Response to “Scandal.” The Willa Cather Short Story Project

What a story! I wasn’t sure what type of scandal to expect in this short story, but it certainly wasn’t one that included sex trafficking, newspaper manipulation by the rich, or anti-semitic fear of a Jewish conspiracy. “Scandal” has all three, and more. It was published in August 1919 yet so many of the themes are alive and well in August 2019.

"Scandal" by Willa Cather in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine

This is the second short story in which Cather featured opera singer Kitty Ayrshire. The first was “A Gold Slipper.” Cather actually wrote “Scandal” first, but in her collection where both of these stories appear, Youth and the Bright Medusa, she set “A Gold Slipper” first, which makes sense as in that story Kitty is much more vivacious and seems to be at an earlier point of her career.

Immigrant as Villain

Cather is praised as a champion of immigrants due to her depiction of them in stories like My Antonia, but in “Scandal” the main immigrant character, Siegmund Stein, is considered “one of the most hideous men in New York.” He isn’t described as a poor, downtrodden immigrant from Europe who makes his way to America and achieves the American Dream. Rather, we’re told he was “a beggar from somewhere in Austria.” Instead of his ambition and work-ethic being glorified, they’re considered vanity and almost villainy. Stein is Jewish.

No matter how much money Stein makes or how much culture he consumes and collects, he’ll only ever be one of “those people.” An outsider. It’s little wonder this was a favorite story of F. Scott Fitzgerald who explored this theme several years later in The Great Gatsby.

Stein can fool other outsiders into thinking he’s a true member of the cultural elite by masquerade. He finds, grooms, and takes as his lover a look-a-like to impersonate the current reigning queen of the New York cultural world, Kitty Ayrshire. The reader is told that Stein doesn’t tell many lies to create this illusion. He might drop his voice or lift his eyebrows, but he lets other’s “eager imaginations do the rest.” People want scandal and that seems to be one of the points of this story.

Objecthood

Like other women in this story, Kitty is obviously an object for men and she intentionally presents herself as one. “She looked like a sultan’s youngest, newest bride; a beautiful little toy-woman.” Kitty likes it when “intelligent” people look at her, but when the throng of “Old Testament characters” looks at her at Stein’s house, she feels threatened, as if a mob is closing in. “I felt as if I were about to be immured within a harem,” she tells Tevis. The juxtaposition of these two scenes is striking. In the first she’s comfortably ensconced in her own world and the men around her play the same game. But in Stein’s world the rules are a bit different and she doesn’t understand why. She’s no longer in a position of power and feels threatened. The illusion that she has power in this game is stripped away. The implication is that she only had the semblance of power because men in her circle were playing along.

Sex trafficking

Kitty is clearly no innocent. The story she tells about how she smuggles Peppo out of Europe is rather shocking. She has the boy dress as a younger child and attempts to declare him as hand-luggage. One of the inspectors laughs and is ready to let them aboard ship, but the other isn’t willing to laugh it off.

Kitty goes on to explain that,

“At last I told the inspector that I couldn’t live without Peppo, and that I would throw myself into the bay. I took him in my confidence. . . . I managed to make the inspector believe that I had kidnapped him, and that he was indispensable to my happiness. I found that incorruptible official, like most people, willing to aid one so utterly depraved. I could never have got that boy out for any proper, reasonable purpose, such as giving him a job or sending him to school.”

Was Peppo Kitty’s protégé as well as her sex toy? The phrase “utterly depraved” certainly implies that’s what she was getting at with the inspector. He finally looks the other way because this was a wealthy woman with a depraved appetite for a boy. Does being part of a scandal encourage some to look the other way? It’s a queer world, as Kitty says.

Midlife crisis?

We’re not told how old Kitty is, but she’s at the top of her profession which can only mean there are younger up-and-coming performers at her heels. Indeed, we are told that one of her rival’s names has been substituted for her own since she’s been out sick. She’s bored with the world and says to her friend that, “I’m getting almost as tired of the person I’m supposed to be as of the person I really am.” Kitty herself fears that she’s losing her resiliency. I took this to mean she’s feeling her age. Did you get the sense that perhaps Kitty is entering a mid-life crisis?

By the end of the story the energy and spark seems to have gone out of Kitty. Her final statement that she and Ruby are both “victims of circumstance, and in New York so many of the circumstances are Steins” is stunning. It’s total Jewish conspiracy theory. Kitty is saying that Jews control everything.

Is Kitty simply tired of it all and exhausted? Is she looking for a scapegoat for her own situation that she’s not happy with? Is she blaming Jews for the patriarchal sexual politics that she herself has used to her own benefit.

I could go on and on and write a five thousand word essay on this story, but I’ll stop here. What do you think about this story? About the ending?



Categories: Willa Cather

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2 replies

  1. Thanks for noting Cather wrote “Scandal” before “A Gold Slipper”. Kitty is a fascinating character, and seeing her both at the height of her career, and at a point when she is facing possible decline is interesting and fun to read. I wish Cather had continued with Kitty in later stories.

    Yes, the ending had me floored. That final sentence certainly brings home the immigrant as villain motif.

    I think Kitty is facing a serious midlife crisis and finds it easier to blame “the other” and someone outside of herself for the decline in her celebrity. Her whole life revolves around controlling her celebrity so when she feels her power and momentum waning, it’s impossible for her to imagine a life without that fame, control, and power. I’m also amazed at how modern this story seems after 100 years. Some things really do stay the same! The love of scandal and the fascination with celebrity continue to be a huge part of our culture. I’m left wondering if Kitty will be able to reinvent herself, or will she become like Norma Desmond, unable to accept that her reign is ending. I wish there was a sequel so we could find out!

    • It’s fascinating to think of what will happen to Kitty as she ages and new stars begin to eclipse hers. I could see the Kitty from “A Gold Slipper” become a playful mentor to up-and-comers or a patron of the theater, but the Kitty in “Scandal” does seem more inclined to the Sunset Boulevard route. She is ill in “Scandal” which makes me think a bit of Sapphira and how her chronic illness contributed to a mean turn in her personality.

      It IS amazing how modern this story seems.

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