The James Purdy Society
Synopses of James Purdy's Works,
with Performance Notes
Gertrude of Stoney Island Avenue
An older woman, age 60, married to a strong and upright businessman (retired from real estate and some ten years older) is unable to sleep at night and is having even more trouble in the daytime hours. She can think only of her daughter Gertrude, a famous painter who has died. Alienated and estranged from Gertrude when she was alive, Carrie discovers that she never knew her own daughter and even worse she allowed herself to be kept in the dark about her daughter’s very different life. Her husband thought it would be too much for her to bear.
She finds hidden in her husband’s study one of her daughter’s record books. She begins to go out alone and in secret to all the spiffy restaurants in Chicago’s ‘loop’ all the ones her daughter used to frequent and eats gooseberry pie, her daughter’s favorite dessert.
They are visited by her husband’s sister, an international adventuress and cosmopolitan of indeterminate age, who begins to work on Carrie and continues the makeover both physically and mentally.
Carrie, on one of her secret excursions to the study attempting to uncover more of Gertrude’s record books or private diaries, finds that her husband has been compiling what he has titled The Forgotten Items of America: 10.000 pages of words, phrases, anecdotes, famous people, events now forgotten. She later discovers that he has been working on this special project for decades. Not only did she never know her daughter, she never knew her husband.
Seeing she is in even further emotional turmoil her husband arranges for her to stay a while in the house of Evelyn Mae, a powerful woman with an eccentric character. She is a professor of literature at the university and an authority on Edmund Spencer. She is also in possession of a mansion where she entertains with live chamber music, twin player pianos, poetry readings and galas of every kind. Evelyn Mae furthers Carrie on her road to an independent character. She feels Carrie is like Demeter who descends into Hades in search of her lost daughter, Persephone.
Carrie is then introduced to a close friend of her daughter, young Cy Mellerick, who is able to take her to the haunts her daughter frequented. They visit the drinking places and jazz clubs and deserted sections of the park where Gertrude found solace. Carrie sees a side of Chicago she never knew existed.
As she sees deeper into her daughter's unhappiness she also learns that she herself is a woman who never has felt what it is to be alive. And that this had contributed to her daughter’s insatiable hunger.
She is finally brave enough to visit her daughter’s ruined brownstone where she painted her last works. Seeing her bed and hearing the story of her death from Cy Mellerick, who was with her at the end, has a desperate effect on Carrie. She wanders into another room and is shocked to see a life sized portrait of her daughter. Gertrude seems to be staring straight at her. She feels her daughter imparts a message to her. It is far too consuming for her and she collapses, unconscious.
Tryphena Eastlake, one of the first female doctors in that part of the country, now all but retired, is enlisted to try to pull Carrie through. Carrie’s husband wants to institutionalize her but is no match for Evelyn Mae who will not even allow him to see her.
Tryphena, another independent and eccentric woman, has taken up the study of herbs and elixirs. She goes to work on Carrie with a two pronged approach. She tries to bring her back to some kind of physical calm with her knowledge of Eastern medicine and ease her mind with the stories of her own life.
It is her son, though a womanizer, gambler and drinker who with the story of Yolanda, his first wife, a young girl from the Mayfair circle in England, that snaps Carrie back. With the story of this young girl, Carrie is able to form some kind of personal identification and begins to pull herself out into complete recovery.
As she returns to her husband it is not the same Carrie but someone stronger. Someone committed to being alive. She will stay with him so long as her new character is never diminished.
Setting: Chicago, 1950’s.
Great Female Roles. (Jessica Lange or a younger Julie Harris type or older Juliet Stevenson type for Carrie, and Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, types for the sister in law, Evelyn Mae and the doctor – in other days Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton )
Great male roles. The older husband: A Jason Robards Jr., Sean Connery, Paul Scofield type.
Young Male lead: Montgomery Clift type
This novel is written in the first person as if it were a diary. It focuses on her thought process and then goes into active scenes with dialogue. It is perfect for adaptation to film, using Carrie to narrate her thoughts and cutting to scenes that are already in dialogue form.
This is a timely subject and will have tremendous appeal to women of every type and age. It has a strong punch intermixed with humor and the outrageous. It has a warm ending.
It also has tour de force parts for older women and could be cast with four of the great older character actresses of our time making it an event and strengthening its appeal. A British or American cast can be used.