Marjorie Morningstar


By Herman Wouk

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Now hailed as a “proto-feminist classic” (Vulture), Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk’s powerful coming-of-age novel about an ambitious young woman pursuing her artistic dreams in New York City has been a perennial favorite since it was first a bestseller in the 1950s.

A starry-eyed young beauty, Marjorie Morgenstern is nineteen years old when she leaves home to accept the job of her dreams–working in a summer-stock company for Noel Airman, its talented and intensely charismatic director. Released from the social constraints of her traditional Jewish family, and thrown into the glorious, colorful world of theater, Marjorie finds herself entangled in a powerful affair with the man destined to become the greatest–and the most destructive–love of her life.

Rich with humor and poignancy, Marjorie Morningstar is a classic love story, one that spans two continents and two decades in the life of its heroine.

“I read it and I thought, ‘Oh, God, this is me.'” –Scarlet Johansson


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Chapter 1. MARJORIE

Customs of courtship vary greatly in different times and places, but the way the thing happens to be done here and now always seems the only natural way to do it.

Marjorie's mother looked in on her sleeping daughter at half past ten of a Sunday morning with feelings of puzzlement and dread. She disapproved of everything she saw. She disapproved of the expensive black silk evening dress crumpled on a chair, the pink frothy underwear thrown on top of the dress, the stockings like dead snakes on the floor, the brown wilting gardenias on the desk. Above all she disapproved of the beautiful seventeen-year-old girl lying happily asleep on a costly oversize bed in a square of golden sunlight, her hair a disordered brown mass of curls, her red mouth streaked with cracking purplish paint, her breathing peaceful and regular through her fine little nose. Marjorie was recovering from a college dance. She looked sweetly innocent asleep; but her mother feared that this picture was deceptive, remembering drunken male laughter in the foyer at 3 A.M., and subdued girlish giggles, and tiptoeing noises past her bedroom. Marjorie's mother did not get much sleep when her daughter went to a college dance. But she had no thought of trying to stop her; it was the way boys met girls nowadays. College dances had formed no part of the courtship manners of her own girlhood, but she tried to move with the times. She sighed, took the dying flowers to try to preserve them in the refrigerator, and went out, softly closing the door.

The slight noise woke Marjorie. She opened large blue-gray eyes, rolled her head to glance at the window, then sat up eagerly. The day was brilliantly clear and fine. She jumped from the bed in her white nightgown, and ran to the window and looked out.

It was one of the many charms of the El Dorado that it faced Central Park. Here on the seventeenth floor there was no one to peer in on her nakedness but the birds of the air. This fact, even more than the spacious view of the green park and the skyscrapers, gave Marjorie a sense of luxury each day when she awoke. She had enjoyed this freedom from prying eyes for less than a year. Marjorie loved everything about the El Dorado, even the name. "El Dorado" was perfectly suited to an apartment building on Central Park West. It had a fine foreign sound to it. There were two categories of foreignness in Marjorie's outlook: high foreign, like French restaurants, British riding clothes, and the name El Dorado; and low foreign, like her parents. By moving to the El Dorado on Central Park West her parents had done much, Marjorie believed, to make up for their immigrant origin. She was grateful to them for this, and proud of them.

What a wonderful day it was for horseback riding! The warm breeze smelled of new grass, here seventeen floors above the murmuring auto traffic. The sky was bright blue, with little white tufts of cloud, and the green park was tufted with white too where cherry trees were blossoming. She felt unbelievably good as recollections of last night came back to her. She hugged herself with pleasure, crossing her arms and clutching her bare pretty shoulders with her hands.

Her dreams of the gawky days of thirteen and fourteen had come true, and more than true. Four years ago she had scampered and squealed with other skinny dirty little girls in the playgrounds of Bronx public schools. Last night she had walked on the moonlit grounds of Columbia College. She had faintly heard the young men who lived in the dormitories shouting and laughing, a wonderful rich male noise. She had danced in a wood-panelled hall decorated with colored lanterns and great blue flags, and sometimes she had been only inches away from the smiling band leader, a famous man. She had danced with dozens of boys. Even when the band was resting a victrola had played, and there had been more boys to dance with her to the thin scratchy music. One of them, the son of the owner of a great department store, was going to ride with her today in Central Park.

She picked the black dress off the chair and smoothed it gratefully. It had done its work well. Other girls had floundered through the dance in wretched tulles and flounces and taffetas, like the dresses her mother had tried for two weeks to buy for the great occasion. But she had fought for this tube of curving black crepe silk, high-necked enough to seem demure, and had won; and she had captivated the son of a millionaire. That was how much her mother knew about clothes.

There was a rap at the door. "Marjorie, are you up?"

"Just getting into the shower, Mom." She darted into the bathroom and turned on a drumming rush of hot water. Sometimes her mother came in and shouted questions at her through the shower curtain, but she didn't today. Marjorie returned to the bedroom and waited for a moment, watching the doorknob. Then she walked to the full-length mirror on the closet door, and draped the black dress against her bosom, pleased by the contrast it made with her naked shoulders and tumbling hair.

At this moment—it was quite an important moment in her life—she grew hot, and prickled all over. An intuition about her future came flooding into her mind, like sunlight at the drawing of a curtain. She was going to be an actress! This pretty girl in the mirror was destined to be an actress, nothing else.

Since entering Hunter College in February of the previous year, Marjorie had been taking a course of study leading to a license as a biology teacher; but she had long suspected that she was going through empty motions, that chalk and blackboard weren't for her. Nor had she been able to picture herself settling into dull marriage at twenty-one. From her thirteenth year onward a peculiar destiny had been in her blood, waiting for the proper time to crop out, and disturbing her with premonitory sensations. But what she experienced on this May morning was no mere premonition; it was the truth bursting through. She was going to be an actress! The daydreams of her childhood had not been mere dreams, after all.

In the light of this truth—for it was not a resolve, not a decision, but rather a sudden insight into an existing truth—all her life seemed to take shape. Puzzling things were explained. Contradictions melted away.

This was why she had triumphed at Columbia last night, and this was why she had been such a fish out of water all her life in the Bronx. This was why without effort she had been the star of all the playlets at school and in summer camps. Even as a child she had had a quick mind, a gift of mimicry, an excellent memory, and self-possessed charm. Some instinct had taught her early to imitate the speech of her English teachers. Long before her family moved to Manhattan she had been half mocked and half admired in the highly critical society of the Bronx gutters, where her nickname had been Lady Pieface. Now, in an amazingly short time, she had transformed herself into a Central Park West charmer, the belle of a Columbia dance. She had sometimes wondered at her own remarkable advance—her quick mastery of collegiate slang, her grace on the dance floor, her polished charm of gesture, above all her unfailing run of bright talk, which always sounded clever even when there was nothing in it. She knew that in truth she was still very much Lady Pieface of the Bronx playing a hastily learned part. But her performance had been getting better week by week; and last night she had scored an unmistakable smash hit. The wonder of all this vanished, on the supposition that she was an actress discovering her powers.

She dropped into the chair at her desk, letting the dress fall over her piled-up unfinished homework. White steamy clouds from the shower, shot through with yellow bars of sunlight, were filling the room. Marjorie kept staring at herself in the mirror through the vapors, unmindful of the roaring waste of hot water. Had there ever been successful Jewish actresses? Of course: Sarah Bernhardt, Rachel—and now that she thought of it, rumor described half the great stars of Hollywood as Jewish.

But her name wasn't good. It wasn't good at all. There was wondrous resonance in Sarah Bernhardt, stark elegance in Rachel—whereas her own… Marjorie Morgenstern…

Then came the confirming flash, the white streak of revelation. Such a simple change! Not even a change, a mere translation of the German compound, and her drab name turned into an incantation, a name that could blaze and thunder on Broadway. She pushed aside the dress, seized a pencil, threw open her biology notebook to a blank page, and hastily printed.

She stared at the name, sprawled in dark blue ink over the light blue lines of the page. She took a pen and carefully wrote, in the small, vertical hand which she was trying to master,

For a long time she sat looking at the page. Then she wrote under the name

She ripped the page out of the book, folded it, and locked it in the rosewood box where she kept George's love letters. Then, singing, she disappeared into the foggy bathroom.

Mrs. Morgenstern had eaten breakfast several hours earlier with her husband, who was unable to sleep once the day dawned, Sunday or not. Calculating the time it would take her daughter to shower and dress, she placed herself at the breakfast table again a few seconds before Marjorie came out of her room. In her hand was a cup of steaming coffee. She was not lying in wait to grill Marjorie. Surely she was entitled to an extra cup of coffee on Sunday morning.

"Hello, Mother dear." Marjorie draped her jacket on the arm of a chair.

Mrs. Morgenstern put down her coffee.

"My God." "My God what?" Marjorie dully dropped into the chair.

"That sweater, Marjorie."

"What about it? Don't you like the color?" She knew what her mother didn't like. She had spent the last few minutes at the mirror worrying about the sweater. It perfectly matched her British boots and breeches and tweed jacket, and the russet band on her perky hat—all new, all being worn for the first time. It had looked charming in the shop, this cat-smooth russet cashmere, and the size was correct. But the fit was snug; mighty snug. Marjorie knew that a pretty girl in a tight sweater created a commotion. It was very vexing, she thought, and so silly; in the South Seas nobody would think twice about it. She had decided to brave it out. Her mother might not like the sweater, but Sandy Goldstone probably would.

"Marjorie, people will think—I don't know what they'll think."

"I'm a big girl, Mama."

"That's just what's bothering me, dear."

"Mom, for your information girls don't ride horses in pink quilted housecoats that make them look like tubs. They wear sweaters."

Mrs. Morgenstern, short and stout, was wearing a pink quilted housecoat. But this kind of argumentation was standard between them; she took no offense. "Well, Papa will never let you out of the house. Is that all you're having for breakfast? Black coffee? You'll be a nervous wreck by the time you're twenty-one. Have a bun, at least.—Who was at the dance?"

"The junior class of Columbia College, Mama, about two hundred and fifty boys, with girls."

"Anybody we know?"


"How can you say that? Wasn't Rosalind Green there?"

"Of course she was."

"Well, we know her." Marjorie said nothing. "How is it you're going riding? I thought your lessons were on Tuesday."

"I just decided to go today."

"Who with?"

"Billy Ehrmann."

"How come you're wearing your new riding habit?"

"Why not? Spring is here."

"You don't have to impress Billy Ehrmann."

"Well, I've got to start wearing it sometime."

"Yes, once you've learned to ride. But what's the point, just for a lesson in the armory?"

Here Mrs. Morgenstern was driving to a material point. Marjorie had been taking the armory lessons in a borrowed old habit of an El Dorado neighbor, Rosalind Green. Her mother had bought her the new outfit on the understanding that she wasn't to wear it until she graduated to the bridle paths of the park. Marjorie could lie to her mother cheerfully, and with a good conscience, but she had several minor lies going, and it seemed a weariness to take on another. "Mom, I'm not going to the armory. We're going riding in the park."

"What? You've only had three lessons. You're not ready. You'll fall off the horse and break your neck."

"That'll be something to look forward to." The girl put her cup down with a clink and poured more coffee.

"Marjorie, I am not going to let you go riding in the park with that fat clumsy Billy Ehrmann. He probably can't ride any better than you."

"Mother, please. We're riding with two other couples and a groom. We'll be safer than in the armory."

"Who are the others?"

"Well, there's Rosalind and Phil."

"Who else?"

"Oh, some fraternity brother of theirs." Marjorie was determined to let her mother know nothing whatever about Sandy Goldstone.


"Oh, some fellow. I don't know his name. I know he's a very good rider."

"How do you know that, if you don't even know his name?"

"For heaven's sake, Mom! Billy and Phil said so."

"Was he at the dance? Did you meet him there?"

"I think maybe I did. I don't know. I met a hundred boys."

"Is he a good dancer?"

"I don't know."

"Where does he live?"

"Mom, I'm late. I said I don't know the boy—"

The telephone rang, and with immense relief Marjorie sprang into the foyer. "Hello?"

"Hello, pooch."

The proprietary nickname and the odd twangy voice brought the usual pleasurable warmth to Marjorie, mingled this time with a dim feeling of guilt. "Oh—hello, George, how are you?"

"What's the matter? Did I wake you up?"

"No, George. Matter of fact, I was just going out, so excuse me if—"


"Just out in the park. Riding."

"Well, well. Riding in Central Park. You'll be joining the Junior League next."

"Don't be funny."

"Well, how was the Columbia dance?"

"It was miserable, thanks." Her mother, she saw, had come to the doorway of the dining room and was openly listening to the conversation. Marjorie made her tone more affectionate. "I never realized how young a crowd of college juniors could look and act."

"Well, sure, how old can they be?" said George with a relieved lift in his voice. "Nineteen, average. Less, some of them. I warned you you'd be bored stiff." George Drobes was twenty-two, and a graduate of City College. "Well, pooch, when am I going to see you?"

"I don't know."


"I've got a ton of homework, dear."

"But you say you're going riding."

"Just for an hour. Then I'll be at the desk all day, really, George."

"Take off another hour."

"Dear, I'd love to—it's just such a long trip from the Bronx down here, just for an hour—"

"I'm not doing anything. It's Sunday. It's been almost two weeks—Look, I'd just about decided to go to the art museum anyway. I've got the car. I'll drop by. If you feel like it, we'll go for a drive in the country. If you don't, why I'll just go on to the museum."


"See you about one or so, okay, pooch?"

"All right, George, sure. Love to see you." She hung up.

"What's the matter between you and George all of a sudden?" said Mrs. Morgenstern with pleasure.

"Absolutely nothing. Mother, I wonder whether you know that people don't usually listen to other people's phone conversations?"

"I'm not people. I'm your mother. You don't have anything to hide from me, do you?"

"There's a thing called privacy, that's all."

"I hope the great love isn't beginning to cool off."

"It certainly is not!"

"I haven't seen him in such a long time. Does he still have that red nose?"

"He does not have a red nose."

"Bronx Park East is a long way from Central Park West," said Mrs. Morgenstern with a majestic sigh. Marjorie made for the door. "Listen, Marjorie, don't be foolish. The first time in the park anything can happen. Don't wear the new outfit."

Marjorie's hand was on the doorknob. "Clothes don't do anybody any good hanging in the closet." She opened the door. "Goodbye, Mom. I won't be home for lunch."

"Where will you eat?"

"Tavern on the Green."

"Listen," said Mrs. Morgenstern, "Billy's friend, this fellow who's such a good rider, will like you just as well in the other outfit."

Marjorie's heart sank. "I can't imagine what you're talking about, Mom. Goodbye."

Her exit, which she made with a fine airy wave of the hand, was spoiled as soon as she closed the door. She had no money. The stable was at Sixty-sixth Street, and she was late. She had to go back in and ask her mother for taxi fare. "Well, I'm glad I'm still good for something in your life," said Mrs. Morgenstern, "even if it's only money. What's happened to your allowance this week?"

"Mom, you know my allowance only runs from Saturday to Saturday."

The mother was fumbling in a large black patent-leather purse. "It's a good thing your father's business doesn't run from Saturday to Saturday."

"Might as well give me the rest of my allowance, Mom. Then I won't have to trouble you again."

"No trouble, I assure you." Mrs. Morgenstern drew another dollar and a half from the purse. She always managed, thought Marjorie, to make the payment of the allowance a triumph. Marjorie often felt that she would go hungry and barefoot rather than ask for her allowance again. A hundred times she had planned to gain independence by writing short stories, or tutoring, or getting a weekend job as a salesgirl. These plans usually sprouted just before she had to ask for her allowance, and tended to wither right after she got it.

"Thank you, Mother," she said, remotely cool and formal as she accepted the money.

At this moment her father came into the hallway, carrying the Sunday Times in a disordered sheaf under his arm. He wore a red silk smoking jacket in which he looked uncomfortable. Marjorie kissed him. "Morning, Dad. Sorry I've got to run."

The father said, "Horseback… Can't you find something less dangerous than horseback, Margie? People get killed riding horseback."

"Don't worry. Marjorie will come back in one piece. 'Bye."

Marjorie's father had come to the United States at the age of fifteen, an orphan, a fleck of foam on the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe. In his first bewildered week in a wretched cellar on the lower East Side of New York, he had become friendly with a boy who worked for an importer of feathers. He too had gone to work sorting and classifying feathers: filthy work that paid two dollars a week. Now, thirty-three years later, the importer was dead, the boy who had brought him into the feather business was Mr. Morgenstern's partner, and the Arnold Importing Company was a well-known dealer in feathers, straws, and other materials for ladies' hats, a tributary of New York's millinery trade. From two dollars a week, Marjorie's father had painfully worked up to about fifteen thousand a year. Every year since his marriage he had spent every dollar he earned on the comfort of his family and the improvement of their station in life. Except for his part ownership of the struggling little corporation and the salary he drew, he was a penniless man. Yet he lived on Central Park West.

"Do you think she'll be all right?" he said, peering at the brown door through which his daughter had vanished.

"Why not? All the kids around here ride. More coffee before it's cleared away?"

"All right."

At Marjorie's vacant place in the dining room was the ruin of the bun she had half bolted, smeared with lipstick. "Why is she suddenly so interested in horseback riding?" said Mr. Morgenstern. "She had one lesson this week."

"Why do you think?" His wife poured coffee from the silver pot she used on Sunday mornings.

"Not that fat fool Billy Ehrmann?"

"There's another boy in the party."

"Who is he?"

"I don't know. Fraternity brother of Billy. He can't be too bad."

The father pulled out the business section of the Times and glanced at it, sipping coffee. After a while he said, "What about George?"

"George, I think, is finished. Marjorie doesn't know it yet."

"But you know it, I suppose."

"Yes, I do. It's a long way down here from the Bronx."

"Maybe we shouldn't have moved from the Bronx."

"Now what makes you say that?" The mother looked out of the window, still pleased and thrilled by the view of the park.

"Personally I have no objection to George. A steady boy," the father said. "Could fit in the business."

"A nobody."

"Well, I don't like these Manhattan boys," the father said. "They're too smart. They're cold fish. I talk to them, and suddenly I remember I've got an accent. I can hear it. After thirty years they make me feel like a greenhorn." Marjorie's father had only a slight accent, and the mother had virtually none, yet neither sounded native-born, and they knew they never would. "I don't trust these boys. They look like they'd try any smart trick with a girl they could get away with."

"Marjorie can take care of herself."

"She can, can she?"

Mrs. Morgenstern had been maintaining the opposite viewpoint not less recently than two o'clock that morning while waiting up nervously for Marjorie. This kind of discussion went on all the time between the parents. They could take either side with ease. It all depended on which one started to criticize the daughter. The father stared at his paper and the mother stared out of the window.

After a while the mother shrugged. "She's entitled to the best, isn't she? The West Side is where the good families live. Here she has the best chances of meeting somebody worth while. We went all over that ground."

"She told me all about sex yesterday afternoon," the father said. "Studied it in Hygiene, she says. She knows the whole business like a doctor. She knows a lot more about it than I do. Talked about chromosomes, and tubes, and eggs, and the male this, and the female that. I was embarrassed, I'll tell you the truth, and the strange thing is I felt sorry for her."

"Well, she can't help what they teach her in school. Is it better to know nothing at all, the way we were?"

"Maybe she knows too much. Did she ever tell you the five arguments that prove God exists and five answers that prove he doesn't? She learned them in a course. But she never goes to temple except to a dance, she's forgotten any Hebrew she ever knew, and if she doesn't eat bacon she eats shrimp cocktails, I'll bet a hundred dollars on that."

"This is America."

"We've spoiled her. I'm worried about her, Rose. Her attitudes—She doesn't know what money is. A wild Indian couldn't know less. I do some magic with a fountain pen and a checkbook and she has a dress or a coat or a riding habit—"

"I saw you going over the checkbook last night. Is that what this fuss is all about? The riding habit? A girl needs clothes."

"I'm talking in general. From a money standpoint this move to Manhattan was crazy. We're eating capital."

"I've told you twenty times you're going to have to give yourself a raise."

The father stood and began to walk back and forth. He was a stout little man with a moon face, curly graying hair, and heavy black eyebrows. "It's a funny thing about a business. You take out more money than comes in and after a while there's no business."

Marjorie's mother had heard nothing but moans from her husband about business through good times and bad. She was not inclined to regard the depression seriously. Her husband's steadily rising income from his feather importing business had seemed miraculous to her in the first years of their marriage, but now she took it quite for granted. "These are the years that count for Marjorie. This new boy she's riding with, whoever he is, he's a Columbia boy, a fraternity boy, isn't he? That means a good family. Would she have met him if we'd stayed in the Bronx?"

"She's only a sophomore. She may not get married for years."

"It won't put us in the poorhouse."

"Then there'll be Seth."

"We'll worry about Seth when the time comes."

"Well, we won't have any problems if she breaks her neck today riding a horse."

"She won't break her neck."

"I heard you arguing with her. She's only had three lessons."

"What is there to riding a horse?"

The father paced to the window. "It's a beautiful day. There go some horses… That wouldn't be her, yet. Look, the park is green. Seems like only yesterday it was all covered with purple snow. The snow in the parks looks purple, did you notice that? There must be a scientific explanation." He rubbed his forehead. "I'm worrying about spring hats in November and fall hats in February. A year goes by like a week, it seems."

"She'll be all right, I tell you." The mother came and stood beside him. They were the same height, and she too had a round face. Their expressions were much alike, except that the man's face had sterner lines at the mouth. They might have been brother and sister. He looked about ten years older than his wife, though they were nearly the same age.

"Doesn't it seem strange to you?" said the father. "It does to me. How long ago was she crawling on the floor with wet diapers? What's become of the time? Horseback—"

"We're getting old, Arnold."

"Nowadays they make jokes about the marriage brokers," said the father. "All the same, with the old system she'd be meeting nothing but boys of exactly the right age and background, and no guesswork."

"With that system you wouldn't have the problem of Marjorie at all," said the mother sharply.

The father smiled and looked sly. After more than twenty years it was still a sore point with Mrs. Morgenstern that he had once almost been matched with a rabbi's daughter. "I'm just saying that this is also a strange system. It's going to cost us plenty, putting her near these good families of yours. And one night at one of these dances, what's to stop her from falling for a good-looking fool from a rotten family? And that'll be the end of it. Remember that first one at the camp when she was thirteen? That Bertram?"

The mother grimaced. "She has more sense now."

"She has more education. That's a different thing. She has no more sense. A lot less maybe. And as for—well, religion—the way things are nowadays—" He broke off, looking out of the window.

"All this," said the mother uneasily, "just because the girl goes for a horseback ride? Don't forget one thing. She gets the man she loves. She gets what she wants, not what we pick. That's the right way."


  • "To me, it's a unicorn of a book--a so-called women's novel, written by a man, that takes its heroine very seriously...A serious book that finds a big, sprawling story in what seems like a small, narrow life."—Laura Lippman, author of The Lady in the Lake
  • "A proto-feminist classic."—Boris Kachka, Vulture
  • "Herman Wouk's most solid achievement...a major novel."—Saturday Review
  • "Definitely in the tradition of the great novel -- spacious, abundantly peopled, shrewd, observant, humane."—New York Herald Tribune
  • "Its locale is Central Park West, Hunger College, and West End Avenue; its characters almost all Jewish; its appeal universal."—Sidney Field, Sunday Mirror
  • "Very good reading indeed."—Maxwell Geismar, New York Times

On Sale
Jan 15, 2013
Page Count
584 pages

Herman Wouk

About the Author

Herman Wouk’sacclaimedbooks include The Will to Live On, This Is My God, Pulitzer Prize winner The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance.

Learn more about this author