The display cases in New York's Museum of the Moving Image are crowded with manifest nostalgia: paper dolls, lunch boxes, the Ben Casey M.D. board game. And in one corner, amid a trio of unassuming but unexpected books: Ginger Rogers and The Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak.
Ginger isn't alone. From 1942 to 1947, Whitman's Authorized Editions published 16 young adult mysteries starring a real-life actress. Each book carried a disclaimer about this "original story" with a "famous motion picture star as the heroine," both reinforcing and confusing the the heroine's identity — who are we reading about, really? In Gene Tierney and the Invisible Wedding Gift, "Gene Tierney" is an actress making USO rounds; in The Scarlet Cloak, "Ginger Rogers" is a hotel telephone operator, the sort of vaguely-independent job girls of the day might dream of. (A little independence was ideal, actually, given the occasional streak of feminist bristle in these books: "Gene Tierney made no reply other than a quick nod and what she hoped was an appreciative smile. She was tired of smiling, tired of saying 'Oh, is that right? How nice! How interesting!'")
Originally, my plan was to enjoy the sublime and the ridiculous involved, since there's plenty of both to go around. (Everyone in Gene Tierney's vicinity is terrified of an invisible clock. It's in the villain's pocket; it takes 200 pages to figure that out.) Behind the scenes, things are even stranger: Ginger Rogers' novel was written by her real-life mother. The books are a fascinating glimpse of fan culture in the age of the studio, when every movie star was less a person than a story being negotiated with audiences — in real life, Ginger Rogers and her mother were raging conservatives and staunch supporters of the Hollywood blacklist; her fans wanted to see her as a clear-cut patriot, and so that's what they got.
And yet, reading these books in November, it's hard not to think about their purpose in their own time, as candy-colored calls to action. Most of these books, despite their Gothic overtones, are wartime stories. There's a level of derring-do in the earlier books — and a decline in the post-war ones — that reminds us how pop culture can be pointed, and the kinds of stories we want it to tell. Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx came out in 1943, and in it she busts a cult with an attitude that's downright hard-boiled: "You try jumping off a burning sphinx into a mystic pool," she mutters as someone tuts over her injuries. She's a wartime gal — clever, take-charge, and too busy for romance. The later novels, seemingly deliberately, rein in the stakes; in Gene Tierney's 1947 book, published when America was desperate to get women back to domesticity, Tierney's stuck with a supernatural family affair.
The obvious example of wartime narratives in these books is Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak, which doesn't come with a 45 of "There's a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere" to play in the background as you read, but might as well. Ginger, phone operator at a swanky West Coast hotel, accidentally facilitates the attack on Pearl Harbor thanks to a ham-handed, eyebrow-raising conversation with a guest about his "Japanese butler." The book sidesteps this moment entirely; instead, after America mobilizes, Ginger gets embroiled in international espionage and foils a spy ring trying to steal American engineering. Eventually the FBI informally recruits Ginger, and she smokes out the bad guys with gusto.
Though several of the books make clear that good women Do Their Part, The Scarlet Cloak forefronts war as both an overwhelming upheaval and a moral imperative. When the hotel's owner announces it will be converted to barracks, the message is clear:
"Bravo, Bravo!" came from the throat of Giuseppe, the Italian maitre-d'hotel.
"Magnifique!" exclaimed Gaston, the French chef with empathetic gestures.
"Vonderful!" cried Adolph, the German pastry cook.
"That's fine!" "Hurray!" "A swell idea!" were the words of Americans who were born here. But they were no more enthusiastic than those who were America's adopted children.
But reading these books in November, that united public tide of resistance against the oncoming dark has yet to rise; the wave of staunch supporters our heroine can count on have yet to appear. Reading these books now, the postwar fatigue hits harder. Plucky Ginger Rogers seems far away; Gene Tierney, exhausted from her ordeal, creeps up on us instead. "When you're so worn out," she muses at her darkest hour, "nothing much matters."
What lingers after reading the Authorized Editions now is the power of popular culture to direct public opinion. Sure, there's some novelty value in a Ginger Rogers mystery novel, but there's also novelty value in a Ginger Rogers paper doll. The appeal of the Authorized Editions was putting a marquee star in a real-life situation (for values of "real life" that include spy rings) and watching them struggle against forces that seemed impossible, even supernatural. The setups were often Gothic, verging on the supernatural, and our heroines' first victories were always the moment they understood their villains were the everyday sort. And underneath the over-the-top plot mechanics, these heroines asked questions that were vital to young readers facing an uncertain world: Who do I trust? How do I do what's right? Can the enemy be vanquished? How can I help?
From this distance, we see pop culture's fickleness at work; the Authorized Editions have become a museum novelty, proto-merchandising from a time when movie stars were their own marketing tie-ins. But even books that don't stand the test of time are testaments about why they were written. If a parallel-universe Ginger Rogers sits at her telephone switchboard and faces questions that can be so hard to ask in volatile times, maybe they did what they were meant to do.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.