Born Yesterday opens in the sitting room of suite 67D in the finest hotel in Washington, D.C. Colorful and lavishly decorated, it is “a masterpiece of offensive good taste.” The time is shortly after the end of World War II.
Waiting in the suite is Paul Verrall, a newspaper reporter for The New Republic’s Washington bureau. Young and idealistic, he is investigating Washington skullduggery and hopes to interview millionaire junk man Harry Brock, who has rented this suite. Brock is a businessman who operates on the shady side of the street, and Verrall wants to find out what it is that brings him to Washington.
Brock soon arrives with his entourage, including his brother, Eddie, and his lawyer, Ed Devery. Also with him is his beautiful but poorly educated and rough-around-the-edges girlfriend, Billie Dawn.
Brock grants Verrall the interview but, other than giving him trivial background information on his life, reveals nothing about why he is in Washington. After the interview Brock meets with Senator Norval Hedges, and reveals his plan. Brock has realized that there is a fortune to be made overseas from scrap left over from the war in Europe and has hatched a scheme to import it back to the United States. Brock, however, does not want to be bothered with tariffs and other impediments.
Senator Hedges, who is being bribed by Brock, is developing the Hedges-Keller Amendment, which would guarantee that the State Department would be unable to interfere with Brock’s business. This, then, is why Brock is in Washington—to make sure that Hedges is doing the job he is getting paid to do.
Another stumbling block in his scheme, as Brock sees it, is Billie. During the evening with Senator and Mrs. Hedges, Billie’s lack of social graces embarrasses even the boorish junk man himself. Determined to make her fit in, he hires Verrall to educate her.
Verrall is initially skeptical but soon finds that, in spite of her lack of formal education, Billie is capable of learning quickly. The more she learns and reads about the world around her, the more she begins to understand the nature of Brock and his schemes. More painfully, she begins to realize how Brock has been using her as a tool to further his plans—and how he has been both physically and emotionally abusive.
Events come to a head when Billie refuses to sign her name to documents which she has discovered are part of Brock’s crooked scheme to create a junk cartel and amass a fortune at the expense of the public. Brock’s reaction to Billie’s refusal to sign the documents is violent. He strikes her and sends her from the hotel.
Billie realizes that she can no longer be with Brock, and that during the course of her education, she and Verrall have fallen in love. In a parting act of defiance, Billie gives the incriminating documents to Verrall. Despite Brock’s rage, Billie and Verrall refuse to back down or return the documents. Billie lets Brock know that he had “better behave” or she will reveal everything she knows about his shady deals.
Incredulous, Brock watches his carefully constructed scheme collapse as Billie and Verrall walk out of the hotel and into their own future.