MARCIA OF THE DOORSTEP
A Synopsis, Analysis and Review
by Henry Hardy Heins
With excellent characterizations of a proud but lovable Shakespearean actor, and a shyster lawyer to end all shyster lawyers, MARCIA OF THE DOORSTEP comes through as perhaps the best of all the "realistic" novels which Edgar Rice Burroughs penned about modern life in the United States.
It is a novel of blackmail and society high and low, of shipwreck and a desert island, of Broadway and Hollywood, of stunt flying and coyote hunting, all intertwined with the life of a "door-step baby" who grows up to be a fine young lady and falls in love with her own brother.
Mingled in with this are unmistakable reflections of the author's own life and experience, from being a business failure to cruising the Pacific.
Just as THE GIRL FROM HOLLYWOOD (written in 1921-1922) was a later development of the type of story which ERB wrote in THE GIRL FROM FARRIS'S (1913-1914), so MARCIA OF THE DOORSTEP (1924) is a further development of both. And later on, in 1927, YOU LUCKY GIRL! would continue the same vein still further.
One wonders if ERB did not write MARCIA for the Macauley market (which consisted to some extent of the "soap opera" type of love story for women readers), since it followed from his pen immediately after the first success of THE GIRL FROM HOLLYWOOD as a Macauley publication. For some reason it was either never submitted, or never accepted.
But it would doubtless have made a popular book, in those days. Burroughs was at the height of his writing powers. MARCIA was the only thing he wrote that year (1924). It followed his completion of TARZAN AND THE ANT MEN the previous year, and from it in 1925 he would turn to part three of THE MOON MAID and then THE MASTER OF MARS.
The manuscript runs to 294 typed pages, double-spaced, estimated at 125,000 words. Richard Lupoff states it to be "Burroughs' longest single story... double the size of a typical novel." I read it in two evenings, and did not find it to drag; on the contrary, I was reluctant to put it down for interruptions.
In MARCIA OF THE DOORSTEP there are major elements of THE MUCKER and minor elements of THE MONSTER MEN. The shipwreck and lifeboat scenes are very reminiscent of THE RETURN OF TARZAN.
There is also one page (60) of simple fetish-sex, which, while totally innocent in its context, is completely unlike anything I have ever read in Burroughs: The family is preparing to go out for the evening, and the aging actor is called first into his wife's bedroom to hook her garters, and from there to his daughter's room to adjust her bra. Perhaps this was a publisher's suggestion, to inject a little sex into the story, but if so, ERB's failure to produce anything more titillating than this may have accounted for the rejection of the manuscript.
The story opens with a suicide in the first chapter. John Hancock Chase, Jr., only child of Maryland's former United States Senator, is being blackmailed in New York b shady attorney Max Heimer. The year is 1906. Chase, with a wife and child of his own, has been presented with evidence that during the night of drunken oblivion he fathered a child by a blowsy tramp named Mame Myerz. Heimer has already milked him dry, and Chase shoots himself to spare his family the shame of disclosure.
Chapter Two introduces Marcus Aurelius Sackett and his wife Clara. Marcus is a trouper of the old school, no longer in demand and he is forced to accept demeaning parts in low comedies if he is to remain on the stage at all. Burroughs describes him as "approaching his fortieth year", but he reader gets the impression he is much older.
His wife Clara, formerly on stage herself, has retired and devotes herself to being a devoted housewife and a counterbalance to Marcus' frequent flights of fancy. Here is another description out of the author's own past: (page 10) "Following the erratic fortunes of her husband she had known both poverty and moderate affluence" -- but when an engagement terminated they often had little left other than "resplendent wardrobes and perhaps a few well chosen jewels which were invariably required to tide them over to more prosperous times".
The Sacketts' doorbell rings at midnight, and they find on their step a basket, and in the basket a baby girl. They immediately take the infant to their hearts, having no children of their own. The foundling is named Marcia Aurelia Sackett, after her new foster-father.
The following week Della Maxwell arrives and moves in with the Sacketts. She is an old friend, younger than the Sacketts, but a fellow thespian -- the brassy-surface-but-heart-of-gold-type. She calls Marcus "Uncle Mark", but nothing is said to clarify whether or not she is actually his niece.
With Chapter Three the time shifts sixteen years later to 1922. (Burroughs was writing this in 1924, so it now becomes "contemporary".)
Marcia has become a lovely young lady of sixteen, with a beautiful singing voice. The Sacketts have been having their ups and downs as usual, but always winding up a little farther down. Whatever profit they make from occasional engagements and road tours, Marcus is always quick to invest in some new fly-by-night scheme to make them financially independent; but all the investments go down the drain and Marcus never even seems to profit by the experience (which, to Clara, would be the greatest profit imaginable). Della still lives with them also, in between her own engagements.
Marcus' current income has just stopped again, due to the closing of the play, and the members of the cast have engaged a lawyer to help them get some sort of settlement from the company. The lawyer turns out to be our old friend Max Heimer, still up to his neck in shady deals. When he comes to the Sackett home to get Marcus' signature on the papers, he meets Marcia and in the ensuing conversation learns about her having been a doorstep baby back in 1906.
Max Heimer plays on Marcus' credulity by representing himself as a great friend and adviser of such stage luminaries as Belasco, Ziegfield, etc., and when Marcus makes mild objections to the agreement by which Heimer will get 50% of whatever the players receive from he stock company, Heimer reassures him that he is limiting his take to 50% because he is taking this case mainly as a favor to his friends, the actors. "Fifty percent high? You ought to see what it is some of these other fellers do to you. Say, but it's lucky you got me." (p. 23) And with this reassurance from the lawyer himself, Marcus is content to feel that his affairs must be in good hands.
Heimer, sensing another rich vein just waiting to be mined, now goes to see former Senator Chase, long retired from his Maryland constituency and for some undisclosed reason living in New York. Heimer takes with him the papers with which he had hounded John Chase Jr. to his death sixteen years earlier. While not mentioning blackmail, dear Max acquaints the elder Chase with his son's shame, and with the further fact that the old senator now has a granddaughter living in the city.
True to the shyster's expectations, John Hancock Chase Sr. offers substantial sums of money to settle matters and salve his own disturbed conscience: $20,000 to the family who brought up his granddaughter, $2,500 apiece to the mother of the child and to Heimer himself, and, finally a trust fund for the girl which will provide her up to $1,000 a month.
Heimer is balked in his natural attempt to be named trustee of the juicy trust fund, but he does manage to get his fingers on most of the $20,000 given to the Sacketts.
The terms of the settlement stipulate that neither Senator Chase nor the Sacketts nor Marcia are ever to know the identity of each other. The Senator feels, after an unpleasant session with Mame Myrez who comes in with demands of her own, that the Sacketts and Marcia must be cut from he same cloth that she is, and he wants nothing more to do with any of them. All the arrangements are to be handled by his attorney, Judge Berlanger. Marcia would like to meet the senator once, just to thank him, but he refuses to see her.
Meanwhile, throughout the book there is a running current of Marcus Aurelius Sackett's hatred and contempt of the motion picture industry. On many occasions it is suggested that he could pull himself up and make a good living by acting in the films, but he steadfastly refuses to degrade himself and the noble ideals of the stage by doing so. Clara suffers their resultant pinched circumstances without complaining. Occasionally Marcus admits that he is a failure, but she always consoles him and helps him to look on the brighter side. On page 21, Burroughs writes: "To be young and broke presents, oft times, elements of comedy, but to be broke and old is tragedy, unadulterated." Do we see some glints here of the author's early life? On page 45 Marcus confesses to Clara: "What a failure I have been -- what a failure! Ah, if ever I have another opportunity..." And then a very poignant phrase, for which Edgar Rice Burroughs certainly should be remembered if it is his own:
"If! If! ....brief syllable of sorrow!"
Another little glimpse of the author's personal tastes appears on page 37, in connection with various conversations about automobiles: "When we're married," Dick (Marcia's boyfriend) was saying, "we'll buy a classy little roadster like that maroon one that just passed." "Oh, let's have a Pierce," cried Marcia. "It doesn't cost any more to drive a dream Pierce than a dream Buick, and they are so much more satisfying." "Oh, wouldn't it be great to be rich, Marcia," he cried, "and be able to buy any kind of a car you wanted?"
Burroughs spiritual agnosticism reveals itself in a line of Della's on page 90: "A world in which all were equal, especially financially, would be about as dull and impossible as the orthodox Christian conception of Heaven." (But we note that he spells it with a capital "H"!) On the other hand, he has Marcia refusing to be married by anyone but a minister on page 227: "I never thought that I should care for an elaborate or showing wedding, and I do not now, but I do want to be married by a minister. It wouldn't seem -- well, quite like a marriage if the ceremony were performed by a justice of the peace or a ship's captain. Don't you understand?"
Getting back to the story, Marcia is invited to accompany some wealthy friends on a Pacific cruise on their private yacht. It will be a congenial party of seven to begin with: two married couples, a likable single chap with the unlikely name of Banks van Spiddle, plus Marcia and her girlfriend Patsy. Another young man will round out the party when they reach Honolulu, he being an artillery officer stationed there. This last member of the group turns out to be Lieutenant John Hancock Chase III, grandson of the old senator, whom Marcia has never before met.
Sensing possible complications, kindly Judge Berlanger back in New York advises Senator Chase that the two young people, ignorant of the fact that they are blood relations, will likely find themselves in close companionship in that small yachting party, and, lest a serious attachment develop between them, they had better be advised of the true state of affairs. It galls the old senator to recognize even the existence of such a situation, since he still firmly believes that Marcia must be a tramp like her mother, but he consents to have the judge send a cablegram to the yacht.
Fate intervenes, however, in the form of a squall at sea that wrecks the yacht before the cable is received. Marcia and Jack Chase find themselves in the lifeboat with the more undesirable members of the yacht's crew, and they are thrown together more and more in the privations which follow, both before and after they reach the inevitable desert island. Finally they acknowledge their love for each other, while the reader sweats out the ghastly prospect of an incestuous marriage in the offing.
Meanwhile back home, Marcia's old boyfriend is suffering all the pangs of jealous frustration, knowing that she is off on a South Seas pleasure cruise with not one but two other potential suitors. ERB has a deliciously funny passage on page 113, which reads like something out of Mark Twain's TOM SAWYER. Dick Steele, the boyfriend back home, has taken up stunt flying, and he daydreams of ways in which his sad and untimely death might most remorsefully affect poor Marcia:
"For the next few days Dick drew his greatest pleasure, during his leisure time, from the creation of dream pictures; the most satisfying of which portrayed Marcia ascending the steps of a fashionable church while Banks van Spiddle awaited at the altar within, though sometimes an officer in full uniform supplanted van Spiddle. A newsboy dashing excitedly up the street cries aloud an important extra. Marcia halts at the topmost step -- her cheek blanches, she falters and, turning, beckons the urchin to her. She buys a paper, reads the glaring headlines and swoons.
"The headlines varied occasionally in detail, but were unanimous in purport. A very satisfactory one read: Richard Steele, Jr., famous Ace, Dies on Way to Hospital. Sometimes he 'whispered a woman's name as he breathed his last', and again he was killed instantly. In one particularly pleasing picture the unromantic newsboy was eliminated and the sad news was imparted to Marcia more dramatically -- the ship crashed in the street in front of the church just as she alighted from her car. In this instance the intrepid birdman died in her arms."
Max Heimer has not been idle. With his dubious aid, Marcus Aurelius Sackett has invested most of the $20,000 from Senator Chase in a touring company to present Shakespeare to the yearning multitudes across the continent. Heimer, as treasurer of the company, connives to get full control of the money. Unexpectedly, the tour turns out a success, but Heimer manages to conceal the profits from the trusting Marcus Aurelius by telling him that the full houses represent mainly tickets given away to encourage a good turnout at each stop. When the tour reaches California, Heimer, with full pockets, tells the Sacketts that it is useless to go on any longer, that there is only about $300 left. Marcus, convinced once again that he is a failure, goes back to the hotel room and attempts suicide. But he fails at this too; Clara finds him in time and revives him.
After some traumatic experiences on the Pacific Island, together with their avowal of love, Marcia and Jack are reunited with the other members of their party (finding that the other lifeboat had landed safely on the opposite side of the island). Soon they are all taken off by a United States destroyer sent to look for them, and shortly thereafter are deposited safely in Manila - where Marcia and Jack expect to find that minister to marry them.
But the letters and cables from New York are waiting for Marcia, and she reads the numbing news that John Hancock Chase III is her brother. In heartsick shame and dismay, she steals away from the hotel room and catches a steamer leaving Manila that very night for San Francisco. Aboard the ship she catches the attention of a reputable film director, and before she knows it she is Hollywood-bound for a new career as the leading lady, Marian Sands.
Here she is reunited with her family, the Sacketts. Marcus Aurelius has finally shed his pride upon finding so many of his old stage friends in the films and, with the prospect of a guaranteed income at last, he consented for Clara's sake to become a screen actor in character parts.
There is some unfinished business with Della Maxwell, and a train robbery in Arizona which is told in two sentences. A coyote hunt later on leads to the accidental discovery of a rifled mail bag, which provides evidence that allows Marcia and Jack to marry after all.
Heimer is forced to make restitution of the thousands he stole from the Sacketts, and about the only stone left unturned is an explanation of a disturbing letter received by Della Maxwell back on page 76, the contents of which are never disclosed to the reader.
To sum up, this in my opinion is a very fine Burroughs story. There is no Science Fiction in it, and very little jungle (what jungle there is on the desert island is all undergrowth, with no wildlife or menacing natives at all). Therefore it will not appeal to any mass audience of readers in the late 1960s; it is too much of a soap opera type thing for that.
But it is far better than the other "GIRL" stories by ERB that have already been published years ago (FARRIS'S and HOLLYWOOD), and it would be unfair to ERB's memory not to let his fans have this one. By all means, ERB Inc. should publish MARCIA OF THE DOORSTEP in a limited edition. Illustrations are not particularly necessary, since the story visualizes itself very well.
It would be appropriate if the play, YOU LUCKY GIRL (written by ERB in the same vein three years later) could be included in the same volume.
-- H.H.H July 8, 1966
Links to over 1,000 of our sites
Weekly Online Fanzine
To The Hillman ERB Cosmos
BILL HILLMAN .
Visit our thousands of other sites at:
BILL & SUE-ON HILLMAN ECLECTIC STUDIO
Some ERB Images and Tarzan© are Copyright ERB, Inc.- All Rights Reserved.
All Original Work ©1996-2003 by Bill Hillman and/or Contributing Authors/Owners
No part of this web site may be reproduced without permission from the respective owners.