Once upon a time, New York City was as delightful a place to live in as to visit. There were many amenities, as they say in brochures. One was something called Broadway, where dozens of plays opened each season, and thousands of people came to see them in an area which today resembles downtown Calcutta without, alas, that subcontinental city’s deltine charm and intellectual rigor.
One evening back there in once upon a time (February 7, 1957, to be exact) my first play opened at the Booth Theatre. Traditionally, the playwright was invisible to the audience: one hid out in a nearby bar, listening to the sweet nasalities of Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand” from a glowing jukebox. But when the curtain fell on this particular night, I went into the crowded lobby to collect someone. Overcoat collar high about my face, I moved invisibly through the crowd, or so I thought. Suddenly a voice boomed–tolled across the lobby. “Gore!” I stopped; everyone stopped. From the cloakroom, a small round figure, rather like a Civil War cannon ball, hurtled toward me and collided. As I looked down into that familiar round face with its snub nose and shining bloodshot eyes, I heard, the entire crowded lobby heard: “How could you do this? How could you sell out like this? To Broadway! To Commercialism! How could you give up The Novel? Give up the security. The security of knowing that every two years, there will be—like clockwork—that five hundred dollar advance!” Thirty years later, the voice still echoes in my mind, and I think fondly of its owner, our best comic novelist. “The field,” I can hear Dawn Powell snarl, “is not exactly overcrowded.”
On the night that Visit to a Small Planet opened, Dawn Powell was fifty-nine years old. She had published fourteen novels, evenly divided between accounts of her native Midwest (and how the hell to get out of there and make it to New York) and the highly comic New York novels, centered on Greenwich Village, where she lived most of her adult life. Some twenty-three years earlier, the Theater Guild had produced Powell’s comedy Jig Saw (one of her many unsuccessful attempts to sell out to Commercialism) but there was third act trouble and despite Spring Byington and Ernest Truex, the play closed after forty-nine performances.
For decades Dawn Powell was always just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion. But despite the work of such dedicated cultists as Edmund Wilson and Matthew Josephson, John dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, Dawn Powell never became the popular writer that she ought to have been. In those days, with a bit of luck, a good writer eventually attracted voluntary readers, and became popular. Today, of course, “popular” means bad writing that is widely read while good writing is that which is taught to involuntary readers. Powell failed on both counts. She needs no interpretation while in her lifetime she should have been as widely read as, say, Hemingway or the early Fitzgerald or the mid O’Hara or even the late, far too late, Katherine Anne Porter. But Powell was that unthinkable monster, a witty woman who felt no obligation to make a single, much less final, down payment on Love or The Family; she saw life with a bright Petronian neutrality, and every host at life’s feast was a potential Trimalchio to be sent up.
In the few interviews that Powell gave, she often mentions, surprisingly for an American, much less a woman of her time and place, The Satyricon as her favorite novel. This sort of thing was not acceptable then any more than it is now. Descriptions of warm mature heterosexual love were—and are—woman’s writerly task, and the truly serious writers really, heart-breakingly, flunk the course while the pop ones pass with bright honors. Although Powell received very little serious critical attention (to the extent that there has ever been much in our heavily moralizing culture), when she did get reviewed by a really serious person like Diana Trilling (The Nation, May 29, 1948), La Trilling warns us that the book at hand is no good because of “the discrepancy between the power of mind revealed on every page of her novel [The Locusts Have No King] and the insignificance of the human beings upon which she directs her excellent intelligence.” Trilling does acknowledge the formidable intelligence but because Powell does not deal with Morally Complex People (full professors at Columbia in mid journey?), “the novel as a whole…fails to sustain the excitement promised by its best moments.”
Apparently, a novel to be serious must be about very serious even solemn people rendered in a very solemn even serious manner. Wit? What is that? But then we all know that power of mind and intelligence count for as little in the American novel as they do in American life. Fortunately neither appears with sufficient regularity to distress our solemn middle-class middlebrows as they trudge ever onward to some Scarsdale of the mind, where the red light blinks and blinks at pier’s end and the fields of the republic rush forward ever faster like a rug rolling up.
Powell herself occasionally betrays bewilderment at the misreading of her work. She is aware, of course, that the American novel is a middlebrow middle-class affair and that the reader/writer must be as one in pompous self-regard. “There is so great a premium on dullness,” she wrote sadly (Robert van Gelder, Writers and Writing, Scribner’s, 1946), “that it seems stupid to pass it up.” She also remarks that
it is considered jolly and good-humored to point out the oddities of the poor or of the rich. The frailties of millionaires or garbage collectors can be made to seem amusing to persons who are not millionaires or garbage collectors. Their ways of speech, their personal habits, the peculiarities of their thinking are considered fair game. I go outside the rules with my stuff because I can’t help believing that the middle class is funny, too.
Well, she was warned by four decades of book chatterers.
My favorite was the considered judgment of one Frederic Morton (The New York Times, September 12, 1954):
But what appears most fundamentally lacking is the sense of outrage which serves as an engine to even the most sophisticated [sic] satirist. Miss Powell does not possess the pure indignation that moves Evelyn Waugh to his absurdities and forced Orwell into his haunting contortions. Her verbal equipment is probably unsurpassed among writers of her genre—but she views the antics of humanity with too surgical a calm.
It should be noted that Mr. Morton was the author of the powerful, purely indignant, and phenomenally compassionate novel, Asphalt and Desire. In general, Powell’s books usually excited this sort of commentary (Waugh indignant? Orwell hauntingly contorted?). The fact is that Americans have never been able to deal with wit. Wit gives away the scam. Wit blows the cool of those who are forever expressing a sense of hoked-up outrage. Wit, deployed by a woman with surgical calm, is a brutal assault upon nature—that is, Man. Attis, take arms!
Finally, as the shadows lengthened across the greensward, Edmund Wilson got around to his old friend (November 17, 1962) in The New Yorker. One reason, he tells us, why Powell has so little appeal to those Americans who read novels is that: “She does nothing to stimulate feminine day-dreams [Sexist times!]. The woman reader can find no comfort in identifying herself with Miss Powell’s heroines. The women who appear in her stories are likely to be as sordid and absurd as the men.” This sexual parity was—is—unusual. But now, closer to century’s end than 1962, Powell’s sordid, absurd ladies seem like so many Mmes. de Stael compared to our latter-day viragos.
Wilson also noted Powell’s originality: “Love is not Miss Powell’s theme. Her real theme is the provincial in New York who has come on from the Middle West and acclimatized himself (or herself) to the city and made himself a permanent place there, without ever, however, losing his fascinated sense of an alien and anarchic society.” This is very much to the (very badly written) point. Wilson finds her novels “among the most amusing being written, and in this respect quite on a level with those of Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, and Muriel Spark.” Wilson’s review was of her last book, The Golden Spur; three years later she was dead of breast cancer. “Thanks a lot, Bunny,” one can hear her mutter as this belated floral wreath came flying through her transom.
Summer, Sunday afternoon. Circa 1950. Dawn Powell’s duplex living room at 35 East Ninth Street. The hostess presides over an elliptical aquarium filled with gin: a popular drink of the period known as the martini. In attendance, Coby—just Coby to me for years, her cavalier servente; he is neatly turned out in a blue blazer; rosy-faced; sleek silver hair combed straight back. Coby can talk with charm on any subject. The fact that he might be Dawn’s lover has never crossed my mind. They are so old. A handsome young poet lies on the floor, literally at the feet of E.E. Cummings and his wife Marion, who ignore him. Dawn casts an occasional maternal eye in the boy’s direction; but the eye is more that of the mother of a cat or a dog, apt to make a nuisance. Conversation flows. Gin flows. Marion Cummings is beautiful; so indeed is her husband, his eyes a faded denim blue. Coby is in great form. Though often his own subject, he records not boring triumphs but improbable disasters. He is always broke, and a once distinguished wardrobe is now in the hands of those gay receivers, his landladies. On this afternoon, at home, Dawn is demure; thoughtful. “Why,” she suddenly asks, eyes on the long body beside the coffee table, “do they never have floors of their own to sleep on?”
Cummings explains that since the poet lives in Philadelphia he is too far from his own floor to sleep on it. Not long after, the young poet and I paid a call on the Cummingses. We were greeted at the door by an edgy Marion. “I’m afraid you can’t come in.” Behind her an unearthly high scream sounded. “Dylan Thomas just died,” she explained. “Is that Mr. Cummings screaming?” asked the poet politely, as the keening began on an even higher note. “No,” said Marion. “That is not Mr. Cummings. That is Mrs. Thomas.”
But for the moment, in my memory, the poet is forever asleep on the floor while on a balcony high up in the second story of Dawn’s living room, a gray blurred figure appears and stares down at us. “Who,” I ask, “is that?”
Dawn gently, lovingly, stirs the martinis; squints her eyes; says, “My husband, I think. It is Joe, isn’t it, Coby?” She turns to Coby, who beams and waves at the gray man, who withdraws. “Of course it is,” says Coby. “Looking very fit.” I realize, at last, that this is a ménage à trois in Greenwich Village. My martini runs over.
To date the only study of Dawn Powell is a doctoral dissertation by Judith Faye Pett (University of Iowa, 1981). Miss Pett has gathered together a great deal of biographical material for which one is grateful. I am happy to know, at last, that the amiable Coby’s proper name was Coburn Gilman, and I am sad to learn that he survived Dawn by only two years. The husband on the balcony was Joseph Gousha, or Goushé, whom she married November 20, 1920. He was musical; she literary, with a talent for the theater. A son was born retarded. Over the years, a fortune was spent on schools and nurses. To earn the fortune, Powell did every sort of writing, from interviews in the press to stories for ladies’ magazines to plays that tended not to be produced to a cycle of novels about the Midwest, followed by a cycle of New York novels, where she came into her own, dragging our drab literature screaming behind her. As doyenne of the Village, she held court in the grill of the Lafayette Hotel—for elegiasts the Lafayette was off Washington Square, at University Place and Ninth Street.
Powell also runs like a thread of purest brass through Edmund Wilson’s The Thirties: “It was closing time in the Lafayette Grill, and Coby Gilman was being swept out from under the table. Niles Spencer had been stuttering for five minutes, and Dawn Powell gave him a crack on the jaw and said, ‘Nuts is the word you’re groping for.”‘ Also, “[Peggy Bacon] told me about Joe Gousha’s attacking her one night at a party and trying to tear her clothes off…. I suggested that Joe had perhaps simply thought that this was the thing to do in Dawn’s set. She said, ‘Yes: he thought it was a social obligation.”‘ Powell also “said that Dotsy’s husband was very much excited because the Prince of Wales was wearing a zipper fly, a big thing in the advertising business.” A footnote to this text says that Powell (1897–1965) and Wilson carried on a correspondence in which she was Mrs. Humphry Ward and he “a seedy literary man named Wigmore.” Later, there is a very muddled passage in which, for reasons not quite clear, James Thurber tells Dawn Powell that she does not deserve to be in the men’s room. That may well be what it was all about.
I have now read all of Powell’s novels and one of the plays.* Miss Pett provides bits and pieces from correspondence and diaries, and fragments of book chat. Like most writers Powell wrote of what she knew. Therefore, certain themes recur, while the geography does not vary from that of her actual life. As a child, she and two sisters were shunted about from one Midwestern farm or small town to another by a father who was a salesman on the road (her mother died when she was six). The maternal grandmother made a great impression on her; and predisposed her toward boarding-house life (as a subject not a residence). Indomitable old women, full of rage and good jokes, occur in both novel cycles. At twelve, Powell’s father remarried; and Dawn and sisters went to live on the stepmother’s farm. “My stepmother, one day, burned up all the stories I was writing, a form of discipline I could not endure. With thirty cents earned by picking berries I ran away, ending up in the home of a kind aunt in Shelby, Ohio.” After graduating from the local high school, she worked her way through Lake Erie College for Women in Painesville, Ohio. I once gave a commencement address there and was struck by how red-brick New England Victorian the buildings were. I also found out all that I could about their famous alumna. I collected some good stories to tell her. But by the time I got back to New York she was dead.
Powell set out to be a playwright. One play ended up as a movie while another was done by the Group Theater in 1933, Big Night. But it was the First World War not the theater that got Powell out of Ohio and to New York in 1918, as a member of the Red Cross: the war ended before her uniform arrived. Powell wrote publicity. Married. Wrote advertising copy (at the time Goushé or Gousha was an account executive with an advertising agency). Failure in the theater and need for money at home led her to novel writing and the total security of that five-hundred-dollar advance each of us relied on for so many years. Powell’s first novel, Whither, was published in 1925. In 1928 Powell published She Walks in Beauty, which she always maintained, mysteriously, was really her first novel. For one thing, the Ohio heroine of Whither is already in New York City, like Powell herself, working as a syndicated writer who must turn out 30,000 words a week in order to live (in Powell’s case to pay for her child’s treatments). In a sense, this New York novel was premature; with her second book, Powell turns back to her origins in the Great Western Reserve, where New Englanders had re-created New England in Ohio; and the tone is dour Yankee, with a most un-Yankeeish wit.
The Ohio cycle begins with She Walks in Beauty, which is dedicated to her husband Joe. The story is set in Powell’s youth before the First War. The book was written in 1927. Popular writers of the day: Thornton Wilder had published The Bridge of San Luis Rey in the same year as Powell’s first but really second novel. Louis Bromfield received the Pulitzer Prize for Early Autumn (a favorite Bromfield phrase, “candy pink and poison green,” occasionally surfaces in Powell) while Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop was also published in 1927. The year 1925, of course, had been the most remarkable in our literary history. After satirizing life in the Midwest, Sinclair Lewis brought his hero Arrow-smith to New York City, a pattern Powell was to appropriate in her Ohio cycle. Also in that miraculous year alongside, as it were, Whither: Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It is interesting that Dreiser, Lewis, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and the popular Bromfield were all, like Powell, Midwesterners with a dream of some other great good place, preferably Paris but Long Island Sound and social climbing would do.
Powell briskly shows us the town of Birchfield. Dorrie is the dreamy plain bright sister (always two contrasting sisters in these early novels); she stands in for Powell. Linda is the vain chilly one. Aunt Jule keeps a boarding house. The Powell old lady makes her debut: “She pinned her muslin gown at the throat, dropped her teeth with a cheerful little click in the glass of water on the table, and turned out the gas.” The “cheerful” launches us on the Powell style. The story is negligible: who’s going to make it out of the sticks first. In the boarding house there is an old man who reads Greek; his son has already made it to the big city where he is writing a trilogy. Powell doesn’t quite see the fun of this yet. But Dorrie falls for the young man, Dorrie “with that absurd infantile tilt to her nose” (Dawn to a T). Also Dorrie’s tact is very like her creator’s. A theatrical couple of a certain age are at the boarding house. The actress, Laura, tries on a hat. “‘It will look wonderful on Linda,’ Dorrie vouchsafed pleasantly. ‘It’s too young for you, Aunt Laura.”‘ The adverb “pleasantly” helps make the joke, a point of contention between no-adverbs Graham Greene and myself. I look to the adverb for surprise. Greene thinks that the verb should do all the work.
Dorrie observes her fellow townspeople—nicely? “He had been such a shy little boy. But the shyness had settled into surliness, and the dreaminess was sheer stupidity. Phil Lancer was growing up to be a good Birchfield citizen.” Points of view shift wildly in Powell’s early books. We are in Linda’s mind, as she is about to allow a yokel to marry her. “Later on, Linda thought, after they were married, she could tell him she didn’t like to be kissed.” The book ends with Dorrie still dreaming that the trilogist will come and take her off to New York.
In 1929 came The Bride’s House. One suspects that Powell’s own wit was the result of being obliged for so long to sing for her supper in so many strange surroundings: “Lotta’s children arrived,…three gray, horrid-looking little creatures and their names were Lois and Vera and Custer…. ‘We’ve come to stay!’ they shouted…. ‘We’ve come to stay on the farm with Uncle Stephen and Aunt Cecily. Aren’t you glad?”‘ No one is, alas. But these children are well-armored egotists. “‘She tells lies,’ Lois hissed in George’s ear. ‘I’m the pretty one and she’s the bright one. She told the conductor we lived in the White House. She’s a very bad girl and mother and I can’t do a thing with her…. Everything she says is a lie, Cousin Sophie, except when it hurts your feelings then it’s true.”‘ A child after absolutely no one’s heart.
Unfortunately, Powell loses interest in the children; instead we are told the story of Sophie’s love for two men. The grandmother character makes a dutiful appearance, and the Powell stock-company go rather mechanically through their paces. Powell wants to say something original about love but cannot get the focus right: “A woman needed two lovers, she finally decides, one to comfort her for the torment the other caused her.” This is to be a recurring theme throughout Powell’s work and, presumably, life: Coby versus Joe? or was it Coby and Joe?
Dance Night (1930) is the grittiest, most proletarian of the novels. There are no artists or would-be artists in Lamptown. Instead there is a railroad junction, a factory, the Bon Ton Hat Shop, where the protagonists, a mother and son, live close to Bill Delaney’s Saloon and Billiard Parlor. Like the country the town has undergone the glorious 1920s boom; now Depression has begun to hit. Powell charts the fortunes of the mother–milliner, Elsinore Abbott, and her adolescent son, Morry. Elsinore’s husband is a traveling salesman; and affects jealousy of his wife, who has made a go of her shop: but given up on her life.
Morry gets caught up in the local real-estate boom. He also gets involved with a waif, Jen, from an orphanage, who has been adopted by the saloonkeeper as a sort of indentured slave. Jen dreams of liberating her younger sister, Lil, from the home where their mother had deposited them. Jen is not much of an optimist: “People last such a little while with me. There’s no way to keep them, I guess, that’s why I’ve got to go back for Lil because I know how terrible it is to be left always—never see people again.” It took Powell a long time to work all this out of her system. Happily, farce intrudes. A young swain in a romantic moment “slid his hand along her arm biceps and pressed a knuckle in her arm-pit. ‘That’s the vein to tap when you embalm people,’ he said, for he was going to be an undertaker.”
The highest work for a Lamptown girl is telephone operator, then waitress, then factory-hand. Powell has a Balzacian precision about these things; and she remembers to put the price-tag on everything. Money is always a character in her novels, as it was in Balzac’s. In fact, Powell makes several references to him in her early books as well as to his Eugénie Grandet.
Morry grows up and his mother hardly notices him: “She had moved over for Morry as you would move over for someone on a street car, certain that the intimacy was only for a few minutes, but now it was eighteen years and she thought, why Morry was hers, hers more than anything else in the world was.” This revelation shatters no earth for her or for him; and one can see how distressing such realism must have been—as it still is—for American Worshipers of the Family, Love, too.
Morry gets involved with a builder who indulges him in his dreams to create handsome houses for a public that only wants small look-alike boxes jammed together. Meanwhile, he loves Jen’s sister Lil while Jen loves him: a usual state of affairs. The only bit of drama, indeed melodrama, is the return of Morry’s father; there is a drunken fight between father and son; then a row between father and Elsinore, whom he accuses, wrongly, of philandering. Finally, “wearing down her barriers” she reaches for a pistol: “This was one way to shut out words…. She raised the gun, closed her eyes and fired.” Although everyone knows that she killed her husband, the town chooses to believe it was suicide, and life goes on. So does Morry, who now realizes that he must go away: “There’d be no place that trains went that he wouldn’t go.”
In 1932, Powell published The Tenth Moon. This is a somewhat Catheresque novel composed with a fuguelike series of short themes (the influence of her ex–music critic husband?). Connie Benjamin is a village Bovary, married to a cobbler, with two daughters; she once dreamed of being a singer. Connie lives now without friends or indeed a life of any kind in a family that has not the art of communication with one another. Connie daydreams through life while her daughters fret (“They went to bed at ten but whispered until twelve, remembering through all their confidences to tell each other nothing for they were sisters”). The husband works in amiable silence. Finally, Connie decides to have a social life. She invites to supper her daughter’s English teacher; she also invites the music teacher, Blaine Decker, an exquisite bachelor, as adrift as Connie in dreams of a career in music that might have been.
Powell now introduces one of her major themes: the failed artist who, with luck, might have been—what? In dreams, these characters are always on stage, in life, they are always in the audience. But Blaine has actually been to Paris with his friend, a glamorous one-shot novelist, Starr Donnell (Glenway Westcott?). Blaine and Connie complement and compliment each other. Connie realizes that she has been “utterly, completely, hideously, unhappy” for fifteen years of marriage. Yet each pretends there are compensations to village life and poverty. ” ‘Isn’t it better, I’ve often thought,’ she said, ‘for me to be here keeping up with my interests in music, keeping my ideals, than to have failed as an opera singer and been trapped into cheap musical comedy work?”‘ To hear them tell it, they are as one in the contentment of failure.
But Blaine still hears his mother’s voice from offstage, a Powellesque killer: “I sometimes wonder, Blaine, if I didn’t emphasize the artistic too much in your childhood [shades of W.C. Fields’s snarl at Grady Sutton, “The trouble with you is you’ve got too much of the tom-boy in you”], encouraging you and perhaps forcing you beyond your real capacity in music. It was only because you did so poorly in school, dear….” Powell always knows just how much salt a wound requires.
Although the dreamers “talked of music until the careers they once planned were the careers they actually had but given up for the simple joys of living,” knowing “success would have destroyed us,” Connie goes too far. First, she tries indeed to sing and, for an instant, captures whatever it was she thought that she had: and promptly hemorrhages—tuberculosis. Second, she confides to Blaine that she lost a career, home, virginity to Tony the Daredevil, a circus acrobat, who abandoned her in Atlantic City where the kindly cobbler met and married her. He needed a wife; she could not go home. Blaine is made furious by the truth.
Then daughter Helen runs off with a boy, and the dying Connie pursues her. She finds that Helen has not only managed to get herself a job with a theatrical stock company but she is about to drop the boy; and Connie “knew almost for a certainty that Helen would climb the heights she herself had only glimpsed.” Connie goes home to die, and Powell shifts to the dying woman’s point of view:
When Dr. Arnold’s face flashed on the mirror she thought, “This must be the way one dies. People collect on a mirror like dust and something rushes through your mind emptying all the drawers and shelves to see if you’re leaving anything behind.”…What a pity, she thought, no one will ever know these are my last thoughts—that Dr. Arnold’s mouth was so small.
At the end Connie is spared nothing, including the knowledge that her husband never believed that she came of a good family and studied music and only fell once from grace with an acrobat. Blaine goes off to Paris as a tour guide.
With The Story of a Country Boy (1934) she ends the Ohio cycle. This is the most invented of the novels. There is no pretty sister, no plain sister, no would-be artist, no flight from village to city. Instead Powell tells the story of a conventional young man, a country boy, who becomes a great success in business; then he fails and goes home to the country, no wiser than before. Ironically, Powell was doing the exact reverse in her own life, putting down deep lifelong roots in that village called Greenwich, far from her own origins. In a sense, this book is a goodbye to all that.
Again, one gets the boom and bust of the Twenties and early Thirties. Chris Bennett is the All-American boy who makes good. He is entirely self-confident and sublimely unaware of any limitations. Yet, in due course, he falls, largely because he lacks imagination. There is a good deal of Warren Harding, Ohio’s favorite son, in his makeup. He is more striking-appearance than reality. Also, Powell was becoming more and more fascinated by the element of chance in life, as demonstrated by Harding’s incredible election (those were simple times) to the presidency. “Chris could not remember ever being unsure of himself except in little details of social life where his defects were a source of pride rather than chagrin.” He also wonders “if pure luck had brought him his success.” He is right to wonder: it has. When he finally looks down from the heights he falls. No fatal flaw—just vertigo.
A splendid new character has joined the stock-company, a former US senator who sees in Chris the sort of handsome mediocrity that, properly exploited, could be presidential. John J. Habbiman’s drunken soliloquies are glorious:
“Tell them I died for Graustark,” said the Senator in a faraway voice. He somberly cracked peanuts and ate them, casting the shells lightly aside with infinite grace. “What wondrous life is this I lead. Ripe apples drop about my head.”
Powell has also developed an essayistic technique to frame her scenes. A chapter will begin with a diversion:
In the utter stillness before dawn a rat carpentered the rafters, a nest of field mice seduced by unknown applause into coloratura ambitions, squeaked and squealed with amateur intensity…. Here, at daybreak, a host of blackbirds were now meeting to decide upon a sun, and also to blackball from membership in the committee a red-winged blackbird.
Unfortunately, her main character is too schematic to interest her or the reader. In any case, except for one final experiment, she has got Ohio out of her system; she has also begun to write more carefully, and the essays make nice point counter-point to the theatricality of her scene-writing.
The theater is indeed the place for her first New York invention, Jig Saw (1934), a comedy. The gags are generally very good but the plotting is a bit frantic. Claire is a charming lady, whose eighteen-year-old daughter, Julie, comes to stay with her in a Manhattan flat. Claire has a lover; and a best woman friend, to make the sharper jokes. Julie “is a very well brought up young lady—easy to see she has not been exposed to home life.” Again it takes two to make a mate: “It takes two women to make your marriage a success.” To which Claire’s lover, Del, responds, “Have it your way—then Claire and I have made a success of my marriage to Margaret.”
A young man, Nathan, enters the story. Both mother and daughter want him. Julie proves to be more ruthless than Claire. Julie moves in on Nathan; and announces their coming marriage to the press. He is appalled; he prefers her mother. But Julie is steel: “I can make something of you, Nate. Something marvelous.” When he tries to talk her out of marriage, she declares, “I expect to go through life making sacrifices for you, dear, giving up my career for you.” When he points out that she has never had a career, she rises to even greater heights: “I know. That’s what makes it all the more of a sacrifice. I’ve never had a career. I never will have. Because I love you so much.” Nate is trapped. Claire wonders if she should now marry Del but he advises against it: “You’re the triangular type….” With a bit of the sort of luck that so fascinated Powell by its absence in most lives, she might have had a successful commercial career in the theater. But that luck never came her way in life, as opposed to imagination. Finally, Powell’s bad luck on Broadway was to be our literature’s gain.
The New York cycle begins (1936) with Turn, Magic Wheel (dedicated to Dwight Fiske, a sub-Coward nightclub performer for whom Powell wrote special material). Powell now writes about a writer, always an edgy business. Dennis Orphen is a male surrogate for Powell herself. He is involved with two women, of course. He is also on the scene for good: he reappears in almost all her books, and it is he who writes finis to The Golden Spur, some twenty years later, as the Lafayette Hotel is being torn down and he realizes that his world has gone for good. But in 1936 Dennis is eager; on the make; fascinated by others: “his urgent need to know what they were knowing, see, hear, feel what they were sensing, for a brief moment to be them.” He is consumed by a curiosity about others which time has a pleasant way of entirely sating.
Corinne is the profane love, a married woman; Effie is the sacred love, the abandoned wife of a famous writer called Andrew Callingham, Hemingway’s first appearance in Powell’s work. Effie is a keeper of the flame; she pretends that Andrew will come back: “Why must she be noble, frail shoulders squared to defeat, gaily confessing that life was difficult but that was the way things were?” Dennis publishes a roman à clef whose key unlocks the Callingham/Hemingway story and he worries that Effie may feel herself betrayed because Dennis completely dispels her illusion that the great man will return to her. As Dennis makes his New York rounds, the Brevoort Cafe, Longchamps, Luchows, he encounters the ubiquitous man about town, Okie, who will reappear in the New York novels, a part of their Balzacian detail. Okie edits an entertainment guide magazine; writes a column; knows everyone and brings everyone together. A party is going on at all hours in different parts of the town and Powell’s characters are always on the move, and the lines of their extramarital affairs cross and recross. The essays now grow thoughtful and there are inner soliloquies:
Walter missed Bee now but sometimes he thought it was more fun talking to Corinne about how he loved Bee than really being with Bee, for Bee never seemed to want to be alone with him, she was always asking everyone else to join them. In fact the affair from her point of view was just loads of fun and that was all. She never cried or talked about divorce or any of the normal things, she just had a fine time as if it wasn’t serious at all.
Powell is much concerned with how people probably ought to behave but somehow never do. The drinking is copious: “Corinne went into the ladies room and made up again. It was always fun making up after a few pernods because they made your face freeze so it was like painting a statue.” Of course “Walter was as mad as could be, watching the cunning little figure in the leopard coat and green beret patter out of the room.” Whenever “cunning” or “gaily” or “tinkling” is used Powell is stalking dinner, with the precision of a sabre-toothed tiger. She also notes those “long patient talks, the patient civilized talks that, if one knew it, are the end of love.”
There are amusing incidents rather than a plot of the sort that popular novels required in those days: Effie is hurt by Orphen’s portrayal of her marriage in his book; Corinne vacillates between husband and lover; the current Mrs. Callingham goes into the hospital to die of cancer. There are publishers who live in awe of book reviewers with names like Gannett, Hansen, Paterson. One young publisher “was so brilliant that he could tell in advance that in the years 1934–35 and -36 a book would be called exquisitely well-written if it began: ‘The boxcar swung out of the yards. Pip rolled over in the straw. He scratched himself where the straw itched him.”‘ Finally, the book’s real protagonist is the city:
In the quiet of three o’clock the Forties looked dingy, deserted, incredibly nineteenth century with the dim lamps in dreary doorways; in these midnight hours the streets were possessed by their ancient parasites, low tumble-down frame rooming houses with cheap little shops, though by day such remnants of another decade retreated obscurely between flamboyant hotels.
That city is now well and truly gone.
“Fleetingly, Effie thought of a new system of obituaries in which the lives recorded were criticized, mistaken steps pointed out, structure condemned, better paths suggested.” This is the essence of Dawn Powell: the fantastic flight from the mundane that can then lead to a thousand conversational variations; and the best of her prose is like the best conversation where no escalier ever muffles wit. As a result, she is at her best with The Party; but then most novels of this epoch were assembled around The Party where the characters proceed to interact and the unsayable gets said. Powell has a continuing hostess who is a variation on Peggy Guggenheim, collecting artists for gallery and bed. There is also a minor hostess, interested only in celebrities and meaningful conversation: she quizzes Dennis. “‘Now let’s talk,’ she commanded playfully [Powell’s adverbs are often anesthetic preparatory for surgery]. ‘We’ve never really had a nice talk, have we, Dennis? Tell me how you came to write? I suppose you had to make money so you just started writing, didn’t you?”‘ Callingham himself comes to The Party. Powell’s affection for the real Hemingway did not entirely obscure his defects, particularly as viewed by an ex-wife, Effie, who discovers to her relief, “There was no Andy left, he had been wiped out by Callingham the Success as so many men before him had been wiped out by the thing they represented.” Effie frees herself from him and settles back into contented triangularity with Dennis and Corinne. Cake had; ingested, too.
In 1938, with The Happy Island, the Powell novel grows more crowded and The Party is bigger and wilder. This time the rustic who arrives in the city is not a young woman but a young man. Powell is often more at home with crude masculine protagonists, suspecting, perhaps, that her kind of tough realism might cause resentment among those who think of women as the fair sex.
A would-be playwright, Jeff Abbott (related to Morry?), arrives on the bus from Silver City; a manager has accepted his play with the ominous telegram, CASTING COMPLETE THIRD ACT NEEDS REWRITING [like that of Jig Saw] COME IMMEDIATELY. Jeff has two friends in the city. One is Prudence Bly, a successful nightclub singer; the other is Dol, a gentleman party-giver and fancier of young men. At the book’s end, Dol gives great offense by dying, seated in a chair, at his own party. How like him! guests mutter.
Prudence is the most carefully examined of Powell’s women. She is successful; she drinks too much; she is seldom involved with fewer than two men. But it is the relationships between women that make Powell’s novels so funny and original. Jean Nelson, a beautiful dummy, is Prudence’s best friend; each needs the other to dislike. At the novel’s beginning, Jean has acquired Prudence’s lover Steve. The two girls meet for a serious drunken chat over lunch. “You aren’t jealous of me, are you, Prudence?” “Jealous? Jealous? Good God, Jean, you must think this is the Middle Ages!” Prudence then broods to herself:
Why do I lunch with women anyway?…We always end up snivelling over men and life and we always tell something that makes us afraid of each other for weeks to come…. Women take too much out of you, they drink too much and too earnestly. They drink the way they used to do china painting, and crewel work and wood burning.
In the restaurant things grow blurred: ” ‘You’re so good to everyone,’ sighed Jean. ‘You really are.’ Nothing could have enraged Prudence more or been more untrue.” Finally, Jean goes: “Prudence looked meditatively after Jean as she wove her way earnestly through tables and knees. The girl did look like a goddess but the trouble was she walked like one, too, as if her legs had been too long wound in a flag.”
Prudence’s forebears include, yet again, the eccentric grandmother. This one is rich, and “Prudence was always glad her grandmother had been neither kind nor affectionate.” The escape from Silver City had been easy. The grandmother was indifferent to everyone, including “her surly young Swedish chauffeur.” A great traveler, Mrs. Bly “always wanted to buy one dinner with two plates, as if he were a Pekinese, and, more alarming still, to take one room in the hotels where they stayed…. After all, she explained, she always slept with her clothes on so there was nothing indecent in it.” In addition, Mrs. Bly is a sincere liar, who believes that she was on the Titanic when it was sunk; and was courted by the czar.
Jeff Abbott and Prudence meet. They have an affair. Jeff is sublimely humorless, which intrigues Prudence. He is also a man of destiny, doomed to greatness in the theater. “‘I never yet found anything to laugh at in this world,’ said Jeff. ‘You never heard of a great man with a sense of humor, did you? Humor’s an anesthetic, that’s all, laughing gas while your guts are jerked out.”‘ Since they are not made for each other, marriage is a real possibility. Prudence is growing unsure of herself:
She could not find the place where the little girl from Ohio, the ambitious, industrious little village girl, merged into the Evening Journal Prudence Bly, The Town and Country Bly. There were queer moments between personalities, moments such as the hermit crab must have scuttling from one stolen shell to the next one…. Prudence Bly was not so much a person as a conspiracy.
Then, Powell, in a quick scuttle, briefly inhabits her own shell:
Prudence slew with a neat epithet, crippled with a true word, then, seeing the devastation about her and her enemies growing, grew frightened of revenges, backed desperately, and eventually found the white flag of Sentimentality as her salvation. For every ruinous mot she had a tear for motherhood.
The failure of Jeff’s powerful play does not disturb him; and Prudence is somewhat awed since worldly success is the only thing that makes the island happy. But “he belongs to the baffling group of confident writers who need no applause. For them a success is not a surprise but cause for wonder that it is less than international…. A failure proves that a man is too good for his times.” When he says he wants to buy a farm in the Midwest and settle down and write, Prudence is astonished. When he does exactly that, she goes with him. Integrity at last. No more glamour. No more happy island. Only fields, a man, a woman. In no time at all, she is climbing the walls; and heading back to New York where she belongs. Since Jean has let go of Steve, he receives her amiably (but then hardly anyone has noticed her departure). The book ends with: “Prudence’s looks, [Steve] reflected with some surprise, were quite gone. She really looked as hard as nails, but then so did most women eventually.” That excellent worldly novelist Thackeray never made it to so high a ground.
Angels on Toast (1940); war has begun to darken the skyline. But the turning wheel’s magic is undiminished for Ebie, a commercial artist, whose mother is in the great line of Powell eccentrics. Ebie lives with another working woman, Honey, who “was a virgin (at least you couldn’t prove she wasn’t), and was as proud as punch of it. You would have thought that it was something that had been in the family for generations.” But Ebie and Honey need each other to talk at, and in a tavern
where O Henry used to go…they’d sit in the dark smoked-wood booth drinking old-fashioneds and telling each other things they certainly wished later they had never told and bragging about their families, sometimes making them hot-stuff socially back home, the next time making them romantically on the wrong side of the tracks. The family must have been on wheels back in the Middle West, whizzing back and forth across tracks at a mere word from the New York daughters.
Brooding over the novel is the downtown Hotel Ellery. For seventeen dollars a week Ebie’s mother, Mrs. Vane, lives in contented genteel squalor.
BAR and GRILL: it was the tavern entrance to a somewhat medieval looking hotel, whose time-and-soot-blackened facade was frittered with fire-escapes,…its dark oak-wain-scotting rising high to meet grimy black walls, its ship windows covered with heavy pumpkin chintz…. Once in you were in for no mere moment…. The elderly lady residents of the hotel were without too much obvious haste taking their places in the grill-room, nodding and smiling to the waitresses, carrying their knitting and a slender volume of some English bard, anything to prop against their first Manhattan…as they sipped their drinks and dipped into literature. It was sip and dip, sip and dip until cocktail time was proclaimed by the arrival of the little cocktail sausage wagon.
In its remoteness, this world before television could just as easily be that of St. Ronan’s Well.
It is also satisfying that in these New York novels the city that was plays so pervasive a role. This sort of hotel, meticulously described, evokes lost time in a way that the novel’s bumptious contemporary, early talking movies, don’t.
Another curious thing about these small, venerable, respectable hotels, there seemed no appeal here to the average newcomer. BAR and GRILL, for instance, appealed to seemingly genteel widows and spinsters of small incomes…. Then there were those tired flashes-in-the-pan, the one-shot celebrities, and, on the other hand, there was a gay younger group whose loyalty to the BAR and GRILL was based on the cheapness of its martinis. Over their simple dollar lunches (four martinis and a sandwich) this livelier set snickered at the older residents.
Ebie wants to take her mother away from all this so that they can live together in Connecticut. Mrs. Vane would rather die. She prefers to lecture the bar on poetry. There is also a plot: two men in business, with wives. One has an affair with Ebie. There is a boom in real estate; then a bust. By now, Powell has mastered her own method. The essay-beginnings to chapters work smartly:
In the dead of night wives talked to their husbands, in the dark they talked and talked while the clock on the bureau ticked sleep away, and the last street cars clanged off on distant streets to remoter suburbs, where in new houses bursting with mortgages and the latest conveniences, wives talked in the dark, and talked and talked.
The prose is now less easygoing; and there is a conscious tightening of the language although, to the end, Powell thought one thing was different than another while always proving not her mettle but metal.
Powell is generally happiest in the BAR and GRILL or at the Lafayette or Brevoort. But in A Time to be Born (1942) she takes a sudden social leap, and lands atop the town’s social Rockies. Class is the most difficult subject for American writers to deal with as it is the most difficult for the English to avoid. There are many reasons. First, since the Depression, the owners of the Great Republic prefer not to be known to the public at large. Celebrities, of the sort that delight Powell, fill the newspapers while the great personages are seldom, if ever, mentioned; they are also rarely to be seen in those places where public and celebrities go to mingle. “Where,” I asked the oldest of my waiter-acquaintances at the Plaza (we’ve known each other forty years), “have the nobles gone?” He looked sad. “I’m told they have their own islands now. Things,” he was vague, “like that.”
As I read my way through Powell I noted how few names she actually does drop. There is a single reference to the late Helen Astor, which comes as a mild shock. Otherwise the references are no more arcane than Rockefeller equals money (but then John D. had hired the first press agent). In a sense, Midwesterners were the least class-conscious of Americans during the first half of the twentieth century and those who came from the small towns (Hemingway, Dreiser, Powell herself) ignore those drawing rooms where Henry James was at home amongst pure essences, whose source of wealth is never known but whose knowledge of what others know is all that matters. Powell, agreeably, knows exactly how much money everyone makes (not enough) and what everything costs (too much). As for value, she does her best with love, but suspects the times are permanently inflationary for that overhyped commodity. Powell never gets to Newport, Rhode Island, in her books but she manages Cape Cod nicely. She inclines to the boozy meritocracy of theater and publishing and the art world both commercial and whatever it is that 57th Street was and is.
But in A Time to be Born, she takes on the highest level of the meritocracy (the almost-nobles) in the form of a powerful publisher and his high-powered wife, based, rather casually, on Mr. and Mrs. Henry Luce. At last Powell will have a fling at those seriously important people Diana Trilling felt that she was not up to writing about. But since one person is pretty much like another, all are as one in art, which alone makes the difference. Humble Ebie is neither more nor less meaningful than famous Amanda. It’s what’s made of them in art. Powell does have a good deal of fun with Julian and Amanda Evans, and the self-important grandeur of their lives. But Powell has no real interest in power or, more to this particular point, in those whose lives are devoted to power over others. Powell is with the victims. The result is that the marginal characters work rather better than the principals. One never quite believes that Julian owns and operates sixteen newspapers. One does believe Vicki Haven, who comes from the same Ohio town as Amanda, authoress of a Forever Amber best seller that has been written for her by the best pen-persons and scholar-squirrels that Julian’s money can buy. Ken Saunders, a reasonably failed hack, gets Powell’s full attention (he is a friend of Dennis Orphen who makes an obligatory appearance or two as does the great novelist, Andrew Callingham, still hugely at large).
Powell sets the A Time (Magazine?) to be Born in that time not to be born, the rising war in the West:
This was a time when the true signs of war were the lavish plumage of the women; Fifth Avenue dress shops and the finer restaurants were filled with these vanguards of war. Look at the jewels, the rare pelts, the gaudy birds on elaborate hair-dress and know that war was here; already the women had inherited the earth. The ominous smell of gunpowder was matched by a rising cloud of Schiaparelli’s Shocking. The women were once more armed, and their happy voices sang of destruction to come…. This was a time when the artists, the intellectuals, sat in cafés and in country homes and accused each other over their brandies or their California vintages of traitorous tendencies. This was a time for them to band together in mutual antagonism, a time to bury the professional hatchet, if possible in each other…. On Fifth Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street hundreds waited for a man on a hotel window ledge to jump; hundreds waited with craning necks and thirsty faces as if this single person’s final gesture would solve the riddle of the world. Civilization stood on a ledge, and in the tension of waiting it was a relief to have one little man jump.
I know of no one else who has got so well the essence of that first war-year before we all went away to the best years of no one’s life.
Again the lines of love and power cross and recross as they do in novels and often, too, in life. Since Julian publishes newspapers and magazines and now propaganda for England, much of it written in his wife’s name, there is a Sarrautesque suspicion of language in Powell’s reflections. A publisher remarks, “A fact changes into a lie the instant it hits print.” But he does not stop there. “It’s not print, it’s the word,” he declared. “The Spoken Word, too. The lie forms as soon as the breath of thought hits air. You hear your own words and say—’That’s not what I mean….’ ” Powell is drawing close to the mystery of literature, life’s quirky—quarkish—reflection.
Amanda’s power world does not convince quite as much as the Village life of Vicki and Ken and Dennis Orphen. Earlier readers will be happy to know that cute Corinne “had considered leaving her husband for Dennis Orphen for two or three years, and during her delay” the husband had divorced her “with Corinne still confused by this turn of events…. She wanted a little more time to consider marrying Dennis.” When in doubt, do nothing, is the Powellesque strategy for life. Ken goes back and forth between Amanda and Vicki. For a time Amanda is all-conquering:
She knew exactly what she wanted from life, which was, in a word, everything. She had a genuine distaste for sexual intimacy…but there were so many things to be gained by trading on sex and she thought so little of the process that she itched to use it as currency once again.
This time with the great writer-hunter Callingham. As it is, ironically, she gets knocked up by Ken and falls out with Julian. But she is never not practical: on the subject of writing, she believed that “the tragedy of the Attic poets, Keats, Shelley, Burns was not that they died young but that they were obliged by poverty to do all their own writing.” Amanda’s descendants are still very much with us: sweet lassies still saddened at the thought of those too poor to hire someone who will burn with a bright clear flame, as he writes their books for them.
It is plain that Powell was never entirely pleased with the Ohio cycle. She had a tendency to tell the same story over and over again, trying out new angles, new points of view, even—very occasionally—new characters. Finally, in midwar, she made one last attempt to get Ohio (and herself) right. My Home is Far Away (1944) is lapidary—at least compared to the loose early works. New York has polished her style; the essays glitter convincingly. The rural family is called Willard (Winesburg, Ohio?). A Civil War veteran for a grandfather; missing the odd eye, limb. Two sisters again. Lena the pretty one. Marcia the bright one (Powell again holds up the mirror to her past): “The uncanniness of [Marcia’s] memory was not an endearing trait; invariably guests drew respectfully away from the little freak and warmed all the more to the pretty unaffected normalcy of little Lena.” The book begins when father, mother, daughters leave a contented home. Suddenly, there is a nightmare vision: a man in a balloon floats across a starry sky. Home is now forever faraway.
Too clever by more than half and too much obliged throughout a peripatetic childhood to sing for a supper prepared by tone-deaf strangers, Powell hammered on the comic mask and wore it to the end. But when the dying mother has a horrendous vision of the man in the balloon, the mask blinks—for the last time.
Aunt Lois has a boarding house. The girls work. The old ladies are more than ever devastating. “‘A grandmother doesn’t like children any more than a mother does,’ she declared. ‘Sometimes she’s just too old to get out of tending them, that’s all, but I’m not.”‘ Lena goes first. Then Marcia leaves town, as Powell left town, and catches that train which will go everywhere on earth that is not home. On a foggy pane of glass, she writes, with her finger, Marcia Willard. Dawn Powell.
After the war, Powell returned to the New York cycle for good. She published a book of short stories, Sunday, Monday and Always (1952). There are occasional ill-omened visits back home but no longer does she describe the escape; she has escaped for good. There are some nice comic moments. Edna, a successful actress, comes home to find her rustic family absorbed in radio soap operas. Although she is quite willing to describe her exciting life, the family outmaneuvers her. “‘Well, Edna,’ cackled Aunt Meg, hugging her. ‘I declare I wouldn’t have known you. Well, you can’t live that life and not have it show, they tell me.”‘ The “they tell me” is masterful. Powell’s ear for the cadences of real-life talk only improved with time.
The final New York novels, The Locusts Have No King (1948), The Wicked Pavilion (1954), and The Golden Spur (1962), demonstrate Powell’s ultimate mastery of subject, art, self. Where the last two are near-perfect in execution, The Locusts Have No King (“yet they, all of them, go forth by bands”: Proverbs) shares some of the helter-skelterness of the early books. It is as if before Powell enters her almost-benign Prospero phase, she wants to cut loose once more at The Party.
This time the literary scene of the Forties gets it. The protagonist, Frederick Olliver, is a young man of integrity (a five-hundred-dollar-advance man) and literary distinction and not much will. He has been having an affair with Lyle, part of a married team of theater writers: Lyle is all taste and charm. But Frederick Olliver meets Dodo in a bar. Dodo is deeply, unrepentantly vulgar and self-absorbed. She says, “Pooh on you,” and talks baby-talk, always a sign for Powell of Lilithian evil. They meet in one of Powell’s best bars downtown, off Rubberleg Square, as she calls it. The habitués all know one another in that context and, often, no other: parallel lives that are contiguous only in the confines of a cozy bar.
Frederick takes Dodo to a publisher’s party (our old friend Dennis is there) and Dodo manages to appall. Lyle is hurt. Everyone is slightly fraudulent. A publisher who respects Frederick’s integrity offers him the editorship of Haw, a low publication which of course Frederick makes a success of. Lyle writes her husband’s plays. There is a literary man who talks constantly of Jane Austen, whom he may not have read, and teaches at the League for Cultural Foundations (a.k.a. The New School), where “classes bulged with middle-aged students anxious to get an idea of what it would be like to have an idea.” But under the usual bright mendacities of happy island life, certain relationships work themselves out.
The most Powellesque is between two commercial artists, Caroline and Lorna:
Ever since their marriages had exploded Caroline and Lorna had been in each other’s confidence, sharing a bottle of an evening in Lorna’s studio or Caroline’s penthouse. In fact they had been telling each other everything for so many years over their cups that they’d never heard a word each other had said.
In an ecstasy of female bonding, they discuss the lost husbands:
They told each other of their years of fidelity—and each lamented the curse of being a one-man woman. Men always took advantage of their virtue and Caroline agreed with Lorna that, honestly, if it could be done over again, she’d sleep with every man who came along instead of wasting loyalty on one undeserving male. After a few drinks, Caroline finally said she had slept with maybe forty or fifty men but only because she was so desperately unhappy. Lorna said she didn’t blame anyone in Caroline’s domestic situation for doing just that, and many times wished she had not been such a loyal sap about George, but except for a few vacation trips and sometimes being betrayed by alcohol she had really never—well, anyway, she didn’t blame anyone.
Revelations bombard deaf ears. “Frequently they lost interest in dinner once they had descended below the bottle’s label and then a remarkable inspiration would come to open a second bottle and repeat the revelations they had been repeating for years to glazed eyes and deaf ears.” Finally, “Both ladies talked in confidence of their frustrations in the quest for love, but the truth was they had gotten all they wanted of the commodity and had no intention of making the least sacrifice of comfort for a few Cupid feathers.” Powell was a marvelous sharp antidote for the deep warm sincere love novels of that period. Today she is, at the least, a bright counterpoint to our lost-and-found literary ladies.
Powell deals again with the, always to her, mysterious element of luck in people’s careers. When one thinks of her own bad luck, the puzzlement has a certain poignancy. But she can be very funny indeed about the admiration that mediocrity evokes on that happy island where it has never been possible to be too phony. Yet when Frederick, free of his bondage to Dodo, returns to Lyle, the note is elegiac: “In a world of destruction one must hold fast to whatever fragments of love are left, for sometimes a mosaic can be more beautiful than an unbroken pattern.” We all tended to write this sort of thing immediately after Hiroshima, mon assassin.
The Wicked Pavilion (1954) is the Cafe Julien is the Lafayette Hotel of real life. The title is from The Creevey Papers, and refers to the Prince Regent’s Brighton Pavilion, where the glamorous and louche wait upon a mad royal. Dennis Orphen opens and closes the book in his by now familiarly mysterious way. He takes no real part in the plot. He is simply still there, watching the not-so-magic wheel turn as the happy island grows sad. For him, as for Powell, the café is central to his life. Here he writes; sees friends; observes the vanity fair. Powell has now become masterful in her setting of scenes. The essays—preludes, overtures—are both witty and sadly wise. She also got the number to Eisenhower’s America, as she brings together in this penultimate rout all sorts of earlier figures, now grown old: Okie is still a knowing man about town and author of the definitive works on the painter Marius; Andy Callingham is still a world-famous novelist, serene in his uncontagious self-love; and the Peggy Guggenheim figure is back again as Cynthia, an art gallery owner and party-giver. One plot is young love: Rick and Ellenora who met at the Cafe Julien in wartime and never got enough of it or of each other or of the happy island.
A secondary plot gives considerable pleasure even though Powell lifted it from a movie of the day called Holy Matrimony (1943) with Monty Woolley and Gracie Fields, from Arnold Bennett’s novel Buried Alive. The plot that Powell took is an old one: a painter, bored with life or whatever, decides to play dead. The value of his pictures promptly goes so high that he is tempted to keep on painting after “death.” Naturally, sooner or later, he will give himself away: Marius paints a building that had not been built before his “death.” But only two old painter friends have noticed this, and they keep his secret for the excellent reason that one of them is busy turning out “Marius” pictures, too. Marius continues happily as a sacred presence, enjoying in death the success that he never had in life: “Being dead has spoiled me,” he observes. It should be noted that the painting for this novel’s cover was done by Powell’s old friend, Reginald Marsh.
A new variation on the Powell young woman is Jerry, clean-cut, straight-forward, and on the make. But her peculiar wholesomeness does not inspire men to give her presents; yet “the simple truth was that with her increasingly expensive tastes she really could not afford to work…. As for settling for the safety of marriage, that seemed the final defeat, synonymous in Jerry’s mind with asking for the last rites.” An aristocratic lady, Elsie, tries unsuccessfully to launch her. Elsie’s brother, Wharton, and sister-in-law, Nita, are fine comic emblems of respectable marriage. In fact, Wharton is one of Powell’s truly great and original monsters, quite able to hold his own with Pecksniff:
Wharton had such a terrific reputation for efficiency that many friends swore that the reason his nose changed colors before your very eyes was because of an elaborate Rimbaud color code, indicating varied reactions to his surroundings…. Ah, what a stroke of genius it had been for him to have found Nita! How happy he had been on his honeymoon and for years afterward basking in the safety of Nita’s childish innocence where his intellectual shortcomings, sexual coldness and caprices—indeed his basic ignorance—would not be discovered…. He was well aware that many men of his quixotic moods preferred young boys, but he dreaded to expose his inexperience to one of his own sex, and after certain cautious experiments realized that his anemic lusts were canceled by his over-powering fear of gossip…. Against the flattering background of Nita’s delectable purity, he blossomed forth as the all-round He-man, the Husband who knows everything…. He soon taught her that snuggling, hand-holding, and similar affectionate demonstrations were kittenish and vulgar. He had read somewhere, however, that breathing into a woman’s ear or scratching her at the nape of the neck drove her into complete ecstasy…. In due course Nita bore him four daughters, a sort of door prize for each time he attended.
The Party is given by Cynthia now, and it rather resembles Proust’s last roundup: “There are people here who have been dead twenty years,” someone observes, including “the bore that walks like a man.” There is a sense of closing time; people settle for what they can get. “We get sick of our clinging vines, he thought, but the day comes when we suspect that the vines are all that hold our rotting branches together.” Dennis Orphen at the end records in his journal the last moments of The Wicked Pavilion as it falls to the wrecker’s ball:
It must be that the Julien was all that these people really liked about each other for now when they chance across each other in the street they look through each other, unrecognizing, or cross the street quickly with the vague feeling that here was someone identified with unhappy memories—as if the other was responsible for the fall of the Julien.
What had been a stage for more than half a century to a world is gone and “those who had been bound by it fell apart like straws when the baling cord is cut and remembered each other’s name and face as part of a dream that would never come back.”
In 1962, Powell published her last and, perhaps, most appealing novel, The Golden Spur. Again, the protagonist is male. In this case a young man from Silver City, Ohio (again), called Jonathan Jaimison. He has come to the city to find his father. Apparently twenty-six years earlier his mother, Connie, had had a brief fling with a famous man in the Village; pregnant, she came home and married a Mr. Jaimison. The book opens with a vigorous description of Wanamaker’s department store being torn down. Powell is now rather exuberant about the physical destruction of her city (she wrote this last book in her mid-sixties when time was doing the same to her). There is no longer a Dennis Orphen on the scene; presumably, he lies buried beneath whatever glass and cement horror replaced the Lafayette. But there are still a few watering holes from the Twenties, and one of them is The Golden Spur where Connie mingled with the bohemians.
Jonathan stays at the Hotel De Long, which sounds like the Vanderbilt, a star of many of Powell’s narratives. Jonathan, armed with Connie’s cryptic diary, has a number of names that might be helpful. One is that of Claire van Orphen (related to Dennis?), a moderately successful writer, for whom Connie did some typing. Claire now lives embalmed in past time. She vaguely recalls Connie, who had been recommended to her by the one love of her life, Major Wedburn, whose funeral occurs the day Jonathan arrives at the De Long. Claire gives Jonathan possible leads; meanwhile, his presence has rejuvenated her. She proposes to her twin sister, Bea, that they live together; and gets a firm no. The old nostalgia burned down long ago for the worldy Bea. On the other hand, Claire’s career is revived, with the help of a professionally failed writer who gets “eight bucks for fifteen hundred words of new criticism in a little magazine or forty for six hundred words of old criticism in the Sunday book section.” He studies all of Claire’s ladies’ magazine’s short stories of yesteryear; he then reverses the moral angle:
“In the old days the career girl who supported the family was the heroine, and the idle wife was the baddie,” Claire said gleefully. “And now it’s the other way round. In the soap operas, the career girl is the baddie, the wife is the goodie because she’s better for business…. Well, you were right. CBS has bought the two you fixed, and Hollywood is interested.”
Powell herself was writing television plays in the age of Eisenhower and no doubt had made this astonishing discovery on her own.
Jonathan is promptly picked up by two girls at The Golden Spur; he moves in with them. Since he is more domestic than they, he works around the house. He is occasionally put to work in bed until he decides that he doesn’t want to keep on being “a diaphragm-tester.” Among his possible fathers is Alvine Harshawe alias Andrew Callingham alias Ernest Hemingway. Alvine is lonely: “You lost one set of friends with each marriage, another when it dissolved, gaining smaller and smaller batches each time you traded in a wife.” Alvine has no clear memory of Connie; but toys with the idea of having a grown son, as does a famous painter named Hugow. Another candidate is a distinguished lawyer, George Terrence, whose actress daughter, unknown to him, is having an affair with Jonathan. Terrence is very much school of the awful Wharton of The Wicked Pavilion, only Terrence has made the mistake of picking up a young actor in the King Cole Bar of the St. Regis Hotel; the actor is now blithely blackmailing him in a series of letters worthy of his contemporary Pal Joey. Terrence welcomes the idea of a son but Jonathan shies away: he does not want his affair with the daughter to be incestuous.
Finally, Cassie, the Peggy Guggenheim character, makes her appearance, and The Party assembles for the last time. There are nice period touches: girls from Bennington are everywhere. While Cassie herself “was forty-three—well, all right, forty-eight, if you’re going to count every lost weekend—and Hugow’s betrayal had happened at birthday time, when she was frightened enough by the half-century mark reaching out for her before she’d even begun to have her proper quota of love.” Cassie takes a fancy to Jonathan, and hires him to work at her gallery. He has now figured out not only his paternity but his maternity and, best of all, himself. The father was Major Wedburn, who was, of course, exactly like the bore that his mother Connie married. The foster father appears on the scene, and there is recognition of this if not resolution. As for Connie, she had slept with everyone who had asked her because “she wanted to be whatever anybody expected her to be, because she never knew what she was herself.” Jonathan concludes, “That’s the way I am.” At an art gallery, “I have a career of other people’s talents.”
The quest is over. Identity fixed. The Party over, Jonathan joins Hugow in his cab. “He was very glad that Hugow had turned back downtown, perhaps to the Spur, where they could begin all over.” On that blithe note, Powell’s life and life-work end; and the wheel stops; the magic’s gone—except for the novels of Dawn Powell, all of them long since out of print, just as her name has been erased from that perpetually foggy pane, “American Literature.”
November 5, 1987
I have omitted an interesting short novel because it is not part of the New York cycle. Powell made one trip to Europe after the war. Although Paris was no match for the Village, Powell, ever thrifty, uses the city as a background for a young man and woman trapped in A Cage for Lovers (published the year that Dawn roared at me in the Booth Theatre). The girl is a secretary-companion to a monster-lady, and the young man her chauffeur. The writing is austere; there are few characters; the old lady, keeper of the cage, Lesley Patterson, is truly dreadful in her loving kindness. In a rather nice if not perhaps too neat ending, they cage her through her need to dominate. Thus, the weak sometimes prevail. ↩