"Laura" will never grow old. She was on the television again, just the other night, and as the credits rolled across her beautiful, enigmatic portrait, the words "By Vera Caspary" flashed briefly, and were gone.
"Laura," a cult film made in Hollywood in 1944 from the novel of the same name and starring Gene Tierney, was almost certainly a fantasy projection of her creator. She was everything Caspary's snobbish older sister, Irma, would have approved -- a working girl who was beautiful, clever enough to move up into the best circles and always surrounded by adoring men. For second-generation Irma, the next best thing to being a middle-class German American Jewess would be a middle-class gentile who moved in a classy milieu. Of course, Irma never would have accepted Laura's falling for the detective at the end. But that's what separated Vera from Irma -- the younger sister's sense of adventure and her common touch.
Vera Caspary was born in Chicago two months before the turn of the century. Although she swam or floated with every changing current of the ensuing years, she retained, through it all, vestiges of the Victorian, German-Jewish milieu into which she was born. Her autobiography, "The Secrets of Grown-Ups," looks back upon a full, rich life during which she wrote 18 books, 10 film scripts, and four plays. But, despite professional success, romance, friends and travel, complete fulfillment came only at age 49 when Isidor "Igee" Goldsmith, her lover of seven years, was finally free to marry her. "And so my specter was appeased. No matter what else might happen in my life, I would never be an old mail like the ugly Milwaukee cousins. After having flaunted convention so loudly and lengthily I had achieved the respectable goal."
Caspary's father, a failed millinery businessman, was warm, reasoning, passionately honest, and she adored him. Her beautiful, vain mother, an autocratic freethinker, proclaimed her fealty to Judaism, yet celebrated Christian holidays with gusto. Vera's girlhood was steeped in the snobbishness which scorned those unfortunates whose last names ended in "witz" or "-ski." "They're not the finest kind of Jewish people, dear,'" whispered Aunt Olga, who found religious solace in Christian Science; while sister Irma "gave only second-best candy to little girls whose grandparents had Russian or Polish accents."
From this protective cocoon of family love, sibling envy, social snobbery and financial insecurity, Vera, the baby of the family, broke away to make her place in the world, to become a writer. At the age of 20, she held a copywriting job in advertising where she dreamt up creatively fradulent press releases for nonexistent rat extermination company and conducted a mail-order ballet school headed by an imaginary Russian dancing master.
Caspary's life is a Baedeker of the 20th century. An independent woman in an unliberated era, she collided with or was touched by many of its major historical and cultural events: wars, the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, the Leopold-Loeb/Bobby Frank murder case, Hollywood in its romantic heyday, Hollywood in the grip of McCarthyism, the footloose life of the artistic rich, publishing, Broadway . . . Wherever she traveled and whatever (or whomever) she was involved with, she continued to write -- to support her widowed mother and later on, to keep both Igee and herself in the style they enjoyed. Film producer Igee, like her beloved papa, was long on talent and human goodness but short on business acumen.
Some of the most compelling pages describe her entanglement with the Communist Party, the panic and divisiveness in the Hollywood community caused by the House Un-American Affairs Committee hearings. However, her emotional attempt to "exorcise the horror . . . to relieve myself by writing the whole truth" raises additional questions she never really answers.
How does one compress such a long, active life into 287 pages? Rather skimpily. While the early years, the McCarthy period, her life with Igee and some of her film experiences are described with considerable color and detail, too much of the rest merges into a kaleidoscopic blur of people and events. What is missing most of all is the introspection and depth one expects from an accomplished writer who is obviously sensitive and intelligent.
Caspary's film scenarious usually ran about 100 pages. Although her memoir is appreciably longer, it is still, essentially, a straightforward, stripped-down scenario awaiting the illuminating touches of a creative film director and cinematographer. Let's see, who should play Vera? No matter what sister Irma might have wanted, Gene Tierney is definitely out.