Well, this article isn’t really about Jackie Chan or Drunken Master Part 2 – not entirely – but sort of about the concept of “immortality”. I wrote a couple of articles about Jackie Chan, back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. I interviewed him for the Chicago Sun-Times and for Entertainment Weekly, and as a result, I am mentioned periodically alongside one of the giants of moviedom, and every day, googling fanboys (and fangirls) come across my name, and though it may not register for long, my connection with the immortal Jackie Chan seemed to have given me a little bit of residual immortality. For the record, he is a great guy, and you can easily find my old articles on him on the web, with a swift google here or there. (In fact, I am hoping a little bit that the title of this post will get me a few more hits than my usual blogging effort. I will report back on that later.) But then this past Friday, I mentioned Jackie Chan in front of my daughter’s eight-year-old friend, and she had never heard of him. My immortality snuffed out, just like that, in one generation.
And this, of course, reminded me of Ishbel Ross, a famous writer you’ve never heard of. More than 20 years ago, when vacationing in Maine with my wife and another couple (now divorced), I came across a dusty novel in a cluttered, used bookstore. The outrageousness of Marriage in Gotham – which the jacket describes as “a thoroughly modern study of the divorce problem” – cannot be underestimated. In the late 1920s, when the beautiful and “charming” Henrietta Tullock – the wealthy wife of an old school architect – shares a cab with Allan Meadows, her daughter’s boyfriend, they discover that her casual bigotry matches his completely (they share an irrational hatred and fear of midgets), and the result is a love that cannot be denied, at least for a while. Long enough to create a media scandal, to wreck the Tullock marriage and to send the young Tullock daughter into the welcoming arms of another woman. Then comes the Great Depression and one terrible facelift for Henrietta. The utter and hilarious charmlessness of the novel’s wealthy characters is matched only by the certainty with which they all insist on each other’s evident and tremendous charm.
What a book! Beautifully written, feverish, bizarre and bizarrely sympathetic. I went hunting for Ms. Ross’s great commercial and critical success, her first novel, which was entitled Promenade Deck. It wasn’t until the advent of the internet that I managed to put my hands on it, and it too is a loopy masterpiece, and this time an entirely successful one. Well-heeled passengers on a luxury cruise around the world see the sights, along with scandal, adultery, suicide, tragedy, and one flapper who gets drunk and dives naked into an empty swimming pool. It is ridiculous, yet it also achieves a certain level of greatness and lyric beauty. Like Marriage in Gotham, the characters are reprehensible stereotypes of their age, but sympathetic and fully formed creations nevertheless.
The September 1932 issue of The Bookman, in its Guide to Fiction column, wrote that the “characters—a siren and a spinster school-teacher, a misogynist and a gigolo, a dissolute flapper and a clean college girl —are made extraordinarily interesting by the author’s real gift for character drawing.” The New York Times predicted in July 1932 that “Miss Ross’s novel will be seen in quantity on many a promenade deck this season, and that it will be prominently among the books that hostesses provide for week-end guests. … We also predict that it will be seen sailing serenely … across the silver screen. On the screen, of course, Miss Ross’s best effects must be lost – for the screen is only screen deep, and Promenade Deck is, at more than one point, deeper… Promenade Deck provides excellent Summer reading.” The following September, the San Jose News confirmed the Times’ foresight. “It always arouses my curiosity,” wrote a columnist, “to know what people read at sea, and I peek at titles… The book being read by the larger number on promenade deck is, appropriately enough, Promenade Deck[.]” According to Kirkus Reviews, in the Spring of 1932, the novel “jumped into the ranks of best sellers”, and in 1934, the film version appeared, starring Zasu Pitts, of Greed fame.
What makes the book fascinating is an apparently scathingly satiric portrait of the element of society that took such tours, and Ross’s ability to maintain the reader’s empathy nevertheless. Rendered by their racism and social status entirely unable to appreciate or even communicate in the most basic way with other races, the cruise passengers are bound by intellectual pride to demonstrate their sophistication with learned sounding yet superficial treatises on each nation they encounter. They might as well never have left their living rooms. But was Ross’s representation a scathing one, or was it an ingenuous and ignorant portrait of a milieu in which she was entirely comfortable? The Times review picked this up when its critic noted that “passage[s] in which there seems to be some integration between the persons of the piece and the background against which the piece is played [are] all too rare. Of course, it may be that there is intended satire here. This writer cannot say. The irony was perhaps unconscious. But in placing her Americans on board a world-encircling ship and having them act precisely as on shore, Miss Ross has achieved satire of a very disheartening sort. For it is precisely the attitude of a vast majority of tourists who go voyaging – an attitude that would make a Conrad leap overboard in shame.”
As for me, I believe the satire was completely conscious, and way ahead of its time; I find it impossible to believe that a writer this canny wrote a great American satire without even realizing it. But how many book critics today are asking this very interesting question about one of the great novels of the 1930s? I’ll tell you how many: one. Me. And no one else.
Apart from her renown as a novelist, Ross herself was also a figure of some historical interest. Born sometime between 1890 and 1895, she was a groundbreaking journalist whose rapid rise came when she landed an exclusive interview with the renowned British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Ross went on to become the first woman with a regular job reporting for a New York daily, the Tribune, where during the 1920s, she covered the Stillman divorce (which may have inspired Marriage in Gotham), the Hall-Mills murder and the Lindbergh kidnapping.
But her first novel was so acclaimed and commercially successful that she quit her job at the Trib to write novels fulltime. One of her subsequent books rose to poetic heights – the tragic Highland Twilight – and one was an embarrassment, a World War II spy novel entitled Isle of Escape.
Have I seen the film? Well, no one actually knows whether the film is lost, because (other than me) no one is actually out there looking for it. The movie version of Promenade Deck (which at one point was renamed Three on a Honeymoon) has not achieved the holy grail status of Zasu Pitts’ earlier work, to say the least. A film called Three on a Honeymoon is downloadable at Pirate Bay, but let’s just note that it’s a different genre entirely, and leave it at that. And it’s not just the movie that has plummeted in popularity like a naked flapper into an empty swimming pool. The book’s popularity is 2,971,330 on Library Thing, and the only reason it’s listed on GoodReads is that I put it there. So while some of Ishbel Ross’s biographies remain marginally known, her novels are utterly obscure and are entirely unavailable anywhere. A bestselling, groundbreaking novelist has sunk beneath the waves, her books forgotten.
Gosh, look at all the ink I’ve spilled, and I haven’t even mentioned Peggy and Paul and Laddy yet. Thirty years ago, I was walking around New York City, and I saw a guy selling original art on the street. One of the drawings was the original art from a 1930s book cover. The book was called Peggy and Paul and Laddy, and the drawing showed a boy, a girl and dog in a boat that was docking on the shore of a mysterious island. I didn’t buy it, but then I wished that I had. For a couple of years. I thought about it. Then, one day, there he was again, on another sidewalk, still trying to sell the drawing. I think it cost me twenty dollars, and today it hangs on the wall in the bedroom of my two daughters, where it has hung for a few years. I bought them the book when they were little. It’s by Mary Jane Carr, who was a children’s author of some repute many many decades ago, and it tells the story of a couple of friends in Oregon, the puppy they rescue from a towering cliff, and an ageing Russian refugee they befriend. My daughters love it; they are big fans of Peggy and Paul and Laddy. My eight-year-old is halfway through her second reading.
So here is the question – am I the only person alive today who has read all of Ishbel Ross’s novels? Are my daughters the only modern children who have read Peggy and Paul and Laddy? Including the authors’ families? I think I take a little strange pride in being a huge fan of something no one else remembers. Don’t even get me started on the Cleek books, the unfinished version of The Thief and the Cobbler, and the late Randy VanWarmer’s Terraform album. (Really. If you bump into me at a party, don’t get me started.)
And here’s the message. We think that literary and commercial success brings us immortality of a certain sort. But it’s immortality of the most transient kind, which is to say, not immortality at all – it just seems like immortality while it’s happening. The same way everyone always insists that we will live on in the hearts of those who knew us, it’s the beauty of a firefly’s light. But a writer, musician or artist can still always dream that some day, seventy or eighty or a hundred years from now, we’ll entertain someone again, someone wandering through a dusty bookstore or looking on a shelf at a ramshackle vacation rental. So there’s always hope, I guess.
Till the human race goes extinct, that is, or the universe collapses.