“To me, O’Hara is the real Fitzgerald.”
—Fran Lebowitz, The Paris Review, 1993
Gloria Wandrous is young, beautiful, liberated and alcoholic. She wakes up the morning after spending the night with wealthy businessman Weston Liggett who has ripped her dress down the centre seam when she plays coy. Having nothing to wear home she wanders through his Upper East Side apartment, eventually finding a mink coat in what she assumes is his wife’s closet. Putting it on over the remains of her dress, she hails a cab and leaves.
The rest of the story is a meander through the speakeasies, restaurants and bedrooms of New York as Liggett tries to recover the coat before his wife notices it's missing. The novel moves seamlessly from past to present, revealing key characters’ stories along the way.
The Penguin Drop Caps edition is turquoise blue. Jessica Hische’s clever cover illustration is a mascara’d eye peering out through the centre of an O as through two curtains which form the vertical lines of an H, with the eye as its horizontal bar. The edges of the pages are stained blue and the contrasting colour on the spine is a deeper blue. The rubbery cover makes it a joy to hold while you read.
Published in 1935, the action takes place in the lull between in 1930-1931, while there was still some hope of recovery from the Crash of ’29 before the the Great Depression took hold in 1932. Consistent with its time, the book is full of stories of investing, of loss, of income, of money management and mismanagement.
But money takes a back seat to social class, with characters constantly talking about and comparing their social standing, especially who’s been to Yale and who hasn’t. Highest on the pyramid is Liggett’s Bostonian wife. “Liggett was precisely the sort of person who, if he hadn’t married Emily, would be just the perfect person for Emily to snub.” In O’Hara’s New York, everyone is putting someone else down: the Boston Brahmins snub the not-good-enough upper crust New Yorkers, the upper crust New Yorkers freeze out the Irish, even if they’ve gone to Yale, and everyone disdains and insults ‘the coloured’. There’s one scene where reporter Jimmy Malloy goes on a rant about being Irish in New York and I immediately thought, “This is O’Hara making a cameo appearance.” I see many similarities between Butterfield 8 and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, where the Irish, the Jews, the Blacks and the Yale boys all occupy distinct strata of society.
For me, John O’Hara shines a spotlight on a phenomenon I’ve observed, working at a private school, wondering why the families just have that look about them. He writes of Emily Liggett “… all her life, Emily had been looking at nice things, nice cars, houses, pictures, grounds, clothes, people. Things that were easy to look at and people that were easy to look at.” A study at the University of Toronto even confirms this observation: by your resting face, people can accurately guess your income. From looking at nice things all your life, it seems your face takes on certain characteristics.
Another main activity in the novel, in spite of or because of the Prohibition, is drinking booze, vats of it, with an occasional coffee thrown in. At various points, Eddie wishes Gloria would drink less, and she is somewhat aware of the hold alcohol has on her, but isn’t facing serious enough pickled-liver consequences to care.
Money, class, alcohol…sex. Gloria’s life has led her to have so much of sex and so little of love. “Many men had the pleasure of sleeping with Gloria in the year 1930.” In a very twenty-first century conundrum, Eddie Brunner, the only man the book who has true affection and regard for her is the only one who refuses to sleep with her. The euphemistic “stay with” is practically on every page. Infidelity is taken for granted, Lesbianism and “fairies” are mentioned without a blush. But it’s subtle, summed up by someone marvelling about Gloria that “an American girl would do that”. What? We have various hints, but we are always seeing sex from the perspective of a recollection, or a guess, as when Eddie imagines what will go on behind the closed doors of the hotel he works at.
It’s unclear whether Liggett eventually gets the mink coat back, but like The Bonfire of the Vanities, it’s an intensely moral story. A few pages before the end, I wasn’t sure it would be. It appears that the curtains will close on Liggett and Gloria Wandrous continuing their adventure on Long Island. Suddenly something happens that jars you out of the steady, ambling pace of the novel. I had to go back and re-read the crucial sentence because I was so shocked.
I wholeheartedly agree with Fran Lebowitz’s observation, that O’Hara is the real Fitzgerald. Yes, Fitzgerald takes you to the flapper days, the loose days, of between-the-wars society, but he does it in such an atmospheric, floaty way that you read the book in a kind of mist. Reading O’Hara, on the other hand, is like spending a few hours in an old curiosity shop, where you see up close the kinds of cars and clothes and chewing gum people used to buy, with the original price labels on them. I’d like to read an illustrated version because I wasn’t familiar with some of the objects he describes with so much precision and feeling. O’Hara is clear, colourful, crisp, giving us three-dimensional settings and props. You could almost accuse him of making product placements.
The title is the name of an Upper East Side phone exchange BU(tterfield) 8, or 288. Would that be like calling a book set in Toronto Four-One-Six?
If you’re in the mood for great dialogue and juicy gossip, and don’t need to feel inspired or uplifted by your choice of book or if you want to take a trip back in time to New York in 1930, then BUtterfield 8 might be the number to call.