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What was the world trying to tell women in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s?
It seems like after sending them to the kitchen, they penalized them even if they got too good at that. Look at what these three books from and about the period have to say.
Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst (novel)
This is a classic “weepie” that has been made into films twice: once in the ‘30’s with Claudette Colbert and again the 50’s with Lana Turner. The 50’s version is more famous, but it is also further from the original book. I remember seeing the Lana Turner version for the first time on TV during “The Morning Movie” when I was sick. I always checked what was on in case it was better than the game shows on the other channels. I had no idea what Imitation of Life was about, but I was hooked as soon as the opening credits filled the screen, and, the glamour of Lana Turner aside, when I found that there was a Black mother with a white daughter who was still somehow Black (I had never heard of any of this), I was hooked.
I never did get the point of the title “Imitation of Life” in the film because it seemed to me that the Lana Turner character got it all…her career, her man, and in the end, both her own daughter, and perversely, her housekeeper’s daughter, who had been wanting Lana Turner’s life the whole time.
When I was in graduate school, I managed to find the original book, by Fannie Hurst, in the University library, and I found that it makes much more sense. The main character, Bea, has a marriage of convenience that turns out to be not so convenient when her husband dies young and leaves her alone with an infant daughter and no means of support. So she joins forces with an African-American woman, Delilah, who needs to support her biracial/very light skinned daughter alone. The two single moms team up, with Delilah caring for the children and Bea finding a way to enter a “man’s world” and take over her husband’s sideline, selling maple syrup. Eventually, the two women’s combined talents and skills result in both of their financial success far beyond basic support of the children but with dire consequences at home.
I suppose the “imitation” alludes to Bea’s struggle with her personal life that she subjugates to the raising of her daughter. Reading about how she managed to provide for her, with no preparation for “the real world” is fascinating enough, but then there is the subplot of Delilah, whose relationship with her daughter is far more tragic, yet Delilah somehow holds on to hers. It’s a story that continues to fascinate me. Lucky I was sick that morning in 1975.
Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (novel)
This is another one that is now probably better known by its films…the first starred Joan Crawford and the second, a beautifully filmed period miniseries, starred Kate Winslet. Crawford won an Oscar for her version, which was altered to become a star vehicle, but both versions are true to the author’s original theme of the evils of helicopter parenting (see, some things never change) and possibly being a better businessperson than one’s husband. In between though, Mildred has to figure out how to survive, and make it, during the depression when her husband kind of collapses under its weight. She gets her start selling pies and fried chicken.
Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Party Empire by Bob Kealing (biography)
I love Tupperware. It all started when I decided to cut down on eating prepared foods and discovered that the most difficult aspect of actually preparing your own, if you’re an American with a small family, is that all the packaging is so large! Only Tupperware keeps things fresh long enough for my family to eat through packages of things without their going bad. I also appreciate the design; each piece is functional in so many ways. Ironic that I feel I need Tupperware for a small family when the company was founded during a time that women were taking care of large families, but good design is good design. A further irony is that the Tupperware company nearly went bankrupt. Brownie Wise came along and saved it by using a new sales method that catered to stay-at-home wives, a method that Tupperware, along with many other brands continue to use in the 21st century.
When I first started this book, I was a bit put off by Kealing’s style, and by that I mean I think he didn’t have enough. I thought maybe the book had been commissioned by the Tupperware company as propaganda. But once I got into the story itself, I realized that material needs this style. It is so fantastical that if it were in a novel, I might find it too over the top. The woman made a fortune by empowering women to sell plastic bowls? She rewards her sales force by inviting them to a Florida fantasyland (just outside Orlando, the home of Disney World no less) where wishes are magically filled? Seriously?
It all happened. Brownie Wise is largely credited with inventing the home party as a sales device, giving women a chance to earn money for themselves in an era when they couldn’t even get credit, and she was the first woman to be featured on the cover of Business Week. But she also offered them fun and excitement, and came to personify the pinnacle of a lavish lifestyle to which her sales force aspired. And she had a major affair with two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.
Even Judith Krantz couldn’t make this stuff up.
I found the contrast between the rather eccentric, scientific Tupper and the gregarious Wise amusing, but what I learned from this biography is that if you are going to stake your money on a farm, it should be your farm. Or company.
Brownie Wise he lost it all. Except her kid, which makes this true story a bit happier than some of the fictional ones told above.