Do you love film noir? Then imagine this cast: Montgomery Clift as a vain but charismatic pimp named Eddie; Marilyn Monroe as Marie, the naive small-town girl turned prostitute who loves him and whose sexual favors he peddles to johns; Joseph Cotten as Thomas, their most addicted customer and hanger-on; and Richard Conte as Joe aka “Mr. Brown,” the gangster who runs the major vice racket in town.
Picture the setting: New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in the early 1950s. If you’re a noir fan, you’ve no doubt seen loads of black and white footage and photos of that area in that era: the gritty asphalt and skyscraper jungle; the dark rain-splashed streets, the lonely warehouses, the bleak side street hotels.
The film, of course, does not exist, but if Natalie Anderson Scott’s remarkable 1954 novel HOTEL ROOM, originally published as The Little Stockade, actually had been filmed, this would have been an excellent cast.
The beautiful cover art is what initially drew me to the book, along with the story about prostitution in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen of the ’50s.
If you’re familiar with The Big Combo, the 1955 noir by Joseph H. Lewis, you know that Richard Conte did indeed play a top gangster called Mr. Brown in that production. But The Little Stockade came first. Maybe screenwriter Philip Yordan read the book and borrowed for his script the idea of the evocatively bland name for a menacing crime overlord? Just thinking out loud here; it’s possible.
The phrase “the little stockade” refers to the work of the pimps who peddle their girls independently of the major vice operation in the city, known as “The Big Stockade.” And “stockade” is right. The primary female character, Marie, is kept in the hotel room where she services customers as if it is her cell in a prison.
Much of the book takes place in a squalid all-night restaurant in the Thirties between 10th and 11th Avenues called “Steve’s.” It reminded me a lot of the diner that was an important setting in The Deuce, the recent HBO show about the ‘70s/’80s NYC porn business. Maybe David Simon and his writers read HOTEL ROOM and were inspired to pay it homage and utilize a similar setting in their portrait of a demimonde full of pimps and prostitutes?
Steve’s is where the various hookers, policemen, and other pimps hang out, and where Thomas (who would be perfectly cast as Joseph Cotten), a newly divorced, “respectable” middle class man from outside the city, has been steered by a Broadway bartender in Thomas’ quest to taste the sleazier aspects of life now that he’s on his own. He becomes basically addicted to Marie after Eddie introduces them, and gradually becomes almost like Eddie’s go-fer as well as a steady trick. There is a strange symbiosis between Thomas and Eddie that is not explicitly homoerotic but the author subtly makes the point that Thomas is as enslaved to Eddie as Marie is.
There is nothing light-hearted about the obsession that Thomas, one of Marie’s “johns,” has for her. It is tragic for both, yet leads Thomas to a strange heroism in the end.
The hotel and room where Marie works are so well-described, especially the lonely winding corridors leading to the room, that you almost feel like you’re walking down those halls yourself.
Eddie is a dandy, a snappy dresser who lives not with Marie but with his family elsewhere in the city, who maintains the fiction with the sadly gullible Marie that she is his fiancee, and that once she helps him with her body to get out of a dangerous debt, they will be married. Eddie, who reads psychology books and likes to discourse in a pseudo-intellectual way about the craft of being a pimp (although he never calls himself that), charges way above the going rate for Marie’s services, attracting an upper-class clientele, until one day Mr. Brown comes calling to tell Eddie his days running a little stockade are over, and he’ll be working for the Big Stockade from now on. (This is not a spoiler; the reader sees it coming.)
So, this is a bare bones description of one of the most unforgettable novels I have ever read. I couldn’t put it down for two days, and it concludes in a shocking but inevitable act of self-sacrifice and redemption that is ultimately very moving.
Recently the critic Andrew Nette wrote on Crime Reads here about George Simenon’s “hard novels” and how they often portray middle class protagonists walking on the wild side of low life, usually with dire consequences. I didn’t think of Simenon when I read this book, and it is not at all like Simenon in its style, but Thomas could be one of Simenon’s characters, certainly. He loses his way in sexual obsession, although he is essentially a good man. Another memorable character in the novel is Janet, Marie’s aunt (in a film she could have been played by Joan Bennett or Laraine Day), who has come to the city to find her niece, and who suspects the truth of what is happening. She sits day after day in Steve’s restaurant, reading a newspaper and waiting for her chance to save Marie. She’s another fascinating character, ambiguous, driven, who becomes friends with Thomas–even though she knows that he is one of Marie’s johns.
Truly, this is a book of admirable complexity that deserves to be remembered. It was written by the Russian-born Natalie Anderson Scott (1906-1983). Her real name originally was Natalie Sokoloff, which she Americanized on the advice of her agent; she wrote quite a number of now-obscure books, including a bestselling 1947 novel about alcoholism called The Story of Mrs. Murphy. One thing that stands out is Scott’s lack of judgment about her characters, viewing them dispassionately as she incisively delineates the tragic obsession of a prostitute’s insatiable customer, or the menacing business-like attitude of a Mr. Brown. She shows the way the prostitution racket of the time worked via journalistic details that move the story forward at the same time. The long scene where Mr. Brown confronts Eddie about coming into the Big Stockade would have been amazing in a film, something Elia Kazan could have had a field day directing. Conte would have been perfect as Mr. Brown, the antagonist of an Eddie played by Montgomery Clift in a villainous yet complex role unlike any other Clift had ever played; and in fact, Conte’s character in The Big Combo is very much like the Mr. Brown of HOTEL ROOM which, for all its blandness as a title, is perfect for this absorbing novel. Maybe Stark House Press can look into reprinting it?
There was always something of the victim in Marilyn Monroe’s screen persona (I think of the strangely passive expression she gave Joseph Cotten as he murderously approached her when she was cornered in the climax of Niagara), and it would been have both a challenge to her as an actress, and intriguing to the audience to see her, in the role of a young woman manipulated and befuddled into sexual slavery by a handsome, silver-tongued man on the dark night side streets of Manhattan.
Finally, I just want to mention that I had never heard of this book until I saw this post on Pulp International here. Although I’m always pledging to myself to not buy any more books (!) as I certainly have more than enough (well that’s what I tell myself), the beautiful cover by Rafael DeSoto and the novel’s Hell’s Kitchen setting were irresistible, so I sought out a reasonably priced copy of the 1955 Popular Library paperback online. I’m glad I did. (Although the “come-on-and-buy-me” paperback art does not accurately portray the somber sadness of Marie or the faux-elegant villainy of Eddie.)
I hope HOTEL ROOM aka The Little Stockade by Natalie Anderson Scott can once again find the audience it deserves.