Now, Voyager, Dell Romance 99, first edition
by Olive Higgins Prouty
Cover art by Gerald Gregg
Try this plot on for size: Wealthy woman plagued by tragedy and a controlling mum has nervous breakdown. After graduating from two years of therapy, the woman frees herself from the past and blossoms into a successful adult. She then decides to pass on riches of shrink-dom to a daughter surrogate. Daughter surrogate turns on her and lampoons her in satirical black hole of a autobiographical novel prior to killing herself.
Twisted version of Now, Voyager? Hidden version of Bette Davis’ real life? No, the true story of Olive Higgins Prouty. Author of Now, Voyager. The surrogate? Sylvia Plath. The book? The Bell Jar
Yes, gentle reader sometimes true life has more brackish melodrama than even our eye-popping Ms. Davis in Of Human Bondage could muster. Or, say the edited version of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills on the tuber. . . Well, maybe not.
Ms. Prouty was born richy rich in Massachusetts in 1882. A conservative witchy-witch momma ruled her life until 1907, when a mucho moola marriage provided escape. Mr. Prouty encouraged her writing– as long as social obligations and children were not neglected. By 1920 Olivia Higgins Prouty had published numerous short stories and three novels. But tragedy struck. Her newborn son died in 1919 followed by the death of her year-old daughter in 1923. Devastated, Prouty poured herself into her writing and emerged with the mega-weeper Stella Dallas. Stella’s trashiness combined with sobbing sacrifice resonated with the depression era public. First it was a hit Broadway play, then a movie. And then, remade again with the mother of all tough talking hit-makers –Miss Barbara Stanwyck in 1937. An unsanctioned radio serial based on the melodramatic life of Stella also ran for 15 years.
However, shortly after Stella Dallas’ publication, Olivia’s guilt over her success coupled with deaths of her children triggered a massive nervous breakdown. For two years Prouty struggled. But eventually, with the help of psychiatry, she was able to rebuild her life by refocusing on her writing. Prouty published Now, Voyager in October,1941. By November Warner’s had inked a contract to film the book. It is the third novel in the “Vale family” trilogy. Her previous book, Lisa Vale sold 1.5 million copies.
Now, Voyager is a very romanticized version of Prouty’s life. The strict, cloistered upbringing. The nervous breakdown. The kindly shrink. The blossoming into ” an authentic peep”. And then the joy of passing the gospel of therapy, or “saving” the next generation, in this case, her lover’s child.
Prouty indeed became an advocate of psyciatric care providing cash to many hopitals and endowed her alumnus, Smith College with writing scholarships. In 1950 one of the recipients was Sylvia Plath. After Plath’s suicide attempt in 1953, Prouty, feeling compassion for her, paid to have her moved to a private facility in hopes of a cure. Much later, in 1961, Plath lampooned Prouty as “Philomena Guinea” in The Bell Jar. Nasty? Very. But then, Plath was nasty to everyone.
On the other hand, Plath, who was so fond of funhouse mirrors could not have been entirely oblivious to the Through the Looking Glass aspects between her life and Prouty’s. As well as between the populist Now, Voyager and the gothy fave, The Bell Jar. Both women have disapproving moms from hell that they need to tell to shove off. Both needed to spread their wings (aka, get it on). And, both are writers in a world dominated by men. We could could go on, no? Yeah, sure Plath was an artiste and considered Prouty a populist hack, but freaky similarities nonetheless..
A klunk on the head to Bette
Bette was such a big star by this time that she literally she ran this production. She choose the Director and the dresses. Who to smooch and who to smack. Where to shoot and how to light.
The movie is a total triumph in every way. A Melodrama to end all melodramas.
Except for one thing… that bugs the ba-boobies out of me. For the life of me I can’t figure out is why she had to go overboard with the monkey brows. She looks like her mom mated with Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes. With eyebrows like that she should have been sporting a stache and chest hair. I mean come on. One prop too many.