Thoughts & Musings

Back to the Future:
The Best of Everything (2012) by Julie Kramer,
adapted from the 1958 novel by Rona Jaffe

© 2017 by Eileen Warburton

“It’s Sex and the City without the vibrators.”
Rona Jaffe, 2005 interview

“Best.”

What a loaded word. That’s what we all say we want, “what’s best for you—for me,” “the best for us,” “the best things in life.” Defining “best,” using other words to do it, that’s what’s difficult. Does it mean “having it all?” “Making a good choice?” Or “doing what someone in authority wants you to do?” The characters in this chick-lit drama, biding their time in the 1950s typing pool, are struggling with these variations. As were women’s options in that era, their choices are limited—but they still want that brass ring, that “best.”

Watching Caroline nervously enter the all-female typing pool leads an audience to anticipate a nostalgia play. The action, after all, is set in the 1950s. People often look back on that post-war decade through rose-tinted glasses. It was such a peaceful, prosperous time, we think. There were good jobs and opportunities. Families felt secure.

Oh, but wait. There was McCarthyism and HUAC destroying people’s reputations and careers. We kids drilled “duck-and-cover” under our desks because “the Bomb” was never far from anyone’s consciousness. The Russians were our bitter enemies. And as for opportunity? Yes, if you were male, white, straight, and shared the approved values of church and capitalism. Otherwise? Not so great.

In those days, American girls fell into two categories: ‘nice’ and ‘bad,’ defined by sexual purity or the lack of it. The categories weren’t supposed to blur at the edges. Reality was different, of course, but hidden. Female aspiration was limited: wife-and-mother, on this side—secretary, teacher, or nurse on the other—“at least until I get married.” Categories mattered. You were supposed to find a husband, not find yourself. One of the truest things about this play is the use of a defining vocabulary to keep the heroine in her assigned box: Mike Rice kindly warning Caroline to be careful not to reveal that she is “damn smart,” or the other typists sniffing her with very wary curiosity and asking if she is “ambitious.”

Fabian Publishing, where the romantic covers and titillating titles of the books mask a boring, shoddy content, is the kind of fantasy mill that churns out the dreams of these girls—love and excitement with some handsome, adoring Romeo, a gorgeous white wedding, the lovely house in the lovely suburbs, and yada-yada-yada-happily-ever-after. Rona Jaffe’s steamy, tell-all, scandalously popular, pulpy 1958 novel blew the lid off this constraining mythology. Her narrative went against the grain of what her readers expected and those readers devoured it. Nice girl serial sex. Women deliberately using sex with their male supervisors to advance in the company. Comradely support from female co-workers. Shared distain for the entitled men one was supposed to respect. Jaffe’s resolutions even reverse what the myth insisted would be the righteous results for women who violated the social norms. Happily-ever-after in domestic bliss, for example, is reserved for the girl who revels in her promiscuity and even has an unpunished abortion. While in Jaffe’s world, the girl who is simply running away from the disappointment of her dreams discovers that professional satisfaction isn’t just a temporary substitute for marriage, but a definite improvement on it.

Based loosely on her own experiences as a working girl in the publishing industry in mid-1950s Manhattan, Jaffe exposed the reality for young women trying to make it in New York in those days: the glass ceiling for college-educated women, the sex-for-advancement (or mere survival) culture, the broken promises made by two-dimensional, interchangeable men, and the comfort of friendship with other women. This reality of the workplace has changed costumes over the past sixty years, but the essentials are still pretty much with us. So much so that the work was revived as an off-Broadway play in 2012 in this adaptation by Julie Kramer by a production company called 95WordsPerMinute. To the astonished delight of everyone on the project, the play received excellent reviews and critical acclaim, it was popular, and—most of all—prominent second generation feminists came to see it and puff it in the press and on social media. Plus ca change . . .

Rona Jaffe herself was born in Brooklyn in 1931 and grew up, like Caroline, in Upper East Side affluence, earning a Radcliffe degree in 1953. By the time she had risen to associate editor at Fawcett Publications in 1958, she had written The Best of Everything on the side. She went on to become a successful, self-sustaining writer who never married. After her very popular and prophetic Mr. Right is Dead in 1965, she was picked up by editor and queen-of-mouseburgers Helen Gurley Brown to write cultural pieces for the transformed Cosmopolitan magazine with a Sex and the Single Girl (1962) slant. Jaffe died in 2006 at the age of 74, sadly, never getting to see the revival of her first work for a new generation.

This essay has been sponsored by the generous people at
Ocean State Urgent Care of Barrington

The opinions expressed in this essay
are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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