Sunday, August 7, 2011

political gossip fiction, 1940s style

So in the 1940s and 50s there was a Republican Senator from California named William Knowland. His family owned the Oakland Tribune. He was by most accounts - especially Robert Caro's in his LBJ biography - rather pompous and dim, and he immolated his own career, and most of the California Republican Party along with it,* in 1958 in an ill-advised attempt to position himself to run for President in 1960.

Not so publicly known was that Knowland was having a long-term affair with a journalist's wife, named Ruth Moody. Meanwhile, Knowland's wife, Helen, was having an affair with the journalist's wife's husband, Blair. (He later served briefly as an appointee senator himself.) Accounts differ as to who started what first, but the couples were apparently close friends while they were carrying on with each other behind each other's spouse's backs.

Anyway, I read somewhere that Helen Knowland found out about her husband's affair while keeping her own affair secret, and that she wrote a murder mystery novel about the situation. Interesting, I thought, and tracked it down by inter-library loan. Presuming that nobody else will bother to read Madame Baltimore (Dodd Mead, 1949), here's a spoilerish description.

Published as "A Red Badge Mystery," it's not actually a murder mystery at all, but a psychological crime novel, with the murder not occurring until almost halfway through, told in the first person by the murderess, as she would have been called in those days. A Washington lawyer's wife named Harriet Berkeley, she's novelistically hysterical (given to crying melodramatic lines like "Oh, I'm so unhappy" to her lover) and scatterbrained (unable to decide whether it would be better for her alibi to have her watch running fast or slow). According to William Knowland's biography, this is Helen's portrait of Ruth Moody. Harriet is having an affair with an empty suit of a political advisor named Foster Ford, so that's William. Foster's wife, Drucie (short for Drucilla, interestingly enough), is a saint. So, it turns out, is Harriet's neglected husband, Bob. Those two are not having an affair, or if they are, Harriet has not one clue of it, even subtextually. The couples are, of course, close friends.

Harriet concocts a plot to get Foster for herself by convincing Drucie to divorce him. She pens an anonymous love letter supposedly from some other lover of Foster's, and gets another male friend to mail it to Foster from Baltimore, figuring that Drucie will open the mail and see it. She does, but just before it arrives, she opens another letter that Harriet didn't write but is also from an anonymous lover of Foster's from Baltimore. None of this fazes Drucie, who innocently shows Harriet both letters, but it unhinges Harriet. Despite the fact that the letter from this Madame Baltimore, as Harriet calls her, says that she wants to break up, and Foster denies knowing anything about it, Harriet becomes madly jealous. So while Foster is off getting hamburgers for them to eat in the car on a date, Harriet sneaks his pistol out of the glove compartment, and ...

Harriet runs away and tries to get her alibi to hold together. Foster doesn't die right away, and Harriet is in such a state it doesn't seem to occur to her that if he regains consciousness he'll tell the cops who shot him. He doesn't; he dies in the hospital. Meanwhile, neither Drucie nor Harriet's husband nor the friend who mailed the letter have good alibis either, and they all put their heads together to to concoct plausible lies. This leads Harriet, via various plot complications, to confess writing one of the Baltimore letters. At which point her confederate reveals that he wrote and mailed the other letter - the one Harriet thought was real - without having told her.

The novel does not dwell on the irony here; it's too wrapped up in its plot. Harriet, feeling defeated, sits down to pen her confession. She begins to write, and the last paragraph of the novel, now in quotation marks, is the same as the first paragraph.

So was Helen hoping that Ruth would murder William and then confess it? If we're to take this as a roman a clef, maybe so.

What happened instead was: Helen Knowland dedicated the novel to her husband. He read it before publication and gave it his approval. If he recognized the characters, his biographer says, he didn't let on. Maybe he was just disarmed by the obligatory "no relation to any actual person" disclaimer. Or maybe the novel, which did not get good reviews on publication, was too stiff, because the one-sentence personality descriptions in the biography carry more life and character than do the cardboard folks in the novel. As a portrait of a woman suffering a nervous breakdown, it could stand improvement. Helen wrote another novel, but it was never published. Ruth and Blair Moody both died young. Years later, his political career in ruins, William divorced Helen to marry a woman he'd met at his new hobby, the Vegas gambling tables, and instantly regretted doing so. Within another two years he'd blown his entire family fortune and shot himself. Helen survived him.

*Leaving only Richard Nixon standing, so we have Knowland to thank for that.

No comments:

Post a Comment