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Rona Jaffe's 'The Best of Everything' still impacts culture 65 years later

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the 1950s, a young publishing professional named Rona Jaffe heard about a book being made into a movie. It was written by a man, and to Jaffe, it missed the mark.

RACHEL SYME: Rona read it and was like, I could do better than this. This doesn't understand my experience at all or the woman's experience. And she writes it in a few months. It just pours out of her.

KELLY: That's Rachel Syme, staff writer at The New Yorker, talking about Jaffe's inspiration for writing "The Best Of Everything." Syme is a longtime fan of that novel and was thrilled to write the new introduction to its 65th-anniversary edition. For years, it's been the book she presses into people's hands when they plan to move to New York City. It was often dismissed, considered frivolous. But Syme says it's in the DNA of lots of pop culture today. Here she is setting up the book.

SYME: It is about a group of working girls who all work in the typing pool at a publishing house called Fabian Publications. It follows a group of women who are all semi-fresh out of college, young, in their 20s - think Peggy Olson from "Mad Men"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")

ELISABETH MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) I'm sorry to wake you, but Mr. Campbell is outside.

JON HAMM: (As Don Draper) Who are you?

MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) I'm Peggy Olson, the new girl.

SYME: ...Who come into this publishing house with varying ambitions - some to get ahead in business, some to find a man - all of them swirling around the city, trying to find their place in Manhattan. And they work for various bosses. There's a female boss at the company who is somewhat of a tyrant. And then there's obviously several men because in the 1950s, the world was completely run by men. And they are all various degrees of lecherous and domineering and creepy.

(SOUNDBITE OF GORDON JENKINS' "CARAVAN")

SYME: This book has probably the best first paragraph of any novel about New York City. (Reading) You see them every morning at a quarter to 9, rushing out of the maw of the subway tunnel, filing out of Grand Central Station, crossing Lexington and Park and Madison and Fifth Avenues, the hundreds and hundreds of girls. Some of them look eager, and some look resentful, and some of them look as if they haven't left their beds yet. Some of them have been up since 6:30 in the morning, the ones who commute from Brooklyn and Yonkers and New Jersey and Staten Island and Connecticut. They carry the morning newspapers and overstuffed handbags. Some of them are wearing pink or chartreuse fuzzy overcoats and 5-year-old ankle strap shoes and have their hair up in pin curls underneath kerchiefs. Some of them are wearing chic black suits - maybe last year's, but who can tell? - and kid gloves and are carrying their lunches in violet-sprigged Bonwit Teller paper bags. None of them has enough money.

She has this beautiful thing where she says hundreds and hundreds of girls. What a great inspiration for even the series "Girls." Like, I think that has a very strong resonance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLS")

LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) So I calculated, and I can last in New York for 3 1/2 more days, maybe seven if I don't eat lunch.

SYME: And then she says, some of them, some of them, some of them. So there's this repetitive sort of listing aspect, almost if you're opening a magazine or a newspaper story. It's very reportorial. It's very sort of observational. And the last line, none of them has enough money, hits you like a ton of bricks. This book, when it came out, was something of a sensation. But it was also quite controversial because Jaffe has her women having sex, running around, having affairs, having an abortion.

There are things that happen in this book that to me feel edgy, even for today. What it was trying to say was that young women coming up through the corporate world were encountering so much pushback. They were not able to get ahead without sleeping with their superiors or just going out for these very long, Scotch-drenched lunches where they had to humor these men and make them feel like they were masters of the universe. Or if you're a woman who's gotten ahead, you've done it by absolutely stepping on other women and being dramatically cruel, as is the character of the female boss in this story, who in the movie version was played by Joan Crawford. So that tells you everything about the casting of how they saw that character.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BEST OF EVERYTHING")

JOAN CRAWFORD: (As Amanda Farrow) Oh, Caroline, you can order me some coffee - black, no sugar.

HOPE LANGE: (As Caroline Bender) Yes, Ms. Farrow. Now, how do I...

CRAWFORD: (As Amanda Farrow) Dial the operator, ask for the coffee shop. No, no, no, no, at your desk outside. 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.

SYME: It showed that women were also very free and had dreams of being something else than a wife in the suburbs. A lot of them just wanted to live in the city. And a lot of these women have their own place or are striving to have their own place, want to live independently, want to work independently. And it was pretty bold to write that vision in 1958, so much so that, immediately, Rona got pushback. In 1958, Rona was invited to go on Canadian television, basically the PBS of Canada, to talk about the book. And these two men kind of sit on either side of her and talk over her as if she's not there and judge her and ask her if, in her opinion, we need to protect the working girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CLOSE-UP")

PIERRE BERTON: Does the career girl need protection?

RONA JAFFE: I think so. And I think that, unfortunately, it has to come from herself.

SYME: And one of the men asks her, Rona, Ms. Jaffe, is it hip to be bad these days?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CLOSE-UP")

BERTON: That they think it's square to be good or dull to be good.

JAFFE: Well, they're under constant stresses.

SYME: As if all these girls are bad girls just because they're unwed and want to have jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CLOSE-UP")

BERTON: The men that take you out, aren't they a bit frightened of you? Aren't you faced with a problem now? You are a career - a super career girl. What do you think, Mr. Davies? Would you be afraid at the age of 26 to take out Ms. Jaffe?

ROBERTSON DAVIES: I most certainly would not. I'd probably end up as Mr. Jaffe.

SYME: At one point, one man turns to the other and says...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CLOSE-UP")

BERTON: She's awfully hard on men in that book, don't you think?

DAVIES: I think that she's very hard on men. She deals with the lives of five girls in their early relations with men. Four of them have unpleasant experiences. And I must say, I think that's a little rough. You know, I'm sure I could write a book in which five men got a very rough time from horrible girls. You got stand up for your own sex in these matters.

SYME: It is exactly how people took this book, which is that she was doing something bad or forbidden by just simply talking about women's lives as they experience them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID CARBONARA'S "LIPSTICK")

SYME: Personal essays, revealing texts, books about women's interiority - I mean, these at this point are now commonplace parts of our culture. I mean, "Sex And The City" came along. Like, what could be more shocking?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEX AND THE CITY")

KIM CATTRALL: (As Samantha Jones) I will wear whatever and blow whomever I want as long as I can breathe and kneel.

SYME: But I think in general, this book had a real reputation at the time for being, if not trash, then sort of something disposable. And I think part of that had to do with just the fact that it was a really commercial, fun novel, obviously. And part of that had to do with the fact that men tried to dispose of it because of the way that they were portrayed. So there were sort of two aspects of culture working to minimize this book's importance.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID CARBONARA'S "LIPSTICK")

SYME: Yes, it has political statements about capitalism and work and marriage and bad men, but it's also so fun to read. It is like a confection. It is like a martini with a side of French fries. It is so delicious. She is so obsessed with details and fashion and food and all of these wonderful settings that are full of rich detail. So it is, to me, a classic and will always be a classic, even though many people over the years have tried to dismiss it as trash.

KELLY: That is New Yorker writer Rachel Syme on Rona Jaffe's classic "The Best Of Everything." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.