"Behold This Woman is probably the most autobiographical novel. . . . It was payback time for his ex-wife, Elaine. The novel tells the story of Clara Ervin, a manipulative, calculating, and cold-blooded woman who systematically emasculates and ruins her husband, as well as several other men, before meeting a violent death. She embodies many of the characteristics of Goodis's Ex, a central character in his life and the person who dealt him a piercing blow from which he would never recover."
Behold This Woman
Critics and Goodis scholars believe that Clara, the pivotal character in Behold This Woman is Elaine Astor. Messner published the novel in 1946, the year David Goodis obtained his divorce. The book is raw. Goodis' pain is raw. His scars are unhealed. The novel oozes with resentment. Clara teases men. She manipulates men. She exploits men. How did Elaine Astor look? How did she act? What did David Goodis wish for her?
Get the book. Used copies are available from amazon.com for as little as $50. Better yet, an annotated version is circulating underground. How to get it will forever be secret.
He wondered why he needed to get married. He looked around and saw everybody married and he thought perhaps there was something about it that he didn’t understand, Although the fundamental reason was obvious enough, he did a lot of thinking about it and there were nights when he stayed awake disagreeing with it. The custom of marriage was something to ponder over, to study from many scattered angles. (page 3)
Slice me a banana. Pour in a lot of cream. A lot, I said. And three poached eggs, some toast with a lot of butter, and melted, remember that, melted on the toast. And a pot of coffee. Before you do that, run out and get me a pack of cigarettes. Get two packs. And start lukewarm water running in the bathtub. Throw in some of that Tiger Lily bath salts I have in the lower shelf of the cabinet. Then take out those yellow towels. The yellow ones, the new ones I bought. Are you paying attention to what I’m saying? (page 36)
[Speaking to the live-in housekeeper] "I'm going to give you another chance. But I want to see an immediate improvement in your work, and I want you to respond more quickly when I order you to do something. Above all, I want respect. I want you to stay in your place. Is that clear?
"Here's something else. Beginning next week you get seven dollars instead of nine."
"I'm taking two dollars off your wages. Your work isn't worth nine dollars a week. It isn't even worth seven. I'm being kind to you by allowing you to say here. And here's something I want you to remember. I'm mistress of this house and I decide how it's going to be run. I've decided that you'll be getting seven dollars a week from now on. And if I hear that you've complained to Mr. Ervin, I'll decide that you're not to work here at all. Now go downstairs and get my breakfast ready. And attend to the other things I want. And be quick about it." (page 40).
Dressing slowly, Clara emphasized yellow. The black dress had a yellow border and a yellow belt. The high-belted black kidskin shoes had a yellow strap and trimming. Clara stood before the mirror, smoothing the dress over the big wide bulge in back. Then she turned to one side and glanced at her profile in the mirror. In front, high and quit naturally, she bulged prominently. There was something strained about it, nothing forced or mechanical, no need for a specially designed brassiere or stiffened corset. This, Clara told herself, was something to be proud of. This, five feet five inches and one hundred and fifty-seven pounds, was the real perfection, the true feminine magnificence. This was the grand shaping, the roundness and fullness, the solidity, the majesty.
Clara posed before the mirror. She kept turning, walked toward the mirror, retreated, walked forward again and put fat fingers on a hip. She looked at the finger next to the little finger. Into her mind leaped a magazine article dealing with the current craze for topaz. An immense topaz, set in gold, flanked by baguette diamonds, and glowing on that finger. She smiled and snapped her fingers, and nodded at the mirror. (pages 47-48).
Clara looked at Agnes [the housekeeper] and said, "Get my cigarettes from the living room." She stirred the heavily-sugared heavily-creamed coffee. "And also bring me the jar of chocolate mints."
Evelyn [Clara's step-daughter] took another piece of bread.
And then Clara was lighting a cigarette, inhaling deeply and letting the smoke come out through her nose. She placed a chocolate mint on her tongue, rolled the circle of candy back in her mouth and took more smoke into her mouth and savored the blend of tobacco smoke and the cool sweetness of chocolate and mint. Then, leaning back again, toying with the cigarette, Clara looked at Evelyn, who was now eating steadily.
Clara said, "And what were you saying about torturing your father?" (page 58).
Clara saw the face of George between the headlights and his arms were thrown across his eyes. Clara stepped on the accelerator and she was smiling. . . .
The bumper struck George below the knees. As he fell to the street, the bumper struck him again. He was drawn beneath the car and he was being dragged.
Clara steered the car, kept her foot on the accelerator toward the floor and twisted the wheel to the right, to the left, to the right again, trying to force the body under the heavy tires.
The body was dragged for almost a hundred yards, and then it was pulled under the left rear wheel and the wheel passed over the legs. And the body rested there in the center of the street. Blood came gushing out to form a pond that glittered in the dark street. (pages 182-183).
Standing at the side of the bed, Clara slowly removed her clothing. She tossed pink satin undergarments onto the bed. Leonard grinned at her. She leaned toward him. He put is hands out, he was raising his body from the bed so as to come in contact with her, and when he was at the point of meeting her she went sliding away from him. She reached for the pink satin undergarments, turned her back on Leonard and began to dress. (page 206).
[Leonard, Clara's lover] "What are your driving at?"
[Clara} "I want you to buy me a diamond."
"For what reason?"
"Now wait, Clara---"
"That's precisely the point. I'm not waiting. I want you to buy me a large square-cut. And you know my idea of large. I want that ring within three days." (page 210).
Clara leaned toward him and she said, "Do you realize? Do you? I don't think so. I'm afraid you're forcing me to use cold cards on the table. You're underneath a sword, Leonard. For what you've done they can give you death in the electric chair."
* * * *
I'll go to the police and tell them that you planned to murder Ervin. Establishing a motive is absurdly simple. You wanted me, and Ervin was an obstacle. You told me of your scheme, and I begged you to put it out of your mind. But on that night when you saw him walking across the street, you decided to kill him. That makes you guilty of murder in the first degree. (page 213).
"It would not have been murder," Clard said. "It would have been something fine. A downright noble deed."
[Barry]: "What is she?"
[Clard]: "A serpent." (page 225).
"No," Clard said. "Not murder. You won't feel murder in your heart."
Barry came toward Clard, saying with a hiss, "What difference does it make what I'll feel in my heart? I'll be killing her, won't I?"
[Clard]: "You'll be killing an infection." (page 240).
Fifteen years before this picture was taken, Barry Kinnett one of the characters in Behold This Woman walked from the subway on Broad Street, past this intersection of Old York Road and Loudon Streets, to his home, next door to the house of Clara Ervin, on or near the block where David Goodis grew up. Jay Cooke Junior High School, not in the picture, is across the street on the left of the cars.
Behold This Woman is set in the quiet, middle class neighborhood of Logan, where David Goodis and I both grew up. Logan was marked by its quiet tree lined streets, small lawns and row homes with Roman pillars on the porches. He mentions the junior high school (Cooke) he attended and the subway where he commuted to college and center city. Goodis puts a gray cast on Logan, with the basest of actions happening long after the neighbors had gone to sleep. It is hard to imagine that such evil happened in this calm place.
Read Larry Withers' latest article on his mother, Elaine Astor, and the life of David Goodis on the NoirCON Blog..