Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Stella Dallas By Olive Higgins Prouty

(Click here for information on the 2019 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. For the titles that have filmed adaptations, we will also be looking at the movies as we go along. This week, the June selection, Olive Higgins Prouty’s Stella Dallas.) 

Olive Higgins Prouty is one of those authors wildly popular in the first half of the 20th century, who has faded into obscurity, except for the  classic film adaptations of her work- in this case she’s the source for both Now, Voyager (1942) and the 1937 version of  Stella Dallas.

Portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck in an Oscar-nominated performance, the story follows the sentimental drama of Stella Martin, the daughter of a laborer in a dingy New England mill town, who attracts the attention of Stephen Dallas, a company executive from an upper-class family. They marry, but the marriage is doomed because Stella dared to rise above her station in life. After the birth of a daughter, Laurel, the Dallases separate and Stella maternally sacrifices her way through life to try and get Laurel in with the “right” kind of people. When Stephen remarries, to his childhood sweetheart, Stella sees the opportunity to set Laurel up for life and makes the ultimate sacrifice, sending her daughter away to live in high society.

In the adaptations, Stella, Stephen, and Stephen’s second wife all come off as thoroughly decent people, and Stella and Stephen’s star-crossed marriage is just impossible from the start, through no fault of any of the characters.

In Prouty’s novel, however, Stephen Dallas is kind of a turd.

In fact the source material is a much more scathing portrayal of economic and gender inequality: all of the male characters come off as fragile flowers, who have to have their delicate male egos carefully protected by the women in their lives.

As the book opens, thirteen-year-old Laurel is preparing for her annual trip to New York to see her father. Stella has made a practice of renting the worst rooms in the best hotels, doing her best to compromise between the need to economize her $350 a month “allowance” and her desire for Laurel to advance socially- while Laurel is in New York, Stella will sublet their room, retiring for a month to a cheap rooming house at the even cheaper Belcher’s Beach.

On this trip, Stephen has business to attend to, and so he sends Laurel to spend the weekend at the Long Island estate of Mrs. Morrison, a widow with three young sons. Laurel and Mrs. Morrison have an instant rapport, in large part because (unlike with her father), Laurel is free to talk about her mother with Mrs. Morrison. Mrs. Morrison eventually shares with Laurel that her own only daughter died of a childhood illness, and is sincere in her praise for Stella, noting of Laurel’s wardrobe: “I think your mother has beautiful taste.”

Only once these relationships are established, does Prouty double back and reveal Stephen and Stella’s respective stories.

Stephen hails from a wealthy Chicago society family, which is thrown into disgrace when it is revealed that patriarch-lawyer Stephen Sr., had embezzled funds from a number of charities he was entrusted with advising; when he is exposed he commits suicide.

Stephen Jr., goes to pieces when he gets the news:

Obliged as he was to bear his father’s name (why had his parents handicapped him thus?) he could never hope to succeed in any large way, he said; for who would ever trust a man with the Stephen Dallas? It spelled suicide and dishonor now.

I realize that suicide carried a greater stigma in 1923, but Stephen’s reaction still seems wildly overdramatic: after repaying the embezzled funds from his and his sister’s own trusts, the townspeople don’t seem to put out by him, and his fiancée, Helen Dane, desperately tries to reach out to him, reassuring him that she still loves him and wants to marry him. But Stephen refuses all of these overtures. His name is ruined, and he is convinced he has no choice but to slink off somewhere where he can live anonymously and in disgrace.

He does so after the women dependent on him make hasty exits- his mother does him the favor of dropping dead, while his sister accepts a position teaching school in Japan. I like to think that she just can’t deal with his theatrics and decides to put an entire hemisphere between them.

Stephen leaves the middle-west and ends up doing clerical work (“Oh no, he wouldn’t finish at the law school! He never wanted to see the law school again!”) for Cataract Mills in Millhampton, Massachusetts.

Stella Martin has stood out among her peers in the lower classes in shabby Millhampton:

Stella was ambitious. She couldn’t help but see she was different than the girl friends of her childhood. Most of them were content to take a job in the weaving rooms at the mills as soon as they had finished ninth grade…

She far outshone the other young women in Cataract Village. She was far better educated than the other girls. Stella had gone all the way through high school, and graduated in a white dress with ruffles. When Stephen met Stella she was a completing course at the State Normal School on the other side of the river.

Stella meets Stephen at a “church sociable”, although he spends the whole time brooding about how music and dancing just makes him think of Helen (“miles away, barriered and forbidden now”). Stella immediately notices that Stephen’s manners are far different than the gentleman who call upon her from the local technical school. She notices the way his clothes fit, the quality of the fabric and embroidery of his handkerchief… and when she learns that he is also college graduate, she regards him as her best opportunity yet to get out of Millhampton.

Stephen initially finds Stella beautiful, vivacious and charming, and reassures himself that she is a college graduate.  Besides:

Stephen did not want a girl to step down to him. Stephen did not want pity from the woman he married. Stella was not stepping down to him.

Stephen thought he could make her over, rub down the rough edges once they were married, once he had her alone to himself. Alone, to himself! Blinding possibility! Well, well, he must use his head, too!

At first he had great hopes for Stella.

Finally motivated to do something beyond wallowing in the disgrace of his dead father’s name, Stephen completes his studies and passes the bar, taking his place in Millhampton society. And for a season, Stella is accepted into society as something of a novelty (“Myrtle Holland took up Stella Dallas as a sort of fad that spring, her friends said.”)

But what the manor-born ladies of Millhampton could get away with, Stella cannot- especially when a new fad named Alfred Munn arrives in town to give horseback riding lessons to Millhampton’s ladies.

Ed Munn is sort of a gentleman gambler- accepted into society and invited to soirees at the country club despite his mysterious origins. While the Myrtle Hollands of town can pay an indecent amount of attention to the hunky riding instructor, there is a double standard where Stella is concerned. Her association with Ed makes Stephen insane with propriety, and is a constant source of discord in their marriage.

“Why did you ever marry me, Stella?” once he inquired despairingly. “How can a woman be crazy about a man- care for a man, and not be willing to adapt herself somewhat to him, to give up a few things for him?”

“How would it do for you to do a little of the adapting, Stephen, a little of the giving up? Why did you ever marry me?” she retorted.

Stella is initially dismayed when she discovers that she is pregnant, but upon Laurel’s birth she becomes a devoted mother to the child; meanwhile Stephen is finding more and more reasons to be away on business:

His old charm, of which he possessed no small amount, returned to him shining and bright the minute that he escaped his relationship to Stella.

The Dallases eventually fully separate, after Stephen is hired away to practice in New York, leaving his wife and daughter in Millhampton and only spending the occasional Sunday with them:

Each one was an ordeal to him, and each one a more difficult ordeal than the one before. The long period of absence tended to make him more sensitive to Stella’s offenses.

While in New York, he has a chance meeting with Helen Dane, now Helen Morrison (ah-ha!), having married a much older man who was a friend of her late father.

The reader is brought up to speed on Helen’s backstory, as after Stephen fled Chicago after refusing all contact with her, both her parents died and she stirred the tender feelings in her father’s bachelor BFF, Cornelius Morrison. Stephen seemingly lost to history for her, she accepts Cornelius’s proposal and has settled into a companionable marriage with him. Although, again, it is the woman who has to do the “adapting” in the marriage:

She avoided all intimacies that might even indefinitely disturb Cornelius.

With gentle consideration, too, she abandoned all forms of pleasure that emphasized the difference in their ages and placed him at a disadvantage.

Cornelius liked to give dinners. Helen learned to like to give them. Cornelius liked to go to the opera. Helen learned to like the opera. Cornelius liked to ride horseback. Helen learned to like to ride horseback. It was when Helen was riding horseback in Central Park one morning alone that she met Stephen Dallas.

Spoilers: Cornelius does her the favor of dropping dead soon afterward. With Helen unencumbered, and Stephen feeling like he’s put enough time and distance between his family’s disgrace that he’s able to rejoin society, he asks Stella for a divorce.

Stella does not want to give him one- savvy enough to realize that having a husband who “has business in New York which takes him there frequently” ensures her precarious social position (and more importantly, Laurel’s social position);  moreover, Stella has never given up on the idea that some day Stephen will come to his senses and return to the family.

Unfortunately, Stella’s position is compromised as we return to the present, as a couple of Millhampton’s society grande dames are out slumming at the beach and spot Stella being seen to the front door of her rooming house in Belcher’s Beach by Ed Munn. Stephen’s super-shady divorce lawyer threatens to expose Stella as an adulteress, and Stella dares him to:

“I’ll prove to the world whether I’m guilty or not of the filthy things rotten-minded people have said about me. And I’m glad of the chance, too. I hope Stephen will sue me for a divorce. I have no more done the thing you come here and accuse me of doing than your own wife, or if you’re not married, your own mother, or the woman you honor the most in the world, whoever it is, and I’ll get the best lawyer in the country to prove it.”

At a stalemate, Stephen again “nobly” gives up Helen. Hounded out of Millhampton by vicious gossip, Stella and Laurel move to Boston, Stella reasoning that the sun doesn’t rise and set on Millhampton society.

The novel skips ahead four years, and Laurel is now 17, and mother and daughter are again vacationing at a seaside resort. Laurel is definitely “in” with the society crowd, and has attracted the interest of the most eligible of young bachelors, Richard Grosvenor.

The secret of Laurel’s social success is soon revealed: for the duration of their stay, Stella has been quarantined to their room with tonsillitis. When her mother is finally up and about in a vulgar zebra-striped dress, her new friends don’t realize the connection and make a number of unkind remarks about that “Awful dame! Horrible creature!”

Humiliated, Laurel is on a mission to get them both out of town before anybody realizes they are related, in equal measures to both avoid her own embarrassment and spare her beloved mother’s feelings. On a sleeper car on the way out of town, both mother and daughter hear some nasty parents discussing Stella (and the fact that she’s Laurel’s mother) and both vow that the other must never find out.

Stella immediately goes to Long Island, where she meets with Helen, demanding to know if her intentions towards Stephen are honorable- if she grants the divorce, will she marry him? Stella demands to know if Helen will take Laurel to live with them. Helen assures her that she would never dream of trying to keep Laurel from Stella, but Stella says she misunderstands- will Helen raise Laurel as her own and make sure she gets in with the right people? Helen suddenly understands, and the women tearfully embrace, making a secret pact.

But when Stephen and Helen break the news to Laurel, she sees right through her mother’s scheme and goes flying back to Boston. Desperate, Stella pulls her last ace, the only thing that she knows will drive Laurel away: she announces her engagement to Ed Munn.

This has the desired effect of sending Laurel fleeing back to Helen and her father, but Prouty leaves it somewhat ambiguous as to whether Stella actually goes through with the marriage to Ed (who is now a dope addict and alcoholic). Purportedly in South America, Stella stops cashing her alimony checks (which Helen insists Stephen keep sending despite her “remarriage”); at any rate, Stella is working in a shirtwaist factory and tending to dope-sick Ed when she gets word about the event she has long been waiting for.

Each of the filmed adaptations closes with the famous scene of Stella stealthily watching Laurel’s marriage to Richard Grosvenor through a window, through an arrangement with Helen. In the book, the two women have a more extensive conspiracy for Stella to secretly observe her daughter’s growing up. And notably, the event Stella watches from the street isn’t a wedding, but Laurel’s coming-out party: it isn’t marital bliss that Stella wishes for her daughter, but social and cultural security.

Odds & Ends:

The material was filmed three times, with Belle Bennett, Ronald Colman, Lois Moran and a 15 year old Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Richard in 1925:

(Note the poster accurately depicts Stella’s zebra-stripe dress)

With Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Shirley and John Boles in 1937:

And as Stella with Bette Midler, Trini Alvarado, Stephen Collins and John Goodman as Ed Munn 1990:

But for many years, “Stella Dallas” was best known as a radio soap opera, running from 1937 to 1955. The series was a sequel to the book, in which Stella doesn’t quite completely go out of Laurel’s life, and instead is involved in increasingly weird adventures and misunderstandings with Laurel’s society in-laws, including a storyline where Richard’s mother accuses her of stealing an Egyptian mummy!


The book was finally back in print in 2015, thanks to the City University of New York’s Feminist Press.

The 1937 movie is available on DVD, and includes the 1925 version as a bonus feature, but unfortunately it doesn’t include a musical score! Youtube has an OK quality copy with music.

Widely considered the last and least version, Bette Midler’s Stella is also available on DVD.

The radio show is hard to come by; there are a few episodes in the collection of the Paley Center, if you’re in New York City; this site has a few other episodes to stream or download, including two from the “Egyptian Mummy” storyline. They’re worth checking out for some wonderful voice acting by Anne Elstner as Stella.

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