“In Times Like These: Love and danger, coast-to-coast!”
Page Wilburn has been depressed, mourning her father’s death and her own broken engagement. A friend treats her to a colorful outfit to cheer her up, and as they shop, Page just happens to utter the phrase that a group of spies expects their courier to say: “Jade is really the miracle stone, isn’t it?” A jade pendant carrying microfilmed secrets stolen from Page’s employer, Markham Electronics, is tucked into her dress box. When the spies realize she’s not really their courier, the action begins.
Vance Cooper, from the New York office, knows there is a leak at Markham Electronics. When a girl purporting to be his aunt’s goddaughter shows up all of a sudden, he decides that a fake fiancée would be just the ticket to keep the possible saboteur out of the house. Mr. Markham tabs Page for the job because of his friendship with her father.
“Mr. Cooper,” Markham said, “needs someone to do a highly confidential job.” He caught Page’s eyes and held them. “So important, Miss Wilburn, that if it were to be known to the wrong people it could do incalculable harm.”
Published in 1968, In Times Like These is a different style of ghostwritten book. The beginning is based on Emilie Loring’s 1921 short story, “The Box from Nixon’s,” but extra elements and characters were added to create a new and complicated plot of treason and undercover investigation.
In the original story, Jean Wendell, too, is in mourning for her father, who died with a “wrecked fortune and a broken heart,” and for her own, “most disillusioning love affair.” A friend persuades her to accept a colorful outfit to cheer her up, but unbeknownst to Jean, the wrong box from Nixon’s clothing store is delivered.
She meets Miles Trevor for dinner, wearing the new dress, and both learn of an ad in the Lost and Found:
If the party who is in possession of the Nixon box which contained a café-au-lait crèpe de chine gown and a toque which matched in shade the jade green pendant, also in box, will return same to address below, no questions will be asked and suitable reward will be paid.
A fellow from Miles’ unit in the War warns him,
“That jade pendant is the master-key to some missing loot. If I can find out where that came from, the rest is a cinch. Now do you realize what your friend is up against?”
Jean learns about the mix-up in a phone call from her friend, and, embarrassed, slips out of the restaurant before she can be caught wearing someone else’s outfit. She’s in a predicament, for sure, but it falls far short of espionage!
Emilie Loring wrote “The Box from Nixon’s” for Woman’s Home Companion, an up-to-date magazine of women’s interests. (You can read it here.)
Women’s positive self-image was central to the magazine’s identity, and our first impression of Jean fits right in:
Curious that he had not recognized a girl whom he had seen every day for a month; but–he had seen her only in black, and now her clothes, oh boy, her clothes! But it was the change in her expression which had transformed her most. It was as if her spirit had escaped from bondage. Eyes which had been veiled and guarded were now softly, brilliantly friendly; lips which had escaped hardness were now irresistibly alluring.
Contrast this with the first impressions of Page Wilburn:
Her voice was as dull as Page herself, her body shapeless in the heavy mourning she wore, her mouth and cheeks pale, her eyes downcast. Even the heavy, honey-colored hair was drawn back so tightly one could almost feel the pull, and fastened in a big knot at the back of her head.
For the next thirty-plus pages, she accumulates negative descriptors: expressionless, bitter, hostile, mocking…
In spite of his dislike of fortune hunters, he couldn’t altogether blame the man who had been reluctant to marry this girl.
Both girls have been through a hard time. The difference is that Emilie Loring’s character, Jean, is sad, not bitter; disillusioned, not contemptuous.
“Somebody once said, ‘Tragedy is chic but discontent is dowdy.’ Now, I ask you, can you think of me as being dowdy?” Hilltops Clear
Like Jean, Page’s appearance and mood are lifted when she gets her new outfit. Hallelujah!
“It’s customary to recognize your fiancée when you meet her.” Mischief danced in the blue eyes with their long lashes.
“Page!” he exclaimed. He thought in consternation, I wasn’t prepared for anything like this. What has happened to the girl? Why she’s a beauty.
In Times Like These is an interesting title, because both stories are products of their times, but in this case, the 1921 story is more modern in outlook than the 1968.
In “The Box from Nixon’s,” Jean and Miles are on equal footing in their humorous, flirtatious sparring:
The girl, her self-possession quite regained, laughed softly: “Run along, Lochinvar. Your western breeziness is so–so breath-snatching that I shall be glad of a respite in which to mobilize my forces to repel attack.”
He loomed over her as he warned,
“Better save your ammunition. You’re mine, and you can’t escape.”
Vance and Page, though, are the big man/little woman:
“Oh, Page! My darling little fool.”
Vance caught her against him, scolding her for taking idiotic chances, for general foolishness. Page, her cheek pressed against his, did not seem in the least offended.
Jean is the private secretary to the head of the company:
She had proved an expert in whipping obscurely expressed desires into documental shape.
Page, on the other hand, confesses,
“Frankly, I don’t even know the meaning of half the words that are dictated to me…”
And Vance Cooper’s Aunt Jane says,
“It seems to me that only by working in a shop or factory, in an office or at a profession, can a girl possibly understand the conditions under which the man she marries has to work. If she knew how hard it is to earn a living she would be more careful with his money; she would not expect the impossible of her husband.”
Hmmmm… I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that a woman didn’t write that.
From book to book, Emilie’s characters have traditional jobs for women–secretary, office assistant, personal secretary–but in those roles, they prove not only competent but invaluable, and moreover, they have a sense of purpose.
In the same issue of Woman’s Home Companion, Ann Bryan McCall’s article, “Choosing Our Work,” expresses it well. She says that work is:
“…but a means of expression; a means of expressing and making real our ideals, our hearts’ dear desires, our very selves… It all comes down to this in the end–choosing not a career, but a purpose in life…I like to remember that the literal meaning of “profession” is ‘an open declaration, a public avowal or acknowledgement of one’s sentiments or beliefs.'”
Henry Ford said, that same year, “A young man should look for the single spark of individuality that makes him different, and develop that spark for all he’s worth.”
Then what would she do?
Something definite. Something worthwhile. I will decide what I want most, plan for it and go after it with all there is in me. Bill Damon has the right idea, I want to be an honored citizen who counts in the welfare of the nation.
To Love and to Honor
I have more in common with Emilie’s point of view in the 1920s than her ghostwriters’ in the 1960s. It’s more modern, more positive about women’s lives–more positive about life in general.
Nevertheless, In Times Like These is an absorbing mystery, and if you lived through the 1960s, references to hippies and Cold War espionage will take you back. It’s available as an e-book, so you can use your 21st-Century electronics to enjoy it!