So they think she’s a slut, another sad little girl stealing those sensational stories straight from her own unmade bed? Ingenue girl, wide-eyed and watching, sucking on cigarettes and exhaling sex scenes? They say she writes like a girl, so she’ll make sure they know she can do it like a man. She is at her desk, pen to paper, fingers moving fast. She finishes a paragraph, and then she skips two lines and scrawls “this diary should be added to the unfinished Kathy.” She is referring to the manuscript for her novel-in-progress, Kathy on the Rocks. Its typewritten pages sit neatly next to the blood-red journal on her desk. She writes those sentences, and then she picks up the revolver she bought her husband as a birthday present. Slim girl, steel gun, stacked story. The next day, a newspaper runs a story about her suicide under the headline “Pamela Moore’s Death Copy of Hemingway’s.”
A little more than halfway through the twentieth century, an American teenager writes a novel called Chocolates for Breakfast that debuts on the New York Times bestseller list and stays there for months. Pamela Moore is a Barnard College student angling for the role of midcentury F. Scott Fitzgerald, or so she writes in her journal. Of course, the critics can’t have a woman becoming the next Fitzgerald, so instead they pit her against Francoise Sagan, another girl teetering at the edge of her teen years, whose 1945 novel Bonjour Tristesse (Hello, Sadness) also stars a depressive adolescent ricocheting between relationships. Reviewers roll their eyes at both, calling Sagan’s novel a “vulgar, sad little book” and Moore’s “morbid and reckless.” I wonder whether the authors cry or cringe, reading those reviews, or if they simply avert their eyes and attend the next party. Definitively: the checks roll in, the girls count their cash. Pamela’s plane ticket to Paris, using her advance to skip school? Vulgar and reckless, escape route as performance art.
We meet Courtney on her back. Our Chocolates for Breakfast protagonist gossips from her twin bed to her roommate’s, gazing out the window at their boarding school’s green laws. The girl she’s talking to will be kicked out for bad behavior soon, and Courtney will move to Beverly Hills. Outside of the stone walls and structured days of school, Courtney grows up fast, does all the things nineteenth century psychiatrists thought drove women crazy. Too much stimulation, too much sex, too much alcohol. Because Pamela knew what people like, her heroine is beautiful and sad, empty inside, trying to fill the void. The men are metaphors. It’s the women she loves: a teacher at boarding school, the friend who got kicked out.
Soon enough, Courtney lands herself in a sanitarium. But Moore doesn’t fall prey to the allure of nineteenth-century gothic asylum tropes, the long hallways and ice baths and electroconvulsive therapy and tranquilizers and tranquilized girls having torrid affairs with their cruel doctors. Pamela slams the hospital door shut on Courtney, who doesn’t reappear until she’s released—unchanged. She stays sad, spoiled, and simpering. She doesn’t undergo any fake re-evaluation of her life, doesn’t have a sudden desire for the marriage plot or a feminist subversion of it. What post-sanitarium Courtney wants is a strong drink. She wants to clink glasses with a girl she once shared a room with and follow that girl to a dimly lit cocktail party where everyone knows each other but no one knows their own limits.
Before her roommate gets expelled, Courtney tells her: “you’d like Sally Bowles because she’s really game, but out of her head…like that Zelda.” The girls worth Courtney’s time are game: playful and willing, brave and brash. Literary but stunted, and physically stunning, not to mention self-destructive. Manic pixie dream girls from the era before the atom bomb. Courtney couldn’t care less about atoms; she thinks scientists are always trying to convince you of something. Science means ECT and lobotomies. The girls she likes are called crazy, but these girls come to their own conclusions. Fresh out of the sanitarium, Courtney declares herself decadent, “alcoholic at sixteen, blasé,” cosplaying Zelda. A few pages later, she’s at a party, described as an “attractive girl and a novelty.” A friend of the Fitzgerald’s, after visiting the couple on the French Riviera, wrote, “Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist, Mrs. Fitzgerald is a novelty.”
1956, and two fresh faced American girls gallivant around Europe, getting drunk and falling in love with men who might ruin their lives. Apple cheeked and slow to smile, the brunette looks askance at the camera, ashing her cigarette into the Seine. Same cheeks but spread wide in a stronger, wider toothy smile, the blonde girl is a compulsive grinner, gazing at the camera with an almost panicked pleasure. Sylvia Plath and The Sylvia Plath You’ve Never Heard Of, which is what Marie Clarie calls Pamela in 2016. The women never meet, but they may have read each other, even found inspiration in each other’s work.
Instead of elegizing these women writers, we cast them to type, and the roles on offer are usually limited to saint or psychiatric patient, maybe both. The Sylvia route, Ariel as epilogue, engendering a feeding frenzy. We want to read her journals and her unpublished work, review her final words like they came from somewhere spiritual. Which is still not giving her credit, but at least we’re paying attention. Or shove her down the Zelda Fitzgerald chute: diagnosis, dissection, debutante ball for a corpse. Moore’s husband says, “Feminism is nothing but an epistemological construct which holds that Zelda was a better writer than F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Plath’s husband Ted Hughes dismisses her fiction as “juvenilia.”
More than half a century later, I read Plath and Moore on Tumblr before I read their books. People post black and white photos of both girls on their blogs, beaming blue light into my bedroom. They post square images with scraps of text from their most famous works, dated not just by year but by the time elapsed between the words and the suicide. #femaleauthors #sad #imscared #actuallymentallyill #graveyard #thisbookissosadbutsobeautiful.
If you ask her husband, Pamela is sullen, spoiled, straight. If you ask her date book, a girl named Val’s name is all over it, overnights and fights and drinks, drinks, drinks. “Overnight again at Vals.” “Val rang, wanted a drink, refused, Val Furious.” I’m probably reading into things, but the public and the publishers refuse to read her books, so I’m trying to make it up to her by reading too closely, over and over again and between the lines.
In a scene her publishers cut from the book, Courtney fantasizes about her teacher: “Miss Rosen touching her, and being with her all the time, not just for a few hours in the evening. She would like to have that warm feeling more of the time instead of the loneliness.” In another scene cut from Chocolates for Breakfast, Courtney pines for a young man’s body, boyish and mini-muscled. Not to touch, but to live in. She loses her virginity to a man she knows is gay. Lying in bed with him, she understands why he loves bodies like his own. Gay people, she gets. It’s her own body she mistrusts and misuses, cuts into and poisons.
Pamela’s teachers remember her Brooks Brothers shirts and the Gauloises basically glued to her palm. Crisp, caustic, Pamela smokes behind the brick buildings of her boarding school and then at Barnard, in the bright light of day, hogging a bench. She has friendships that are whispered about, considered too close. Val is likely the inspiration for Courtney’s best friend in Chocolates, the kind of combustible friendship comprised of harebrained plans and mistakes and nervous glances.
In the photos, she smiles wide, leans against her friend. Scholastic Ability? Excellent. But Attitude Toward School Obligation, Respect for School Regulations? Poor. She’s “discontented,” has a bad attitude. She wears those sharp button downs, tucked into pants with riding boots, and a blunt bob. Sometimes, even, a tie. Knotting, unknotting, re-knotting in the smudged dorm mirror, how many tries does it take to get right?
One of Pamela’s Columbia friends recalls her frustration with interviewers who want to know about her sex life, the Francoise Sagan comparisons, the critical obsession with the sex scenes. He says America considers her a “scandalous young girl, a literary freak who had typed a book at 18.” American media outlets want to know how many men Pamela has fucked, not her “politics and metaphysics,” she recalls near the end of her life.
Star of the still-unpublished Kathy on the Rocks, Kathy the character was once considered a precocious little literary freak, a teenage girl who wrote a novel rife with sex scenes and silly rich girls. In her twenties, everyone refuses to take her seriously as a writer of political fiction. Conspiring against Kathy, the conniving, consumerist public judges her outfits and her attitude in interviews, so she is rude right back, mocking their questions. She leaves the US, believing Europe at least has morals. But there too, she finds so-called prophets who only care about literal profit: the con man she falls for takes her money and runs.
With the gun in her mouth, Pamela realizes she should have expected to be treated like her literary sisters, the ones who got laughed at and locked up. The critics wouldn’t let Zelda be the next Fitzgerald either, and she literally was a Fitzgerald. With those legs? They let her be a flapper. They give her short dresses, not short stories. Pamela wears pants, but it doesn’t matter. Just another wild girl with stories gushing out of her. Reporters ask about her diet.
Pamela tells her college newspaper that Chocolates was “drawn from actual life experiences, although the novel is not autobiographical.” When she dies by suicide seven years later at age twenty-six, Pamela leaves her final novel and her journal behind. Her husband and the detectives who soon arrive have a decision to make. Are these books fiction, or evidence?
Picture it: a stoic policeman and a stern husband stand over a dead body, arguing over genre. The men in her life were always disappointing her, refusing to discuss her work, so maybe she finally has them right where she wants them. But the policeman calls both texts evidence. He whisks them away to a steel filing cabinet where they remain, unread, for years.
The pages of the diary-novel get musty in the metal cabinet. Eventually they invent the internet, where I meet Pamela, where the girl bloggers call her book autofiction while dramatizing their own internal dramas and realize they can print that shit out and sell it. Don’t embarrass yourself, our mothers say, scrolling our google search results. But we like all the links, the blue underlines, our veins skeined into the internet.
Confessional writing, confessions of a teenage drama queen, confessions of a shopaholic, Phoebe Waller-Bridge in a confessional, falling in love, Blair Waldorf in a confessional, bragging and getting bored, every reality dating show contestant crying in a confessional, all the confessional poets and the autofiction auteurs, confessing confessing confessing, and then the sharp intake of breath, the white space, the nevermind or the wink. So they’ve sinned, or so they said, and we gasp or we get it or we gut it, bleed the girl out.
Heartbreaking, gut wrenching, spilling her guts, bleeding on the page, all these metaphors of bodies breaking in the reviews of the girl art. An old-fashioned on her desk, a man’s drink next to a man’s weapons, the typewriter and the gun. Orange light and brown liquor, sun in her eyes.
1964, Pamela isn’t dead yet. Another girl is born. Her mother’s favorite book is Pamela’s, so she names her daughter Courtney. The girl grows up and starts spending time at a punk club, where she meets a girl she will later refer to as the best thing that ever happened to me. Even so, even still, we don’t care about that kind of love, young girls in dark corners writing lyrics on napkins, screaming into microphones. Instead, we still remember her mostly for the man she’ll love later. The girls start a band that breaks up after a year, but before that, they record, “Best Sunday Dress,” which might be about burning someone alive, or it might just be about heartbreak. Courtney becomes known for her white dresses and the white powder under her nose, for big doll lips and bags under her eyes and her boyfriend, more than her songwriting. On some girl’s Tumblr, I find a quote from Courtney Love: “I wish I was beautiful or at least wise, but I’m simply mad and violent.” Seems fake, but I don’t feel like fact checking.