It’s rare that I give a book five stars. The Tobacco Wives is Adele Myers‘ debut novel, and I read it cover-to-cover yesterday. The way Ms. Myers wove together disparate plot lines into a beautiful historical tapestry was quite impressive: the evolution of the empowerment of women in the Deep South, the marketing of MOMimt cigarettes to women after WWII, and the power of unions post WWII.
The story is set in Bright Leaf (Durham-Chapel Hill), North Carolina during the summer of 1946.
Maddie May Sykes is fifteen. Her daddy was killed in WWII. Her distraught mother is desperate to find a new husband and dumps Maddie on her late husband’s Aunt Etta, who is seamstress for wealthy and rich tobacco wives as well as factory workers.
Aunt Etta has been teaching Maddie her craft over a series of summer visits and believes Maddie is ready to help her with gowns for the summer Gala. Aunt Etta creates couture gowns for wealthy tobacco wives, adds “flourishes” to off-the-rack dresses for “second tier” rich tobacco wives, and supplies factory workers with uniforms in partnership with Anthony. Her favorite customer is Mrs. Elizabeth “Mitzy” Winston, the wife of Bright Leaf Tobacco’s CEO Richard Winston. He had been crippled by polio and is a flaming misogynist:
Mr. Winston acted like he was protecting his wife, but really he was looking out for himself. He didn’t want to improve things for the women at the factory. Just the opposite in fact. He wanted to get rid of them.
Her other wealthy clients are Mrs. Cornelia Witherspoon Hale and her daughter-in-law Rose, who leveraged her beauty pagent looks into a marriage to Dr. Robert Hale. Anthony thinks he “looks like Rumpelstiltskin.” Cornelia’s late husband took credit for her ideas. She owns textile mills as well as substantial tobacco holdings. She is a closet feminist who decides to mentor Maddie. To this end, Cornelia loans Maddie a book about the hidden role of women in the Deep South:
Knowledge is power. And conversely, the withholding of knowledge is an act of oppression.
Mitzy and her sister Mrs. Ashley Smith were feminists in their youth. After her marriage, Mitzy’s top priority became motherhood, and she and has taken her godson David Taylor under her wing after his mother died. She also has a soft spot for Maddie and wants to encourage her career aspirations as well as a budding romance with David. Ashley, who briefly served as Bright Leaf’s auctioneer during WWII, encourages Maddie to adopt feminist ideas:
Every woman should have the opportunity to work. Men would have us believe that it’s too difficult, that we’re weak, but it’s actually just the opposite.
Meanwhile, Mr. Winston and Dr. Hale are conspiring to keep women like Cornelia, Mitzy, and Ashley off the board of directors and to market MOMint cigarettes to women under the false claim that it was good for their health. Ads for the product featured beautiful tobacco wives and Dr. Hale’s endorsement.
Ms. Myers grew up in North Carolina’s tobacco country and works in advertising in NYC. Her experiences and expertise became the book’s anchors:
These women seemed even more fascinating when I realized that despite their wealth and privilege, they, like most women in the 1940s South, were powerless in many ways. . .How did proud tobacco town executives and workers react in 1950 when medical studies linked smoking to cancer? What would a tobacco wife do if she was the first to know, or better yet, if she discovered her husband had been covering it up?
. . .My expertise in public relations and advertising gave me insight into the strategies tobacco companies employed. I know the power of marketing, how it can shape perceptions and drive consumer behavior.
After my first year of law school, I had a summer internship with Reuben & Proctor in Chicago. Our task was to review discovery documents for a $10 million defamation lawsuit against Walter “Skippy” Jacobsen, a commentator for WBBM-TV (CBS affiliate), brought by Brown & Williamson. Skippy had claimed that the cigarette company had intentionally marketed cigarettes to kids. They did. I found their marketing plan in the discovery documents and tried to explain its significance to the partner in charge of Skippy’s case. Sadly, he was too arrogant to listen to a lowly summer intern who had an MBA, had spent five years working with the brand management team at Quaker Oats, and was part of the team which introduced granola (Quaker 100% Natural Cereal) to the commercial market. One of my colleagues was Thomas N. Boyden, who launched the infamous “Mikey Likes It” commercial for Life cereal. But, what the hell did I know?
Skippy got his ass kicked in multiple courts. His career tanked. Eventually, the public learned that smoking is horrid for our health, and tobacco companies’ efforts to market to kids surfaced. It was too late for Skippy.
The publication of The Tobacco Wives couldn’t possibly be more timely. Bravo, Adele Myers!