Synthetic Sin

FRANK K. KELLY is a former Kansas City and New Yorknewspaperman now working in Washington. He is the author of many magazine articles and his novel about the workings of a press association, An Edge of Light,was published in 1949.


WHEN I reached twenty-one, I was hacking out a living by writing about the delights of interplanetary travel. But midway in a tale of a great drought on Mars, I was blocked by a vision of the tanned beauty of the girl next door. I came to a full stop, and I could not start again. The touch was gone, the golden touch which had made my chronicles of war on Jupiter and woe on Mars acceptable to the elastic-minded editors of the science fiction magazines. I stood up, put on a tie, and went out on the porch of my father’s house in Kansas City to watch the girls go by.

How did women think? What did they think about? What did they desire, what were their weaknesses, what were the enticing things to say to them? How could I capture one? These questions flickered through my troubled mind. The bright face of Zeletta, the phosphorescent girl of my teens who had shared my adventures on the far planets, became a small and faded image in my memory.

When my first fumbling efforts to capture a few women were repulsed, I turned to my submissive typewriter and produced a flood of love stories. The stories were always poignant and passionate. The women in them were vigorous, outspoken creatures. Not certain of how women should talk in tales of love, I made them speak as forthrightly as men — not with rocket pistols or death rays, but with harsh words and fists when necessary.

“Caveman stuff doesn’t go any more,” scribbled one manuscript critic on the back of a rejection slip. “Tone it down.” Another advised me crisply: “You may be all right when you learn restraint.” One man warned me: “You get to the point too abruptly. Winning a woman is not always done by direct action.” When I got a story printed in a love pulp periodical, a feminine reader commented: “No woman would act like that.” Most of the complaints hit the same note: I was too brutal.

While I wrote savage stories of burning love, I was rejected by a flock of blondes, brunettes, and redheads. One girl explained to me that I had an irregular occupation, and no girl would marry a man who carried his love stories as far as I did. Another said she loved me a little, but not enough. My knowledge of women grew slowly, and my stack of stories became higher and higher.

A friend of mine glanced over a dozen manuscripts one night. He lingered on a sardonic tale of an impetuous man rebuffed by women who were frightened of his despairing style of love-making. “Why don’t you try this on a confession magazine:?” he asked. “If you put a moral on this, it would sell.”

I stared at him. “It isn’t exactly taken from life,” I muttered. He regarded me with wonder. “The stories in those magazines are dream stuff,” he said. “All you need for them is a heated imagination, and you’ve got it.”

“But I’ve never overwhelmed any women,” I said. “I’ve never fallen in love with a friend’s wife. I’ve never been caught in a tragic triangle.”

After he had gone I threw my manuscripts into a cardboard box under my desk, and I decided to get a steady job. I became a newspaperman, and I tried to forget my elegies on love. But I kept adding to the tall heap of stories in the brown box, and one New Year’s Day I abandoned my job to go to Manhattan, determined to become a sophisticated freelance and to savor the temptestnous freedom of Greenwich Village.

Before I boarded the train that cold and rainy day, my friend slipped a letter into my overcoat pocket. He explained that he had composed a few lines of introduction for me to a confession magazine editor, and urged me to use the letter if I found myself absolutely on the rocks. I didn’t want to get into an argument, but I silently resolved that before I would turn to confessing synthetic sins for a living I’d sink back into the newspaper business.

In New York I hoped to encounter the adventures I had not been able to find in my own home town, yet somehow they eluded me. For six months I lived in dingy furnished rooms on West Seventeenth Street with a fellow refugee from Kansas City, a taciturn reporter. He roamed the bleak Manhattan streets by day in search of jobs while I paced the gray rooms or pounded my portable typewriter.

At night the horns and whistles of ships in the Hudson River haunted our fitful frustrated sleep. We seldom met any girls, and when we did we had just enough money to take them to the movies, so we didn’t make much progress. My savings dribbled away in expenditures for English muffins and coffee, and at the end of six months I had sold only one story, a short and powerful piece about a French cabin boy on a merchant ship, who had been saved from drowning by a talisman given to him by a Breton girl.

On a rainy night when my reporter friend returned to the rooms dripping moisture and melancholy, I announced my intention of seeking a spot on a newspaper. He simply shook his head. “Then I’ll use my letter of introduction,” I said. “If I can’t sell anything else, I can sell confessions.”

Bill sighed deeply and removed his wet shoes. “We’re doomed,” he said. “As far as I can see, you haven’t got anything to confess.”

I went to the bare cupboard, and then turned. “I’ve never been to Mars, but I sold a lot of stuff about Mars,” I said.

Bill shook the water from his shoes. “Try it,” he said. “Okay, try it.”

The next day I donned my last gabardine suit and rode in the subway to the offices of the Morality Publications on Forty-second Street. When I walked into the reception room I noticed that it was decorated in crimson and cream, colors richly symbolic of sin and forgiveness.

My letter gained for me a quick admittance into the spacious office of Mr. Snow, the editor of True to Life. He studied me for several seconds, and nodded. “You’ve got that tormented look,” he said. “I think you’re going to write things for me. I’ll tell you what we want, now. We want straight stuff, stories pulsing with the heartheat of life, quivering with the warm blood of human experience.”

I hesitated. “What is your word rate”

“If I like your stuff, you’ll get four cents a word. Later you’ll get more. Now I’ll tell you what I want you to do first. Here are copies of some back numbers of my magazine. Take them home and read them and come back to see me a week from today.” He scratched a pencil across a calendar pad. “Next Thursday, at three o’clock.” He came around the rim of the desk, carrying a pile of thick magazines. I took them, and the weight made my arms sag.

Before I could continue the conversation be caught my arm and led mo along a corridor to the reception room, talking about our mutual friend in Kansas City.

“He told me you were an evangelist,” I said.

Mr. Snow stopped. He looked a little touched and a little pleased.

“In a certain way, I am an evangelist,” he said. “My magazine has done more to win decent treatment for unmarried mothers than any other in the country. All our publications have high standards of morality. You’ve lived long enough to know that sin leads to sorrow, and redemption brings rejoicing. Remember that.”

He squeezed my shoulder and retreated toward his office. I went past the pale receptionist, took an elevator to the lobby of the building, and stepped into the glare of Forty-second Street, shaken and confused.

Back in the gloomy furnished rooms down in the Village, I studied the magazines. NIGHT OF DISILLUSION was featured on one blazing cover; MY MOTHER WAS MY RIVAL was splashed on another. There were stories of luckless brides, lost girls, unhappy bigamists.

I didn’t have the background, the range of experience, to produce such tales, but the next day Snow called me. “I need a 5000-word piece to fill out my next issue, and I need somebody not long out of college to handle it,” he said. “There’s a young professor, teaching at a college for women. He takes advantage of his position, he’s a cruel heartbreaker. Then he falls in love with one of his students, really in love, and she treats him with cold contempt because of his reputation. He pays the penalty of loose living.”

“But he gets her in the end,” I said.

“No. Our stories are true to life. We don’t have to force a happy ending. She goes away, and he keeps her enshrined in his heart, and he becomes a great teacher, a fine influence on all the girls in the college. He becomes a living proof that faithful love does exist.”

“Do you think I can handle it?” I asked.

“Certainly you can,” he said. His voice became softly persuasive. “I’ll give you a break. Tell it from the man’s angle. We don’t usually take it from that angle, but it’ll be easier for you. Later you can try live woman’s angle.”

I wrote it, and he bought it. He took me to lunch at a hotel to discuss the future. Before we ate, he spread the pages of the story on the tablecloth. “It’s good,” he said. “Fine, except for a few things. You don’t, get enough bone in your love scenes. Bone, that’s what you need. And your plot needs more of a motor. You’ve got to have an engine to make it go. What drives this guy? Why does he go from woman to woman, when he secretly believes in one big love? Can it be that he’s seeking the tender affection his mother didn’t gixe him? Or maybe there’s some other reason. But get it in. Get it all in.”

He seized one of the pages. “Now this scene in the woods needed some juice. I touched it up. Listen to this: ‘Call it wisdom, call it madness, call it what you will! Pearl and I were lifted up to the heights of ecstasy, and all the dull world fell away from us.’ That gives it more zip. You’ve got to have zip, you’ve got to have zing in these scenes.”

Under his tutelage I learned how to tell stories as though I had become a woman blooming in the presence of deep love. I went to Washington, the city of government girls, and got enough zing in a week to fill a dozen stories. I wrote of the bitter competition for love in a city where women were too numerous. I turned out a novelette about a foreign correspondent who was torn between his desire for a brave British girl and his pledged love for a gay but shallow American sweetheart. I described scenes of agony and despair, the gratitude of forgiven sinners, the high happiness of triumphant lovers.

As soon as I got a chance at a promising job, an opening on the city desk of the Associated Press, I resolved to break with Snow. I couldn’t seem to do it. The next green checks he gave me overcame my objections to the strange changes he made in my plots and the purple injections he shot into my prose. He was earnest about the moral value of his magazine, and he convinced me that he really was a crusader.

The decisive event came when I went to Kansas City on a vacation trip. I met a new girl, and I knew I had found the great love of my life. We had two evenings together, and I flew back to New York in a shining stupor. When I landed at La Guardia Field I sent a telegram, asking a vital question. She sent the right answer.

With that message in my hands I told myself that I must begin life afresh, I had to put my career of synthetic sin behind me. I telephoned Snow and told him.

He did not speak for a while. When he did, his voice had that smooth, agreeable quality. “It’s wonderful. Congratulations. Of course you’re going on to other fields. But before you do, write the story of your own romance. The American way. Love drops in by plane. The man who hunted love in far places and found it in his own home town. It has angles. It’s magnificent.”

“No,” I said. “Sorry.”

“You’ll need money for your honeymoon,” he reminded me in his gentle, reasonable voice. “You call me back. Why, you can tell this story in a few hours. It will pour out of you. I want it. It’s authentic, it’s real, it’s natural.”

“No,” I said. “No. I can’t.”

“Think it over, and call me back.”

“Good-bye,” I said.