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Jaffe, Rona

Jaffe, Rona

(b. 12 June 1932 in New York City; d. 30 December 2005 in London, England), author of popular novels who focused on groups of women seeking balance between marriage and careers.

Jaffe was the only child of Samuel Jaffe, an elementary-school teacher and principal, and his first wife, Diana (Ginsberg) Jaffe, a teacher with an independent fortune. Jaffe grew up in comfortable circumstances on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She graduated from the Dalton School at age fifteen, in 1947, and from Radcliffe College, the Harvard-affiliated women’s school, in 1951 with a BA in English, having spent a summer at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, in Vermont.

Jaffe went to work as a file clerk and secretary at a New York publisher immediately after college graduation, as does the lead character in her first novel, The Best of Everything (1958). This well-known work was, in fact, based on the four years Jaffe served as associate editor at Fawcett Publications, from 1952 to 1956. The novel details the lives of four beautiful young women—Caroline, April, Barbara, and Gregg—who work as secretaries while trying to deal with the men in their lives. The main character, Caroline, eventually becomes an editor, without marrying. Martin Levin succinctly described the plotlines in a New York Times review: “Before very many coffee breaks, one is a stretcher case, one is pregnant, and the third is off to Las Vegas with a notorious lounge lizard. But that’s the life of a working girl, at least as seen through Miss Jaffe’s wide eyes.”

Jaffe left Fawcett to write the novel, as essentially commissioned by the movie producer Jerry Wald, and the fact that it was written for Hollywood served to increase readership. Within two weeks of publication, The Best of Everything was on the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for five months. With Jerry Wald’s involvement, Twentieth Century–Fox released the associated film, directed by Jean Negulesco, in 1959.

The fictional work site of the women, Fabian Publishing, was New York City’s new Seagram Building, and some of the sets were designed in the style of an important New York decorator of the time, Michael Greer. Hope Lange, Diane Baker, Martha Hyer, and the supermodel Suzy Parker starred as the four young secretaries, while Joan Crawford made a special appearance as Amanda Farrow, an ill-tempered book editor who was one of the bosses of the young women; Farrow had apparently sacrificed her own happiness for a professional glory not usually given to women in that period.

Unlike most of her passive fictional characters, Jaffe was professionally ambitious and not seeking to forgo a career for the sake of marriage. Indeed, although she had numerous romantic adventures, Jaffe never married, preferring to avoid what she once described as “the rat race to the altar.” After her debut best seller, she wrote fifteen more popular books, as well as a highly praised collection of five short stories with a title novella, Mr. Right Is Dead (1965). Several of her novels followed the pattern of focusing on a group of women over many years, such as with The Last Chance (1976) and Class Reunion (1979). In her Washington Post review of the latter, Lynn Darling noted that Jaffe “follows the trials and tribulations of eight members of the Class of ‘57... as they try to crawl out from under the mind-numbing conformity of the ‘50s.”

An American Love Story (1990), which received bad reviews, follows Clay Bowen and four women in his life: a ballerina, whom he marries; a writer and an agent, his mistresses; and his daughter. The Cousins (1995), on the other hand, was a Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club selection. This novel focuses on one character, Olivia Okrent, and her coping with the infidelity of the man with whom she lives. Although it bears certain similarities to Jaffe’s other novels, The Cousins is noted for its wit and perceptive analysis of human frailties. With Five Women (1997) and The Room-Mating Season (2003), her last book, Jaffe returned to her formula featuring young women working in New York. In an interview with the Publishers Weekly writer Tracy Cochran, Jaffe said that she used the same pattern in her books so as to best analyze the evolving state of American society: “I recently realized that approximately every twenty years, I look at life again and see where we are.” One of the most significant parts of Five Women involves a character enduring breast cancer. In The Room-Mating Season, Jaffe focuses on four women rooming together in New York and coping with the suicide of one of the group. The Road Taken (2000) uses a different format, focusing on the members of one family throughout the twentieth century. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that in this novel Jaffe “convincingly depicts a century of social change.”

Jaffe’s novel Mazes and Monsters (1981) has been cited as an example of psychoanalytic literature. It shows how imaginative fiction and fantasy games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, can generate delusions in the readers and players. Jaffe was also the associate producer of the made-for-television movie Mazes and Monsters (1982), starring Tom Hanks. Beyond her personal efforts, Jaffe established herself as a patron of writing, becoming administrator of the Rona Jaffe Prizes in Creative Writing, offered at Radcliffe, in 1987. In 1995 she established the Rona Jaffe Foundation, which provides grants to emerging female writers. At an awards ceremony in September 1995, Jaffe said, “All writers need support, but many women in early career have fewer resources available to them and often many demands made upon them. It gives me great pleasure to help some of them make their way at this early stage.”

Jaffe died at age seventy-four, of cancer, at University College Hospital in London, where she was on vacation. She is noted for her numerous best sellers of popular fiction. While The Best of Everything has a distinctly prefeminist slant, dating it firmly to midcentury, her later novels focus on married as well as single women coping with such issues as divorce, cocaine addiction, a gay husband, suicide, and other contemporary situations. In addition, her short stories, essays, and various magazine articles reflect her outlook on societal changes that took place from the 1950s to the end of the century.

A good biographical overview is Trish Hall, “How Rona Jaffe Found the Best of Everything,” New York Times (13 Apr. 2003). An obituary is in the New York Times (31 Dec. 2005).

Dessa Crawford

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