Ernest Hemingway thought Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) was trash, probably because he found the hero unbelievable, and the war just an excuse for a sexual romance. But the public thought otherwise. It was a best seller and immediately adapted for the movies, faithfully rendered, by Nunnally Johnson.
The image of the man in the gray flannel suit is so strong that it has outlived the novel and become a symbol of mid-twentieth Century America; a rising generation of white, well-educated men striving for wealth and power. For Wilson, however, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a cautionary, moral tale about a rising businessman, Tom Rath, recently returned from serving in the U.S. Army in World Two.
On the verge of success, Tom, a good man, has to face his past and his present with his noble wife, Betsy. Rath’s emotional conflict is that while in Rome, he had an affair with Maria, an Italian woman, with whom he fathered a child, unknown to him because he left her before the baby was born. Unexpected knowledge of Maria’s true situation presents a dilemma: to deny culpability or accept responsibility for her and the child. He accepts his responsibility and admits his adultery to Betsy and seeks to recompose Maria by providing money for her and the child.
Rath’s memory of his picnic with Maria is vividly enduring. It’s a picnic in a ruined villa on the outskirts of Rome. The day is cold, the sky overcast and then rainy, but in the villa’s small library, they light a fire, spread a ruined tapestry on the stone floor, eat sandwiches and a cold roast chicken, and drink wine. For dessert, Tom and Maria make love: “Oh, God, I love you,” says Tom ecstatically. Rath remembers these were the “happiest days of his life” because he was in Rome and living dangerously. The thrill of romantic love carried him along as if on a wave without expectations (even though Maria bites her fingernails to the quick).
The picnic scene in Sloan’s novel and Nunnally Johnson’s film adaptation highlights Rath’s excruciating moral dilemma. It is the happiest moment in his emotional (and sexual) life and his most distressing and embarrassing moment. Embarrassed, Rath admits that he is married; but Maria ups the ante by telling him that she is pregnant.
The food is irrelevant.
Featured Image: Nunnally Johnson. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956). Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson based on Sloan Wilson’s novel (1955). Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. Tom Rath (Gregory Peck) and Maria Montagne (Marissa Pavan) make themselves comfortable in a ruined villa.
See: Sloan Wilson. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955.