Shortly before Rona Jaffe’s death in 2005, she wrote the foreword for a reissue of her first novel, the bestselling The Best of Everything. In the foreword, Jaffe described a different time, a time when sex and relationships were not discussed in straightforward terms, the Mad Men-era of married cads and the career girls at their mercy. She explained how she learned through interviews of 50 young women, all New Yorkers, that the era was, in fact, a time of sexual revolution, a revolution that was being politely ignored.
Jaffe wrote the groundbreaking novel when a famous Hollywood producer (who happened to be visiting the Simon & Schuster office where her friend worked as a secretary) mentioned that he was searching for a book about young women living in New York. A jobless 20-something living in the city, Jaffe considered herself particularly well positioned to write the book, and began to conduct her research. In her writing, she remained steadfast to the truth of the time: the women in her story were struggling for their place in the world, cultivating the dreams that marked them as strange and different from their married former classmates, entering the world of relationships and their complications, of sex and its consequences.
The characters in Jaffe’s novel are varied examples, a round table of personalities: Caroline, the jilted bride; April, the country girl who wants desperately to be a real New Yorker; Gregg, the budding actress with a weak spot for a charming director; and Barbara, the single mother considering an affair with a married man. The four women navigate their lives, their intertwined stories frequently touching upon topics seldom discussed at the time. Abortion, affairs, the wrongs done to them by the men in their offices and on the city’s streets, suicide, and self-exploration are among the more salacious details of their trials, peppered among descriptions of late night cocktails and games of tennis, the purchase of new pocketbooks and gossip sessions at the lunch counter.
Each of these taboo topics have also been addressed in later works by women, who can be said to have benefited from at least some of Jaffe’s influence. Novels such as Mary McCarthy’s The Group and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, both released five years later, followed the trail blazed by Jaffe in speaking openly on these subjects, and on women’s struggles to achieve and maintain the lives they wanted in the face of their trials. Decades later, these same themes would be recreated with Candace Bushnell’s, Sex and the City, and its widely popular HBO show, followed by Girls, Lena Dunham’s ode to four young millennial women living and working in New York.
What is perhaps most evident in the books and television shows following the model of Jaffe’s novel is the underlying theme of ambition. The women portrayed in Jaffe’s book each come to New York in search of something, each smolders with a different imagined goal for herself. Caroline, the book’s opening and closing focus, its Carrie Bradshaw, wants to be a success in publishing. Her ambition is treated in a variety of ways: first, as a threat to another woman at the publishing company where she gets her foot in the door, and then, as a sort of anomaly, a quality that causes people to cock their heads and wonder aloud at it at cocktail parties, as if she is a small dog in a party hat. “My, you’re so ambitious!” they exclaim, pointing out the assumption of the time that Caroline, and women like her, were few and far between.
Upon its re-release, Jaffe confessed that she intended the book to serve as “a cautionary tale,” pulling back the curtain from the fun, the cocktail parties, the clothes, and the exhilarating attentions of attractive cads, to reveal a dark truth: that for women, the only safe route was marriage. Time has proven Jaffe’s hypothesis to be flawed, proof that has been reflected in the myriad stories of young female New Yorkers for which Jaffe’s book opened the door. In an episode of Mad Men, Don Draper lounges in bed and reads Jaffe’s novel, presumably flipping through his wife’s copy, skimming the passages of a book described as “shocking” by the reviewers of his time. Later, as Don enjoys several drinks in a dark Manhattan bar, soaking in his own genius and depression, Joan Holloway is busy being the symbol of so many of the women who would come after her: she is working, being productive, ascending the corporate ladder. When last we see her, she chooses her own business over a relationship. Joan, like the characters written by Jaffe, McCarthy, Plath, Bushnell, and Dunham, proves that she, and only she, will decide what is acceptable for her ambitions and desires.
Jaffe’s work and the works it doubtlessly inspired share many similarities, and each echoes the same once-revolutionary story: women living unapologetically as the city swirls around them, the backdrop for their triumphs, their failures, and the moments of humor and tragedy that unite them eternally with what it means to be young, female, and reaching for something better.