SEPTEMBER 23, 2013
“I’M JUST STUCK with cocktails at eleven and breakfast at noon,” says Courtney Farrell about halfway through the novel Chocolates for Breakfast. The protagonist of Pamela Moore’s controversial 1956 best seller sounds more like a jaded, aging socialite than a teenager who reads Baudelaire while wearing her favorite “tight Levi’s.” When she bemoans her brunch-time ennui, Courtney has recently left her East Coast all-girls boarding school to live in Los Angeles with her single, struggling actress mother Sondra. They’re living in the idyllic Garden of Allah apartments, where F. Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Wells, and Marlene Dietrich each stayed. There’s a swimming pool, gorgeous wannabe starlets, and dappled sunshine. The courtyard is surrounded by bougainvillea and jasmine. It’s paradise, and everyone is miserable.
Moore’s book, which was published by Harper Perennial this June after being out of print for years, has been compared to everything from Gossip Girl to The Bell Jar to The Catcher In the Rye. The comparisons are fair enough: Courtney is a wealthy teen and a child of divorce who is shipped off to boarding school so her parents can pursue their own selfish interests. Holden Caulfield shows his disdain for people, life, and the universe by calling them “phony.” Courtney’s go-to adjective is “grubby.” It’s easy to imagine that they would get along just fine. Courtney’s mother Sondra is consumed by her faltering acting career and obsessed with clinging to her youth — she thinks having a teenage daughter makes her seem old — and her wealthy father Robbie is an absentee dad, except when he shows his affection by writing checks. Surrounded by beautiful things and gorgeous people, Courtney is rebellious, intelligent, and prone to bouts of crippling depression. She describes herself as “a cold person, and kind of selfish.” Really, she’s just a teenager, trying to find some meaning in an endless string of cocktail parties and shallow encounters. Alcohol blunts all the characters’ lives in Chocolates for Breakfast. Don Draper and Peggy Olson would fit right in. “Cocktail parties were one of the few constants in her life,” writes Moore of Courtney’s boozy situation. “All her life she would associate liquor with her childhood.” You can imagine Sally Draper — also a rebellious boarding school teen with a wealthy, distant father — sleeping with Moore’s novel under her pillow.
In a 2000 Salon article, Janet Fitch listed Chocolates for Breakfast in an article called “Great girl trash.” The book definitely has its moments of melodrama, and some of the symbolism is about on par with a bodice ripper: Courtney and her best friend Janet, the daughter of an abusive, alcoholic Wall Street tycoon and a shrinking violet mother, eat an awful lot of bananas throughout the book, which is a silly reference that would not be lost on Freud. Still, Moore was only eighteen when the book was published, plus it was 1956, so let’s cut her some slack. Despite all of this, and the whipped cream dollop of a title, I don’t think Moore’s novel is “girl trash.” Permeated with sadness and existential longing, Chocolates for Breakfast is about the disillusionment of wealth and the desire to find something real in a society that is constantly pretending. There’s nothing trashy about that longing, especially during adolescence — your whole world hinges on it.
The novel’s frequent and open references to homosexuality, and its frank depictions of nudity, sex, depression, and drinking, ruffled some persnickety 1950s feathers when it was published. Today, in the era of The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers, it’s not quite as scandalous as it must have seemed then, but it’s definitely not puritanical. Janet teases Courtney about her suspiciously close relationship with Miss Rosen, her English teacher. When Miss Rosen abruptly ends their relationship, Courtney falls into a depression. She sleeps constantly, has no friends except the outgoing, devil-may-care Janet, and the “iron pills” her doctor prescribed aren’t magically snapping her out of her dark moods. Even once she’s surrounded by the sunshine and beauty of Los Angeles, Courtney fixates on the idea of dead leaves floating in a pool – an image that serves as an occasional indicator of her moods.
After leaving boarding school, Courtney heads to Los Angeles and the Garden of Allah to live with Sondra for the summer. The plan is for her to start Beverly Hills High in the fall, a place that Courtney thinks “[looks] as though it were designed for a Technicolor musical comedy […] It was too carefully planned, too recently man-made.” Her time in Los Angeles feels like a glistening poolside interlude that’s tinged with unrest, and Moore’s observations about the city, the desperation permeating Hollywood, and the struggle for love and approval are incredibly sharp and intuitive, especially for a teenager. If the novel has shades of The Bell Jar and The Catcher In the Rye, the Los Angeles section definitely has echoes of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust — L.A. and its inhabitants as beautiful creations whose cracks are staring to show. Youth fades, money disappears, and all those fancy cocktails start to make you feel like hell the next morning.
Sondra promises her daughter that they’ll have “champagne for breakfast” everyday in L.A., and she holds true to that promise, subbing the occasional Bloody Mary when the champagne runs dry. Courtney meets Sondra’s manager Al, a kind man who isn’t above trying to seduce the teen girl in a moment of passion. Still, Al proves to be a kind of guardian angel for Courtney, telling her what men to stay away from and giving her advice while her mother is off auditioning or sleeping off a bender. Courtney also meets Barry Cabot at the Garden of Allah. He’s a handsome, closeted actor whose best roles are now behind him. In so many ways, Courtney is a teen girl living the life of an adult (nursing her mother’s fragile ego, falling victim to her grim worldview instead of flipping through movie magazines like most teenagers) so it’s startling when Moore reminds you that she really is just a naïve, virginal kid at first. When she falls for Barry — against Al’s many admonitions — it’s with all the histrionics and gauzy fantasies of a typical teen crush. At first Barry ignores her, which leads to some funny observations about dating in Los Angeles that feel very modern (Peter Pan syndrome is mentioned, to give you an idea). Barry is a Peter Pan, but his behavior is obviously complicated by the fact that also struggling to hide his relationship with a man named George. Eventually he does begin an affair with the much younger Courtney. “People always think a girl’s first lover takes advantage of her,” Courtney tells Al. “But I wanted it.”
Courtney’s time with the lotus eaters at the Garden of Allah eventually comes to an end when a cutting episode leads to Courtney entering a sanitarium. When she’s released, she and Sondra move back east to New York. Moore leaves the reader in the dark about Courtney’s time in the institution — this is a novel about cocktail parties and glossy surfaces after all. The moodiness is apparent but amorphous, like a swirl of liquid at the bottom of a martini glass. In New York, Sondra’s faltering career and lavish spending habits have caused the wealth they once knew to disappear. When Courtney gets out of the sanitarium, her father finds a small apartment for her and Sondra in Manhattan, and she’s reunited with Janet, who got kicked out of boarding school and is living on Park Avenue in a gorgeous home with her horrible parents. Courtney quickly adopts Janet’s life of endless cocktail parties populated by handsome, well-heeled boys who go to Yale, cruise around in shiny convertibles, and vacation in Monte Carlo. Courtney seems happier back in New York. The perfectly manicured lawns and bean-shaped swimming pools of Los Angeles are far away. New York is not as phony or “grubby” as L.A. Only, it is.
Sounding a little like Holly Golightly’s soul sister (Breakfast at Tiffany’s was published two years later, in 1958), Courtney tells Charles Cunningham, a straight arrow suitor of hers, “I love cocktail parties. I never have to think. I never have to say anything I really mean, and I know that nothing I say can be held against me because nobody will remember it.” There’s humor in her philosophy, but there’s also an underlying current of melancholy. She’s a girl of substance floating through a moneyed world where fabulous parties and gorgeous dresses prove to be sad substitutes for real, human connection. Courtney claims that’s she’s just like a Gatsby character. She’s fooling herself, imagining that being a Gatsby character is something fabulous and free, when really it means feeling despondent while surrounded by so many beautiful shirts.
Janet is the ultimate pretender. She waltzes around Manhattan as if she doesn’t have a care in the world. The fabulousness of her world is superficial. The money means less than nothing, so they cling to it, waiting for its presence to comfort them. It never does, since it comes from parents who, in Courtney’s case, are incredibly selfish, and in Janet’s case are verbally and physically abusive. One day when Courtney is surprised by the number of fancy handbags stuffed into Janet’s closet, she remarks, “what a lot of purses you have.”
“I — acquired them,” Janet says. “Well you might say I stole them; I say acquired them… I figure the stores have more money than I do.” Courtney reminds her friend that she could easily afford to buy all the purses she desires. Janet sounds like one of The Bling Ring kids, or one of those “just another day on the yacht” teens from Rich Kids of Instagram – indifferent, apathetic, and hungry for pretty, shiny things. When I first saw the Rich Kids of Instagram Tumblr, with photos of teens holding Louis Vuitton rifles, Swarovsky crystal handguns, and surrounded by their thirty pairs of Louboutins with hashtags like #brat and #mine, I thought it was a joke. For a week I walked around thinking, “What a genius idea — a satirical site with fake photos of ridiculous wealth.” I really wished I’d thought of such a mind-bogglingly entertaining idea for a site. Then I learned that the photos (at least, most of them) were real. This might sound a little melodramatic, but looking at those pictures and at such unfathomable wealth did and still does give me a vague sense of vertigo.
Reading Chocolates for Breakfast and imagining Courtney and Janet’s world gave me that same sense of vertigo I experienced looking at those kids wielding Swarovski crystal weapons. Like a typical teenager, Courtney longs for a life of passion and meaning. The monotony of fading into middle age without really living terrifies her. She hasn’t learned the life lesson that the extreme peaks and valleys that seem so romantic during adolescence eventually get a little old. “Poverty and wealth are excellent things because they are extremes,” she says, “but the middle ground is damaging to the soul.” Who wants to be poor? A pair of Louboutins sounds great, but thirty pair? And Louis Vuitton rifles? There’s something a little scary about that world, especially for a teenager.
It’s hard not to read many of the passages in Chocolates for Breakfast as a call for help. Pamela Moore also suffered from depression; at the age of twenty-six, after marrying and having a son, Moore killed herself. “I’m afraid of being so alone with it,” Courtney tells a friend of her mother’s when she’s feeling blue in L.A. The depression Courtney experiences isn’t simply a case of teen angst and hormones run amok. It’s tragic, and real, and, especially once you know the fate of the author, it haunts every page of the book.
In 1956 Newsweek called Chocolates for Breakfast a “polemic little folk tale” and grouped it with the “youth problem novels” that were coming out at the time. They went on to say, “Notwithstanding the sequined chip on her shoulder, (Moore) can also write with bemused detachment.” Moore was called the American Françoise Sagan, after the young, female French novelist whose incendiary book Bonjour Tristesse became an international sensation. Despite the attempts to censor it, Moore’s book sold over a million copies, and women still talk about how much the book meant to them when it was first published. Yet while The Catcher In the Rye is taught in schools and considered a classic, Chocolates for Breakfast fell out of print and gets called “trash.” At least it didn’t fade into obscurity.
In recent years, much has been made about the gender bias in the publishing world. Female writers are reviewed less frequently, taken less seriously, and are often plagued by book covers sporting pastel hues, cupcakes, and stilettos. Did you see the new cover art that U.K. publisher Faber released for the 50th anniversary of Plath’s The Bell Jar? It had a Drew Barrymore doppelganger peering into a compact and fixing her makeup. Chocolates for Breakfast isn’t Proust, but in my mind that’s a good thing. Give me story and characters and sex scandals in the Garden of Allah over stream-of-consciousness musings any day. One isn’t better than the other. It’s really a matter of taste. This novel isn’t just “chick lit”, nor is it fluff. It’s a deeply felt story, but the eighteen-year old Moore was intelligent enough to tell her tale with a light touch. Like Holly Golightly, Courtney doesn’t need to prove herself with lengthy monologues about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life. She’s just a teenage girl, trying to figure things out. That doesn’t make her a simple, shallow character. It makes her relatable.
Courtney knows deep down that a world of never ending champagne and chocolates is a world of superficial joy, but she can’t seem to find her way out of it until her life is truly shaken up, which it eventually is. When that happens, all you can do is close the book and imagine that the character you’ve envisioned in your mind grows up and manages to break out of the cycle of cocktail parties and boozy breakfasts. Knowing the fate of the author, it’s hard to imagine that she does. Eating chocolates for breakfast every day sounds decadent and wonderful in the abstract, but if that was your life you would eventually feel nauseated, break out in hives, and yearn for a piece of buttered toast.