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ROSE SAW BARBIE watching her with wise, curious eyes. Barbie’s blonde hair was unkempt and fell in strings about a sallow face with thick, sensuous lips. There was an almost unnatural pallor on her cheeks, and Rose could see she wore no make-up. She sat smoking, dressed in a green silk slip, ripped under one armpit. She touched Rose’s arm.

“Ever been hungry?”

“Sure.”

“How hungry?”

“Hungry enough to eat a bear,” Rose laughed.

“Ever been hungry enough to kill a bear?”

“No, I guess not."

“Then you don’t know what I’m talking about. Don’t go hungry,” Barbie advised. “It’s not worth it. I can put you in a way of making a little money. Not too hard work, either, and no whoring -"

“What kind of work?” Rose asked.

“No use bothering about that,” Barbie answered curtly. “Not now at any rate. Wait until you’re hungry, then come and see me...”

“Val Lewton is one of the great, relatively unsung heroes of film history, and the wonderfully inventive, beautifully poetic and deeply unsettling films he made as a producer at RKO are some of the greatest treasures we have. For film lovers, the reissue of Lewton’s Depression-era novel No Bed of Her Own, written before Lewton had gotten a foothold in the film industry, is a major event. It also happens to be a sharp, incisive novel of the Depression, as carefully detailed as Lewton’s films.”

                                  ~ Martin Scorsese 

 

As a film-maker, Val Lewton is recognised as one of greatest talents Hollywood has seen. Best remembered for his magnificent horror films, most famously Cat People, Lewton’s cult of fans has included everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Martin Scorsese.

Before movies, however, Lewton was a prolific novelist, blasting out books for the 1930s pulp market. This racy, fantastically readable noir-tinged tale was his favourite of his own books. Set in 1931, No Bed of Her Own is the story of Rose Mahoney, a peppy, hard-boiled New York blonde who loses job and home in the Depression. Cast alone into the dark underbelly of the city, she must try to survive a world of decadence, hypocrisy and greed with only her wits to protect her.

First published in 1932 – the first of the Depression novels - the book has been unavailable for over half a century. No Bed of Her Own was a bestseller in its day, and a sensation thanks to its astonishingly liberal sexual attitudes. When the Paramount film studio snapped up rights to film the book, they discovered they couldn’t get its taboo themes past the censors. On publication in Germany, it was burned under Hitler’s orders. The novel’s sexual frankness remains surprising. But so, too, do its pace, humour and grit, and the cinematic eye and unexpected mind of its author.

A strange and vivid snapshot of its era, it is one of the great rediscoveries of the year
.

    

With films such as The Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie, The Body Snatcher, Bedlam, The Seventh Victim and Isle of the Dead, Lewton created an oeuvre unique in film history. Utilising shadows to disguise the grisly goings-on (always in black and white) and the power of suggestion - never revealing for viewers' eyes the graphic activities we only hear or see reflected on walls or in water - Lewton's terrifying formula set one's imagination stumbling down a street where the light is always hazy, the black not quite black but with an opaqueness that forces the viewer to strain to see more clearly. The effect is like looking through a keyhole and being shocked by a cold fingertip on your neck.

Before Val Lewton made movies, he was a novelist, producing nine more-or-less conventional works, plus one book of pornography, Yasmine (or Grushenskaya). The republication of his Depression-era novel, No Bed of Her Own, originally issued by the Vanguard Press in New York in 1932, gives those of us familiar with Lewton's films an opportunity to experience his long out-of-print efforts at writing fiction; and brings again to light his fascinating work behind the camera.

No Bed of Her Own is a straightforward tale of an out-of-work young woman in New York city during the depths of the great depression; 1931, to be exact. Fired from her job as a stenographer in an office, Rose Mahoney goes from respectable (if somewhat irresponsible) to the lower depths, doing whatever it takes to stay alive, including prostitution. She's not a bad girl, however, and novelist Lewton keeps us aware of her standards. As Lewton's son, Val E Lewton, writes in the preface to the new edition, Rose's "standards, admirably frank and genuine, don't cut it in a world without work. Like Micawber in David Copperfield, Rose keeps expecting that something will turn up."

Written in a style similar to Edward Anderson's Hungry Men or B Traven's The Cotton-Pickers, No Bed of Her Own (titled by Lewton's wife) details Rose's travails step by step down the ladder of degradation. Yes, it's a story of greed and desire, of man's inhumanity to man, a novel with a message (although my guess is that Lewton probably subscribed to the oft-quoted sentiment that if you want to send a message, go to Western Union); after all, the 1930s was a desperate time in America, a period during which many artists and intellectuals joined the Communist party or became fellow travellers. Rose's story ends melodramatically, tragically, but she survives. The reader doesn't know what will happen to her, but Lewton makes us care; that is his triumph.

..It's The Seventh Victim (1943), Lewton's eerie movie about a New York City-based witch cult that seems to me most closely allied to No Bed of Her Own. Here again is the girl adrift, frightened and lost, forced around dark corners, powerless yet somehow brave and daring. In his expert afterword appended to the novel, Damien Love states that the theme of No Bed of Her Own "is the underlying theme of all Lewton's movies from Cat People on; how life can shift a fraction of a degree, shadows come rushing, and people can find themselves slipping into a world whose existence they never suspected".

Val Lewton was not really happy in Hollywood. He was foremost a literary man: in LA he hired John Fante to write scripts and befriended William Faulkner, Thomas Mann and Christopher Isherwood. In the film business he had to move among philistines, creatures antagonistic to those of artistic temperament; but, even though Lewton died young, from a heart attack at the age of 46, in 1951, he was able to articulate his vision to the extent that more than half a century later his work continues to entrance, provoke and beguile.

    - excerpt from a Guardian newspaper feature by Barry Gifford.
Read the full feature here.

 

Some girls do, some girls don't, some girls need a lot of loving and some girls won't. In the bitter winter og 1931 wilful Rose Mahoney loses her typing pool job in a Depression-era downsize and soon finds herself at the mercy of cads, cards and the interminable cold. Val Lewton's novel from 1932 slipped off the radar in the latter part of the 20th Century, which is a shame because it's an absolute gem.

Better known as the head of RKO's horror unit... Lewton wrote this tale witha cleanliness and hardboiled gusto that was being developed at the time by respected purveyors of the craft John Fante, William Faulkner and Dashiell Hammett. This beautiful imprint comes with jacket recommendations by Martin Scorcese, a foreword by Lewton's son and an illuminating afterword by film writer Damien Love.

    - Paul Dale, The List, April 2006

 

Val Lewton is recognised as one of the greatest talents Hollywood has ever seen. A filmaker's filmmaker, he's mostly remembered for his magnificent creepy horror films, such as Cat People and The Leopard Man. But before the movies, Lewton was a prolific novelist, writing primarily for the 1930s pulp market.

No Bed of Her Own is the story of Rose Mahoney; a quick witted New York secretary who loses her job and then her home in the great depression. Forced to fend for herself, her only assets are her physical appearance and her sharp personality. She has a keen sense of her own limitations and morality, but the end results are depressingly inevitable. It's a great read: a page-turner in the truest sense of the word and incredibly well written. So it's little wonder that it was a best seller in its day, probably more so because of its liberal sexual attitudes; with unmarried women spending the night with random men, sometimes for little more reason than human warmth or a hearty meal. In fact, after buying the rights to film the book, Paramount Pictures were unable to sneak it past the censors. Which is a shame because it would have made as startlingly good film as it does a book!

    - Suzy Prince, Nude, Oct. 2006

 

IN the past year, two Hollywood movies have taken us to New York during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, broken-down boxer Russell Crowe manfully begged for money just to keep his malnourished family in the poverty to which they had become accustomed. And before we got anywhere near Skull Island in King Kong, Peter Jackson crafted an extensive (and undoubtedly expensive) scene-setting montage of speakeasys and breadlines, with beggars squatting on Broadway and optimistic starlets flapping about trying to avoid skid row.

Both directors took obvious pride in their period detail. But another film-maker had beaten them to the punch, by over 70 years. Val Lewton – the visionary RKO producer behind Cat People (1942) and a whole host of weird, unsettling horror movies that warped the constraints of the genre – bashed out his novel No Bed Of Her Own while the Depression was still dragging the USA down. At the time, the 27-year-old Lewton was already producing around 50,000 words a week for his day job as an MGM publicist.

First published in 1932, No Bed Of Her Own was a best-selling “hot book” ofthe day. From a certain point of view, it lives up to the come-on title – its hard-up, hard-boiled protagonist Rose goes on a picaresque journey that takes in many of the taboos of that starched time, including sex before marriage, prostitution, inter-racial relationships, lesbianism, pornographic picture books and performances. Its sensationalist content certainly got Hitler steamed up; copies of the book were burned in Germany on his orders. Out of print for 50 years, the sexual content of the novel might seem a little tame to modern readers, some of the frank attitudes on display still carry a jolt.

Rose Mahoney is a pretty, feisty blonde stenographer making her way in New York in 1931, glimpsing the effects of the Depression from the corner of her eye but too caught up in “a life more replete with motion picture theatres, boyfriends and chop suey restaurants” to fully grasp its economic choke hold on the country. When her spirited back-chat gets her fired, she begins looking for another job, initally confident that her film-star looks and peppy personality will help her “connect”. As rent day ominously looms, the reader can already detect the downward gradient of the narrative, perhaps steeling themselves for a spiral of degradation and tragedy. But even as things become increasingly grim, Rose remains a tough cookie, negotiating a series of moral and physical compromises to make ends meet, but never giving up, or giving in.

The YWCA won’t give her a room without a letter from her pastor confirming her morals. “What would a priest know about my morals anyway?” Rose demands. Even some of the charitable soup kitchens come with strings attached – “they want poor people who look like poor people,” she notes, scraping together enough money to get face powder from the ten-cent store. Rose ricochets from encounter to will-sapping encounter, a whistlestop tour of New York’s seamy underbelly.
Powered by her defiance, the 20 chapters zip by, though they’re packed with incident, vividly but economically sketched in Lewton’s clipped style – his eye zeroes in on everything from a curious performing bear in a photographer’s waiting room to a hotel-room Gideon Bible absent-mindedly scribbled with girls’ phone numbers. As a snapshot of the time, it’s rich with intriguing details. As a pacy page-turner, it propels the reader relentlessly towards its ambiguous conclusion.

No Bed Of Her Own was apparently Lewton’s favourite of the nine novels (and two pornographic titles) he penned in his mid-20s, before he moved from movie publicity into production. In the years since his death in 1951, his short but prolific film career has been re-evaluated and justly celebrated. This timely reissue shines a little more light on what made this particular whirlwind spin.

    - Graeme Virtue, Glasgow Herald, April 2006


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