Thursday, 16 March 2017

JAMES M CAIN Mildred Pierce (1941)

Robert Hale Publishing UK, date unspecified

Mildred now began to cry.  She rarely struck Veda, telling Mrs Gessler that 'the child didn't need it,' and that she 'didn't believe in beating children for every little thing.'  But this wasn't the real reason.  The few times she had tried beating, she had got exactly nowhere.  She couldn't break Veda, no matter how much she beat her.  Veda got victory out of these struggles, she a trembling, ignoble defeat.  It always came back to the same thing.  She was afraid of Veda, of her snobbery, her contempt, her unbreakable spirit.  And she was afraid of something that seemed always lurking under Veda's bland, phony toniness:  a cold, cruel, coarse desire to torture her mother, to humiliate her, above everything else, to hurt her.  Mildred yearned for warm affection from this child, such as Bert apparently commanded.  But all she ever got was a stagy, affected counterfeit.  This half loaf she had to accept, trying not to see it for what it really was.

The Novel:  As any parent knows, parental love can be a notoriously tricky thing to balance.  Too little can make a child feel neglected and unwanted, creating serious problems which can in turn affect if not completely destroy their ability to trust and relate normally to other people once they reach adulthood.  Conversely, too much love –– particularly the type of blindly unconditional love which reduces parents to the level of contemptible slaves in the eyes of their imperious offspring –– can be every bit as harmful, transforming children into egocentric monsters whose selfishness knows no bounds.  It's the latter situation James M Cain explores in Mildred Pierce, a 1941 novel that remains one of the most gripping examinations of a destructive child/parent relationship ever written and an undisputed classic of American social realism.

Mildred Pierce, the mother in question, lives in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale with her husband Bert and their two young daughters, the sweet-tempered Ray (short for Moire, pronounced Moira) and the proud and disdainful Veda.  The Depression is on and times are as tough for the Pierces as they are for most American families, with Bert owing more than he can pay on their house following the collapse of what, on paper at least, had appeared to be a promising real estate venture.  His inability to find another job after being forced to quit the company he founded has transformed Mildred into the family breadwinner, earning them a meager income by selling home-baked pies to other housewives in the neighborhood.  The downturn in their financial circumstances has placed the Pierce marriage under enormous strain, turning the young and pretty Mildred into a nag and Bert into a feckless philanderer who spends most of his evenings in the company of a buxom and somewhat brazen woman known to his family only as 'the Biederhof.'  Mildred and Bert don't exactly hate each other, but not hating each other doesn't necessarily mean they have any particular wish to remain husband and wife.

They finally agree to separate after yet another argument about their finances and Bert's distressing lack of job prospects, freeing Mildred –– who became pregnant with Veda at seventeen and has never had any job apart from wife and mother –– to take up with one of Bert's former business associates, a shrewd lawyer named Wally Burgan whom she uses her good looks, good legs and superior cooking skills to seduce in the belief he'll use his connections to help her get somewhere in life.  Their brief affair sees Wally send a little money Mildred's way while serving as a welcome distraction from the ever-present problem of how to earn enough from her neighborhood pie-baking business to support her children.  (While Bert agrees, in principle, to contribute to the cost of raising his daughters, he's still jobless and stands no real chance of finding gainful employment in the immediate future.)  

Determined to give her girls everything she believes they deserve –– nice clothes, music lessons, a permanent if modest roof over their heads –– Mildred begins pounding the pavement in search of a full-time job, only to be turned away by every employment agency she visits in the misguided hope of finding a position as a receptionist or stenographer.  Although one employment agent takes pity on her and offers her a job as a waitress in the busy restaurant of a downtown department store, she impulsively rejects it, viewing such a humdrum position as being socially beneath her.  Nor is she willing to consider a second job as live-in cook to the pretentious fiancee of a movie director, fearing the effect that accepting such a humble position might have upon the self-esteem and future social prospects of her haughty eldest daughter.  'Veda would go to her father, her grandfather, the police, or a park bench, but not even whips could make her stay with Mildred, in the Forrester garage.

But Mildred's pride and her fear of upsetting Veda don't put food on the table.  Desperate and exhausted, and now completely out of options, she somehow bluffs her way into a waitressing job in a busy Hollywood restaurant where, against the odds, she's taken under the wing of Ida, its tough-talking female manager and, between her modest salary and tips, begins to earn herself a living.  Working in Hollywood also allows her to befriend and cultivate the attentions of several important men, including a polo-playing gadabout named Monty Beragon who soon invites her to spend an enchanting, sexually gratifying weekend with him in his 'shack' built beside the picturesque shores of Lake Arrowhead.

She doesn't tell Ray or Veda about her relationship with Beragon or about her job, knowing that Veda will resent her for agreeing to do anything so common –– a suspicion that proves to be very well-founded.  Veda and her mother eventually argue about the latter's job, with Veda calling it 'degrading' and receiving a rare spanking for her trouble, only to have Mildred confess, after they've both calmed down, that she's working as a waitress in order to learn the restaurant business –– the idea being that she'll use this knowledge to open a restaurant of her own in the not too distant future.  

This admission changes everything.  Veda soon convinces herself they'll be rich one day while Mildred, for whom the idea was no more than a convenient means of mollifying her disappointed child, begins to wonder if Wally Burgan might be willing to help her arrange the loans required to fund such a risky venture.  Thus begins the long, expensive but ultimately successful transformation of Mildred Pierce, waitress and neighborhood pie-maker, into the CEO of Mildred Pierce Incorporated, owner of four busy restaurants and a bakery employing more than a dozen full-time staff including her old boss Ida and her chatty neighbor-turned-bartender Mrs Gessler.

Orion Books UK, 2002
The price Mildred pays for this success –– achieved via unrelenting hard work and her pathological need to succeed for Veda's sake –– is the death of her youngest daughter.  Leaving Ray and Veda in the care of their father, she slips away to Lake Arrowhead to enjoy another dirty weekend with Monty Beragon without bothering to inform anyone of where she's going, telling herself she's entitled to spend some time alone with her lover as a reward for the months of anxiety and drudgery she's endured while pursuing her various business ventures.  She returns to Glendale a few days later to find Ray in hospital, suffering from an unusually high fever which, despite the best efforts of several doctors to save her, quickly proves to be fatal.  

On the night of Ray's funeral, after her ex-husband and the other mourners have left the house, Mildred experiences a shameful if not exactly shocking epiphany in regard to her children.  In bed, her remaining daughter asleep and wrapped securely in her arms, she feels 'a guilty, leaping joy that it had been the other child who was taken from her, and not Veda.'  Ray's death has freed her, she realizes, to pour all her time and energy into improving if not perfecting Veda's life.  All she wants in return is for the girl to acknowledge her efforts and speak the words of kindness that will make her years of hard work, deprivation, loss and self-sacrifice somehow feel worthwhile.

Success follows success for Mildred, with her restaurants filled to capacity each night and her relationship with Veda improving, at least superficially, as the money rolls in –– money she's more than happy to spend on fine clothes, private music lessons, and, in time, on a car for her demanding but attractive harpy of a daughter.  Beragon receives his share of the bounty too, regularly accepting 'small loans' from Mildred after his family loses its fruit growing business and most of its once-impressive fortune thanks to the combination of the Depression, bad management and labor trouble.  Mildred is compensated for this by Beragon's apparently selfless plan to make a project of Veda, introducing her to his family –– something he's failed to do in Mildred's case, despite having been her lover for several years by this time –– and his wealthy Pasadena friends, all of whom naturally find themselves captivated by the girl's beauty, charm, wit and talent.  In time, he and Veda become a kind of high society double act, teasing Mildred for being the owner of a restaurant called The Pie Wagon while ignoring the fact that it's the success of this same humble establishment which feeds, clothes and houses them in the style to which they've both become so contentedly accustomed.  

Things come to a head, however, when Beragon's constant need for money costs Mildred the chance to buy Veda the grand piano she's been saving up to buy her, leading to a wild unreasoning tantrum on the girl's part which ends with Veda banging out the Can-Can on their old piano in what her mother describes as a very 'vulgar' way.  Realizing, finally, that Beragon is only using her to support his playboy lifestyle, Mildred extricates herself from their relationship, only to see Beragon retaliate by telling her the truth about what her obsessive desire to gain her daughter's love is one day likely to cost her.

Truly alone for the first time since her divorce, Mildred now devotes all her time to the cause of improving Veda's life by whatever means possible.  She buys the girl the piano she craves, arranging to return home at the same time each afternoon so she can listen to her practice on it before she's due back at work to supervise the evening rush.  Veda has a natural gift for music and seems destined for a career as a concert performer, only to have these hopes dashed when her piano teacher succumbs to tuberculosis, obliging her to audition for a new teacher whose silence on the subject of her playing speaks volumes about her chances of making the grade on the concert stage.  Hurt, disappointed and denied the thing she wants most for the first time in her life, Veda sinks into a funk that sees her give up music altogether and seldom leave her room –– a situation that persists until she abruptly snaps out of it one day and begins to pal around with a crass would-be starlet named Elaine, informing her worried mother, when asked for an explanation, that she now intends to pursue a career as an actress.  While her exceptional beauty makes this a realistic career choice in many ways, it's not casting directors Veda has her sights set on conquering.  What she wants to conquer, and very quickly does, is the heart of Sam Forrester, son of the same pretentious woman whose home, unbeknownst to her, her mother was offered the job of cook in prior to becoming the CEO of Mildred Pierce Incorporated.

Veda's feelings for this boy prove to be no more than a ploy designed to gain her money and the elevated social status that accompanies it.  Insisting she's pregnant by Sam, Veda shamelessly uses this unconfirmed diagnosis to put the squeeze on his mother and his movie director stepfather, forcing them to pay her off in exchange for her not taking her sordid story to the gossip magazines.  Mildred and Bert, naïvely believing their daughter to be the innocent victim of the boy's uncontrolled but understandable lust, hire a private detective to find him so he can be forced to marry her, only to have the truth turn round and bite them when Veda admits the whole thing has been a financially motivated scam on her part.  

'How could you do such a thing?' a shocked Mildred now demands to know.  'If you had loved the boy, I wouldn't have a word to say… To love is a woman's right, and when you do, I hope you give everything you have, brimming over.  But just to pretend you loved him, to lead him on, to get money out of him –– how could you do it?'  Veda, unruffled as ever by her mother's accusations, coolly replies that she was merely following in Mildred's own footsteps, doing the same thing she herself did when she tricked Bert –– who was then a wealthy man with the prospect of becoming an even wealthier one ahead of him –– into marrying her by becoming pregnant by him.  Taking money from the Forresters, Veda explains, would have bought her the one thing she values above everything else –– the chance to escape from her mother and the cloying life they live together.  'From you,' she tells the shattered Mildred, 'and your Pie Wagon and your chickens, and your waffles, and your kitchens, and from everything that smells of grease.'  This is too much to bear, even for a lifelong masochist like Mildred, so she tells Veda to go ahead and leave if she hates her and the life she's worked so tirelessly to give her.  This time, Veda is happy to oblige, immediately packing her belongings into her car and driving off with no intention of returning.

Six months later, not having heard so much as a word from her daughter in the meantime, Mildred receives a call from Bert, inviting her to attend a broadcast Veda is scheduled to give on the radio that week.  As staggered as she is by this news, she's doubly shocked to learn that Veda will be performing as a colatura soprano and not, as she anticipated, as a pianist.  Singing, it seems, has become Veda's new career, her gift recognized by the same piano teacher who rejected her as a piano student following her disastrous audition for him.  Still feeling hurt by the cruel remarks Veda made before fleeing in her car, Mildred decides to stand her ground this time, promising herself she'll keep away from her daughter until Veda herself is ready to arrange their reunion.

But this effort is not forthcoming from Veda and, with her daughter's career now visibly on the rise, Mildred soon swallows her pride and devises a plan to pay for her vocal coaching, certain her teacher will tell the girl what she's done and recommend they reconcile.  The teacher, however, surprises and then offends Mildred by telling her that Veda, while superbly talented, is nothing but a cold heartless bitch who'll stop at nothing to get her own way.  Faced with the unthinkable prospect of being cut out of her daughter's life forever, Mildred decides to solve the problem of arranging their reunion by enlisting the aid of the still charming but now even more impoverished Monty Beragon.

Mildred pays a call on Beragon at his crumbling family estate –– a property he's unsuccessfully been attempting to sell for the past three years –– and, despite the weight she's gained and what it's done to her no longer young body, easily seduces him.  This done, she then proposes marriage to him and offers to buy his house –– proposals, she knows, that he's unlikely to refuse, given the precarious state of his finances and her now considerable wealth.  Mildred's plotting soon achieves the desired result.  Beragon arranges a surprise wedding banquet for them and Mildred is delighted, and relieved, to find Veda numbered amongst the guests.  Mother and daughter soon reconcile, reminiscing late into the night about Ray and their old life in Glendale like two old friends as though no rift had ever driven them apart.  Veda is back where she belongs and Mildred resumes her old habit of doing whatever it takes to please her daughter, remodeling her new house in the hope that Veda will agree to live there permanently with herself and Beragon, who's almost immediately kicked out of the marital bed into a room of his own now that he's no longer required to serve as their go-between.

Mildred is happy –– deliriously so, despite the war in Europe and the slump in what, until now, had been her efficiently run restaurant and catering businesses –– and shares the happiness by giving Veda everything her heart desires, frequently doctoring the books to hide these extravagances from her accountant despite the fact her daughter has acquired a major sponsorship deal and is earning a comfortable living of her own as an opera singer.  The thefts continue to the point where Mildred no longer has the cash on hand required to pay her suppliers, who band together under the leadership of her old friend Wally Burgan to have her declared bankrupt, entitling them to take over Mildred Pierce Incorporated –– a deal which sees them gain exclusive commercial rights to the name 'Mildred Pierce' as well.  

Publisher unspecified, c 1945
As catastrophic as this is, worse is yet to come.  Arriving home late that same night, in need of comfort and support after having rejected Wally's idea of asking Veda to contribute to her expenses and possibly save her business by doing so, Mildred finds her daughter's room empty and goes to ask Beragon if he knows where she is.  Where Veda is, it turns out, is in her stepfather's bed, naked and not at all embarrassed at being discovered making love to him by her outraged mother.  'Look what a pest she is to me,' she casually quips to Beragon, the man she's been sleeping with behind Mildred's unsuspecting back for years.  'I literally can't open my mouth in a theater, or a radio studio, or anywhere, that she isn't there, bustling down the aisle, embarrassing me before people, all to get her share of the glory, if any.'  Mildred, her illusions about her daughter irrevocably shattered, attacks the girl, digging her fingers into her throat in a crazed effort to strangle her until a disgusted Beragon eventually succeeds in dragging her away.

In the end, however, Veda benefits from her mother's attempt to murder her, faking a serious injury to her vocal chords in order to nullify her current sponsorship deal and obtain a new and significantly more lucrative one with a rival company.  Veda also uses the associated publicity to stage a heartwarming if utterly calculated public reunion with her mother who, of course, has now lost everything –– husband, business, any chance of restoring her fortune or regaining her self-respect.  The only thing that Mildred has left in her hollow husk of a life is Bert, whom she remarries after moving to Reno to obtain an uncontested divorce from Beragon.  And it's Bert, weak and broken though he is, who gives her what's probably the most practical piece of advice she's ever been given about their monstrous offspring.  'To hell with her,' he says as they sit down together one evening to drown their respective sorrows in whiskey.  'I said, to hell with her!'

James M Cain once told an interviewer that he did not write whodunits or thrillers but really wrote 'love stories' –– a strange admission for a novelist who's now regarded as one of the greatest hard-boiled crime writers the United States has ever produced.  But Cain's statement isn't as misleading as it soundsMildred Pierce is a love story of a kind, albeit a love story that focuses on the dark, destructive aspects of that emotion and what it does to an impetuous, weak-willed woman who lacks the self-awareness and the self-control required to see her daughter as the unrepentant sociopath she is.  Mildred herself is a masterful creation –– a determined, resourceful, highly sensual woman (her re-discovery of her sexuality following her separation from Bert is one of the book's main themes and drives a good deal of its plot) who's also a masochistic doormat, devoting her life to a child who repays her devotion by openly despising and then casually betraying her.  While Cain's work is often compared with that of his contemporaries Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, these comparisons don't really apply in the case of Mildred Pierce –– a novel, to my mind, that has more in common with Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900), John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra (1934) and similar groundbreaking works of American social realism than it does with acknowledged classics of the detective genre like The Maltese Falcon (1930) or The Big Sleep (1939).  There's no 'crime' to speak of in Mildred Pierce –– no murders (at least, no successful ones), no kidnappings, no burglaries.  The only crimes it depicts are the moral and unfortunately all too common ones of vanity, greed, selfishness and unconscionable ingratitude.

The Writer:  James Mallahan Cain was born on 1 July 1892 in the naval town of Anapolis, Maryland.  His mother was an opera singer and his father a college professor who became President of Washington College, located in the nearby community of Chestertown, in 1903.  'My childhood was nothing but one long lesson,' Cain recalled in an interview published in The Paris Review shortly after his death on 27 October 1977, 'not “preventative” but “preventive”; not “sort of a” but “a sort of”; not “those kind,” but “that kind” or “those kinds.” Jesus Christ, on and on and on'  Despite this, Cain went on to attend the college his father so pedantically presided over, eventually graduating from it in 1910.

Writing was not Cain's first choice of career.  He hoped to follow in his mother's footsteps and become an opera singer but was forced to abandon this ambition after being advised by a world-renowned teacher that his voice simply wasn't good enough to allow him to turn professional.  After spending three years as an instructor in English and Mathematics at his old alma mater, Cain worked briefly for two different Baltimore newspapers before enlisting in the US Army.  He spent the final year of World War One in France, editing a publication called The Lorraine Cross, the official military newspaper of the 79th Infantry Division.  He returned to civilian newspaper work following his discharge, regaining his pre-enlistment position as a reporter on the Baltimore Sun.

By 1920 Cain was married to the first of his four wives and regularly contributing articles and satirical pieces to prestigious literary publications including The Atlantic Monthly and The Nation.  He also worked for a time as coal miner –– a job which no doubt contributed to him contracting the lung disease tuberculosis –– prior to divorcing his first wife in 1923, after which he returned to St John's College in Anapolis to teach journalism for a year.  The publication of his first piece in the American Mercury led to a meeting with its nationally celebrated editor HL Mencken, who encouraged him to move to New York City, which he did in 1924, soon obtaining a post as an editorial and features writer for The New York World.  New York was to remain Cain's base for the next seven years and saw him work for a variety of newspapers and magazines –– including The New Yorker –– prior to the 1930 publication of his first book, a collection of satirical sketches titled Our Government.  During this period he also wrote and published many of the short stories that would later go on to establish his reputation as one of America's greatest crime writers.

In 1931 Cain, now married for the second time, decided to quit his job at The New Yorker and relocate to Hollywood.  'I couldn't manage the New York idiom,' he explained in his final interview.  'If you can't write like New York, you have no business living in New York and making New York the locale of your stories When I got out to California, I found the people there spoke my lingo.  They use a little better grammar in California than they do in Maryland, but what was even better for me was the roughneck who uses fairly good grammar.  I found by putting the story in his mouth it wasn't so knobby and gnarled for the reader.  It would kind of go along easy reading.  So, suddenly, out there in California I began writing in the local idiom.  Everything broke for me.'  From this point on, Cain would combine the writing of novels –– his debut novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934 and became a scandalous bestseller –– with his new job as a screenwriter, providing scenarios and dialogue, often uncredited, for more than twenty films, several of which were based either wholly or partly on his own fiction.  

It would be as a screenwriter and a provider of story material to Hollywood that Cain would achieve his greatest fame, with the screen adaptations of his 1943 magazine serial Double Indemnity (1944, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray) and his novels Mildred Pierce (1945, directed by Michael Curtiz with Joan Crawford playing the title role) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, directed by Tay Garnett and starring John Garfield and Lana Turner) all going on to become classics of the post-war film-noir genre.  Cain's work also served as the basis for many foreign films, including Pierre Chanal's Le Dernier Tournant (1939) and Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943).

JAMES M CAIN, c 1975
Cain divorced his second wife in 1942 and married his third, the former silent film actress Aileen Pringle, in 1944 –– a marriage which ended acrimoniously within a year.  In 1946 he published a Civil War novel, Past All Dishonor, and began lobbying for the establishment of an organization to be known as the American Authors Authority which, he hoped, would preserve and protect authors' copyrights and aid them in any legal disputes they might have with publishers and movie studios.  The idea made him an unpopular figure in Hollywood, with some of his fellow writers –– fearful of biting the powerful hands that fed them –– even going so far as to accuse him of being a Communist.  Undaunted by this serious threat to both his reputation and his livelihood, Cain continued to campaign for the establishment of his authors' protection agency, only to abandon the idea the following year when the House Un-American Activities Committee and the 'witch-hunts' it carried out for the alleged purpose of exposing 'Communist infiltration of the film industry' saw the careers of many of his fellow writers destroyed literally overnight. 

Cain, now married for the final time to opera singer Florence MacBeth (who died in 1966), left Hollywood and returned to Maryland where he continued to write novels –– including The Butterfly (1947), The Moth (1948), Galatea (1953) and Mignon (1963) –– until 1965.  The market for crime writing had changed drastically by this time, causing many readers to overlook him until the 1969 publication of Cain x 3, an omnibus edition of his three most famous novels edited and introduced by novelist, Rolling Stone journalist and respected social commentator Tom Wolfe.  Its modest success allowed Cain to publish two more novels –– Rainbow's End (1975) and The Institute (1976) –– prior to his death in 1977.  His final novels, Cloud Nine and The Enchanted Isle, were published posthumously in 1984 and 1985 respectively, the latter being filmed a decade later as Girl In The Cadillac with former Playboy model and Baywatch actress Erika Eleniak playing the title role.

Click HERE to read the full 1978 interview with JAMES M CAIN by DAVID ZINSSER published in the online archive of The Paris Review.  Many novels and stories by JAMES M CAIN –– including The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Mildred Pierce (1941) –– remain in print and can still be obtained via your local library, bookstore or preferred online retailer.

The 1945 film version of Mildred Pierce, directed by MICHAEL CURTIZ and featuring JOAN CRAWFORD in the title role, is still available on DVD and BluRay in many regions of the world, as is the 1946 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, directed by TAY GARNETT and starring JOHN GARFIELD and LANA TURNER.  A second adaptation of the latter book, based more closely on CAIN's original novel and featuring JACK NICHOLSON and JESSICA LANGE in the roles originally played by GARFIELD and TURNER, was made by BOB RAFELSON in 1981 and is also available on DVD and BluRay, as are several other films –– including Butterfly (1982) and Girl In The Cadillac (1995) –– which are either wholly or partly adapted from CAIN's work.

Random House Inc/HBO tie-in edition, 2011

A five part television adaptation of Mildred Pierce –– directed and co-written by TODD HAYNES and starring KATE WINSLET as Mildred, EVAN RACHEL WOOD as Veda and GUY PEARCE as Monty Beragon –– premiered as a HBO mini-series in 2011.  It adheres far more closely to the plot of the book than the 1945 film version, entirely abandoning the film's complicated murder mystery plot and its attempts to portray Mildred as a basically 'good' woman who plays no part in provoking her own destruction.  The series has since been released as a Region 1 US DVD, many 'user reviews' of which can be read by clicking HERE.   

You might also enjoy:
JOHN O'HARA Appointment in Samarra (1934)
DOROTHY WHIPPLE Someone at a Distance (1953) 

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