Jaffe calls her novels 'fun books' with serious undercurrents


July 07, 1991|By New York Times News Service

Rona Jaffe admits that she writes "totally light fun books" -- but she also claims that they have some "seriousness" to them.

"I like sociological things, writing about changes we're going through in life and relationships. I write a book when I want to know why," says the 58-year-old author, whose latest book, "An American Love Story," has just been released by Dell Paperbacks.

To say Ms. Jaffe's questions have wide interest would be an understatement. Worldwide, there are 23 million copies of her 12 books in print.

Success came early to Ms. Jaffe, who graduated at 19 with a bachelor's degree in English from Radcliffe College. In 1956, after working for Fawcett Publications, where she rose from secretary to associate editor, her first novel, "The Best of Everything," became a best seller.

"It was about me and my friends, the experiences we had as working girls," said Ms. Jaffe. Set in the 1950s, when "there were a lot of lies about women's sexuality and what really went on in the workplace," the book aroused wide attention.

"Young women," she recalled, much to her surprise, "told me they'd come to New York in search of careers and husbands because they'd read the book and found what I'd depicted glamorous."

In 1959 "The Best of Everything" was made into a movie of the same name, starring Joan Crawford as a "harpy" boss. In the '50s, "that's what we were told would happen to us if we didn't get married," said Ms. Jaffe, who has remained unwed.

If any angst has resulted, Ms. Jaffe has channeled it into a wicked soul-baring sense of humor, and her books.

"It exorcises a broken heart when you write about it," she said. "Or if you're mad at somebody, years later you can put him in a book as a character. Rotten people love it when they're in a book. They don't think they're awful. They want their friends to know it's them."

In "An American Love Story," Ms. Jaffe explores the relationships over 40 years of four women to a self-centered man, Clay Bowen, a charismatic television producer. Clay deceives every woman in his life, from his wife to his first and second mistresses.

The novel, Ms. Jaffe said, was a result of two questions: What would make a man behave so badly and why stay with him? Because we all do that," Ms. Jaffe said, referring to friends, acquaintances and herself.

Clay's self-aggrandizement never ceases, even when it is at the expense of the women's self-esteem and happiness. Ms. Jaffe said many women choosing to stay in unsatisfying relationships had taken to heart the adage, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't."

To assuage her pain, Clay's wife, Laura, a former prima ballerina, turns to drugs and alcohol. To earn her father's love, his daughter, Nina, struggles to be perfect.

And Susan, the talented free-lance journalist who is Clay's longtime lover, lets emotions overrule her business sense whenever Clay becomes involved in her projects.

The women are neither unintelligent nor unsuccessful. "Women who are strong in their business lives often practice an enormous amount of self-deception in their personal ones," Ms. Jaffe said. "Beneath the surface, successful women are just as insecure, just as mixed up as those who aren't successful. Inside they have doubts about themselves."

Even when Clay is on shaky ground, he bamboozles Bambi, whose own hunger for power, for being special, matches his.

"To some people, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," the author said, "because the people who have it call the shots. Look at some of these men. I have to tell you, they're really repulsive. But they can really have anybody they want.

"Look at those pictures of couples at parties in the Hamptons. If those men weren't powerful, women would just laugh at them instead of vying for their attention."

Ms. Jaffe said she loved writing about the daughter, Nina. An only child herself, Ms. Jaffe said she had "always wanted to marry a man who already had children who were around 9 or 10."

"Then the mother could be blamed when they grew up and went to a psychiatrist," Ms. Jaffe said. "They wouldn't blame me."

Five years ago, Ms. Jaffe's 17-year relationship with "a wonderful man ended for many reasons." She has remained "very good friends" with his children, "and I'm very happy about that."

But she is not thrilled about finding herself dating. "I hate it," she said.

Ms. Jaffe advises women about relationships: "Watch how he treats his mother, his child, his dog, the people in his little satellite who are emotionally dependent on him. Not his friends, because sometimes he's nicer to them than to you.

"And if you're going out with a guy who's divorcing, watch how mean he is to his ex-wife-to-be. Because someday he might be that mean to you."

Asked whether the men in "An American Love Story" represent men today, Ms. Jaffe said, "A lot of them are flaky, but this is a tough city."

She said she preferred men she had met in Los Angeles, where she will work on her first screenplay in the summer.

"In L.A., there are certainly those men we always hear about," Ms. Jaffe said. "Big shots who just want armpieces, beautiful young girls named Tiffany, and keep getting married. But there are a lot of intelligent writers in L.A. who love, respect and are attracted to intelligent women, to women who are older than they."

At one time Ms. Jaffe wanted to be an actress. She studied from 1960 to 1966 with Lee Strasberg at the Actors' Studio. Fellow students included Marilyn Monroe, Shelly Winters, Anne Bancroft and Paul Newman.

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