Marjorie Kellogg

Author/screenwriter of 'Junie Moon'
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The Independent Online

Marjorie Kellogg, social worker, novelist, screenwriter and playwright: born Santa Barbara, California 17 July 1922; died Santa Barbara 19 December 2005.

'I am living with freaks,' each of them announced at one time or another. And each of them feared he was the biggest freak. It was not their dream to be this way. There was no magazine printed that pictured three people like themselves living together in a run-down bungalow under an oppressive tree." So reflects the narrator of Marjorie Kellogg's novel Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1968).

Although better known to some as an early Liza Minnelli movie, in which the actress took the eponymous role as one of the freakish trio who forsake long-term hospital care to set up this Gothic household, the story endures far better in Marjorie Kellogg's droll prose.

The book might easily have never been written. Kellogg was born in Santa Barbara in 1922, and, after studying at the University of California at Berkeley, she got a job on the San Francisco Chronicle, where she worked on the copy desk and met the future writer Paula Fox, with whom she now attempted a True Confessions-style yarn. It grew wilder and wilder, and was set aside. She then joined Salute magazine, which sent her to report upon the post-war world in Europe, especially Spain, but on her return to America she chose to study social work.

In 1953, she took a master's degree in the subject at Smith College, and began work in New York, where she also collaborated with Fox on live television plays in that era when the medium was hungry for such material. From this, they learned that it is the characters who should drive a story's direction. In the meanwhile, over the years, she accumulated a great deal of such experience with the patients in her charge at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, and Fox began to insist that she make these the subject of a novel.

By dint of getting up early, and writing at five o'clock, she had finished Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon within a few months. It reached the best-seller lists in America, and was bought for the 1970 movie directed by Otto Preminger, scripted by Kellogg herself.

She was to write a second novel, Like the Lion's Tooth (1972), which depicts, in too fragmentary a style, the vicissitudes of children at the mercy of an abusive father whose absences, at sea, do not lessen the memory of his callous ways, but it is for Junie Moon that she deserves to be remembered.

The three "freaks" of the story are Warren, who is raised by a group of writers, any of whom could have been his father, and then, as a teenager, immobilised after being shot in the back by a friend ("they both agreed to say it was an accident"); Arthur, who was abandoned by his parents when a mysterious degenerative, neurological disease became apparent; and Junie Moon, who, stripped and assaulted by her husband in an alley, lay there while he went for acid to pour on her face.

Grim stuff, but there is a brio to the telling, a sharp eye for detail. "Arthur walked with a careering gait and his hands fluttered about his face like butterflies." As for one bureaucratic, conference-obsessed nurse, she is told, "If you spent the time in more sinful pleasure, things would be a lot easier round here." As Junie notes, "They had lived together for so many years that they mistook their arguments for conversations."

The thrust of the story is the difficulty of adjusting to a world in which, unlike that of the hospital, their bodies and thoughts should now be a private matter. As they contend with this situation, "the insults began to have a more tailored sting to them". Even the dog who adopts them sports "his tail high in the air as if he were some elegant and ancient breed".

Eschewing sentimentality, this touching, crisply carpentered work has slipped from print, and fallen victim to the collapse in a public-library system which once gave such novels a continued life. It deserves to reappear, a modern classic which eclipses such now-fugitive work by Marjorie Kellogg as her 1979 screenplay from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and the off-Broadway plays, two of which starred Sylvia Short, with whom she returned to live in Santa Barbara in 1989. To have written one excellent novel is no mean achievement.

Christopher Hawtree