Bitter Tea

Hollywood, sunny and shallow, had welcomed us with its palms spread out like opened arms. Mona and I, thanks to one of her many suitors, were tinsel town tourists and on our way to the movie studios. We’d been invited on the set of Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen.  Sicilian men, I’m told, make terrific lovers but terrible husbands. I don’t know if Capra was an exception. He was short, stocky, and had eyes that penetrated like swords. Sensuously intriguing, he seemed to have a penchant for whispering in women’s ears.

Known for his post-Depression “fantasies of goodwill” movies, Capra had decided that goodwill would not win him an Oscar so he was out for a Hollywood Makeover. And that makeover was going to happen thanks to The Bitter Tea of General Yen. I’d read the book and, after learning that the author was also on the set, left Mona alone with the flirtatious Capra and went to look for Grace Zaring Stone. So after wandering around, I found the author standing at the coffee counter next to Barbara Stanwyck! My initial reaction was that Grace looked quite stuffy all dressed in white. Even her beret and gloves were white and she was clutching her purse as if she needed something to hold on to. Plus her mouth looked as if it had been ironed into place. But after a closer look at her facial muscles, it became obvious that, more than stuffy, Grace was just very uncomfortable in that situation. So when Ms. Stanwyck was called back on the set, I walked up to Grace and introduced myself as one of her biggest fans because, as my mother always use to say, flattery can get you anywhere.

We found a nice secluded place to sit and talk. Grace was the great-great-granddaughter of the social reformer Robert Owen. And, said Grace, Owen descendants read books and kept diaries. So before writing novels, she wrote diaries. Married to a naval officer, Grace travelled a lot and lived in various parts of the world. For two years she’d lived in China.

The setting for The Bitter Tea of General Yen is that of the Chinese civil war of 1927. Megan Davis, prim New Englander, is engaged to a missionary doctor and goes to meet up with him in China so they can get married. But when she arrives in Shanghai, her fiancé is caught up in conflict somewhere else. So when the elderly missionary, Doctor Strike, sets off to rescue some orphans, Megan, restless, goes with him. Unfortunately, rebel skirmishes separate them and Megan winds up under the protection of the warlord, General Yen.

For three days, Megan is a guest in Yen’s palace, a palace “made for a life which began and ended with the rising and the setting of the sun.” Megan and Yen reciprocally try to convert each other. Megan pushes God and goodwill whereas the General promotes intelligence and culture. “Have you read any of our poetry?” he asks her. “Do you know about Li Bai, a poet of the Tang Dynasty?”

Li Bai roamed around the Yangzte River Valley drinking wine and writing poetry. The poet loved anthropomorphism and often got drunk with his shadow. He used a free style that greatly influenced Ezra Pound. One night he took a boat ride and, seeing the moon’s reflection in the water, tried to embrace it. He fell in the water and drowned.

Furthermore, says Yen, the Chinese invented gunpowder for fireworks. Western culture, instead, uses gunpowder for guns. And that tells you much about the difference between the two cultures. Slightly overwhelmed, Megan is unable to use God to counter rebuttal Yen’s observations and says “I want as a matter of fact to see your point of view as far as I can. I believe I can do it better when you don’t argue with me.”   

“In religion, even when the reward is far, the hope is so immediate.”

Despite their differences (or maybe because of them), Megan and the General, in the film, are erotically attracted to one another. But whereas they are able to go beyond their differences, the American public could not. Capra’s film was a box office failure. Americans could not accept the idea of an oriental man having a romance with a Caucasian woman. At the time, miscegenation, the mixing of different racial types, was illegal in the USA and remained so until 1967. Marriage, cohabitation, and sexual intercourse between a white person and a person of another race were prohibited. In fact, for the role of General Yen, to avoid having problems with racial laws, Capra chose Nils Asther, a Swedish actor made up to look as if he were Chinese.

Grace had two other novels turned into film: Winter Meeting, and Escape. For the latter, an anti-Nazi thriller, she used the pseudonym of Ethel Vance to avoid creating problems for her daughter, Eleanor, who had married an impoverished Hungarian aristocrat, Zsiga Perényi, and lived in Hungary that, after WWI, had been given over to Czechoslovakia.

Grace, who lived to be 100, eventually moved to Connecticut to be near Eleanor now back in the USA. Mother and daughter enjoyed sitting on the terrace drinking and smoking and storytelling. Eleanor had a fabulous garden with ornamental flowers, vegetables, and espaliered pears. Sometimes she would organize dinner parties inviting people like Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Elizabeth Bowen, and Mary McCarthy. Eleanor wrote a best seller about her garden as well as an intriguing book about her Hungarian years, More Was Lost.

Lesson learned: Prejudice is an a priori judgement. That is, a judgement based on theory and not on actual experience. To have a prejudice is like wearing a uniform. Instead of reflecting your own individuality, you standardize your thoughts according to norms not created by your own experiences.

As I grow older, will I be a victim of my own prejudice?

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)


Related: Grace Zaring Stone (1891-1991)

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