Shelley Mydans’ “The Open City”

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

Shelley Mydans approached her work for Life magazine with utmost seriousness. At the same time, she downplayed her role as primarily supportive of photographers. It was her job, she explained, to “mak[e]arrangements for their pictures, and writ[e] the background and captions for their stories which were all excerpted and rewritten in New York. It was not a very glamorous job.” [Wagner 136] Even with the occasional signed piece, Mydans believed she was best known for a single six-word cable she sent to the Life office in late December of 1941.

She and her photographer husband Carl had recently fled Shanghai only to find themselves threatened again by Japanese occupation. For three weeks following Pearl Harbor, as the noose closed around Manila, Shelley and Carl continued their work as journalists, but little they and their colleagues produced survived the censors’ scissors. Enough made it through to whet their editors’ interest. By cable, the New York office asked for “another first person eyewitness story but this week we prefer Americans on the offensive.” Shelley’s terse reply was inscrutable enough to evade the censors but, in context, shockingly clear to its recipients: “Bitterly regret your request unavailable here.” [Carl Mydans 68] Just after the New Year, she and Carl were prisoners in the improvised detention camp at the University of Santo Tomas.

By September the couple had signed up for relocation to Shanghai and were released in a prisoner trade in December of the next year. Carl went back on the war beat in Europe; Shelley stayed in California and New York to write a book. It would be about her experiences in Santo Tomas, fictionalized. She believed she had the material to write a novel Americans would respond to. She aimed for a “literary book,” but was forced to admit, in the end, that The Open City was more of a “reporter’s novel.” [Siemens] Certainly, that was my reaction.


Mydans has a large cast of characters to introduce us to, all of them internees/prisoners. There is Katharine, thoughtful, hard-working, the Mydans stand-in character, though her husband is elsewhere as Mydans’s was not; and Dodie, weak-willed, gullible, tending to the histrionic, who nevertheless shares with Mydans the experience of being sent off-site to an outside hospital for treatment; Dr. Busch, the strong, reliable, reassuring physician; and many more. We get our first hint of the sinister on page 77–Army personnel may be concealing their identities in the civilian camp–but the problem is not taken up in earnest for another seventy pages after that. For the first half of the book, whatever tension there is in the book is merely latent: intimations of rumors and resentments that may tear at the social fabric of the prison community.

The Committee. Before long it becomes the scapegoat for all that ails the camp. MacArthur, the mosquitoes, even the Japanese have been forgotten if not forgiven. [139] Even so, in the beginning, the Committee is a paragon of efficacy, organizing roughly three thousand souls into a functioning society, bringing order out of chaos. And Mydans shows how it was done, on the inside, as it were, a fly on the wall of their meetings of committee and subcommittee. It might not make for riveting reading, though it is enlightening for historian looking for an inside view. “About the toilets,” begins one committee member, “we have been discussing a new plan of toilet-paper distribution.” He then proceeds to explain the details for distributing one roll per room (of thirty!) and, using the honor system, allowing each to use “four sheets per time.” [59]

Committee proceedings have their humorous moments, and Mydans makes sure to capitalize on them. Mr. Smucker’s gravity delivering his report on the “fly situation” feels comic, even while the health concerns it raises are undeniably grave. “Mine is not a report on insects in toto,” he begins, “but a report on the fly situation.” The problem of mosquitoes, fleas, lice, and bedbugs are well in hand, he explains, but the causes and the dangers of the “fly situation” persist. [62]

His presentation extends for four full paragraphs, ending with a list of slogans his subcommittee devised to post around the camp. “SWAT THAT FLY!” was the catchiest and most succinct, but he started to add one more: “Flies spread disease—-,” when the good Doctor Busch interjected, “Keep yours buttoned.” [63] Really? I, for one, had to reread the exchange to get the joke. The doctor’s insertion of the punchline was so automatic and, moreover, out of character. I could only think that it was a one-liner that had made the rounds at Santo Tomas and Mydans looked for a way to include it in her story. It felt forced.

Meanwhile, in the detention center, information was scant. Rumors rose up to fill the gaps. “MacArthur’s coming.” [47] “Bataan has fallen.” [98-102] Everyone weighed in with more or less conviction on events they had no way to confirm or deny. Eventually English language, Japanese-censored newspapers reached the camp. The facts were obscured but “those who wanted to take the time could follow the world news and get a pretty accurate picture of the general progress of the war in all theaters.” [114]

Rumors about affairs within the walls of Santo Tomas were more hazardous than those about the outside world. Two lines of talk threatened to tear at the fabric of their provisional society. Lance Diamond was renting out his cot, careful removed from the communal rooms, in a dark, unused stairwell, for couples seeking “privacy.” Teenagers and married people alike were paying in whatever currency they had for the ability to satisfy sexual desires. An eminently practical solution to an unavoidable problem, but rumors about adulterous trysts and concerns about “morals” generally could not be denied. Diamond’s den of iniquity had to go, his “pimping” had to stop. [135]

The other pernicious rumor that made the rounds was that Army personnel were hidden within their midst. Santo Tomas was for civilians only, not prisoners of war. Any combatants caught hiding their true identity would be subject to execution. Who were these men? Did they even exist? Mouths wagged. Through Katharine’s growing relationship with Dick we learn that there is at least one soldier in the camp: Dick, himself. Bringing her into his confidence, he tells her of his exploits on Bataan, his capture and escape from Corregidor. Thus, Mydans is able to include reportorial scenes from the soldier’s point of view, as relayed by Dick, not merely those of humiliations in Santo Tomas, which her experience was limited to. She would have gleaned these images from friend and fellow reporter Annalee Jacoby who escaped Manila and lived with the troops six weeks on the besieged peninsula and island fortress.

The rumors surrounding Dick and Diamond, the former sympathetic, the latter not, come to a head, of course. They  become entangled, leading to the satisfyingly tragic conclusion. Until then, Mydans has Katharine and Committee chairman “Hark” Harkinsen ponder the nature of rumors. “Dangerous gossip is like hemophilia,” avers Harkinsen, “Women are the carriers but men are the sufferers.” Katharine objects: “Some women talk, but so do some men. And women are hurt by talk as much as men.” [206] This exchange would not pass muster today. If her rebuttal bore a patina of truth in 1944, it seems a statement of the obvious today.

An even more blatantly sexist comment comes from one of Mydans’s secondary characters. Butch has enjoyed some physical flirtation with his halter top-wearing girlfriend. Vinny squeals coquettishly when he kisses her bare midriff, to her boyfriend’s chagrin. “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he exclaims. “Sometimes I think a woman ought to have more than just a body.” [124] Again, I had to reread to check that I had read it right.

In fact, Mydans’s female characters spend no little time worrying about their physical appearance. Even the sensible Katharine after looking in the mirror one day, was “happy to see she was getting very tanned, so that all she needed was lipstick. When she combed her hair the light shone through the short curling ends and made it seem reddish, almost golden. The soft color of the linen dress made her smoky eyes look green.” Really? She looked that good after weeks in a prison camp?

Katharine went to Dr. Busch, too, for the “reassurance” his ostensibly male strength provided her and the other female characters. Through the third-person limited narrator, Katharine explains: “Women often came to Dr. Busch with mysterious aches and pains, vague complaints of they knew not what. Perhaps if he had been practicing in normal times in a normal community Dr. Bush would have given them a little pink pill. In the camp he gave them reassurance.” [51] Katharine is worried about her husband, an engineer stuck on a different island. She, too, needs to be “reassured.”

In fact, so many of the women characters in The Open City were portrayed as shallow or flighty or dependent on men that I began to think it could not be an accurate description of actual prisoners in Santo Tomas. I wondered if the needs of the fiction readership in the 1940s made Mydans shape her characters into recognizable types. A “reporter’s novel” perhaps, but still a novel, and the historical researcher needs to handle with care.

The novel’s attitudes on race are disquieting, too. Any Japanese character who enters the book is always (and I mean always) accompanied by the adjective “little,” starting with the “unsmiling and efficient little Zero pilot” on the first page. Japanese soldiers are also usually “ugly” and their clothes, with one notable exception proving the rule, “ragged.” Speaking for American women everywhere, Mydans seems to be saying these Japanese invaders are poor specimens of masculinity. They were also her captors. They were the enemy in a war whose end was not yet known.

The Open City is also revealing in its treatment of class, the third leg in the stool of oppression. Filipinos, as allies, are always sympathetic in this book, yet their roles are mainly to aid the Americans. It is true that Filipinos brought food and personal items from their own meager stores to share with the American captives. Every day some or many trudged to the gates of Santo Tomas and heaved their goods over “the Fence” for the prisoners’ use. The Americans had to have been grateful. In The Open City, a few characters are heard making denigrating comments, but as a rule the Americans cherished the Filipino people, even if accompanied by more or less amounts of paternalism

Inevitably, the Americans dream of life after internment when they can return to their life before. More than one character invokes images of swimming at the Club, their own bit of American privilege in the Philippines. They longed for a return to normalcy when they could stop scrubbing tables and…what, have someone else do it for them? “Then, all the people thought, they would go back again to what they were. They would go home again to America or back to the busy office and the cool apartment, to jai alai and the Manila hotel.” [224] That is, back to being Americans, entitled to a free movement in the world, protected from all the want they see around them. At least, that is how it read to me.

Mydans gives an even more revealing view of the Americans’ self-image earlier in the book, in the middle of a lengthy exchange between Dick and Katharine. In response to Katharine’s comment, which was a response to his story, Dick says, “My land”–which brought Katharine up short. She thinks to herself through the narrator, “There was the whole of Middle West America in that soft, innocent exclamation, and Katharine suddenly saw a woman in an apron standing at the kitchen sink.  She smelled fresh baked cookies and heard the children in the yard.  She was shocked at what the exclamation made her feel.” [176] Speaking of being brought up short, I was breathless at the baldness of the imagery.

Katharine never longs for apple pie or Aunt Em calling her in for supper. Her needs are more basic. After learning the book’s tragic climax, she runs to Dr. Busch for–well–reassurance. He gives her permission to cry, but she demurs. “I guess I’ll have to wait. I’m waiting for the time when we are free to cry.” Shelley Mydans, through her fictional character, spoke for every American, woman and man, too, who had suffered loss in this unfinished, worldwide war.


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