One Touch of Ecstasy, by Gwynne Wimberly, Frederick Fell, Inc. 1959.
Best line: “There’s a reason we teach you correct posture. If your pelvis isn’t tilted forward, the organs in the area are affected unfavorably.”
The Plot: Poor Louise, married and with an eighteen-year-old daughter has never had an orgasm. Ever since that date-rape in college she’s been all twisted up inside, and marriage hasn’t helped–she’s mired in suburban misery. “The hollandaise had been spectacular” but that can’t disguise the fact that her life is one “cruelly civilized evening of superficiality and loneliness” after another. Now hubby Warren is chasing after her best friend, while daughter Betty is enamored of the son of Louise’s college boyfriend, the date rapist. Will correct posture save this neurotic, middle-aged housewife?
After the sexy underwear she bought at the department store doesn’t solve her problems, Louise throws on her vicuna and heads to Margo DeVries “Total Personality and Figure Development” for a consultation. She’s too embarrassed to admit why she’s there, but sophisticated, pants-wearing Margo intuits it and tells her: “You feel tense and on edge and alone. You’re not quite sure what an orgasm is. You’re afraid you’ve never had one and soon it’ll be too late.” The “handsome, sun-tanned creature” whose “hand is as blunt as a man’s” assures her that she, Margo, will prove that Louise is as “normal as any woman…I believe we should start with an old-fashioned massage.” Yowza!
Louise responds well to treatment, a series of increasingly intimate massages in Margo’s private office. The author telegraphs loud and clear that predatory Margo is molding dim-witted Louise into her next paramour (a previous scandal is hinted at). A suspicion or two crosses Louise’s mind, but she manages to avoid the truth staring her in the face. Even after feeling Margo’s hand “slip down over her inner thigh between her legs” she still wonders, “was it possible that this woman was making a pass?” Nah, she decides–it’s just a massage. Margo hypnotizes Louise with the big emerald she always wears, as if they’re in some Victorian vampire melodrama, all the time making remarks like, “You’re a lovely girl who’s had a raw deal. It’s time for you to have a little fun out of life and I’m going to help you all I can.”
Alas, just as things are really heating up at the massage parlor, Louise is struck by homosexual panic and and runs for home. She can’t go through with it–despite thinking “this is your chance to find out what it’s like!”–not with this “bizarre creature, neither male nor female.”
This reader’s interest petered out as Betty eloped with the son of the date-rapist and Louise confronted the dad and finally came to terms with that long ago date-gone-wrong. Once she’s made peace with her past, her “problem with no name” vanishes, and she throws herself into a sort of total woman surrender to Warren, who masterfully takes her upstairs to give her that long-awaited orgasm. Vampirish Margo is left to hunt for another, more amenable housewife.
Sex: “I even know I have a vagina and a clitoris!” modern young Betty declares. But knowledge of physiognomy does these hapless characters no good. The sexual encounters are one near miss after another. Warren almost has sex with the best friend. Louise almost has sex with Margo. Daughter Betty’s elopement wedding night is a fizzle. And even that elusive marital orgasm is still waiting in the wings as the book ends.
Drinking: The characters are “well-cocktailed,” Mad Men style. There are pre-dinner martinis, post-dinner stingers (Margo also serves stingers, with each massage), mid-day refreshers of coffee and bourbon, not to mention the references to sleeping pills, Miltown, and “the torpor of tranquilizers.” We’re deep in 50s suburbia here.
Homo Psychology: Freud looms large. Louise is pondering her penis envy in Chapter One, and has delved deeply into psychological literature in the course of searching for a solution to her “problem.” Nonetheless, she has emerged from this extensive psycho-sexual research believing that lesbians are “hideous square creatures with bumpy faces and furtive eyes,” which is why she never suspects attractive Margo of any deviant tendencies. Per usual, a bad mom is to blame for Louise’s inhibitions, but that doesn’t cut any ice with daughter Bets: “Daddy and I are sympathetic with your anxiety neurosis, but there are limits.”
Barbara’s Take: One Touch made its appearance on The Ladder’s triumphant round-up of 1959 lesbian-themed books, but was never reviewed. In summing up the year’s lesbian lit, Barbara was disappointed by the decline in romance, but “on the plus side…is the amazing amount of tolerance, acceptance and sympathy in this year’s fiction.” I think Barbara would have classed One Touch as sympathetic. After all, it’s clear that Margo’s massages did help Louise on her path to orgasm; and although Louise briefly considers warning the world against the evil lesbian in their midst, she changes her tune in the end to a more tolerant, live-and-let-live attitude.
Comment: This is clunkily-written, gray-flannel-suit hokum; skippable, except for the Margo sequence, which is pretty darn entertaining. “Louise, a sensitive woman like you can’t throw herself away–I’ll give you anything. We’ll travel. I have all the money we could ever need. Don’t run away!”