In the late Herman Wouk’s (who passed last week at age 103) coming of age novel “Marjorie Morningstar”, a young actress endures heartbreak while struggling to build a theatrical career. Wally Wronken, a talented lyricist and composer, admires her from afar. After becoming successful, he visits Marjorie Morganstern, now Marjorie Schwartz, at her suburban home, on the Fourth of July. Wally realizes that a man outside their social circle, whom he has never met, has played a pivotal role in her life. Like many readers of this American Jewish cultural touchstone, I have never been satisfied with how the novel ends…
“Marjorie, when did we first meet? And, who introduced us?”
Ah yes, I remember it very well…We met during my last year of high school. Your story was the last meaningful novel my late father recommended before I left for college at age sixteen. Your epic tale of female socialization served as warning and inspiration.The novel contained all the stories and advice that my father could not put into words.
Dearest Marjorie…To my surprise, our adult lives are so similar. And now, I am finally older than you. Mid-life finds you mostly content, but this must be due to your fictional nature and being the offspring of a male author. Wonderful Marjorie,you remain Herman Wouk’s greatest female character and creation as well as a key literary antecedent of the “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” television series. After a visit to the suburbs, your old infatuated theatrical colleague, the still smitten impresario Wally Wronken, decides that you were only extraordinary because of your desire to be such, to change your name while seeking fame, and become “Marjorie Morningstar.”
Otherwise the historical verdict remains: Marjorie Morganstern, an aging local beauty and retired thespian, another nice Jewish girl who fulfilled her destiny after a brief interlude of poverty, artistic struggle, and fornication, by wedding a lawyer and raising a family in leafy, prosperous suburbs. Yes, it must be lovely to have a waterfront home in Westchester, three healthy children, and a happy marriage to Milton Schwartz. You probably cast your last presidential ballots during the 2008 campaign season. Marjorie, did you gather with other widows in Boca Raton to watch the general election returns, wondering which way Florida would go this time around? Did you shift your loyalty to Obama from Hillary during the 2008 Democratic primary? I’d like to think that you, like my late mother in law, did.
Marjorie, at age forty, you told Wally that you’d “never stopped dreaming.” The content of those mid-life dreams was never articulated and shared. Wally is puzzled by your odd, sweet summer waltz and, after an extra highball, receives an apologetic, cool kiss that remains unexplained. Marjorie, I accept that you relinquished a theatrical career but still wonder: Have you secretly pined for the elusive, troubled, and heroic Michael Eden (who sought to rescue European Jews) and the possibility of nobler, more intellectually stimulating romantic companionship?
From a “Morganstern” to a “Morningstar” to a “Schwartz” – your life summarized. You shed the toxicity of spoiled, narcissistic Noel Airman, married Milton Schwartz in a posh Hotel Pierre ceremony, outlived a younger brother (perished in World War II), buried your parents and in-laws, lost a child (crib death), finessed financial setbacks, and secured a version of “The American Dream.” During Wally’s visit, a pretty teenage daughter practices “Falling in Love With Love” on the piano, your sons and handsome spouse, sweaty from softball (that sacred national pastime), leave for the beach to watch Fourth of July fireworks. We learn about Wally’s secret dream and unfulfilled desire, that he will never have a second kiss from your lips under the lilacs. Oh Marjorie, what about your independent life and desires? Were there private dreams that transcended personal fame? Did they ever come true? Did your heart shatter after Wally departed, suffused with awakened, passionate memories of lost youth, or did monogamous marriage to Milton Schwartz embody domestic bliss? Wally insists upon the happiness of your conventional life. Somehow, I cannot truly believe it.
At twilight, I toast Michael Eden, recalling the haunted deck of the Queen Mary and the possibility of shipboard romance as the world teetered towards conflagration. Transitional Men, where can they lead us, other than astray? Perhaps some may bring us homeward, to our best and forgotten creative selves. Come midnight, I shall sip my Brandy Alexander and keep dreaming of troubadour kisses amidst snow flurries and beneath lilacs. Thank you, Herman Wouk, for the priceless gift of “Marjorie Morningstar.” The voices of your characters (and mine) are calling me back to the page. Tonight, I will think about “Marjorie Morningstar” and my own “Melanie Glass Schwartz.” Tonight, I will write…
Mindy Ohringer’s poems “Marjorie’s Lilacs Parts I and II” (inspired by “Marjorie Morningstar”) appear in the Spring 2019 issue of October Hill Magazine. This essay is based upon “The Wife in Winter: Seduction of The Muse”, her novel in progress about women writers and the 2008 presidential election.