In the spirit of #tbt is Harold Robbins’ 1976 novel, “The Lonely Lady.” I’d thought a lot of Robbins’s work was a slight step above dime-store schlock, but “The Lonely Lady” is a surprisingly timely story about a woman who strives to be a successful screenwriter, yet is repeatedly stonewalled by men in power—men who prefer to sleep with her in exchange for vague promises of promoting her work. In short: they don’t take her seriously as a screenwriter because she’s a woman, and only see her as a sex object. Ring any bells?
I should mention that I was originally going to pick Robbins’ equally soft-core novel “The Betsy” before I noticed that he’d written “The Lonely Lady.” I only knew it as an early 1980’s film that was supposed to raise D-list actress Pia Zadora to an A-list superstar but was a spectacular bomb. Call it a precursor to “Showgirls.” I had seen parts of the film once, but it was so awful I fast-forwarded through most of it. Its major claim to fame was that it was the big-screen debut of Ray Liotta, which I imagine led him to be typecast as a psychopath after he raped Zadora’s character with a garden hose. Happily, that scene is not in the book.
Instead, we begin in the late 1950s, with our heroine, JeriLee Randall, a teenage girl whose budding sexuality is at odds with her desire to make her mark as a screenwriter on her own, without the help of any man. (Ironic, then, that it’s only men who can make or break her.) She lives in a stereotypical Eisenhower-era household, where appearances carry more weight than the well-being of one’s family. Because of this, JeriLee is constantly at loggerheads with her old-fashioned mother, who at best can’t understand why her daughter doesn’t aspire to be a wife and mother, and at worst, refuses to prosecute the local teenage boys who attempted to rape JeriLee because they come from wealthy families.
Scarred (literally—she was burned with a cigarette in the attack) but undaunted, JeriLee realizes she better get out of this one-horse town pronto, so contrary to her independent streak, leaves for L.A. to marry a much older film and theatre producer—possibly out of love, possibly because of parental issues, or possibly because he’s also a meal ticket. This does nothing to appease JeriLee’s unforgiving mother, who, as it turns out rightly, predicts that a marriage between an 18-year-old and a 50-year-old is nothing short of doomed.
I’m no expert on 1970s literature, and certainly not on Harold Robbins, but while I was reading “The Lonely Lady,” Robbins did something that surprised me. It’s divided into four books: “Small Town”; “Big Town”; “Any Old Town”; and the epilogue “Tinsel Town,” and with each book, Robbins alternates the point of view between the third person and first person, as told from JeriLee’s point of view. It serves to contrast the reality of her surroundings with how she sees them, increasingly through the haze of ‘60s drugs like Quaaludes and Nembutal, along with the old standbys of booze and weed. JeriLee’s marriage does indeed fail, largely because of the age difference and because her independent streak is stifled. She doesn’t ask for alimony (much to her mother’s horror) but grows even more dead-set on making it as a single woman. But can a single woman survive in Hollywood with only herself to rely on? Or is “single” the same as “lonely”?
JeriLee’s career has some promising moments, but they inevitably crash and burn. Repeated assurances that fall through, expectations that are dashed, and a bank account that dives into the red make her self-medicate with more urgency, and the books told from her point of view increasingly turn her into an unreliable narrator.
If there’s a major flaw in “The Lonely Lady,” it’s that there are so many degrading moments—some JeriLee extricates herself from, some she doesn’t—that I began to lose track. Between the multitude of agents, producers, and club owners, my knee-jerk reaction as soon as I saw a man’s name was to write him off as a thug or a pervert. This even happened after a chapter opened with the death of her beloved step-father, John. (“John?” I thought, “Which sleaze bag is this again? Oh, wait, it’s her dad.”) It’s no wonder, then, that JeriLee seeks solace in the arms of women, even though her mother was just short of Mommie Dearest. These female characters are among the few who—although also sex partners—see her potential, and try to help her reach it.
Ultimately, the booze, drugs, sex, and accompanying psychosis drive JeriLee into a psychiatric hospital. This is where we learn just how damaged she’s become, after one of her former arresting officers, of all people (ok, not all the men are bad) attempts to swoop in to save the day. Perhaps he does (I won’t give it away), and perhaps Robbins is saying that a woman really can’t survive Hollywood without a man as her bodyguard/savior. I will say that the book ends with an Oscar speech—actually, more like a presentation—that makes an impact far greater than anything Sacheen Littlefeather aspired to do. And while it’s not great literature, “The Lonely Lady” does leave its mark because—although it didn’t set out to do so—it exposes in shocking detail the fact that, sadly, surprisingly little has changed today.