I wouldn’t be at all surprised if whoever coined the expression “hopeless romantic” had me in mind when it happened. Throughout my life I have revisited literary themes that featured class inequities and forbidden but intransigent love that always ended confirming my belief in the notion that love conquers all.
Charlotte Brontë won my undying devotion with Jane Eyre, probably my favorite of all the English classics. In my youth I believed that true love, even after a series of heartbreaks perpetrated by the man of my dreams, would win out and I would live happily ever after.
By the time Fanny Hurst’s 1931 novel Back Street hit its third moving picture iteration in 1961, the heroine was portrayed by Susan Hayward, an actress I admired. She was my ideal for Rae, the aspiring fashion designer character who meets by chance a handsome stranger who turns out to be a wealthy department store chain heir. The spark between them was barely ignited when Rae learned Paul Saxon (played by another favorite of mine, John Gavin – I am drawn to men with cleft chins) was married. He went back to his life and she move to New York, where she became a successful designer.
When they ran into each other again in New York years later, the fire between them reignited, but he was still married. Rae and Paul were determined to remain “good people,” and they once again parted with their apparent love unpursued. Rae fled to Rome to escape her longing. Ah, but The Fates were relentless. Another chance meeting in Rome, and all resistance was out the window. Paul’s drunken, vicious wife refused to give him a divorce, so they began a catch-as-catch-can affair that spanned years.
It was the violins, I think, that did if for me. Whenever Rae and Paul laid eyes on each other after a long absence, those damned violins went into high gear. Those melodious strings were like puppet masters over the strings to my youthful heart. They would embrace; I would cry.
What set this story apart from my previous forays into the world of romantic love was the lesson I had learned by the time I left the theater. No happily ever after ending was to be on this one. Paul’s young son found out about Rae and his dad’s deception, and the violins took on a mournful tone that signaled the beginning of the end.
Love did not conquer all. Good did not win over evil. The scene of the illicit couple’s last parting was dramatic (melodramatic, in retrospect) and heartbreaking to this 16-year-old. I couldn’t imagine how they would go on without each other. Two lives had to be, for all intents and purposes, over.
My eyes were still red and swollen when I got home from “the show.” When asked by my mother what was wrong, I answered: “Sad movie. Very sad movie.”