hick nonetheless.

But Fate, if it won’t let them be together, will at least not allow them to be kept entirely apart. Rosalie and her second husband (was the fatal wound that killed Rosalie’s first really a gun-cleaning accident?), the faded (though still extravagantly handsome) football star Bailey Harker, move in and out of New York over the years, and neo-sophisticate extraordinaire Hobey, at the center of her circle of intimates, basks in the warm glow of his radiant Rosalie.

And They Lived Happily Ever After

Of course theres never a doubt that Our Boy is going to get his girl. The only question is how long it will take, the only suspense what obstacle will need to be overcome next.

At Last: after 7+ years work, 
a rather bemused looking
Kay (from the jacket)
And that brings me to an observation about The Boy From Maines structure. Though Kay began the book around the time Dont Ever Leave Me was finished (1935), work on the novel stopped sometime before 1940, when Kay suffered some serious writers block. Kay apparently became unstuck in 1941, when You Go Your Way was completed. Kay often said that Boy stalled at page 220, and, interestingly enough, a perceivable change in the tone and the pacing of the novel occurs right about that spot, when Hobey returns to the island to visit his estranged family. Once Hobey leaves the island for the second time and returns to New York, Kay wraps everything up with a swift neatness that is not in keeping with the first part of the novel, and which all seems just a little too convenient. Frank Stockton could have been writing about The Boy From Maine when he complained that the ending of Young Man of Manhattan reminds one of the hasty cutting of knots with which some of Dickens's plots are brought to a close.

I dont know if I would have noticed this shift had I not known anything about the novels compositional history, but its unmistakably there.

Anyway, the book is pure soap opera, sentimental, sometimes silly, sometimes melodramatic; so I naturally ate it up.

Monday, April 23, 2012


“I haven't met Dorothy Parker, and I wouldn’t dare say a word if I had. I guess I know when to make wisecracks and when not to.” 

That’s what Kay said in 1940. I wonder if she changed her mind a year later, when Parker’s review of You Go Your Way appeared in the July 6, 1941 issue of PM...She must have had plenty to say. At least in private.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

They Went That-a-Way!

You Go Your Way was Kay’s sixth novel to be published, but it was not  the one that had stalled at page 220, the one that led Kay to write This is on Me. (That novel would have to wait yet another year before finally finding its way into hard covers.) Kirkus Reviews called You Go Your Way Airy amorantics by a crack hand, and Beatrice Sherman, writing in The New York Times found the novel light and amusing, short on ballast, but long on smartly frivolous conversation, and generously diverting.

Young and vivacious (and stunningly beautiful—that goes without saying) Connie Crowell, though madly in love with husband Bill, decides (before their honeymoon is even over) that she married Bill too hastily. Connie’s unorthodox philosophy (I wish bigamy wasn't illegal) is that she should have been married once or twice before—unhappily—so that she and Bill would be assured of unending marital bliss. And so, what follows is a completely preposterous string of separations, rivalries, and courtships, through which Connie bounces merrily while Bill fumes and tries to keep up. You know exactly how it will all turn out in the end, but the ride is a lot of fun. I won’t give anything away, but you can probably figure out the ending from my simple synopsis without much effort.

“Then Bill fell in love with a purple china
dachshund with cacti planted in its open back.”
The rivals prepare to go wooing--simultaneously.
Though the plot is light as air, Connie’s amorantics and the book’s dialogue are genuinely funny. You Go Your Way is Kay’s only truly comedic novel, and the only one that actually makes me laugh out loud; it has all the elements of classic Hollywood screwball comedy. Doesn't that look like Cary Grant holding the red roses?   

In fact, The New York Times announced in late 1940 that Paramount had bought the screen rights to You Go Your Way as a probable vehicle for Claudette Colbert. That’s funny, because a few days ago The Palm Beach Story (which starred Claudette Colbert, of course) was on the television, and I was struck by how alike Preston Sturges’s picture and Kay’s novel are. Both date from the same time, and the main characters are young, glamorous New Yorkers. Both start off with the wife deciding the couple shouldn't be married any longer.

Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert in
Preston Sturges's
The Palm Beach Story
Both marriages are “threatened” by the presence of romantic rivals on each side. And in each the wife goesby trainto Palm Beach for a divorce (Florida divorces are quicker than Reno divorces, according to Connie Crowell.) The plot of The Palm Beach Story is, not surprisingly when one considers Sturges's oeuvre, even more ridiculous than Kay's story.

But I think Palm Beach gives a little hint of what the movie version of Your Way might have looked like. It’s a pity the picture didn’t get made, and we’ll most certainly never know why.

One odd coincidence: Connie and Bill (in You Go Your Way) don yachting caps and go “yachting” on a chartered tug called the Ella F. McGlew. In The Palm Beach Story Gerry Jeffers (Colbert) introduces husband Tom (Joel McCrea) as her brother, Captain McGlew! Mere coincidence? Or was Preston Sturges perhaps familiar with Kay’s book?

You Go Your Way was originally  serialized in The American, starting with the April, 1941 issue. Illustration by Alfred Parker

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Time of Her Life

After work on her sixth (which would eventually be published as her seventh) novel stalled, Kay found herself unable to write. Anything. 

So she started doing finger exercises on the typewriter. Then, at the prompting of her publishers (at 2am in the Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel, if we take Kay at her word), she agreed to tell the story of her stories. What resulted was This Is On Me, a “hodge-podge autobiography, bubbly and easy to take throughout and really memorable in spots,” according to The American Mercury. 
The book owes its “hodge-podge” character to the fact that it is both autobiography and anthology, “interlarded” (to borrow Mercury's term) “with samples of pertinent literary work, including complete short stories.”

And though Time magazine felt the stories and sketches would not have been missed, their reviewer found This Is On Me “lively reading,” and “a welcome change from the usual preening of popular authors on How-I-Learned-To Write.” The critics, in fact, appear to have been quite unanimous in their praise; I have not found a single review that was less than glowing.

Parts of This Is On Me appeared first in Ladies’ Home Journal (beginning with the December 1939 issue) under the title Time of My Life. The Journal excerpts featured photographs that were not included when the book was published in the summer of 1940. This Is On Me was instead illustrated with simple line drawings by Susanne Suba. Suba was a successful and well-regarded artist and illustrator, but I think This Is On Me would be just that much more valuable as autobiography had the photos been retained.  

Left: This photographic timeline appeared in Ladies' Home Journal;
Above Right: Photo of a rather prim looking Kay from the book's dust jacket