At the end, Welby's department store is closing; it occupies a Manhattan location too valuable for a mere six-story building, and the vast Rales conglomerate that owns it has decided to erect a high-rise on the spot. Beverly Richmond, president of the store and the last worker to leave on its closing day, stops for a moment on her way out to look through the empty building. She has been married to it, in effect, for most of her 50-odd years, since she began as a sales clerk right out of high school, and she is feeling philosophical about women and shopping:
"How many jokes had been made over the years, she thought, about women shoppers? The jokes must go back for centuries, only they seemed to have reached their peak in describing the American woman, a cliche' known worldwide, the voracious, never-pleased shopper. But it wasn't caprice that made women into this tired butt for every comedian's humor. She realized it standing there, perhaps for the first time. Beverly had never been philosophical about her work. But this store, and all the stores all over the world, had perhaps been the only place millions of women had ever been able to exert one of the most basic of human needs, a need men exercised every day of their life as a natural right. The need for some kind of power. Perhaps power was the wrong word. Choice. That was closer, she thought. Men for centuries had been allowed to make decisions that affected millions of lives, the fortunes of whole countries. Only in a place like Welby's could a woman satisfy that need . . . Just the right to be able to say, 'No, I don't like it in blue, I'd like it in brown,' or, 'Do you have a size smaller?' knowing you could walk out if you were not pleased, was all that generations of women had ever been allowed."
More than any of the women who have shopped there, Beverly has exercised power in Welby's, and in the Rales conglomerate where she is a board member. She will return to the board now, waiting until Welby's is rebuilt as the base of the new high-rise, and there she will rule an international fashion empire, flying off to Hong Kong one week, Paris the next--if that is what she wants. But does she want it? Ed, her former husband, is free again and lonely for her. Has she paid too high a price for all the power, the wealth, the frequent, respectful mentions in Women's Wear Daily? As she strides purposefully off the final page, the questions are unresolved, but the reader knows that she is marching toward a solution to the primary problem of women in our time: how to harmonize the demands of love and personal success.
This problem was the leitmotif of Helen Van Slyke's books, which have sold 7 1/2 million copies in 14 languages, and it is handled with customary efficiency in "Public Smiles, Private Tears," which she left unfinished at her death in 1979. Her success does not reflect any sweeping solution to the basic problem, which seems soluble only on a piecemeal, ad hoc basic, but rather the thoroughness with which she approaches it. "PS,PT" is a catalogue not only of the problems faced by women in the executive suite but equally by those who have become housewives in suburban mansions and Fifth Avenue apartments. From the sales figures, we may assume that only a small proportion of Van Slyke's readers share Bev's problems--and the chances are that millions of others would love to share them. But if these books are used as escapist literature, it is a higher form of escapism than the gothic brooding, plantation passion and pirate abductions that are staples in this trade. In comparison, Van Slyke wrote about reality--contemporary reality--and she wrote with honesty, almost with the approach of a sociologist.
In Bev's dilemma and the assorted problems of her friends, we have almost a schematic diagram of the problems of women trying to be accepted as "a real person, not just some kind of appendage: 'Charlie's wife,' 'Carol's mother,' 'B.J.'s daughter.' " For the successful woman executive, there is above all the problem that men of her own kind are intensely competitive and inclined to try to dominate any woman who interests them. Can a woman love a rival? Can an autonomous person accept a man who must be either her protector or her prote'ge'? Is there any human value in choosing a mate (however temporary) as a plaything or something that will enhance your image? If these questions are not answered, they are certainly asked.
But if the life of the woman executive is hard, Bev's friends who chose marriage have not done any better. One has been divorced in her mid-50s and faces a prospect of nothing better than furious dedication to charity for the rest of her life. Others are widowed, bored to tears, alcoholic and languishing in a sanitarium--lives emptied of meaning by the absence of the husband or children who were the focus of earlier years. Some take up hobbies or go back to college or become active as political volunteers. A few, whose husbands survive and remain relatively faithful, seem to have a kind of happiness--but they are rare and the happiness is low-key.
The only solution is to find the right partner and muddle through the best you can, and that seems to be what Beverly Richmond is walking toward at the end. In a sense, it parallels the problem faced by Harper & Row in finding someone to finish this book, which was half-written but complete in outline when Helen Van Slyke died. James Elward has done his assigned (and subservient) job commendably--perhaps even with a bit more style and vitality than the author who was dying as she wrote. There may be a trace of the old male-female rivalry in one of the random thoughts he places in Bev's final soliloquy: "In 15 years, probably less, somebody else would have her job, would care about it as she had and perhaps be even better at it than she had been." Be that as it may, he is good at it.