An Underrated Classic

by Jessie Roberts

Loris Stein commemorates John O’Hara, whose novels, he says, “deserve to be much more famous than they are.” He describes the heroine of BUtterfield 8:

This heroine, Gloria Wandrous, is one of O’Hara’s true originals: a young woman endowed with beauty, a strong libido, and large sexual experience, who is neither a pornographic fantasy nor a femme fatale. To put it simplistically, Gloria is a sexual subject, not dish_Butterfield8 an object. Over the course of BUtterfield 8, we hear about threesomes, orgies, “Lesbians,” “fairies,” consensual rough sex, brutal sadism, abortions, even the new technique of artificial insemination—all from her point of view. Even more striking, we see Gloria in a close, erotically charged friendship with a man, Eddie Brunner, who loves her and is not her lover. Theirs is not the only such friendship in American fiction, but it is one of many touches that make the novel seem uncannily up-to-date, much more up-to-date than the “modernized” 1960 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor.

In the movie, Gloria is a call girl who wants to “go straight” and get married. But the Gloria of O’Hara’s novel is, crucially, not a prostitute, and she considers the prospect of marriage with deep ambivalence. Based on a real-life acquaintance of O’Hara’s named Starr Faithfull, Gloria is a creature of the great sexual revolution of the twentieth century—the one that occurred in the twenties, thanks to cars and speakeasies. To read O’Hara is to discover how much more people used to say and do, in private, than most novelists, even daring ones, could bring themselves to write. The publishers of BUtterfield 8 made O’Hara remove the word “fuck” from his manuscript (they seem to have replaced it with the phrase “stay with”). Even so, even now, you could hardly place the book on a high school syllabus.

(Image: movie poster for BUtterfield 8, via Wikimedia Commons)