Friday, February 28, 2020

Alice Adams Times Two

There’s more than one Alice Adams out there. She’s the heroine of a  1921 novel by Booth Tarkington, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his tale of a young woman determined to climb into the upper ranks of her small town, despite her parents’ low social status. The novel, hugely popular in its day, was adapted into a silent film in 1923. Twelve years later, after the advent of sound, it became a hit romantic drama directed by George Stevens and starring a perfectly-cast Katharine Hepburn. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (but was bested by Bette Davis), and the film was one of twelve (!) nominated for Best Picture.

I’ve not read Tarkington’s novel, but the Hepburn film is, I gather, mostly an accurate rendition, playing up the snobbery of small-town society but also the foolish dreams of a lower-middle-class mother and daughter who can’t be satisfied with the life they lead, instead fantasizing about taking their place among the swells. Hepburn, as a dutiful daughter who loves her parents the way they are but also a dreamer who deeply wants what she can’t afford, has never been fresher and more convincing. The conclusion of the film, though, departs from Tarkington’s original downbeat fadeout to give audiences a fairy-tale finish that’s hard to accept. (Word is that the production team fought for a more realistic end to the story, but was overruled by studio bosses at RKO who understood what would please the public.)

The other Alice Adams (1926-1999), was a celebrated author of novels and short stories. When she began life in Fredericksburg, Virginia, her parents—both of whom had literary connections—were aware of the Tarkington work, but doubtless felt it would soon fade from view.  They christened their daughter Alice Boyd Adams to combine the first name of an elderly cousin with the family name of Alice’s mother. “Thus,” says biographer Carol Sklenicka, “her name offers a microcosm of the complex jostling of tradition and modernity that marked Alice’s entire life and career.”

Carol Sklenicka is my colleague in the Biographers International Organization, and her biography, Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer was published late last year by Scribner. It’s a hefty work, full of facts and insights, by a biographer who became so intimately  involved with the world of her subject that—through a bizarre set of circumstances—she helped to inter Alice’s ashes in the family cemetery after they were found on the shelf of a forgetful longtime friend. I admit that before now I was not much aware of Alice Adams’ work. But I’ve since read many of her  precisely-written stories as well as a 1980 novel, Rich Rewards, set in Adams’ adopted home town, San Francisco. This novel, I suspect, is one of the more cheerful in Adams’ canon. Though realistic in its telling, it ends with some of the charm of a fairytale, because the most appealing characters all seem to get what their hearts desire.

Still, I can’t help seeing the novel in contrast to the Hepburn film. Alice, the character created in the 1920s, is obsessed with clothes and parties, but it’s her father’s limited earnings that shape her life. By contrast, Daphne, the lead character in Alice Adams’ novel, has a profession and works hard at it. (The novel’s wealthy idlers, like the vacuous Stacey, don’t come off well.) Then there’s the fact that Hepburn’s dewy-eyed Alice is won with a tender kiss. Daphne, like her creator, is an intensely sexual being, and it takes far more than kissing to secure her love.


  1. I am seriously contemplating a read through of her Collected Short Stories. Thanks for your informative post.

  2. Thank you for writing, Mel. I started browsing that collection and got completely hooked.