This month, The Vintage Book Club voted to read This Demi-Paradise, a Westchester Diary written by Margaret Halsey. The book is written in the form of daily diary entries of a middle-class suburban woman named Helen Fitzgibbons. Helen’s wry sense of humor highlights many of the hypocrisies of white, middle-class suburbia, in topics ranging from religion to race to communism. Much of the humor was based on early 1960’s events, meaning that I don’t believe it wholly translates well to 2021 audiences. Nevertheless, some of the themes, I think, a modern-day reader might find interesting and relevant.
The discussions of race in this book are worthwhile to think about in 2021. The author Margaret Halsey wrote several other books that deal with race relations in the US–particularly Color Blind published in 1946. During WWII Halsey worked at an interracial canteen. Her books were geared primarily towards white, liberal audiences, challenging them to think about their own prejudices and hypocrisies. In This Demi-Paradise, for instance, Helen calls out hypocrisy within her own church, noting that while the church she attends was the first in their area to welcome middle-class Black members, at the time even the, “most enlightened people got pink in the face when asked how they would like their daughters to marry” a Black churchgoer. Helen quips that the only way one can tell that their church is liberal is by the “bad hats” that the women wear.
Would Marilyn Monroe have been receptive to the theme of liberal hypocrisy when it comes to racial injustice in This Demi-Paradise? I’d like to think so. There is a famous story about how she helped Ella Fitzgerald’s career by telling the owner of the Mocambo nightclub that she would attend ever night that the jazz singer performed. Ella Fitzgerald was booked, and Marilyn Monroe kept her promise. This book, along with Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and a compilation of essays edited by Sylvestre C. Watkins (which includes works by Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes) suggest that Marilyn Monroe was passionate about the fight for racial equality and receptive to learning more about it. While we may never know if she read the book or what she thought of it, she was not afraid to use her position to stand up for what she thought was right–whether it was assisting Ella Fitzgerald or standing up to McCarthy.
The wry sense of humor in This Demi-Paradise is at times overshadowed by the abundant (and at times overwrought) use of Classical references (and I say this as someone with an M.A. in Classical Philology and a PhD focus in Ancient History). I think the intent is to make Helen and her husband appear well educated and smart, but the result is that they also seem snobby. This was, no doubt, part of Margaret Halsey’s humor–using grand and ancient metaphors to describe something as mundane as selling Girl Scout cookies is comical. I also do think Marilyn Monroe would have understood many of these Classical references–after all, she owned a copy of Mythology by Edith Hamilton (not to mention a number of ancient works).
Would Marilyn Monroe have enjoyed reading this book? In part, it made fun of a life that she never enjoyed. She did not like being a stay-at-home wife in her first marriage, and her issues with Joe DiMaggio centered around her desire for a career. However, she did want to have children, and some of her books suggest that she wanted to make a nice home for herself. Ultimately, I think this book would have served as a sort of escapism for Marilyn Monroe, a glimpse into what might have been (the good and the comically mundane) had she never left her first husband and sought out a career.