Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Dud Avocado

We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air.
 -- Elaine Dundy from The Dud Avocado

Via The Fabulous Audrey Hepburn

There is a strange fascination with the madcap girl about town, the fashionable yet kooky ingenue, who manages to get herself into scrapes yet coast willfully above them. Holly Golightly and Carrie Bradshaw are the two that spring most obviously to mind. One a party girl  (a high-end prostitute really), the other a sex columnist.

Via the [haute] collective

Yet, in the arcs of their narratives, their professions are less about their risqué leanings and more about the freedom they afford them in terms of a nontraditional work schedule. Holly and Carrie spend their time gallivanting about the city, having high-end adventures that give them a taste of the good life, and an eye for its fashionable aspects, but also a sense of desperation. Their work is fickle, and they must dress the part to haunt the tinkling cocktail palaces. So they wear things they can't afford, and stand out as peacocks partly due to creative eccentricity and partly due to a palpable otherness from the wealthy circles they inhabit. These lovable kooks came from somewhere else, reinvented themselves in a great metropolis, and never looked back.

It was a situation all too familiar to me, this business of setting off on the wrong foot and, doggedly remaining there. Only I'd never watched it from the outside before. It was fascinating. 

Another madcap ingenue to add to this canon is Sally Jay Gorce, who predates both Holly and Carrie. She is the heroine of Elaine Dundy's novel, The Dud Avocado, first published in 1958. Though neither a sex worker or a sex columnist, Sally certainly does not lack for sex. After college, she is granted a modest monthly sum from her uncle to live in Paris for two years and discover herself. Like Carrie and Holly, she has the freedom to spend her days sipping Pernod and flirting in the afternoons, cavorting with titled older gentlemen, and joining her friends in the south of France for a month. Yet her apartment is modest, her clothes are held together by safety pins, and she is perpetually wearing the wrong thing, such as an evening dress under the heat of the midday sun. She is unfailingly the archetypal young American innocent abroad, with her freshness, her bluntness, and her rat-a-tat humor.

Blushingly I recalled a night when I had suddenly fallen in love with the Place de Furstenburg in the moonlight. I had actually--oh Lord--I had actually kissed one of the stones at the fountain, I remembered, flung my shoes off, and executed a crazy drunken dance.

Elaine Dundy, second from right.

A cult classic, The Dud Avocado made a splash upon publication, only to be periodically out of print over the next fifty years. Still, it was passed lovingly between insiders. A madcap lark of a story, a souffle anchored by something more substantial, it describes a young woman coming into her own. In a letter to Elaine Dundy, fan Groucho Marx wrote, "I had to tell someone (and it might as well be you since you're the author) how much I enjoyed The Dud Avocado. It made me laugh, scream, and guffaw (which, incidentally, is a great name for a law firm)."

The sun shone on: the shade of the awning vanished in the hot, white, shadowless midday. In that blaze of heat, I was loving Paris as never before. 

Elaine Dundy

For all the madcap adventures, the parties with bohemians and Countesses, the regretted mornings (indeed the book is quite the rebuke to the cultural myth that sex was invented in the 1960s), I sensed an undercurrent of sadness. Her years in Paris are but a stopover, a temporary reprieve from a traditional life in her future. She is searching for something, trying to be someone, trying to get somewhere, but she's not sure yet what, or who, or where.

We danced and kissed through the jazz. It was cool and hot and blue. Midnight blue. Blue smoke. Blues.

Via The Independent

And so she makes the most of the time she has. She dances, and laughs, gets into scrapes, and remembers that she is young. There is time enough for all things. Let us make a toast. The Dud Avocado is a lovely read, fun, ripe and fresh as ever.


  1. I'm going to have to add this one to my Amazon wishlist - interesting. I wish someone would pay me to go to Paris for 2 years and find myself!

  2. Yes, that certainly wouldn't be a hardship at all! :)