FILM JANUARY 1, 2007
I’ve known three women who attempted suicide, two of whom were eventually successful. All of them were beautiful.
Nan Talbot worked in a publishing house, an editor before I became an editor there. She was incompetent. It was a firm of paperbound reprinters, and she had been engaged some months before I arrived to select and handle books for women. Apparently the bosses had thought that her womanliness would compensate for her lack of editorial experience. They may even have thought that her average taste would be useful in the job.
Her appearance was not average. She looked queenly. She was tall and erect and he had the figure of a showgirl. She moved deliberately and smoothly, like a royal barge. She had blonde hair and deep-set eyes and the whitest teeth I have ever seen. Her face was like a magazine image tempered by something blunter. Later I learned that she had some Indian blood. I thought it was visible.
I met her on Valentine’s Day 1949, the day I started in publishing. She welcomed me like a housemother; she hoped that I would be happy there. I noticed that her eyes sometimes went up to the ceiling while she talked to me, to anyone.
By the time I arrived, one of the top men in the firm had already made a play for her. She told me this later, and told me that after a while she had permitted him, once, to succeed. (“Let him do his business” was her phrase.) She never suspected, as I did, that she had been hired because she was attractive and one or another of the top men had ticked her off as a private possibility. She was so used to attention that she thought it quite natural, quite incidental and inevitable, that men would move toward her. She thought this without vanity.
But facile male attention enraged her. Women in those days still joked and bragged about being whistled at in the streets. It often happened to Nan, and she hated it. She would tell me about it angrily, her jaw clenched, her face flushed and tight.
She confided in me and in one other man in the office because she saw early that neither of us was moving toward her and she could talk more easily to men than to women. Within a few months the other man quit the firm, leaving his wife to go off with another woman who worked in the office, so I was then Nan’s only confidant. This confiding took place partly at lunch, which we had together about once a week, but mostly it was in long typewritten letters, which I would hear her whacking out in her office and which she would hand to me, folded, without envelopes. Two or three of them a week.
I soon thought the letters were boring, but then I thought she was rather boring. Still she was so frank, she assumed so completely that I would respond, that I hadn’t the heart to avoid listening and reading. Besides, I was bored by the job, as I had been by most office jobs, and she helped to pass the time. She really didn’t want anything from me, least of all advice, she just wanted an ear or an eye. And the boredom of her talk and letters was at least a change from the work that drained my time away so that I could get money to support my own work for a few hours every day before I came to the office.
Love and sex were the two chief themes in Nan’s talk and letters. The job and its difficulties were a close third--not her difficulties in doing it but the slights she imagined all around. I was more interested in the first two subjects. She had been divorced twice. She came from a prim Ohio family and had married in her sophomore year at college, a marine officer. They broke up three months later, but it was enough to finish her college career. Then came some rousting around, various cities, various jobs, various men. Then she married a young businessman with whom she tried to have a child, without success. They had gone to specialists in America and in Europe, who had told them there was nothing wrong with either of them. She had had internal adjustments. Still no child. After four years her husband divorced her and produced children with another wife.
Nan felt failed, angry, unrealized. She read a best-seller about self-confidence by a popular New York psychoanalyst, then went to him as a patient. Within a month he made love to her on the office couch. She told me about it merely with puzzlement, nothing like the rage with which she reported the whistlings in the street. (For her, sex was always something a man did to a woman. “After he did his business, we just went on talking.”) Again she took his actions quite calmly as the effects of her looks, and she kept going to him professionally. She was still going to him. I tried to make her angry at him, but she couldn’t get much more than puzzled.
Her troubles at the job arose because she was no good at it and, although she didn’t know this, she was sufficiently uneasy to see insults everywhere. She could do just well enough, in her reports and recommendations and the copy she was supposed to write for covers and inside pages, so that others could patch them into usability. I suppose that in time, after the boss who had slept with her was embarrassed enough at having her around and was exasperated enough by her incompetence, she would have been fired. Meanwhile she worked hard and, like all incompetents, kept asking how she was doing. And kept being offended by trifles.
She tried to improve herself, and this led to complications in her private life. When I arrived, she was having an affair with a young engineer named Willis, whom I met, pleasant but with one of those faces it takes a while to remember. …Then she met Gareth, a young writer from Kentucky. …
Nan hoped, though she didn’t precisely say so, that the fact of Gareth would jog Willis into proposing. Although she made sure the two men didn’t meet, she made a great honest point of telling Willis about the other man. It had just the effect she didn’t want. Willis said she was free to live her own life, as was he. So she was cheated of her “Ah, me” dilemma. She was left with a man she wanted as a husband and a man she couldn’t resist as a lover, both of whom visited when they chose.
She kept her outward calm, though she was more and more distressed. I could see the distress in the letters was genuine though they always sounded as if they had been typed in a chintz-curtained college dormitory room with one leg folded under her. She moved carefully, with the sobriety of a practiced drunk, but her only alcohol was insecurity. She let herself flare into hot red tempers only when she was telling me about insults: otherwise she sailed gracefully and said “Mm-hm” a lot and glanced at the ceiling.
Sometimes, especially when she was angry, I felt remorse for the way I thought of her. But I paid for it with my time. Gladly, because it helped to pass the time.
The writing course ended, and Gareth went home to Kentucky. In an odd way this made the situation worse for Nan. It wasn’t because she missed Gareth: Willis “did his business” well enough, even though it wasn’t as “tuh-riffic” as with Gareth. What was worse that now, more intensely than before, she was dependent on Willis. She loved him, had loved him all along and had never loved Gareth, Willis was the one she could see herself in the same house with all her life, and now she felt even more at the mercy of his whim. “I don’t care if he has other girls,” she wrote, “I wouldn’t even care after we were married. (Shocking???) If we ever are. But he treats me so casual. (Casually?) He’s always got a good reason why I haven’t heard from him in a week. Golly.” And she appeared in my office doorway, as she usually did about fifteen minutes after she had handed me a letter, to see whether I had yet read it, moving carefully, looking gorgeous and wise and quite unconnected with the letter she was wondering about.
I foresaw endless letters. I had bouts of panic when I thought that the tedium would outweigh the diversion. But there was no way out of it now. I was trapped.
She released me. One Friday afternoon after work, we rode downtown together on the bus. It was accidental: I usually went home another way. I forget what we talked about, but I remember being surprised that it was something other than herself and her troubles. She got off first, saying “See you Monday.”
On Monday she wasn’t there: she was in the Bellevue emergency ward. She had gone straight home from the bus, taken thirty sleeping pills, turned on WQXR, the classical music station, then
had lain on her bed. The first real pang I ever felt about her was not about the pills because, by the time I heard about them, it was she, recovered, who was telling me. The pang was WQXR. She wanted to be found with good music playing on the radio.
She had done it because Willis had promised to call her before three that Friday afternoon at the office, to tell her whether he was coming for the weekend. So her mind had been made up all the while we were chatting on the bus. Willis came around on Saturday afternoon, heard the radio, went away, came back, heard the radio, got the superintendent to let him in, found her and rushed her to Bellevue.
She told me the story a week later. She had circles under her eyes but otherwise looked the same. She told it without any drama, talking about the Bellevue ward as if she had gone to a beauty parlor. I remember thinking, “My God, you can go over the edge for good, as far as you know, and still come back dull.”
I think she believed it was for good. I don’t think the suicide attempt was a trick: I don’t think she was wily enough. Besides, she couldn’t have been sure that Willis was coming. But it had the effect of a trick. Willis proposed. That solved one problem. He wanted to move to Massachusetts. That solved two problems, her incompetence and my entrapment. They married and moved, and in three months she was pregnant. …
We fell out of touch. By mail she was easier to discourage, simply by delaying replies and finally not responding. Then one day in the late 1960s I got a note from her. She was coming to New York. Could we have a drink? I felt guilty enough, even curious enough, to reply and to agree.
When she came into the bar, she sailed up to me, with the same stately smooth glide. She held out her hand as if she were receiving me. She still glanced at the ceiling from time to time as we talked. Willis was doing well and was still a good husband. She was the assistant manager of the bookshop. Her son was eighteen and very troublesome, running around, taking drugs. Nan hated him. She flushed when she said it, her jaw clenched.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann