After seeing and falling in love with the movie The Trouble with Angels (Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills), I desperately wanted to read the book it was based on: Life With Mother Superior, by Jane Trahey. I checked at my library and they didn’t have it and then I looked it up on Amazon and found a used copy was selling for $134. So, instead I asked my library to get it through an inter-library loan (if you’ve never used this feature at your local library, this is absolutely the best way to read obscure or expensive books).
It’s a pity this book is not more easily available, because it is a hoot. I was surprised at how much dialogue, narration and events found their way into the movie. Some of the funniest lines and events of the film (like when Mother Superior says in a deadpan voice, “Where’s the fire?” after she’s locked the girls into the nun’s dormitory and they escape through the fire chute), come straight from the book.
Life with Mother Superior is an almost tongue-in-cheek remembrance of Jane Trahey’s years at St. Marks, a Catholic boarding school. She tells about the pranks she pulled, the battle of wits she engaged in with Mother Superior, her experiences there, the people she knew, her classes.
In the movie, the story follows Mary Clancy (played by Hayley Mills) and her relationship with Mother Superior and her friendship with Rachel. She is the rebellious one and the one who comes up with most of the ideas. In the book, however, Mary Clancy is Jane Trahey’s friend. Many of Mary’s traits in the movie are actually Jane Trahey’s traits, though the girls in the book are really two peas in a pod. Rachel, in the movie, is almost a new creation, though there are some aspects of the original people that find their way into her character. She is awkward at sports, like the real Mary Clancy, but neither Jane nor Mary in the book are followers like Rachel.
Many of the pranks that are pulled in the movie are exactly the same ones that Jane and Mary pulled in reality. There is the smoking, the bubble maker put into the nun’s sugar bowls, the tours of the nun’s dormitory, the skipping of swim class. They even both get expelled, though their parents somehow manage to talk them back into school. What makes it all fun, though, is how Trahey writes it.
Trahey is a very funny writer. Her accounts of sex education is hysterical (“don’t sit on a boy’s lap”), her attempts to sew panties, learning dancing from Mrs. Dowland Phipps, the Senior Prom, the senior play (where she says the wrong line at the beginning of the play, which cues the premature death of Abraham Lincoln; he gets assassinated after 23 minutes and Mother Superior has to step in to assure the parents that the play will proceed to act 2 and 3), crowning Mary in May, the band competition, and so on. I laughed my way through the book.
Interestingly, in the movie, Mary has a character arc. She begins as a rebellious teenager and ends up appreciating the nuns and joining their order. The whole movie is a coming of age story. This is not the point of the book. In fact, I got the distinct impression that at the time of writing, Jane Trahey was quite proud of her doings. She seems to have regarded it as a training ground for a way of life, more creative and free and not dictated by her parents or teachers. There is just a touch of contempt for those rather square students who always do the right thing and make the honor roll, as if they were living a rather prudish, stuffy, suck-up-to-the-teacher, narrow kind of life.
Amidst all the humor, there are poignant moments. As in the movie, the much loved teacher of Geometry, Sister Liguori dies unexpectedly, leaving a grieving school, as well as a grieving dog who loved her. And despite Jane Trahey’s stated view that the nuns were “the enemy” (tongue-in-cheek) there are signs all over the place that the nuns are really more understanding than she admits. As in the movie, Mother Superior really does help Jane with her sewing project and at the end, when Jane is shocked at Mary’s choice to become a nun and refuses to speak to her, it is Mother Superior who comes to her to comfort her and tell her she will one day understand why Mary did what she did. There is a gradual process, throughout the book, of beginning to see nuns as people rather than just as nuns. In a way, Mary becoming a nun completes that process.
One thing that was fun was how rooted in popular culture her book was. The nuns take the girls on a field trip to the Chicago World’s Fair, before it had officially opened in 1933. She also references movie stars like Fay Wray, Jeanette MacDonald, Deanna Durbin, and Ginger Rogers. She goes to see Kitty Foyle, released in 1940, and cries her way through it. She also mentions wanting to learn the Carica, which is a dance that had a brief span of popularity owing to the first dance Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever did together in the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio. She has a crush on Robert Taylor, who was the hottie of the mid 1930s. There is no trace of a depression. Her parents seem to have been fairly well off.
After reading the book, I was curious about her life and found the most information in her obiturary in the New York Times, which gives a quick overview of her life as a successful and creative business woman. She lived from 1923-2000 and was a very successful copywriter and opened her own advertising company in the 1960s. She also wrote, penning everything from books about her experiences, novels, pamphlets, slogans for products like Danskin tights and so on. Her most famous ad campaign was for Blackglama, worn by stars like Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Barbara Streisand, and Maria Callas. Their slogan was “What Becomes a Legend Most.”
This has little do to with the book, but here is a video showing all the many stars and modals who have worn Blackgama through the years.