Sunday, July 28, 2013

Weirder Homes and Gardens

I wanted to share a bit of this delightful and curious book on flower arranging, published in 1942, which I got for a song at the always-overwhelming Newberry Library book sale. I was attracted initially to the often-striking, occasionally gorgeous photographs--heavily-saturated compositions that are almost painterly in their effect--

--and I planned to plunder it for collage material. But a closer look has revealed some surprising dimensions to this otherwise-unassuming volume. The book, to begin with, beautiful as it is, turns out to be an 80-page advertisement for Coca-Cola. Bottles of ice-cold Coke are featured prominently in many of the arrangements, and the reader is frequently reminded of the soft drink's many virtues. Not only is Coca-Cola the perfect centerpiece for a Wistaria-covered balcony-for-two--
 --it's also the refreshment of choice, the author notes, for everyone from defense workers to badminton players. Her 'Coke Party for the Teen-age,' complete with ice-sculptures and shrimp cocktail--
 --promises 'social success' for the young hostess. At any rate, the product placement is anything but subtle. Then came the real surprise. The author's name was eerily familiar, and something about her expression in this frontispiece portrait also nagged at me:
 An internet search confirmed my creeping suspicion: this Coke-shilling society dame was none other than William S. Burroughs' mother! And hang me if there's not a remarkable resemblance:

Now, I'd gathered that Laura Lee Burroughs was something of a square, but this is on a whole 'nuther level. 'There has never been a time when our homes were as dear to us as they are now,' she writes in her sappy introduction. We have become sentimental about them! Later, she presents an elaborate 'Sweet Land of Liberty' display ('For the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Washington's Birthday, or just any day when you feel particularly patriotic, which is practically all the time...') Still, despite the book's inherent WASPishness, and the ickiness of its corporate sponsorship, it's clear that Burroughs' mother had a creative streak, as well as some moxie. William Burroughs was, in 1942, a decade away from completing his first novel, Junky, but he was already a 'troubled young man,' as must have been evident to his mother Laura Lee; he'd severed half a finger over a gay hustler named Jack Anderson, been discharged from the Army due to mental instability, and was working as an exterminator in Chicago. With what grace, then, she is able to pull off this performance of normalcy, standing, as she does in the book, for those great American pillars of Home and Family (not to mention our national beverage, Coca-Cola.) There are so few cracks in her facade. For years, she admits at one point, my flower decorations were a source of annoyance to my family. One can only imagine! But it's there in her photograph, clear as day--that taunting, Burroughs sneer. 

This, volume three, was to be the last; the series had sold in the millions, apparently (it went for a paltry ten cents; one wonders what Burroughs made of his mother's literary success), but wartime concerns and impending modernity were pushing such quaint pastimes as floral arranging aside. I still want to cut the book to pieces, but I'm torn; it's such an odd and loaded artifact that I hesitate to destroy it. 

Note: there's a lengthy article on Laura Lee Burroughs and her 'Homes and Flowers' series here, for the curious.