When I come across a fictional character that I really relate to, I tend to wonder if it’s because I, as an individual, am actually unusually similar to that particular character, or if the character is just meant to be universally relatable—like Harry Potter. Everybody thinks they’re Harry Potter. But I’m not really sure what to think of Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles. Most people’s reaction to her (in informal polls that I have conducted), is usually either, “ZOMG!!! LIZA!!!!” or, “Sally Bowles is shallow and selfish,” or, “what the hell are you talking about, Kat? We’re supposed to be meditating right now.” For some reason though, when I read Isherwood’s novella, I feel super-connected to Sally. I’m definitely lacking in the Liza department (despite my best efforts), so perhaps I might be just an eensy bit more selfish, and a skosh more shallow than the average human? Something I would be surprisingly OK with, but even if I am, I still think Sally represents an archetype that’s more universal* than we think…I mean, she’s at LEAST as relatable as Carrie Bradshaw (really, she basically is Carrie Bradshaw), and EVERYBODY is all like “oh my God, I am TOTALLY a ‘Carrie,’ you guys!”
[* I don't think "more universal" can really be a thing, but IT IS TODAY.]
Like most people born in the second half of the 20th century, my introduction to Sally was via Liza Minnelli’s portrayal of her in Bob Fosse’s film adaption of “Cabaret”—which, by the way, is my favorite movie; I mean, think about it, BOB FOSSE DIRECTED A MOVIE BASED ON THE WORKS OF CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD. STARRING LIZA MINELLI. AND IT WAS A MUSICAL. AND BOB FOSSE CHOREOGRAPHED IT TOO. IT IS THE MOST PERFECT THING EVER. AND IT EXISTS. IT IS THE VERY ESSENCE OF THE ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT.
I first saw “Cabaret” when I was around 11 or 12, and I LOVED IT, but I never thought of Sally as a particularly relatable character (though really, what twelve year old is like, “oh, my God, I am TOTALLY Liza, you guys!?” The answer of course, is the best twelve year old ever, if such a twelve year old exists). Sure, I dreamed of playing Sally onstage someday (in an alternate universe where I can sing of course); I liked her costumes and her songs, and her green fingernails, but I saw her very much like I did Roxie Hart—a fun character, but not somebody that was like me, or anybody that I knew in real life. And while outside of my teenage fangirling over really well known musicals that the real theater kids rolled their eyes over, I have zero knowledge of Broadway and the subsequent film adaptions of Broadway musicals, it kind of seems like escapism is the point—who wants to go stare at themselves for three hours when we could stare at fabulous people being fabulous? So that was that. For most of my life, Liza was Sally, and Sally was Liza, and I was singing an off-key version “Mein Herr,” into a hairbrush.
It was actually thanks to yoga that I discovered Isherwood’s Sally. Because of course it was. But really, it was. Christopher Isherwood—probably the most interesting and awesome person that ever existed (or at least the most Googled person in my search history), co-authored this fabulous translation and commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra with his teacher, Swami Prabhavananda (Isherwood also co-authored a translation of the Bhagavad Gita), which I initially read for a teacher training. When I saw his name on the cover, it seemed sort of familiar, but when (thanks to my first ever Isherwood Google) I figured out that Cabaret was based on his stories, my reaction was that of an overstimulated labradoodle [insert your favorite GIF here].
Obvs, that inspired me to read “The Berlin Stories” (and by that, I mean, get a copy of “The Berlin Stories,” and read “Sally Bowles,” ten times), and thus was my introduction to Sally Jackson-Bowles (her name is actually hyphenated, how great is that?) Dear, sweet, terrible, relatable Sally in all of her crass, pretentious, prairie oyster eating glory. Unlike the similar (yet—at least to me—much more difficult to relate to) Holly Golightly, Sally doesn’t have a tragic, or even a very interesting backstory (other than using a fake pregnancy to get out of going to school. But really, haven’t we all done that at one time or another?) Sally is a nineteen year old woman, with loving, supportive parents and a seventeen year old little sister back home, and she’s living in an interesting city, all by herself, and desperately trying to be interesting, pretending she doesn’t give a shit about what anybody thinks when she really, really, REALLY does. She overestimates herself constantly She lives in a really sucky apartment until she finds a nice friend/roommate to move in with, and she makes a lot of really bad decisions, that totally seem like really good decisions at the time. She has big dreams, that are mostly unrealistic. And unlike Liza’s Sally, that’s all,”Oh, hey, hot British guy, let’s go get married– JUST KIDDING, SEE YA LATER!” Isherwood’s Sally experiences the other side of rejection a lot more. She wasn’t an irresistible manic pixie dream girl, she was flawed, naive, gullible wonderfully human, and pretty damn smart—even though she still was prone to doing the stupidest shit ever, BECAUSE BOYS, or something. She even makes poor fashion choices—the green nails that I so envied as a child? Isherwood describes them as bringing WAY too much attention to her hands, which were super-yellow thanks to all the chain smoking, and he also says that the color she dyes her hair/brows TOTALLY clashes with her eyes. But, BUT, in spite of it all, she has this incredible unwavering zest for life. She’s a survivor, even though she never knew she’d have to be, and she’s an eternal optimist, even though her optimism is mostly rooted in naivete. (PLEASE TELL ME OTHER PEOPLE CAN RELATE TO AT LEAST SOME OF THIS.)
I think the thing that actually made me like Sally the most was the Prairie Oysters. They’re in the movie too, so if you’ve seen it, you might remember them. They’re absolutely disgusting, but I think they’re actually a thing, because Wikipedia says they are, but anyway, they’re like, a raw egg, mixed with Worcester sauce. In the novella she says she “practically lives on them,” because they’re cheap, and then she STIRS THEM WITH A FOUNTAIN PEN. And I love her for it. I love her because I understand. I don’t gulp down raw eggs on the regular, but so often I’ll come home, exhausted, and despite my sincere love of food, not eating in order to avoid cooking generally sounds WAY better than cooking, and I don’t want to spend money on pre-cooked food. But damn it, I have to eat, so I boil some water, toss in some oats, and stir in an ungodly amount of peanut butter (usually with an inappropriate utensil, like a chopstick), and then basically drink it down, because PROTEIN, It’s a goddamn prairie oyster is what it is.