Letty Fox: Her Luckby Christina Stead
Love, lust, and commitment crash and scatter in this comedic masterpiece
From the stunning and provocative mind of Christina Stead comes the addictively blunt character of Letty Fox. Letty spins between New York City and London during her chaotic upbringing and entry into adulthood, which spans the Great Depression and the Second World War. She is/b>/b>… See more details below
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Love, lust, and commitment crash and scatter in this comedic masterpiece
From the stunning and provocative mind of Christina Stead comes the addictively blunt character of Letty Fox. Letty spins between New York City and London during her chaotic upbringing and entry into adulthood, which spans the Great Depression and the Second World War. She is determined to create a life for herself—one built upon equal parts work and play, men and sex—while her parents struggle with their own romantic entanglements. Frank and comedic like few characters before her (or since), Letty sets out to find a lasting, committed relationship amidst the buzz of Manhattan. With its vibrant characters and masterful voice, Letty Fox is a spirited coming-of-age story from one of the twentieth century’s essential novelists.
— The New York Times Book Review
[Christina Stead] is really marvelous. She gropes here, she gropes there, she introduces this subject and that subject, seems to talk to no purpose—talk and talk! Then suddenly, with a wild outburst, she understands something. A discovery has been made.
— Saul Bellow
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By Christina Stead
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1974 Christina Stead
All rights reserved.
ONE HOT NIGHT LAST spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarreled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad. My first thought was, at any cost, to get company for the evening. In general, things were bad with me; I was in low water financially and had nothing but married men as companions. My debts were nearly six hundred dollars, not counting my taxes in arrears. I had already visited the tax inspector twice and promised to pay in installments when I had money in the bank. I had told him that I was earning my own living, with no resources, separated from my family, and that though my weekly pay was good, that is sixty-five dollars, I needed that and more to live. All this was true. I now had, by good fortune, about seventy dollars in the bank, but this was only because a certain man had given me a handsome present (the only handsome present I ever got, in fact); and this money I badly needed for clothes, for moving, and for petty cash. During the war, I had got used to taking a taxi to work. Being out always late at night, I was sluggish in the morning; and being a great worker at the office, I was behindhand for my evening dates. Beyond such petty expenses, I needed at least two hundred and fifty dollars for a new coat. My fur coat, got from my mother, and my dinner dress, got from my grandmother, were things of the past and things with a past, mere rags and too well known to all my friends. There was no end to what I needed. My twenty-fourth birthday was just gone, and I had spent two hours this same evening ruminating upon all my love affairs which had sunk ingloriously into the past, along with my shrunken and worn outfits. Most of these affairs had been promising enough. Why had they failed? (Or I failed?) Partly, because my men, at least during the war years, had been flighty, spoiled officers in the armed services, in and out of town, looking for a good-timer by the night, the week, or the month; and if not these young officers, then my escorts were floaters of another sort, middle-aged, married civilians, journalists, economic advisers, representatives of foreign governments or my own bosses, office managers, chiefs, owners. But my failure was, too, because I had no apartment to which to take them. How easy for them to find it inconvenient to visit me at my hotel, or for me to visit them at theirs when they were dubious or cool. It seemed to me that night that a room of my own was what I principally lacked.
I had to leave the hotel for another reason. One of my lovers had lived there for some time, had gone away on a trip, was now coming back, and, of course, was glad of the room they had promised to keep for him in the same hotel. We had been about together a great deal, our liaison and its nature was flagrant, and I had been only too happy to make it known. Now, his farewell had been too casual and while away, he had sent another man to me, without a letter of introduction, but merely with my address on a scrap of paper and the assurance that "Letty knows the ropes." I had therefore resolved to have nothing to do with this absentee, Cornelis de Groot, unless he installed me somewhere and set up householding with me, openly. Meanwhile, I had become intimate with his friend, a very sensible, moderate man. Cornelis was too cunning and too ambitious; this is what made him dangerous for me. When with him, I behaved stupidly, incautiously, with passion, with ill temper; I was too dependent. I did whatever he wished and found him full of sang-froid. Both these men, Cornelis and his stand-in, were of about the same age, that is, about forty-two, too old, of course; yet with the absence of young men I could ask no questions, and in a way I learned much from these old men. I learned their weary, sentimental cunning, their husbandly manners, I found out that they were more generous than the young ones. But I was never fond of money, except to spend, and never went with a man for his money. My supreme idea was always to get married and join organized society. I had, always, a shrinking from what was beyond the pale.
I had not been out walking long that night before I made up my mind that I would do better to get myself a flat than to get company. They said the only way, at that time, to get a flat was to walk up and down the streets till you saw someone moving out. I made up my mind to spend not only this night, which was a Friday, but also the whole week end doing just this. I would stay away from work the following day (I had not had a Saturday off for months anyhow). If I did not get a flat this week end, I would take it as a sign that I was meant to accept a rather shameful (but routine) offer which had been made to me, at second hand, during the week. This offer had been sent to me, verbally, by Gallant Stack, a handsome and popular young promoter of midtown Manhattan. Two nights previously Gallant Stack had come to my mother's house, with a common friend, saying he had something important for me. It turned out that a writer who had just signed a Hollywood contract, wanted a young woman secretary: she had to be pretty, sophisticated, smart, with a knowledge of languages, and enough physical charm and social manners to make a good mistress. Gallant Stack had already mentioned my name and recommended me, and he asked my mother if she would pass on the offer as I was just the girl needed. My mother mumbled something about its being up to me, but Gallant Stack, wishing to oblige his friend, also came next day direct to me. "'The three R's and Romance are her racket,' is what I said," said Gallant Stack to me, reporting his colloquy with the Hollywood writer. "I will think it over," said I. Shocking and unsavory as this proposition may appear when written down but not when said, it differed little from many a proposition I had received. My position with most of my employers had been just that; and let's face the facts, I liked it. It did not require any new kind of impudence for the author to send a crier round town in this way. My acquaintances in camp often sent their friends to me, and, of course, to any good-looking, smart girl they knew. It is the custom of the town. As for Gallant Stack—as he had seen some MSS., attempts of mine to get into literature, and had heard my complaints at failure, he felt he was acting the part of a friend. A writer has his time to himself, and has little to do, while I had to slave day and night to keep the favor of my bosses—and crush opposition. Stack was just a realist, a man without prejudice; and I am certain he would have taken care of me in any way if I had been in any kind of trouble. His boast was that no woman ever suffered from him; even his cast-off mistresses were helped to a new mistress-ship, a new job, or a husband by him. As for the Hollywood writer, he was not a bad man either; in this hurried world, no one has any time to seek and try out, and so one buys everything readymade. I do not even see a scandal in this, for wide-awake women. In other times, society regarded us as cattle or handsome house slaves; the ability to sell ourselves in any way we like is a step toward freedom; we are in just the same position as our Negro compatriots—and they would not go backwards toward their miserable past. One must take the good with the bad and, unmoved by the titles of things and worn-out prejudice, one must look toward the future. I feel, though, that this can't go on for a lifetime. We must bear the burdens of society on our backs just a certain way, then must set them down for someone else to pick up. This was very much my feeling at that time. I had carried the burdens of society just as far as was good for me. I was really tempted to take this chance, go to the Coast, and find a position in one of the studios.
But I was tired of work; and furthermore, I am fond of New York. It is hard to leave friends and old lovers, even when the latter have deserted. There are always the occasional dinners and the fondness that outlasts an affair that's done with. These cast-off lovers are my best friends, in a way; I have to explain myself to others, but there is nothing these men do not know. I wonder at the simplicity of people who think these affairs are bad for a woman. As for men—I don't answer for them. Men are easily debauched because they think of every woman they have had as a conquest, although it is clear that it is a mutual conquest and that each loses what each gains.
On this Friday night I was enduring that second half of living which is pure suffering. My friend of those days was Captain White, who was then situated in Washington, though his business brought him every week to New York. There was no question of marriage between us and I had agreed to leave him when his mother and fiancée came here from the Coast. The family had arrived, but I was finding it very hard to break it off; he, too. We had scenes, reconciliations; and his doubts about his love for his fiancée, when he was with me, made me distracted. I could easily have wiped a mere fiancée off the slate, I knew, but doubted that I wanted him; and I had found out, today, through an anonymous letter, that the so-called fiancée was his wife! In my upset, my scruples vanished. I wanted to oust her; yet today I had sent him "to the devil." I was surprised and worried when he did not telephone me within two hours of our final farewell. It was unlike him. I knew that by now he was home with his legal woman; what wretchedness for me! I wished I had the courage to cut a loss in my love affairs; but a love affair is never a dead loss and this is the catch in the business.
Going down Eleventh Street, I came abreast of an old brownstone house, with faint lights in an apartment without curtains on the first floor and bright lights in the basement. An old woman, hugging a bundle of laundry, stood at the railings, looking up and in. I saw the first floor apartment was in disorder. An archway separated the two large rooms which had once been drawing rooms. The intermediate doors stood back, so that we could look right through to trees and houses in Tenth Street. I thought, "They're moving in, or moving out, I lose nothing by asking," and was going up the steps when the old woman said, "It's no good asking, I've arranged to take the place; I need it, too; I've got three kids at home and we're living in two and a half rooms, all of us, my husband too."
"When are you moving in?"
"As soon as I can get the men to move us."
"That'll be hard," I said softly, coming toward her; "and what hold-up artists they are these days."
"I've got a firm," said she; "I had them for years: they moved me fifteen times. They'll do something for me."
"For money," said I, and walked off. I went down half a block, saw the woman had left the railings and was rounding the other corner. I, at once, went back, had an interview with the superintendent's wife, promised her thirty dollars (the old woman had promised her twenty dollars) to hold the place for me, agreed to paint the place myself, exterminate vermin, and to move in in less than a week, and so forth. It was discussed and concluded within the hour. She took me up to see the flat, which, though cluttered up with boxes, bundles and furniture out of place, was almost my ideal; it consisted of two salons that could be thrown into one, a kitchen, bathroom, and easy access, down some iron steps, to the garden. Since they had not been allowed to raise the rent, the rent was still, officially, ninety dollars, in these days a bargain. The couple leaving the place were a nondescript middle-aged pair; the man was pleasanter than the woman, rather good-looking; they turned out to be music arrangers for radio shows. They said they had been given notice because of their pets, which they would not give up. What I had taken to be a large ornament on the white marble mantelpiece turned out to be two living Siamese cats folded round each other. A large, sickly wolfhound lay on the floor, in a back-breaking posture. A Scottie was hiding under a bookcase. The walls, I then saw, were rather smudged at about dog-height.
I slept badly that night, in my anxiety over the flat, and instead of going to work, went before eight to the real estate office. The rent of the Eleventh Street apartment was too high for me, but I gave them guarantees, references, the name of my father, Solander Fox, office manager, and his business address, Joseph Montrose & Co., a freight and chartering firm, with offices in the Produce Exchange. I likewise mentioned (though with more doubt) my maternal grandmother, Cissie Morgan, who ran two hotels, one in New Canaan, Connecticut, and one in Long Island, near Long Beach. I had luck. The apartment became mine. I was to move in within a week, whether the storage company would move me or not. There was no lease; it was on a month-to-month basis. This was almost permanency for me, whose affairs at that time were on a day-to-day basis. I went at once to survey my new premises, and had an intuition of success, good luck, all the way along.
Two doors led from the hall into the two high rooms flooded with sunlight. Between the windows looking into Eleventh Street was a mirror about eight feet tall, with a gilt frame. Above this and all round was oak paneling. At the back, other windows overlooked the garden, outside these was a terrace, which had been added. It had a glass roof. Beside this, the kitchen. The glass roof allowed light to fall into the room in any weather, so I would put my piano here. My piano, two divans (one for a bed and one for a daybed), a couple of Mother's old chairs would easily furnish this place. I turned round, a couple of rugs on the floor, a picture or so—my father had some—a few ashtrays—Woolworth's—a few wine and whisky glasses—Eighth Street—and all would be ready. I would throw a house-painting party, invite the office—show I was not depressed about Captain White's wife. Certainly, the anonymous letter came from the office. I would be launched again; everything cleared behind me. I looked in the kitchen with considerable zest. I am not a bad cook. I was, when I lived with Mother; I was not then, after having been a half-wife for several men. I was one of those marrying women who married even her casual lovers: I had a very honest instinct.
But I had not a penny. How was I to pay the rent? My position at the office was secure, I had references, but I could not put myself in the hands of personal finance companies. I had often borrowed—true, often lent—I did not always get the money back, though I am not afraid to ask for what is mine. I am generous, foolishly so when I am in the money. As for my salary, sixty-five dollars weekly, it was spent, up to the hilt, and mortgaged for months ahead, with my charge accounts and money borrowed from Mother, Father, and others. I had three charge accounts (rash Grandma's and rash Granddaughter's!) and owed money on each; one of them was outstanding, $172, for two years. Grandmother or Mother, however, would probably pay up one or other of them soon, for I would have to take one or both into my confidence; and so I could work on an account again. My argument (about the present apartment in Eleventh Street) would be that in it I would save money, for I would be able to cook for myself in the week ends; and if I made an agreement with White, or Cornelis, upon his return, say, to buy all the raw stuff for our kitchen, in return for my cooking, I would surely save the difference in the rent. I did not intend to cook for anyone but White, or Cornelis, the others must pay—no discounts. This decision was the fruit of experience. I knew that I suffered through men, and if, through some misfortune which I do not know, or perhaps (I am quite fair) do not care to remember, I have injured some too trusting man, in my Grand Tour, at least I have the argument that they made me suffer too and much more than I ever made them suffer. I have been too trusting, too generous. I shall never be a dangerous woman; I can make men love, but I cannot make them suffer. It would be much better the other way about. I have seen women able to make men suffer who could not make them love. The more they suffered the more they hung around for a showdown. In the end they did better than I, for it is strange what people will do to be able to suffer and say to themselves, in the night, "I have suffered, I have lived indeed." Well, I am just a run-of-the-mill New York girl, I cannot do this.
Excerpted from Letty Fox by Christina Stead. Copyright © 1974 Christina Stead. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Christina Stead (1902–1983) was an Australian writer regarded as one of the twentieth century’s master novelists. Stead spent most of her writing life in Europe and the United States, and her varied residences acted as the settings for a number of her novels. She is best known for The Man Who Loved Children (1940), which was praised by author Jonathan Franzen as a “crazy, gorgeous family novel” and “one of the great literary achievements of the twentieth century.” Stead died in her native Australia in 1983.
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