This 60-Year-Old Novel About Sexual Harassment Was Ahead Of Its Time
Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything outlined the dynamics and the costs of sexual harassment, decades before anyone talked openly about it.
“Back then, people didn’t talk about not being a virgin … They didn’t talk about abortion. They didn’t talk about sexual harassment, which had no name in those days.” So explains Rona Jaffe in her foreword to the 2005 reissue of her 1958 novel about the careers and love lives of five young women working in publishing in New York City. Jaffe had interviewed 50 women to research her debut novel, and she noticed many similar threads in their collective experiences. The Best of Everything was groundbreaking for its candor in portraying the realities of being a “working girl” in the 1950s and gave readers a glimpse into a messy, unsavory world that felt easily identifiable even if they were unwilling (or afraid) to say so out loud. Sixty years later, Jaffe’s classic still strikes a chord, this time eerily prescient regarding so many of the circumstances surrounding sexual harassment that paved the way toward the #MeToo movement.
The Best of Everything was an instant best-seller, a cultural bombshell that would later be adapted to the 1959 film of the same name, starring Joan Crawford. According to Viv Groskop writing for the Telegraph, Jaffe “was mobbed at book signings by secretaries wanting their copies inscribed to 'All the girls on the 49th floor.'” Upon its rerelease in 2005, the novel had sold upward of 1 million copies, and it gained a renewed popularity when notorious office lothario Don Draper was seen reading a copy of the book in the first season of Mad Men. The novel was also often discussed as a more grounded contemporary of Valley of the Dolls, and as a seminal text for television shows from Sex and the City to Girls.
In some ways, The Best of Everything is a relic: the dialogue with its cadence of melodrama (how many times can a woman say “I love you” in a row?), the idea that you could be a spinster by age 25, that the girls portrayed in it (women in their twenties were always “girls” back then) are all undoubtedly straight and white and cisgender and middle class — broke, of course, but not so broke that they don’t have safety nets. The entitled, grabby executive is a character we know intimately and have seen depicted so many times in pop culture — from 9 to 5 to Mad Men — but most recently in news headlines as more and more victims of sexual violence and harassment have come forward and started naming names.
The Best of Everything also has remarkable foresight, functioning as a template for workplace sexual harassment over at least the past 60 years. All of the ingredients for the systematic abuses of power that the #MeToo movement has articulated are here: colleagues who make excuses for the harasser, company heads who look the other way, victims who are saddled with humiliation even as they feel anxious to be acknowledged by their higher-ups (along with the rationalizing they do to explain away bad behavior), the way whisper networks are formed, and the layers of protection and utter lack of consequences the harassers themselves receive.
The Best of Everything opens with Caroline Bender’s first day at Fabian Publishing, where she almost immediately makes a name for herself as The Ambitious One, the one who brings manuscripts home with her every night, the one whose opinions matter — or they should. When Caroline first meets Mr. Shalimar, the high-powered editor-in-chief of Derby Books who, according to office gossip, “knows Eugene O’Neill,” she feels like she’s in the presence of greatness. Her friend, fellow new girl April Morrison, is assigned to be Mr. Shalimar’s secretary, and April’s hero worship soon turns to dismay and something more complicated when her drunk boss tries to kiss her: “She should feel resentful, she knew, she should feel angered. But she felt instead the stirring of a new feeling, a kind of romantic intoxication.” His “high regard” both thrills and terrifies her, and she tells no one about what happened.
Not long after, Mr. Shalimar and his colleague, religion editor Mike Rice, invite both Caroline and April for drinks one evening after work, an opportunity to get face time with the boss that neither would dare pass up. After a few drinks Mr. Shalimar puts a hand on Caroline’s knee, and when Caroline brushes it away, she sees April look at him with “a glance that carried mingled horror and delight.” “He must have decided to try her knee,” thinks Caroline, “and instantly was taken with a fit of giggles.” Not long after, Caroline and April meet in the ladies room to decompress, and there’s a bit of mania to their behavior: “Caroline was doubled over, laughing until tears came into her eyes. It wasn’t that anything that had happened was so funny, really, it was just that she was so glad to be able to laugh about it all when for nearly four hours she had been tense and nervous.”
There is so much nervous giggling among the women in The Best of Everything, that it feels like a placeholder for a worse emotional response that is too arduous and embarrassing to confront. These young women know something is wrong, they know they’ve been mistreated, yet they don’t have the language to fight back. Worse yet, it takes on the feeling of being the kind of run-in that comes as part of the job. When the young women get back to the table Mr. Shalimar has gone, but Mike tells them to go easy on him: “Treat Mr. Shalimar with all the respect you have at your command. He’s a very bitter man, but he has cause.” What cause does he have? “Mr. Shalimar knows Eugene O’Neill, but Eugene O’Neill doesn’t know him,” Mike confides in them. As far as rationalizations go, this one’s quite a gem.
I first read The Best of Everything when I was an editorial assistant at a corporate publishing company, and the novel fit neatly into my narrative about the allure, degradation, and drudgery of my job. I was overwhelmed with publishing’s particular kind of glamour. Even though the money was awful, the parties were (sometimes) lavish, and I was finally, for the first time in my life, surrounded by people who wanted to talk about books all the time, just like I did.
I already had a great anecdote, one that I told often at parties to delighted gasps. I was 21 and at my very first fancy book party, and I had found myself in the presence of a literary superhero: George Plimpton. I was intimidated as hell, but I found the courage to say hello and tell him how much I admired his work. He smiled and said hello, looked directly down my top and made a comment about my breasts, then turned back to the man he was talking to. I giggled. I grabbed a flute of champagne, went back to my friends and beamed, “Well, I guess there goes my entrance into the old boys’ club.”
I was one of the women who, when I read The Best of Everything in the early stages of my career, took it as a challenge rather than a turnoff.
I was one of the women who, when I read The Best of Everything in the early stages of my career, took it as a challenge rather than a turnoff. In her foreword, Rona Jaffe writes that she thought her novel was a cautionary tale, though she acknowledges that “an exciting life, even if very difficult, is better than a dull one, even if it changes you forever.” Sexism would be rampant in my given field, I knew, but it was something that I, as an ambitious, smart woman, could shrug off in favor of having a fulfilling career. I would, in my 20-year career, have my fair share of tests. There was the editor who had “balance issues” and would trip and grab a young woman’s body in order to steady himself. I smiled when he did it to me. There was the colleague who would swing by my cubicle and casually tell me his sexual fantasies in great detail. I laughed. There was a friend and fellow assistant who told me about her lunch with an agent who only wanted to talk about her physical appearance the whole time. There were times when I giggled so hard I felt like I could choke.
It was only very recently, when we started to talk about harassment in light of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and rape allegations and their evolution into the #MeToo movement, that my twenties flashed before my eyes and I saw so many of my experiences for what they were: bullshit.
Harassment has been a very small but pernicious percentage of my overall experience in book publishing, but I finally had confirmation that what I’d tolerated as “just the way things are” might actually not be okay at all, in my own career and beyond. Just like the women readers who saw themselves and their own experiences mirrored back to them in The Best of Everything, I found #MeToo was a way to begin to articulate all of the things I’d repressed. There will be no more giggling for me.
Before we even return to the office in The Best of Everything, it’s worth noting how expertly Jaffe sets up the peripheral world of the workingwoman, when even in their free time they are subject to extracurricular sexual aggressions. Two throwaway sentences describe Caroline’s dismay when her friend’s husband casually sticks his tongue down her throat as she’s leaving a party at their apartment: “Caroline turned her head but not quickly enough; unexpectedly Don was kissing her on the mouth.” It does not come up again for the rest of the novel, and there are absolutely no consequences for Don’s behavior. That these young women are single and looking to date — all while living up to society’s expectation that they remain “pure” — while deftly navigating so many encroachments on their personal space, is a feat in and of itself. And that they find time to get any work done is also impressive.
Unfortunately, though, the men in Caroline’s own field, as much as they understand her interests, have problems of their own. When she sets her attention on Mike Rice, the religion editor, who “was nearly twice her age, he was used and bitter,” Caroline finds that “she could not help but compare Mike and his sophisticated understanding of her secret thoughts with the succession of dreary boys she had been out with since she had graduated from college.”
Mike is a more insidious sort of workplace cad, the kind who doesn’t fit neatly in a #MeToo category, even though his abuse of power in their relationship is clear. “I’d like to have an affair with you,” Mike tells Caroline. “But I think if you had an affair with me it would ruin your life. Let’s have a strange affair, a private love affair of our own. A vicarious, mental affair.” Caroline feels lucky that he has dared to warn her about himself, even as they become obsessed with each other (this is more of a mindfuck than the knee-grabbing, if you had to ask). “I’m afraid for you,” Mike says. “You’re too smart, too pretty, you want too much.”
There's a sliding scale for so many men implicated in #MeToo, and as many justifications as there are vile actions.
All of the hypocrisy and privilege that belongs to the men of The Best of Everything comes to a head, as it so often does, at an annual Christmas party, where “everyone was drinking as if he were about to be set adrift on a raft.” Caroline gets a plum seat next to Mr. Bossart, Mr. Shalimar’s boss, even as Shalimar spends his evening pawing at Caroline’s colleague Barbara: “She stirred in her chair, evidently trying to dislodge the Shalimar tentacles from investigating any farther up her knee.” Business as usual. Later in the evening, Mr. Shalimar is drunker and more aggressive, and he retaliates when Barbara does not return the big fat kiss he’s tried to give her. “Bitch!” he cries. “I only wanted to kiss you … What did you think I wanted to do, rape you?”
Sixty years later, his argument sounds frighteningly familiar. There’s a sliding scale for so many men implicated in #MeToo, and as many justifications as there are vile actions. Just think how many defenders of accused men in the past year have said “It’s not like he’s Harvey Weinstein,” as if there weren’t many layers of degradation between harassment and rape. Even worse is the exchange that Barbara has with Mr. Bossart afterward:
Mr. Bossart smiled again. “You’ll forgive him, won’t you?”
“Why are you sticking up for him?” she asked curiously.
“I like him.”
That “oh” resounds eerily today. As the #MeToo movement has brought to light, bad behavior is reinforced by an entire network of people — men and women alike — whose concern is more for the violator than the victim. We’re left with Barbara’s understanding that this is how things work. She has no recourse except to add this incident of Mr. Shalimar’s coercion to Fabian Publishing’s robust whisper network, which of course was not named as such in 1958: “The story of his behavior at last year’s Christmas party had spread immediately afterward and had given courage to those typists and filing clerks who had had similar experiences with him in the past, so that eventually every girl who had been pinched or kissed by Mr. Shalimar had come forth, whispering and giggling, to add her story to the office gossip.”
On my recent reread of The Best of Everything, I found Mr. Shalimar to be less compelling than I once had. It was all of the men who apologized for him, and made excuses for him, and never worried about the welfare of his victims, who made me gasp (and Jaffe doesn’t even go so far as to describe any of the male authors!). I like to believe that we’ve come far enough that Mr. Shalimar’s actions would not be tolerated at corporate businesses today, but one can only imagine how much #MeToo behavior is still under wraps.
I am not traumatized. I have never been the victim of a violent crime. I don’t believe that every man who’s been named in regard to #MeToo deserves to be shunned forever (although some do). I have a fulfilling career doing what I enjoy most, which is advocating for books that I love. I’ve made some of my closest friends from within the industry, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
I’m just angry. I’m angry that I wasted so much time stroking men’s egos, I’m angry that I watched men fail up for merely being adequate. I’m angry that I was made to feel that my time and my ambitions were secondary to theirs. I’m angry that the casual humiliations I felt every day at my job were acceptable when they shouldn’t have been.
I’m angry that the responsibility was on me to not “let the bastards grind me down” as I paid my dues, when all it would have taken was for them to stop acting like bastards. I identified, and I still identify, with Caroline when she reflects on her professional life: “She was thinking that she didn’t like the working world at all, and yet, underneath, she was exhilarated. It was all like a dream in which you could have anything you wanted, if you were very very careful.” ●