Secretaries and the City

The first time I heard of “The Best of Everything,” Rona Jaffe’s 1958 novel about a gaggle of striving twentysomething women working in publishing and living in crummy New York City apartments, it was as a brief mention in the pages of another book. I was in my early twenties at the time, also working in publishing, and also living in a crummy New York City apartment. My bedroom was so cramped that the most comfortable reading position involved lying on the bed and dangling my feet out the adjacent window; I spent an entire summer that way, reading Nora Ephron’s 1983 novel, “Heartburn.” Ephron’s narrator, a jilted food writer named Rachel Samstat, finds herself rummaging through her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s credit-card bills for evidence that he is cheating on her. “I felt like a character in a trashy novel,” Ephron writes. “I even knew which trashy novel I felt like a character in, which made it worse: The Best of Everything. At least I wasn’t going through the garbage, but that was only because it hadn’t turned out to be necessary.” The day after reading that throwaway line, I went to the Strand and bought a copy of Rona Jaffe’s book.

“The Best of Everything” is not really a trashy book at all. It was a best-seller soon after it landed on shelves—complete with a blockbuster tie-in movie—and it does cover the sometimes trash-adjacent subjects of sex and blind dates and day drinking and backstabbing betrayal and bitchy bosses and whispered secrets between girlfriends. But Jaffe did not set out to write a frivolous potboiler. What she set out to do, as she wrote in 2005, shortly before her death, was to capture something unspoken and ardent about the working girls of her generation. “I thought that if I could help one young woman sitting in her tiny apartment thinking she was all alone and a bad girl, then the book would be worthwhile,” she wrote. “I had no idea what a chord it would strike for millions.”

Jaffe was only twenty-five when she wrote “The Best of Everything,” but she had lofty literary ambitions. She first sent short stories to The New Yorker when she was only nine years old. (They were rejected by this magazine, Jaffe later wrote, because “the editors thought I was an adult who couldn’t write.”) “The Best of Everything” is the début novel of a young writer who is still finding her voice, but there are moments in it in which her style is as sharp and smooth as a nail file. It is a surprisingly fresh book sixty-five years later, even though some of its references are dated (who has three-Scotch lunches anymore?), because it was so puckeringly fresh when Jaffe first wrote it. It is the work of someone who had something new to say and said it, at exactly the right time.

There are those who say that intensely timely writing can never be timeless, but “The Best of Everything” disproves this theory; it is because Jaffe was writing so insistently for her own generation, and for the thousands and thousands of workingwomen wading through typing pools who had never before seen themselves represented in fiction, that the book still carries a whiff of desperate conviction. Jaffe’s voice is full of verve and energy and urgency; it feels as oxygenated and crisp as cold seltzer. It is apparent from even the first paragraph that Jaffe knows exactly who she is writing about and who she is writing for. There is a swaggering confidence right out of the gate:

You see them every morning at a quarter to nine, rushing out of the maw of the subway tunnel, filing out of Grand Central Station, crossing Lexington and Park and Madison and Fifth avenues, the hundreds and hundreds of girls. Some of them look eager and some look resentful, and some of them look as if they haven’t left their beds yet. Some of them have been up since six-thirty in the morning, the ones who commute from Brooklyn and Yonkers and New Jersey and Staten Island and Connecticut. They carry the morning newspapers and overstuffed handbags. Some of them are wearing pink or chartreuse fuzzy overcoats and five-year-old ankle-strap shoes and have their hair up in pin curls underneath kerchiefs. Some of them are wearing chic black suits (maybe last year’s but who can tell?) and kid gloves and are carrying their lunches in violet-sprigged Bonwit Teller paper bags. None of them has enough money.

That gut punch of a last sentence! The delightful, hyperspecific details! Here is a writer who really knows her subject, because she has been her subject. Jaffe herself worked at a publishing house, and she must have known from experience just what it is like to carry a sad, floppy sandwich to work in a department-store bag. Jaffe must have assumed that, if she had soldiered through a depressing desk lunch, then hundreds of other women had, too, and she made a radical choice simply by deciding that their interior lives were worthy of fiction. She saw the countless young women around her, click-clacking away on memos outside their bosses’ offices—the go-fetch-it girls who were generally considered bystanders to the action—and put them in the center of it. Instead of simply taking dictation from someone else, she chose to dictate her own reality.

“The way all this happened sounds itself like a novel,” Jaffe wrote, of the book’s strange path to publication. Jaffe was born in Brooklyn in 1931 to an affluent Jewish family, was raised on the Upper East Side, and lived near Central Park for most of her life (other than a short jaunt to Radcliffe College). Her maternal grandfather, Moses Ginsberg, was an immigrant turned real-estate mogul who built the glamorous Carlyle Hotel, which opened in 1930. Her mother, Diana, was a domineering socialite who brought to her marriage to Jaffe’s father, an elementary-school principal named Samuel, a sizable family fortune. Jaffe had the kind of berries-and-cream upbringing that tends to suction people into stasis and turn them stale. She could have just married a balding accountant, kept house in a classic six, and walked a poodle up and down Madison Avenue for the rest of her days. Instead, she was a precocious child with designs on becoming a novelist.

After graduating from Radcliffe, in 1951, Jaffe snagged a job at Fawcett Publications, which would later serve as the model for the fictional Fabian Publications in “The Best of Everything,” and worked her way up the corporate ladder for a few years, reaching the position of associate editor before she promptly quit to try her hand at writing full time. By chance, when she went to visit her friend Phyllis Levy one day at the offices of Simon & Schuster, she happened to meet the Hollywood producer Jerry Wald, who mentioned that he was looking for the “modern-day ‘Kitty Foyle’ ” to adapt into a picture. Jaffe went to the library to read Christopher Morley’s 1939 novel about a salesgirl who sleeps her way around Manhattan and found it laughably lacking in insight. “I thought it was dumb,” Jaffe wrote. “He doesn’t know anything about women. I know about women.” Shortly thereafter, Jaffe and Levy took a trip to Los Angeles and met Wald for lunch; during the meal, Jaffe took her shot. She announced that she was already writing the hot new “working girl” book. Wald said that if she’d write the manuscript he’d turn it into a major motion picture.

It takes a certain kind of guts—or insanity—to sell a Hollywood movie of a novel that you haven’t even written yet, but Jaffe worked quickly. The book more or less came tumbling out of Jaffe’s hands—she typed the entire manuscript, all seven hundred and seventy-five pages of it, in just five months and five days. Part of the freedom she felt in her writing mirrored a newfound freedom she felt in life; she got her book advance and moved out of her parents’ apartment once and for all. “As soon as I got out of the house,” Jaffe told the Times, in 2003, “it was like a cannon going off.” (Her mother was less thrilled that Jaffe was leaving; Diana openly wept and then proceeded to drop in on her daughter constantly. Throughout the years, Jaffe’s parents followed Jaffe around, joining a temple across the street from one of her apartments, and moving a block away from another. She may have been able to escape in her fiction, but in real life it was not so easy.)

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