Saturday, July 18, 2009

Back Street by Fannie Hurst

Anyone who thinks being a mistress is always glamorous should read this book.

Though largely forgotten today, Fannie Hurst was once one of America's top female novelists. Both "Back Street" and "Imitation Of Life" were big best-sellers in their day, immortalized on film more than once by Hollywood. As in the case of "Show Boat," the Edna Ferber novel I reviewed a few months ago, after many years' familiarity with the film versions, this was also a difficult book for me to read. The 1941 version of "Back Street," starring Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer, is one of my all-time favourite films; if I weren't already an insomniac I wouldn't hesitate an instant to stay up till 5:00 a.m. just to watch it if it came on TV at that time. The novel is a much harsher, grimmer story, which Hollywood greatly romanticized, particularly by making the leading man much more likable on-screen than he is in the pages of the book.

The story begins in charming, robust Cincinnati in the happy days of the 1890s. Ray Schmidt, aged 19, is the most stylish girl in town, she has a way with clothes, and the most vibrant, sunny personality, a big-heart and generous nature always ready to help out a friend, and an ear that is always willing to listen. She loves to go out and have a good time, to popular dining spots like Over-The-Rhine, and she thrills to all games of chance whether it be poker or horse-racing. She attracts admirers by the dozen, including many traveling salesmen, many of whom have a disturbing tendency to make indecent proposals which she always rejects. She also has one true, steadfast admirer, Kurt Shendler, who works in a bicycle shop but dreams of the coming day when the automobile shall reign supreme, and never stops loving Ray.

One fateful day while seeing a friend off at the train station, Ray meets Walter Saxel, an ambitious young Jewish man, engaged to the daughter of a rich family with important connections in the banking world. Though Walter is already spoken for, he begins seeing as much of Ray as possible, squiring her about town, taking her out for nice dinners, but his intentions remain ambiguous. He tells Ray he would like her to meet his mother and arranges for them to meet as if by chance by the lion cub cage at the zoo Sunday morning at 11:00. But fate intervenes, and Ray fails to keep the appointment. She will spend the rest of her life wondering if it would have made any difference if she had.

Seven years later, in New York, walking down Wall Street, Walter Saxel and Ray Schmidt meet again. Walter is now a successful banker with a wife and two children. Ray is still single and working in a dress goods shop. Two months later, Ray is living in an apartment provided by Walter; it all just seems to happen naturally, without making any ripples in the water. "I want you to feel about all this as a Frenchwoman would feel about it," Walter tells Ray. "My feelings for you and my feelings for my wife and children are things separate and apart. I can be loyal to both these feelings, because they are so different." And Ray Schmidt, unable to deny him anything, agrees, and slips as easily into the secrecy and shadows of life on the back streets of Walter Saxel's life as if it were a glove custom made to fit her hand. It is the only way she can be a part of his life; she would rather stay in the shadows of Walter Saxel's life than walk in the sun as the wife of someone else, and repeatedly rejects offers from men who would have given her love, respectability, and security.

But it isn't really easy or the idealized romance of stage and screen. Walter has a rather selfish, self-centered personality, his favourite words seem to be "I" and "Me." He wants Ray to be available all the time, he likes to talk over business matters with her, and to have her help him compose and memorize his speeches, he likes to know he can just pick up the phone and she will always be there at the other end. The saddest part of the book, I thought, was to see such a vibrant, outgoing girl, who loved going out and about so much, willingly entomb herself in solitude, afraid to step out of her apartment for fear the phone might ring and she not be there to answer it. All of her spark dies, and she becomes entirely passive, content to spend her life waiting, always waiting, for Walter to call or for the one or two evenings a week they spend together.

Walter is oblivious to Ray's wants and needs, her hopes and dreams, and any discomfort or resentment she feels. And though Ray suffers and struggles, she always suppresses her anger and frustration, and keeps silent. And despite his millions, Walter is alarmingly lacking in generosity where Ray is concerned. "If you had money you might fly away from me," he explains. In truth, Ray has no desire at all for jewels and furs and that sort of luxury, but after giving up her job to please Walter and always be available for him whenever he calls, she struggles to make ends meet on the small allowance of $100 a month that he gives her, much of which is spent on providing the hearty, home-cooked German dishes he adores so. There is a deep reticence between the couple about money; they avoid the subject as if it were the plague. Rather than broach the subject Ray tries to supplement her parsimonious allowance by taking up china painting and selling her handiwork to neighbors, who, one gets the impression, only buy out of pity. There is a porcelain figurine of a fishmonger with a basket on his back, and every month Walter silently, stealthily, puts Ray's allowance into the little man's basket, sparing them both the embarrassment of money changing hands.

This reader must admit she found it rather difficult to understand Ray's self-sacrificing, all-encompassing love for Walter, I never felt his charm or allure come off the pages, but then we don't always understand why one person loves another, otherwise we would never ask "What does she/he see in him/her?" However, as both a reader and an author myself, I feel a better, more obvious, depiction of whatever it was about this man that made Ray Love's willing prisoner until her dying day, would have rendered both characters and their situation more sympathetic and believable. In the film, for instance, Charles Boyer as Walter Saxel is able to infuse the character with charm and personality that allow the viewers to understand, but here the novel falls flat.

"Back Street" is a long novel that does not end at all happily. Skip to the next paragraph please if you do not want spoilers. Despite his promises, Walter fails to make suitable provisions for Ray in his will, he doesn't want anything indelicate to tar his memory and reputation after he is gone. So twenty-three years later when Walter Saxel dies in his wife's arms of acute indigestion Ray Schmidt is left destitute. She spends the rest of her life sliding further and further into poverty, her looks and radiant personality tarnished by time and an almost claustrophobic existence at Walter's beck and call, unable to find work, pawning her possessions until she has nothing left, and relying on her meager winnings at casinos and racetracks to keep body and soul together until she eventually starves to death.

In conclusion, for the grim realities of a kept woman's life, I don't think you can beat "Back Street," but if you want even a smidgen of believable romance to explain the characters' motivations look elsewhere, but, by all means, see the movie if you can next time it comes on Turner Classic Movies.

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