Thursday, 5 March 2015

DORIS GRUMBACH The Missing Person (1981)

WW Norton & Company, 1993

True to her credo, events came to Franny as she waited for them, her drifting, dazed self biding its time.  She had known this self since her girlhood.  But everyone kept telling her she really was Someone because she looked the way she did.  There were times when she was able to forget her secret knowledge that there was no direction to her days, no meaning to her beautiful face, that in the long catalog of human beings she was a missing person.

The Novel:  Franny Fuller is a star –– the brightest, most frustratingly elusive star in 1930s Hollywood.  Books are written about her, fan magazines are filled with photographs of her, yet she remains an unapproachable enigma, the mythical American 'Golden Girl' that every man dreams of possessing and every woman wishes they could be –– or at the very least resemble –– for just one glorious hour before they die.

Born 'Fanny Marker' in the small New York town of Utica, Franny is destined for stardom from birth, it seems, by virtue of her intoxicating beauty and the disturbing, sometimes dangerous effect it has upon the men her mother –– a once attractive beautician barely able to conceal her jealousy of her daughter's stunning good looks –– brings home to share their various cheap apartments with them.  One of these boyfriends –– a man her mother calls Jerryboy, a dirt-encrusted sheet metal worker whom young Franny finds physically repulsive –– can't seem to decide if he likes the girl or loathes her, if her habits of chewing her blonde hair and daydreaming about becoming a movie star are habits he finds appealing or merely irritating.  Only one thing is certain and that is the lust that being near Franny inspires in him, a lust that sees him rape her on her mother's bed one afternoon –– a crime the girl responds to, not by screaming and crying out for help, but by losing consciousness, only to be woken hours later by her mother furiously slapping her face 'first one side, then the other, like a funny man attacking the straight man in a vaudeville act.'

Seeking to avoid the judgmental wrath of her mother, Franny quits school and begins hanging round the lobby of the local hotel –– the perfect place, despite her age, to be picked up by the traveling salesman who are more than willing to buy her a drink or a meal, and sometimes both, in exchange for sex.  In time she finds her way to New York City, where she's approached in a restaurant one night by a man named Eddie Puritan who claims to be a talent scout for a movie company –– a claim, in Puritan's case, which happens to be true rather than being the same predictable pick-up line she's heard a thousand times before.  At first wary of Puritan's friendliness and enthusiasm, Franny eventually agrees to hire him as her agent and moves into the one bedroom apartment he shares with his literary agent lover Lou Price, never suspecting that the two men are homosexuals whose interest in her is confined to their desire to make her the star they're both convinced she was born to be. 

It's Puritan, a man who 'made her feel whole and valuable for a while, not like the others whose eyes always seemed to be examining her parts, like people who only buy the pieces of chicken they like to eat,' who takes her to Hollywood, arranges a screen test for her at Premium Pictures and changes her name from plain old 'Fanny Marker' to the beguilingly alliterative one of 'Frances Fuller.'  Her new agent patiently grooms the inexperienced Franny for stardom, eventually gaining her her first major role in a silly but wildly successful adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles before dying –– in a hospital room his protègée is afraid to visit because she can't bear the thought of watching anybody suffer –– of leukemia right at the moment when she's most in need of his kindness, understanding and well-intentioned guidance.

Her dead agent's place is soon taken by Dempsey Butts, an Iowa preacher's son who's recently become the star quarterback of the San Francisco Mavericks football team.  Butts quickly comes to feel, just as Puritan did before him, that it's his mission to protect this gorgeous, wayward, seemingly helpless waif of a girl from the problems and invasive personal scrutiny her newfound stardom have thrust upon her.  'His chest ached with longing, with love, as he looked at the sleeping actress...The Beautiful Girl was lost, inexplicably deserted and in some nameless trouble, and he had found her and carried her to an enchanted white castle.  By virtue of all these things she was, by the rules of fairy legend and sport, his.'  The fairytale qualities of Butts's feelings for Franny are subverted, however, by the decidedly unromantic location of their first meeting.  The football player picks her up in a Hollywood bar he's patronizing with his drunken teammates, a place where Franny sometimes comes to drink away her fear and uncertainty in anonymous solitude, her beauty disguised, if not completely nullified, by sunglasses, old clothes, heavy boots and a thick layer of dirt.  This desire for total anonymity, it turns out, is the true key to Franny's personality, her way of making herself feel protected and shielded from being 'found out for what I am, whatever that is.'  

After taking her back to her palatial but empty Beverly Hills home, where he spends most of the day watching her sleep and listening to her murmur anxiously to herself, Butts eventually gets to live out his (and every other man's) fantasy by making love to her, with the compliant Franny lying completely still while he moves 'gently, even quietly, afraid of frightening her or hurting her, feeling instinctively that she could be hurt, or frightened, during this act.'  They part company after spending a few blissful days playing hooky from their pressure-laden lives, yet Butts finds it impossible to rid himself of the feeling that Franny must be protected and that he's the man fate has chosen to become that protector.  Within a few weeks he's arranged to marry her, agreeing to her request that the ceremony be held in New York City while she's appearing there on a publicity tour, never suspecting that the marriage will be over within two years, a victim of their conflicting work schedules and Franny's chronic inability to live what he considers to be a normal married life.  Even a miscarriage, with Butts flying across the country to be at her bedside while she recovers, fails to reunite them.  He promises to drop whatever he's doing and come back any time Franny says she wants or needs him, but this eagerly anticipated call is one she never makes.  Within months of their divorce, his ex-wife has found herself a new protector in the form of Arnold Franklin, a successful poet and playwright who happens to be represented –– as she now is –– by Lou Price, literary agent and former lover of the sorely missed Eddie Puritan.

Franklin, eager to show off his new conquest, introduces her to his friends Patrick and Mollie Cairns –– acting teachers whose offer to 'coach' the world famous Frances Fuller in the more 'demanding art' of stage acting could make them almost as famous, they quickly realize, as their awestruck would-be pupil.  Their plan comes to nothing, however, when Franny –– already spooked by the thought of formally studying what has always been an instinctive art to her –– impulsively returns to Hollywood to complete her latest picture.  It's here that Franklin finds her a few days later, stretched out beside her pool in Beverly Hills, the ultimate shiksa goddess he feels compelled, in his meticulous Jewish way, to propose to on the spot.  Franny accepts his proposal and they're married in New York a few weeks later, the bride dressing demurely as a mark of respect to the religious beliefs of her new, silently disapproving in-laws.

GP Putnam & Sons first US edition, 1981
Like Dempsey Butts before him, Franklin finds it no easy task to be married to a woman as shy, elusive and mysterious as Franny Fuller.  Their life in Hollywood –– where he's taken a job adapting one of his plays for the screen –– sees him reduced to the role of her sexless companion and on-call night nurse, required only to watch her drink herself to sleep each night and play unwilling host to the crowds of blathering 'guests' who invade her empty house each day.  'He was never able afterward to remember the exact moment,' the dissatisfied playwright remembers at one point, 'when the pleasure of being married to Franny started to diminish, when delight in having captured the American Dream Girl gave way to apprehension about what he would do with her, and how he would survive her shriveling aura.  His sense of triumph had been acute but short-lived.'  Frustrated by Franny's remoteness, his inability to enjoy the kind of sexual intimacy with her that, in his view, a husband should be entitled to enjoy with his wife, Franklin can do little except stand powerlessly aside as his wife alienates her bosses and co-stars by being continually late for work and frequently failing to appear on set at all.  

The situation, already difficult, becomes impossible for Franklin when Franny literally goes missing one day, disappearing without a trace without telling him or anybody else where she's gone or how long she plans to remain incommunicado.  Frantic for news of her, he turns to Butts for help, only to spend an evening swapping stories about her various peculiarities with the ex-football star over drinks in the same seedy bar Butts first met her in so many years before.  Confused and slightly ashamed of themselves, they leave it up to Franny's current director –– yet another fiercely protective male 'savior' named Reuben Rubin –– to continue the search for her without them.  Finally, her erratic behavior proves too much for Franklin, who boards a train to New York, using the long cross country journey to compose a new poem about her while she languishes, alone and possibly dead, somewhere in Los Angeles. 

But Franny, it turns out, isn't dead.  She's simply taken up residence in a 1940 Cadillac that happens to be the cleverly modified, proudly maintained 'home' of a black civil servant named Ira Rorie.  It's Rorie's nightly habit to park his car in a different 'safe' white neighborhood, where he's free to use it as his kitchen, bathroom and bedroom without arousing the suspicions of either the residents or the local law enforcement officers.  He meets Franny when she literally bumps into his car's right fender late one night, telling him, when he emerges from his backseat bed to help her to her feet, that she's lost and has just hauled herself out of some unseen backyard swimming pool.  Rorie helps the dazed actress remove her shabby wet clothing and invites her to rest a while in his cozy home on wheels, beginning what's arguably the happiest phase of Franny's life as, anonymous and untraceable, she finds herself treated as the black man's honored guest, sharing his Cadillac (which he's lovingly christened 'Jeanette' in honor of his favorite movie star Jeanette Macdonald) and its fold-out bed while he brings her food and gossip magazines to read to help while away the hours.  He calls her Beauty, never realizing that he's playing host to the famous movie actress Frances Fuller because she refuses to wash herself even after submitting to sex with him as 'payment' for everything he's done for her.  Their idyllic life together comes to an abrupt end, however, when Rorie arrives 'home' one night to find a note waiting for him on the driver's seat, politely explaining that Franny has moved on and thanking him for 'having her.' 

Franny's next stop is not her estate in Beverly Hills or the sound-stages of Premium Pictures, but the home of her stand-in Dolores Jenkins, who tells her of the desperate but thus far unsuccessful efforts the studio has made to locate her.  Dolores, who's dying of breast cancer and in one sense could be considered Franny's only true friend, is struck again by the contrasts between them and the very different lives they've led since coming to Hollywood as naïve starstruck girls.  Life seems to be a kind of hazy soporific dream for Franny, a state of existence in which she's rarely, if ever, obliged to take responsibility for herself or her often irrational behavior.  She can flee from grim realities like cancer and death because the world doesn't want her, its Golden Girl, to be tarnished by such ugly, sordid yet inescapable truths.  It wants, indeed demands, that Frances Fuller rise above such mundane concerns and remain, in essence, what she is and always has been –– a pretty, somewhat vacant-minded child encased in a voluptuous woman's body, a walking fantasy object whose appeal shows no signs of waning despite having been suspended by the studio and the winding down of the war which had so much to do with making her a star in the first place.

Franny's popularity does eventually decline, of course, placing her in the same 'has-been' category as the silent stars –– forgotten, alcoholic actors like Willis Lord –– whom she idolized and sought to emulate as a child.  In the meantime, the Hollywood studio system unrelentingly grinds on, creating new stars for a public ever-greedy for novelty and glamour, prompting Mary Maguire –– gossip columnist and Franny's biographer –– to write her and everything she's meant to the American movie-going public off in just a few glibly constructed sentences:

'This reporter gives up. Studio officials will say only that she has broken her contract.  Her ex is in New York, reportedly.  At Premium no one knows anything about her whereabouts.  So what else is new?  Phone at the Dolores Jenkins (once her stand-in-friend) residence is no longer connected.  Last night at Romanoff's I asked Brock Currier if he knew where FF was.  He laughed and said:  "Not me."  Later spotted him at the bar with young and beautiful Honey Moon on his arm...'

Penguin Books, c. 1982
The Missing Person is one of many superb American novels –– a list which includes masterpieces such as Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939), F Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished The Love of the Last Tycoon (1941), Norman Mailer's The Deer Park (1957) and Joyce Carol Oates's Blonde (2000) to name just a few –– set in the tinsel-coated fishbowl that was and remains Hollywood.  Franny's story, while clearly based on the troubled life of Marilyn Monroe (Dempsey Butts is based on her second husband, the baseball player Joe DiMaggio, while Arnold Franklin is an ungenerous if not contemptuous portrait of Monroe's third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller), is nevertheless compelling enough in its own right to stand as a powerful indictment of a system which transforms nobodies into universally recognized fantasy objects overnight, only to toss them aside like broken dolls once they cease to possess what the studio bosses regard as being an exploitable commercial value.  

What makes Grumbach's novel unique is her clear-sighted, thoroughly unsentimental dissection of the process of stardom itself, her ability to expose the phenomenon as the sham it is from the inside out by deliberately making her main character as enigmatic to the reader as she is to her legions of adoring fans and those, like Dolores Jenkins, Arnold Franklin, Ira Rorie and Mary Maguire (another portrait drawn from life, this time of famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper), whose lives she so dramatically affects without ever once becoming affected by them in return.  Franny is a face and a body, an ethereal image projected onto a cinema screen, a 'missing person' in the sense that she lacks a separate life or even an individual identity of her own beyond that which the studio and men like Eddie Puritan and Reuben Rubin prove so adept at creating for her.  She remains as mysterious to herself as she does to everyone who fails to recognize the dysfunctional woman hidden beneath the beautiful and glamorous facade, an internationally beloved celebrity whose greatest comfort lies in assuming a kind of grubby anonymity, a symbol of sexual abandon who, in what could be the novel's ultimate irony, remains incapable of deriving any form of pleasure from the sexual act herself.  

Franny's is a tale that cuts right to the heart of what it means to be a celebrated woman in an emotionally bankrupt, fame-obsessed culture where physical appearance matters far more than talent or intelligence and an endless supply of wannabes are forever waiting in the wings, desperate to take the places of those whom a fickle, whim-driven public has grown bored by or otherwise become disenchanted with.  Frances Fuller is more than another casualty of fame and the emotional emptiness that so frequently accompanies it.  Alternately adored and despised, a maddening paradox whose box-office appeal is as undeniable as the money it can be counted upon to earn for her studio, she's the American Dream personified in all its tacky and evanescent glory.

The WriterDoris Grumbach (née Isaac) was born in New York City on 12 July 1918 and spent her childhood there.  An exceptionally gifted student, she was able to skip a grade and begin attending high school at the age of eleven, where she quickly found herself overwhelmed by her fellow students, causing her to lose her self-confidence and develop a terrible stammer as a result of her inability to interact with them.  Although her parents agreed to keep her out of school for a year so she could  'catch up' with her peers emotionally and physically, she proved to be an indifferent student when she eventually resumed her studies, forsaking what had been a promising academic career to foster her burgeoning interests in drama and creative writing.  

Grumbach showed early promise as a writer, winning a city wide short story contest during her senior year which secured her a scholarship to New York University, where she majored in philosophy and graduated Phi Beta Kappa before going on to earn her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1939 and her Master of Arts degree in medieval literature from Cornell University two years later.  It was while she was attending Cornell that she met her future husband Leonard Grumbach, whom she married in October 1941.  She spent the early years of World War Two working as a subtitle writer for Loews/MGM (on films intended to be screened in war torn, non-English speaking countries like France and the Netherlands) and then as a proofreader for Mademoiselle and Architectural Forum magazines, eventually rising to the position of assistant editor at the latter publication –– a position she retained until her husband, a medical student, was drafted in 1943 and she volunteered to serve in the female branch of the US Navy known as the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service).  She soon became an officer and remained in uniform until hostilities ceased in 1945.

After the war, Grumbach and her husband traveled round the country for several years while he worked to complete his medical degree.  She also became the mother of four daughters during this period, which cannot have been easy given the amount of traveling her husband's choice of career obliged her to do.  The family eventually settled in Albany, New York, where Leonard Grumbach taught at that city's medical college while his wife took a position as teacher of junior and senior English at the Albany School for Girls.  She left the school in 1960 to become Professor of English at the nearby Catholic College of Saint Rose and at the same time began working on her debut novel, published in 1962 as The Spoil of the Flowers.  A second novel The Short Throat, The Tender Mouth appeared in 1964, as did Lord, I Have No Courage, her only book for children.   

Until 1971, when she decided to separate from her husband, Grumbach successfully divided her time between teaching and writing essays, articles and non-fiction pieces for a variety of academic and non-academic publications.  Her third book was not a novel but a biography of her friend and fellow novelist Mary McCarthy titled The Company She Kept: A Revealing Portrait of Mary McCarthy (1967).  Although well received, the biography proved to be far more revealing than its subject had bargained for, with Grumbach including lengthy extracts from McCarthy's personal letters to her without first gaining her subject's permission to do so.  (It's not recorded if this breach of literary etiquette permanently damaged the friendship but it's likely that it did, given McCarthy's legendary fondness for feuding with her fellow writers.) 

Grumbach spent most of 1971 in Saratoga Springs helping to organize an external degree program being offered by Empire State College.  The following year saw her divorce her husband and begin a relationship with Sybil Pike, who thereafter became her permanent life partner.  Grumbach was also offered and accepted a position as literary editor of The New Republic at this time, remaining with the magazine until it was sold and its new owners fired her.  By this time she and Pike had moved from New York to Washington DC, where in 1975 she became Professor of American Literature at American University, supplementing her academic income by writing a regular column for The New York Times Book Review.  She retained her Professorship until 1985, when she resigned from the school so that she and Pike could open Wayward Books, a secondhand bookstore on Capitol Hill.  They successfully ran the store together for the next five years, when they relocated it and themselves to the small Maine fishing village of Sargentville.

Grumbach's writing career began again in earnest during the late 1970s with the publication of her third novel Chamber Music (1979), a tale based on the unhappy lives of homosexual American composer Edward MacDowell and his lesbian wife Marian.  Her next three novels –– The Missing Person (1981), The Ladies (1984) and The Magician's Girl (1987) –– were all inspired by the lives and struggles of real women, specifically Marilyn Monroe, a Welsh lesbian couple named Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (who bravely defied Victorian convention by living together openly as gay women for close to half a century), the doomed American poet Sylvia Plath and legendary New York photographer Diane Arbus.  These novels, in which lesbian love was treated as a natural and positive part of life, established their unflinchingly honest author as one of America's foremost GLBT writers and helped to create a market for her six volumes of memoirs, beginning in 1991 with Coming Into The End Zone and ending with the 2001 publication of The Pleasure of Their Company.  All this work did not prevent her from planning an unwritten biography of Willa Cather, accepting teaching positions at the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa or appearing regularly to review books and discuss literature on National Public Radio and the PBS current affairs program The McNeil-Lehrer Newshour.

Doris Grumbach celebrated her ninety-sixth birthday in July 2014 and now lives in an assisted care nursing home in upstate New York.  A self-described 'hermit' who published a non-fiction book titled Fifty Days of Solitude in 1994, she may not find the loneliness of old age as burdensome as it no doubt feels to many of her fellow nonagenarians.  As she once told a reporter:  'It seems to me –– this sounds very odd –– the life that you lead in your mind –– with your eyes and your ears in one place –– serves you well in old age.'

Click HERE to read The View from 90, a thought-provoking essay about solitude and the aging process by DORIS GRUMBACH originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of The American Scholar.  Many of her novels and non-fiction works remain in print and are still available via your local bookstore or favorite online retailer.

You might also enjoy:
WILLA CATHER A Lost Lady (1923) 
GABRIELLE ROY Bonheur d'occasion [The Tin Flute] (1945)
BENTLEY RUMBLE The Second Chance (2004)

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