Ever since Mad Men ended, I’ve been wondering about Peggy’s real-life equivalents, from the woman who coined “A Diamond Is Forever,” to those who paid a far greater cost for their romantic missteps than Peggy did. I’ve been curious about ’50s and ’60s movie versions of the career girl as well. Films covered single women in the city from the silent era on, but naturally, I viewed the movie based on the book Don Draper was reading at the start of the show, Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything.
Jaffe is an interesting figure in herself; her characters are based on her own experience in publishing, and her friends within it. She earnestly explained to Hugh Hefner (what a choice!) that her goal in writing the book was to normalize and destigmatize the experience of those girls who felt ashamed and alone in their mistakes: their dalliances with married men, the children they bore (or didn’t) as a result.
The controversial film version of The Best of Everything (1959) quickly lands us in the center of the action in a publishing company, and I was instantly hooked by the drama: the boss (Brian Aherne) who casually pinches his workers’ rears, the secretaries trying to balance social lives and unreasonable work demands, the crowded shared apartments and crammed lunch spots. (The film is given props for fashion, and deserves it. It’s a visual feast throughout.) Right away, we get a sense of what women had to put up with just to get paid, and not well.
Newcomer to the city Caroline (Hope Lange) rooms with coworkers Gregg (supermodel Suzy Parker) and April (Diane Baker) in a miniscule apartment, and the three instantly become tight friends despite having little in common: Gregg is the adventurous bombshell/aspiring actress, April the innocent, and Caroline the sophisticate who is trying out work until her fiancé returns to the U.S. and marries her.
The three unite in hatred of Amanda Farrow (Joan Crawford), the harsh editor who has chosen success over marriage, and scorns the secretaries who didn’t have to go through as much as she did to advance. She has a smidgen of Miranda Priestly of The Devil Wears Prada in her, but there’s pathos and empathy to Farrow too. She may fail to support her many secretaries’ ambitions, but she tries to save them from her romantic fate, from awful men. And The Best of Everything is full of them.
The Sex and the City ladies might have faced a lot of freaks, but at least they had some personality; the men of The Best of Everything are as interchangeable as the vice presidents in American Psycho. A recent play of the book even used cardboard cutouts of men to emphasize the point.
What’s puzzling is what these interesting women see in these duds. Effervescent April falls for a guy who is so obviously a sleaze he might as well be wearing a signboard to announce it. Caroline’s fiancé announces he’s married a rich girl instead of her—over the phone—and then expects her to sleep with him afterward. And get this: dazzling Gregg falls so hard for a stage director (Louis Jourdan) that she goes into a crazy, stalking tailspin when he dumps her. (Yes, nothing inspires sexual obsession so much as Gigi‘s heartthrob Gaston. What??)
Since the men are so patently lacking in any redeeming qualities but sleep inducement, the film’s attention to them rather than the workplace and roommate dynamics is disappointing, as the latter, when they’re the focus, are well developed and fascinating. Caroline advances quickly to the rung above secretary (a reader), but is accused by an alcoholic friend, Mike (Stephen Boyd), of faux ambition, just to avoid her romantic life (by the way, this is the love interest we’re rooting for).
Yet between the romantic interludes (and their sad repercussions) are intriguing signs of the second wave of feminism to come: Farrow leaves the marriage she impulsively makes with an old flame, returning to work, and we have the sense that she’s better for it. Caroline is promoted again. Abortion is presented as the fault of men who are careless with the hearts (and bodies) of naïve women—not the deserved end for loose ones. Female solidarity* prevails throughout, as when one of our heroines slaps a faithless boyfriend of the other. (*In one brief, funny exception, the secretaries all try to pass off work on one another.) The workplace even has moments of startling modernity, as with the hilariously painful bonding “picnic,” with its forced fun and workers getting drunk in self-defense. There’s enough worth watching in the film, in short, to get viewers through the unearned suds of these worthless romances.
Single women have fled to New York for all kinds of reasons, in all kinds of ages: post-Civil War belles, without men or funds; rural women leaving farms for factories; aspiring starlets, hoping for a berth at the glamour-girl dorm, The Barbizon Hotel (an upscale Footlights Club, à la Stage Door). These women certainly didn’t find the “best of everything.” But they still managed to live out enough of the excitement of the big city to keep other women coming, to keep dreamers hankering for if not the best of everything, the thrill of aspiring for it.
Leah Williams blogs about connections between current and classic films at carygrantwonteatyou.com. She teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire and is completing a memoir about her aunt.