James M. Cain (1892-1977) did not write about detectives or publish in the pulps. He was an Easterner, a newspaperman and a protégé of H. L. Mencken who went West during the Depression to write for Hollywood. There he wrote moviescripts and crime novels. His gift for dialogue and the first-person, confessional form of his narratives gave them the suspense other writers achieved with a detective on a case.
Born in 1892 to an Irish family in tidewater Maryland, Cain grew up in an atmosphere that he once described as "feinschmecker Catholicism," meaning that his parents were "gourmets of religious ritual." They attended mass regularly because "the services were mounted in a manner worthy of Ziegfeld." 1 By thirteen, Cain did not believe a word of the "whole mumbo-jumbo, especially the confessional, where I was faking and suddenly knew that the priest knew it." 2 Not surprisingly, Cain's narratives are, at base, "faked confessions."
Cain's first home was a faculty duplex (now the Paca-Carroll student dorm) at St. John's College in Annapolis, where his father, who had played football and rowed at Yale, was professor of math and English. Handsome and flamboyant, he overshadowed Cain's mother, a gifted soprano who nurtured the writer's interest in music. While his father rose through the ranks to become vice-president of St. John's, Cain led a bucolic life with his three sisters and brother in the genteel colonial capitol. He skipped several grades and, after the family moved across the Chesapeake Bay to Chestertown, where his father became president of Washington College, he entered that college's prep school at twelve. He entered the College itself at fourteen, "a midget among giants," socially inept but coasting intellectually. 3 His main concern was looking and acting older, styling himself as a pool shark and playing the iconoclast. He edited the college magazine and was class vice-president, but he had no idea what he wanted to do when he graduated at eighteen in 1910. 4
Young Cain tried teaching, inspecting roads, singing, and selling insurance, before getting on as a police reporter at The Baltimore American. In 1917 he shifted to The Baltimore Sun, one of the best papers in the U.S. and the catbird seat of critic H. L. Mencken. Drafted in 1918, Cain served with a headquarter's troop during World War I and edited The Lorraine Cross during the occupation. On his return, he married childhood sweetheart Mary Clough, whom he offended by dressing sloppily, treating Prohibition as a joke, and speaking a tough-guy lingo out of the side of his mouth. A job awaited Cain at The Sun and he finally met Mencken, whose icon-smashing books and editorship of Smart Set made him a powerful influence on the writing styles of this generation.
Cain began to specialize in his reportage, covering the West Virginia coal field battles, even becoming a member of the United Mine Workers. He placed articles on this topic in The Atlantic and The Nation. He developed his own deft handling of dialogue during a stint of teaching at St. John's, and eventually he found a job through his Baltimore connections at the New York World, where he ended up writing "light" or "color" pieces for the editorial page of Walter Lippeman.
Cain moved to New York City alone in 1924, leaving Mary in Annapolis. These were the declining days of the glorious World, a paper purchased by Joseph Pulitzer in 1883. 5 Besides Lippemann, the editorial pages printed Maxwell Anderson, Allan Nevins, Arthur Krock, Franklin P. Adams, and Heywood Broun. Cain specialized in the offbeat editorial -- praise for man-eating sharks and jazz in church, denunciation of federal regulation of baseball and of Americanized opera. 6
He lived mostly with Elina Tyszecka, a Finn whose spouse, like Cain's, was elsewhere, but he dated five or six women. According to one reporter, Cain "was almost aggressive about wanting you to know he was living in sin." When Elina went on a long trip, he moved in with yet another woman, a reporter at his paper. 7 Cain drank prodigiously with Mencken when he was in town, and otherwise with the World, New Yorker or Algonquin Round Table crowds. They all had a cynical view of relations between the sexes. "Love is the illusion that one woman differs from another," Mencken thundered. Cain thought himself romantic when he countered, "Love is the discovery that one woman does differ from another." 8
In 1925 Cain wrote several debunking pieces for American Mercury. He attacked altruists in "The Pathology of Service" and Seventh Day Adventists in "Servants of the People." In "The Pastor" he wrote that "the typical American man of God in these our days is so loathsome, such a low, greasy buffo, so utterly beneath ridicule, so fit only for contempt." 9 In 1926 Cain wrote a play, Crashing the Pearly Gates, about economic conflict and sexual temptation in the coal fields, but it closed after a week. If Cain saw sex everywhere, it was with reason. He was seeing yet another woman when Elina returned, expecting to marry him; however, he divorced Marry and married Elina, and he adopted her children.
The most sensational news story of 1927 and 1928 was the trial and execution of "Tyger Woman" Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray for the murder of her husband Albert. Gray's situation was eerily like Cain's and it tapped strong national fears about the Twenties "flappers," and sexuality. A circulation war among East Coast newspapers helped to keep the story on the front page for eight months and a sensational photo of Ruth Snyder's electrocution in the New York Daily News in 1928 later shocked the nation.
Ruth, 31, was a striking blond with "a gaze of Scandinavian iciness," who supposedly convinced corset-salesman Judd Gray, her lover, to bludgeon her husband with a sash weight and then to strangle him with picture wire. 10 Though a mother, Ruth dressed like a flapper, stocked her basement with Prohibition booze, and liked to gamble. She focussed public fears about flappers as mothers. Gray was so short and dejected, the New York Times reported, that spectators thought him a dupe and compared him to Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp." He testified that, after sex, Ruth would claim her husband beat her: "I'd like to kill the beast," he'd respond heroically. "Do you really mean that?" she asked with interest. Beneath her cool surface, the newspapers detected a fiery "Tiger Woman." 11
Like Cain, Gray had gone to World War I an innocent and returned having tasted Europe's alcohol and freer sex. Prohibition was in force when he returned, with boyish, revealingly-dressed flappers everywhere. But when he married the women his parents liked, she bored him. Rather than let life pass him by, Gray cultivated a series of women, until he found Ruth. They kept a permanent suitcase at the Waldorf, where they met three times a week. The sex was apparently a revelation, and afterwards they shopped at Macy's or danced in nightclubs. It was an affair full of bad dialogue, an excuse for not missing what the "Jazz Age" offered. 12
Two aspects of the trial caught Cain's attention especially. Without his knowledge, Snyder took out personal injury insurance on her husband for fifty thousand dollars and double indemnity in case of death. She instructed the postman to deliver payment coupons only to her, ringing the doorbell twice as a signal. This sign and "double indemnity" became commonplaces for sexual duplicity.13 The second aspect that Cain later recalled was not factual: that after the murder Snyder sent Gray off on the train to establish his alibi upstate with a bottle of relaxing wine that was laced with cyanide. But this added detail made the "double" threat of the femme fatale explicit.
Cain did not use this plot until he left New York in 1931 to become a Hollywood screenwriter. After the Stock Market Crash in 1929, the paper's ad revenues dropped, and it was sold to Scripps-Howard in 1930. Cain worked next as managing editor of The New Yorker, but when Paramount offered him $400 a week, he, Elina, and her children packed up.
Despite his gift for dialogue, Cain was never a great scriptwriter. But like Chandler, he loved the Paramount commissary and the writers' talk there. Released after his first studio contract, Cain drove around southern California – one of the chief forms of recreation there – looking for magazine articles to write. In his early articles Cain couldn't praise the friendly Californians, their excellent schools, and extensive roads highly enough. One place he liked was a lion farm that supplied animals to movies. 14 He combined this with the drama he read into a young couple running a nearby gas station: "Always this bosomy-looking thing comes out – commonplace, but sexy, the kind you have ideas about. We always talked while she filled up my tank. One day I read in the paper where a woman who runs a filling station knocks off her husband. Can it be this bosomy thing? I go by and sure enough, the place is closed. I enquire. Yes, she's the one – this appetizing but utterly commonplace woman." 15 In Cain's sensational "The Baby in the Icebox" (1933), the husband lets the 500-pound cat loose in the house to kill her. She puts the baby, possibly illegitimate, in an unplugged freezer for safety, and then locks her husband in the house. Just after he shoots her through a window, the cat turns on him and kills him. The house catches on fire, but the baby survives in the freezer.
Encouraged by Knopf, Cain began a novel he called Bar-B-Que. The basic plot came from the Snyder-Gray case, which he discussed with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence. Lawrence introduced Cain to the Hollywood principle of the "love rack" – that the audience had to care about characters, that love stories were the best plot to make them do so, and that one of the lovers had to be a "losing lover." It took Cain six months to write the story of Frank Chambers, a drifter who finds work at the roadside gas station/ sandwich joint of Greek immigrant Nick Papadakis and his steamy wife Cora.
Cain continued to write magazine and newspaper pieces until the novel came out in 1934. "Postman was probably the first of the big commercial books in American publishing," writes biographer Roy Hoopes, "the first novel to hit for what might be called the grand slam of the book trade: a hard-cover best-seller, paperback best-seller, syndication, play and movie. It scored more than once in most of these mediums and still sells on and on, even today." 16 The novel set a new standard of hard-boiled-ness; it was so tough that the New York Times's reviewer called it a "six-minute egg." 17
After making only $3,000 in 1933, Cain was suddenly in demand. 18 Reprint and movie rights sold; the studios called. Cain next wrote an eight-part serial, "Double Indemnity" for Liberty magazine in 1936. Part recasting of Postman, part recollection of his youth selling insurance, Double Indemnity portrayed a corporate/legal control of life that amounted to "double jeopardy" and appealed to Depression readers' sense of helplessness. The movie of Double Indemnity (1944) became the masterwork of film noir, but Cain had little to do with it.
Reprints, serials and movie sales kept the Cains living well. This was fortunate, because Cain devoted himself to unsuccessful stage versions of his own and others' works, and then, in 1937, to a music-themed novel, Seranade. 19 With his publisher, Alfred Knopf, begging for new work, Cain finally finished The Embezzler, a novella about the Depression's most common crime that eventually appeared in Three of a Kind (1943). Having completed his contract, Cain was free to sell his last major hard-boiled fiction, Mildred Pierce, to the highest bidder, which was also Knopf. 20 This 1941 tale economic ambition, ruthlessness, and manipulation, featuring an incest motif, was an exceptional portrait of Depression tensions.
With this advance, Cain had a long overdue operation for gallstones and an ulcer. He fielded questions from Edmund Wilson, who wrote the first major critical piece on the hard-boiled school – "The Boys in the Back Room" – for the New Republic in 1941. "The poets of the tabloid murder," wrote Wilson, all "…stemmed originally from Hemingway." 21 Possibly because of this essay, the press expected Mildred Pierce to be a major event. But the reviews were disappointing and Cain, his stomach repaired, began to drink too much. Although he worked for Hollywood in the early 1940s and had some of his scripts and novels filmed, he wrote no important hard-boiled fiction the rest of the decade. He did write an introduction to a collection aimed at soldiers called For Men Only (1943), in which he stated: "The world's great literature is peopled by thoroughgoing heels, and in this book you will find a beautiful bevy of them, with scarcely a character among them you would let in the front door. I hope you like them. I think they are swell." 22
In 1946 Cain published Past All Dishonor, a historic novel set in the Nevada of the 1850s with an incest plot. Historic settings and this plot were to dominate Cain's work for the next two decades, during which he published another nine books. None of them can be termed hard-boiled. Cain married twice more: to Aileen Pringle in 1944, and to Florence McBeth in 1947. He and Florence moved to Hyattsville, Maryland, and they spent the rest of their lives there. Cain died on October 27, 1977 at the age of eighty-five. 23
1 Roy Hoopes, Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain (New York: Holt, 1982), 20. 2 Ibid. 3 Hoopes, 22. 4 Hoopes, 30-31. 5 Hoopes, 118. 6 Hoopes, 122-23. 7 Hoopes, 126-27. 8 Hoopes, 527. 9 Hoopes, 129. 10 Trial details from front pages of the New York Times, May 3 – 10, 1927. 11 This was an old-fashioned, misogynist way of organizing gender roles for public consumption, one that dates at least to Shakespeare's time: "O tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide." William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 3, I, iv, 137. 12 Marling, Roman Noir, 151-53. 13 Marling, Noir, 154. 14 The lion farm was either near Ventura (Hoopes 225) or in El Monte (Marling Noir, 162). At the latter there was an accident in 1928 very similar to the situation of Cain's story). 15 Hoopes, 225. 16 Hoopes, 244 17 Reviewer quoted in Hoopes, 244. 18 Hoopes, 248. 19 Hoopes, 288. 20 Hoopes, 310. 21 Wilson quoted in Hoopes, 313. 22 Cain, in Hoopes, 339. 23 Cain, in Hoopes, 559.
James M. Cain: Hard-Boiled Mythmaker
David Madden and Kristopher Mecholsky
Toronto: Scarecrow Press, 2011
How can you not like Mildred Pierce?
Whether she’s Kate Winslet or Joan Crawford or James M. Cain’s original, Mildred models an appealing blend of economic ambition, motherhood, and romance betrayed. With a new version of Mildred Pierce on HBO, and a recent article by Hilton Als in The New Yorker (3/28/11), reassessments are in order, not least because Cain himself was so attuned to economic hard times like our own.
David Madden championed Cain long before it was fashionable. I have in hand my 1968 copy of his Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, which is dedicated “To James M. Cain, twenty-minute egg of the hard-boiled writers.” This collection of criticism is still important, for in Madden’s introduction he boldly set up Cain as a perspective on the world of Hemingway, Chandler, Hammett, Bellow, and McCoy. That viewpoint made the constellation of literature taught on campus look quite different, even in 1968.
Although the multi-talented Madden was principally a fiction writer (his fourth novel, The Suicide’s Wife, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) and director of the creative writing program at L.S.U., in his free moments he continued to champion Cain. He wrote James M. Cain (1970) and Cain’s Craft (1985), and organized the first ever James M. Cain Conference, held at the unlikely venue of Baylor University amid the arcana of the Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning Collection. I was there, and believe me, listening to Madden begin his paper by evoking an imaginary theater marquee and intoning “JAMES … M … CAIN” was, for some years, my definition of academic cognitive dissonance Cain is mainstream now, but no less shocking. Students come to him chiefly in creative writing courses, where instructors cast his gems before students as models of clean prose: “’They threw me off the hay truck about noon’ – see if you can combine setting, character, and conflict like that.” But not so many aspiring creative writers read all of The Postman Always Rings Twice, much less the rest of Cain’s oeuvre. It is now legit to teach Cain in American literature courses, if you ignore arched feminist eyebrows, but the students are genuinely shocked. How can he imply such nasty things about love, lawyers, the state, and human nature?
Roy Hoopes’ monumental Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain (1982) helped to answer those questions. It seems that Cain was living libidinally in the 1920s and finding his style between the wit of Dorothy Parker and the sarcasm of H. L. Mencken, while reporting from West Virginia coal fields and New Jersey docks. In March of this year Hilton Als returned to the biographic in the New Yorker, linking Cain’s more positive representation of women in Mildred Pierce to his “befriending” Kate Cummings (Cain often befriended women other than his current wife). But no writer transcends his period simply by befriending the right people. I myself placed Cain in a socio-economic context in The American Roman Noir (1995). What he has to say on that score still resonates. It is now clear that Cain was among the most adept economic fabulists of his epoch, a talent he honed at the Baltimore American beginning in 1917. In The Embezzler (1940), he even named the archetypal crime of the Depression, a judgment later confirmed by John Kenneth Galbraith.
Those two trends – the biographic and the social – seemed to dominate Cain scholarship for a long while. Now comes David Madden to remind us that the nexus of these views is craft. The first chapter of his book takes up Cain’s career as a novelist, his contacts and professional liaisons, his health and his sources. The second chapter, apparently written by Mecholsky, posits Cain’s core mythology as deriving from the Pandora and Oedipal myth complexes. Cain’s narratives are segregated into two “archetypal plots” and five “pure elements” (sex, religion, food, money, violence), an approach curiously devoid of modern critical influences, save brief nods to the gender work of Megan Abbott, Greg Foster, and Leonard Casuto.
Chapter Three, “The American Character in Shadow,” is the least satisfying part of this book. I find the proposition that “Cain’s most fully realized characters … are representative and effective simplifications of many traits, positive and negative, in the American character” (78) to be both school-marmy and preposterous. Frank Chambers? Walter Huff? Please! The only way to substantiate this would involve “authorial intent,” and whoever authored this chapter fortunately veers away into a concluding discussion of “inside dope” and self-dramatization.
Chapter Four is a welcome reprise of Madden’s classic essay on “Cain and the Pure Novel.” Only a very good, working novelist could write this, and it will be counted among Madden’s lasting legacies. Here is a writer looking at how another writer delivers “pure experience” (97). By situating Cain within a constellation of literary word-carvers like Joyce and Geroge Simenon, who coined the term “pure novel,” Madden helps us appreciate the author’s almost invisible technical mastery. He was far more than a minimalist, in any of the senses that term commands today. His sparseness was unlike that of Hemingway, who stripped words clean of associations: in Cain, the associations are still present, and even heighten-ed, as only the desired ones are summoned by the characters and plot.
The final chapters are new material: “Cain at the Movies,” and “Impact of Cain and the Tough Guys.” The ‘movie’ chapter is provocatively keyed to the Coen Brothers, but actually busies itself with a scholarly review of what’s known about films from Cain’s work. Since he was strictly a flop as a scriptwriter, there isn’t much about Cain’s contributions. Nor is there much about the locations that drew Cain, such as Goebel’s Lion Farm and the gas station/hamburger stands in the hills. Too bad, because Cain had a lot to do with annointing these icons of Southern California. On the other hand, films such as Slightly Scarlet (Alan Dwan:1956) and Interlude (Douglas Sirk, 1958) have received little attention, and after reading this book’s account of their subversive sexuality and innovative techniques (these were among the first Technicolor “noir” films) you may want to track down a copy. thus far, and we can be grateful to the authors for integrating them into the bigger picture of Cain’s work.
Precious little, though, is said about Mildred Pierce -- perhaps because Cain had so little to do with it. Madden/Mecholsky want to make it consistent with the body of Cain’s work, so they find the addition of murder (there’s none in the novel) to be okay. But the novel is actually not noir; it’s about “grass widows” and male emasculation, the Depression and economic entrepreneurship. It’s the B side of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Hollywood may have thought that economic strife ended in murder, but Cain knew that just as often it ended with you and your –ex Bert ‘getting stinko” and reminiscing about the old days. The ‘movies’ chapter concludes with an overview of “neo-noir,” including Bob Rafelson’s Postman, Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.The impact of Cain on such films is both obvious and difficult to articulate.
The last chapter, which sums up the authors’ arguments, is surprisingly dependent on antique authority: Alfred Kazin, Carl van Doren, William Aydelotte – these names aren’t much cited today, and don’t explain much about Cain’s enduring appeal. A sidestep into film criticism offers more clarity, as we learn about Cain’s cache among French and Italian filmmakers and his translation into foreign languages. These caveats aside, the reader of James M. Cain who craves a broad but general overview of the man and the work will be served well by this book. It delivers biography, some of the core criticism, and interesting snapshots of the films, as well as an informed appreciation of the writer’s craft and broader impact. - William Marling