One of the joys of this project is being occasionally rewarded with something much weirder than expected; but this is the rare case of fiction intended for the teenage reader BEING COMPLETELY INSANE ON EVERY LEVEL.
Background: The Whitman Authorized Editions series featured unrelated stories “starring” Hollywood actresses of the 1940s. Various volumes included Betty Grable, Ann Sheridan, Gene Tierney, Shirley Temple and Judy Garland.
As noted over at the Vintage Series Books For Girls website, these books fall into two categories. In the first, the famous actress is depicted as herself, solving various mysteries while on vacation or visiting her hometown (sometimes while In Disguise). In the second, the main character has the name and appearance of a famous actress, but exists in an “alternate realty”, where, say, Dorothy Lamour is a common secretary.
The Plot: This edition falls into the latter category, so we are introduced to Ginger Rogers, but not Ginger Rogers the movie star, Ginger Rogers the night switchboard operator at the luxurious Seaview Arms hotel in southern California. As we can see through the copious illustrations, Ginger is deeply into her Academy Award winning/Kitty Foyle/Serious Actress phase of her career:
The Seaview Arms is owned by French expat Madame DuLhut, and strives to provide every amenity to its wealthy guests, so Ginger and her fellow night-operator, Patsy, have duties more like personal secretaries than switchboard operators, as they arrange for all sorts of special services and rendezvous for the hotel’s guests, and they in turn are showered with flowers and candy from the grateful guests, who only know them as “Number 7” and “Number 4”.
“My oper-r-ators shall have zee extra talent,” Madame said decisively in her delightful accent. “Zay must be efficient. Ah, yes! But zay must also have imagination, poise, an ingr-r-ratiating manner of speech- weez veree be-e-autiful voices. Zay must have tact.”
One of Ginger’s regular callers is wealthy world traveler Mr. Dunlop, who tends to his various estates throughout the world via Ginger’s switchboard.
One night Ginger receives a call from Mr. Dunlop’s New York butler, frantic about stockpiling bags of sugar. Ginger seems a little short on zee tact, as she repeatedly asks Mr. Dunlop “Your butler, he is Japanese, isn’t he?” despite the fact her query goes ignored, and Mr. Dunlop is just very insistent about getting his 400 pounds of sugar.
Then the next morning Pearl Harbor is attacked.
Madame announces that she is going to convert the hotel into housing for local munitions workers, which is greeted with enthusiasm by the multi-national staff:
“Bravo, Bravo!” came from the throat of Giuseppe, the Italian maitre-d’hotel.
“Magnifique!” exclaimed Gaston, the French chef with empathetic gestures.
“Vonderfui!” cried Adolph, the German pastry cook.
“That’s fine!” “Hurray!” “A swell idea!” were the words of Americans who were born here. But they were no more enthusiastic than those who were America’s adopted children.
And this is where things start to get WEIRD AND CONFUSING!
We spend a lot of time dealing with Ginger’s home life, and her relationship with her mother. Which is complicated. Mrs. Rogers has all kinds of rules about who her daughter can and cannot date, seemingly because Ginger’s father was a millionaire playboy. But the very mention of her absent father sends her mother into hysterics, so Ginger doesn’t bring him up that much. She has never met him and doesn’t even know his name, or why her parents separated.
Mrs. Rogers is especially concerned about Gregg Phillips, one of Ginger’s potential suitors, and former guest at the Seaview Arms:
“What would he know about love, the love of a girl like you! Men like Gregg Phillips are spoiled rascals. They run after every pretty face they see, for the thrill of it… Even marriage wouldn’t stop it. Women run after men like Gregg Phillips, even after they are married, and tear everything apart that gets in their way. He would destroy you, everything good about you, and he shall not do it! I shall not let him do it!”
So, this seems like a good place to reveal that the author of the book, Lela Rogers, is the real-life Ginger Rogers’ real-life mother. And apparently she and Ginger’s father had an extremely acrimonious real-life divorce. So, she seems to be working out some issues of her own here (Ma Rogers would later become infamous as a movie-industry Commie-hunter later in the decade).
Here is the illustration on the facing page, depicting Mrs. Rogers having hysterics:
One evening Madame DuLhut calls Ginger into her office, to give her a mysterious package that has arrived with no return address. Inside is the titular opera cloak (finally!)
That very night Ginger has a date with Miles Harrington, a young man whom Ginger recently met at a party. Madame tut-tuts over Americans’ puritanical ideas, since Mrs. Rogers approves of this date, but not of Gregg. Ginger also explains that her mother is going to have a huge problem with her accepting impractical outerwear from mystery admirers, but as Madame puts it:
“ZheeZhee, you are, what you call, ‘stuck weez eet’!”
That night Miles calls her to find out what kind of dress she’ll be wearing to the Hollywood Premiere they are going to, and drops some extremely awkward hints about how the florist has some beautiful blue corsages that would go really well with something bright red… doesn’t she have some sort of bright red wrap she could wear…?
When Miles arrives at the Rogers bungalow, he expresses disappointment when Ginger appears in her white wrap. Eventually he so is charming that Mrs. Rogers lets her daughter out of the house wearing the cloak from person or persons unknown.
Miles takes Ginger to the premiere, where she observes him surreptitiously swap packs of cigarette with a “Satan-faced man” who has been giving them the stink-eye all evening. Then they go to The Mocambo for dancing, but Miles is called away to the telephone, leaving Ginger at the table alone. How proper is Ginger?
She was thirsty. Surely it would be alright if she sipped her lemonade. But no, she must be polite and wait until Miles returned. Well, he would probably be back in a minute or two. But five tedious, long-drawn-out minutes passed and Miles still had not come back.
I think even Mrs. Rogers would agree that if your date up and leaves you, it is okay to drink some lemonade before you die of thirst.
Luckily, Gregg Phillips is sitting nearby with Mr. Bagnall, another hotel guest who is also the head engineer at the local aircraft plant (real-life director Jacques Tourneur also drops in for a cameo). When Miles never returns, Gregg offers to drive Ginger home, after dropping off Mr. Bagnall at the hotel.
AND NOW THINGS GET SUPER WEIRD AND CONFUSING!
Near the hotel, Ginger spots Miles’ car, abandoned, and the trio goes poking through the bushes and discovers Miles, near-death and in a pool of his own blood. Mr. Bagnall deals with getting Miles medical care, and Ginger drives through the streets of Los Angeles with Gregg hanging off of her running board (Purpose? Unclear). Ginger and Gregg decide that they are in love, and he wants to elope right away, but Ginger wants to bring her mother around to the idea.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Rogers is awake when Ginger is returned by a man who was not the one who picked her up and has more hysterics and STARTS BEATING UP HER DAUGHTER, before she finally runs sobbing to bed and collapses.
There is a lot going on at the Seaview Arms switchboard the following night. The phone company shows up to work on Mr. Dunlop’s telephone line, which isn’t working, and they are short-staffed because the early morning operator has quit for greener pastures, taking a job at a local bar that utilizes a “switchboard jukebox” to play records.
Madame is acting suspiciously, asking a lot of questions about Ginger’s date with Miles and Ginger starts suspecting her of being a Vichy sympathizer. She abruptly dismisses Ginger from her office, and Ginger overhears her making a phone call concerning someone named “Rogers”.
Then Gregg shows up and announces that he is going to take Ginger to meet her long-lost father. Who is an FBI agent (it is never explained what Gregg does exactly. Does he work for the aircraft plant? Is he also an FBI agent? Just a wealthy meddler?)
Ginger figures out that the phone-repairman was a fake, and that Mr. Dunlop is a Fifth Columnist who arranged to have Mr. Bagnall’s phone tapped. Ginger arranges a rendezvous with him at a seedy bar, leaving Patsy to have hysterics:
Mr. Dunlop and his spies are planning to murder Ginger after getting information out of her that, by this point, I am so confused that I can’t even ascertain what that information is. Luckily, she learns that her old switchboard pal is the jukebox operator and is able to pass a message back to the Seaview Arms switchboard and her father comes to her rescue, hungry for enemy-agent blood:
“Get behind me. These birds might want to make a break for it and save the government a lot of expense.”
Her parents are reunited after Mrs. Rogers learns her husband lost all of his money in the stock market crash and therefore won’t be appealing to “designing women” any more. Gregg is also now A-OK with her. Miles turns out to be Madame’s long-lost grandson, because why not? Mr. Dunlop sent the opera cloak, to signal his fellow-spies at the movie premiere. Riddle solved.
This description only scratches the surface of how bizarre this story reads, from the hyperactive use of adjectives, to the chase scenes that go literally nowhere, to the plot that makes zero sense.
And the most important question never gets answered! At the beginning of the story was Ginger inadvertently passing coded messages to the enemy? Is this whole thing some kind of alternate history piece where Imaginary Ginger Rogers causes the bombing of Pearl Harbor? And if so, WHY WOULD HER REAL-LIFE MOTHER WRITE ABOUT THAT???