The Dirty Book Club
Pearl Beach, California
Friday, May 18, 1962
IF GLORIA GOLDEN were being honest, she’d say that Potluck Fridays weren’t really about making the most of her newly renovated kitchen. Nor were they an excuse to connect with Dot, Liddy, and Marjorie, since best friends didn’t need excuses. Honest Gloria would say their weekly get-togethers were the one thing she could rely on and that she was tap-tapping her fingernails on the countertop because if the girls stood her up, the number of things she could rely on would fall to zero. But a gal with a successful husband, a healthy baby boy, and a beach house with state-of-the-art appliances had no business being sour. Not when she’s been told she bears a striking resemblance to a blond Ann-Margret. Not when children were starving in the Congo. So Gloria never said anything.
When the girls arrived (they always did) Gloria’s tap-tapping was instantly replaced by the popping tops of Tupperware dishes and a Neil Sedaka record spinning on the Magnavox.
“ ‘If you’re feeling low down ’cause your baby’s left town . . .’ ” they sang into serving spoons as they twirled across the Spanish tiles
like dancers on The Ed Sullivan Show. “ ‘. . . Get out and cir-cu-laaaaaaaaate. . . .’ ”
Flushed and giggling after their big finish, Gloria checked the playpen in the living room. “Michael could sleep through an Elvis concert,” she said of her tranquil son. Then, the telephone rang and he began to cry.
“Who is it?” Marjorie whispered, as if they were still freshmen at Pearl Beach High and not twenty-two-year-old grown-ups.
“Leo,” Gloria mouthed. She found her reflection in the gas range. The ends of her honey-blond bob had wilted into L’s; she pinched them until they more closely resembled J’s.
Like rose petals in the sun, the ventricles of Gloria’s heart unlatched for her husband. It didn’t matter that he was calling from his office, fifty-five miles north, in Los Angeles. She could still see his caviar-black hair and denim-blue eyes, smell the bourbon that candied his breath, and feel the zing of his touch. That touch! How it filled her with orchestral crescendos and Technicolor joy, as if Walt Disney injected Fantasia straight into her veins.
“What does he want?” Liddy asked, raising those coarse eyebrows of hers.
Gloria shrugged, hopeful that eighteen months of Leo wheeling and dealing for Paramount Pictures had finally paid off. That he was being promoted to whatever it was that outranked his current job as producer. Then they could move to Beverly Hills, mingle with sophisticated intellectuals, and ride jumbo jets around the world. Not the way Marjorie was doing it—unattached and working as a stewardess for TWA—but the right way: with her wholesome family and Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe.
“Good news, baby,” Leo said. He exhaled a gale of cigarette smoke. “I just lunched with the actress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and you, my lovely wife, are now the owner of an autographed picture that reads: ‘Best wishes, Gloria. Audrey Hepburn.’ ”
“Neat!” Gloria said, twirling the telephone cord around her finger. “And what time will you and my autograph be home for dinner? I’m making your favorite—”
“About that . . .”
Gloria’s smile fell. Not again, she thought. Please, not again.
But Leo’s hands were tied. The powers that be needed their golden boy to charm some stubborn young starlet into submission. Dinner . . . drinks . . . whatever it took to close the deal by Monday.
Michael’s cries grew shrill, desperate.
“Does that mean another night at the Biltmore Hotel?” Gloria asked.
Leo struck a match, “I’m sorry, baby.”
As usual, Gloria said she understood. Only after the line went dead did she stab her thumbnail in the thawing pot roast and brand it with a pout.
She wanted to tell her friends the truth: that Leo had not been home in two nights and she was lonely. Then they could smoke cigarettes and say all the right things until Gloria felt better, just like they had in high school when Leo was busy with water polo and forgot to call. But Miss Matrimony, the marriage columnist in A Ladies’ Life magazine, forbade it.
Dear Wives, she once wrote. Kindly remind all prying busybodies that husbands expect their private lives to remain private. If it’s female
support you’re after, try the new Merry Widow by Warners. For $16.50 it will whittle your waist and give you a lovely lift. Available in white, black, and beige.
“What’s wrong?” Dot asked, her full, cherry Chap Sticked lips puffed to a sympathetic pout. “Is everything okay?”
“Leo was thinking about me, that’s all.”
Gloria managed a breezy smile. “You gals get started. I’ll be right there.”
Dot and Liddy took their platters into the sunroom while Marjorie, not keen on following orders, lifted herself onto the cooking island, leaned back on her hands, and crossed her bare legs. Her cleavage, upthrust and crevasse-deep, was like an oversized change purse positioned to catch pennies from heaven. “Now why did he really call?”
Gloria crunched down on a celery stick. “I told you.”
Marjorie sighed. An auburn curl—one of the many to have freed itself from her too-loose-to-begin-with updo—stirred and settled on her cheek. “I know what will make you talk . . .” She was back on her feet, opening and closing cabinets. “Where do you keep the Smirnoff?” she asked, as if anyone would store liquor with the Lenox china.
“Vodka? It’s eleven thirty in the morning!”
“Wow, motherhood has turned someone into a real drag,” Marjorie reported to a studio audience that wasn’t there. Then, glimpsing the clock above the breakfast nook, she clacked across the checkerboard tiles, removed it from the wall, and hung it upside down. “There. Now it’s five o’clock. Might as well add some vermouth and olives while you’re at it. I like mine dirty.” She lifted her store-
bought macaroni salad, bumped open the sunroom door with her shapely bottom, and slipped out.
The girls were seated at the Formica table in their usual spots: Marjorie at the head, Dot and Liddy on either side of her, with the butt, as they liked to call it, reserved for Gloria.
Typically, the sun burned through the marine layer by lunchtime, but that afternoon fog, silver as their rising cigarette smoke, blurred the palm trees that stretched above the vaulted glass ceiling and blocked their view of the outside world.
“Who’s thirsty?” Gloria asked, as if offering Tang, not crystal martini glasses sloshing vodka and vermouth.
“Finally,” Marjorie said. “Let’s get blitzed!”
Dot gasped. “Before Guiding Light?”
Liddy pinched the crucifix she’d been wearing around her neck since her twelfth birthday. “You can’t be serious.”
“Mon Dieu!” Marjorie said, having just returned from her first transatlantic flight to Paris. “The French always drink at lunch.”
Dot’s pigtails wagged to differ. “Businessmen, not ladies.”
“Everyone,” Marjorie insisted. “But I guess you’d have to leave town to know that.”
Dot stuck out her tongue.
Marjorie pinched it.
“Come on. Stop being such squares,” she said, distributing the drinks.
Liddy slammed down her ice water. “We are not squares.”
“You’re wearing a pink kerchief on your head, for Christ’s sake!”
“Why do you have to talk like that?”
Marjorie kissed Liddy on the cheek, marking her with a scarlet-
red lip print. “You know I love you, Lids, but you’re more buttoned up than Dot’s blouse and Gloria’s mouth, combined!”
Dot pinched her Peter Pan collar. “Buttoned up is the fad.”
Gloria examined her lips in the blade of a butter knife. “What’s wrong with my mouth?”
“What do you know about girdles?”
Liddy and Dot purred with approval.
Conceived during their freshman year of high school, saying purr was their stamp of approval. It began with the cat’s meow, which was shortened to cat’s, then, meow, and finally, purr.
“It’s become a real bore, Glo,” Marjorie said, smacking a dollop of macaroni salad onto her plate.
“This whole, ‘I can’t confab about Leo’ thing.”
“We’re married! Our leather anniversary is two months away.”
“So, being husband and wife for two years and ten months is different than going steady in high school. I need to respect his privacy.”
“Christ, Dotty, stop correcting me.”
“Gosh, Marjorie, stop blaspheming him!”
“I’m sure he doesn’t speak highly of me, either, Lids.”
“Fine.” Gloria pushed her empty plate aside. “You want to know why Leo called?”
The girls leaned forward. Gloria surprised them all by taking a Marjorie-sized gulp of her martini.
“He got me an autographed picture of Audrey Hepburn and couldn’t wait to tell me. That’s why.”
Marjorie placed a pitying hand on Gloria’s knee. “Oh, honey, even I know what an autograph means and I’m in the clouds three days a week.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“It means Leo isn’t coming home tonight.”
Gloria lit a cigarette.
“Every time Leo stays in Los Angeles for work”—Marjorie emphasized work with air quotes—“he gets you an autograph. Janet Leigh, Debbie Reynolds, Tony Curtis, and now Audrey. Do you want to know why?”
Gloria shook her head no.
“So he doesn’t feel guilty about—” Marjorie connected her index finger to her thumb and then poked the hole with a cocktail weenie.
“Are you suggesting my husband is—”
“Marjorie is not suggesting anything,” Dot said. “She’s simply pointing out a pattern. Aren’t you, Marj?”
“No, I’m suggesting.”
Gloria put out her cigarette with a firm How dare you? stamp. “There isn’t any pattern. Leo has to close a very important deal, that’s all.” She lifted the platter of deviled eggs and passed it to Liddy. “Now, let’s eat before the mayo turns.”
The platter made a full rotation around the table before it was returned to its original spot.
“So,” Dot said with an enthusiastic clap, “someone has a date with Patrick Flynn tomorrow night.”
Blotches formed instantly at the base of Liddy’s neck. “It’s nothing,” she said, rubbing them redder. “He’s just a friend from church.”
“Well, I heard he’s studying to be a pastor.”
“Past-her sweater and under the bra,” Marjorie teased.
“Just promise us you won’t wear that old periwinkle thing,” Dot said.
“What’s wrong with my Easter dress?”
“All that pilling reminds me of Lenny Guzman’s zits.”
“You’re twenty-two, Lids,” Dot continued. “Most decent men are already taken, and Patrick is a real catch. Whom, might I add, has made a believer out of every spinster in town. Did you see how full those pews were last Sunday?”
Liddy folded her arms across her ivory sweater set.
“Hold the phone!” Gloria hurried into the house and returned with her Ladies’ Home Journal. “What about this tangerine shift? Jackie wore something exactly like it on her visit to India.”
Liddy palmed the scarf around her short brown hair. “A peekaboo back?”
“Foxy, isn’t it?”
“He’s a man of God, not a nightclub owner.”
Dot grabbed the magazine, studied the photo. “It’s a cinch to make. I could scallop the neckline if you want.”
Marjorie shuddered. “Don’t scallop the neckline, lower it. Show
some skin and he’ll never look at another spinster again.” Then with a wink, “Besides moi, of course.”
“Patrick doesn’t want skin.”
“Honey, every man wants skin.”
“Tell that to the good book,” Liddy said. “Timothy 2:9–10.”
“Doesn’t sound like a good book to me,” Marjorie said.
Dot reached into her straw bag and pulled out a tome, thick as the American history text they used to lug home from school. The cover looked like a wedding invitation—glossy white with gold script that read, Prim: A Modern Woman’s Guide to Manners, by Alice Eden. “This is my bible.” She flipped to one of the dog-eared pages and began reading with a faint British accent, though both she and Mrs. Eden were American. “And I quote: ‘A girl should don her prettiest dress on a date, something modest and suited to her age. A boy wants to see her as he remembers her, not as an overdressed older woman of thirty, nor as someone his friends might assume is easy.’ ”
“You carry that brick in your purse?” Marjorie asked.
“Robert and I are engaged.” Dot said, her deep-set blue eyes wide. “I have to know things.”
“Jesus!” Marjorie made a show of pulling out her own hair. “The Bible, Prim . . . They’re rule books, not good books.”
“I like rules,” Liddy said.
Dot and Gloria agreed.
“Rules don’t inspire people, expériences do.” Marjorie lifted her martini above her head. “Viva la France!”
“What’s so great about Frahn-ssss?” Gloria asked.
“French women don’t worry about going to hell, being gossiped
about at Crawford and Sons Grocery, or becoming spinsters. They do what they want, when they want, with whomever they want and they’re only 5,652 miles away.” Marjorie lit a Gauloise. Raw and dark, the tobacco’s stench was more Lawrence of Arabia than Marjorie of California. “Even their cigarettes are unfiltered.”
Liddy fanned the air.
“I’ve got a transatlantic flight on Tuesday. Come with me! I’ll prove it.”
Liddy reached for her crucifix. “I’m not going there.”
Marjorie turned to Dot. “What about you?”
“And I have a baby,” Gloria added, wondering if Leo would even notice she had gone.
“Then, I’ll wait.”
“Wait?” Gloria asked. “For what?”
“For your kids to grow up and your husbands to die. And when they do we’ll move there together.”
“What if we die before our husbands?” Gloria asked, her tongue heavy with vodka.
“Impossible,” Marjorie said. “Men come first, men go first. It’s a fact.”
They paused to consider her logic.
“Come on, girls, who’s with me?” she asked, her green eyes crackling with hope.
Dot gazed up at the overcast sky. “There’s a full moon tonight. That’s why you’re acting all crazy, right?”
“She’s not acting,” Liddy said.
Gloria giggled. “I mean, if we really do become widows someday, maybe France would be nice.”
The others nodded, deciding that a plan B was better than no plan at all.
“Fab! Let’s make it official,” Marjorie said.
Without waiting for their response, she put four Lucky Strikes between her lips, lit each one, and quickly doled them out before anyone could object.
It had been that way since the sixth grade. Whether she was debasing an innocent game of truth-or-dare, encouraging them to glug the Dewar’s from her father’s liquor cabinet, or stuffing socks in their bras before a dance, Marjorie was their pied piper of mischief; You’ll never get caught and you’ll thank me a lot—her seductive tune.
“I, Marjorie Shannon,” she began, “hereby call secret pact number thirty-three into being. On this day—”
“Wait!” Dot quickly flipped to the notes section of her address book. “Pact thirty-three was to not like the Beach Boys. This is thirty-four. Start again.”
“I, Marjorie Shannon, hereby call secret pact number thirty-four into being. On this eighteenth day of May, in the year 1962, we promise to move to France when the kids grow up and the husbands croak. All in favor inhale.”
The girls drew on their cigarettes.
“May this smoke deliver pact thirty-four to the secret spaces inside our souls so it dwells within us forever.” They held their breath for fifteen seconds (the amount of time it takes a pact to find a secret space), then exhaled.
Four sabers of smoke crossed and rose as one.
“Pact thirty-four is sealed,” they said together.
“Time for presents!” Marjorie announced, never failing to bring
them something from her travels. She reached inside a TWA airsick bag and handed every girl a chain—each with a different key hanging from its center. “I swiped one from every hotel I stayed at.”
While they gushed and fussed with the clasps, Marjorie slapped a thin green paperback on the table like a winning hand. There were no glossy photographs or formal typography on the cover, just: The Housewife’s Handbook on Selective Promiscuity by Rey Anthony, written in modest, black letters. “Now, this, my friends is what I call a good book.”
“What is it?” Liddy asked.
“A little something I picked up in Paris.”
They purred and then leaned past the Lenox china to get a closer look.
“It’s an autobiography about a young girl named Rey who had loads of questions about sex and no one to ask so she hides out and reads dirty magazines.”
“Then what?” Dot asked.
“Marjorie!” Gloria hissed, pointing at the Smoots’ house next door. “Not so loud.”
“Does she ever get caught?” Liddy asked, the tips of her ears reddening.
“No. She becomes a sex maniac. Listen to this . . . ‘I kissed his body, his stomach, his penis, his testicles—’ ”
Dot snatched the book and wrapped it in her Prim: A Modern Woman’s Guide to Manners cover. Then she shyly raised her hand. “Question.”
“Did her husband want to be kissed in those places?”
“Her husband didn’t know about it,” Marjorie said. “She was doing that stuff with her doctor. Rey didn’t believe in monogamy. She thought it was unnatural to stay with one person for the rest of her life, and I agree.”
“She circulates,” Gloria said, quoting Neil Sedaka.
“It’s just sex, Lid,” Marjorie said to the lipstick that was still on her cheek.
“Exactly. She should keep it to herself.”
“That’s how I feel when you girls swap recipes. I mean, what’s the point of going public with that?”
“To find new ideas.”
“To know if we’re doing it right.”
“To get better.”
“Same reasons I read about sex.” Marjorie lit a cigarette. “It’s not like you three are going to teach me anything.” Then to Dot, “If you think Robert would rather have you read about table settings than”—Marjorie closed her mouth around a Kosher dill and poked it against the inside of her cheek—“you’re more blitzed than you look. And, Gloria, try what Rey does on page 126 and Leo will never stay at the Biltmore again.” Then to Liddy, “Rey even does it with women.”
“Why do you always look at me when you talk about lesbians?”
“I don’t know.” Marjorie smirked. “Why do you always get so defensive?”
“What else does Rey try?” Gloria asked. Because what if Marjorie was right? What if this book could teach her things, things that would bring Leo home more often?
Marjorie raised an eyebrow. “I could read it to you, and if you like it I know where to get more.”
Liddy reached for her crucifix, accidentally grabbing the room key instead.
“How many more?” Dot asked.
“One for every full moon from now until we board that airplane to France. We can start our own secret club.”
“Robert would not approve.”
“It’s a dirty book club, Dot! No one would approve,” Gloria said, imagining what old Mrs. Smoot would think of a mother who reads about sex while her baby is napping.
“That’s why rule number one should be: tell no one.”
Eyes closed, lips nibbling on a prayer; Liddy seemed to be saying an act of contrition—preemptively repenting for the sins they were about to commit.
“And rule number two is: a husband’s right to privacy cannot and will not be respected,” Marjorie added. “We have to talk the way we did in high school.”
“I thought you were against rules,” Dot snipped, as she wrote them all down in her black notebook.
“Not my own, honey,” Marjorie said, with a playful wink. “Never my own.”
Dot flipped to a fresh page. “So what are we calling pact thirty-five?” Her pen hovered anxiously above the margin.
“The Dirty Book Club,” Marjorie said, with a credit-where-credit-is-due nod to Gloria. Then she lit four Lucky Strikes, sealed the pact, and began reading The Housewife’s Handbook on Selective Promiscuity; starting a fifty-four-year tradition that would save them all.