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Washington Post Book Club: Marjorie Morningstar

July Post Book Club Selection

Kunio Francis Tanabe
Washington Post Book World Senior Editor
Thursday, July 29, 2004; 3:00 PM

Welcome to the online meeting of The Washington Post Book Club, a monthly program presented by the editors and writers of Washington Post Book World.

A new version of the film "Marjorie Morningstar" is in the works with actress Scarlett Johansson, the star of "Lost in Translation" and "Girl with the Pearl Earring." The tune that Gene Kelly sings to Natalie Wood in the movie was nominated for an Oscar in 1958. Kelly plays the role of a drama director at South Wind, and Natalie Wood is the heroine, the starry-eyed beauty who falls in love with the wrong guy.

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Post Book World senior editor Kunio Francis Tanabe was online Thursday, July 29, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss this month's selection, "Marjorie Morningstar" by Herman Wouk.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Alexandria, Va.: "Marjorie Morningstar" is one of my favorite books of all time. I'm concerned that the upcoming movie won't do it justice. Will the 1930's time period be retained? If so, will modern audiences be able to relate to Marjorie's anguish over her decision whether to have an affair with Noel, considering today's climate of casual/graphic sex? Will the strong pull of her religious upbringing be understandable? I saw the Gene Kelly version years ago and was extremely disappointed at how the book was simplified and shortened.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Good afternoon. For an entire hour we'll be chatting about a novel published in the '50s which I am sure, if you are in my age bracket, brings memories of those awkward adolescent years. Times were different then and the book shows it. Premarital sex? These days that's not a very big deal, it seems.
Before I go on, I must apologize for getting the title of one of Herman Wouk's books wrong. It's "Youngblood Hawke" (I had it as "Young Bloodhawke.")It's been decades since I read that one.
I chose "Marjorie Morningstar" since my daughter loved it and another daughter of a good friend told me recently how much she enjoyed the book. They both read it when they were 16 or 17.
Now on to the comments that are already posted:
I agree with you that the movie version of the book has grave shortcomings. Noel Airman as played by Gene Kelly was really miscast, I thought. He doesn't have the intellectual angst-ridden shadow that Noel in the book has.

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Philadelphia, Pa: A comment:

I loved re-reading this book after all these years, and particularly was struck by the last chapter- "Wally Wronken's Diary".

I find it intriguing that hundreds of pages are devoted to Noel Airman, 40 pages to Mike Eden, and at most 20 pages to "the man she married."

Somewhat ironically, it appears in this last chapter, their importance to Marjorie's life in the end is seemingly in inverse order to this above accounting.

Wally in the last chapter insists that Marjorie has "rewritten history in her mind." (page 560 in the Doubleday hardback)
This seems to agree with the tale as told by the author to us.

Don't we all "selectively rewrite history in our mind?." Isn't that what we call "memory" ?

Should we assume that Wally's memory is "real" because it seems to agree with the author's or is it possible that Wally is a fantasy alter ego of the author, and we should take with a grain of salt his memory as well?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: I really liked the Wally Wronken character. My heart goes out to guys with unrequited love--speaking from my own experience, of course. I can still hum that tune from the movie. . .
I have a hunch that there is some of Herman Wouk's own life and ambition in both Noel and Wally. By the way, he lives nearby in Georgetown, D.C. The writer is now 88, if I am not mistaken.

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Washington, D.C.: Marjorie Morningstar is one of my favorites as a novel about failed dreams. But a bright young girlfriend I had about 1968 hated it, saying it was a collection of the dumb things men think women think. Was she right or partly right?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: I think you're both right. The ending was devastating to those who believe in the women's movement. But that's another issue.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Isn't this book also about the expectations Marjorie has for Noel and how he doesn't/can't live up to them? Doesn't this disappointment in turn lead to an understanding of accepting people for who they are? Is Wally the pure hero in this novel or someone who "makes it" in the theatre and therefore appeals to Marjorie?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: I wish the author gave Marjorie in her middle years more insight to her past life. All the shine of her adolescence disappeared? And Wally. I think you're right about Wally. Hey, if Marjorie is not attracted to Wally, I can understand that too, even after he makes it as a successful playwright.

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Philadephia, Pa: For discussion: on page 548, Wouk talks of Marjoris learning (re Mike Eden) that there was really more than one man in the world-"the piece of knowledge that more than anything else divides women from girls."
Is this just a sexist comment to us today, or is it simply an outdated notion? In other words, is this the kind of knowledge that even today can also be said to divide men from boys?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: I don't think that's what divides men from boys. Some of us fall deeply in love and that's reciprocated and they marry and no other partner exists for them. I happen to believe there are many partners out there who we can be happy with but time and geography are limited.

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Kensington, Md.: I first read "Marjorie Morningstar" when I was about 10 (about 35 years ago), and I loved it then. When I was in my late 20's, I purchased a hardback copy at a library book sale, happily looking forward to rereading the story I had enjoyed so much as a child. The only thing I really remembered was that it was a great read, but had a really disappointing ending. I was shocked to discover that between my first and second readings, the book -- and especially the ending -- had changed dramatically! Had you asked me at age 10 to describe basic plot, I would have said "Marjorie Morningstar" was about a nice girl (with really boring parents) who falls in love with a wonderful man, but when he finally proposes, she inexplicably turns him down, and then goes off and marries a really boring guy and lives a really boring life thereafter. However, I would now describe Marjorie Morningstar as a wonderful girl (with wonderful parents) who became infatuated with the wrong man (who probably suffered from manic-depression, as well as classic fear of commitment), which she finally realizes at the very last moment (dodged a bullet there, Margie!) who then goes off and marries the perfect man for her, and lives a happy, fulfilled (for the 1950's, anyway) life thereafter. I still love the book, and re-read it at least once a year, and I enjoy it much more from an adult perspective.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Thank you for your story. To tell you the truth, I can no longer tolerate an egotistic guy like Noel Airman. But he would be an interesting friend to have around if he doesn't ask to borrow money all the time.

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Chicago, Ill.: I became a fan of the book in the early 1980's and am delighted to hear about the new movie, which I'm sure will be an improvement on the original. But wouldn't it be wonderful if the moviemakers updated the plot and set it in the late 20th century rock-and-roll world, rather than the mid-century Broadway scene? That's how I translated the book in my mind as I read it, because what Broadway success meant to urban youth in the 1930's and 40's, success in the rock scene means to the "Marjories" of today.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: I wouldn't be surprised if the movie "Dirty Dancing" was partly inspired by Wouk's Marjorie. I don't know much about teen-age summer camp these days but maybe things are still the same. Raging hormones and thoughts about the opposite sex. Or the same one for that matter. If Scarlett Johansson is planning to play the role of Marjorie, I wonder if it's too much of a departure from our image of the original Jewish princess? I've only seen her in "Lost in Translation" and "Girl with the Pearl Earrings" but she seems too sedate for the role. Marjorie seems full of life and bursting with dreams.

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Alexandria, Va.: That was a great book. I wonder how they're going to make it today..I mean, Marjorie's whole life was ruined because of premarital sex...I can't see how that will play with today's audience.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: You're right. It's not such a big deal today, but it does have a quaint charm, don't you think? A bit of nostalgia for the old ways. They were not the best, of course.

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Washington, D.C.: I read Marjorie Morningstar when I was 14 and to this day it is my absolute favorite book of all time. I cried (bawled) at the end for two reasons: because I thought the ending was SO sad and because I was done with the book. I have never been able to read the same book twice but I've often thought about re-reading Marjorie Morningstar. I once read that often when a young teenage girl reads the book she thinks it is sad that she ended up marrying a conventional guy but those same women who reaad the book later in life do not see it as a sad ending. I am 28 and engaged and I think it would be the perfect time to re-read it. I'm wondering if anyone else in the discussion has read the book at different life stages with different reactions.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Well, I have, for one. I read it when I was 17 and then again a month ago. I'm old enough to be your father so I can say that if you were my daughter, I'd recommend your reading it again. You'll see that flashy Noel Airman type as one to be avoided in real life. That is, as a marriage candidate. And you'll learn to be kinder to anyone who falls in love with you even if you can't reciprocate.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you have any idea how I could meet Herman Wouk? Does he have any upcoming speaking engagements or book signings in the area? Does he ever teach a class at any of the local colleges?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Herman Wouk has a new book out that was published in April of this year. The title of the book is "A Hole in Texas" (Little Brown, $25, 278 pp.). Our Jonathan Yardley reviewed it on April 15 in the Style section of our paper.
He may still be making appearances at bookstores. On the other hand, he's 88 (I think). I hear he attends the Orthodox temple in Georgetown. Ken Ringle, our Style reporter, now retired, did an interview with Wouk a few years ago. (published July 10, 2000). Wouk does occasional lectures.

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Washington, D.C.: It is interesting as you say that Marjorie does not seem to care more about looking back over her life and understanding the people in it. But I think she came to a good conclusion in earlier years (page 455 Doubleday) in comparing Wally to Noel: "Wally's reach was at least proportional to his grasp."

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Noel is a far more complicated person than Wally. By the way, Wouk studied philosophy at Columbia U. during the heyday of Marxist thinkers. Some of those philosophical discussions (rather one-sided with Marjorie) must have originated from those years grappling with deep thoughts.

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Alexandria, Va.: As a big Herman Wouk fan I would be delighted to see a good screen version of MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR with more realistic casting (Majorie's big affair, Noel Airman, was supposed to be about 10 years old than she was, not 20 or more as Gene Kelly was than Natalie Wood.) But do you really think they are going to be true to the decidedly old-fashioned plot, which is after all basically about a pretty young girl is determined not to be like her conservative parents and settle down but wants to live la dolce vita and become a great actress, then has her fling, bitterly regrets it, gets nowhere trying to make it in show business and finally settles down to become a happy and contented housewife and mother? Since I'm a pretty conservative type myself, I found the ending quite satisfying, but will Hollywood think most of their modern audience will?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Ah, you'll have to wait and find out for yourself. I think Al Pacino optioned the movie. He seems too old to play a role in the movie, don't you think?

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Germantown, Pa: How about issues of "coincidence" or perhaps better to call it "timing" in the novel, as far as who Marjorie winds up with?

What if Gerda hadn't come home and interrupted Marjorie's romantic renewal of seeing Noel again in Paris, with him playing the South Wind Waltz and cooking for her??

What if Wally hadn't gone out for another tie and seemingly stood Marjorie up a few days before she met her future husband??

What if Mike Eden hadn't been on the boat with Marjorie??
Etc., etc.

Is our fate really in our stars? Or does timing play a key role? What is Wouk's take on this?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Ah, that stupid tie. Do you think Marjorie could have fallen in love with Wally now that he became a successful playwright? I have my doubts. I know in real life, Wally is the safe bet. Maybe Marjorie has a masochistic side that gravitated her towards Noel. I think our fate is partly in the stars. For example, you didn't choose your parents. If they are rich or poor that would have affected you, etc. But as you become independent, fate is more in your hands. But only to a certain extent, don't you think?

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Lenexa, Kan.: I too thought of "Dirty Dancing"--Jack Weston singing that "one last verse" farewell at summer's end. I'm normally pretty forgiving of filming efforts ("The Caine Mutiny" was a great film) but agree about the miscasting of the 1958 "Morningstar." In addition to the leads, Ed Wynn (an actor I greatly admired for other roles) was a terrible "Uncle Samson-Aaron". Think of Zero Mostel in the role. Anyway, I'm really excited about the new prospect--love the actress.

Wouk's 1955 portrayal of Jewish humor (the bar mitzvah, the weddings, the Seder), 5-year-old Neveille's antics, the omnipresent uncle,, the mothers and mothers-in-laws, and so on was superb--and seems to me may well have also impacted later writers like Philip Roth, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, et al.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Hello Lenexa, Kansas. Always with astute observations. Thank you.

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Philadelphia, Pa: About the new movie---

Of course, the Natalie Wood-Gene Kelly movie ends with the feeling that it is Wally who will wind up with Marjorie, departing from the book's ending.

I'm wondering what other people on-line think would have happened had Marjorie said "yes" that night in Paris. He had a chance to go back with his old ad agency.
Many men sow their wild oats, and then as they get into their thirties "settle down."
What would Marjorie's influence have been on Noel as his wife?

I'm visualizing a possible "dream sequence" in the new movie where Marjorie imagines what it would be like if she had said "yes."

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Wonderful thought. A dream sequence. I love it!
Don't you have that thought sometimes? What if I married so and so, how life would have been different. . .

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Alexandria, Va.: There was a recent book written about NY City socialites that I read about that I can't remember the title of. But I do remember one passage of text that described how eligible men were judged on their future possibilities of becoming CEO's of companies?

Does this ring a bell?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: It doesn't. How horrifying. Besides, do you want to marry Rupert Murdoch or Warren Buffet? In the case of Murdoch, he ditched his wife after many years of marriage and hitched with a young Chinese woman.
I'll check around if anyone here knows of the book.

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Huntsville, Ala: I am delighted to hear that "MM" is going to be filmed. I see where readers are wondering whether the morals of the past can effectively be translated into the morals of today. Surely when we see a historical movie, we don't expect the characters from oh, say, 1400, to behave like we do now? I think it's perfectly reasonable to leave Wouk's work just like it is, and trust the audiences to understand that it's a period piece. It may even inspire some people to want that "innocence" for themselves.

Wish I'd known about this, I'd have re-read this book. I'm glad to hear that Mr. Wouk is still alive. My all-time favorites are "Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance." Good to see another Wouk novel translated to film.

Note to film makers: LEAVE IT ALONE!; Don't "hollywood" it up!; It's fine just like it is.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Thank you.

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Indiana: Hello - Growing up my mother belonged to the Book-of-
the-Month club. When MM came, I started reading it
(probably about 13-14 years old). She took it away and
hid it -- I think because Marjorie ended up sleeping with
Noel without benefit of marriage. Of course, I managed to
find it and read it even more voraciously!; Now in this day
and age it seems incredibly tame!;

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Delightful memories. I read "Peyton Place" for similar reasons. I still check out books if they are in any way "forbidden."

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think that the author cast the troubles Marjorie encountered in middle-age (caring for a mother-in-law for the 4 years before her death; the death of her brother during the war; the choking death of her infant from unknown reasons; her father going broke and having a heart attack, etc.) as a balance for or an implied result of her earlier rebellion and loss of virginity?

Does this create the literary tension for a traditional parent's version of "what goes around, comes around"?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Phew. Heavy thought. I don't think of divine intervention in our lives. Whatever guilt that we feel comes from within us, because of our upbringing, etc. Ask forgiveness and move on.

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Columbia, Maryland: I too read the book at age 14 and loved it. I wanted to be MM, living in NY, acting, summer stock, handsome actors, etc. However, reading it now at age 61, I want to smack her. I have much more understanding of her parents than I do of her. Are there any more "older" readers who had the same reaction?

I also found Wally more appealing and Noel much less so. He and Marjorie both seemed spoiled to me.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Speaking as a parent of two kids, I have the same reaction. Stay away from that Noel, that slick guy who cares too much about himself and doesn't see the other actors in our lives.

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Washington, D.C.: I especially like the scene where everyone is trying to improve Noel's musical. Marjorie plays some of his old tunes; they're all delighted and upbeat. But that musical is going down.

Didn't Marjorie catch on to Noel later when he tried to impress with his knowledge of Paris dives? He compared badly to the noble Mike Eden.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Ah, noble Mike Eden. Forgiving Marjorie for a past affair. I'd forgive someone with 10 past affairs, but not a 100.

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Lenexa, Kan.: I've always liked Wouk's WWII epic. The films (Pug Henry's prescience, the kind old Jewish professor--his end is beautifully written and filmed--and his family, the mood and feeling of those war years) have met a lot to my son and me. I know Wouk researched thoroughly. An old Washington journalist (Scott Hart) who had written a book about Washington during WWII once told me Wouk took him to dinner and plied him with "a hundred questions" while writing the epic. I really should read Wouk's later novels? How much did you like "The Hope" and "The Glory"? Thanks.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Sorry, I haven't read Wouk since the two big WWII epics came out. I've decided that I don't like war books. Even with "War and Peace," I had a difficult time reading the first chapter with all those details of the battle, was it Borodin?

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Lenexa, Kan.: Mr. Tanabe: Really enjoyed--seems an ideal novel for a discussion group. Glad to learn of the new film. Some observations/questions (Your comments? Thanks much.) follow:

o Funny about this novel: In 1958 as a freshman in line to meet my English-major (later switched to history) advisor, a boy next to me said he had read the novel that summer (told the professor how much he enjoyed it). I had been intending to read it ever since.

o You wrote of the novel's wisdom (your own using it as a parent). Walter Kaufmann--the writer I've learned the most from--dedicated his "Religion from Tolstoy to Camus" to "Herman and Sarah Wouk Who Led Me to Love." St. Thomas, V.I. (1961).

o Wouk had become famous with "The Caine Mutiny" (novel and great film). A creator's next work following fame (Roth's "Letting Go" e.g.) is often a great effort--sometimes a great work--fueled from the intoxication. Dreams? Greatness? Noel Airman's tropism theory of "Hits"?

o Wasn't the novel a great portrayal of romance and love? I felt the pain of all of them: George Drobes, Sandy Goldstone, Wally Wronken (the cruelties of neckties), Noel Airman, Morris Shapiro, Schwartz...Of Marjorie's heartbreak, Of Marsha's wedding-day "dismals."

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Marsha Zelenko! What a character. Enjoyed her both in the book and in the movie played by Carolyn Jones?

Thank you. Our hour is up. Time to return to the real world. You've all been great with your comments. Next month, my colleage Evelyn Small will present Annie Dillard's memoir, "An American Childhood." Please join her on Thursday, Aug. 26 at 3 p.m.
Cheers!

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