Secrets and Lies

Richard Powell’s ‘The Philadelphian’ has been re-published for its 50th anniversary.

By: Susan Van Dongen
   Talking about the turn of the 20th century, Henry Miller remarks in the 1981 film Reds, that "…there was just as much (sex) going on back then as there is now."
   You could say the same for 19th century Philadelphia, at least judging from The Philadelphian, the controversial and popular novel by the late Richard Powell, recently re-published in a 50th anniversary edition by Plexus Publishing, Inc., of Medford.
   Spanning four generations of Philadelphians, beginning with the emigration of an uneducated Irish girl in 1857, the novel is a raw and powerful tale of a family of humble origins clawing its way to the top. The title character (Anthony Judson Lawrence) is memorable — but the women!
   Take Margaret O’Donnell, the Irish girl who arrives on a sailing ship from Dublin. She decides what she wants from life as soon as she disembarks and goes about getting it by some unusual means. Her own daughter and granddaughter also turn out to be calculating, using sex to speed the climb up the social ladder.
   How dare Mr. Powell write about females in such a way.
   But he also got comments that affirmed his knowledge of the feminine psyche. Readers wanted to know how the author learned so much about women and captured them so accurately.
   "My father loved women, there’s always ‘that’ in his books," says Dorothy Powell Quigley of Ardmore, Pa., Mr. Powell’s only daughter, who has championed the re-release of the novel. As far as the sensuality, "…he was certainly ahead of his time. But he put it in a way that got the sexuality across without the language. It’s provocative without being vulgar."
   Originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, The Philadelphian was touted as an exposé of blue-blooded Philadelphia. If you believe the book, a certain privileged class of residents must have kept some interesting secrets locked up in the luxury digs along Rittenhouse Square.
   In addition, when the book was first published, there were whispers about the real identities of the characters. Was Anthony supposed to be Mayor Richardson Dilworth? Or were there elements of longtime city councilman Thatcher Longstreth woven into the protagonist? And who were these extraordinary women?
   Ms. Quigley says they were fictional, or maybe a blend of this person mixed with a touch of that one. But her father was too much of a professional to create a thinly veiled roman à clef.
   "He was very careful about that," she says. "He said, ‘You either write a biography or you don’t.’"
   The Philadelphian spent more than six months on the bestseller lists in 1957 and was a Reader’s Digest Book Club selection. In 1959, Warner Brothers released The Young Philadelphians, based on the novel, starring Paul Newman.
   At that point, Ms. Quigley, who hadn’t paid much attention to her father’s writing career, came to realize that this was, indeed, a big deal. Away at college in Virginia, she missed the premiere, however.
   "The week after it premiered he came to pick me up at school and we went to see the movie," she says. "He turned to me and said, ‘You know, this is the first time I’ve seen the movie — there were too many distractions at the premiere.’" She remembers being frustrated that they had to stand in line to buy tickets. Her father was famous, after all. But Ms. Quigley’s biggest disappointment was not being able to meet Mr. Newman.
   While most of Mr. Powell’s novels disappeared from publishers’ lists during the 1970s, his work is currently experiencing a revival, with three books in addition to The Philadelphian currently available in new editions or soon to be released. Say It With Bullets has recently been published by Hard Case Crime and has been optioned as a film, while Shell Game and A Shot in the Dark are forthcoming from Starkhouse Press.
   A seventh generation Philadelphian, Mr. Powell (1908-1999) was a prodigious writer whose 19 full-length fictional works included many mysteries, along with several comedic, dramatic and historical novels. He majored in history at Princeton University, graduating cum laude in 1930.
   Prior to retiring to Florida in 1958 to write full time, he was a reporter for the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, then worked for many years in advertising and public relations. During World War II, he was a lieutenant-colonel, working in the censorship group in the War Department of Public Relations and later as chief news censor for Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
   Ms. Quigley’s mother, Marian, was not a Philadelphian — she was a native of Cleveland, Ohio. She says her parents always had a teasing relationship about the City of Brotherly Love. Mr. Powell dedicated his 1957 novel to his wife, quipping "For Marian, who didn’t understand Philadelphia."
   Although Mr. Powell’s children didn’t seem to be interested in the literary life, Ms. Quigley says her mother could have easily been a writer.
   "There was no question," she says. "She critiqued all his books. But it was a different generation, the man was the breadwinner and the woman catered to him. ‘You want to write every night and on the weekends, that’s fine,’ she’d say. Although she did make him take her out to dinner every Friday night."
The Philadelphian by Richard Powell has been re-released in a special 50th
anniversary edition by Plexus Publishing, Inc. It is available at Barnes &
Noble and through Plexus: