By Jeanne Judson, ©1964
Her fiancé, Henry Clifford, a rising young lawyer, couldn’t understand why Dr. Mary Spencer chose to live in Chinatown. Her best friend, Dr. Edith Silliman, wanted Mary to join her in an expensive practice in an exclusive neighborhood. Both Henry and Edith thought Dr. Mary was a fool. And perhaps, thought Mary, they were right. Who but a fool would alienate her best friend and her sweetheart and the prospect of the successful career, to follow a dream — a dream of helping the poor. But, wise or foolish, Dr. Mary was going to continue in the past she had marked out for herself.
“People who are always right are unbearable.”
“It’s surprising how many people in New York will go anywhere if there is a prospect of lots of free champagne.”
“In cases of high blood pressure there is almost always some frustration or worry that increases the trouble.”
Sometimes it’s hard to pick up a book because its cover is so appalling. Eventually, though, you become so sick of looking at this cover that you are forced to read the book just so that you can put it away in the back bedroom with all the other books you’ve already read, saving your delicate sensibilities from further encounters. Such was the case with me and Doctor Mary. The fact that it was written by Jeanne Judson, who has been known to put out some excellent books—though I haven’t met one recently, unfortunately—was not much of a lure. But now the job is done, and I can report that the book is in fact better than its cover, but maybe not so much that you should run out and buy a copy.
Dr. Mary Spencer is a lonely orphan who, upon graduating from medical school a year earlier, moved to Mott Street in New York City’s Chinatown to practice medicine. She had picked this spot as a launching pad for her medical career because during her internship she had encountered many Chinese patients and found them “so patient and polite.” “I haven’t any family to impress with my brilliance, and I don’t know any Joneses to keep up with, so when I finished at St. Vincent’s that’s where I went,” she explained her decision. She likes the interesting neighborhood and her patient population, even if she’s not getting rich like her med school classmate Dr. Edith Silliman, who at book’s open is pressing her to join a practice with her on E. 71st St. “If only you’ll be sensible, Mary,” chides Edith. “If you’ll get an office uptown and stop all this do-gooding,” she says, Mary might be able to keep her fiancé, up-and-coming attorney Henry Clifford.
Edith has a point: Henry has already told her, “You can see for yourself that it wouldn’t do for a member of one of the leading law firms to have a wife working in the slums. If you stay here, it will be no marriage at all.” But Mary wants to “work with an uplifted heart,” and has found her calling: “For her, it was a vocation; for Edith, it was a profession.” It takes Mary no time at all to refuse Edith, and not much longer to come to her senses after Henry tells her, “You must choose, Mary. I love you, but I have no intention of ruining both our lives by letting you continue in this absurd obsession about helping people who aren’t willing to help themselves.” So when the afternoon mail brings an engraved wedding invitation to Edith and Henry’s upcoming nuptials, “when her head stopped whirling, she thought that nothing could be more suitable.”
Mary spends about ten minutes feeling sorry for herself, but then she starts thinking about this guy she met while taking care of a patient with pneumonia. Jim Tracy is unemployed and living in a seedy residence hotel: “Despite the need of a shave and a haircut, he was well dressed. Also, and more surprising, he looked clean. He had spoken like an educated man. He was young and, though underweight, apparently healthy. But what was he doing in Joe Grimes’s hotel when he was perfectly competent to hold down a good job, routine, perhaps, but respectable?” Between cases she goes out with the man, who is alternatively kind and grouchy, but he is always able to pay for dinner despite his low living conditions. Even more curious, he is able to engage Dr. Grenning, the city’s top cardiologist, to see an impoverished pediatric patient of Mary’s for free. Unfortunately, after a mere three encounters with the man, “the awful truth came to her. She loved him. She loved him. Thief, murderer, whenever he was, she loved him. She wouldn’t marry him because he wouldn’t have her. Still, it was good to love even if the love were never returned.” Ugh.
When the cardiologist shows up, it turns out he’s an old friend of Jim’s, who is—surprise!—Dr. Jim Tracy, “one of the best bacteriologists in the country—a man who could have a big future.” But Jim is done with his career, he says: “I got this way by killing my wife.” It’s only another dozen pages before we find out that his wife was a pretty but shallow debutante whom Jim had married too quickly, only to find out they weren’t compatible. She had wanted to party, and he had wanted to work, which meant they lived essentially separate lives, she with her socializing friends, and even a few gentlemen escorts as well — until one day, coming down the stairs in a beautiful, trailing gown to open the door for another party, she “tripped on some chiffon and fell halfway down the stairs.” She lived “long enough to tell Jim that it was all his fault, that it was his indifference, his coldness, that was killing her.” That or the broken neck, it’s hard to tell for sure. After this revelation, though, all the guilt that has caused Jim to abandon his former life for years is quickly boxed up and put away into storage, never to peek out at us again.
As the closet door is swinging shut, Mary is enlisted by Dr. Grenning to help persuade Jim to sign up for a two-year stint at a brand-new hospital in the wilds of Brazil, though at the dinner party where Jim is won over to the project, she doesn’t do much more than pass the gravy. One thing I do like about Dr. Mary, however, is that she goes after what she wants. Before the dinner with Dr. Grenning, where she had learned the truth of his past, she had written to Jim to say, “Whatever they have to tell me, I’d rather hear it from you. I don’t want to know anything about you that you don’t want to tell me yourself. I love you.” And on the way home from dinner, Jim talks about how the new hospital’s staff (being all male, of course) is not likely to be married because “for the wives it will be insects and heat and snakes and noise.” Undaunted, Mary retorts, “It might be different for a woman if she were a doctor, too.” You go, girl.
Overall this is a fairly straightforward story without exceptional interest, outside of the ad for Newport cigarettes bound into the book, which was printed in the era before cigarette advertising was outlawed. If one or two characters demonstrate bigotry toward the Chinese, Mary does not, seeing only hard-working immigrants pursuing the American dream; her most prominent Chinese patient eventually brings his two grandsons to the country to study at Columbia, aided by Jim Tracy, who had grown up alongside Chinese workers on his family’s pineapple plantation in Hawaii and is completely fluent in multiple dialects of Chinese. Actually, in this book it’s the white family that is stuck with a drunken, abusive, jobless patriarch, and no one is sorry to see him drop of pneumonia in the end; the black and Asian families Mary cares for may be poor, but they won’t be for long, especially when the kids graduate from an Ivy League college. It’s pleasant enough, but a little disappointing for author Judson, who has given us the delightful Small Town Nurse, Visiting Nurse, and City Nurse, three A-grade gems. Those books came out in the 1950s, however, giving more evidence to my belief that the more recently a book was written, the worse it is likely to be. Given the fact that the four reviews of her books published in the ’60s earned a C+ average with no grade higher than a B, it seems that this dread curse is so powerful that not even the talented Jeanne Judson was immune to it.