'Mamie Stover': Blond Ambition

William Bradford Huie wrote 21 books that sold more than 28 million copies.
William Bradford Huie wrote 21 books that sold more than 28 million copies.
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Half a century ago, the sexual revolution was only a glimmer in a few people's eyes. In December 1953, an unknown journalist named Hugh Hefner published the first issue of a magazine called Playboy with a nude Marilyn Monroe as Sweetheart of the Month, which caused quite a stir but gave no hint of the seismic changes soon to follow. The lid was still tightly clamped. When, a few months later, a far better known journalist named William Bradford Huie published a novel about prostitution called "The Revolt of Mamie Stover," he clearly felt that there were limits to what he could write, and he observed them with care.

There was a very mildly graphic sex scene in the opening pages of the novel, but after that, the tone was more reportorial than arousing. Still, to the 14-year-old me in 1954, and to many thousands of others, the adventures in Honolulu of this blonde from Mississippi seemed pretty hot. The book enjoyed lively sales, and two years later was made into a movie, with the pneumatic Jane Russell in the title role. Today, the only way you'll see the movie is on late-night television, and an Internet search for the book turned up only a couple of dozen copies, one from a bookseller who described it as "pulp fiction."

Sic transit gloria mundi. In his day, which lasted from the publication of his first novel, "Mud on the Stars," in 1942 until his death in 1986, Huie was one of the most successful writers in this country, and one of the most interesting. Born in Alabama in 1910, Huie attended the University of Alabama, worked as a journalist until joining the Navy in 1942, and -- so it certainly seems -- at war's end had fire in his eyes. He was a crusader, and the South in the postwar years was about as inviting a target as this country ever has offered. During the years of the civil rights movement, he did freelance magazine work and published several books, most notably "Three Lives for Mississippi" (1965), about the civil rights workers murdered in 1964. He was vilified by innumerable Southern whites, but he stuck to his guns.

All in all he published 21 books, about evenly divided between fiction and nonfiction, that sold more than 28 million copies. Only two are still in print: "The Execution of Private Slovik" (1954) and "He Slew the Dreamer: My Search With James Earl Ray for the Truth about the Murder of Martin Luther King" (1970) -- but others live on in movies, though people who watch them may have no idea of Huie's pivotal role: "The Americanization of Emily," "The Outsider," "Wild River." He was an amazing guy: tough, passionate, opinionated, fearless, principled, courageous. He was compassionate, but he was no sentimentalist. The narrator of "Mamie Stover," a Southern journalist named James Monroe Madison, doubtless speaks for Huie himself:

"I have little patience with the generality that all mankind is tragic; that men-in-the-mass are important or valuable. I believe that each individual must prove himself valuable. I believe that mankind is composed of individuals who are valuable and individuals who are worthless. I believe there are individuals whose souls can be nourished and developed, and there are others whose souls are desiccated and dead. . . . I believe that there is an aristocracy among men -- an aristocracy of will, work, intelligence, and character. I believe that these aristocrats, these valuable individuals of the world are important, worthy to be free, and worthy of opportunity and aid, but that others are relatively unimportant."

So: A man who believed in equal opportunity for everybody long before that became the social and political received wisdom, but also a man who believed that only a part of humankind -- a small part, in all likelihood -- is capable of seizing that opportunity and making the most of it. Huie was a democrat, but he was also a meritocrat. The first part of that equation sits well today, but the second isn't exactly popular in a Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood culture where everyone is taught to have "self-esteem" even if there is nothing estimable about him or her.

One person whom Huie clearly regarded as among the world's "valuable women" was Mamie Stover. It is not clear to what extent she emerged full-blown from his imagination and to what extent she was based on a prostitute whom he knew in Hawaii during the war, but he clearly liked and respected her. Jim Madison meets her in 1939 "on a freighter out of Los Angeles bound for Honolulu." He is returning to his home after a period of hard, satisfying work. Her story is less happy. As a teenager she won a beauty contest in the Mississippi Delta, which led to Hollywood, which led to a producer who slept with her, beat her, had his thugs slice her cheek open, and shipped her off to Honolulu to work for its leading madam, Bertha Parchman. Mamie is 22 years old, tall, leggy, with "extraordinary . . . golden-blonde" hair, a staggering figure, yet "a discarded bundle of despair and hate, with an ugly scar on her face."

Aboard the freighter, she and Jim have a fling, though he senses it has less to do with any particular appeal of his own than with her need "to use me as a barrier against loneliness; she wanted to use me to help her in the Islands." This turns him off, yet he likes her; he discovers "a certain native niceness about her," and he admits "that, physically, she had been almost perfectly assembled for the satisfaction of vigorous lust." Recognizing that there's something of worth here, he offers to pay for her passage back to the mainland and for surgery to remove her scar; he doesn't want her to fall into prostitution, and hopes she'll be able to have a normal life.

Thanks a lot but no thanks, she says. "Why shouldn't I have just as much as any other woman in the world?" she asks. "If I've lost my chance to get mine in Hollywood, then I'll get it in Honolulu. If I can't get it from one man I'll get it from a thousand. If I've got just one thing left to sell, then, by God, I'll sell it faster than it's ever been sold before!" Which is pretty much what she does. She goes to work for Bertha and becomes the number one girl in her stable. She starts salting away money, and asks Jim to help her take care of it. More than that, she asks him to invest it for her surreptitiously, because Honolulu's whores are under the thumb of "what was known as the Thirteen Articles," one of them being that "no girl may own real estate or maintain a residence outside the brothel."

She and Bertha become friends -- Bertha respects Mamie's earning power, Mamie respects Bertha's business acumen -- and eventually Bertha turns her brothel over to Mamie. Meantime, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and suddenly Honolulu is under the control of the Army. Whereas the old Honolulu establishment had reviled the prostitutes and demanded strict obedience to the Thirteen Articles, the Army knows that fighting men need R&R, and that well-equipped, sanitary whorehouses supply plenty of it.

Mamie is just the girl for them. She sets up a four-bed "Bull Ring" that permits her to service men at an astonishing rate: ". . . she judged her efficiency by the length of time required to make a complete circuit. Ten minutes was par, though quite often she made it in eight. She was never longer than twenty minutes, for if any customer attempted to monopolize her services beyond five minutes he found himself jerked to attention by two alert M.P.s." The money rolls in almost faster than she can count it. Through an attorney whom Jim finds for her, she begins buying up real estate. By late in the war she's worth $600,000 or more -- at least 10 times that in 2006 dollars -- and she's in close cahoots with the military, to some of whom she extends her favors as just that -- favors -- and with almost all of whom she strikes a firm alliance against the old order.

Her revolt first occurs when, emboldened by her military connections, she sunbathes at Waikiki, forbidden to prostitutes under the Thirteen Articles; then she buys a car, also forbidden, and "one by one, with the aid of the military, Mamie Stover defied each of the Thirteen Articles." Then she does two things absolutely forbidden: She marries a soldier -- a major, no less -- and she buys "a $40,000 home on Pacific Heights." She has it made, just like all the others who profited from the Second World War.

Of whom there were many, making "financial killings" while ordinary soldiers fought and died. If the central subject of "The Revolt of Mamie Stover" is prostitution and the degradation of women, war profiteering is almost equally important. Mamie herself is a war profiteer, one whom Huie likes anyway. The rest he holds in contempt, "the American people -- the humble along with the arrogant -- who spurned sacrifice and insisted upon enriching themselves while the nation bled."

That theme, needless to say, remains pertinent today, as does Huie's portrait of a strong woman who makes it on her own. If a half-century ago I read "The Revolt of Mamie Stover" in hopes of titillation, a second time through I find it smart, provocative and funny. The N-word pops up with a frequency that will unnerve today's reader, but that's the way people talked back then. It's not a great book, but it's not pulp fiction either. How nice it would be to have it back in print, and to find a new generation of readers for an American writer who scarcely deserves the neglect into which he has fallen.

"The Revolt of Mamie Stover" is out of print and hard to find.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company