Life Signs, by Johanna Davis (1973)

A couple of months ago, the encyclopedically knowledgeable Robert Nedelkoff emailed:

lifesignsI want to bring a novel by a woman – an extremely and undeservedly neglected novel if there ever was one – to your attention: Life Signs, by Johanna Davis, nee Mankiewicz, published by Atheneum in 1973 and by Dell in paperback the next year, just after she died when she was struck by a taxicab outside her Greenwich Village apartment building at the age of 38.

You can find a reminiscence of her and a short discussion of her one book, written by Gilbert Rogin’s niece, Katie, on the Literary Mothers blog (link). It mentions she came from a “Hollywood family” of writers, but doesn’t specify that she was the daughter of the man who wrote Citizen Kane; the niece of the man who gave us All About Eve; and the aunt of TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz. [Nor that her brother Frank ran George McGovern’s presidential campaign and her brother Don won the Harper Prize for his novel, Trial.

Her husband, filmmaker Peter Davis, had his own ties to the world of neglected books — Tess Slesinger was his mother. Life Signs, when it appeared, was pretty universally hailed. Nora Johnson, who wrote The World of Henry Orient, gives an idea of the kind of novels it was compared to, from Play It As It Lays and The Pumpkin Eater“>The Pumpkin Eater on down, in this New York Times article from 1988. It even got to 10 on the Time’s bestseller list for a week – but then Johanna Davis died, and she and her book were utterly forgotten. But she deserves to be remembered – and for her one work to be back in print.

I took Robert’s suggestion and ordered a copy of Life Signs. Its opening gives a good clue to the book’s subject and Davis’ wise-cracking tone:

The way Camilla Ryder saw it: somewhere, tucked off in a back cranny of her brain, lived a tiny old lady, retired from active duty as a postal inspector but still interested in keeping her hand in. To this end, she ran a merciless, night and day operation over Camilla’s thoughts, zeroing in on any that seemed even slightly uninhibited with a furious red ink stamp. RETURN TO SENDER. The notion was improbably, if pleasing (Our Lady of the Medulla would wear Supp-Hose and an Orlon sweater set, tint her hair blue and eat off a tray), much like the explanation furnished by Camilla’s older brother for other mysteries of life; it took high school physics to finally rid her of Daniel’s persuasive visions of Lilliputian men striking and extinguishing microscopic matches inside of light bulbs, marching in and out of radios to give their news and spin records.

Camilla lives with her film-maker husband and a baby boy in a Greenwich Village apartment. She is eight months pregnant and her synapses are firing in overdrive. She regularly wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, leading her husband to suggest she see a therapist.

Despite his many affectations of sophistication, the psychiatrist’s advice is basically sound, but Camilla’s brain is in control of a particularly demonic set of little men. Another mom at the local playground sets her up with a beginner supply of amphetamines. Soon, she is having an absurd conversation with her son:

Jacob reached for her hair, making pigeon sounds. “Goo-goo,” he said. “No,” Camilla was firm. “Goo-goo is how babies go. Mommies go cuckoo.” She tucked him into clean rubber pants, and sat him up, and happy golden Kewpie doll she had won without trying. “Koo-koo,” he said. “Mommy koo-koo.” “Right,” said Camilla, unprecedented love coming at her like a flash flood as the pill hit. “Your first sentence, you smart thing. Have a zwieback.”

The novel follows Camilla through four days, until her water breaks and she delivers after a frantic taxi ride to the hospital. Though she promises her husband there will be “No more crazy salad,” within a week, she’s sleepwalking.

There are more than a few parallels between Camilla’s situation and Davis’ own. Married to a film-maker herself, she had had her own breakdown of sorts when her second child was born. Years after her death, her friend Brooke Hayward told People magazine, in an article about Davis’ husband, that “Peter literally took over the role of mother for the children.” “It was Peter who would bathe them, Peter who would pick up the groceries and Peter who often would cook. He’s a family man, and he never was anything but.”

johannadavisDaughter of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, niece of director Joseph, Davis was known as Josie growing up in Hollywood. As a teenager, her closest friends were Hayward, daughter of producer Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan, Jane Fonda, and Jill Schary, daughter of MGM head of production Dore Schary. If the literary output of this group is any indication, Davis had plenty of the ingredients for a crazy salad of her own: Jill Schary, writing as Jill Robinson, published Bedtime Story, a memoir of drug addiction, alcoholism, and self-destructive behavior; Hayward’s own memoir, Haywire, described how she wrestled with the question, “How do you cope with the fact that your parents were unfit for parenting?” Let us not forget that Fonda’s mother Frances committed suicide in a New York sanatarium when Jane was 12, and, as Jonathan Yardley put it in his review of Fonda’s autobiography, for both Jane and her brother Peter, “yearning for their father’s love has been a lifetime’s preoccupation.” And, as her cousin, producer Tom Mankiewicz, revealed in his memoir, My Life as a Mankiewicz, it was Josie who discovered the body of her aunt, actress Rose Stradner, after Stradner committed suicide in 1958. At the time, Josie was 19.

Davis seems to have had the same kind of manic energy, wit, and intelligence as her heroine. In a memorial piece for The New York Times, Richard P. Brickner wrote, “She was the most literary person imaginable, in the sense that she was a natural story-teller and a natural story. She was all alertness, all poised eye, ear, and tongue. She invented incessantly, she read people incessantly, and she narrated incessantly in conversation.” In the People piece on Peter Davis, Anne Rogin, Katie’s mother and Johanna’s roommate at Wellesley College, recalled that, “Josie took stage center when she was in the room or in your life. She was a star, and when you have someone like that, people tend to see you as a satellite.”

In her Times article, Nora Johnson wrote that Camilla and similar women in such novels as Lois Gould’s Such Good Friends (1970), Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), Alix Kate Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973), “Have been driven mad not by men, but by the social principles of the patriarchy, so familiar as to be almost invisible. We dwell uncomfortably with those softer, more humanistic principles so hard to tease out and explain or understand, which are historically women’s. These are, besides, unpopular, unworkable, even ridiculous.”

I wouldn’t say that Camilla finds a workable resolution for her own situation. Her story ends before we have the chance to find out. Davis herself may have achieved some resolve by writing Life Signs. Unfortunately, her own story ended too soon, too. She was killed on 25 July 1974 near her apartment in Greenwich Village when two taxis collided in an intersection and one careened onto the sidewalk where she was walking with her 11 year old son, Timothy. Timothy was uninjured but the cab struck Davis and threw her into a mailbox, causing a fatal blow to her head. Davis was survived by Timothy, Nicholas, then 9, and her husband.


Life Signs, by Johanna Davis
New York: Atheneum, 1973

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