Monday, September 6, 2010

Book Report: Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart

I recently finished reading Summer at Tiffany, a memoir by Marjorie Hart. In 1945, best friends Marjorie and Marty, a couple of rising seniors at the University of Iowa, board a train to New York City to enter the glamorous world of high-end retail. Beguiled by their sorority sisters' good fortune in securing posts at places like Macy's and Lord and Taylor's, they are certain that they too will be selling bathing suits, turbans, and Hawaiian print dresses and enjoying employee discounts in no time. But when the girls arrive in the city, they are rudely turned away at every department store. They are about to give up when Marty spots Tiffany's and brazenly leads the more reserved Marjorie across its threshold. To their delight and surprise, they are hired as pages owing to the war and the shortage of male help, making history as Tiffany's first ever female employees.

The book goes on to describe the girls' sales floor and off-duty adventures. There are (chaperoned) outings to nightclubs, celebrity sightings, and dates with servicemen, all set against the backdrop of winding-down World War II. They accomplish all of this on their shoestring budget of twenty dollars a week. Here's a breakdown of their monthly expenses:

"The Budget - Rent and Electricity - $65.00 a month.

Daily Budget

1. Two nickels for subway
2. Sandwich and drink at the Automat: 15 cents
3. Nestle's chocolate milk & toast (deli egg bread) - breakfast & dinner, 9 cents
4. Penny postcards - no 3-cent stamps
5. Weekly elevator operator's Christmas Fund - 25 cents

Select one for the week:

Oxydol laundry soap, Woodbury hand soap, bronze stocking stick, Pond's hand cream, Jergen's lotion, Dubarry nail polish, Kreml shampoo, Max Factor powder, Colgate toothpaste, Tangee lipstick, Coca-Cola, Lucky Strike cigarettes, Schrafft sundae, drink at Sardi's

Tickets: Staten Island Ferry (5 cents); Empire State Tower ($1.10); Lewissohn concerts (25 cents); Paramount Theatre; Radio City Music Hall

A girl can dream, can't she?" (40-41, Hart)

Shallow soul that I am, I found this budget to be the most interesting part of the book. Never having lived so frugally (or, for that matter, having embarked upon such an adventure), I was mesmerized by the need to choose between soap, lipstick, and Coca-Cola each week. I was also charmed by the old fashioned cosmetics, especially the stocking stick and Tangee lipstick.

I've always been an admirer of period stories and liked this one's overall primness and descriptions of 1940s clothes. Also, I found it odd that it was considered commonplace for two middle class girls to be attending college in 1945. Marjorie, a cellist, later became a professor and played in a symphony, and Marty majored in finance and eventually worked in a bank. (She also made all of her own clothes, a fact I found far more intriguing than the banking bit.)

Both girls were inspiring in their pluckiness. Yet, I couldn't help but feel that something was missing. I craved more details about what Marjorie was really thinking. About her boyfriend, her cello career, her life at school. To be fair, her thoughts do reveal a little more than her scrupulously cheerful letters to her parents - but not much. She does mention that her Norwegian background taught her that it was weak to show her feelings. So, maybe that had something to do with it.

Still, it was a quaint story. I was especially impressed that Marjorie began writing it at age 69, working on it for the next ten years. Her manuscript was unexpectedly picked up by an editor at a writing conference. To think that a first-time author in her eighties could be discovered like that is uplifting.

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