The Man on
The Third Floor

Anne Bernays
(Permanent Press)
Walter Samson is chief of a small publishing house in New York City and he and his wife Phyliss live in a brownstone on the East Side with two children, a cook, a maid and the chauffeur, Barry. All this help lives on the third floor of this walk-up.

Walter has the hots for Barry but this is the 1950s so they keep their love on the back burner. Walter thinks everyone is in the dark about this secret love. He and Barry soldier on for five years or so but then the bomb hits with an item in the News: "What top editor at what top publishing outfit has enjoyed a peculiar ménage à trois for the past several years on the Upper East Side of the town?"

I was looking forward to a pre-Stonewall story of love of two 'inverts' (that was the operating phrase sixty years ago) with discovery, disgust of family, hard times between the lovers, and a gradual reconciling with several defying acts of courage or bravery under fire. But Bernays has created some bloodless characters here, engaged in serious avoidance with not even a couple of hot passion flame-out scenes in the cot up there on the third floor so we could at least see what comes to pass when Walter steps out of his gray-flannel suit and Barry takes off his elegant uniform. We get a couple of kisses and a luke-warm hug and that's about it in the hot-rocks department.

Walter has all the necessary self-hate in place ("I didn't want Barry to know ... I was a flawed man, a worthless person, an animal"), but Barry pays no mind, is loyal to the end. Walter thinks that Phyliss doesn't get it but, finally, four pages from the end, she says, "I suppose you couldn't help what you did with Barry. He's a sneaky bastard and he's a pretty good actor. You, on the other hand, have a lot to learn on that score. Your're a lousy actor. Your eyes."

Walter thinks, "I had thought I was fooling her, when all along she was fooling me. I felt brainless. I felt like weeping at my own stupidity." I must say at this point the reader feels like weeping too at spending so much time with such a nincompoop.

Walter may lose the brownstone and wife and the kiddies but he gets the ultimate bonus: a publisher who declines to fire him and a double bed filled with Barry who --- when they aren't delighting in their new-found freedom --- turns out to be a marvellous cook.

Author Bernays is not much when it comes to spinning a tale ... and even though she dumps into the pot a bit of MaCarthyism and authors with fat egos and hints of blackmail and a perfervid liberalism, it's a pretty dull potato pie we get to eat at the end.

And it didn't have to be so: The 50s were terrible time for gays ("sodomy" was a felony in every state but one --- Illinois --- and in seven, was punishable by castration) but fear and trembling in Third Floor is at a minimum. This is Walter mulling on meeting Barry, "I wondered what direction my life would have taken if Barry hadn't been assigned to measure my room. Would I have met another man who would have set the beast loose." Another lovely beast set loose on the upper East Side.

--- Lolita Lark
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