Unpacking “Saratoga Trunk”

Edna Ferber’s semi-local novel

“No matter what I say I am – that I am. I shall be what it suits me to be. “

Clio Dulaine, heroine of the 1941 blockbuster novel “Saratoga Trunk,” is the beautiful daughter of a free woman of color and her wealthy white partner. Returning to New Orleans from Paris, she styles herself a Countess and has two goals: finding a rich husband and vengeance against her late father’s family (his accidental death while grabbing the gun from her suicidal mother was the cause of the mother’s and Clio’s exile to France.) Meeting her match in guile and ultimately her life partner, gambler-cowboy Clint Maroon, Clio scrambles to the top of Gilded-Age society, exemplified by the Saratoga Springs, New York, resort.

Edna Ferber, the novelist, admitted in her autobiography “A Peculiar Treasure,” that “everything that I have written … has had a sound sociological basis.” Ferber chronicled outsiders, people who reinvented themselves, who bounced back from adversity. Her own life was her best creation. She was Jewish, and grew up in small Midwestern towns with few Jewish families. Eventually, Ferber would make a fortune from her writing: short stories, novels and plays. She moved in New York literary circles and travelled the world.

She started small. After graduating from high school, Ferber began working as a newspaper reporter in Appleton, Wisconsin, moved on to the staff of the Milwaukee Journal, and became skilled at her job.  “I learned that if you asked…. almost anyone would tell you almost anything.” She was observant, she had a good memory, and she could work without taking notes: she wrote it all down later.

Born in the 19th century, she was an ardent supporter of American democracy and in the 1930s was horrified by Hitler’s rise. Perhaps because of her patriotism, Ferber explored American regional culture in her fiction, and used her reporter’s skills in her work.

Ethnicity and social mobility were key elements in her characters. “Cimarron,” set in Oklahoma, deals with Native Americans and white settlers; “Giant,” in Texas, covers Mexican Americans with cattle ranchers and oil barons; “Show Boat” depicts the tangled racial ties of a theatrical troop.

Ferber usually began novels with on-the-ground research. According to her second autobiography “A Kind of Magic,” Ferber had never visited New Orleans until 1940. “It was enchanting, it was gay, it was hot and delicious and steaming,” she wrote, while noting the “shabby plantations” and “lethargic” tempo of life.

The only Orleanian she mentions by name was Roark Bradford, a Times- Picayune editor, whose stories of a black pastor became a 1930 Broadway hit: “Green Pastures.” She did not discuss doing local research for the book.  However, the Works Progress Administration “Guide to New Orleans” was published in 1938, and contained enough local color for any novelist.

Ferber’s New Orleans section in “Saratoga Trunk” has it all: street vendors, French Market stalls, Begue’s Restaurant, a house on Rampart Street, the French Quarter, the river, the cathedral. Local idioms dot the conversations.

A few months before the novel’s publication in November, 1941, a disheartened Ferber wrote her editor, Malcolm Johnson “I’ve loathed every writing minute of it…. Nothing can convince me that anyone will read this mass of blubber.”

Not only was it a best seller, it made a great movie: Warner Brothers paid $175,000 for the rights.

Ingrid Bergman (in a dark wig) is Clio; her faithful retainer is British actress Flora Robson (in very dark make-up — she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Gary Cooper plays Clint Maroon.

“Saratoga Trunk” is the only film in which Bergman sings — her singing coach was Dalton S. Reymond, a onetime music professor at LSU; and her songs were French folk songs, the second one collected in Louisiana.

Filming of the New Orleans scenes was done in Pasadena, California, from February to June, 1943, but the film was not released until 1945 when World War II ended. Because of wartime rationing, the produce in the French Market scenes was fake.

In the Saratoga Springs, New York, section of the film, the train wreck, and subsequent fight, was filmed on location.

And, the name “Saratoga Trunk?” — It refers to a trunk-line railroad: Clint Maroon’s skullduggery in controlling this railroad investment is the start of the couples’ financial success!