The Big Money
is a 1936 novel by John Dos Passos. It is the third book of the U.S.A.
trilogy of books that were published in an anthology in 1938. The book contains the life stories of several characters, interspersing them with newspaper clippings, popular songs, and the biographies of famous Americans. In 1998, the U.S.A.
trilogy was ranked 23rd on Modern Library’s list of Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century.
The novel begins with the character Charley Anderson. Charley is an ace fighter pilot who has just returned home from World War I. Charley is handsome, and popular with young women. He maintains relationships with several girls, but is reluctant to marry any of them. After his mother dies and leaves him some money in her will, Charley invests it in an aviation project.
Charley gets several engineering jobs and begins to make a name for himself in the commercial aviation world. He also maintains an active social life, which leads to him drinking too much and going into debt. Eventually, he takes a lucrative job in Detroit that also allows him to work on his personal aviation project. He marries Gladys Wheatley, but their relationship quickly cools.
While testing a prototype plane, Charley crashes. His copilot is killed and Charley is badly injured. The copilot’s widow sues the company, and Charley goes on vacation to escape his problems. He meets a woman named Margo Dowling and begins an affair with her. He soon receives word that his wife is divorcing him.
Charley continues to see Margo casually. He is deep in debt and conceives of an insider trading scheme with a senator friend of his. After a night of drinking, Charley picks up a girl and takes her for a drive. Their car stalls on the train tracks and they are hit by a train. Charley ends up in the hospital, where he is visited by Margo who asks him for money, and by his brother Jim who asks for power of attorney.
The second major character in the novel is Mary Finch, a young woman from a wealthy family. Mary moves around a lot in her childhood, and eventually settles at Vassar University where she finds many of the other students frivolous and naïve. Mary and her roommate Ada spend their summers doing charity work.
Eventually, Mary is forced to leave school to take care of her sick father. After her father dies, she begins working and becomes active in social movements. She begins dating George Barrow and starts to do volunteer organizing for his socialist organization. Mary gets pregnant and is worried that George will pressure her to marry him. She is surprised when George insists she get an abortion instead.
Mary continues to bounce around socialist organizations. She breaks up with George and begins seeing a famous organizer named Ben Compton. Mary wants him to propose, but Ben tells her he doesn’t want to get married. However, while Mary is traveling, Ben meets a rich young woman and marries her. Mary continues to do social work, even at the expense of all her personal relationships.
The final major character is Margo Dowling, who also appears in Charley’s chapters. Margo comes from a poor family and has an alcoholic father. Her struggling mother leaves Margo’s father and begins to date a vaudeville actor, Frank Mandeville. Frank teaches Margo to sing and dance, and she joins the act. When she is a teenager, Frank begins to sexually assault her.
Margo falls in love with a musician named Tony, and the two of them move to Havana. However, the couple is unhappy and frequently fights. Margo gives birth to a child who dies soon afterward. With her mother’s help, she returns to the United States. She gets work as a Zeigfield Follies dancer and begins to date the son of a millionaire, Tad Whittlesea, and a married casting director, Jerry Herman. Tad takes her on a vacation, where Margo meets Tony. She takes care of him when he is sick from drinking too much, and Tony repays her by stealing her money and jewelry.
Margo bounces between men, dumping them quickly when they no longer have money to give her. She becomes close to Charley, but has to leave him when his company goes out of business. She learns of his death in the hospital following his car accident.
After moving from New York to Miami, Margo invests in real estate and makes considerable money. She takes care of her mother and Tony, who by this point is very sick from alcoholism. Her stage career as a singer nets her steady work. At the end of her section of the novel, Margo, Tony and Margo’s mother set off for Hollywood so Margo can become a movie star.