A Sunday Daily News article from March 27th, 1960 reports that Alma Malone was sentenced to twenty years in prison for her involvement in a botched bank robbery. She was supposed to drive behind her partner “Mr. Ansley” to the bank, wait for him while he completed the robbery, and then act as the getaway driver. But Malone took a wrong turn, and by the time she arrived at the bank, the robbery had gone wrong. Ansley was dead. After she was sentenced, Malone thanked the judge.
In 1970 the film Wanda won the Pasinetti Award for Best Foreign Film at the Venice Film Festival. It tells the story of Wanda, an apathetic, docile woman who leaves her impoverished husband and children and casts herself adrift in the world. She asks a neighbor for money, begs for a job, gets picked up by a man in a bar and then abandoned by him at an ice-cream stand the next day. She’s frequently humiliated. She doesn’t have much to say. When she finds Dennis, she doesn’t realize he’s just robbed a bar. He calls her stupid. He yells at her for forgetting he doesn’t want onions on his burger. He has an idea for robbing a bank and he decides that she’s going to drive the getaway car. You know how the story goes from there.
Barbara Loden was born the same year as Alma Malone. Like Malone and like Wanda, she was born into Appalachian poverty. At age sixteen she left home to work as a showgirl in New York. She became a pin-up model, then an actress. She married the famed director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden) and, at the age of thirty-eight, she wrote, directed, and starred in Wanda. “It’s like showing myself in a way that I was,” she said in a 1971 interview in Madison Women’s Media Collective.
Nathalie Léger was asked to write a brief entry about Wanda for a film encyclopedia. Léger is an impressive French person whose publications include a book-length personal essay entitled Les vies silencieuses de Samuel Beckett. “Convinced that in order to keep it short you need to know a great deal,” she embarked on a course of in-depth research for the encyclopedia entry, and the result was the book Suite for Barbara Loden, or at least that’s how Léger tells it in Suite for Barbara Loden, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. It’s a book about Loden, but also about Wanda and Kazan, and a little about Malone, but definitely about Léger herself and her mother.
When I set out to review Suite for Barbara Loden, I realized I didn’t have much to say, exactly, beyond what Léger says. I wanted to show how she shows how one woman’s experience is filtered through another, collapses into another. And I wanted to show how we (women) connect with Wanda—even extraordinary, glamorous, intellectual women like Léger or Loden, and even women generations younger than Wanda, like myself—how the book sucks in every woman who approaches it.
Léger quoting Barbara Loden: On 21st February 1971, Barbara told the Sunday News: “I was nothing. I had no friends. No talent. I was like a shadow. I didn’t learn a thing in school. I still can’t count. I hated movies as a child, people on the screen were perfect and it made me feel inferior.” Later, in the Post: “I used to hide behind doors. I spent my childhood hiding behind my grandmother’s stove. I was very lonely.” Later still, in Positif: “I’ve gone through my whole life like I’m autistic, convinced I was worth nothing. I didn’t know who I was, I was all over the place, I had no pride.”
In one of the book’s more bizarre episodes, Léger, who is in America doing research for her dictionary entry/book, meets up with Micky Mantle at the Harry Houdini museum in Scranton, New Jersey. Mantle knew Barbara Loden when she was a dancer at the Copacabana: “‘Do spirits return? Will the spirit of Barbara Loden return?’ Mickey Mantle asks me, blinking. He is old. Once upon a time he had red hair. He used to be a serial womaniser.” Mickey Mantle also tells Nathalie Léger about trying to write a memoir: “I wanted to describe the trajectory of a baseball, the air, the rustling air, the space.” The account shimmers with fiction; such a perfect Micky Mantle could only be produced by sleight of hand.
While conjuring up figures from Loden’s past, Léger also traces Wanda’s route through the brawny but bruised mid-century Pennsylvania landscape. She sees it as a foreigner would: afresh and disorienting. Karina Longworth in described the film in a 2012 piece for L.A. Weekly: “Wanda’s somnambulent, nomadic journey plays out like a hazy dream rendered in 24 vintage Polaroids a second.” And in fact, Léger begins her book with a scene from the movie, of Wanda wandering the grounds of an open-pit coal mine: “At times the dust absorbs and dissolves the figure as it doggedly moves on; lit up for a moment, now just a vague, blurry smudge, now almost transparent, like a backlit hole in the picture, a blind spot on the decimated landscape. Yes, it is a woman.” Despite Léger’s relentless focus on Loden, on Wanda, both often seem to be difficult to see, in danger of disappearing.
Léger: “[Loden] died at forty-eight of generalised cancer. Wanda was her first and her last film. What else? How to describe her, how to dare describe a person one doesn’t know?”
Barbara Loden’s son did not grant Léger access to his mother’s papers for her research. A little piece of Loden’s reality, made present by its disappearance from the book.
Wanda spends much of the film with men in hotel rooms. After they’ve had sex with her, it’s clear that these men simply wish she would cease to exist. Their irritation at her existence is excruciating. She giggles, falls silent, tries to be flirtatious, looks at her hands.
“The typical 1970s woman is a woman who’s wondering what she’s actually going to be able to do with the freedom everyone keeps telling her about; a woman who wonders what new lie she’ll have to make up now, how she’s going to pretend to be cool, so that all these men will finally leave her the hell alone,” Léger has met a friend for dinner and she (the friend) is talking about Barbara Loden. Wanda isn’t a feminist movie per se; Wanda is an anti-hero. What if all I do with my freedom is attempt to fulfill other people’s desires? What if I am miserable and contemptible?
Léger: “When Wanda came out in 1970, feminists hated it. Barbara Loden came in for a great deal of severe criticism. Many clearly reviled her. What is this? A passive woman, submissive to male desire, who seems to take pleasure in enslavement… no self-awareness, no pioneering mythology of the free woman. Nothing.”
Léger quoting Loden in Madison Women’s Media Collective, 1973: “The film has nothing to do with women’s liberation.”
Léger quoting Loden in FILM, 1971: “That’s why I made Wanda. As a way of confirming my own existence.”
Longworth in L.A. Weekly: “In an interview after Loden’s death, [Kazan] took credit for writing Wanda‘s script, calling it ‘a favor I was doing for her, to give her something to do.’”
Longworth: “Kazan later would identify Wanda as part of ‘a class of women known as floaters. … [They] float, like debris.’ In a profile of Loden, Rex Reed described the character, with his trademark finesse, as ‘an ignorant slut.’ In the same story, Loden called her ‘an ordinary person.’”
If men see Wanda as a particularly worthless specimen, Loden and Léger’s stroke of genius is in identifying her as not particular at all. Wanda is not the thing we fear we could be; she is the pitch-perfect embodiment of what we know we sometimes are. What some of us are or were all the time. And no one had ever been able to or interested in depicting that before. When you see Wanda, it’s like putting on a new pair of glasses with the proper prescription: oh yes, this is what this looks like, this is what we look like.
“Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men,” confesses Léger. “How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it?”
I’ve slept with men who obviously wished I’d cease to exist after having sex with me. In fact, if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a relationship with a man who did not, at some point or another after having sex with me make it clear that it would be less irritating for him if I did not exist. It’s not a completely unique experience for me; I work as a translator, a profession in which people often prefer to forget that you exist. I’ve translated one book by a man, and I’m in the middle of another. And in the next year I’ll work on two more. I’ve never translated a book by a woman, nor do I have a contract to do one. It’s work that I’m grateful for and that I enjoy, I must make that clear. But all in all, I’m spending most of my time telling men’s stories. That’s part of why I found Suite for Barbara Loden so magnetic. It isn’t just that Léger tells a story in which I see myself and everyone I know reflected; it’s that I’m jealous she gets to tell a story in which I could possibly see myself. (Or perhaps I’m most jealous of Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, who have translated the book so beautifully; they’re most clearly my would-be doubles, and two more women whose voices you’ll hear when you read this book, voices within voices.) And I guess that’s why I wanted to write this review; because I wanted, in a small way, to get to tell that story too.
Early in the book, Léger quotes Georges Perec to explain her approach to telling Loden’s story: “To start with, all one can do is try to name things, one by one, flatly, enumerate them, count them, in the most straightforward way possible, in the most precise way possible, trying not to leave anything out.” It’s a self-generating story, things enter it because of the fact of their existence. To populate it, Léger has to search for them, to notice that they exist.
Léger writes Suite for Barbara Loden with the assuredness of someone whose topic has its own self-replicating logic. Someone whose task is channeling, not producing, her book. Indeed, it seems like the book must already have existed, containing the story of its own origins as well as its own critique. Already containing me and my longings and this review.
Micky Mantle continues to tell Léger, “but I still couldn’t describe the trajectory of a baseball, no more than I could describe Barbara Loden, I wouldn’t be able to make her spirit come back. Besides, I didn’t know her, her spirit I mean—maybe I glimpsed it through her body, or maybe I’m confusing it with someone else’s; air, the rustling air, the warped shape, the disappearing and reappearing of some sensation against a dark backdrop, that’s what I was looking for.”