Go on Pretending

Go On Pretending: Meeting the Great Irna Phillips

Chapter 2: Rose had done her research, but she wasn’t expecting Irna to question her on this.

collage of early soap operas for go on pretending serial

Irna was looking at Rose now the way Mama had when Rose first returned home 10 years ago, humiliated and humbled. A combination of disappointment, self-satisfaction and she couldn’t help thinking, disappointment that Rose had failed, even if that was exactly what Mama had expected. Rose couldn’t stand up to Mama. She’d seen what happened that one time she’d tried. But Rose could stand up to Irna. She’d already made a fool of herself. Foolishness, she had great experience with.

Instead of lowering her head, Rose raised her formidable chin — and the nose that came with it. Instead of slumping her shoulders, she squared them. Instead of meekly avoiding Irna’s gaze, she met it. “I’m Rose Janowtiz. We had an appointment for…” she consulted her watch. “Twenty minutes ago.”

“Twenty-two,” Irna corrected. Rose wasn’t sure if she was being put in her place — or complimented.

Irna and Rose Cooperman exchanged a silent look across the desk, which, nonetheless, conveyed whatever Irna deemed necessary. The assistant stood, tucked her steno pad under one arm, and headed for the door, discreetly closing it behind her.

Irna barely waited for the other woman to depart before demanding, “I have your writing sample?”

“I sent it in. As requested.” 

Irna was still sitting, but she’d made no gesture for Rose to do the same. Would it be presumptuous of Rose to take the initiative? Presumptuousness, Rose also had a great deal of experience with. She assumed the spot Irna’s preferred Rose had occupied earlier. When Irna didn’t snap for her to stand at attention, Rose chose to interpret it as a sign of approval.

The grand dame dug around in the stack of papers to her left and wrenched out a script Rose recognized as her own. The paper was onion-skin translucent, but it was the best Rose could afford.

Irna did a double-take, blinking as if to clear blurry vision. “It’s not in English.”

“It’s Yiddish. I thought you might….”

“I’m Unitarian,” Irna told Rose pointedly, making it clear that whatever faith Irna might have been born into, Rose would be scoring no co-religionist points with her.

“There’s a translation attached. I thought you might want to read it in the original. To get the true flavor of what I can do.”

Irna skimmed Rose’s cover letter. “You wrote for Mayn Muter Un Ikh?” Rose noted her conversion to Unitarianism hadn’t made Irna unable to read the title of the world’s first and, as far as Rose knew, only Yiddish language radio soap opera. “For WEVD? The Communist station?”

“Socialist, actually,” Rose corrected. “The call letters? They stand for Eugene V. Debs. And it was owned by the Jewish Daily Forward by the time I got there.”

“My shows are all-American, nothing subversive.” The way Irna said it made it clear that was one area on which there would be no discussion.

“I know,” Rose nodded fervently, eager to show off what she’d studied. “Guiding Light, Reverend Rutledge, his lamp in the window: There is a destiny that makes us brothers/ None goes his way alone./ All that we send out into the lives of others/ Come back into our own.”

“This isn’t a writing position,” Irna said. “You do realize that? I write my scripts.”

The loose pieces clicked into place. “That’s what you were doing. Dictating your scripts.” That still didn’t explain… “But you never indicated who was saying what. You just recited all the dialogue straight through.”

“Rose understands. She’ll type it up, make it clear.”

“That’s incredible.”

“Why serials?” Irna asked her questions the same way she wrote her scripts, a stream of consciousness she expected the listener to make sense of. “Why not Baby Snooks or Ozzie and Harriet or Life Of Riley? Why not films?”

The most obvious answer was that they weren’t hiring. Irna was. But Rose suspected she knew what answer the doyenne of daytime was looking for. Luckily, it was even true. “Films end. Comedies are once a week. If you make a bad decision in a film and don’t rectify it by the conclusion, that’s how it stays forever. If you make a mistake in a primetime comedy, you have to wait to fix it. Serials offer chance after chance to get life right daily. You can keep trying, over and over. Bad people can become good, be forgiven.”


“Isn’t that why Reverend Rutledge keeps that lamp burning in his window?”

“I expect a great deal from my employees.” Rose wondered if this was another of Irna’s wild swerves or whether she saw it as a natural transition. Redemption through hard work — and suffering — was a favorite theme of hers, after all. “Are you married?”

That was definitely a swerve. The change of topic caught Rose off guard. “No.” At 27, she knew she should be mortified and ashamed of that fact.

“Neither am I.” Irna didn’t appear either mortified or ashamed. “Why would I want to be? If I need to fight, I can call up one of my P&G buffoons!” Irna went on, “I expect absolute loyalty. Husbands tend to not understand that. Wives are bad enough. Phoning to complain about long hours, working on the weekends. The show must come first.”

“You said this wasn’t a writing position.” Rose opted to focus on the concrete details, the better to make Irna feel like she’d already given Rose the job. “Why did you ask to see a sample of my writing?”

“The position is Supervising Producer. Your responsibility will be to ensure my scripts get recorded the way I intended. You’ll be involved in scheduling, casting, budgets — and, once in a while, if there’s a last-minute problem, a script needs some slight adjustment, and I’m not immediately available by phone, you may need to step in and alter a word or two. But no more.”

She’d said, “your responsibility.” Either Rose already did have the job, or Irna offered it to every candidate — and Rose was the only one foolish enough to think of accepting.

“It sounds wonderful,” Rose told her honestly.

“It is,” Irna sighed, softening for the first time since Rose had come in. “It is absolutely wonderful. I can think of no better way to spend my life.”

“When do I start?” She rose from her chair, one arm already outstretched, looking to shake hands and formally seal the deal, when Rose caught sight of Irna hesitating. She was looking down at Rose’s resume. 

She anticipated the question seconds before Irna articulated it. “You didn’t graduate from high school?”

Rose shook her head.

“The year between it and college…” Irna let the question hang in the air. Like on one of her shows.

Rose had done her research. In addition to knowing that Irna had been born Jewish, Rose also knew that, when she was 18 years old, Irna had become pregnant by an older, married doctor. He’d refused to acknowledge paternity or pay child support, so Irna took him to court — and actually won. Tragically, the baby was stillborn. Nevertheless, on Guiding Light, Irna wrote a similar story for the character of Rose Kransky — coincidentally, the only Jewish girl on her otherwise “all-American” program — and allowed that fictional baby to live and be raised not only by his single mother but, eventually, by the weak-willed father who returned, admitted the error of his ways, and begged for another chance.

Rose looked Irna in the eye. She said, “I thought you, Miss Phillips, would understand.”

Irna opened her mouth as if to follow up. But all she ended up saying was, “You start tomorrow.”


Click here for Chapter #3!


To start Go On Pretending at the beginning, click here.

Alina Adams is the New York Times best-selling author of the As the World Turns tie-ins, Oakdale Confidential and The Man From Oakdale, and Guiding Light’s Jonathan’s Story. Check out her new historical fiction, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, available November 15, 2022!

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