Some random thoughts about John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8, published in 1935:
O’Hara seems to go out of his way to mention everything that, in polite society of 1930s America, was considered unmentionable.
These unmentionables include abortion, orgies, lesbianism, pedophilia, defecation, gonorrhea, pornography, cocaine, syphilis, incest, constipation, suicide, routine bed-hopping, routine adultery, routine divorce, rape, urination and despair.
They also include words such as balls, tits, buttocks and getting laid.
They include sentences such as this one:
She knew of another case where the husband walked out on his wife because he said she was unclean; it took one of those psychoanalytical quacks a month to get the man to reveal that the woman never went to the bathroom without leaving toilet paper floating in the bowl of the toilet.
BUtterfield 8, published 86 years ago, is dated in a way that’s easy to miss.
Money is mentioned seemingly on every page, and there’s a danger for 21st-century readers of passing over the mention of dollars, prices and costs without registering their meaning.
For instance, the 22-year-old Gloria Wandrous — who, on the opening page of the novel, wakes up in the bed of the man who stripped her of her gown and had sex with her the night before — gets up to find that the man, Weston Liggett, has left her $60 for a new dress. To get back at him, she walks out of the apartment wearing only her panties, shoes and a mink coat that she’s found, his wife’s coat that the reader later learns cost $4,000 to $5,000.
What’s striking, though, is that this book is set in 1931. Today, the cost of things is 17 times higher than it was then, due to inflation.
So that, after a night of consensual sex (if not the consensual destruction of a dress), Liggett leaves behind for Gloria the equivalent of about $1,000 today. And the coat she took? It’s value, in today’s dollars, is about $65,000 to $85,000.
This is the sort of inflation calculation that a reader has to do throughout the book in order to understand fully what’s going on. When Gloria goes on a spending spree with her mother, she buys $150 in dresses and other fashionable items.. Today, that’s like spending about $2,800 in a couple hours on clothes.
- Rich people
It’s essential for today’s reader to carry out this inflation adjustment in order to understand that BUtterfield 8 is a book about rich people.
Some are very rich, such as Ivy Ledbetter Lee, the pr guy for the Rockefellers (an actual person, mentioned in passing), who, one character reports, is paid $250,000 a year. That’s about $43 million in today’s dollars. Others, such as Liggett, are less rich than they were before the stock market crash, but they can still leave $60 ($1000) on the dresser for a new gown. And others who aren’t that rich, but affluent enough.
The rest of the characters in the novel — and it has many characters — are people who live parasitically on the fringes of this society world, such as one who has just gotten a piece in the New Yorker and is delighted with his $36 payment (about $600).
Some of the rich people are out-of-towners who come into Manhattan for a good time of booze and women, but most are New Yorkers who have lots of time to fritter on parties and affairs and do so on a regular basis or are considering doing so.
- In the know
O’Hara’s novel is also very much a book that was written for people in the know.
The title says as much, BUtterfield 8. This was one of the new telephone exchange names that went into effect at the end of 1930. So, a phone number would be, for example, BU 8-3391. (The B is 2 on a dial phone, and the U is 8.)
BUtterfield 8 was the new telephone exchange name for the wealthy Upper East Side of Manhattan, but the term is never mentioned in the novel. It only appears in the title.
Readers, in the know, would realize what it was and what it referred to. The hoi polloi of other readers in 1935 would just have to puzzle it out. Readers today, when words are no longer used in a phone number, are likely even more puzzled.
In at least one edition, there was a box under the title that hinted at the significance of the title, but it wasn’t in my Penguin Classics edition.
Although the title of O’Hara’s novel signals that it’s about rich people, O’Hara pays a great deal of attention to the interactions of his affluent characters with people on the edge of society, such as Jews.
The novel’s characters are highly sensitive to whether someone is a Jew or a Jewess. Because many such people are successful, there is a great deal of social mixing. But that doesn’t mean that their Jewishness is forgotten.
A beautiful model, walking on the sidewalk with a lawyer, is described as a Jewess. Another Jewish woman who plays the piano well is described as “that little Mocky,” a religious slur just entering wide usage. One Jewish businessman even refers to himself as “a little Heeb from Hartford.”
- African Americans
African Americans appear and are referred to even more frequently in BUtterfield 8 and never as social equals.
For instance, a rich out-of-towner who is trying to bribe Gloria recalls looking for her in a Harlem beer flat and hates
“to think of that now, the way those Negroes were not surprised or shocked by the appearance of his kind of man, Phi Beta Kappa key and severely conservative clothes and all…, calling for a drunken girl, who greeted him on terms that too plainly indicated that he was not a stern parent coming to fetch a recalcitrant daughter, but — just what he was.”
At every turn, it seems, there is the mention of a Negro band or a Negro waiter. But the characters in O’Hara’s novel aren’t always so polite.
One African American who does a favor of an O’Hara character is referred to by that character is a “jiggaboom.” Another is described as “the nigger woman that clean up and made the beds in the place where I lived.” In a passing reference, O’Hara writes:
John Lee, a colored boy, pulled the wings out of a fly in Public School 108.
Near the novel’s end, Gloria goes on a rant to and about the family’s African American maid, referring to her as colored, Negro, a nigger and “a black bitch.”
Gloria is the central character of BUtterfield 8, but, for many pages, she disappears from the novel.
O’Hara is telling the stories of ten or more main characters, weaving them somewhat together and not weaving them. The core of the novel is the world of the affluent on Manhattan.
There is a brittleness to the storytelling. Maybe, also, bitterness.
I had the sense that O’Hara was like a butterfly collector who pins his specimen on a display wall where their peculiarities can be studied. And where their flashiness can be admired by visitors.
At an emotional distance.
This novel might have been called, with irony, Strong Character and High Purposes.
At one point, a couple in their 20s are talking about a recent statement by the former President Calvin Coolidge about the passing of “a generation of strong character and high purposes.”
“Do you know anybody with strong character and high purposes?…Think of someone. It has to be our generation, not older people, because Coolidge says their passing marks the end of an era….”
“No, you’re right. Well, I can’t think of anyone I like that has strong character and high purposes.”
None of the characters in BUtterfield 8 has a strong character or high purposes. That seems to be O’Hara’s bleak judgement of his era.
Patrick T. Reardon