"Unfaithful to Both"
Romance and the Portrayal of Women in the Pulps
The romance pulps were home to melodrama of the highest order. Issue after issue, they presented stories of infidelity, near-infidelity and neglect of spousal duties. The plots varied, but the outcome was always the same: remorse, redemption and a second chance at love.
In most cases, the drama was caused by human weakness -- and the fault lay with the woman.
Magazines such as Daring Confessions betrayed this ethic of self-blame even in the titles of its stories. Its female protagonists proclaimed "I Paid for My Folly"; declared themselves "A Failure with Men"; lamented "I Didn't Trust Him Enough"; admitted "I Was a Counterfeit Wife"; and vowed "I'll Never Fail Him Again."
The narrator of "I Failed My Husband" had a cautionary lesson to share with the magazine's readers. When her relationship with her husband is jeopardized by her meddling stepmother, she seeks solace outside her marriage, but her frailty leads only to heartbreak: "In my despair I turned to the arms of another man only to learn, much later, that every woman who fails her husband must pay the penalty for her sin" (Daring Confessions, 1943, p. 5).
These stories were written at a time when, as Carolyn Strange and Tina Loo report (2004, p. 45), the "Depression had forced many to put off plans for marriage. Then Canada joined Britain in the Second World War, forcing women to wave goodbye to their sweethearts." Many women were also experiencing newfound freedoms and independence as they took over jobs vacated by men who had left to fight overseas. The stories in the romance pulps served to caution them against exercising those freedoms to too great an extent, and to remind them of the joys of dependence on men. In the true crime pulps this puritanical streak was even more pronounced, and writers explored the tragic results of extramarital affairs and passionate liaisons that invariably ended in the murder of one partner and the incarceration or execution of the other (Strange and Loo 2004, p. 47).
Many of the romance pulps, Private Love Affairs, Private Confessions, Personal Confessions and Worldly Confession among them, featured photographic covers -- typically of Paramount Pictures stars and contract actors, whose pictures were readily available. Photographs were also used to illustrate the interior stories, but were explicitly not meant to represent the actual people behind the narratives. All the photographs were labeled with the parenthetical comment, "specially posed."
Since the romance pulps' tales were presented as true stories and confessions, readers accepted photos of models without complaint. One could hardly hope to have access to candid snapshots of someone's real life, especially ones as dramatic as those of the protagonists of such stories as "My Husband was a Love-Thief," "I Traded Love for Fame," "I Was the Other Woman," "My Sister Stole My Love" and "I Was a Second Choice Wife." This camouflage of "specially posed" models helped give the magazines an illicit thrill -- as if readers were overhearing the shameful secrets of someone they would never have to face.
A veil of anonymity likewise shrouded the authors of the romance pulps. In titles such as Private Confessions and Private Love Affairs, most of the stories were unsigned, first-person accounts. While the narrators were women, the lack of attribution to an actual author casts doubt on the gender of the writers.
For the readers, this would scarcely have been an issue. As far as they were concerned, they were reading true confessions. Given the heartbreaking content of many of these stories, it is easy to imagine that readers would have forgiven the author's desire to remain anonymous.
However, the manuscript of a story entitled "They Pay to Paw Me" (run in the October 1942 issue of True Life) reveals that at least some of the stories, if not the majority of them, were written by men appropriating a female voice. A frank, cynical, even sarcastic depiction of the life of a philosophy-major-turned-nightclub-hostess, "They Pay to Paw Me" was written by one W.T. Brannon, under the pseudonym "Mollie Courtney" (Brannon's manuscript actually uses the pseudonym "Mollie Sims," but an editor's notation has changed it to "Courtney"). In reality, W.T. Brannon was William Tibbets Brannon, a well-known writer of crime and true-crime pulps, and later of true-crime books. 1
In an industry as male-dominated (and as prone to pen names) as the pulps, it should come as little surprise that women's stories were in fact written by men. One can't help wondering, however, if the protagonists might have learned different, and less repressive, lessons had there in fact been women behind the typewriters.
But if the romance pulps devoted much of their energy to looking inward to find blame, their counterparts, the bachelor's magazines, put much of their effort into looking outward.
1. Some of Brannon's books are still in print, including Con Man: A Master Swindler's Own Story, part of Broadway Books' Library of Larceny series.
"I Failed My Husband." Daring Confessions. Vol. 1, no. 5 (January 1943).
Strange, Carolyn, and Tina Loo. True Crime, True North: the Golden Age of Canadian Pulp Magazines. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2004.