Thirteen Women, by Tiffany Thayer

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.”

One of David Berger's illustrations from Tiffany Thayer's "Thirteen Women"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.”

“Good God!”

“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.”

“A woman?”

“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: 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.

Thirteen Women, by Tiffany Thayer
New York: Triangle Books, 1932

10 thoughts on “Thirteen Women, by Tiffany Thayer

  1. The Prince of Taranto is a remarkable book. It destroyed Thayer’s career; he spent something like seventeen years working on this enormous multi-volume work, and meanwhile his audience wandered away. The three-volume Prince is only the first of the series, all of which was completed before he published the first, and it failed. At the time of his death Thayer was reportedly working on an abridgement of the entire work so that it could be published in some form, but he died before that happened (or maybe his publisher wasn’t interested).

  2. Likely for hormonal reasons, when I was 15 years old (I am 67 now), I became an avid reader of Tiffany Thayer, ultimately plowing through (“rutting” is more apt) every single one of his books. What was “great” at 15 plummeted by the time I tried re-reading them at 21.
    Thayer himself was quite cynical about what he wrote, never remotely regarding himself as anything but a hack and mainly interested in creating the still existing Fortean Society.
    Actually, two of his books are pretty interesting. “Dr. Arnoldi” (extremely hard to find) imagines a world struck by a virus the effect of which is that no one can die. Ultimately, the only means of reducing the population is by cannibalism. The final scene of an Earth crawling with mountains of immortal human beings is pretty grim
    “Three Sheet” is semi-autobiographical and concerns a young man raised in a family of marginally talented vaudevillians. The title is an old term for being drunk.
    His mega bestseller was “Thirteen Men” (“Thirteen Women” was the sequel, an attempt to garner some cash). Each chapter delves into the life of a jury member (10), the criminal, lawyer and judge (11.12.13), with (spoiler alert!!), in the final chapter, the criminal finding a gun and blowing everyone to smithereens. This one is pretty easy to locate.
    I didn’t need anyone to remind me that all-in-all the books were pretty terrible. I had my parents for that.
    Nevertheless, when I got to college, took a philosophy course and started reading existentialism, my first thought was, “My God, this is Tiffany Thayer!”

  3. Thanks for your comment. I have a copy of “Three Sheet” as well and will have to check it out. There’s something fascinating about just how awful Thayer’s books are, and I find it even more interesting to think that he was probably quite deliberate in making them so.

  4. Home alone one afternoon in the late 1930s, this then eight-year-old pulled out the kitchen ladder, placed it in front of his father’s secretary (furniture, not person) and climbed it to see what was the red sliver he had just spied lurking behind the pediment.

    Aha! It was something called “Thirteen Men” (first edition). Correctly surmising the reason for its placement there, I immediately started reading it.

    First impression: brilliant structure.

    Second impression: boring.

    So back it went. I said nothing and my father had no reason to suspect I had found his “dirty” book.

    But in the usual course of events the book came to me and today I started reading it. I’m up to Juror Number 3 and decided to check the NY Times for a review so I would know what to think of it.

    No review, but found this site.

    Well, Dorothy Parker and Scott Fitzgerald, I don’t think it’s trash.

    I think it’s pretty funny and I have to believe Mr. Thayer wrote with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

  5. Ah, how nice you found my article! I’d second the vote for “Doctor Arnoldi.” The riff on what the lack of estate sales does to the rare book business is fun, as is the final prayer to every god he can think of to stop sending him such disgusting ideas. “Little Dog Lost” is creepily compelling, too. I still have no idea what “Kings and Numbers” was about.

  6. My next Thayer will probably be “One Woman.” It’s definitely built around a gimmick–each chapter based on an entry in a dead hooker’s little black book (although it’s actually red)–but it’s just dripping with cynicism and contempt for the weaknesses and pretensions of mankind–so much that one can’t help thinking it was more than half tongue-in-cheek.

  7. One Woman is the basis for “Chicago Deadline ” a 1949 film noir directed by Lewis Allen with Alan Ladd, Donna Reed and Arthur Kennedy. The credits attribute it to “One Woman” but they also say the novel is “based on a true story”. I seek information on this true story if anyone can help. The film is good noir, and especially interesting for the street scenes of 1949 Chicago. It is not available on dvd, somust be seen at one of the various noir fests. The Film Noir Foundation got the owners to create a new print which is sharp. The movie is well worth seeing.

  8. Thanks for passing this along. I watched a clip and have to say that Alan Ladd is absolutely unconvincing as a hard-boiled detective. He sounds more like he’s trying to convince himself than the audience.

  9. Delving through boxes in the garage, I unearthed an old copy of ‘One Woman’. About to throw it out, I had a second thought to look it up on Google, to see if it had any value. Well, after seeing this blog, it doesn’t! (Wm. Morrow & Co.NY, 1933 hardback)

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