My Sister Eileen was originally a series of short stories that were originally published in the New Yorker and collected in this 1938 book, followed by two more books about her life with her sister. The last two stories in this book, the one about the McKenney sisters' first basement apartment in New York with the fungus on the bathroom celling and the subway running three feet below their floor and the last one about the time that the Brazilian navy followed Ruth and Eileen around, were adapted into a Broadway play, two movies, a musical, a radio play and a television series.
The stories themselves are a wonderful account of Ruth and Eileen's childhood in Ohio in the Twenties. The ones that I found most interesting were the accounts of how the sisters and the way that culture changed in America after the war and before prohibition clashed with the strict, puritanical nature of their many aunts and easily shocked neighbours. There's also the beginning story of how Ruth and Eileen would sit through the same movie two or three times in a row in order to see the sex and violence that they missed on the first showing by hiding behind their big round hats.
Being only a few years apart, the sisters were very close growing up and did almost everything together, usually with Ruth deciding what to do and Eileen going along with it. What makes the stories funny (aside from the humourous prose) is the difference between the very pretty Eileen (later to become Mrs. Nathanael West) and the plain, sometimes dumpy Ruth, who had a definite ambition to become a writer. Unlike the adaptations, which focuses on the sisters in New York and their eccentric neighbours, the book focuses on their childhood and how they got into trouble at home, school and summer camp but it also tells the reader the reasons why the sisters would do so many things that got them into trouble.
If you can find the book, then brace yourself for a very funny read that hops along all too quickly.
The 1942 film stars Rosalind Russell as Ruth and Janet Blair as Eileen and is currently in 10 parts on YouTube and will be on TCM on June 2.
The 1955 musical remake stars Betty Garrett as Ruth and Janet Leigh as Eileen along with Jack Lemmon and Bob Fosse. It is not on YouTube and will be on TCM on July 6 and has this rather brilliant dance-off.