Thursday, June 01, 2006
Diary of a Mad Housewife
Sue Kaufman (8/7/1926-6/25/1977) saw seven of her books published before she committed suicide by plunging from a building in New York City at the age of fifty. Creepily, her last novel was titled Falling Bodies. Though I am fond of The Headshrinker's Test (1969), she'll probably be best remembered for Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967) which was also made into a movie starring Carrie Snodgrass in 1970. In it, a novel whose title was inspired by Nikolai Gogol's macabre and sad nineteenth century Russian tale, the protagonist, Bettina "Tina" Balser, is an educated and artsy smart woman who's nicely trapped in the Manhattan material world. Married to the well-named Jonathan Balser, a fussy, pretentious nimrod lawyer who is also anxious and unsatisfied, with two children attending local prep schools, she has a hard time getting through life. In fact, she is very unhappy with her station, and few in her circle sympathize, seeing only the material comforts. Frustrated, she begins asserting herself, trying to create an identity independent of her family by beginning a secret diary that provides the vehicle for the novel.
Diary of a Mad Housewife is funny, intelligent, sarcastic, and gleefully depressing. There are scary moments, too, such as when Tina finds herself facing a sinister male presence in Central Park; incidents such as this take her closer to the edge. As in the Rolling Stones' classic satirical songs "Mother's Little Helper" and "Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown," Tina resorts to pills, and therapy, and (not in the Stones' version) an affair with knavish playwright George Prager while trying to find her way. The novel works in an obvious feminist way, but it also works as broader social satire. Furthermore, it works effectively as an allegory for anyone caught in a similar situation: the typical work place, domestic situation, or even prison, where expectations are high and one's ability to break out and become autonomous, independent, and fully realized is seemingly non-existent. In that, Diary of a Mad Housewife is also a thoughtful existential exercise for all. In any situation, who wants to be controlled, bullied, or hamstrung?
Sue Kaufman has been praised by feminists, but why hasn't this novel in particular made it more into the mainstream? Why, until recently, were all of Kaufman's books out of print? Why hasn't the movie been released on DVD? If, like The Stepford Wives (1975) it is emblematic of its time, why hasn't it been remade? Here, I can only speculate and give what few facts I've been able to find.
Kaufman earned an undergraduate degree from Vassar in 1947, then worked as an editorial assistant for Mademoiselle's fiction editor for a couple years before devoting more time to her own writing. She married not a lawyer, like Tina, but a doctor, Jeremiah A. Barondess, in 1953 when she was about twenty-seven. Together they had one child, James, ca. 1957. Kaufman saw her first book, The Happy Summer Days, published in 1959 under the name Sue Kaufman, a name which she retained for all her publications. This is important, because it evidently allowed her to keep some distance from her married status. Even in the late 1960s, publishers seemed a bit confused, saying in the "About the Author" blurb for one version of Diary that she was "married to a doctor and they have . . . an eccentric dachsund, Poppy" on one hand, and that the novel was "Miss Kaufman's third. . ." We can see the need for Ms. here, at any rate, or nothing at all.
Given the detailed description in her fiction of the kind of lifestyle Kaufman actually lived, one wonders whether, after her suicide, Dr. Barondess has not either destroyed or withheld manuscripts, drafts, and correspondence, perhaps not liking the idea of additional public scrutiny. One may hope that some day her papers will be left to some special collection -- perhaps they have been, and are merely sealed until 2025 or so. One can hope.
In any case, Jeremiah A. Barondess is alive and living in New York City. I came across a March 19, 2001 article in The New York Observer that calls him "the patrician elder statesman of the New York medical community." Barondess is currently the President of the New York Academy of Medicine. He has connections with numerous institutions ranging from the University of Michigan to Cornell University, and has dozens of publications listed on the Academy's website. The list, however, only goes back to 1994. Given that Sue Kaufman leapt to her death in 1977, it's interesting to note some of the titles of his work: "Urban Health: A Look Out Our Windows" (2004); "Adolescent Suicide: Vigilance and Action to Reduce the Toll" (2004); "Danse Macabre: Poverty, Social Status and Health" (2002); and "Care of the Medical Ethos: Reflections on Social Darwinism, Racial Hygiene, and the Holocaust" (1998). Cheery stuff, to be sure. If you'd like to see his long Jonathan-like list of accomplishments, and actually see what the husband of Sue Kaufman looks like nearly thirty years after her death, go to www.nyam.org
As with most things, more will be revealed (although the FBI came up empty again in their recent search for Jimmy Hoffa). Meanwhile, I'd love to stir up interest for the release of Diary of a Mad Housewife in digital form, and hope that all of her books will be digitized and posted on the internet. Plus, how about a biography? Or a group study including Anne Sexton and Diane Arbus, among other artists of obvious comparison?
To my knowledge, there is at least one award given out in her honor, the $2500 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for short story collections and novels. (I actually met the first recipient, Kaye Gibbons, an Algonquin Books author who won in 1995. More on Ms. Gibbons and Algonquin in a later post.)
A Salute to Sue Kaufman! Adieu.