Commentary Magazine


A Wife Is Many Women, by Doris Fleischman Bernays

Middlebrow Tuning Fork
by Lillian Blumberg McCall
A Wife Is Many Women. By Doris Fleischman Bernays. Crown. 209 pp. $5.00.

In this book, Which is only superficially about women but more specifically about the irritations endemic to our culture, Mrs. Bernays, niece by marriage of Sigmund Freud, wife and business partner of publicist Edward L. Bernays, and mother of two married daughters, casts a critical eye on the overly complicated mechanics of life in a technological society. Many of her suggestions for simplifying life excite admiration: “Kitchens might be hosed from top to bottom, the water running out through a floor drain. . . . Why not vermin-proof all equipment, remove dust automatically? Light interrupters would permit us modestly to keep shades up and let summer breezes in.” Damn the expense! These are all wonderful ideas.

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All of Mrs. Bernays’s proposed innovations stress efficiency and time-saving as a technique for reducing the stresses and strains, the harassments and fatigues that accompany what used to be called “the tempo of modern life.” I was particularly intrigued by her conception of a properly laid out department store: “Display rooms, equipped with television, motion pictures, slides, robot mannequins and miniature models . . . would be the basic sales machinery . . . the customer would be directed to Display Room 1-H where, seated on foam rubber, he would see cutlery, pots, dishwashers and towels shown to him in an electronic 3D parade. Electronic inventories . . . recorded voice descriptions would give you necessary facts.” A fascinating picture of an America so glutted by the good things of life that luxury itself has become burdensome. O brave new world that exists not in fancy but in fact!

Because, like America, she has been singularly blessed by the gods, Mrs. Bernays is a faithful mirror of the American Zeitgeist, a tuning fork for middlebrow aspirations. Born of a rich German Jewish family, remarkably pretty to judge from her picture, finding in her professional partnership with her husband a happy solution of the career-versus-marriage dilemma, her social circle adorned by the rich and the famous, Mrs. Bernays has earned an exalted rank in our status hierarchy, not simply as the appendage of a rich and successful man but by her own achievement. We may dismiss as coyness her claim that she is “an ‘average woman’ whose housewifely problems are common to all average women.” Comparatively few women face the problem of “Twenty-two guests for dinner four times a week and twenty-two additional people for a hot midnight snack,” or having to cope with a staff of nine servants.

Mrs. Bernays’s concerns are the concerns of the middle class: shopping, child-rearing, and having the right opinions. Highly susceptible to the fads and fancies that beguile public enthusiasm, she shares the public contempt for an outmoded theory. When behaviorism was the rage her first child was strictly conditioned, and when Watson went into eclipse she swung over to permissiveness, demand feeding, and progressive education. How typical of the prevailing anxiety of what Malcolm Cowley calls our “pedocratic society” is her tortured self-examination as to whether she has done everything possible for the psychological welfare of her children—a measure of our national inability to bear the thought that we cannot protect our children from all the storms of life. Nor are we surprised to find that her social judgments are harshly colored by popular psychoanalysis, an attitude of mind that does not allow for charity: “How often teeth in action have revealed the emotions of polite eaters. One evening a lawyer told us his wife had alienated their son. She laughed sweetly now and then protesting. . . . But we knew George was right. She worked steadily at a bowl of nuts. Crunch, crunch. She was gnawing at her own bones, her anxieties, her shame, her regrets.”

Typical, too, are the sentimental non sequitwrs of middlebrow liberal idealism: “If I cannot trust my good friend, Joe, to omit a few rotten apples, how can I believe in the good faith of delegates to the United Nations? When I find that the cashier has added two dollars to my slip three days in a row, how can I reassure myself that governments are honest?”

Mrs. Bernays, whose family has been American for a hundred years, urges a typically American remedy for the problems and discomforts of luxury—a hair of the dog that bites us. More and better experts, more psychoanalysts (who won’t however, “misread” Freud), more efficient marketing practices, and houses whose functional marvels would make the present “rancho with every wanted deluxe feature” look like a mud hut. Mrs. Bernays never worries about the cost of anything; her concern is with imperfection not deprivation. And this mirage of the ultimate lying just ahead is what gives to A Wife Is Many Women its unique American flavor.

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