From “Pamela Moore + 40” by Robert Nedelkoff
The Baffler Magazine , Issue 10, 1997
Chocolates For Breakfast, as noted, begins with the protagonist, Courtney Farrell — described as a “slim, dark-haired girl of fifteen” with “green, large, rebellious eyes” — sitting in her dormitory at the exclusive, all-female Scaisbrooke Hall, arguing with her equally rebellious, pre-debutante friend, Janet Parker, over whether her crush on her English teacher, Miss Rosen, is developing into something beyond a schoolgirl infatuation. Janet, while discussing Courtney’s dilemma, eats a banana; a later chapter, in which Courtney visits a psychiatrist under the school’s auspices, features enough Freudian jargon to establish that the symbolism is conscious and that Pamela Moore understood earlier than some of her contemporaries the inadequacies of orthodox Freudianism to explain the inner world of women.
Courtney is unable to interact very well with any of her teachers except Miss Rosen, who informs her that they can no longer see that much of each other anymore; this well-handled scene was probably what later earned the novel a positive citation in a leading bibliography of lesbian-themed fiction. Nor does Courtney get along with any of her fellow students save Janet. The reason is simple: Courtney, the daughter of divorced parents, does not come from the well-heeled background of her peers. Her father, who is “in publishing,” is a nebulous and ineffectual-seeming character, none too definite a presence in the book. Her mother, Sondra, with whom Courtney lives, is a once-popular movie actress now a bit on the skids. Courtney’s classmates are interested in her only to the extent that she has gossip to relay about Cary Grant or Tyrone Power. And after a trip to the shrink, the school sends her home for the summer, “home” being her mother’s apartment at the Garden of Allah on the Sunset Strip, in what is now West Hollywood. All of this action, like that of her later book The Horsy Set, is set in 1953: the Korean War has just ended, Eisenhower is in the Oval Office, Stalin has just died, and Joe McCarthy’s significance has just peaked.
The chapters detailing life at the Garden, and at the small apartment in a declasse section of Beverly Hills to which Courtney and her mother move after Sondra’s finances no longer permit the hotel, are the most observant and entertaining in the book, though the subject matter itself is downbeat. Here Courtney meets Barry Cabot, a friend of her mother’s and a onetime bobbysoxers’ favorite now debilitated by alcohol and shame about his bisexuality. Courtney immediately takes a shine to Barry, but the consummation of their relationship must wait until after she’s sixteen, by which time she’s enrolled at Beverly Hills High and has discovered that she has even less in common with the forebears of Dylan, Brenda and Donna than she did with the finishing-school crowd.
So Courtney goes to Schwab’s Drugstore, her old spot for trysts with Barry, where she finds the actor and decides there are now no obstacles to….
Love. She had not known what it would be, and she would never live without it again. She had not known that she would know so much about love, the first time…she could never see life as what she had seen it before, life with an entire sphere dimly seen.
Before the reader clucks at the evident influence of Pamela’s mother’s Redbook stories on her literary style, it should be noted that the passage — and the book itself — is still struggling with the mores of the prefeminist era. Whenever Courtney becomes really dissatisfied with the world around her, she thinks to herself that she wouldn’t have these problems if she were a man – which may explain her male name. She thinks of her mother’s career as an actress, for example, not as an achievement, but as training acquired in Sondra’s youth not so much to build a career as to land a rich husband, and which is now to be used only because things didn’t work out with the husband. The novel itself proceeds to lead Courtney almost ironically towards the same dilemma: Can she or can she not acquire an affluent, ambitious husband? Pamela Moore is writing a Bildungsroman in a familiar tradition, but where a male protagonist would “find himself,” Courtney ends up finding someone in whom she can subsume her identity — a familiar convention in romance fiction as it has developed from Jane Eyre, but disturbing to encounter in a book otherwise the product of a fairly powerful individual sensibility.
But, before all this comes to pass, the book’s second part closes with Courtney’s attempted suicide, her affair with Barry frustrated by the reappearance of his male lover, a charcter whose sympathetic portrayal contrasts with the homophobia with which male authors of the period — even one of the stature of William Gaddis (as The Recognitions‘ party scenes show) — would have treated him. Following a stay in a sanitarium (not depicted in the book), Courtney and her mother move back to New York, where Sondra pursues TV work and Courtney renews her friendship with Janet Parker, now expelled from Scaisbrooke and living with her father, an alcoholic Wall Street broker.
The daily routine of the two friends consists of endless evenings at the Stork Club, referred to as “the Bird;” at one point, a character suggests P.J. Clarke’s as an alternative hangout. Janet and Courtney also crash parties on Long Island, in the company of lads recently suspended from Harvard or Yale for drinking or violating curfew. Before long, Courtney is introduced to an old flame of Janet’s, Anthony Neville, a world-weary product of Boston Brahminism and old Italian aristocracy who affects a rather different persona from that of the fallen Ivy Leaguers:
“I’ve been writing a story,” [Anthony] announced. “It’s about two Lesbians who are married by a homosexual priest-” He paused and looked at Courtney. “You’re Catholic, of course.” She nodded. “-by a homosexual priest in a terribly floral ceremony in Switzerland. Up to this point they have been living quite happily in sin, but now their idyll has been destroyed….”
Pamela uses this touch of decadent Europe in the same manner as Henry James in his early works: to provide a foil for the clean-cut, upright American who will soon show up and do what the enervated preppies (all far more interested in drinking than sex) are unable to do. After Anthony has spirited Courtney to places like Chambord and the Hotel Pierre and told her precious parables about how she has lifted his blague, the responsible life appears in the form of Charles Cunningham, a Boston lawyer’s son who lost his allowance when he was suspended from Yale for drunkenness. Unlike the others in Courtney’s crowd, he has picked himself up, gone back to Yale, worked his way through by ghosting study outlines, and is now at Harvard Law School. He sternly lectures Courtney on the importance of sobering up and getting serious about things, but she is not inclined to listen until one fateful day when Janet Parker has a nasty argument with her substance-dependent father. (Indeed, virtually every character in this book would be considered an alcoholic by current standards, but Mr. Parker stands out because “he no longer cared for the niceties of companionship or ice in his bourbon.”) And then:
[He] set down his drink and walked across the living room to her. His eyes were cold and totally without emotion. For the first time in her life, Janet was afraid of her father. She held her ground, refusing to move as he came up to her. Coldly, with the full force of his body, he slapped her…He fell upon her and forced her onto the couch and lay above her as a lover might, and she was terrified. This was too strange and too strong for her, her father lying on her body in control of her…As her body went limp in his arms he rose and walked over to the window. Thank God, she thought. Thank God he got up. He leaned against the window sill in shame and hatred of himself and buried his face in his hands. The intermittent and lonely sounds of the taxi horns and a train leaving Grand Central deep beneath the street rose to the window from Park Avenue. Dazed, Janet got up and ran into her room, locked both doors.
Janet puts on Stan Kenton’s “Capitol Punishment,” goes to the window, and jumps. It is worth noting that scenes depicting father-daughter incest were incommon during this time in American fiction, except as something that occasionally happened among the lower classes. Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night and William Styron’s Lie Down In Darkness, the most notable exceptions, may have been in Pamela Moore’s mind when she wrote this.
Courtney reads of Janet’s death in the Times the following morning, and goes into seclusion for weeks, refusing to speak to Anthony or Charles when they call. But, finally, it comes time for her to meet Anthony for cocktails at the Plaza; to hear him out as he acknowledges that she has outgrown his act; and to proceed to Sardi’s for dinner with her reconciled parents and the young, virile Cunningham. She is now ready to put in the requisite two years of college before dropping out to get hitched after Charles passes the bar. The tame ending was obviously tacked on to please the reviewers and pacify parents who otherwise would have been mortified with the heroine’s escapades. But Pamela was not interested in repeating this formula.