Weird Words of Wisdom: Mad for Van Johnson Edition

“A gal can’t find out what makes the world go round unless she gets around a bit herself!”

Personality Plus by Sheila John Daly, 1946

About the Book: We’re going back a bit further into teenage-advice-manual history today, back to the very birth of the American teenager. Jon Savage, author of Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, says the word teenager came into common use in 1944.

“From the very start,” Savage writes, “it was a marketing term that recognized the spending power of adolescents…the fact that youth had become a market also meant that it had become a discrete, separate age group with its own peer-generated rituals, rights and demands.”

Personality Plus was written for teenagers, by a teenager, who opens the book by arguing that her peers’ spending habits and rituals do not define them:

“According to the popular conception, a gal just isn’t on the ball unless she drinks a couple of cokes a day, is mad for Van Johnson and Robert Walker and is swayed pro and con by Frank Sinatra. And the average Joe has missed the train by a mile unless he knows which band leaders play which instruments, wears bright reindeer sweaters, has lengthy phone conversations each evening and rides around after school in an old, violently painted jalopy.”

Daly knows, however, that teenage preferences are powerful—she sprinkles liberal pop cultural references throughout her book.

Number of Van Johnson References in Personality Plus: Eight. Van Johnson tied with Bing Crosby as the top box office draw in 1945. He was a bobby-soxer favorite; as his New York Times obituary said, “The numbers of screaming teenage girls who swooned for Mr. Johnson were second only to those who threw themselves at Frank Sinatra.”

Other Celebrities Mentioned in Personality Plus:

Vaughn Monroe

Gene Kelly (twice)

Robert Walker (twice)

Frank Sinatra (twice)

Betty Grable

Ingrid Bergman

Fred MacMurray

June Allyson

Harry James (four times)

Walter Pidgeon

Lana Turner

Humphrey Bogart

Woody Herman

Perry Como

Joan Leslie

Johnny Mercer

Johnny Weissmuller

About the Author: I think I kinda love Sheila John Daly, an ambitious and talented woman from a family of ambitious and talented women. One of her three older sisters, Maureen Daly, wrote the classic teenage romance Seventeenth Summer. Maureen also wrote a teenage advice column for the Chicago Tribune, which Sheila took over when Maureen went to work for Ladies Home Journal. By the time Sheila was 21, her column was reaching 10 million readers in 36 newspapers, and she had authored four books.

As a teenager herself, Daly avoided a preachy tone in Personality Plus. Instead of railing against “necking,” she reminded readers that getting too affectionate on double dates could make the other couple uncomfortable. Instead of banning smoking and drinking, she warned party guests against “dumping cigarette ashes between the davenport cushions” or raiding the hosts’ wine cellar.

Not much of her advice actually qualifies as weird. It’s entertaining, though, in the vivid picture it creates of 1940s teenage life. (The book’s glossy illustrations are also charming.) Consider this comment about teenage slang:

“‘Smooth’ is an interesting adjective which came into the high school vocabulary about five years ago, and when it did, about a dozen other words dropped out of common use, for ‘smooth’ is an accepted synonym for them all…Smooth can mean anything from pretty, poised, attractive and full of personality to just plain intelligent; it can even take the place of a whole sentence, explaining that a fellow or girl is a good dancer, a sharp date, an interesting conversationalist, or a fine hunk of heartbreak—all in one word.”

At times, Daly has a nicely snarky tone, as in her rules for losing friends and alienating people:

  • “Make yourself the center of attraction always. Make money the principal topic of your conversation. Match every anecdote that someone tells you with one of your own—just a bit better, just a bit more king-sized.
  • “Get the habit of talking about your friends…Don’t put your thoughts in black and white, just drop the hint and leave the others to twist the remark around to exactly what you meant it to mean. Those catty girls—how could they.
  • “Speak up. Then give the excuse: ‘I can’t help it. I’m just frank, that’s all.’”

If she were a young woman today, Sheila John Daly would probably have a lively blog and a huge Twitter following.

My Favorite Sheila John Daly-isms: “Any fellow old enough to select his own shirts and ties is man enough to give his own best glen-plaid slacks a once-over-lightly with the iron or to sponge the coke stain off his red striped tie. So whip out the ironing board and iron, fellows, and get to work—your wardrobe is showing.”

“If the right boys don’t ask you to have fun, if you can’t find anyone to move into the hand-holding department with you, well—have fun without boys. And you can have more fun than you think! Find yourself several good girl friends; try enjoying a movie with them on a Saturday night. Develop a hobby, get interested in sports, read all the books you’ve wanted to read for so long, find an after-school job.”

Final Fun Facts: I couldn’t find much information on Sheila John Daly’s career any later than this 1959 Life article. I do know that her married name was Sheila Daly White and that (yay!) she’s still alive. And if, as seems certain, this blogger’s aunt is the same Sheila Daly White, she really is a very “smooth” lady.

Other Quotes from Personality Plus:

On ways to meet boys: “Putting in an appearance at school basketball games to do a little lung-and-tongue exercise to cheer the fellows on to a higher score isn’t a bad idea, either, because some of the smoothest characters play forward on the cage five and they get a kick out of being appreciated!”

On preparing for a date: “…plan your schedule far enough in advance so that you won’t be caught with an unpressed skirt and your hair still in curlers when the doorbell rings.”

On corsages: “Use originality in your choice. Remember there are other flowers besides gardenias! Try a camellia in season, a cluster of violets, or two long-stemmed red roses.”

On the rules of dancing: “…a girl who is already dancing should never refuse to change partners when a boy cuts in…the partner who was first dancing with a girl must not cut back on the boy who took her from him, though he can cut in on a third fellow. Also (to avoid trouble!) he must not continue to cut in on the same fellow when the latter dances with other girls!”

“A formal dance calls for a certain dignity and even if you’re jitter-bugging at a sweater hop in the school gym, don’t claim more than your share of the floor.”

On curfews: “Another good reason for an earlier zero hour is the fact that the ‘healthiest’ part of the evening is always from about eight to twelve. The main event, the dance or the movie, is usually over by that time, a sandwich and a malt won’t take more than forty-five minutes, and after that–? A smart fellow and girl will start for home, and because you’re smart, too, you won’t have to ask why!”

“Many leading movie stars go to bed each night at nine when making a picture because they know you can’t win Oscars with circles under your eyes.”

A sign that he’s in love: “He has his class ring made smaller so that it’s just the right size for your third finger, right hand. (And that’s where all the gals are wearing them these days.)”

A party refreshment idea: “Heat hamburger buns in your oven until they are warm and toasty. Wrap one strip of bacon around a cube of American or pimento cheese and put it under the broiler of the oven until the bacon is crisp and cheese soft and toasted. Then pop the sizzling combination into the hot buns, serve with hot cocoa topped with marshmallow and you’ll soon see a quick disappearing act.”

On hair: “Whether you’re wearing your hair in a long bob, a fluffy feather cut, or in quaint pigtails with bright red bows, that old routine of ‘one hundred strokes a night, keep your hair healthy and bright,’ with frequent and thorough shampoos between, is the best way to give it that magazine ad slickness.”

On telephone etiquette: “Whenever possible, wait for boys to call you. Even with a hundred poles and a lot of wire in between, a fellow can tell when your line is out for him. And a smooth boy won’t want to get tangled up in it.”

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