By Fern Shepard
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1963
Cover illustration by Rudy Nappi
At times, Kitty McCarthy thought she had buried her unhappy past. She was young, beautiful, raven-haired—and now all she wanted was to make good as an R.N. at Miner’s Hospital in the Kentucky hills—and to marry rugged Dr. Gary Harding—whose dream it was to see his little hospital properly equipped and endowed. Then, one day, Kitty’s brave new world fell apart—when Hollywood film queen Sherri Shannon was brought in—an accident victim. Sherri soon decided she wanted young Dr. Harding and would win him—if she had to destroy Kitty by ruthless trickery and by divulging the dark secret that involved both their pasts …
“Being born my child was the most important thing that could have happened to you.”
“Nurses don’t weep!”
“Jeff would be a good catch for any girl. One of these days he was going to be an excellent gynecologist. He had all the necessary qualities.”
“I’ll be twenty-four. That’s pretty ancient, so maybe by then I’ll have more sense and a clearer head.”
“No wonder it had been so easy to lose Gary who, for all of his serious side, was a very human man. Such men were attracted to women who never forgot to be intensely feminine, who understood the importance of small vanities, of working hard to look beautiful even if they were not beautiful.”
“When you want something with all your heart, you must expect to pay a price for it.”
You can usually count on Florence Stonebraker for a lively romp, with sparkling writing, characters that hold nothing back, and a wry wit. Nurse Kitty’s Secret could have been all that. It has the necessary ingredients: a femme fatale, a sassy sidekick, and even a tiny revolver pulled from a sequined clutch. Just add vodka and a twist of lemon, and enjoy responsibly! But despite these individual gems, they’re just not substantial enough to produce something to sigh over. In the end, Nurse Kitty’s Secret is your longtime fiancé finally pulling out a ring—and it’s microscopic diamonds set in silver.
I was hopeful with the very first sentence: “At exactly what moment Sherri was going to let the cat out of the bag concerning their relationship, Kitty McCarthy did not know.” All right! Enter Sherri Shannon who, at 42, is one of Hollywood’s most beautiful women, but you know as well as I do how keeping your chins and crow’s feet in check at such an advanced age can make a gal utterly neurotic. She’s been in a car accident in the boonies of Kentucky and has been transported to Miners’ Hospital, where Kitty is a nurse. No coincidence, this: Sherri had hired detectives to track down her long-lost daughter when she found herself alone and bored after the death of her fourth husband. In no time flat she is fluffing her platinum blonde hair and pressing her sculptured moue on Dr. Gary Harding, the medico who runs the hospital, in spite (or—could it be?—because) of the fact that he is currently all but engaged to Kitty. (As usual, the man in question cannot bring himself to marry, “as long as I am not earning enough to provide the kind of life I would want to provide for a wife and family.” These sorts of dopes unfailingly find themselves at the altar within 100 pages of such idiotic declarations.)
Kitty wants nothing to do with her glamorous mother because seven years ago the woman tried to have her committed to an insane asylum. It’s not clear why Sherri is so eager to persecute her daughter after a such a long hiatus, and she gets off to a weak start, haranguing Kitty to find her favorite tweezers—“I simply couldn’t get along without them!”—in amongst the creams and oils and lipstick papers littering the bathroom of Sherri’s hospital room. Indeed, after this weak attack she barely has the chance to sharpen her claws any further, immediately striking a deal with Kitty: She will organize a huge fund-raiser to build a new wing for the hospital if Kitty will quit her job and leave town. Kitty realizes that “it was Gary’s lifetime dream. To take it from him would be to take everything that was important to him”—or, in Sherri’s words, Kitty is “a foolish little sentimentalist […] just the type to give up your man in order to give him his heart’s desire”—and promptly tenders her resignation.
Kitty plans to leave town, but something always stands in her way. There’s that 16-year-old bride carrying an ectopic pregnancy, who begs Kitty to help her: She’s been advised by Kitty’s uncle, who plays the role of the wise, aged family doctor, to “guard against over-exertion and fatigue, be careful of her diet,” but I just can’t see how either of these precautions is going to keep her fallopian tube from rupturing and causing serious hemorrhage, even death.
So Kitty’s always hearing rumors from her pals at the hospital about the romance that Sherri is foisting on the dopey Dr. Gary. He wants his new hospital so much that he plays along—only to realize too late that “that fiendish woman—and she must be a fiend, treating you as she did—expects me to marry her! […] Think what it will mean to me to be married to that screwy woman!” But the pragmatic Kitty reminds him that his precious hospital hangs in the balance. And besides, “Marrying Sherri won’t mean a life sentence, honey. Her marriages never last very long.” Oh. Well, in that case …
The benefit goes off, but without the doctor—whose engagement to Sherri was to be announced at its conclusion—because he’s in surgery saving the kid whose ectopic pregnancy has indeed nearly killed her. Never saw that one coming. The money is raised, and Sherri turns up in a gold lame sheath dress, sporting a small shiny revolver to collect her vengeance. But it’s too little, too late. This scene plays out like a mangy stray with heatstroke compared to the fiery tiger it could have been.
Another sign that this book was doomed to disappoint was the fate of the liveliest character, hospital receptionist Liz Tracey. Liz is the sassy, wry sidekick who flings off lines like, “What’s with our Love Goddess this bright spring morning?” and “Miss Shannon is holding her own: Her temperature is normal, her blood pressure is normal, her appetite is normal, she wanted champagne for breakfast. We think she will live.” And she decamps for California halfway through the book, after Sherri told her that she ought to “strive to project a sweet, cheery personality. Me!” Frankly, I wish we could have gone with her. It would have made for a spicier book.