Edmund Wilson argued that there were two Evelyn Waughs: the great comic genius of his early novels—Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), Scoop (1938)—and the religiously obsessed author of Brideshead Revisited (1945), whose success made Waugh internationally famous and in Wilson’s view no longer interesting. But just three years after Brideshead, Waugh returned to his first theme in what is perhaps the bitterest yet one of the funniest of his comic works: The Loved One (1948).

In 1947, the chronically financially challenged Waugh was approached by MGM about making a film of Brideshead. The offer was tempting: the studio would pay Waugh $150,000—an enormous sum equivalent to $1.5 million today—for the rights to the novel. To sweeten the offer, MGM invited Waugh and his wife to Hollywood for seven weeks to discuss and finalize an arrangement. To make matters even more tempting, the studio also agreed to pay Waugh $2,000 per week during his stay and put him up at a first-class Hollywood hotel. The offer was too good to pass up, especially as Britain was suffering through one of the awful phases of its age of austerity: shortages of just about everything, plus a bitter winter.

And so in January 1947 Waugh set off for another one of what he called those “distant and barbarous places . . . where ideas uprooted from their traditions, become oddly changed in translation”—namely a booming post-war California, the very personification of America to the world. 

Negotiations went nowhere, especially when Waugh discovered that MGM’s executives saw Brideshead as a love story, missing the profoundly religious theme of the novel. Waugh was probably not surprised. He believed that the motion-picture studios bought books of varying quality and then it was the job of a staff of writers to distinguish the book’s quality and “separate it and obliterate it.” But all was not lost. During his stay in Hollywood, Waugh had stumbled upon what he found to be one of the city’s greatest attractions: Forest Lawn Cemetery. He told friends that he had become “entirely obsessed by Forest Lawn . . . which was the only thing in California that is not a copy of something else.” And better yet for him, “a deep mine of literary gold.”

Time and again he was drawn back to Forest Lawn and even managed to make a connection with its director, Dr. Hubert Eaton, who, unwisely as it turned out, gave him access to the various departments of the cemetery with their copies of European art. Even better, Waugh secured a copy of Dr. Eaton’s book Embalming Techniques. The author was primed for a comic romp.

Among Waugh’s targets in The Loved One was the English community in Hollywood, personified by the character Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, who was modeled on the English character actor C. Aubrey Smith, a dictator of behavior on all matters English. The community is portrayed in stiff-upper-lip style, determined not to lose face before the decadent Americans. The protagonist, Dennis Barlow, has done that by being sacked at the studio (for failing to complete a screenplay of the life of the English poet Shelley), and, to make matters worse, he now works at an animal cemetery, the Happier Hunting Grounds.

Barlow’s friend Sir Francis Hinsley also loses his job at the studio when he is unable to transform his creation Juanita del Pablo (born Baby Aaronson) into an Irish colleen. Sir Francis hangs himself and Barlow undertakes the funeral arrangements, which brings him to Whispering Glades, Waugh’s version of Forest Lawn. There he meets the chief mortician, Mr. Joyboy, a grotesque character whose specialty is putting smiles on the faces of loved ones. Nancy Mitford, the novelist and close friend of Waugh, suggests that the character of Mr. Joyboy was based on the flat-faced, pug-nosed Cyril Connolly, a friend whom Waugh loved to taunt and tease. “Joyboy was not a handsome man,” writes Waugh, “but every girl in Whispering Glades gloated over him.” Like Joyboy, Connolly was notorious for surrounding himself with beautiful women, in his case at his journal Horizon.

At Whispering Glades, Barlow meets Aimée Semple Thanatogensos, a cosmetician whose specialty is preparing corpses for Mr. Joyboy. She is an American naive, who “spoke the tongue of Los Angeles; the sparse furniture of her mind . . . had been acquired at the local High School and University.” But she is altogether beautiful and everything that Barlow “had vainly sought during a lonely year in exile.” Aimée represents the innocents that populate Waugh’s comic novels. To win her from Mr. Joyboy, Barlow woos her by sending her poetry, the work of famous writers that he passes off as his own. When she discovers that Barlow has been deceiving her, she commits suicide by injecting herself with embalming fluid in Mr. Joyboy’s office. Barlow disposes of her body at the Happier Hunting Grounds, but not before arranging for a postcard to be sent to Mr. Joyboy on the anniversary of her death, which reads: “Your little Aimée is wagging her tail in heaven tonight, thinking of you.”

Waugh returned to England richer, though not with a contract for Brideshead. He wrote a couple of pieces about Forest Lawn, including a long one for Life that foreshadowed what would come in The Loved One.

In May 1947, Waugh began writing the novel, finishing a first draft by September. Among those he showed it to was Connolly, who agreed to devote an entire issue of Horizon to it in February 1948. The Horizon issue sold out and Waugh gave the royalties to various Catholic charities—perhaps to expiate any guilt he felt for savaging the Yanks. The novel appeared in book form that same month in England and the United States.

Waugh feared the reaction in the United States, especially when The New Yorker, Good Housekeeping, and The Atlantic Monthly, normally happy to have his work, refused to publish any part of it. But when it did appear it was a huge success. The reviews were uniformly positive. Wolcott Gibbs raved about it in The New Yorker. “Never before have the majestic themes of love and death been so delicately perverted to absurdity.” The New Republic described it as “nearly faultless; as satire it is an act of devastation.”

Edmund Wilson, who had never forgiven Waugh for Brideshead and for snubbing him during a visit to London, called the novel sketchy and incomplete, saying he found the participants in Whispering Glen more sensible and less absurd than the priest-ridden Waugh. But Waugh would get the last word. When asked during a television interview if he found Wilson’s criticism illuminating or helpful, Waugh asked if he was an American and then added, “I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest.”

Hollywood went on to make a ghastly film of The Loved One in 1965. Where Waugh’s novel cleverly skewered his characters, the film written by Terry Southern (coming off his success with Dr. Strangelove) and Christopher Isherwood was a mess. The novel failed to survive the transition to the screen. Robert Morse gave a smirking performance as Barlow. Only John Gielgud as Sir Francis Hinsley effectively captured Waugh’s portrait of the character—someone who had sold his soul to Hollywood and America. The film was a box office flop. In fact, none of Waugh’s comic masterpieces has been successfully translated into film. Only Brideshead has made that transition—and only via an eleven-part television series produced by ITV in 1981.

How does The Loved One hold up today? The novel generates smiles and laughs, but there is a meanness to it that doesn’t reflect the depth of Waugh’s religious feelings. It also lacks the development of Waugh’s early satires. The character of Barlow is never as likable a rogue as Basil Seal of Black Mischief, nor is there any character who generates sympathy like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall. There is also a rushed quality about The Loved One, as if Waugh could not wait to get his reactions to America down on paper. Still, it is a fun read, one that not only keeps you smiling but also shocks throughout.

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