Saturday, February 9, 2013

My Mother’s Books, Part 2--Faith Baldwin (1893-1978)

 Marriage-in-trouble, second chance at love, love triangles, big misunderstandings, and other tropes I regularly toss around in discussing romance novels today, I first learned about reading my mother’s books. I might have lacked the vocabulary to talk about these tropes then, but the stories that contained them were the topic of many conversations I had about books with my mother and my best friend. None of the writers we were reading handled these timeless themes better than Faith Baldwin.

Faith Baldwin was the Nora Roberts of her day. In 1936, at the height of her popularity, she had five novels serialized in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Ladies Home Journal, published three novels that were serialized the previous year, and saw four of her books adapted as films, including Wife vs. Secretary starring Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Myrna Loy and Love Before Breakfast starring Carole Lombard, Preston Foster, and Cesar Romero. Adjusting for inflation, Baldwin’s 1936 salary would be more than $5 million today.

Although Baldwin never approached the number of novels Roberts has written (200 plus), she was amazingly prolific, writing more than 85 novels in a career that spanned fifty years. A New York Times critic in 1939 wrote admiringly of her “turning them [novels] out a mile a minute, all readable” and called Baldwin “tops in her field.” Her first book was Mavis of the Green Hill (1921), but she made her reputation writing for the popular women’s magazines of the day that produced romances as six-part serials for their large audience. She sold her first serial to Good Housekeeping in 1927, and as her popularity increased, she earned as much as $55,000 for a serialized novel. That figure translates to $725,728 in 2013 currency.

Baldwin had a knack for knowing what her audience wanted and giving it to them. Her heroines were often young, successful women who were forced to deal with conflicts between a new role (career woman) and a traditional one (homemaker). Even a skim of her titles shows how frequent this theme appeared in novels such as The Office Wife (1930), White Collar Girl (1933), and He Married a Doctor (1944). Since Baldwin was writing romance, it is no surprise that marriage always won the battle, and the HEA was arrived at with women’s traditional role supreme.

Skyscraper, first published in 1931—the year the Empire State Building opened—earned praise for offering readers “a new kind of heroine,” a woman who loved her job in the city and, unlike her predecessors, was forced to choose not between two suitors but between financial independence and true love. The heroine’s choice is a real one since company she works for enforces a policy of not employing married women. Her choice is further complicated by the time, 1930, when jobs were scarce, and by her predatory but charismatic, married (although separated from his wife) boss. The novel became a 1932 movie, Skyscraper Souls starring Maureen O’Sullivan as the heroine. In 2003, Feminist Press reissued the novel as part of its Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp series. Alicia Daly of Ms called Skyscraper "a captivating and quietly subversive novel, featuring a spunky young working woman struggling to make it on her own.” She added “Skyscraper declares that despite all challenges, women should insist on their right to have it all."

Working girl heroines or not, Baldwin’s fictional world was largely one of fashionable clothing, private railway cars, and more than merely comfortable incomes. Such a world evidently held great appeal for Depression-era readers who found in Baldwin’s stories escape from the burdens of their own lives. Baldwin’s success was due to her ability to provide the escape while at the same time assuring her readers that the relationship her protagonists built were based on love and honesty, qualities available even to those denied ermine-collared bed jackets. Baldwin was not bothered by those labeled her fiction escapist. In fact, she took pride in offering her readers “some way to get out of themselves” and ruefully acknowledged that the decline in her sales numbers after World War II began could be attributed to the real world offering more excitement than her fictional one.

Sales may have been fewer, but Baldwin still had many tears of success ahead of her. Her books were still being adapted for film: Apartment for Peggy, filmed by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1948; Horsie, filmed by Robert Stillman Productions in 1951; and Queen for a Day, filmed by United Artists in 1951. In the earliest period of network television, she hosted a thirty-minute anthology for ABC, the Faith Baldwin Romance Theater. From 1958 to 1965, she wrote a monthly column for Woman’s Day called “The Open Door.” Even in its final years, the column drew 300 or more letters from readers each month and earned Baldwin as much as $850 per column (US$ 6,255 in 2013).

Baldwin continued writing well into her 80s. Hollywood no longer came calling, but a series Baldwin wrote in the 1970s found a readership. Building on one of her most popular books, Station Wagon Set (1939), Baldwin set another six books in Little Oxford: Any Village (1971), No Bed of Roses (1973), Time and the Hour (1974), New Girl in Town (1975), Thursday’s Child (1976), and Adam’s Eden (1977). By this time, a new generation of romance readers was immersed in Harlequin’s more sensual Harlequin Presents books in which Anne Mather shattered a taboo by including premarital sex and Kathleen Woodiwiss’s many imitators were producing historicals with an unprecedented sizzle factor. But other readers were still finding comfort in the final books of Faith Baldwin. I know because my mother was among those readers, and while I was reading Mather and Woodiwiss, I was also still reading my mother’s books.

Marriage-in-trouble books and second-chance-at-love stories are two of my favorite themes. When I look back, I can identify books from my mother’s bookshelves that introduced me to the tropes and fostered my love of them? What’s your favorite romance trope? Can you remember the first book that made you aware of how much you like the theme?


quantum said...

Lovely tribute to your mum Janga.

Not sure that I have a favourite romance trope. Though thinking about it, I do particularly like romance entangled with adventure in the wild outdoors. Perhaps Elizabeth Lowell or Catherine Anderson brought this type of story into focus for me.

As a youngster I was simillar to your Grand who is taken with sports. I had little time for stories or girls .... much to the chagrin of my English teacher! LOL

Janga said...

Thanks, Q. I think the sports interest is a common masculine trait. I know my brother and nephews all went through stages where they read little because of sports. They are all readers now since their sports, except for occasional rounds of golf, are of the armchair variety. I expect the sports-mad grand will follow the same pattern.

gleecady said...

I wish I remembered Faith Baldwin. I do remember loving the Cadell books which I borrowed from the public library. I was probably 13 and the librarians let me roam the Adult section freely. My mother shared her condensed book where I discovered Victoria Holt but also Thomas Costain's historical novels which seem romantic as I remember them, particularly "Below the Salt". But the ones that were important to Mom were the stories of Kathleen Norris who wrote about working class girls in the American west and the choices they needed to make. I'm quite sure they reflected her own life as she went to secretarial school and married someone above her migrant farm worker parents' class. She certain,y taught me to love books and I have neve understood why my brothers didn't catch it.

gleecady said...

I do apologize for the typos above. The client just would not let me correct....

Janga said...

Gleelady, I read Kathleen Norris too, although it has been many years. I remember hers as being darker than the others.

I loved Victoria Holt's books. In fact, I wrote a piece about Holt recently for Heroes and Heartbreakers. Cadell will be the topic of my post Saturday, February 23. I hope you'll stop by and comment on your reading memories of her books then.