Going through her late mother’s papers, Robin Cutler observed a child prodigy, a gifted writer, a friend of Fitzgerald’s, and the makings of a faceted biography. Here’s the prologue.”>
I picked up the book carefully, wary of the mold on its faded covering. Rodents had gnawed through the corners and the leading edge of its pages. On this oppressive June day when the humidity intensified all sweet and sour odors, the book reeked terrible. It was headed for the landfill, but the playful inscription to Jane Hall and the bold signature on the front endpaper caught my attention: F. Scott( Pretty Boy) Fitzgerald Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1938.
My mother was twenty-three when Fitzgerald brought her this copy ofTender is the Night. Shed been an art student and aspiring author on its publication date in 1934. Three years later, the snappy dialogue in her short stories caught the interest of celebrated Hollywood agent H. N.( Swanie) Swanson; within a few months she was hard at work at MGM. Before long, Jane Elizabeth Hall and F. Scott Fitzgerald were colleagues in adjoining offices at Hollywoods most successful studio.
I carefully tore out the page with the inscription and filed it with other newspapers that seemed to be worth maintaining for another day. It was 1987 and Jane had died on April 18, the Saturday before Easter. I had tried to telephone her on that brilliant April morning to let her know when we would arrived here Poplar Springs. After the fourth attempt I began to panic; she always answered the phone. But she was there, lying peacefully on her doubled bed, her hands clasped on her chest, surrounded by books, newspapers, half empty boxes of Milk Bone dog biscuits, a small television on the members of the bureau that was always on, and eleven anxious German shepherds trying to wake her up. Her loaded. 38 revolver a gift from the local sheriff because she was so alone in that sprawling stone manor house out in the Fauquier County countrysidewas still in the nightstand drawer.
Until a heart attack objective her life, Jane had a special cachet in Virginia as a formerCosmopolitancover girl who had worked in Culver City for Louis B. Mayer. Jane wedded during her years as a screenwriter, and I had no idea that she had known Fitzgerald. Though she rarely spoke about her career, a few weeks before she died, she mentioned to me that shed had a chance at real happiness between 1935 and 1942, when shed been productive as an writer. For so much of my life, shed seemed preoccupied by fund worries and inundated with business problems; in her later years she struggled with physical ache from a back injury. I wanted to learn more about the days when her green eyes sparkled, she giggled often, and her wit was razor sharp. What was it like to work as a novelist in Hollywood? How did she end up there? Why did she leave? I didnt expect to postpone my search for the answers to these questions for twenty-two years.
On a chilly October morning in 2009, I began, ultimately, to look through my mothers papers that Id kept in storage for so long. As a historian, I naturally focused on the years before I was born. As I pored through a scrapbook filled with poems, narratives, articles, editorials, and book reviews that shed published before she was fifteen years old, my heart went out to the young tomboy from an Arizona mining town who wanted passionately to be a novelist. Often shed described people on the fringe of lifean elderly lady ignored by a bus driver; the son of a laundress spurned by a fairly, wealthy girl; a lonely street sweeper at midnight; or an alcoholic confined to a hospital bed. Her hard work was driven in part by the premature death of her parent and idol, Dick Wick Hall, then Arizonas favorite humorist. Janes fierce aspiration and success as a juvenile writer resulted the press to call her a literary prodigy. But her determination would be diluted for a hour after her mom succumbed to breast cancer in 1930.
Once she became an orphan, Janes circumstancesand, therefore, the subjects she wrote aboutchanged dramatically. She and her friend traveled east been like living with an aunt and uncle as part of a rarefied segment of Manhattan and Virginia society. Jane brought an outsiders perspective to her new life among the debutantes and party daughters of the Depression years. And she used what she learned to portray and parody this privileged world in her fiction and screenplays. Her diaries and scores of letters offer an appealing look at what it was like be a woman writer in Depression America. Her voice is candid, refreshing, and at times disturbing as she describes her response to the demands of editors, producers, studio executives, and the watchdog of the production code administration, Joseph Breen. Her published stories, articles, and screenplays illustrate an assimilate if narrow slice of popular culture in New York City and Hollywood during the turbulent 30 s.
At MGM Janes days belonged merely to Louis B. Mayer. “Shes working” long hours for some of his top producers dreaming up scenarios and clever dialogue that depicted on her experiences in Manhattan. In August 1939, eight months afterCosmopolitanpublished her volume duration fiction, These Glamour Girls, the movie of the same name premiered in New York City. The trailer announced Jane Halls blistering expose of the platinum-plated darlings of the smart set; The New York Timescalled it the best college comedy and the best social comedy of the year.
Jane not only wrote tales and screenplays, she reported from Culver City for Good HousekeepingandCosmopolitan. Her editors there( William Bigelow and Harry Burton) loved the style her buoyant personality came through in her lighthearted interviews with MGM celebrities, and in her account of her visits to the situateds ofThe Wizard of OzandGone with the Wind.Her letters home reveal the fun she had lunching with Rosalind Russell, dining with Walter Pidgeon, dancing with Jimmy Stewart, and sailing to Catalina on Joe Mankiewiczs schooner.
I became intrigued by the way Jane participated in and observed the culture of elegance that publication readers and movie audiences yearned for during the Depression. Historian Morris Dickstein finds that a cultures different forms of escape, if they can be called escape, are as significant and disclosing as its social criticism. The 30 s, a decade often defined by the suffering and poverty that decimated millions of lives, was also rich in the production of popular fantasy and trenchant social criticism. Janes storytelling, laced with insight and irony, is a window into a world that was inaccessible to most Americans then and remains so today.
What determines who a woman will become? It was only after she died that I discovered the album of photos from my mothers childhood. In one image a tall, proud woman stands with her limbs around her two children in the brilliant sunlight near Salome, a hardscrabble mining township in western Arizona.
The woman, Daysie Sutton Hall, is the grandmother I never met. On her right is thirteen-year-old Dickie, Janes brother, in scruffy overalls and an oversized sweater, a cloth fedora pulled down low to shade his eyes. The ten-year-old girl on Daysies left wears a pleated skirt and middy, scuffed shoes, and knee socks pulled up tight. The light brown bangs of her cropped hair nearly reach her eyebrows. It is the girls dont-mess-with-me expression that stands out in this 1925 sepia photograph. For she is fearless, funny, mischievous, and proud to be a tomboy who can ride Killer, the wildest horse in the desert hamlet that her father cofounded. What thrills her most is that she has just had her first narrative accepted by theLos Angeles Times.
I grew up witha different image of Jane. The centerpiece of our living room was Bradshaw Crandells full-length portrait of Mrs. Robert Cutler( Janes married name ). There she is a stunning platinum blonde in a long, black velvet evening dress with a white ermine neckline. She appears to be a tall girl with a movie-star figure, perfect features, and ruby lips and fingernails. The big emerald that sparkles on her left hand matches her green eyes. The girl in this portrait is as inaccessible as classic-era stars in publicity photos. The black wool carpet and tusk upholstered furniture that defined the large paneled room complemented Crandells work. Many people loved the exquisite paintingmovie stars and numerous prominent men and women sat for Crandell who, in 2006, was inducted posthumously into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. But it reminds me of the P. D. Eastman book that I once read to my grandsons: Are You My Mother?
Such Mad Funfollows a talented small-town girl with grand ambitions who sought to be independent at a time when her family, her friends, and her social and cultural surrounding had other expectations for her. It is also a behind-the-scenes look at the messages that popular culture communicates to its audiences. Feminist Betty Friedan underscores the critical role that publications played between the 30 s and the 50 s in defining womens sense of who they were meant to be. Who was the ideal young womanmore specifically the ideal young, white, middle- and upper-middle-class womantargeted by so many magazines and movie houses? Whether for print or for the screen, Janes tales brim with class conflict while providing guidance for her peers on how to navigate in the eternal search for the perfect mate.