Marjorie Morningstar (novel)

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First edition (publ. Doubleday)

Marjorie Morningstar is a 1955 novel by Herman Wouk, about a woman who wants to become an actress. In 1958, the book was made into a Hollywood feature movie starring Natalie Wood, also titled Marjorie Morningstar.


Marjorie Morgenstern, born 1916, is a New York Jewish girl in the 1930s. She is bright, very beautiful and popular, with lots of boyfriends. Her father is a prosperous businessman, and her family has recently moved from a poorer ethnically Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx to the wealthier neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Her mother hopes that the change of neighborhood will help Marjorie marry a man with a brighter future.

Marjorie dreams of becoming an actress, using "Marjorie Morningstar" as a stage name. She begins with her school's (Hunter College) production of The Mikado, and lands the title role. This introduces her to Marsha Zelenko, who will become her best friend (for a while). Marsha encourages Marjorie in her quest, and helps her gain a job as a dramatic counselor at the summer camp, where Marsha teaches arts and crafts. During the summer Marsha persuades Marjorie to accompany her on an illicit excursion to South Wind, an exclusive adult resort with a staff of professional entertainers. There Marjorie meets Noel Airman, an older man who has won some fame as a composer, as well as Wally Wronken, a younger man who hopes to become a playwright.

Marjorie idolizes Noel, who can sing, dance, compose, and speak several languages. They begin a relationship that determines the next four years of her life. He tells her that he has no interest in marrying, or fitting in with the middle class life that he tells her she will ultimately want. Having changed his birth name from Saul to Noel to escape his Jewish origins, he mocks her Jewish observances (such as her unwillingness to eat bacon), and taunts her for her 'Mosaic' unwillingness to engage in premarital sex. Noel tells Marjorie that she is a "Shirley": a typical well-brought up New York Jewish girl who will ultimately want a stable husband and family, while he is embarking on an artistic career.

Over the course of the novel, neither Noel nor Marjorie finds professional success in the theater. Marjorie accepts that she will not succeed as a professional actress, and spends more of her time reading and working. Noel takes and quits stable writing and editing jobs, blaming Marjorie for motivating him to take jobs that do not suit him and for his unhappiness. He flees New York in a panic rather than marry Marjorie, saying that he will not succeed as a writer and will return to studying philosophy. Having entered a sexual relationship with him, Marjorie is convinced that her only hope is to marry Noel. She decides that the best way to persuade him to marry her is to wait a year and then pursue him to Paris.

However, en route to France, Marjorie meets a mysterious man aboard the Queen Mary. She enjoys his company, he treats her well and speaks respectfully of her religious traditions, and he helps her locate Noel. In Paris, Noel tells her how happy he is to see her, but does not notice when she is hungry or hurt. He tells her that in his year in Paris he has not actually enrolled in school to study philosophy, and that he will return to the U.S. to take another stable writing job. He offers to marry her, but Marjorie has realized that life with Noel will not make her happy, and that it would be possible for her to fall in love with someone else.

She returns to New York free of her infatuation with Noel, and quickly marries. She no longer cares whether Noel would describe her as a "Shirley". The novel concludes with an epilogue in the form of an entry in Wally Wronken's diary. Wally idolized Marjorie as a young man, and meets her again 15 years after she marries. Marjorie has happily settled into a role as a religious suburban wife and mother. Wally recalls the bright-eyed girl he once knew, and marvels at how ordinary Marjorie seems at 39.

The character name Airman is a translation to English of the Yiddish expression Luftmensch.

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