A Case Study of Romance Fiction Virality in the United States: The Phenomenon of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca between 1938 and 1940
by Ginny Hagerty (2023)
Last night I dreamt it was 1938 again … and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was sweeping the nation. From an Oklahoma jail whose inmates proudly boasted that they had acquired the best-seller to a North Carolina woman’s literature club at which “a tempting tea course was served,” the romantic thriller reached into every pocket of the United States (“The Outlook,” 12; Charlotte Observer December 1938, 33). Du Maurier lamented being placed into the category of romantic best-sellers; her biographer Tatiana de Rosnay reflected her confusion at the development, asking “Why is Rebecca so quickly categorized as “mass market fiction” intended for starry-eyed girls and romance-starved women?” (Crossen; Rosnay, 147). The following study intends to address this question of how Rebecca became a mass-market romance phenomenon by tracing its promotion in the American market and subsequent popularity in the years from 1938 to 1940. It will do so by tracing the marketing and promotion of the novel and movie adaptation, while recognizing a limitation put best by the producer of the 1940 Rebecca film adaptation that “No one, not even the author of an original work, can say with any degree of accuracy why a book has caught the fancy of the public” (Selznick, 258). By analyzing accounts of Rebecca’s literary and cinematic producers, as well as the public and critical response, I will argue that the combination of the novel itself and its early marketing campaign created a popularity in England which sparked interest from American publishers and film makers. The subsequent entrance of the novel into the U.S. created a unique virality which American publishers and filmmakers enhanced with their own closely related content and targeted marketing campaigns. And ultimately, though the phenomenon was ignited by these producers, in the case of both the book and the movie, word of mouth ultimately solidified the virality.
Creating the Viral Moment: The “perfect specimen of a best-seller”
Rebecca saw immense and immediate success in the United Kingdom, and one month later in the United States. Three consecutive phases defined the success in both markets, wherein key players recognized the mass-market appeal of Rebecca, sent previews to, and secured positive reviews from select newspapers, and advertised the novel, the reviews, and the author herself in print and audio. Within a month in each market, the advertising and reviews put Rebecca into audience hands, at which point the unique quality of the work—which sparked the intense marketing in the first place—would speak for itself.
A clear majority of those who read Rebecca in the months preceding and following its August 1938 UK release immediately identified in it as possessing an elusive best-seller quality. When Victor Gollancz, who would ultimately own the production and promotion of the novel, first showed it to his editor Norman Collins, Collins responded that “The new Daphne du Maurier contains everything that the public could want.’” (Forster, 135). The British press agreed, with the Tatler reporting in September of 1938 that “such a perfect specimen of a best-seller that it is almost like being shown round the factory by an expert” (Staveley-Wadham). To specify this elusive quality, Rebecca’s publishers identified the dual combination of love story and thriller as critical components of its attraction. Within a month of reading it, Gollancz had identified it as a best-seller because “it is moving … it contains an exquisite love-story … it has a brilliantly created atmosphere of suspense” (Forster, 136). A college newspaper in Maine corroborated Gollancz’s initial hypothesis as to the popular merits of the book in their review, which notes the du Maurier novel “holds the interest from beginning to end. It is an exciting, ingenious, romantic tale.” (Maine Campus Staff, 2). According to her editor, Du Maurier intentionally employed writing devices to keep such attention, including a cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter (Hodges, 299). In addition to exciting and romantic, Rebecca’s producer Selznick identified a third critical component that led to the success of the novel, especially for female readers: relatable characters. As he described it, by creating Rebecca as an ideal woman, beautiful and domestically capable, and the second Mrs. de Winter as insecure and unable to measure up, “every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology, has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind.” (Selznick, 260-261). In a more negative and commercial understanding of this device, and likely as a result of focusing on the relationship of these females to the male character rather than each other, The Bystander noted upon Rebecca’s release that du Maurier is talented at “creating the stock characters of Romance, with a capital ‘R” (Staveley-Wadham). Whether innovative or trite, however, it was clear that the people who defined this novel resonated with audiences. The triad of love story, suspense, and compelling characters thus attempts to explain the inexplicable best-seller quality that was immediately seen in the novel which was the prerequisite for its success.
After identifying its potential, Victor Gollancz immediately underwent an intensive marketing campaign to ensure the public saw the novel he was certain they would love. To create interest around the novel in the summer before it was published, he sent previews to booksellers and critics two months before the projected release date (“Books and Authors”, Forster, 136). Emphasizing two of its three best-seller ingredients, Gollancz touted the novel to booksellers as an ‘exquisite love story’ with a ‘brilliantly created atmosphere of suspense’” (Beauman, 49). Anticipating its success, he noted that “This is only the third or fourth time in the 10 years’ history of my firm,” he writes, “that I have written a personal letter to the booksellers about a new novel.” (Charlotte Observer August 1939, 39). This led to rave reviews—though admittedly mixed criticism from important papers like The Times—which Gollancz utilized in his print advertising (Forster, 138). The four advertisements shown below ran on the same page of The Observer Sunday paper for four consecutive weeks beginning the Sunday after the novel was published. The advertisements used bold fonts and eye-catching symbols and large quotes from rave reviews. Gollancz’s early previews secured these reviews which he could utilize in his first month of advertisements to demonstrate immediate critical acclaim. The ads also featured figures of print orders to demonstrate its expected popularity. In his third ad, Gollancz corroborated this expectation of demand, announcing that only two weeks after publishing, the book was so popular that advertising was unnecessary. Finally, his decision to use the quote describing it as “a romantic novel” in two of the four ads demonstrates the critical nature of romance in the advertising campaign. Taken together, the emphasis on positive reviews, high demand, and thrilling romance shrewdly created the perception of a best-seller before Rebecca had sold a single copy.
(The Observer, Aug 14, 1938)
(The Observer, Aug 07, 1938.) (The Observer, Aug 21, 1938) (The Observer, Sept 11, 1938)
The success of Gollancz’s strategy created interest in the novel which carried over the Atlantic, after which it was picked up by Doubleday Dorian. The U.S. publisher followed Gollancz’s strategy of using print advertisements to market the novel as a best-seller which “everyone” was reading and critics were loving. In the below advertisement from Doubleday Dorian in the New York Times Book Review, the publisher allotted half of its ad space to Rebecca, though it was advertising a total of eight books, demonstrating the same faith in Rebecca as their British counterparts less than a month after publishing. The ad included two rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review and the New York Herald Tribune Books, continuing the emphasis on positive critical reception. It boldly mentioned that the novel was a “best-seller” and “book sensation of the year,” and emphasized its popularity by noting that Rebecca had already sold out of its first editions in England. Highlighting the success in England was repeated across the country, with the Charlotte Observer advertising the September 23 release date for “the August choice of the English Book Society” which “sold almost 40,000 copies in England within one week of publication.” (Charlotte Observer August 1939, 39). Ultimately, highlighting positive press reviews secured through early previews and advertising the book as a romance that had “everyone was reading,” proved just as successful in the U.S. markets as it had in the U.K.
(Doubleday Dorian, 107)
In addition to their best-seller self-fulfilling prophecy campaigns, Gollancz and Doubleday Dorian both marketed Daphne du Maurier in author press events. In the UK, Gollancz persuaded her to participate in a literary luncheon at a popular London bookstore called Foyle’s, an interview in her home, and a BBC radio interview (Rosnay, 145-6). She famously hated such events, and therefore kept them to a minimum, which some argue created even more public discourse (Rosnay, 146). She made her public appearance to the United States, but expressed similar restraint, in an interview after Orson Welles’ adaptation of Rebecca for the Campbell Playhouse radio series (Welles). The broadcast included a clear advertisement to purchase the novel: “It’s a book you should read, the ideal Christmas gift to yourself,” indicating a commercial element to the broadcast which would further be bolstered by du Maurier’s appearance. The interview with the author was brief: she said she “enjoyed” the production “enormously” before hanging up when the actress asked her for the name of the second Mrs. de Winter in a playful skit. This limited appearance for an American audience is consistent with du Maurier’s publicity tendencies in England. However, as with the Foyle’s literary luncheon and BBC interview, it added to the popularity of the novel: Selznick noted that the broadcast “created a minor sensation in this country … about which everyone is talking” and even suggested to Hitchcock that he was encouraged by and learned from the production (Selznick, 256, 259). Victor Gollancz’s efforts to secure reviews from the press, print advertising, and author events in the UK were repeated by Doubleday Dorian in the US, creating an American craze which rivaled the original. Such efforts in the early fall of 1938 lay the foundation for the book to live up to its potential as identified in those early days as a formulaic best-seller.
Adopting the Viral Moment: The “really big seller”
Further indicating the success of Victor Gollancz’s summer marketing blitz, legendary American producer David O. Selznick was interested in the project months before the novel was released. On June 29, 1938, he wrote about his interest in acquiring the rights which he would eventually purchase for $50,000, saying: “if it is a really big seller, it certainly will be bought, and it would be worth the effort” (Selznick, 253). The novel did fulfill its “big seller” potential, as did Selznick’s film, the six-week run of which brought in 900,000 viewers and broke the record of weeks shown in the famed Radio City Music Hall in New York City, surpassing the previous record holder of Disney’s Snow White (“Rebecca’ Held”). It saw similar demand across the country, especially on coasts and major cities, with the LA Times commenting in April that “Judging by the eager throngs yesterday afternoon, “Rebecca” is the season’s matinee attraction” (Scheuer). The success of the film ultimately solidified the phenomenon on American soil and brought the novel to a truly viral popularity, therefore making it a worthwhile part of this study. Building on the momentum of the novel, I argue that the film’s success can largely be attributed to specific targeting of the American female audience through marketing and commercialization, as well as a fidelity to the film which maintained its initial attraction and paid service to its existing fan base.
Though Gollancz did not explicitly indicate a preference for a female audience in his promotion, he did so perhaps implicitly in his marketing of the novel as a romance. Regardless, by the fall of 1938, when Selznick began working on Rebecca, it was clear to him that the core fan base for this novel was female. On September 30, 1938, a mere week after Doubleday Doran published the novel in the United States, Selznick noted that “It is clear that, perhaps more than any other book of this type in our times, it has enormous appeal to women, and, for my part, I am convinced that it is really great box office” (Selznick, 254). Selznick considered himself well positioned to take on this role, as his biographer noted that he and the American public both considered him a “women’s producer” (Leff, 37). The producer was keenly aware that in a heterosexual couple in the 1930s, the woman tended to choose the movie the pair would see, and he thus had commercial motivation for a female specialization (Leff, 37-38). Ultimately, given the power of women as fans of Rebecca and of films more generally in 1938, the production of Rebecca was both crafted and marketed at every step to its eagerly awaiting female audience.
After identifying the film’s target audience as the existing—predominantly female— audience of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the production team made it paramount that they maintain fidelity to the film and its audience in every step of making the movie, through casting, plot and dialogue, and editing. First, in casting, Selznick attempted to preserve the main characters’ respective romance and insecurity as envisioned by Daphne du Maurier. In casting decisions, he and Hitchcock were swayed by the fact that eventual lead Laurence Oliver “has the more obvious edge romantically” and his co-star Joan Fontaine “was so inadequate and so frightened, which fit the character.” (Selznick, 263; Raubicheck and Srebnick, 107). Furthermore, though he cast British actors, he was cognizant that he was primarily making this film for the American market, giving explicit instructions to the actors to “to avoid anything which might be difficult for American audience to understand.” (Selznick, 268). He thus ensured that the characters in his film would be both what his American audience imagined and understood.
Beyond characters, Selznick was adamant that he represent Rebecca as close to the way Daphne du Maurier wrote it as he could. In a seething memo to the film’s director Alfred Hitchcock rejecting his first draft of the screenplay, Selznick succinctly admonished that “We bought Rebecca, and we intend to make Rebecca. The few million people who have read the book and who worship it would very properly attack us violently for the desecrations which are indicated by the treatment” (Selznick, 257-258). As mentioned, Selznick believed that no one knew what made a best-seller, so when one was so clearly beloved by the mass market, one should not reinvent the wheel. He turned to Orson Welles’s beloved and accurate radio presentation of Rebecca as proof that “du Maurier’s Rebecca in any form has the identical appeal that it did in book form.” (Selznick, 256, 259). As evidence against deviating from a book in adaptation, he pointed to Rebecca’s director Alfred Hitchcock’s failed film of another Daphne du Maurier novel, Jamaica Inn, which was hated by both press and author alike due to Hitchcock’s creative decisions which strayed away from the novel. When criticizing the first draft of the Rebecca screenplay, Selznick put it bluntly to his Eastern Representative that “it is my intention to do the book and not some botched-up semi original such as was done with Jamaica Inn” (Selznick, 264). He partially had his female audience in mind when pushing for the accuracy of the novel, ensuring the film included what he saw as female resonant points, fearing “just how bad a picture it would make without the little feminine things which are so recognizable and which make every woman say, “I know just how she feels … I know just what she’s going through … etc.” (Selznick, 260-1). Such details included moments like when the narrator compares her handwriting to Rebecca’s, and even a line of dialogue which Selznick told Hitchcock to include in place of an original version (Selznick, 261). Selznick continued his commitment to accuracy by finalizing a screenplay that was as close to the novel as possible to be positively received by the book’s existing fans.
Selznick had a particularly innovative approach to produce Rebecca accurately in the final step of film preparation: editing. For a typical Hollywood film, producers would show their picture to a random preview audience. Selznick, however, did not want to make any changes based on “the reactions of an audience that has come to see a Marx Brothers picture.” Instead, he wanted “a period of days to study audience reactions at a theater … where we would have an audience that had bought tickets to see Rebecca, and that was therefore typical of the audience for whom the picture was made” (Selznick, 285). He was thus keenly aware of his target audience to the end of the film production, using this market research to inform his final editing process to great success. Towards the end of December 1939, he noted that “judging by the enthusiasm of this preview audience we have what may prove to be the best and most successful picture we have made” (Selznick, 285-286). Additionally, he noted that the audience clapped loudly when the title showed, which revealed that they were fans of the book, or at least recognized the story, and had come to see the adaptation of Rebecca, not a random movie (Selznick, 286). Selznick knew that this was his end goal all along, and made his casting, plot and scripting, and editing decisions for those people who would eventually clap at the title sequence.
His faithful efforts were affirmed by critics across the country, with the LA Times commenting that “The melodrama is faithfully transferred to the screen from its original form” and the critic at the Chicago Daily Tribune exclaiming: “I didn’t think they could do it! Capture the suspense, the horror, the beauty, and the strange eeriness of “Rebecca” the book. But they have!” (LA Times April 1940; Chicago Daily Tribune April 1940). The only discrepancy was forced on the studio by censors who said that they could not claim that Mr. de Winter had killed his wife (Sterritt, 109). However, Selznick bragged in a memo to Daphne du Maurier that they handled it so well that even fans of the book did not notice (Selznick, 287). Selznick’s fidelity to du Maurier’s novel proved successful to these loyal sample audiences and sharp-eyed critics.
In addition to making a film exactly as their expected audience envisioned, Selznick International Pictures (SIP) also went above and beyond to market the film, especially to women. There were three main aspects of the film’s marketing campaign, as covered in Kyle Dawson Edward’s discussion of the 1940 memo from SIP’s Rebecca marketing executive Lynn Farnol: book tie-ups, branded merchandise, and newspaper serialization and marketing. First, the team reprinted three new editions of the novel as special editions in connection with the film: $0.69 paperbacks, which ultimately enabled sales to reach their one million dollar mark, $1.39 copies bound with pictures of the movie stars, and hardcover copies for $2.75 displaying the quote “David Selznick, who foresaw the possibilities of Gone with the Wind before publication, has paid an equally high price for Rebecca” (one of many efforts to remind the audience of the film’s connection to this other romantic blockbuster) (Edwards, 37). These additional issuances of the novel itself reveals how the book and the movie remained linked in these Rebecca dominated years. They did not only sell books, but also merchandise, including furniture and wallpaper lines with W& J Sloane, a Rebecca Luxury Wardrobe with Kiviette-Gowns, Inc., and a “Rebecca Makeup Kit.” They then included W & J Sloane and Kiviette-Gowns brands in the costumes and furniture for the film (Edwards, 38). This marketing push for domestic goods specifically targeted women and capitalized on the tendency for female readers to idealize Rebecca in the beginning of the novel just as the second Mrs.de Winter did, assuming they will disregard her villainous reveal in the hopes of living and looking like the beautiful woman who floated through domestic life with ease (Edwards, 38).
In addition to selling novels and merchandise, they advertised with a fifty-day serialization of the novel in eleven newspapers across major U.S. newspapers with a projected 5.5 million combined readers. They supplemented this main effort with an additional serialization in Ladies Home Journal, pointing to their further targeting of female readers. Like Victor Gollancz and Dorian Doubleday, they ran print newspaper ads, but were more careful than the novel’s publisher to not make the movie seem “trivial or unimportant” (Edwards, 37). Such distinctions in marketing may, in addition to Hitchcock’s artistic genius, be one of the reasons the film is widely regarded as an artistic endeavor, taking home the 1941 Oscar for Best Picture, whereas the artistic validity of Rebecca is often debated under the guises of its romance categorization (Jancovich, 78; Selznick, 287). Though the film was more careful in its romance branding in the mass media, it still targeted women specifically by serializing in Lady’s Home Journal and selling branded clothing and makeup. The three-pronged strategy of book reprints, merchandising, and newspaper serializations and advertising surpassed the initial marketing strategy for the novel and indicated how the movie would bring the Rebecca phenomenon to a new extreme.
Ultimately, therefore, David Selznick was able to accurately transfer the novel which had captured the heart of the nation into a film which he marketed to become even bigger than its inspiration. At the opening weekend of Rebecca in San Francisco, SIP tested their strategy with a survey of 300 participants which revealed that 40 percent were motivated to come because they read Rebecca and 20 percent because they read a serialization. Astonishingly, 70 percent were motivated by knowing Selznick and his films (Edwards, 44-45). Though an imperfect study, this gap in percentages suggests that the book brought in a continued loyal audience, but marketing efforts for the film also added to the already vast fanbase for Rebecca the novel, proving that Selznick and Hitchcock adopted the viral moment and made it their own.
Solidifying the Viral Moment: The “World’s greatest interest-stirring medium”
Ultimately, though book and movie sellers were successful in their targeted marketing strategies, word of mouth is a large part of what brought Rebecca to truly viral fame. Though hard to account for in an empirical study, almost every aspect of the story of Rebecca in the United States from 1938 to 1940 indicates that people were talking about it to a remarkable degree. A 1939 New York Times article’s assertion that “Everyone who has read “Rebecca” — and practically everyone has,” demonstrates a ubiquity and a recognition that comes only from something being a part of the national conversation (Crowther). More explicitly, Selznick describes the Welles broadcast of Rebecca only three months after the novel’s U.S. debut as something “about which everyone is talking” (Selznick, 256). Gollancz, in fact, emphasized this narrative in his own marketing within the first fortnight of the book’s release. Two weeks after publishing, he ran a practically blank advertisement in the Observer which proclaimed that there would not be an advertisement that week in the publisher’s normal spot because “such advertisement would be unnecessary, as everyone who has read the book (a rapidly increasing majority) is talking about it to everyone who hasn’t (a rapidly diminishing minority)” (The Observer, Aug 21, 1938). A strong motivation for consumers to buy Rebecca was the desire to become part of the increasing majority who were reading, and talking about, the novel. Advertising can only do so much, as Gollancz wittily acknowledges in this ad, and when it becomes “unnecessary” is a mark of true virality.
This trend of the importance of mass-conversation only continued with the film. The LA Times mentioned that “Nation-wide conversation pro and con regarding the production has reached the point where it has become the topic of “club papers” and debates in women’s clubs and at two universities’ (“‘Rebecca’ Stirs Interest.”). These contentious conversations highlight a benefit to the criticism which so distressed Daphne du Maurier— it kept people talking, which kept people reading and watching and engaging with her material. The same article captured the critical nature of conversation in virality for Selznick and Hitchcock’s Rebecca when they penned that “World’s greatest interest-stirring medium–word of mouth–which has changed the course of nations and almost civilization itself on many occasions, has been working overtime for the film play, “Rebecca” (“‘Rebecca’ Stirs Interest.”). Not only does this review highlight the sheer power of the word of mouth, but it corroborates its role in the commercial success of the viral film. That the personified word of mouth was working overtime aligns it with the hard work of Gollancz, Selznick, Hitchcock, and others to promote Rebecca, suggesting its importance in marketing the phenomenon. This constant emphasis on the role Rebecca the novel and film held in the national conversation in the two years following its release in both the United States and the United Kingdom makes it impossible to ignore as a key factor of Rebecca’s viral success from 1938 to 1940.
Echoing the success of this biennium of Rebecca, the modern American romance fiction industry has been dominated by novels (and even bigger films) which can best be described as viral phenomena, including in recent years Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Though they ought to heed Selznick’s warning that no one can truly understand the unique popularity a work of viral fiction, if an author hoped to become the next Meyer, James, or du Maurier, I would suggest they examine this case study closely.
Ultimately, the phenomenon of Rebecca began with a remarkable work of fiction which publishers immediately expected to hook a modern audience. These publishers then secured rave reviews, deftly marketed the book’s romance, thrills, and characters, and used numbers to create the illusion of mass-popularity before the book had ever sold. At the same time, they secured a film and foreign publishing deal, which enabled Dorian Doubleday and David O. Selznick to take the audience Gollancz created, make a product as similar to du Maurier’s lightning-in-a-bottle novel as they could, and start the cycle over again by increasing and target advertising to bring the romance to an even larger, and even more female audience in the United States. Ultimately, though, the constant conversation around the ever-mysterious Rebecca, her author, her products, and the producers, directors, and actors who would make its story come to life would be just as important of an instrument in its popularity. Taken together, these marketing and production efforts skyrocketed this “Romance with a capital R” to viral with a capital V.
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“‘Rebecca’ Stirs Interest.” Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1940. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/rebecca-stirs-interest/docview/165113675/se-2.
“‘Rebecca’ is English Society Book Choice.” Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), August 28, 1938: 39. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&docref=image/v2%3A11260DC9BB798E30%40EANX-173678BC024AF5D3%402429139-17367691F43CA700%4038-17367691F43CA700%40.
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York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.
Scheuer, Philip K. “Mood Magic of ‘Rebecca’ Re-Created.” Los Angeles Times, Mar 28, 1940. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/mood-magic-rebecca-re-created/docview/165071189/se-2.
Selznick, David O. Memo from David O Selznick. Edited by Rudy Behlmer. New York:
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Special to The New York Times. “Screen News Here and in Hollywood: Selznick-International Signs Alfred Hitchcock to Direct Film Version Of-‘Rebecca’.” New York Times, Sep 16, 1938. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/screen-news-here-hollywood/docview/102429323/se-2.
Sterritt, D. (2020). The Guardians of Morality vs. the Master of Suspense. Hitchcock Annual 24, 106-116. https://muse.jhu.edu/pub/324/article/797003.
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“The Outlook.” Outlook, vol 6, no. 3 (April 1939). https://jstor.org/stable/community.32934537.
Tinee, Mae. “Intelligence and Imagination in Film ‘Rebecca’.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Apr 06, 1940. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/intelligence-imagination-film-rebecca/docview/176490258/se-2.
Welles, Orson, prod. “Rebecca Campbell Playhouse.” Adapted by Howard Koch.
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Air, 1938-1946. December 9, 1938. https://orsonwelles.indiana.edu/items/show/1975.
Zolotow, Sam. “‘Rebecca’ Arrives on Stage Tonight: Du Maurier Dramatization of Her Best Seller Opens at Barrymore Theatre Opening Off Broadway New Investment Group.” New York Times, Jan 18, 1945. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/rebecca-arrives-on-stage-tonight/docview/107361178/se-2.