Rona Jaffe’s The Best Of Everything was one of the first novels to depict the lives of modern working women. Now a Mad Men cameo has helped it back into print. Joan Smith applauds a classic
Independent, Monday 9 May 2011
In 1963, American journalist Betty Friedan wrote a book that became an immediate bestseller. The Feminine Mystique was a cry of rage from a generation of college-educated women who had embraced domesticity and found themselves bored to tears in the suburbs.
These intelligent women felt as though they were going mad, but how had they arrived at such a place? Five years earlier, the lives they led before entering those suffocating marriages were laid bare in another bestseller, The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. It was a publishing phenomenon, riveting readers with its frank account of life in the skyscrapers of New York.
Jaffe’s characters work for a pittance, sharing cramped apartments with pull-down beds and they know how few choices they have. Caroline Bender, Jaffe’s alter-ego in the novel, has just started as a secretary at a publishing house and she knows that dozens of other young women would kill for her lowly job: “They’re all college girls with good educational backgrounds and no experience and they’re willing to work for practically nothing.”
Caroline is different, already feeling the stirrings of an ambition to be an editor. Jaffe understood that the power imbalance between men and women, both at home and in the workplace, was not sustainable in affluent post-war America. In 1959, only a year after publication, The Best of Everything was turned into a movie starring Joan Crawford. So why, until very recently, had so few people heard of the book – or indeed of Jaffe? It’s taken an appearance in the TV series Mad Men to get it back on the radar and this month The Best of Everything is being republished as a Penguin Classic. It marks a belated moment of recognition for a novelist who wrote about the power struggle at the heart of women’s lives before Friedan, Mary McCarthy or Jacqueline Susann, anticipating some of the themes that would exercise 1970s feminists in novels such as The Women’s Room.
In many ways, Jaffe was ahead of her time. She was a native New Yorker and after graduating from an Ivy League college, got a job as a filing clerk at a publishing house, where she was able to talk freely to secretaries and junior editors over lunches and drinks. Few of them realised that they were a generation on the cusp of one of the biggest social changes in history, but Jaffe sensed that change was coming.
Decades before Sex and the City, she recorded the minutiae of women’s lives and broke powerful taboos; in the 400-plus pages of The Best of Everything, single women talk about illegal abortions, affairs with married men and how to conceal from prospective husbands the fact that they aren’t virgins.
Indeed the novel is almost a very early SATC, following five main characters to the TV series’ four and revealing their difficulties with boyfriends, money and predatory bosses. In another parallel with SATC, New York is almost a character in its own right, a glamorous city where people do “marvellous secret things” in “those tall buildings at the cocktail hour”.
But this was a period of early marriage and the elevation of domesticity into an almost sacred goal, so that young women began to worry if they weren’t engaged by 21 or 22. Jaffe’s characters scrimp on food to buy clothes they can wear at parties where they desperately hope to meet eligible men; Suzy Parker, the willowy 1950s fashion model, was chosen to play one of the five leads in the film version. Crawford, then in her 50s, played one of the novel’s least sympathetic (and most stereotypical characters), the unmarried older editor who is sleeping with the boss and a bully to secretaries.
Looking back, it’s clear that Jaffe was writing proto-feminist fiction for an audience of women readers who would later move on to the feminist classics. She continued producing novels into the first decade of the 21st century, but long before she died in 2005, her star had waned. That might have been the end of it had it not been for a scene in Mad Men, the TV series set in an ad agency on Madison Avenue in the 1960s.
Don Draper, the cad who might have stepped out of the pages of one of Jaffe’s early novels, was shown lying in bed next to his long-suffering wife, Betty, while rifling through a copy of The Best of Everything. Social networking sites lit up, demanding information about the novel and its author, while bloggers who’d managed to find a copy started raving about the book.
It was an awesome demonstration of the power of the small screen to influence popular taste and not the first time it had happened.
Other beneficiaries of the series have been the poet Frank O’Hara and the novelist Sloan Wilson, whose The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit attracted a similar surge of interest when the title was used to describe Draper in an early episode. I’ve always loved Jaffe’s novels and I was shocked to realise what a forgotten figure she’d become. I don’t think it’s entirely healthy for a writer’s status to depend on something as random as featuring in a successful TV series but Mad Men’s use of The Best of Everything was nicely ironic. Betty Draper is a member of the generation which was promised “the best of everything” – the phrase comes from an ad that Jaffe spotted in the New York Times in the early 1950s – but she’s ended up like the frustrated housewives Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique.
If Betty had been reading the novel in place of her husband, she might have recognised the false promise of domestic bliss that Jaffe had instinctively distrusted a decade earlier.
The novel isn’t judgemental, but it is full of ambivalence. Why does Gregg, the novel’s aspiring actress, settle for a destructive relationship with an older man who won’t even allow her to spend the night in his apartment after they have sex? Why does April stay with her upper-class boyfriend after he talks her into having an illegal abortion? Most shocking of all is Caroline’s decision to plunge into an affair with the fiancé who jilted her for another woman three years earlier.
Caroline has already been promoted to an editing job: “Can you imagine me signing a check for a man?” she asks, breathlessly, imagining a time when she’ll have her own expense account to take authors out to lunch. But now Eddie is back, on a business trip to New York without his wife and child, and keen to follow a pattern that should be horribly familiar to Caroline: he wants an affair; a change from the wife he’s bored with and he can think of no-one better suited to the role than his former fiancée.
Getting ready to have dinner with Eddie, Caroline realises that for the first time she has spent an entire day at her office without doing any work. But she tells herself that Eddie is “her life, her future. What was fifty pages of a manuscript compared to that?”
For a moment, she’s on the verge of betraying everything she’s aspired to in the novel, but Jaffe is too good a writer to allow her star a traditional romantic ending. It’s vital to the book’s integrity that Caroline is a woman torn between two ways of life; one of them at the beck and call of a man who will always put himself first, the other carrying the risk of loneliness but ultimately more fulfilling.
In the 1960s, Jaffe was recruited to write for Cosmopolitan by Helen Gurley Brown, placing her at the heart of feminism’s version of the sexual revolution. Biographical information about her is scant, although she went on to write 16 more novels. She died in London, aged 74, and stayed true to her ideals, bequeathing a grant to encourage young women to write.
Jaffe would have recognised the world of Mad Men, but it’s harder to know what she would have made of the contemporary fascination with movies and TV series that look nostalgically at the 1950s and 60s. “The Best of Everything is a sociological document,” she wrote in the year of her death, “but it’s also about change: how your dreams change, how your life changes, how each thing that happens to you changes something else.”
More than 50 years ago, Jaffe saw a world that didn’t work for women and tried to show there was more to life than being desperate housewives.