I’ve hesitated to write about Tiffany Thayer’s books up to now because they are all, as far as I can tell, just plain awful. They’re sleazy, pandering, full of wooden characters and plot devices, and suffer from Thayer’s logorrhea, which appears never to have been moderated by any editor. Next to Thayer, Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel, or even the average Harlequin Romance author looks like Leo Tolstoy. Despairing of the state of the novel in the late 1930s, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that no one read anything but the Book of the Month Club’s latest pick–although “curious children nosed at the slime of Mr. Tiffany Thayer in the drug-store libraries.”
Which is also, of course, what also makes them almost irresistable. If you’re going to read a bad book, you don’t want one that’s half-heartedly bad, one whose author betrays any misgivings or sense of aesthetic standards. You want a full, unrepentant wallow–and that’s exactly what you get. In the case of Thirteen Women, you get adultery–both hetero- and homosexual–suicide, murder, rape, revenge, envy, gossip, corruption, show business, clairvoyance, yoga, blackmail, and chain letters. And I probably left something out of that list.
The story is, at best, preposterous. A group of women, all former members of a literary club at a prestigious girls’ school, receive mysterious letters from a Swami Yogadachi. The letters foretell some terrible event that will occur to each within the next few weeks. And sure enough, it does–at least to the first few. One commits suicide. Another starves to death. A third murders her cheating husband in front of his entire office.
Thayer brings in a medical expert, Dr. Blundein, to assure us that what’s going on is not clairvoyance but the susceptibility of the female mind:
“She was killed by suggestion.”
“The power of the mind is almost boundless. Sometimes it is the power of the weakness or twistedness or the prejudice of a mind. I have seen hysteria break bones; actually snap a fibula, while the patient was prone on a bed — apparently unconscious.”
“Of course. Men are seldom hysterical.”
See–I did leave something out: male chauvinism.
A lifelong advocate of skepticism (see Doug Skinner’s excellent article on Thayer and his connection with Charles Fort), Thayer can’t be bothered with mysteries. He tells us in the first chapter who the culprit is, in a paragraph that gives you a good sense of his shaggy-dog approach to storytelling:
The person guilty of whatever crime you find here was an half-caste, born in Java, an extraordinary woman; a woman with wide, full, undulating hips — strong shoulders and bust to match; a woman not unlike Mrs. O’Neill in general outline — if Mrs. O’Neill had not worn a girdle. That girdle had become necessary only after Bobby’s birth. Before that, her flesh had been solid and firm and resilient, which the guilty one’s never was. But we can say they were both Junoesque — if Juno can be imagined just a little softer than marble has translated her. If we can imagine a Juno so soft that one’s finger might leave a dent in a thigh, say, for twenty or thirty seconds? No one wants to think of a Juno like that, but neither did George O’Neill want to think of a wife like that, yet, there Laura was. One never knows, at twenty-two, what six or seven years will bring. And George half blamed himself. After all, she couldn’t have had Bobby without his help, so the breaking down of her constituent tissues was at least fifty per cent his fault. It takes a broad-minded man to look at it that way. George was all of that. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” he always said — and until his meerschaum was thoroughly colored, he kept it covered snugly in chamois.
It’s paragraphs like this that make me pretty confident that Thayer’s motto, when it came to writing, was “Go with the flow.” I can’t imagine what kind of planning would have led from a half-caste woman with undulating hips to a meerschaum pipe in the space of a dozen sentences.
Thayer delighted in playing up the salaciousness of his books–he went on to publish Adult’s Companion–“Tales of the eternal passions … by the greatest writers of amorous literature.” But in truth, he was terrible when it came to writing about sex. Here, for example, is how he deals with a night of passion:
Tom’s arms were frightful and his nude chest rather like a pigeon’s, but because Nellie experienced, or seemed to experience, an holy rapture at their contact with her own more than adequate complements, the wind bated its breath and the stars blinked blissfully as climax after climax was reached time after time.
What I mean to say is that all through the night, while Anne ransacked the Youngstown hotels with a second-hand revolver in her purse, Tom was giving his entire time and all his swiftly ebbing energy to that man-killing occupation which Nature has made exhilarating to conceal its basic insidiousness.
This is the sort of thing that led Dorothy Parker, in a New Yorker review of another Thayer novel, An American Girl, to write, “He is beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically, and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing.”
We also see in the above passage one of Thayer’s many typographical quirks, which led Parker to exclaim, “… ‘an hollow square,’ ‘an Hapsburg,’ and ‘an hill.’ ‘An hill,’ for God’s sake! It could happen to anybody who had no ear and had never got beyond the fourth grade.” She sums up his prose style as, “an entirely inexplicable idiom, and one that irritates me more acutely than anything I have encountered in letters since Mr. A. A. Milne minted the phrase ‘a hummy hum.'”
Thirteen Women was made into a film within a few months of its publication in 1932. Starring Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy, “Thirteen Women” is a good example of a talkie from the brief period before the Hayes code took effect, and was considered so lurid that RKO trimmed out two of the dozen deaths in the picture soon after its first release. You can read several appreciations of the film, at The Irene Dunne Project and Une Cinephile. And, if you have the stamina, you can watch the whole thing online at YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.
You can also find the text of Thirteen Women online at the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/details/ThirteenWomen. Be sure to browse through one of the formats that preserve David Berger’s illustrations from the book, some of which were pretty strong stuff for their time.
By now it should be obvious that I’ve concluded that Tiffany Thayer’s novels are the literary equivalent of potato chips: no damn good for you but too hard to pass up from time to time. I’ve got The Prince of Taranto, his last book–amounting to some 1,267 pages, published in three slipcased volumes and intended to be the first of 21 titles in a series about origins and life of Mona Lisa (viz. logorrhea)–sitting in my basement, along with a few others from his drugstore library period, and one of more of them will, like scum, eventually surface here.