By JONATHAN YARDLEY
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
In the late 1930s, an executive at what was then still called Time Inc. decided that his considerable success -- he was the publisher of Fortune, the highly regarded business magazine -- required that he abandon his cramped quarters in Manhattan and find a place in the country suitable to his exalted position. It was, he thought, The Thing to Do for one thus blessed. So he and his wife ventured out to northwest Connecticut and began to poke around:
"They had begun a search for land and an old house in the country in a manner that was not only halfhearted but shamefaced; they were doing something because it seemed to be expected of them, not because they felt any true inner urge. Then, suddenly, the land fever had seized them; they knew, in a flash, what had been wrong with them all those years: the peace and security that only the fair land itself could provide they had left out of their lives altogether."
His name was Eric Hodgins. In 1939 he and his wife bought a piece of land at New Milford -- a classic New England small town -- and began construction that year of a house suitable for them and their two children. As Patricia Grandjean reported 15 years ago in the New York Times, he "anticipated a budget of $11,000 for his dream house. But the completed project ultimately escalated to a total of $56,000 . . . a sum so inflated by his misconceptions that it nearly drove him into bankruptcy. He was forced to sell the house two years later."
Soon after World War II, though, the house paid handsome dividends. In 1946, Hodgins resigned his job in order to write a book that, as he recalled later, "wrote itself." Ostensibly a work of fiction, it was his own story thinly disguised. It was about a New York advertising man who "had been lucky enough to hit upon a three-word slogan for a laxative account that had broken four successive agency vice-presidents" and quickly became a cash cow. He and his wife buy an old house in Connecticut, tear it down and build a new one. They budget $20,000 for land and house but end up shelling out $56,263.97.
By now you may have guessed that the novel Hodgins wrote is "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House." Published in 1946, it immediately became a huge bestseller. Within two years, 540,000 copies had been sold, and movie rights brought in $200,000 more. The film of the same title, released two years later, starred Cary Grant and Myrna Loy and was itself a great hit, with good reason, as it is in equal measures funny and smart. A very loose remake, "The Money Pit," starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long, was released in 1986. Both films are available on DVD. As for Hodgins, he published a sequel to "Mr. Blandings," "Blandings' Way" (1950), retired from Time in 1958 and died in 1971.
Probably most people today know Mr. Blandings's story from one of the movies. That certainly was true of me. I probably saw it during the 1950s, when I was a teenager. What I do remember is that I absolutely loved it -- just as I loved such other classic Cary Grant comedies as "His Girl Friday," "Bringing Up Baby," "I Was a Male War Bride" and "Monkey Business" -- and that I went immediately to the book. It was different, of course, as books always are, but even in callow youth I was taken by its wit, its author's engaging self-deprecation and the universality of its story.
Yes, universality. The Blandings may be prosperous WASPs and the house they build may end up costing vastly more than most of us can afford, but almost all of us can identify with the rest of the tale: yearning for a "dream house," being taken to the cleaners by contractors and others, worrying about money, squabbling about curtains and paint and appliances and everything else. Rereading "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" for the first time in half a century, I'm struck not merely by how well it reads but how up-to-date it is. Except for the money -- try multiplying by 10 to get the Blandings' figures closer to 2007 dollars -- just about everything in the book could have been written yesterday, including Hodgins's smooth, ironic prose.
From the minute the Blandings make their first foray into Connecticut, these city rubes are taken to the cleaners by country slickers. The 50-acre spread turns out to be 35 acres in the sales contract, and 31.5 acres when it's surveyed. The real-estate agent is a smooth con man and the old hick who owns the land and house, Ephemus W. Hackett, is "shrewd, vague and incisive," playing their self-evident longing for the house into an $11,000 deal, maybe twice what he'd get from a local buyer. As for the Revolutionary-era house, it has gone untouched by "self-conscious restoration" or "museum hand." It's also a wreck, and the Blandings shell out more good money to tear it down.
So they engage an architect and tell him what they want: "a two-story house in quiet, modern, good taste; frame and brick-veneer construction; something to blend with the older architectural examples that dotted the countryside around them, but no slavish imitation of times past. It would be, in effect, a bringing up to date of the Old House, with obvious modifications dictated by the difference between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries and by the difference between the profession of farming, for which the Old House had been constructed, and advertising, which should somehow be exemplified in the New."
Between what they want and what they get lie "one demented decision [after] another." Mr. Blandings wonders if he is "becoming an utter, vacuous fool, with a simian knack of writing advertising copy for a tonnage laxative, and no other use or capacities whatever." He talks to himself: "He was being cheated, he was being bilked, he was being made a fool of, but he could not find the villain, because everyone was a villain . . . all, all had made him the butt and victim of a huge conspiracy, clever and cruel." He wonders "whether everybody else's life was such a succession of roller-coaster plunges from elation to despair and swoops back to elation, or whether, as his closest friends and office mates insisted, he was a sufferer from severe emotional instability."
There is, for example, the quest for water. John Tesander, well driller, appears on the scene. Mr. Blandings finds him "one of those skilled workmen who restored a man's faith in his kind," but as he cheerfully drills away "one circumstance remained always the same: in his methodical progress through the earth's crust, he was encountering everything in an omnipotent God's creation except water." Not until he drills down 297 feet (at $4.50 a foot, for a total of $1,336.50 -- make that somewhere around $15,000 today) does he hit a sufficient supply.
But that's only the beginning. Literally. With water out of the way, the architect informs the Blandings "in a sepulchral voice" that it is "time to ask for bids." When they arrive and the manila folder is opened, Mr. Blandings leaps up "as from a bayonet thrust through the chair bottom" and lets fly an inventive curse. They end up at $26,991.17 -- after whittling away many of the most cherished parts of the architect's design -- and find themselves wondering how, exactly, they had managed to get so far beyond the $20,000 grand total they had once so foolishly decided upon.
On top of everything else, it begins to dawn upon Mr. Blandings that "in the midst of the bucolic loveliness where he had wanted to live in peace and harmony with nature and his fellows, he was disliked. . . . It was just that he was an outlander. He could wear overhalls, or dress in mail-order clothes, or part his hair down the middle, until kingdom come, and it would make no difference. He could live in a cow barn until all the perfumes of Araby were powerless to lighten the smell of wet leaves and manure, but the natives of Lansdale County would still know him for an alien, forever." It is the old story of town come to country, as any Manhattanite resident among the potato farmers of eastern Long Island (if any are left) could ruefully attest.
Gamely, though, Mr. Blandings presses on. So does Mrs. Blandings. She sees four unused pieces of flagstone and asks the contractor to "give me a nice stone floor" in her flower room, for which the contractor, by the time he's pulled everything apart in order to satisfy her, weighs in with another $1,247 in charges. Then she turns her attention to the color scheme, writing out detailed instructions for the painters. The dining room is to be yellow: "Ask one of your workmen to get a pound of the A&P's best butter and match it exactly." Bathrooms? "In the master bath, the color should suggest apple blossoms just before they fall."
Et cetera. "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" is a comedy, of course, and a very funny one at that, but it is also a cautionary tale with which many of us can connect. Few of us get to build our own houses, but all of us live in places that someone built and all of us have to contend with the vicissitudes of our residences and the people whom we pay to keep them functioning. There are any number of morals to be drawn from Eric Hodgins's lovely little book, but the two main ones are as old as the hills: Never want anything so much that you'll pay anything to have it, and caveat emptor.
"Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" is available in paperback from Academy Chicago ($14.95) and Simon & Schuster ($12).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.