Jaffe's 'Best of Everything' Stands the Test of Time
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Four decades before the heroines of "Sex and the City" were sipping cosmos and longing for love in the Big Apple, there were the girls of "The Best of Everything." This hit novel from 1958 told the often steamy stories of a group of young working women in New York City.
(Soundbite of "The Best of Everything")
Ms. HOPE LANGE: I won't be your mistress.
Unidentified Man: Caroline, this kind of thing happens all the time.
Ms. LANGE: Oh, not to me, it doesn't. I'm too square for you, Eddie. There are other girls, oh, there are dozens of girls all over this city just waiting for you.
MONTAGNE: This is from the movie made from the book in 1959. Joan Crawford played the demon boss that reminded the audience of the perils of pursuing a career.
(Soundbite of "The Best of Everything")
Ms. JOAN CRAWFORD: Oh, Caroline, you can order me some coffee, black, no sugar.
Ms. LANGE: Yes, Miss Farrow. Now how do I...
Ms. CRAWFORD: Dial the operator, ask for the coffee shop. No, no, no, no, at your desk outside. Before you do that, would you straighten out the files? The T's have gotten all mixed up with the M's somehow. You can do that later. Open the mail first. It's in the box under your nose, dear. Caroline, I haven't finished my instructions yet.
MONTAGNE: Now there's a DVD of "The Best of Everything." The book has been reissued, and author Rona Jaffe is diving back into the world that launched her writing career when she was in her 20s. She joined us in our New York bureau to talk about the book, which begins on a winter morning in 1952 when a 20-year-old girl named Caroline Bender stepped out of Grand Central terminal. Rona Jaffe reads from the novel's first page.
Ms. RONA JAFFE (Author, "The Best of Everything"): (Reading) She was a more than pretty girl, with dark hair and light eyes, and a face with a good deal of softness and intelligence in it. She was wearing a gray tweed suit, which had been her dress-up suit in college, and was carrying a small attache case which contained a wallet with $5 in it, a book of commuter tickets, some makeup and three magazines entitled respectively, The Cross, My Secret Life and America's Woman.
MONTAGNE: Headed for her new life.
Ms. JAFFE: She was headed for work, yes.
Ms. JAFFE: She was headed for her first day. She got a job as a secretary in a typing pool because everybody went to typing school to get the only job we ever got. And she went to this big publishing company called Fabian Publications. It was big and modern and nice, unlike where I worked, which was a rat hole. And...
MONTAGNE: And the job that she's headed for is the publisher of the three magazines she's carrying.
Ms. JAFFE: Yes. That's why she has them, because she wanted to see what they were doing at that company. See, already, see, she's doing her homework, and she's smart.
MONTAGNE: Your main character, Caroline, went to Radcliffe; you went to Radcliffe. She's very young when she comes into the novel. You were quite young when you wrote this novel. How much is "The Best of Everything" your own experience?
Ms. JAFFE: Well, I mean, Caroline herself is quite feisty, which I was, and she finds that she really likes publishing and wants to get ahead, because she had planned to be married but her fiance dumped her so she had to get a job. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and I knew I wanted to go into publishing to learn how to get published. I was a little bit more of an iconoclast. I didn't, like, want to fit in and do what I was supposed to. Caroline was more conventional than I was, but she learned a different kind of life and got carried into that.
MONTAGNE: And then in this mix, I mean, there's really three young women at the center of this and all very different. April Morrison--April.
Ms. JAFFE: April was the innocent that came to New York wide-eyed, looking like Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farm. Wants to be like Caroline, cuts her hair, goes out with really sophisticated guys because she's so pretty, and she's an infant inside. You know, she gets fooled and bad things happen to her, like happen to everybody who doesn't watch out in terms of getting your heart broken, meeting the wrong person and so on.
MONTAGNE: And Gregg Adams, she wants to be an actress.
Ms. JAFFE: She wants to be an actress so she meets the girls because actually she's doing temporary work in the typing pool, you know, to make a living since she's not successful. And she always says that she was a free spirit and she thinks she is, but, you know, her secret is, really, she's just as conventional as the other girls. She really wants a husband and a home, but the problem is that she's really neurotic.
MONTAGNE: Let me just ask you something. Do you buy into the notion that your book, your novel, was, in its way, "Sex and the City" for the '50s?
Ms. JAFFE: Well, I was just telling what was happening and I suppose "Sex and the City" does that, too. I think that the girls in "Sex and the City" have lots more dates and lots more sex than we did. But the fact that this existed at all and that I told about it was considered extremely shocking in the '50s, because what the '50s was was hypocritical and secretive, really. It was on the surface such a happy, lovely time, but it wasn't like that at all. It was what we pretended. And underneath was exactly what's happening today. There were the broken hearts that were looking for love, the lies, the fears, and that is one of the reasons that "The Best of Everything" was such a big success, because I told the truth and people saw themselves reflected in it. And people thought they were alone. These women all thought they were the only one with this kind of life or the only sinner having an affair or whatever. And they realized that this was what was going on and they weren't alone and it made them feel great.
MONTAGNE: Yeah. In fact, I gather that even the women typing the book when it was first going from manuscript to galleys, they even got involved in this book.
Ms. JAFFE: Well, that was when I first knew the book was going to be successful. Here was this huge 717-page manuscript and they obviously had to get it copied. They didn't have the copiers we have today. And so they sent it to a typing service that would do that kind of thing. And because it was such a big book, they divided it up. And so the girls in the typing pool would call me up and ask me what happened next because they'd say, `I'm writing about April, and what's going to happen to her? And what happened to the others?--because I only--so-so-so else has Caroline.' And I thought, `You know, this book is going to strike a chord, because those are my readers.'
MONTAGNE: But it does seem that all of the young women are focused, really, in the end, on love and marriage.
Ms. JAFFE: That's what they wanted. Even now, they want--I mean, you know, I was watching some show this morning about--they had this so-called `hooking up' and the girls, like, say on the blind date, the first date, `I want to get married.' But they want love. They know they could get married within a year if they just married anybody, but they're looking for, you know, the lightning bolt. And because the '50s was so marriage-oriented and women weren't supposed to have careers or care--you just played at a career until you found Mr. Right--it was easier. If you liked somebody, you went after them. You didn't look around for somebody else or somebody better. If you had a crush on a guy, you tried to nail him.
MONTAGNE: Rona Jaffe, thank you for joining us.
Ms. JAFFE: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Rona Jaffe is the author of "The Best of Everything." Joan Crawford's icy Amanda Farrow can be seen clashing with Hope Lange's ambitious Caroline Bender in video clips at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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