An ambitious woman from working-class roots, Stella sets her sights on marrying rich—and hits a bullseye. But her unshakable crudeness becomes too much for her husband. When he leaves her, she keeps their daughter Laurel. And now Stella sets her sights one again—this time, on giving her daughter the life she could never achieve for herself.
Originally published in 1923, this epic tale inspired the first radio soap opera, a Broadway play, and multiple films, including the Oscar-nominated 1937 movie starring Barbara Stanwyck and the 1990 movie Stella starring Bette Midler. Stella Dallas is a razor-sharp critique of our societal obsession with the judgment of mothers, offering cultural commentary that is still shockingly relevant nearly one hundred years after its initial publication.
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LAUREL WAS THIRTEEN years old. Her hair was the color of ripe horse-chestnuts, and had the same gloss. She wore it in a long smooth bang in front, which reached nearly to her eyebrows, and in long smooth curls behind, which reached nearly to her waist. Laurel's mother always placed one of the curls over each shoulder after she had made them perfect by brushing and smoothing over a dexterous forefinger. Laurel always, with a quiet, almost imperceptible, little motion of her head, placed them behind as soon as her mother turned away.
Laurel's clothes were consistent with the extreme bang and the long curls. There was never anything casual or careless about her costumes. When she appeared for breakfast in the big hotel dining-room dressed in one of her violet ginghams, smocked in seal-brown, with seal-brown stockings, and seal-brown shoes, and a seal-brown hat, she was like an Elsie DeWolfe room in the perfection of her color scheme.
She always changed for luncheon, as did her mother and most of the other smartly dressed women in the hotel, and again for dinner; and always the shoes and stockings, ribbons, hats, sweaters, and what-not harmonized with her various linens, pastel-shaded Japanese crêpes, organdies, or hand-embroidered serges for cool days.
"That Dallas woman must spend about all her time over that child's clothes," Laurel had one day overheard from behind the high back of one of the hotel-piazza rocking-chairs.
Laurel was sitting by an open window in an empty cardroom just behind the chairs. Laurel liked to sit and listen to what the women talked about on the other side of that high cane wall of chair-backs. Sometimes, however, she heard things that made her grave, contemplative eyes still graver and still more contemplative. There had been scorn in the voice which had referred to her mother.
I wonder, she thought, if we didn't dress quite so well, people mightn't be nicer.
She waited for more enlightening remarks from behind the chair- backs, but none were forthcoming, so she rose, sauntered out of the cardroom, wandered down a long deserted corridor, and drifted into the hotel foyer.
She was tall for thirteen, with long slim legs, long slim arms, and a long slim body. "Nice eyes, kiddie, but you'd make a mighty poor eating," one of the habitués of the poolroom had said to Laurel one day, as she stood staring at the clicking balls on the bright green felt, and he had pinched one of Laurel's pipestem arms — bare from the elbow down, and brown now to her fingertips.
Laurel did have nice eyes. They were gray eyes, set well apart. They had long, well-defined brows — level, almost parallel to the straight bang above, which nearly touched them. There was in Laurel's eyes a look of wistful inquiry, an almost spiritual expression sometimes. They were more than nice eyes. They were beautiful eyes. In contemplating them, one forgot her freckles. For Laurel had freckles. In spite of lemon-juice every night — in spite of various concoctions, which so far had not disturbed the fine texture of her dark smooth skin, still she had freckles. But beneath the freckles there was a glow, like the glow beneath the flecked tan of a russet apple. This, and the freckles, and the spiritual something in her eyes gave her a sort of woodsy charm, which no amount of garnishing could conceal. She was seldom seen on the floor of the hotel ballroom dancing with the other children. Usually she could be found standing somewhere by herself, quiet and composed; or sitting in a chair with a book. Yet there was something about Laurel, standing or sitting, or walking slowly down the long length of the dining-room behind her mother to their table in a far corner, that recalled certain pictures of young girls dancing in the woods — Isadora Duncan pupils, perhaps — slim, sleek, sylvan creatures in Greek draperies.
Laurel leaned up against one of the pillars in the hotel foyer and gazed about her. The place was wrapped in its usual mid-afternoon lifelessness — a few idle bellboys on the bench at the foot of the broad staircase; a couple of idle elevators; a solitary clerk behind the brass grill over the mahogany desk; dozens upon dozens of empty armchairs; in one of them an old man, with a King Orange nose, sound asleep; in a far corner four women playing silent bridge.
As Laurel gazed at the women, her eyes took on their peculiar contemplative expression. She knew who they were. Three of the four players were prominent social leaders in the hotel-world; and the fourth, the poor, pinched-looking, unattractive little creature in black, was Mrs. Tom Lawrence, who had arrived two years ago. Laurel had learned all about Mrs. Tom Lawrence from behind the chair-backs. As she stared, her eyes narrowed. They're being nice to Mrs. Lawrence, she thought, and Mrs. Lawrence is divorced, while Mother is only "separated."
She slid into the deep-seated lap of an enormous leather armchair near by. Through the big front doors she could catch a glimpse of a group of girls about her own age, seated on the piazza railing, swinging their legs, and eating candy. One of the girls was the daughter of the pretty Mrs. Cameron, now playing bridge in the far corner. Laurel did not join the girls. She didn't give mothers at a summer hotel the second opportunity to call, "Come, Dear, I think you'd better come in now," to their children when she became one of a group; nor the children themselves to link arms and move away from her.
This year she had scarcely given them a first opportunity. Somehow things had been worse this year than ever before, and right from the start, too.
She looked up at the loud-ticking clock. It was only quarter after four. Her mother had told her that she must amuse herself this afternoon. She always had to do that, whenever her mother was going to be busy in the bedroom they shared, "washing out a few things." There wasn't room for two, when there was laundering going on.
LAUREL SIGHED, ROSE from the big chair and wandered over to the glass-covered case of candies; stared at them for a minute or two; turned away; listlessly observed a rack of picture postcards. Finally she meandered down a long corridor past a series of cardrooms to a little pink parlor at the end. From behind a cushion on a sofa, she drew forth a book, and tucking it under her arm returned to the big chair. She curled herself up in it, child-fashion, and opened the book well toward the middle. She began to read.
The old man woke up and left his chair. The game of bridge came to an end. The four players disappeared. The group of girls on the railing outside drifted apart. But Laurel didn't once glance up. She hardly moved for a whole hour and a half except to turn the pages of the book. The hotel had suddenly ceased to exist for Laurel Dallas. Her heart was bleeding for David Copperfield.
Laurel never read David Copperfield when her mother was with her. Today the book, as usual, would be returned to its hiding place behind the cushion in the little parlor when she had finished with it. Laurel never carried it with her upstairs for her mother to catch a glimpse of and make remarks upon. Of course her mother had to know that she had tucked it, with several other books, into a corner of the bottom of her trunk when they had last packed. But there was no need in flaunting it before her mother's eyes. On the fly-leaf of Laurel's David Copperfield was written: "To Laurel, from her father," with Christmas and a date below. There had been a whole boxful of them.
"Books!" her mother had said with an exclamation of disappointment when they had been received the preceding December. "A whole pile of old-fashioned books!"
Laurel knew her mother preferred something more modern, when it came to printed matter — informing literature that kept one up-to- date as to what was going on in the world of clothes, and fashion, and society; Photoplay magazine, with some theater-talk in them, and a few snappy short stories. The table in the bedroom which Laurel shared with her mother was always littered with a dog-eared collection of such periodicals.
Laurel took the elevator up to that bedroom now. It was after six o'clock, and by this time, she calculated, the ironing-sheet and forbidden electric-iron would be safely tucked out of sight in the bottom of her mother's trunk.
IT WASN'T AN attractive bedroom. It was tucked away up under the eaves, had slanting walls, and a single curtainless window. Its furniture was much too big for it — made it look sick and shrunken, like a child in cast-off clothes many sizes too large. The iron bed, white enamel once but nicked and battered now, extended halfway across the window- pane; and there was a perfectly tremendous stuffed armchair in the room, discarded from some parlor below evidently, a shabby affair which, shut up in this little coop, was like some big ugly animal crammed into a circus cage — a rhinoceros, Laurel decided, for it was the same dingy color, and its back and arms were worn bare and napless.
The walls of the room were covered with unpleasant reminders of former occupants — long brown streaks made by the striking of sulphur matches, oil-stains, ink-spots, splotches where flies and mosquitoes had met bloody deaths, and bruises here and there exuding dry plaster. Behind the commode the faded, jaundiced-colored paper bore the whitish, pocked appearance of a face once swept by smallpox; and where the bed was shoved close against the wall, the paper was rubbed shiny and amber-colored. Laurel thought it was the worst "cheapest room" that she and her mother had ever occupied for a whole season.
Laurel was experienced in cheapest rooms. They were all more or less alike. That is, there was always something chronic and incurable the matter with them. They were either up very high beneath the eaves, possibly a floor above where the elevator ran, or down very low beside a noisy service-room, or groaning elevator-shaft. Some of them had queer smells. Some developed queer smells. Most of them were furnished with discards, and all of them were equipped with the everlasting commode, bowl-and-pitcher, and unlovely slop-basin.
Laurel used to dread her first glimpse of the latest cheapest room her mother had engaged, trailing with a sinking heart after the scornful bellboy who guided them along endless halls and corridors, farther and farther away from the luxury of the office downstairs, to the door of the undesirable little apartment, flinging it open, it seemed to Laurel, with a gesture of disgust. But Laurel's mother told her she ought to be thankful that such things as cheapest rooms existed. "It is only by occupying the cheapest room in the house, that you and I can go to nice hotels, where nice people go," Mrs. Dallas explained to her daughter.
The hotels which Mrs. Dallas patronized were always elaborate affairs with expensive, port-cochèred entrances, big impressive foyers lit by enormous inverted alabaster bowls, and dining-rooms of ballroom dimensions filled with round tables, and mahogany chairs, and during the crowded dinner hour, an army of waiters with huge oval trays rushing about like darting water-bugs.
To Laurel there was something magic in the fact that it was possible under the same roof to eat and sleep in such different surroundings. She used to pretend that, like Cinderella, a wand was waved over her, too, when she emerged from the shabbiness of some cheapest rooms and approached the splendor of some ground-floors with their bright lights, bright music, long stretches of soft carpet, springy as moss, with women trailing over it on their way to the dining-room for dinner — pretty, rich-looking women with bare necks, and shoulders powdered as white as gardenias.
But their necks and shoulders weren't any barer nor any whiter than Laurel's mother's, nor their cheeks any rosier, nor were they any prettier! Laurel thought that her mother was the very prettiest lady that she had ever seen in any hotel!
ONE MORNING LATE in August, Laurel woke up very early in the slant-ceilinged bedroom under the eaves. She knew it was early, not because the traveling-clock in its worn leather case on the bureau across the room told her so (the clock was turned so she couldn't see its face), but because it was so still, and because she always woke early on the morning of the day set for her yearly visit to her father.
She wished she knew how early it was. A summer hotel, even the service wing, slept so late. The sun could tell Laurel nothing. The sun rose from out the ocean, and of course the cheapest room hadn't a glimpse of the ocean.
Laurel didn't dare risk getting up and looking at the clock, for, not for anything, would she have disturbed her mother asleep beside her. Her mother had probably been up until morning to finish her packing. No. She would simply have to wait for the alarm-clocks in the servants' quarters across the alley-way. They usually began to go off about six to six thirty. In the meanwhile she must lie very quietly and not joggle the bed. Cautiously she folded her hands beneath her head, and proceeded to content herself as best she could, gazing about with slow-moving, wide- awake eyes.
There, opposite her, hanging from the electric-light fixture on the wall, was her traveling-suit carefully arranged upon a stretcher. It was the first real suit with separate coat and skirt that Laurel had ever had! Would her father like it, she wondered? Would he like the close little black velvet hat that went with it, with the bunch of red berries on the side? Her mother had copied the hat from a thirty-dollar model, which she had priced in a shop in Boston. It made her look very grown up. Would her father like to have her look grown up?
Beside the suit stood Laurel's trunk — a beautiful trunk, Laurel thought. Brand-new. It was all ready to be closed. Her dresses, freshly pressed and hanging in order, simply had to be pushed back into the empty space behind. The little drawers beside the dresses were already shut snug and tight. The drawers were filled, Laurel well knew, with various-colored ribbons, bows, and sashes to match the dress; shoes and stockings; and piles of soft white under-clothes in perfect repair. Her mother had been busy for a fortnight with white thread and darning- cotton. For a missing button or a tiny hole used to disturb Laurel's father years ago.
The beautiful trunk, and its beautiful contents, clashed with its present surroundings. Laurel was aware of it. It flashed over her, with a little stab of joy, that tomorrow morning when she woke up and glanced across the room at her trunk, it would be harmonizing with mahogany and plate-glass and a soft velvet carpet, and a glimpse through an open door of tiles and shining white porcelain. Too bad, oh, too bad, it flashed over her, with another stab that wasn't joy, that tomorrow morning her mother couldn't be waking up with her and glancing across at the trunk. Her mother did love grand rooms so! Her mother did love New York so! Tomorrow when Laurel woke up there would be the rumble of New York outside her window hundreds of feet below.
Very carefully Laurel turned her head upon her folded hands and looked at her mother. She wasn't pretty in the early morning in a battered old iron bed, of course. No lady can be pretty with her mouth hanging open, and her hair all mussy and tousled. Laurel's mother's hair looked like straw, now — dry and dead. But when she did it up and put the magic net on it, it seemed to come alive. It was the same with the early-morning ashen look of her skin. It disappeared completely, along with the shadows, and queer greenish hollow places, and tiny wrinkles, when she was ready to step out of the mean little room. It was wonderful what Laurel's mother could do with a little powder and a little rouge, and a bit of chamois skin. It seemed to Laurel there was real magic there — no pretence, as in her Cinderella game.
She turned away from her mother. It wasn't fair to look at a picture till it was finished.
IT WAS FULLY half an hour later when Laurel, gazing at the ceiling, became aware that her mother was no longer breathing out loud. She knew even without looking that her mother's blue eyes were wide open. She could feel them staring at her!
She turned her head toward her. Her mother was indeed staring at her!
"Hello," said Laurel, smiling tenderly.
"Hello," said her mother, still staring.
"What's the matter? What are you thinking of?" Laurel softly inquired.
"I was thinking what a burning shame you haven't naturally curly hair!" her mother exclaimed. "It makes me about sick to think of you down there for a whole month, with your hair hanging down as straight as a stick."
"Oh, it looks all right."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stella Dallas"
Copyright © 1950 Olive Higgins Prouty.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is one of those books that can make you tear up even if you think you won't. It's the story of a mother's ultimate sacrifice for her daughter, so that she may have the life that her mother believes that she deserves.Stella Dallas marries Steven Dallas shortly after they meet when he was going through a personal crisis and he is being just a bit self destructive. When their daughter Laurel is born, Stella loves her daughter desperately, but isn't quite the mother figure that he had pictured for his child. She in turn finds Steven a lot less fun than he used to be and looks for excitement in all the wrong places. When Steven has had enough of Stella's indiscreet flirtations, he leaves her, although they do not divorce right away.Stella's heart has always had good intentions, unfortunatly she doesn't mix well with the upper crust Boston society and is shunned for her style of dress and her manners. Realizing that she is standing in the way of Laurel's future in society, she pushes her daughter away to be with her father and his new wife and just to make sure that Laurel will never return, Stella marries a man that Laurel hates, an alcoholic/drug addict.Brought to the screen in 1937, and played to perfection by Barbara Stanwyck, this is another instance where the book and movie are both excellent.