The other night, as part of their Sterling Hayden festival, Turner Classic Movies aired the 1953 film So Big, an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer-winning epic of the same name. The movie, like its source, chronicles the struggles of a determined Illinois farm woman (played by Jane Wyman) and her more worldly son. The title is an innocuous reference to the little boy’s childhood nickname—but initially Warner Bros. publicists decided to sex things up a bit. Posters displayed a hunky illustrated Hayden look-alike in a passionate clinch with a smaller woman and the tagline, “He stood there so big … she was ready to forget she’d ever been a lady.”
It’s no secret that the fifties were a good time for playing fast-and-loose with the classics. In The Seven Year Itch, famously, filmmakers had plenty of fun with the idea. We see Tom Ewell’s pulp book publisher examining a cover in his office; it’s a paperback edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women featuring four busty, well-endowed twentieth-century dames and the tagline “SECRETS OF A GIRLS DORMITORY!” Ewell scrutinizes the cover art, produces a pen, and decisively lowers each neckline by three inches.
Where now we look for the refuge of a Kindle to hide a trashy cover, they were, once upon a time, something of a bait and switch; lurid art could fool readers into cracking open a work of serious literature. (Of course, we still get that to some degree in the form of those “Now a Major Motion Picture” tie-in editions, but I can’t imagine the art directors have quite so much fun.) Every title becomes an insinuation, every heroine a temptress. Don’t believe me? Check out this hunky Gatsby.
We’re all used to the excesses of camp, and the cynicism and fun of midcentury marketing. Heck, the nifty Pulp! The Classics imprint has made its name on it. We can’t get enough of this form of accessible irony! But even by jaded modern standards, the vintage pulp cover of For Esmé with Love and Squalor is shocking.
If the publisher’s goal was to highlight Salinger’s rumored proclivities—presumably not—they could not have done so more clearly: the Esmé of this paperback is a pouty sex kitten. If the story is about the power of innocence—or even its charge—this cover shows us a flat-eyed young woman in charge of her sexuality. It’s not even Dolores Haze; it’s Lolita by that book’s final third.
But maybe that’s the point? The “little girl” of Salinger’s story has aged about six years; if this narrator is drawn to the fetching orphan, it’s to a fully-fledged young woman, rather than a forbidden nymphet.
Well, they probably just hoped people would think there was some sex in there. Those people would enjoy Salinger, at any rate. Probably not So Big.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.