Brides and Booze: The Alcoholic Wife in Mid-Century Pulp Fiction

“How should he handle his alcoholic wife,” asks the lurid cover of the 1960 novel Alcoholic Wife by G.G. Revelle. “Beat her? Cater to her inflamed desires? Overlook her drunken intimacies with other men? Desert her for his seductive mistress?” With a retail price of 35 cents, the volume helpfully included a list of other Beacon Book titles that readers might enjoy, such as Footloose Fraulein and Trailer Tramp. Yet Alcoholic Wife was not just entertainment, but an examination of a growing social crisis, as the back cover promised: “This novel courageously tackles the problem of the drinking wife—today more common than ever before!”

Cover of novel Alcoholic Wife
Cover of novel Alcoholic Wife

Mark and Fay Daniels live with their young daughter Susan in a split-level home near the chemical plant where Mark works. Mark serves as the first-person narrator of the story, explaining that he met Fay while stationed in Great Britain during World War II and married after a whirlwind courtship. Now, Mark debates whether to run for union president at the plant, while Fay spends extravagantly on clothes and furniture as part of her social climbing strategy, drinks heavily, and neglects the housework and their daughter. Eager for the salary supplement that comes with the union position, Fay promises to stop drinking if Mark will stand for election. Meanwhile, Mark has an affair with Marsha, an attractive secretary at the plant, who has admired him from afar since his days as a high school football hero.

Although all the characters drink heavily, Fay stands out, and her reputation complicates Mark’s union candidacy. Other workers doubt his motives, with one asserting that Mark only wants the position for the money: “everyone knows he has a slut for a wife. The job is to keep her in whiskey.” Readers can appreciate the irony of this accusation, since Mark decided to run only when Fay promised she would stop drinking. Significantly too, the term “slut” combines charges of alcoholic and sexual excess. Fay is a beautiful woman who uses her allure to try to manipulate Mark, but so far she has not engaged in any obvious extra-marital dalliance—although Mark has. Yet even a co-worker who is on Mark’s side points out that Fay’s behavior costs Mark, undercutting his masculinity and raising doubts about his ability to stand up to management. “You have a wife who’s wearing you down,” the friend explains, “and you aren’t fighting it.”

In conversations with the sympathetic Marsha and his own ruminations, Mark tries to understand Fay’s drinking. He believes that Fay is disappointed that their domestic life lacks the excitement of their time in London, and that his income at the plant is more modest than she imagined when he was a glamorous officer. Yet when Marsha presses him, insisting that “there has to be a reason,” Mark refuses to assign meaning, deferring instead to professional authority: “How should I know? I’m not a psychiatrist!” Despite this invocation of medical expertise, Fay never seeks any kind of treatment, nor does Mark advise her to do so. Marsha explains to Mark that she knows that drinking can serve as an escape, one that she used after her boyfriend was killed in Korea, but she does not speculate on why she ultimately controlled her drinking and Fay cannot. Even as she represents the counterpoint to Fay for Mark, then, Marsha is not an innocent abstainer but a modern woman who partakes of both alcohol and sex. This juxtaposition suggests that it is no longer just the behaviors themselves, but also such intangible factors as psychological motivation and intent, that separate good and bad women.

Events accelerate in the last few chapters. Fay does not keep her promise to stop, in fact escalating her drinking, spending, and scheming. Despite the negative comments about his wife and a rumor that Marsha is pregnant as a result of their affair, Mark wins the election. Realizing that their relationship has no future because Mark will not leave his daughter Susan, Marsha breaks it off, devastating him. Fay continues to cultivate the Andersons, a wealthy local couple, in the hope that Mr. Anderson will offer Mark a job. Although Mark initially resists, he goes along with the plan when Fay says that if he makes more money, he can have custody of Susan in a divorce. Her willingness to barter the child, of course, only provides further evidence of her unfitness as a mother.

In the final section, Mark and Fay attend a party at the Andersons’ home, where Mark once again sacrifices his pride and manhood by letting Mr. Anderson win at billiards. Mark’s reward is a job offer. Now very drunk, Fay flirts with other businessmen at the party before she and Mark retire to a guest room, having arranged for Susan to stay with a neighbor. In the morning, Mr. Anderson retracts the job offer, explaining that he found Fay wandering the halls during the night, naked. “We all drink, some of us excessively,” he tells Mark, “but in the solitude of our choice. Mrs. Daniels is chronic.” For the first time, Mark insists he will take her to a doctor, but Mr. Anderson says not to bother, remarking that Mark is not aggressive enough for the position after all. Mark reflects, “Fay drank because she didn’t have what she wanted. And when she did get it, drink took it all away.”

The couple returns home to find that the neighbor’s home has burned to the ground, and they presume Susan has perished. Deciding to leave Fay, Mark goes to their home to pack a few clothes. To his great relief, he finds Susan hiding there. He takes her with him, threatening to kill Fay if she contests custody, and departs for a reunion with Marsha.

The themes in this novel resonate with other popular media sources and with professional literature about alcoholic women at mid century: that women’s drinking is intertwined with excessive sexuality, lack of maternal feeling, and the capacity to undercut husbands’ masculinity. The conventions of this genre, including sensationalizing and melodrama, only reinforce the claim that alcoholic wives represent a growing social problem, a flash point in the complicated readjustment to post-war domesticity.

3 thoughts on “Brides and Booze: The Alcoholic Wife in Mid-Century Pulp Fiction

  1. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Michelle McClellan’s post at the Points blog reminds me of the Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick classic movie Days of Wine and Roses (1962). In the film, Jack Lemmon’s character, a hard drinking PR man (think Don Draper), falls in love with a women and transforms her into an alcoholic. Ultimately, Lemmon’s character saves himself, but Remick’s descent continues unabated. The themes highlighted in McClellan’s piece are also present in the movie. While the Alcoholic Wife may have been a trashy piece of pulp fiction, Days of Wine and Roses was an academy award nominated prestige film.

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