‘A Time to Be Born’ by Dawn Powell

As a brand-new New Yorker when I moved in 1987 from Miami to Manhattan, I was hungry for all the city had to offer. My mother had been born in New York, and I had family who still lived there, but like all newcomers, I was determined to make this dazzling metropolis my own. I moved into a studio apartment with my best friend John (a budding investment banker and self-styled bon vivant) on West 74th Street, in a pre-war apartment building fittingly called ‘The Fitzgerald’. Instead of immersing myself in contemporary fiction set in the city of that decade, I was consumed with the writers chronicling an earlier New York. My reading habits were mainly informed by the serendipity of secondhand and bargain bookshelves (RIP, Gryphon Books, Coliseum Books, Gotham Book Mart and so many others). Along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, John Dos Passos and Dorothy Parker, I devoured the sophisticated, biting satire of Dawn Powell, a prolific writer of novels, short stories, plays, film scripts, book reviews and diaries recounting life in her adopted city.

E.B. White famously wrote of three types of New Yorkers: ‘Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.’ Powell was the latter,  a transplant who made the journey from small town Ohio and never looked back (except, notably, in fiction, in her series of mid-West novels). She propelled herself from an early life of hardship, suffering the loss of her mother at a young age, the neglect of an itinerant, ineffectual father and the abuse of a real-life wicked stepmother who burned her early journals and planned to prevent her from attending high school. She ran away from home to move in with a beloved aunt who encouraged her literary and college aspirations. After graduation, she arrived in New York City in 1918 to make her name as a writer.

Powell’s great canvas was the city. For all the heartbreak she would endure there, including poor health, a rocky marriage and the birth of a developmentally disabled son, she managed to churn out dazzling novels that capture the brittle, ambitious, backbiting milieu of publishing and the arts in New York of the mid-twentieth century. Few of the literati were immune from her acid pen. Reviewing ‘A Time to Be Born’ in The Nation in 1942, Diana Trilling wrote: ‘Miss Powell is one of the wittiest women around and our best answer to the familiar question, “Who really says the funny things for which Dorothy Parker gets credit?”’ But despite the critical recognition in her lifetime, Powell was overshadowed by male contemporaries like Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway.

She would be the subject of many ‘revivals’ in successive years, but biographer Tim Page probably did the most to ensure her place in the literary pantheon by publishing her diaries and letters. Critic Terry Teachout named her one of America’s best novelists, and a writer in The New York Times Book Review raved: ‘[S]he is wittier than Dorothy Parker, dissects the rich better than F. Scott Fitzgerald … and has a more supple control of satirical voice than Evelyn Waugh, the writer to whom she’s most often compared.’ Her status was cemented when her books were reissued in the prestigious Library of America series.

I chose A Time to Be Born, published in 1942, to blog about because of the serendipity of seeing these words in its opening pages, an echo of the times we’re living in today: 

This was no time to cry over one broken heart. It was no time to worry about Vicky Haven or indeed any young lady crossed in love, for now the universe, nothing less, was your problem. You woke in the morning with the weight of doom on your head. You lay with eyes shut wondering why you dreaded the day; was it a debt, was it a lost love? — and then you remembered the nightmare. It was a dream, you said, nothing but a dream, and the covers were thrown aside, the dream was over, now for the day. Then, fully awake, you remembered that it was no dream.

This passage will sound familiar to any lockdown reader in the global pandemic of 2020-21. The narrator’s nightmare in A Time to Be Born isn’t a virus, however, but the conflagration in Europe on the eve of the United States’ impending entry into World War II. The novel is a social satire in the vein of William Makepeace Thackery’s Vanity Fair (featuring the scheming social climber Becky Sharp), glimpsed through the gimlet eye of Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age New York society novels. Powell doesn’t hesitate to prick the vanities of socialites who promoted themselves by way of the war effort, in which the ‘ominous smell of gunpowder was matched by a rising cloud of Schiaparelli’s Shocking. … Off they rode in the new car, the new mink, the new emerald bracelet, the new electrically treated complexion, presented by or extorted from the loving-hearted gentlemen who make both women and wars possible.’

Powell savages her characters, but lovingly, and considered her novels social histories. As she wrote in her diaries: ‘Satire is people as they are; romanticism, people as they would be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out.’ While at times she may seem as catty as today’s feuding internet celebrities, she caricatures women who are constricted by the limited roles allowed to them and the men who take advantage of (and reinforce) those inequities. Her female characters rise and fall according to their skill in negotiating the sexist obstacle course of their era. It’s brutal sport that still plays out in this century, as any woman can testify.  

Front and center are a New York power couple: newspaper publisher Julian Evans and his ambitious mistress turned second wife, best-selling novelist and social commentator Amanda Keeler Evans. The two were said to be based on real-life magazine magnate Henry Luce and his wife, playwright, politician and socialite Clare Boothe Luce, although Powell was cagy about this, likely for libel reasons. With her husband’s publishing machine pulling out all the stops to promote her historical romance, Such Is the Legend, Amanda features on every war relief committee and magazine cover, as industrialists, politicians and prominent journalists fill her dining room by night. 

Into this rarified world steps an old friend from back home, banker’s daughter and boarding school pal, Ethel Carey, who wants Amanda to help her in a mission of mercy: rescuing Vicky Haven, the third of their schoolgirl trio, from a disastrous romantic obsession. Amanda doesn’t care about ‘little Vicky’, but she does have a motive for helping her. She makes sure that Julian finds her old friend a job at one of his trade publications, moves her to New York and gives her the loan of a studio, which Amanda secretly uses by day for rendezvous with old flame and struggling writer Ken Saunders. She even invites him to her Fifth Avenue soirees, under cover of being Vicky’s date. At first, Vicky is unaware of the deception, but she and Ken soon become friends and allies, disillusioned with their roles as Amanda’s puppets.

With these ingredients, Powell sets into motion the wheel of her characters’ changing fortunes. Along the way, she gleefully skewers the opportunistic socialites, ruthless capitalists, ambitious wordsmiths and tippling artists who populate her pages, managing to both mock and sympathise with them. Her worst censure is reserved for figures like Julian Evans, whose monstrous ego can only tolerate the company of those he can control and whose fortunes were made on the cannon fodder of the ‘Little Man’. Julian isn’t disturbed by the turning of the magic wheel (as Powell titled an earlier novel, evoking the fickle operation of fate). He knows that with ‘a little shrewd planning, a few conferences with bankers, lawyers, gamblers—a little discreet hijacking possibly—and Evans would be on top again as usual.’ 

It’s hard to find much to sympathise with in such a man, although Powell tries when she pits him against the private investigator he hires to follow his wife, a ‘short thick man with boiled gray eyes’, who, when Julian appears to be crushed by evidence of Amanda’s infidelities, says, ‘What’s the matter? If she wasn’t that way you wouldn’t have set up trailing her, would you? Don’t get touchy, there, governor. You started this deal, you know. You knew what time it was.’

 On the other hand, reader, Amanda could be any one of us, in lockdown: ‘Papers, notebooks, cream jars, a deck of cards and a ten-cent-store dream book were scattered over the pretty coverlet, and Amanda’s bed desk appeared to be nothing less than a ouija board with a big YES in one corner and a big NO in the other.’ 

In this satirical account of an ambitious, unapologetic female striver, Powell points up how harshly Amanda is judged for doing things her successful male rivals did every day with no consequences. One can only hope that in some alternative fictional universe, beyond the end of Powell’s book, Amanda is still pointing that planchette with a big YES to all corners of the world. She’s a scoundrel we hate to love, but do nonetheless.

Powell, who would live and write in her beloved city for forty-eight years, died in 1965. Her husband pre-deceased her, and a cousin assumed legal guardianship of her forty-four year old son. She was buried in Potter’s Field on Hart Island (another echo of the pandemic that would, over a half-century later, batter the city, with an overflow of Covid-19 victims buried there last spring). She may have died destitute, but she left us, in her wealth of words, a social history of a vanished New York.

After three decades of living there, the city left its mark on me too, with its hungry, restless intelligence; its cast of striving, conniving, brilliant, original characters; its inexhaustible creative energy. Uprooting myself to move to England in 2019 was both difficult and surprisingly easy, since the city had given me all the tools and education I needed to make my way in the world. In part, I have Dawn Powell to thank, for providing inspiration and wit and the courage to persevere.

–post by Suzanne Solomon

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