The (Implicitly) Jewish Character Who Serves as the Moral Anchor in “The Women”

September 22, 2022 | Michael Weingrad
About the author: Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 

A sensation when it was first staged in 1936, Clare Boothe Luce’s play The Women was made into a highly successful film of the same name three years later. Its portrayal of a well-to-do-woman facing an unfaithful husband on the one hand and a circle of ungenerous and backstabbing friends on the other provides a fairly dim view of the female condition. In his analysis, Michael Weingrad points to a character who stands out from the rest:

The film offers somewhat more possibility for constructive female cooperation than does the play, and the one character who seems to support other women as women and without much in the way of ulterior motive is Miriam [Aarons]. This is interesting since the character’s name indicates that she is the one Jewish character in the film.

Luce had a long history of close and complicated relationships with Jews. Her mother Ann’s longest and most serious romance with any man was with Joel Jacobs, a wealthy Keystone Tires executive. . . . Luce herself was for many years the mistress of the world-famous Jewish financier Bernard (or “Barney”) Baruch; she always hoped he would leave his wife for her. And one of Luce’s closest female friends was the Jewish writer Laura Z. Hobson, whose bestselling novel about anti-Semitism was made into the Academy Award-winning film Gentleman’s Agreement.

Miriam in both play and film may be the closest thing we have to a good character who is not naïve. She is not one of the upper-class characters; she comes from the world of the theater, introduced in the play as “the musical-comedy star.” She is not a servant, like the maid and cook through whose commentary we learn of Mary’s split with her husband, or a worker like Lucy at the Reno ranch who offers homespun counterpoint to the refined neuroses of her wealthy guests. Yet like these lower-class characters, Miriam is able to offer wisdom that can only come from outside the world of the idle and status-obsessed rich.

Miriam is tough, telling Mary in the film: “I come from a world where a woman’s just gotta come out on top or it’s just too darn bad.” But this other “world” that Miriam comes from—signaling Jewish outsider-ness, theatrical hustle, working-class and immigrant roots—seems to spur her towards a compassion and effectiveness combined in no other character. Miriam gets along with the other society women without becoming one of them, and she is the closest thing to a real friend that Mary, or anyone, has by the end of the film.

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