Goodbye to Gray Flannel
On May 25, a fine representative of American letters passed away. Sloan Wilson, author of The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit, A Summer Place, and other novels, died after a struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Too little note was taken of his death, although somewhat understandably. Wilson’s time in the sun had passed. Thankfully, his brilliant rendition of the American Everyman, Gray Flannel, was republished last year by a radical outfit in New York, Four Walls Eight Windows. The company billed the book as a “damning account of the inhumanity of big business,” and many view it as an indictment of conformity: a biography of the drab corporate automaton of the 1950s who lived in developments like Levittown.
It wasn’t. The book is much deeper than that superficial interpretation, and Sloan Wilson was an interesting man whose life gave rise to many scenes in his novels.
He was born in Norwalk, Conn., in 1920 of wealthy parents, and after graduating from Exeter and Harvard, served during World War II in the Coast Guard. At 24, he commanded a ship in the Greenland Patrol and later was decorated for action in the Pacific. Those experiences show up in Pacific Interlude and another naval tale—the novel Wilson considered his finest—Ice Brothers. That book is the gripping story of a freshly minted Coast Guard officer who lands in a dramatic naval game of cat and mouse with the Germans. But Wilson’s most notable literary feat was Gray Flannel, first published in 1955, the novel that cemented the popular expression in the American argot.
In Tom Rath, the protagonist whom Gregory Peck portrayed on film, Wilson created the quintessential American hero in a novel that contemplates facing the truth, atoning for the past, and rectifying mistakes. A battle-tested former paratrooper, Rath is a writer for a philanthropic foundation, but he wants a bigger, more profitable job. He lands one running a mental-health campaign for Ralph Hopkins, president of the United Broadcasting Corporation. Writing a speech for Hopkins, an intelligent, gregarious, generous boss, Rath faces his first temptation to lie. He can’t get the speech quite right. But when Hopkins and another assistant, an unctuous jackass named Ogden, craft their own execrable oratory, Hopkins seeks Rath’s opinion. Concerned for his job, Rath fears telling the truth.
Early in the book, Rath’s wife, Betsy, a dutiful but shrewish woman, fires a nasty salvo. “You’ve got no guts,” she tells her husband, a bona fide war hero who killed 17 men, some in hand-to-hand combat. When Rath asks Betsy’s opinion of the speech and explains that maybe it isn’t as bad as it seems, she brings out the truth.
“I think that’s a little sickening,” she declares. “What do you really think of that speech?”
“I think it’s terrible,” Rath replies.
Says Betsy, “I don’t care what you tell him, but I don’t like the idea of you becoming a cheap cynical yes-man.” Later, she says, “You can’t imagine being honest and getting a raise for it.”
No, Rath can’t. He faced death in war, but maybe the penalty for honesty is worse than death.
Rath’s second temptation to lie occurs when he must confess a dark secret to his wife. During the war in Italy, a brief affair ended with the birth of a bastard son. Ten years later, an old war buddy tells him the woman and boy need help. These children constitute one of the unmentionable byproducts of America’s interventionism and one important reason Wilson wrote Gray Flannel. One wonders how many of our returning heroes shouldered their paternal duty to support the children they brought into the world. How many, like Rath, faced telling a wife? This disruptive and wracking conflict with Betsy and within Rath is beautifully rendered, and it turns out the way it should.
For all the talk about conformity, Rath doesn’t conform when he faces a third test, this one of his priorities. Granted, Rath must conform in some sense to succeed. At the beginning of the book, Rath is obsessed with earning more money. Thinking of Hopkins, he asks himself, “What did a man have to be like to make so damn much money?”
Rath finds out. You must be willing to sacrifice family. Hopkins is estranged from his wife and daughter and barely knew his son, who was killed in the war. To justify wrecking his life, he erupts in a testy spiel about the kind of men who build a corporate colossus like UBC. They aren’t men like Tom Rath, who trundle home to a wife and passel of noisy brats at 5 p.m.
In the end, Rath turns down success for something more important: his family. Thus is Gray Flannel penetrating social commentary, and its principal theme, honesty, is unfortunately all too often lost upon its readers.
A Summer Place is a novel about truth as well. It tells the story of Bart and Sylvia Hunter and Ken and Helen Jorgenson, and their children, John and Molly. Racy for the 1950s, it features rough sex and adultery, but the frank depictions are not pornographic.
Sad and disturbing, A Summer Place candidly demonstrates what results when carnality rules common sense and trumps fidelity, when people succumb to temptation and cannot control vices—and not just the sexual kind. It wrecks not only their lives, but also the lives of their children and relatives.
Throughout the book, Wilson deftly describes what we all think and feel at one time or another. In one passage, he writes about the temptation to judge by appearance. The snooty residents of Pine Island, Maine, the novel’s setting, worry about the alluring beauty and sensuality of teen-age Sylvia:
Perhaps the girl should be run in for disturbing the peace. It was not socially acceptable to be that pretty, really, [and only] chorus girls and models and hat-check girls had figures of that sort … There was a lushness about her, a sensuousness. … [T]here was that about her which immediately make people interested in knowing whether she was chaste. … Old ladies peered at her sharply over their knitting, and middle-aged men stared at her musingly, and the mothers of errant boys worried. She couldn’t be chaste and look like that.
The author amusingly describes the many petty prejudices of Ken Jorgenson’s in-laws. “Now let’s see,” he says about his mother-in-law, for whom he buys a home,
[W]e are seeking a neighborhood where there are no Jews, no Polish people, no Italians, no Negroes, no children, no Catholics. … She was against the Chinese, and it seemed, all Orientals. The Russians she hated with patriotic zeal. The English she thought snobbish, the French immoral, the Germans brutal, and all South Americans lazy. Category by category, she closed humanity out.
A Summer Place details seven horribly tortured and perhaps ruined lives and ends with Molly’s teen pregnancy and shotgun marriage, all of which flow from the roiling headwaters of Ken and Sylvia’s adultery and divorces.
This writer, who tragically lost his mind at the end, was a thoughtful, learned man. How many novelists today create characters that write love letters in Latin?
I was lucky enough to meet Sloan Wilson, variously a newspaperman, English teacher, and Rath-like middle manager at Time-Life, but only over the phone. I had e-mailed a request to read my first novel. At the time, Alzheimer’s had recently commenced its determined, destructive march through his gray matter. But he could still speak coherently. In a raspy, high timbre, he told me a few engrossing and amusing tales about his life that wound up in his novels, including the near-paralyzing seasickness aboard his Coast Guard ship and, famously, the scene in which Tom Rath applies for his job at United Broadcasting. Wilson got the idea for the title, by the way, by observing that men in the ’50s, trundling to work in New York on the subway, all seemed to wear the same thing.
During Rath’s job interview before meeting Hopkins, an underling gives Rath a blank sheet of paper and tells him to write his autobiography. End it, the corporate factotum commands, by finishing the following sentence: “The most significant thing about me is …” Wilson had a similar experience when he applied at Time-Life. Regrettably, I didn’t take notes of our conversations, but I recall that he didn’t think much of Henry Luce, monarch of the magazine empire.
Wilson’s parents called their vacation home the “summer place,” and Harvard and the Ivies recur in his books, along with his infatuation with sailing and the sea. Unsurprisingly, later in life Wilson lived on the sea for a time and settled on a shoreline property in Colonial Beach, Va.
A dashing-looking fellow in his youth, Wilson was born of that cohort fired in the kiln of World War II. They were steady, strong men who returned home to build the American middle class. They were men like Tom Rath, heroes all the more extraordinary because they were ordinary. As Wilson wrote of his comrades in the dedication of Ice Brothers, “[T]hey’ll never have to wonder if they’re men.”
Although a Harvard graduate, Wilson didn’t much care for the Harvard crowd, and the value of his works lies in his candid observations not only about human nature and behavior, but also the wages of mendacity, weakness and fear, and conversely, those of honesty, strength, and moral courage.
A great artist, someone once told me, always reveals truth. Great writers also. To that category, add Sloan Wilson.
R. Cort Kirkwood is a newspaper editor and syndicated columnist.