1940s

In the World and Of the World

"He looked straight ahead, down Fifth Avenue, where graceful women in fur coats walked, looking into the windows that held silk dresses, and watches, and rings. What church did they go to? And what were their houses like when in the evening they took off these coats, and these silk dresses, and put their jewelry in a box, and leaned back in soft beds to think for a moment before they slept of the day gone by?

The most fashionable. Unknown model and unknown photographer, 1940s.

The most fashionable. Unknown model and unknown photographer, 1940s.

Did they read a verse from the Bible every  night and fall on their knees to pray? But no, for their thoughts were not of God, and their way was not God's way. They were in the world, and of the world, and their feet laid hold on Hell." (32)


Baldwin, James. Go Tell It On The Mountain. New York: Signet, 1963 [1952].


Clothing, the worldly; religion, the eternal. The taking off of clothes enters his religious mental discourse here without sex, but instead a ritualistic aspect.

Bengal Lancer

"Wilson stood gloomily by his bed in the Bedford Hotel and contemplated his cummerbund, which lay uncoiled and ruffled like an angry snake; the small hotel room was hot with the conflict between them. Through the wall he could hear Harris cleaning his teeth for the fifth time that day. Harris believed in dental hygiene. 'It's cleaning my teeth before and after every meal that's kept me so well in this bloody climate,' he would say, raising his pale exhausted face over an orange squash. Now he was gargling; it sounded like a noise in the pipes.

Wilson sat down on the edge of his bed and rested. He had left his door open for coolness, and across the passage he could see into the bathroom. The Indian with the turban was sitting on the side of the bath fully dressed; he stared inscrutably back at Wilson and bowed. 'Just a moment sir,' he called, 'If you would care to step in here...' Wilson angrily shut the door. Then he had another try with the cummerbund.

Film still from   The Lives of a Bengal Lancer  , 1935.

Film still from The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, 1935.

He had once seen a film--was it Bengal Lancer?--in which the cummerbund was superbly disciplined. A turbaned native held the coil and an immaculate officer spun like a top, so that the cummerbund encircled him smoothly, tightly. Another servant stood by with iced drinks, and a punkah swayed in the background. Apparently these things were better managed in India. However, with one more effort Wilson did get the wretched thing wrapped around him. It was too tight and it was badly creased, and the tuck-in came too near the front, so that it was not hidden by the jacket. He contemplated his image with melancholy in what was left of the mirror." (61)

 

Greene, GrahamThe Heart of the Matter. Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1962 [1948].

 

I like thinking of Wilson having watched many movies about Brits abroad in the great Empire and imagining how lovely and well-put-together and not-at-all-sweaty his life would be. The cummerbund, a British trope of Indian origin, is here representative of all of the struggles coiling around him, unavoidable but completely unmanageable.

The Single Strain

"Annabel had invented the game; or rather she had evolved it from an old one. Basically, it was no more than the ancient sport of what-would-you-do-if-you-had-a-million dollars? But Annabel had drawn a new set of rules for it, had narrowed it, pointed it, made it stricter. Like all games, it was the more absorbing for being more difficult.

Ad for Gunther's Furs, 1937. Silver fox coat: so terribly common.

Ad for Gunther's Furs, 1937. Silver fox coat: so terribly common.

Midge played with a seriousness that was not only proper but extreme.

The single strain on the girls’ friendship had followed an announcement once made by Annabel that the first thing she would buy with her million dollars would be a silver-fox coat. It was as if she had struck Midge across the mouth.

When Midge recovered her breath, she cried that she couldn’t imagine how Annabel could do such a thing—silver fox coats were common! Annabel defended her taste with the retort that they were not common, either. Midget then said that they were so. She added that everybody had a silver-fox coat. She went on, with perhaps a slight loss of head, to declare that she herself wouldn’t be caught dead in silver fox.

For the next few days, thought the girls saw each other as constantly, their conversation was careful and infrequent, and they did not once play their game. Then one morning, as soon as Annabel entered the office, she came to Midge and said that she had changed her mind.

She would not buy a silver-fox coat with any part of her million dollars. Immediately on receiving the legacy, she would select a coat of mink.’

Midge smiled and her eyes shone. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘you’re doing absolutely the right thing.’” (30-32)

 

Parker, Dorothy. "The Standard of Living" in The Portable Dorothy Parker. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.

But how would one know such things if one didn't have such a tasteful best friend? I just love that she changes her answer and that makes everything right, just the saying of it, and how satisfied Midge is with the professed upswing in taste.