Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Red-Headed Woman By Katharine Brush

(Click here for information on the 2018 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This week, the August selection, Katharine Brush’s Red-Headed Woman

Kathrine Brush was a prolific documenter of the Jazz Age, through a number of short stories published in magazines such as Collier’s in the 1920’s and 1930s. Her 1930 novel Young Man of Manhattan was a top seller that year, and made into film starring Claudette Colbert and Ginger Rogers. But it is this novel, published the following year, that just saves Brush from complete obscurity in 2018, due to the very popular film adaptation, starring Hollywood’s most famous platinum blonde, Jean Harlow, as the unlikely title character.

The movie, in which secretary Lil leads her married boss astray, remains infamous among pre-Code Hollywood titles because the homewrecker never gets her comeuppance. Indeed, after making a social shambles of her boss’s life, convincing him to divorce his wife and marry her, then proceed to set her sights on an even richer man, at the end we find Lil quiet happily married to an ancient sugar-daddy… and exchanging a knowing look with her hunky young chauffeur.

I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t adore the movie- and Harlow makes the role adorable. But the sentence above really does suffice to describe the plot- the movie is over in a breakneck 79 minutes.

By comparison, the novel is much more sophisticated, allowing Lil to develop more as a character, and not always in flattering ways, as well adding shading to the character and motivations of both her hapless boss and his (now much-less-hapless) ex-wife.

The book opens some months after the marriage of the former Lillian Andrews to Bill Legendre, Jr., the youngest son of the local coal baron of Renwood, Ohio. Lillian’s social ascendency in Renwood is recalled after the fact: the spectacularly beautiful daughter of a night watchman on the wrong side of the tracks, she talked her way into a secretarial position and eventually her boss out of his sainted wife’s arms and into her own.

Lillian enjoys all of the trappings of relative wealth and position in small-town Ohio:

She liked the monogram, too. With one of the L’s linked under the other, she had it embroidered on nightgowns, and on chemises, and on pockets, and on the corners of big fluttering pastel chiffon handkerchiefs. She had a die made of it, for her scented Nile-green notepaper; and a little marcasite pin to pin on hats. Almost the very first thing she had asked Bill to do for her was put “L.L.” in thin sharp black, on the doors of his cream-colored roadster.

Are you drooling yet? If so, you’re in luck, because Brush doesn’t skimp on the descriptions of art deco accoutrement, both chic and hopelessly tacky.

We learn that Lil now lives in the biggest house in town, and lives in mortal terror of her “helper”, Mrs. Hoxie (one would sooner die than refer to her as a housekeeper):

Lillian gave no orders to Mrs. Hoxie. She ventured suggestions now and then, and if they were vetoed- and they inevitably were- she nodded swift assent.

She was almost sure that Mrs. Hoxie was always right. Mrs. Hoxie had “helped” in the best families. She was afraid of making mistakes before Mrs. Hoxie. She was afraid Mrs. Hoxie would tell somebody who would tell Irene.

Irene is the ex-Mrs. Bill Legendre, the childhood sweetheart who grew up with Bill in the Country Club set, who now dominates Lil’s every waking thought. Even though she got Bill away from her, Lil now wonders just how sure her grasp is on him.

In the book, Bill comes off as quite a bit dimmer than his movie counterpart (played by Chester Morris). Gaining his position in the company through sheer nepotism, Bill shows little business acumen, and mainly mopes about how being a respectable businessman is not nearly as exciting as being a college football hero. Easily talked into marrying the only girl her ever dated, he is seemingly just as easily talked into mistaking lust for love and becoming convinced that divorcing Irene and marrying Lil is the only thing he could possibly do.

And it’s not just the idea of Irene that is making Lil crazy, it is also the fact that Bill hasn’t invited any of his country club friends around. Is he embarrassed over his own wife???

Bill finally agrees to the party, and all of his friends accept their invitations overly-casually, and Lil attempts to both win over and show up her social betters:

In the mirror she saw the chosen evening gown, the Patou copy in aquamarine-blue satin, hanging on the closet door on wooden shoulders. It should be spread out across her bed. The aquamarine-blue slippers with gold heels- $28.50 and $2.00 extra for dyeing- should be taken down from the closet shelf and out of their tissue paper, and set down side by side nearby. The coq-feather fan that she might or might not carry, the hose that she wear if she wore any, the shaped, exquisite bits of lace and ribbon- these should be assembled and disposed conveniently.

The evening’s a flop- mostly because these are Bill and Irene’s friends, and Lil is left out in the cold when it comes to old anecdotes, in-jokes, and the general interests of Bill’s friends:

This is what happened, then. This is what you got. You were the red-headed Andrews girl from Renwood Falls, from the railroad crossing, and you stole a rich husband and bought a big house, and a Chinese Buddha, and a naked dress, and you tried to crash Society- and this is what you got. You couldn’t crash it in a million years.

So, Lil throws propriety to the wind, speeding around town all hours in her monogramed roadster, wearing ever more expensive and outré evening gowns, and finally showing up at a much-anticipated Broadway roadshow on the arm of another man when Bill is away on business, sending the whole town into a frenzy of gossip.

Mrs. Hoxie is licking her chops in anticipation of Bill’s reaction when he hears all THAT. But upon Bill’s return the following night, Lil is eager to tell him all about it, including the unexpected arrival of his college roommate, “Old Pooge Fairfax” (!!!!), and how they scandalized the entire town. And Bill thinks it’s hilarious, especially when he gets to the part about elbowing her way into the men’s smoking lounge and sending a flustered society husband back to his wife with one of her own orchids in his buttonhole.

Bill in his mind looked at Louise being looked at. He guffawed suddenly. “Oh, that’s swell!” he said. “That really is.”

Lillian is in even better spirits when Bill tells her that he’s sending her on the trip to New York City that she’s been longing for. Lil was always a quick study, and she had been taking notes on every hotel, boutique, play, designer, restaurant and speakeasy that her social betters visited while in the city.

Although Bill’s introductions in New York amount to exactly one speakeasy operator, Lil and her BFF/traveling companion/personal beautician, Sally, make the most of it; within days they have social-climbed some fair distance.

Which is how Lil finally makes the acquaintance of C.G. Gaerste, the mysterious and cosmopolitan millionaire.

Gaerste and Lil are birds of a feather- he’s really the child of immigrant parents, who left school at 15, and an investor at the age of 18 in a neighborhood movie theater in Lynn, Massachusetts. By thirty-three he owned a chain of movie theaters and was worth five million dollars. Like Lil, Gaerste was a shrewd observer of his social betters; unlike Lil, he was eager to enlist waiters, valets and others who served the mega-rich into his education.

By the end of the week, he is mesmerized by Lillian, and willing to do anything to aid her disentanglement from Bill. And Lillian? Well, if she’s as good at this game as she thinks she is…

She sat smiling when they ceased talking. Smiling to herself. She thought, “A couple of years with him…”

Arriving back in Renwood to explain things to Bill and expedite a divorce, she is slightly surprised to find that Legendre, Sr., has taken her absence as an opportunity to get Bill and Irene back together, because it is extremely easy to talk Bill into things. Only slightly miffed, Lil extracts two checks from her soon-to-be-ex-father-in-law; local gossip notes one was for $5,000 and made out to Lillian Legendre- the other was post-dated four months and made out to her maiden name in the amount of $20,000.

And thus Lillian Andrews Legendre boards a train in the middle of the night headed out of Renwood forever, none the worse for the wear and $25,000 richer!

Availablity: Out of print, check your favorite sources for used copies.

My copy is a tie-in edition for the film and includes several movie stills as illustrations, accompanied by tongue-in-cheek “anthropological” captions that have nothing to do with either the book or the film:

The Red-Headed Woman uses feminine logic to prevail upon Bill to leave his wife.

The movie is available as as part of Turner Classic Movies Forbidden Hollywood collection, and through various streaming platforms.

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