Secrets, Spies and Space Travel: The Lunar Housewife by Caroline Woods
BY LISA REDMOND
The Lunar Housewife (Doubleday, June 2022) is Caroline Woods’ second novel; a tale of an ambitious young woman in New York in the early 1950s, writing magazine articles and working on a novel inspired by the space race, who discovers CIA collusion in the world of arts and literature. This is the era of fear about the Soviet threat, the ‘red scare’, and I asked the author what sparked her interest in the period.
‘The first spark for the story came from my agent, Shannon Hassan, who I have a fantastic collaborative relationship with. She asked me in late 2017 if I’d ever heard about the CIA using American arts and literature to fight a propaganda war against Russia during the Cold War, and I hadn’t. The first story I uncovered was that of The Paris Review, which now-famously was set up as a front for Peter Matthiessen’s spy activities in Paris, and later accepted some hefty funding the CIA funnelled to them through a shadow organization. Matthiessen and his co-founder, George Plimpton, always denied the CIA had any editorial input.’
Woods goes on to say, ‘I decided to write about a 1950s magazine that was not only accepting CIA money but heavily involved in printing CIA-crafted content. I knew a woman should be the narrator, and that she should get the better of these guys in some way, because it was mostly women, like Frances Stonor Saunders, who eventually broke the real story behind this novel.’
The narrator Louise, although a fictional creation, is very much drawn from the women who broke the story and who Woods discovered during her research. ‘Louise isn’t based on any real woman in particular, but she is partially inspired by Anne Roiphe, who had an affair in the early 1960s with another Paris Review founder, Doc Humes. Roiphe was an aspiring writer and single mother living, like Louise, on the [New York’s] Upper East Side. According to her memoir, Art and Madness, it took Roiphe a while to find and trust her own voice, intimidated as she was by the so-called brilliant men she hung around with. I decided to have Louise write something very different from Roiphe’s work, which is the sci-fi romance “The Lunar Housewife” that intersperses the main narrative of the story. Louise isn’t trying to capture her own experience, but she is trying to say something true about the ways in which both the U.S. and the Russian governments at the time weren’t trusting their citizens to have their own ideas. Louise is quiet about her work because she’s worried the men around her will dismiss it or, worse, go over her head and collude with their publishing cronies to sabotage it, because of its subject matter.’
Woods also brilliantly captures the sexism of the era and the attitude towards women writers and women in general.
‘Roiphe’s memoir really helped me get into the minds of all the women who would have been surrounding these publishing fellows of the 50s–the wives at home, the “girls” at the swank publishing parties, the aspiring journalists and fading film stars,’ she says. ‘Also, this is going to sound pessimistic, but I don’t think sexism is even behind us; it’s still here. Some of Louise’s frustrations, and the ways the men around her gaslight, dismiss, and talk over her, are drawn from life [today].’
The novel features cameo appearances from some of the literary greats of the period: James Baldwin, whom the heroine meets in Italy, and Ernest Hemingway, whom she interviews for the magazine she works for. ‘Baldwin is there because he was also an early founding member of The Paris Review, but he was soon edged out of his role there. Some people speculate that the CIA wouldn’t have wanted him involved, because he, like [Langston] Hughes, had too many critical things to say about the way the United States treated its Black citizens. I thought having Baldwin reference “Stranger in the Village” was relevant and important, because it was exactly the kind of essay the CIA wouldn’t have wanted circulating Western Europe. And Hemingway, from what I understand, had a different set of struggles with the CIA and FBI. He was considered emblematic of American literature, our best-known and most decorated writer, and the powers that be both wanted to lift him up and kind of control what he had to say. “They” certainly wouldn’t have wanted him to say anything too supportive of Castro, for instance. Apparently, he moved to Cuba in the hope that the FBI wouldn’t be able to listen to him there, but I’m sure their reach extended past our shores.’
The research led Caroline Woods to some fascinating details about the period, some of which only came to light many years later. ‘There was a bit of research I was pretty stunned by, and disappointed to realize I couldn’t use. In the dinner scene at Minetta Tavern, Louise and the guys discuss Langston Hughes’ testimony before Joe McCarthy’s investigative Senate subcommittee. You can read the testimony in its entirety online now, but it was a private, closed-door hearing at the time. It’s very hard to read–here’s a brilliant man, one of our greatest writers, being grilled about whether or not he’s a Communist. He’s admirably honest, admitting to having given thought to the various “isms” of the left, including socialism, and he gives a heart-wrenching account of his experience growing up Black in America. What really surprised me was that at one point, Senator Dirksen says, look, the government has spent all this money “propagandizing” (his word!) American literature to be sent to libraries abroad, and basically, the senators are trying to figure out if Hughes’ writing is worth using as propaganda. There it is, in black and white, but this transcript was only made public recently. The characters in The Lunar Housewife wouldn’t have known exactly what was said. If she had, Louise could have waved it in her male colleagues’ faces when they call her crazy for suggesting the government would ever propagandize art.’
About the contributor: Lisa Redmond blogs at The Madwoman in the Attic about women writers and historical fiction. She is currently working on a novel based on the 17th-century Scottish witch trials.