The Thrill Of a Juicy Retro ReadS

Much unlike many a magazine editor who recommends you buy all sorts of crap that they most likely got for free, your Jezebel staff doesn't get jack shit (other than books, unsolicited). And that's how it should be. But on our own time, in our personal lives, we still buy stuff. So this is Worth It, our recommendation of random things that we've actually spent our own money on. These are the things we buy regularly or really like, things we'd actually tell our friends about. And now we're telling you.

Scruples, published in 1978, the same year Judith Krantz turned 50*, was her first novel, and went to number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Krantz — friends with Barbara Walters since high school — had a career in women's magazines before she started writing novels, and eventually, over 80 million copies of her books went into in print in over 50 languages. (Other titles: Princess Daisy, 1980; Mistral's Daughter, 1982; and I'll Take Manhattan, 1986.)

Scruples is the story of Wilhelmina Hunnewell Winthrop — first nicknamed Honey, then called Billy — and her journey from a chubby "poor relation" in an aristocratic Boston family to a thin, rich Beverly Hills glamazon — with stops in Paris and New York along the way.

I think I first read Scruples when I was in fifth or sixth grade, stealing it from my mom's bookshelf, initially intrigued by the uber-glamourous cover — those nails! That veil! At the time, I was mostly curious and titillated by the naughty bits, passages like:

After that first time he used every art he knew to bring her to an orgasm, as if that might be the key that would unlock the door between them. Sometimes she achieved a fleeting little spasm, but he never knew that it came from her one recurring sexual fantasy. In her mind she was being made love to by an anonymous lover, lying on a low bed surrounded by a ring of men who were watching her avidly, men with unzipped pants, whose cocks got harder and bigger as they watched her lover work on her, men who concentrated completely on her reactions as she was being fondled. These men whose cocks were now so huge that they were hurting, almost bursting, were making a movie of what they were watching. If she concentrated hard enough on their excitement and their frustration, she was able to come.

I read Scruples again in high school, but instead if focusing on the sexy parts, I was more interested in the money, the glamour, the movie business, the California lifestyle.

Recently, I read Scruples again, and I feel quite confident in saying it is amazing. It's not only sexy, smart, and funny, it's a snapshot of a certain era in American history. 19-year-old Billy moves to New York the summer of 1962, when an unmarried woman her age couldn't possibly live alone or without a "suitable roommate"; the Barbizon Hotel For Women being the only other acceptable option. Billy's roommate, Jessica Thorpe, a ladymag writer, has the right last name and pedigree, but secretly has tons of casual sex with Jewish men; that way her WASPy family will never know.

Jessica explains:

The Thrill Of a Juicy Retro ReadS

"I wouldn't dream of having a thing with someone who might know the man I'll eventually marry, whoever that lucky fool may be. The trick is to go outside."

"Outside?"

"Dummy." Jessica moaned, smiling at Billy's skimpy grasp of life's possibilities. "Outside of your own world. You have no idea of how limited that tiny little world is. Just because they all know one another, just because the people your aunts know in Boston, Providence, Baltimore, and Philadelphia are all connected to people you might meet through them in New York, doesn't mean that when you get just one step — one tiny step — away from the connections you can't drop out of sight completely."

"I just don't see how," Billy complained. Jessica was maddeningly elliptical sometimes.

"Jews." Jessica gave Billy the smile of the smartest cat on the block, the cat who has just cornered the market on whipped cream and sardines. "Jews are perfect. They don't want to have things with nice Jewish girls either, because they're all connected just the way we are, and they don't want anything to get out about it any more than we do. So all my nines are Jewish."

"What if you meet a Jewish ten?"

"I'd run like a thief, I hope. But stop trying to change the subject. Now, how many Jewish men do you know?"
Billy looked blank. "Well you must know some," said Jessica.

"I don't think so, except maybe that nice shoe salesman at Jordan Marsh." Billy looked puzzled.

"Hopeless. I thought so. And they're the best, too," Jessica muttered to herself, her lavender eyes bemused, unfocused, her summa cum laude brain picking and choosing and sorting possibilities.

"The 'best'?" Billy asked. She had never heard that Jews were the best, except maybe for violin playing and chess and of course there was Albert Einstein, and, well, you really couldn't count Jesus. He had converted.
"For fucking, of course," Jessica answered absentmindedly.

Billy took to fucking Jews with an enthusiasm even Jessica couldn't have matched.…

The Thrill Of a Juicy Retro ReadS

In some ways, Scruples is about the sexual revolution. But it's also about about fashion: Billy goes to Paris as a teenager and lives with a Comtesse who teaches her about Hermès and couture. Valentine, a major character in the book, is a French designer who grew up in the workroom at Balmain where her mother was a seamstress; Spider, another major character, is a fashion photographer who has sex with all of his models. "Scruples" is the name of the boutique Billy eventually opens in Beverly Hills. And there's so much more in this distilled depiction of an era: Closeted gay designers who visit glory holes, dispatches from the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, and passages like this:

They had no means of knowing that Harriet was a member of the most hidden of all major sexual subgroups, an international network of middle-aged and powerful Lesbians… These women include legendary actresses, famous literary agents, briliant industrial and interior designers, successful theatrical producers, top advertising executives, and creative artists in many fields… Their sexual partners are most often women like themselves, at the same degree of power. For such women of status, the flauntingly open, gay-is-chic, all-the-fun-people-play-together style of life of the fashionable male homosexual is an impossibility that might cost them the respect they inspire and the power they wield. They operate with the same tacit protection that used to be given to a President with a mistress or a congressman with a drinking problem.

Scruples also touches on merchandising, filmmaking, May-December romances, affairs with married men, routinely seducing the male nurses you hire to care for your husband after he's had a stroke, making a career as a reporter when you're really (literally) a habitual star fucker, losing your virginity to a gay man and how the right clothes can change everything. I could go on and on, but the point is this: my hardcover volume of Scruples is 478 delicious pages of sex, money, power, love, obsession and intrigue, and I'm not alone in my adoration: Natalie Portman is developing a TV series based on the book, and hopefully the casting for that won't be as bad as the casting for the 1980 mini-series (which I am not recommending you watch, at all). But if you're looking for a juicy beach or airplane read this summer, why reach for Fifty Shades of Garbage when you could get an education about '70s sexuality instead? Scruples is worth it.

Scruples, $7.99 at Amazon.com

Worth It only features things we paid for ourselves and actually like. Don't send us stuff.

*It's never too late!