Kenneth Roberts in the Saturday Evening Post: “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes” – Part III

Kenneth Roberts’ “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes” (Saturday Evening Post 208:52, 6/27/36) is a fun read (Roberts’ classic humor is on full display) and an insightful look into Roberts’ tastes and personality. Admittedly, however, the article comes across as a random diatribe against sophisticated girls. Why would Roberts write such an article, and the Post feature the title and Roberts’ name prominently on the issues’ cover? Without any knowledge of the purpose behind Roberts’ article, one can easily dismiss “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes” as typical Roberts cantankerousness. The featured opinion piece is nothing more than an old, well-to-do author complaining about one aspect of the changing times. And to be fair, such an assessment would be accurate if there was no insight into the why behind Roberts’ penning a piece on sophisticated ladies.

Thankfully, page 104 of the 6/27/1936 issue of Saturday Evening Post provides readers with the very purpose why Roberts enlightened Post readers about the true meaning of sophistication. In an issue of the Saturday Evening Post prior to 6/27/36, an anonymous writer penned an article titled “Why I Like Men With Money.” The article drew the ire of many readers, resulting in “several hundred” letters to the editor complaining about Ms. Anonymous’ article (“Keeping Posted,” Saturday Evening Post 208: 52, 6/27/36, p. 104). One reader from Huntington, NY wrote: “The author of the article I Like Men With Money knew what she was doing when she did not sign her name…Who does she think she is, anyway–Queen Marie?” (104).

The Post responded to the reader’s letter, claiming that many were in agreement with him; the editors just thought it would be good for Post readers to meet one of the people as described in the article. They closed their letter by promising an article from the other side of the picture in an article to be titled as “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes.” Because of the reference to Queen Marie (I’m not familiar with this reference), the Post wrote Ms. Anonymous in an effort to clear up supposedly derogatory reference. Eventually, the comment from the reader from Huntington, NY drew the author of the contentious article from the shroud of anonymity into the hot spotlight of criticism. She sent a tersely worded wire to the Post granting her permission for the Post to reveal her name, refusing to be said of her that she was a “sissy” and signed her name to the wire as Alice-Leone Moats (104). (The writer of “Keeping Posted,” after quoting the wire in full, adds – as an indication of Ms. Moats’ character – that the “wire was sent collect” (104).

The stakes raised, the editors of the Post sought to assign an author to the future article “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes.”  Their guidelines for such an author were that the article had to be “written by (1) a man (2) a man who has been around (3) a man who carries his silver in a change purse. Adding (1), (2), and (3) gave us (6), or Kenneth Roberts” (104). (Great humor in this one statement). Thus, it was “into the middle of this situation, redolent with recrimination, defiance and invitations to torture, we lured the innocent Mr. Roberts” (104). After obtaining Roberts’ services, the editors were satisfied…to a point. Closing the piece, the writer dreams of a meeting between Moats and Roberts…a meeting in “New York. A little dinner, a show—” (104).

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Kenneth Roberts in the Saturday Evening Post: “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes” – Part II

IMG_1804[1]Anyone familiar with Kenneth Roberts knows the reputation he had of being a crotchety man. In the forward to The Kenneth Roberts Reader, Ben Ames Williams recollects stories that highlight Roberts’ curmudgeony personality. If one were to think, however, that Roberts’ contemporaries misunderstood him or were perhaps a bit too sensitive, Roberts sets the record straight in the opening sentence of his June 27, 1936 article in the Saturday Evening Post titled “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes.”  With a penchant for getting straight to the point, Roberts begins by stating “As I grow older and more crotchety, I find myself becoming more and more intolerant of persons impossible of thinking straight, talking sensibly or behaving normally” (10). And with that opening salvo, Roberts provides his readers with a torrent of rapid-fire complaints about the day in which he lived.

Roberts’ dislikes ranges from over-paid actresses and under-paid authors to double-speaking politicians; from a public who idealized the founding fathers of America to “society columns which tend to glorify  the activities of young gentlemen and young ladies whose greatest contribution to the welfare of mankind seems to be a mild interest in motoring, cocktail drinking and divorce” (10).  Roberts’ dislikes include novices who view themselves as better writers than those of classical literature, and people who ignorantly champion a political ideal.

Yet, in 1936, nothing matched Roberts’ growing dislike of “the appearance and ideas of the annoyed-looking girls who sit behind the steering wheels of automobiles during the summer months and drive around the country with a contemptuous and careless air” (10). These girls, as Roberts understands it, portray an air of “sophistication,” and it is the desire for sophistication that “is at the bottom of much of the imbecility that is apparently permeating the United States of America and other nations with such rapidity” (10).

Roberts’ Encounter with Sophisticated Girls

"A group of sophisticated young things undertook to enlighten me." Saturday Evening Post 208:52 (6/27/36), p. 10.

“A group of sophisticated young things undertook to enlighten me.” Saturday Evening Post 208:52 (6/27/36), p. 10.

To illustrate his growing annoyance with sophisticated girls, Roberts recounts a visit he had with twelve sorority girls at a Mid-Western college in America. These ladies considered themselves “more sophisticated…and superior to” the undergraduates of surrounding colleges, and during this visit, they sought to enlighten Roberts about what it meant to be sophisticated.

Through his wit and sarcasm, Kenneth Roberts portrays his conversation with the sorority girls as a microcosm of the culture at large. Each girl prided themselves on being the “mental cream of the university,” with one being well-read in the New York Times, with another who mastered golf such that “she had achieved something which eludes many male mental giants–she played regularly in the low eighties” (10). Another sorority sister was an able poet, while another “held the undergraduate dating championship,” having had no less than four dates a day during her senior year (10).

When asked to define “sophistication,” the university’s cream of the crop provided rather empty, flimsy answers. For one, sophistication meant being well-dressed; that is, a sophisticated girl wears “gloves and a hat to classes, and carry a handbag. She must wear spectator sport clothes to football games in the autumn and active sport clothes in the spring” (10).

The poet defined sophistication as having the right social contacts. Yet, to obtain such contacts, one must dress and act in a sophisticated manner (11).

Baffled by what he had heard up, Roberts hypothesizes that the girls’ use of the word “sophisticated” and his own use of that same word were different. To help him understand what they meant by “sophisticated,” Roberts asked that they explain what they meant by “sophisticated men” (11).  The answers given were just as empty. A sophisticated man was one had “been places and done things” (11); one who knew “how to speak to a waiter so the waiter doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable” and “order a dinner without making you feel embarrassed” (11); he is one who is “seen everywhere” and is known by everyone, is mature, and is well-dressed (11). Further, a sophisticated man is one who can hold his liquor well.

One “fluffy blonde” stated that a sophisticated man was an “exhibitionist”; that is, one who didn’ t play chess or weird “things like that” (11). Finally, according to the poet, a sophisticated man “knows what to do and when to do it” (11).

The Real Definition of Sophistication

For Roberts, he didn’t have the heart to tell them what sophistication really meant. Citing the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, Roberts informs his readers that “sophistication” (and the verb “to sophisticate”) has five meanings, which include ideas such as fallacy, sophistry, to mislead, “to deprive of simplicity,” and to deceive (11). Based upon this more substantive definition, Roberts concludes that when the young sorority girls he met with–and all others like them–talk about sophisticated men, they are actually referring to “young men who mislead; who are specious–who are in a word, bogus” (11). To admire something that is sophisticated is to admire something that is not genuine and not worth having (11).

The Object of Roberts’ Ire

"The sophisticated admirer of rich men explained her system of winning over a reluctant male to her taste in foods and wine" Saturday Evening Post 208:52 (6/27/36), p. 11

“The sophisticated admirer of rich men explained her system of winning over a reluctant male to her taste in foods and wine” Saturday Evening Post 208:52 (6/27/36), p. 11

The remainder of Roberts’ article is a response to an article written by a young, sophisticated lady (more on this in another post) who boldly claimed that she was interested only in men who had “the assurance, ease and arrogance that only money can give” (11).  Roberts’ questions such qualities, for it defines a “pretty poor specimen” (11).

Further, the young lady characterized the sophisticated man as one who was desired by other women, and one who “dares to break an engagement at the last moment if he is offered an opportunity to participate in something more interesting” (84). For Roberts, such characteristics fail to describe successful men, for they have not the time to be paraded around to be admired by other women, and they would not be successful if they made the habit of breaking commitments (84).

Much more can be said about Roberts summary of this young lady’s admiration of men with money–their affinity for first-class entertainment and an aversion to anything less; their knowledge of the finest wines–yet to do so would make an already long post longer.   He mentions, though, that her “philosophy of life” failed to “mention anything as stupid as books” (84 – classic Roberts’ sarcasm!). However, if she were to pine about books as she did food, wines, dress and money, Roberts was sure that she would prefer the “moment’s best seller to a cheap edition of one of Jane Austen’s novels” (84).

Sherry: A Case Study

According to Roberts, what the young sorority girls and the sophisticated author aimed for – a knowledge of the finer things of life – could not be attained by reading the latest social columns or best-sellers. Rather, it takes a lifetime to be an expert in something.

Roberts illustrates his point by sharing about his fondness of sherry. Yet, for a time, the amount of sherry he drank would not qualify him as an expert in the drink. This was driven home by a visit he made to a sherry-exporting firm in Spain. Here he was shown how sherry was made, stored, drawn, and packaged. The sampling room exposed Roberts to numerous kinds of sherry, whose consistency, color, and flavor varied based upon how they were made and how long they were stored (among other factors).

Despite everything he learned in his visit, Roberts acknowledges that he still lacks the extensive knowledge about sherry that would make him an expert. In fact, he confesses: “I still know very little about sherry” (86).

The sophisticated young girls of his day pretended to have extensive knowledge about wines, current events, etc. That which they portray (and I’m sure Roberts would say this of “sophisticated” men) is only a facade; they are misled into thinking they know more than they really do. For Roberts, he “can’t get along with girls whose tastes aren’t simple – chiefly because [he has] found their beliefs so irritatingly dishonest” (87).  He concludes

The reasoning of the ladies who like men with money is too intricate, too irritating, for me. I prefer girls who think more accurately; who are sufficiently unspoiled to understand the beauty and good taste of simplicity” (87).

***Updated 7/12/14 1:30 am – Corrected “Ben Ames” to “Ben Ames Williams”

Kenneth Roberts in the Saturday Evening Post: “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes”

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“The Saturday Evening Post,” June 27, 1936 edition.

 

Finding a Kenneth Roberts book presents a challenge for his fans in the 21st century. Though some publishers have published reprints of his more well-known works (Northwest Passage and Arundel, for instance), the bulk of Roberts’ published works can be found only on dusty bookshelves of antique stores, used bookstores, or flea markets. Even then, one mostly finds a greater number of reader club editions or reprints as opposed to first editions or copies of his lesser-known works (Trending Into Maine; Florida Loafing; Good Maine Food, etc.). Thus, the hunt for Kenneth Roberts’ books is either frustrating (good finds are few and far between) or rewarding (an unexpected find or a successful buy after a long hunt).

I experienced an exhilarating find a couple of days ago while on vacation in my hometown in the great state of Louisiana. My wife and I were in the antique district of town (while my parents watch our girls, giving my wife and I the freedom to take our time!) when I visited a shop known for carrying copies of The Saturday Evening Post. Before I continue, allow me to make a brief aside here…in addition to finding first editions or rare copies of Roberts’ books, finding any copies of The Saturday Evening Post can be difficult. Roberts wrote quite a bit for the Post, but my searches have found that most shops carry old copies of Life, but very little by way of the Post.  Another annoyance. I digress.

As I searched through the collection of Saturday Evening Post copies – all from 1936 – I stumbled across an issue from June 27, 1936 (pictured). Lo and behold, Kenneth Roberts’ piece was the featured article. To make my day even better, the store owner had a 50% sale on all Post issues. I excitedly rummaged through the remaining issues hoping to find more featuring Roberts, but had only found the one (one unfortunate reason for this is that the store owner had every issue individually sealed in a plastic cover, so I could not look through each issue to see if any of them contained smaller works by Roberts). Nevertheless, I was very excited for this most excellent find!

Roberts’ featured piece is titled “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes.” Now, I don’t consider myself an expert of Kenneth Roberts, but in all the years that I’ve been searching for anything Roberts and all the reading that I’ve done on him, I never recall coming across this particular title. So, in addition to finding a Saturday Evening Post containing a piece from Roberts, I also found something that I had never read of Roberts! Double win!

Roberts’ “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes” is a reaction piece to the “sophisticated” girls of the 1930s – pretentious, “high-maintenance” women. Written in classic-Roberts style, Roberts questions whether these particular women even truly know what “sophistication” is, painting them in an unfavorable light. Roberts’ personality is on full display in this piece as he leaves no one in doubt of his opinions and preferences.

Before one can write of “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes” as “typical Roberts cantankerousness,” the June 27, 1936 issue of the Post provides on the very last page an explanation behind the purpose for Roberts’ piece. One discovers that Roberts did not just decide to write his piece merely to voice his complaints; rather, he wrote in response to a piece by a “sophisticated” woman in a previous Post issue.

So, what will follow in the next few days is a summary of Roberts’ “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes,” followed by a post providing the reasons behind this piece. Stay posted!

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