Born 3 September 1900, St. Louis, Missouri; died 21 July 1972, Woodland Hills, California
Daughter of Alonzo Redway and Anna Prophater Smith; married Reynolds Benson, 1919 (divorced)
After Sally Benson's family had moved to New York, she attended the Horace Mann School, started working at seventeen, married at nineteen, had a daughter, and later divorced her husband. She wrote newspaper interviews and movie reviews and in 1929 contributed the first of her 108 stories to the New Yorker. Benson also edited a volume of myths, wrote mystery reviews for the New Yorker and more than 20 screenplays.
People are Fascinating (1936) includes almost all the stories Benson had published in the New Yorker and four from American Mercury. "The Overcoat" and "Suite 2049" were O. Henry prize stories for 1935 and 1936. The title story offers an ironic perspective on the volume: a woman dramatist reads drama into mundane lives. Benson reveals the mediocrity of self-deluded and self-indulgent characters but is compassionate about their attempts to deal with their own mediocrity, with poverty and aging, with meaningless lives.
In Emily (1938) Benson writes somewhat longer stories that allow for character development and elicit compassion for those caught in dilemmas, particularly those of growing up. "Professional Housewife" scathingly reveals the emptiness of the role, as well as that of a door-to-door salesman. When scattered in the New Yorker these stories seem witty; in this collection they seem depressing.
Despite libraries' classification, Junior Miss (1941) is not a children's book. Each story humorously shows a young girl's attempt to learn about herself and the world; collectively, the stories reveal the human condition. Benson's light touch does not hide the seriousness of Judy's problems and the inadequacies of most adult strategies for coping with them. The dramatization by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields (1942) achieved success by hardening the delicacy gained by Benson's stream-of-consciousness technique; it has the "rounded ends" and "climaxes" Benson disliked, and creates a popular stereotype. Readers of the stories will perceive Junior Miss as a rare account of female rites of passage.
Benson's Meet Me in St. Louis (1942) is a collection of 12 stories published in the New Yorker as "5135 Kensington." They deal with family life and are based on the diaries of Benson's sister at the time of the World's Fair in St. Louis at the turn of the this obviously autobiographical work in which she appears as Tootie, age six. The collection focuses on an older sister and her determinedly sophisticated friends. It was made into a popular movie starring Judy Garland.
Benson published Women and Children FIRST in 1943. The title originally proposed for the volume, "Danger: Women at Work," accurately describes the focus on women frittering away their lives, manipulating each other and men. The stories centering around male central characters are equally bleak in their portrayal of human selfishness and pettiness. The book exposes a society which fosters useless lives by its role expectations.
Benson's stories are "slices of life" in which characters, through stream-of-consciousness or dialogue, reveal foolish pretenses; swift narration and irony preclude sentimentality but sometimes result in cruel revelations. Cumulatively her women are stereotypes of frivolous, stupid, and wasteful upper-middle-class New Yorkers. But Benson also described the male self-deception and use of power that compel women to utilize manipulative strategies. Her portraits of young girls reveal the anguish of their socialization.
Stories of the Gods and Heroes (1940). Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Experiment Perilous (1944). National Velvet (1944). Anna and the King of Siam (1946). Come to the Stable (1949). No Man of Her Own (1950). Conspirator (1950). The Belle of New York (1952). The Farmer Takes a Wife (1953). Seventeen by B. Tarkington (dramatization by Benson, 1954). The Young and the Beautiful by F. S. Fitzgerald (dramatization by Benson, 1956). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960). Bus Stop (1961). Summer Magic (1962). Viva Las Vegas (1963). Signpost to Murder (1963). The Singing Nun (1966).
Ferguson, M.A., ed., Images of Women in Literature (1991). Writers and Writing (22 July 1972). NYT (22 July 1972).
—MARY ANNE FERGUSON