Friday, July 30, 2010

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Other Girl,” by Theodora Keogh

(Editor’s note: This is the 102nd installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection has been made by Steven Powell, an editor of the forthcoming Conversations with James Ellroy [a volume of UMISS Press Literary Conversations Series], and the 2012 non-fiction release 100 American Crime Writers. He is studying for a Ph.D. on the fiction of James Ellroy at Britains University of Liverpool, and blogs about crime fiction in The Venetian Vase.)

Some books defy genre and subgenre labels. Theodora Keogh’s novel about Los Angeles’ 1947 Black Dahlia murder, The Other Girl (1962), is one such work. It could be read as a psychological suspense novel or as lesbian pulp fiction. It has the jet-black philosophy of hard-boiled crime fiction but the elegant prose of a Golden Age detective story. It is impossible to categorize the novel as being definitively of any one of these subgenres, as it would be a reductive to a novel that so seamlessly interweaves many styles, and ultimately leaves the impression that Keogh regarded herself as above crime fiction. It is telling, then, that The Other Girl would be Keogh’s final novel: her work would soon be out of print, and all critical interest would fade.

When news reached the blogosphere of the passing of Theodora Keogh on January 5, 2008, it generated a wave of speculation, debate and a renewed interest in her work as a novelist. Who was this woman? Why are all of her novels out of print? The Daily Telegraph published the only comprehensive obituary of Keogh, and it was through the Telegraph that I, like many crime-fiction readers, first heard her name. Keogh had led a fascinating life, which alone could provide material for a dozen novels. Born in New York in 1919, the granddaughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, Keogh was educated in Manhattan and Munich, worked as a dancer in Canada and South America, and designed costumes for films such as The Pirate (1948) and Daddy Long Legs (1955), amongst many other triumphs and disasters.

By comparison, her literary career, although influential, formed a relatively minor part of her life. Keogh published nine novels between 1950 and 1962. It was her last book, The Other Girl--a fictionalization of the murder of Elizabeth Short, aka The Black Dahlia--that took me by surprise. I thought I had read every Dahlia book out there, both fact and fiction. Around the time I heard about Keogh’s novel, I was conducting a series of phone interviews with James Ellroy, author of The Black Dahlia (1987). Had he read The Other Girl? Ellroy informed me that he had neither read nor heard of the book, or of Keogh. Now my curiosity had got me hooked. I purchased a second-hand copy over the Internet and sat down to read the novel. Although I had built up my expectations, I was not disappointed. I read The Other Girl in a single setting, and instantly came to regard it as a classic of the same stature as John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions (1977) and Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia.

Although in Dunne’s and Ellroy’s novels Elizabeth Short is not so much a character as a ghost, haunting the lives of those trying to solve her brutal murder (in True Confessions, Miss Short was renamed Lois Fazenda, “the Virgin Tramp”), in The Other Girl she is a character, referred to quite simply as Betty. Betty is just one of a cast of oddballs and eccentrics whom Keogh weaves around Los Angeles’ most infamous and gruesome unsolved crime. The novel’s main focus is on Marge Vulawski, the daughter of immigrant workers who has grown up on a farm just outside of L.A. Marge came to the City of Angels with high hopes but has become bitter and cynical, as her practical know-how with farm machinery and her broad build have led her to a unexciting job as a garage mechanic. In the city, Marge befriends Zoe, a woman who calls herself “the Duchess,” and was once, by her own account, a lady of wealth and importance. Now virtually penniless, the Duchess still wears the luxurious clothes of her better days, but the clothes are, in a reference to Dickens’ Miss Haversham, literally rotting on her and symbolize her decline. Through Zoe, Marge meets Betty at a local drugstore. Betty is an aspiring actress who is represented by the sleazy agent Herman Lee: Lee has never had a successful client, but he does not want one, as he preys on their naiveté. Marge is instantly attracted to Betty, but her sexuality is treated with ambiguity and at times appears to be more of a yearning for friendship. Marge’s desire to be around Betty means tagging along with her on a date with two French sailors. In one of the novel’s most powerful (and for the time groundbreaking) scenes, Marge and Betty have their first sexual contact with each other during an orgy with the two men:
But her [Betty’s] breasts themselves were surprisingly small; fresh and round and shiny like a peeled twig with dark, insulting nipples. The fresh, tender lower curves of these breasts entered into Marge’s memory for ever. They merged with childhood dreams, with infancy. They became the salty, threaded stuff of her generation.

Was what followed called an orgy? The French sailors hadn’t treated it as such. To them it appeared natural, neither odd nor perverse.
The Other Girl is unusual amongst crime novels as it does not begin with a crime that kick-starts the plot and motivates the leading character to try and solve the mystery. Nor is there any significant back-story to shed light on where the plot is heading. This novel is not so much a whodunnit as a who-will-do-it. Keogh supplies a detailed character study of a bunch of unusual people and then follows them as their relationship with Betty gradually turns from attraction to bitterness and sexual jealously. Each character is given a motive for murdering Betty, but how will the narrative move toward the act, and who will be responsible? Keogh keeps you guessing right up until the shocking climax.

Despite the initial interest in Keogh following her passing, no serious reappraisal of her literary career followed. This is, perhaps, to be expected as the tone of The Other Girl can be alienating, and the novel is difficult to place within a genre. Keogh’s sketches of people who have lost their soul while looking for a glimmer of success sometimes reads as misanthropic. Her candid description of sexual experimentation is liable to offend many readers, but the ambiguity of Marge’s sexuality has probably also barred the novel from becoming a classic of lesbian pulp fiction alongside the works of Ann Bannon or Valerie Taylor. Perhaps this obscurity was just what Keogh intended.

The Other Girl is a brilliant novel which has lost none of its power to be both haunting and puzzling.


Richard R. said...

I'll be darned, this one is completely new to me. Thanks for the insightful review. With forgotten books, I feel like I lern something new every week.

Steve said...

Thanks Richard,

My wife actually learned of Theodora Keogh before I did when she read the Telegraph obituary. It's a extraordinary novel.

Steve Oerkfitz said...

A number of her books are available from Olympia Press including The Other Girl.

Evan Lewis said...

Fine review - and nice excerpts.

Robert Nedelkoff said...

Although Theodora Keogh’s last published book (she wrote one more novel, The Love Life Of Sometime Malone, which was never published and may or may not be lost) received little attention when published in the UK in 1962 (although Anthony Burgess did review it for a regional paper) and less when it appeared in the US in 1966, it did have one enthusiastic champion: Barbara Grier, one of the founders of lesbian literary criticism, who reviewed both the US and UK editions, under her usual pseudonym Gene Damon in the pioneering lesbian magazine The Ladder. A few years ago Ms. Grier told me her admiration for The Other Girl remained undiminished. The novel is indeed startling: if Patricia Highsmith (who wrote a highly positive review of Keogh’s first book, Meg) had written it, readers would think it shocking even in the context of her oeuvre.

It's also worth mentioning that Theodora Keogh was actually living in Los Angeles at the time Elizabeth Short was murdered; her husband, artist Tom Keogh, was working on the costumes for Vincente Minnelli’s movie The Pirate with Judy Garland. But whether Tom or Theodora Keogh might have known the Black Dahlia, or any of the people with whom Short associated in her last months, may be next to impossible to determine at this late date.

Steve said...


Thank you for your response. I had no idea Keogh had written an unpublished novel.

Robert Nedelkoff said...

"The Love Life Of Sunshine Malone" is referred to in the folders concerning Theodora in the Farrar Straus Giroux archive at the NY Public Library. (Farrar Straus, and Creative Age Press which it absorbed, published her first six novels in hardcover between '50 and '56.) The book was submitted to FSG by her agent the late Jay Garon at the end of 1966 and rejected by the publisher on Jan. 3, 1967. No indication as to its theme or plot, just the title.

Anthony Burgess reviewed The Other Girl in the Yorkshire Post on July 12, 1962. (See the article by Burgess's biographer at

It turned out that a while ago I transcribed and emailed the text of Barbara Grier/Gene Damon's reviews of the book to Dave Kiersh, the man who really got what there is of the Theodora Keogh revival going, so here they are. (In The Ladder's Jan. '63 issue Grier/Damon had included the book in a list of lesbian-themed novels published in the previous 18 months, but in those pre-Amazon days it apparently took her a while to obtain a copy.)

The Ladder, June 1965
The Other Girl, by Theodora Keogh. London: Neville Spearman, 1962

This realistic, straightforward narrative is a departure from Keogh's usual style of obscure writing with much symbolism.

Marjory Vulawski is unlike any lesbian you or I will ever know, but she is a convincing character and probably many Marjorys walk the earth. Marjory leaves her father's farm in the mid-1940s and, since men are scarce, she readily finds work as a mechanic in Los Angeles. She meets and falls in love with Betty, a beautiful slut. Chance and circumstance seem to afford Marjory one wonderful night and part of a lovely day with Betty. But the unworthy Betty takes advantage of Marjory's devotion (and money).

Inevitably, since Betty is not a lesbian, Marjory is left by the wayside. Somewhere in the back of her mind lies a "black, throbbing tide," and at the close of a day of humiliation the tide rolls up and brings the story to its shocking end.

Early in the narrative, a man who admires Betty sexually says about her: "Yes, she was like some flower, its petals bred thicker and thicker, its color murky with the perversion of man - like a dahlia, a black dahlia." This book is in a sense a mystery novel. It suggests a plausible answer to the famous and still unsolved California case upon which it unmistakably is based.

The Ladder, Sept. 1967
Paperback publisher Macfadden deserves great credit for reissuing Theodora Keogh's impressive lesbian novel The Other Girl this year. This is its first appearance in the United States, having been first published in hardcover in England by Neville Spearman in 1962. It is hard to imagine why it has not appeared in the US in hardcover, since it is clearly an American novel as far as setting and cast are concerned. Don't miss this one, particularly you California people old enough to remember the Black Dahlia murder case. This novel is a roman a clef based on the case, and although the solution is a chilling one, it is not at all impossible. This is a unique lesbian novel, nothing faintly like it has been published.

James Thompson said...

I saw that you were checking out my web site, so maybe you already know this, but since it seems like you want to read everything possible about the Black Dahlia, I'll mention it. My novel, Snow Angels (Putnam 2009), deals with the Black Dahlia case to some extent, although it isn't the focus of the book.

Best, James Thompson