March 23, 2000
Marjorie Morningstar Lives
Yes, despite the best efforts of feminists like me to shelve Herman Wouk's singular portrait of the American Jewish Woman, the 1955 novel and its eponymous character carry on, shaping Jewish lives unto the fourth generation.
"I will never love a book as much as I love this one," writes one Amazon.com reader, whose mother recommended the book to her. "Marjorie Morningstar" may offend women of the Steinem/Friedan generation, for its sell-out ending and a patriarchal view of religion that has not stood the test of time, but it still ranks near the top 10 percent at the on-line bookseller, a perennial classic.
As one who has given many talks on the "tragedy" of "Marjorie Morningstar" and as a member of the Morning Star Commission designed to expand the image of Jewish women in media beyond its namesake, this is an amazing state of affairs.
In a nutshell, "Marjorie Morningstar" is the story of an affluent Jewish girl, the daughter of immigrants and an aspiring actress, who pursues Noel Airman, a judge's son, songwriter, and would-be playwright afflicted with a serious case of Jewish self-hatred into a passionate but ultimately dead-end love affair. Marjorie hunts Noel through every stratum of American Jewish life, from adult summer resort to volunteer organizations and even to Europe as Jews flee Hitler. The book was Wouk's follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Caine Mutiny" and an instant best-seller. Wouk and Marjorie were on Time magazine's cover, a rare event for a Jewish topic during the regime of Henry Luce.
The appeal of the story today cuts across every age and what might be called "spiritual demographics." It is required reading in college Jewish Studies courses; the gospel for Jews-by-choice; a staple of synagogue book clubs.
Marjorie speaks closely to observant women, who are seeking support for today's much-touted "return to modesty."
Moreover, Al Pacino optioned the book for a remake of the 1958 Gene Kelly/Natalie Wood movie, with himself presumably as the Broadway wannabe Noel Airman. There's a new screenplay, written by Frederic Raphael ("Two for the Road," "Eyes Wide Shut").
The love story is a big part of the book's staying power. Marjorie and Noel are like Jacob and Leah, two doomed partners eternally attached to each other. We watch Marjorie pursue Noel and see in it every heartbeat wasted on the wrong guy.
Beyond that, time has been kind to "Marjorie Morningstar," if only because time has been kind to Jews. Free in ways that Marjorie's generation could never imagine, older readers can examine the story as history, while younger readers can find in it those glimpses of true wisdom that come from Wouk's understanding of the human heart.
Finally, Wouk's book survives because it captures a world that is compelling and real.
As historian Riv-Ellen Prell has observed in a more critical vein, "Marjorie Morningstar" is more accurately a portrait of the men in her life, not the woman of the title.
Noel resists Marjorie, calling her a "Shirley," a castrating type of woman whose goal is to trap men into a life of conventionality. But other men, more competent and stable than Airman, pursue her with their own passion and drive. Sections of the book read like class warfare, as men with intellectual, professional, entrepreneurial and artistic ambitions fight over Marjorie, by extension groping for a definition of themselves.
And yet we must account for that disaster of an ending.
Wally Wronken, the book's narrator and a young playwright a la Neil Simon, has loved Marjorie with unrequited ardor. Two decades and 750 pages after he meets Marjorie, he visits her at her home in Westchester County, New York. The affair with Noel is long ended. She is prematurely gray, the mother of four, a suburban hausfrau keeping a kosher home and attending Jewish community meetings. Every ounce of her appeal is gone. She cannot remember being "Marjorie Morningstar." She has become nothing more than Mrs. Milton Schwartz.
"I know now that she was an ordinary girl, that the image [of her talent] existed only in my mind," concludes Wally, destroying in one sweep the image of the woman he, and the reader, has loved.
If it's any consolation, I think Marjorie's creator knows now that she deserves better. In "Marjorie Morningstar," the 16-year-old Marjorie has an epiphany while attending her brother Seth's bar mitzvah. She understands that "this religion was a masculine thing... the very word Hebrew had a rugged male sound to it."
In his new book, "The Will to Live On," Wouk, now 84, praises the participation of women in serious learning as "one of the true breakthroughs of our time." If Marjorie were to come back, if she were allowed a life truly reflecting where Jewish women have gone in the last 50 years, perhaps he'd let her be a ... scholar!
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of the Jewish Journal, is editor of the anthology, "Nice Jewish Girls: Growing up in America." Send her your interpretation of "Marjorie Morningstar" via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.
Her e-mail address is email@example.com
Her book, "A Woman's Voice" is available through Amazon.com.