Family Ties

For novelist Rona Jaffe, the drive for independence was inculcated in the intimate sphere of the family, where care could look an awful lot like coercion.

Jess Bergman
July 18, 2023

Discussed in this essay: The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe. Penguin Classics, 2023. 496 pages.

The Cherry in the Martini, by Rona Jaffe. Simon & Schuster, 1966. 190 pages.

The Other Woman, by Rona Jaffe. William Morrow & Company, 1972. 246 pages.

Family Secrets, by Rona Jaffe. Simon & Schuster, 1974. 511 pages.

Class Reunion, by Rona Jaffe. Delacorte Press, 1979. 338 pages.

Long before she wrote her first book, The Best of Everything, about a group of beautiful and intelligent young women working in New York publishing, Rona Jaffe kept a quintet of girls in her head. “They were all the same age, but each was different,” she writes in her 1966 memoir, The Cherry in the Martini. “One dark, one blonde, one medium, and so on.” As a child, every morning she would dress the girls in identical outfits, differentiated only by color, and then carry them with her throughout the day. Their job was to obey Jaffe’s wishes. If her creations protested, then she had to beat them. And “since beating them gave me great sexual pleasure,” Jaffe explains, “I usually saved that for night time when I was alone in my room. Of course they were all afraid of me, adored me, and begged me constantly to love and forgive them. I forgave them after I beat them—but only for a while.” These fantasies continued until she was preparing to enter high school as a precocious 11-year-old. Sensing that her obsession with the girls might be an obstacle to normal adolescence, Jaffe bid them a fittingly macabre farewell: She pictured herself forcing them into an enormous packing crate and then sitting on the lid. “For several days and nights I heard their piteous cries,” Jaffe writes, but she held firm, and after a week, they were gone for good.

She would soon discover a more socially acceptable outlet for these daydreams of domination: the novel. A group of women, the same but different, alternately punished and protected by a godlike authorial presence—this is the paradigm for so much of Jaffe’s oeuvre, including her famous debut. In The Best of Everything, a woman might reunite with the lover who jilted her only to be propositioned as a mistress; she can get a promotion but must ward off unwanted advances from the boss; and if she snags a society boyfriend, then he’ll probably pressure her into an abortion.

Jaffe was 25 when she wrote the novel in a little over five months, at the behest of Simon & Schuster editor in chief Robert Gottlieb and Hollywood mogul Jerry Wald. (She’d met the producer by chance, along with Gottlieb’s predecessor Jack Goodman, while her college friend was working as Goodman’s secretary.) Wald was looking to adapt an updated take on Kitty Foyle, Christopher Morley’s 1939 book about a poor Irish American office girl who falls in love with a blueblood. After checking it out from the library and concluding that it was “dumb,” Jaffe decided she could do better. When The Best of Everything was published in 1958, with its Joan Crawford–starring film adaptation already in the works, the book became an instant bestseller. Toward the end of her life, Jaffe recalled that “women would show up at book signings with their well-worn office copy asking me to inscribe it to ‘all the girls on the forty-ninth floor.’” Though she wrote 17 books over the course of her nearly half-century career, The Best of Everything remains her most celebrated. After several previous reissues—including one in 2011, following its appearance as a prop on Mad Men—it’s now out in a fresh edition for its 65th anniversary.

The Best of Everything has endured in part for its depiction of sexual harassment through the figure of Mr. Shalimar, the alternately threatening and pathetic editor in chief of a second-rate paperback imprint who pinches bottoms like his job depends on it. But the novel is much more subversive for its honesty about the erotic lives of young women beyond the office Christmas party—or the altar. All four of Jaffe’s central heroines have consensual pre- or extramarital sex. Whether or not they ultimately wind up married, their arcs rebuke the ’50s conventional wisdom that all brides must be virginal, and all working women must be in want of a husband. And, significantly, the many tragedies that do befall Jaffe’s characters, from a broken heart to a broken neck, are more complicated than narrative comeuppance for a lack of virtue. After all, April Morrison, the character who obtains an illegal abortion, ultimately settles down with an apple-cheeked young veteran.

For Jaffe, the drive for independence was inculcated not in the ferment of the second wave, but in the more intimate sphere of the family.

The Best of Everything has been understandably championed as a feminist achievement for its insight into the ways that female desire—both sexual and professional—exceeded the scripts available to women in the postwar era. But Jaffe herself was no marcher. She was born just a few years too early to enjoy the social transformations of the women’s movement and the sexual revolution; by the time they arrived, many of her peers had been trapped in unwanted marriages or, if single, reduced to objects of pity and scorn. She considers the consequences of this historical accident across many of her books. In her memoir, Jaffe, still single, writes, “We are the behemoths—lost, lumbering, out of our time . . . And yet we are young, barely thirty, and we have not even begun to live.” In The Other Woman (1972), the unmarried, thirtysomething journalist Carol Prince is “glad about Women’s Lib” but doesn’t “see any reason to join in. She hadn’t been able to wait for them, she had liberated herself long ago, in her work, in her life, in her head . . . She had never done any of the things she had done for a cause, she had simply drifted along trying to be true to her own needs.” For Jaffe, as for Carol, the drive for independence was inculcated not in the ferment of the second wave, but in the more intimate sphere of the family, where care could look an awful lot like coercion. If The Best of Everything stands as Jaffe’s most acclaimed expression of this urge for freedom, her lesser-known books of the ’60s and ’70s offer insight into the ways that this desire took shape—and the tangle of affection and resentment that lies at its root.

Rona Jaffe was born in Brooklyn in 1931, but as she stresses in The Cherry in the Martini, “Brooklyn is not at all what people think from reading popular novels.” She spent the first part of her life on Eastern Parkway, “which used to be like Park Avenue,” until her parents moved to the real Park Avenue, or at least the Upper East Side, when it was time for her to enroll at the prestigious Dalton School. The money underwriting this plush lifestyle presumably came from her mother’s side: Diana Jaffe’s father was Moses Ginsberg, a Russian Jewish immigrant turned private banker turned builder-cum-steamship operator who’d arrived in the United States via London with “two shillings in his pocket,” according to his obituary in the Canadian Jewish Review. Ginsberg’s most famous project was the posh Carlyle Hotel, but reports of his prolific real estate acquisitions litter editions of The New York Times from the late ’20s through the early ’30s. Later, Ginsberg turned his attention southward, developing properties along Miami’s Lincoln Road and helping to turn Miami Beach into the promised land for Jewish retirees that it is today.

Ginsberg is the clear model for Adam Saffron, the patriarch of Jaffe’s 1974 novel, Family Secrets, a sweeping saga of four generations in an upwardly mobile immigrant family—and by far Jaffe’s most autobiographical work. By the time it was published, Jewish American fiction was well on its way to being canonized as “primarily a literature about the Jewish man of the city . . . an intellectual urban schlemiel inhabiting a modern existence of alienation and marginality set against a backdrop of ever-fading immigrant Jewish cultural scenery,” as the scholar Wendy Zierler puts it. Jaffe differs in a few key ways from the writers generally associated with this movement. For one thing, she was a woman writing mainly about women, and for another, she wrote commercial fiction for a mass audience, rather than literary novels destined for consideration in the pages of Commentary and The New York Review of Books. But Family Secrets is, in its own idiosyncratic way, preoccupied with one of Jewish American literature’s perennial themes: the burden of familial, and especially maternal, love.

Family Secrets is, in its own idiosyncratic way, preoccupied with one of Jewish American literature’s perennial themes: the burden of familial, an especially maternal, love.

Indeed, to Adam’s eldest granddaughter, Paris—a thinly fictionalized version of Jaffe herself, down to her educational history and early success as a writer—having a close-knit family is about the extent of what being Jewish means. Her relationship to religion is attenuated at best, but when she discovers as a child that her favorite teacher is a gentile, her immediate response is pity: “Poor Miss Martin! She was so pretty and so nice, and so young, and not only wasn’t she Jewish but also she wasn’t married, so she must be very lonely. Paris knew that Jews had lots of relatives like she did and always had people around to care about them.” One project of the novel’s unnecessarily bloated 500 pages is to demonstrate how Paris came to this youthful conclusion—and what would cause it to curdle, in her adulthood, into an abiding suspicion of family and marriage both.

When Family Secrets opens in an unlovely neighborhood of Brooklyn that its residents call “Mudville,” the future real estate mogul Adam Saffron is a recently arrived immigrant who accepts the bargain of assimilation with equanimity. Jaffe uses the metaphor of café culture to illustrate: “There were those who drank their tea from a glass, and those who drank from a cup, and those who slurped from saucers, and there were those who drank coffee, and each showed his national origins and his wish to assimilate or to remain apart by this simple, natural act.” Adam, she writes, “had begun to drink his tea from a cup instead of a glass, thus remaining somewhere in the middle, a man who could adjust but a man no one would really know.” For him, life’s ultimate conflict is not between tradition and modernity, or the Old World and the New. Instead, the “two needs battling each other in him” are “the need to seek out new frontiers and the normal need for family love, companionship, and security.”

The former is satisfied by his emigration and his business ventures, while the latter finds expression in his dream of a sprawling estate where he imagines that all of his descendants will live in perfect harmony:

The estate would be purchased as a corporation by all his children . . . Each of them would have shares. Share and share alike. No one could sell his part except to another member of the corporation . . . Thus, all Adam Saffron’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren forever and ever would be together. No part could separate without all. And when it was finished, in all its magnificence according to Adam’s dream, none of them would ever want to sell it or move away.

In other words, a lifetime of familial guilt and obligation, guaranteed by contract. Eventually Adam finds a suitable property in an area of Connecticut formerly closed to Jews, which he buys and dubs “Windflower” for the tiny white blooms that dot the grounds. While most of Adam’s adult children experience Windflower as a kind of refuge—or at least see the few months a year they spend there as a bearable sacrifice for the man to whom they owe their lives and material comforts—this inflexible arrangement is an increasingly difficult sell for Adam’s grandchildren, who grow to chafe against their family’s insularity, a closeness that makes them “strange” in the eyes of their neighbors: “they kept to themselves, never tried to know anyone, no one saw them.”

This sense of claustrophobia is especially acute in Paris, whose experience sheds light on her author’s. In Jaffe’s telling, her real parents were so overbearing that when she finally moved out of their Manhattan home in her mid-20s, her heretofore secular mother and father were inspired to take up religion as an excuse to attend temple directly across the street from her new home and drop in for weekly visits. As is the novelist’s wont, Jaffe renders Paris’s parents in an even less flattering light: Before the purchase of Windflower, they follow her to camp every summer; later, Paris’s mother Lavinia discourages her from socializing outside of the extended Saffron family, turning up her nose at a friend who comes for an abortive visit to the estate because she has mildew in her suitcase. “They wanted to make an oddity of her, half old woman like them, half permanent child kept at home to rot,” Jaffe’s close-third-person narration seethes. Well into her adulthood, Paris is made to feel like a “virtual prisoner”—not only of Windflower, but of her parents’ notion of “Real Happiness,” which boils down to “a kind of security, safety, achieved through a sensible husband who would enter the family circle and close it behind him and Paris so they would be safe in the fortress evermore.”

In Jaffe’s books, marriage and motherhood are often the guarantors of a kind of perpetual adolescence—a lifetime of being sent to your room.

Lavinia might resemble the castrating caricature of the Jewish mother featured in novels like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but even in less exaggerated circumstances, Jaffe holds the roles of daughter and wife to be inextricable—and this association lies at the core of her ambivalence about marriage, an attitude projected onto so many of her characters. To her, husbands were not just boors whose meals you had to prepare with a smile on your face; they were co-conspirators with the original architects of your unfreedom: your parents. This conclusion is most clearly articulated in The Other Woman, when its protagonist is thrown into disarray after her long-term lover proposes leaving his wife for her. The offer provokes a nightmare about “being in the grip of mindless authority, trapped in her identity as Wife/Child, a person who belonged to someone who was respected but had no respect due to her as an individual.” Even characters who do marry and have children are liable to regret it for the same reasons. In Class Reunion (1979), the smothered homemaker Emily Applebaum laments that she has “found herself living in a children’s world.” “Why,” she asks, “did you have to feel so guilty if you demanded a few rights as a grown-up?” In Jaffe’s books, marriage and motherhood are often not the prerequisites of successful adult womanhood, but rather the guarantors of a kind of perpetual adolescence—a lifetime of being sent to your room.

Jaffe herself never married, though she had long relationships with various men, including a 17-year partnership that broke up in the 1980s. “I decided to make myself more independent after that,” she said in a 1995 interview. That same year, Jaffe also began making gifts of partial independence through her eponymous foundation, which awarded annual grants to emerging women writers in recognition of the fact that “many women in early career have fewer resources available to them and often many demands made upon them,” as she put it. The funds were no-strings-attached; the inaugural recipients planned to use them for everything from personal computers to childcare. In total, the Rona Jaffe Foundation disbursed $3 million to women writers over the next 25 years, until the awards were discontinued in 2020.

For Jaffe, self-sufficiency was made possible by her writing’s mass appeal. At the same time, she resisted being cast as frivolous. Speaking to The New York Times in 1991, at which point her collected works had sold more than 20 million copies, she reflected, “Even though I write totally light fun books, I choose subjects that do have some seriousness . . . I like sociological things.” Jaffe had long prided herself on her powers of perception. In The Cherry in the Martini, she describes this quality as a source of comfort when she entered Dalton and found herself at the bottom of a rigid social hierarchy. She returned her classmates’ disdain with fervor: The school, in her mind, was “a huge, ugly, uninformed body of girls.” While they fancied themselves wise, the other students, unlike her, “didn’t know a thing. They didn’t know about love being like hate.”

Love being like hate: This knowledge was the engine of her violent youthful fantasies as well as the central insight of her work. It’s apparent as early as The Best of Everything—for instance, when April Morrison finds an uninvited kiss from Mr. Shalimar “frightening” but also “vaguely thrilling and wonderful.” In Jaffe’s later work, it sometimes manifests in almost painfully literal ways. While Carol’s lover is fixing her a drink in The Other Woman, she notices a “long, lethal looking knife on the bar” and imagines “how easy it would be to grab that knife and plunge it into his heart. She could kill him, standing right there making a Bloody Mary for her with love.” But no matter what shape it takes, it seems clear that Jaffe’s hypothesis was first tested in the laboratory of the family, where Diana Jaffe sobbed on the sidewalk outside her daughter’s first grown-up apartment, begging for “just a little more time”; these were the circumstances in which Jaffe became a writer. Many years later, something dawned on her about those imaginary girls of her childhood. They were not purely fictional constructions. One of them—“the bad one, the independent one, and of course the one I had to torture (or punish) the most”—had been her mother.

Jess Bergman is an editor at The Baffler and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents.