The Extra Woman

In the fall of 1939, the writer and self-help guru Marjorie Hillis married Thomas Henry Roulston, owner of the prominent New York City grocery chain Roulston & Sons. She was forty-nine years old, and he was in his early sixties. The bride did not wear white at her wedding. Instead, according to Joanna Scutts, Hillis’ devoted biographer and the author of the sharp new book The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hills Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It, Hillis wore a “gown of ‘pale smoke blue’ in marquisette . . . with an ostrich feather perched on her tightly curled iron-gray hair.” Though Hillis’ outfit was ethereal, there was a lot of added heaviness to her nuptials; she had become a household name for her clever books about never wanting to get married, and here she was, willingly walking down the aisle. It was, to put it in modern parlance, an off-brand move for the writer. An editor at Vogue and a staunch bachelorette, Hillis made her literary debut in 1936 with a manifesto about the glories of being a single woman in the city, titled Live Alone and Like It. The book sailed off the shelves, as young women flocked to cities looking for job opportunities and wider horizons, subsequently finding themselves in dire need of a savvy guide to the brave new world they themselves were creating. Hillis not only wrote the definitive book on 1930s solo living but became its public face; a Washington D.C. News article about her carried the headline “Author of Best Seller Bases Her Books on Theories She Has Proven for Herself.”

When Hillis fell in love, she knew that she was taking a huge gamble. She had written a stack of bestsellers (after Live Alone and Like It came books on personal finance and cooking for one) based on singlehood and had sewn a cult of personality around her ability to remain glamorous and unattached, answering the doorbell in elegant velvet lounging robes, holding a “glass of excellent sherry.” How would her readers take to her decision to wed? Along with the announcement for her engagement, the Chicago Tribune playfully printed the words “Didn’t Like It” above her picture. As Scutts writes, “marriage effectively silenced Marjorie Hillis” — not just because she could no longer be a champion of the companionless but also because she realized that being a contented wife was not thrilling material. “There was nothing radical in ‘live together and like it,’ ” Scutts writes. However, Hillis’ hiatus did not last for long. Roulston died suddenly in 1949, and she found herself flush with ideas again. She wrote You Can Start All Over, a snappy guide to stylish widowhood. Hillis was nothing if not a survivor, bouncing along the zeitgeist and turning her struggles into fashionable sound bites.

Scutts comes from an academic background — she studied at Cambridge and then earned her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, and currently serves as the first Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society — and she admits early on that she considered Hillis’ story to be a trifle, a subject she “cheated” on her formal studies with, after a friend gave her Live Alone and Like It as a gag gift. Hillis — who did not even have a Wikipedia page when Scutts found her — was her cocktail party anecdote; she loved telling the story of this woman who published a monster bestseller and then was pulled under the historical tides, loved reviving interest in Hillis like she was her press agent from beyond the grave. Suddenly, it became clear to her that this side interest was becoming encompassing, and that Hillis’ story had larger implications for women’s history. She writes: “Despite the charming retro touches, like the insistence that any self-respecting Live-Aloner ought to own at least four styles of a mysterious garment called ‘a bed jacket,’ Marjorie Hillis’ philosophy struck me as almost painfully relevant to modern single women like me who were balancing the fantasy of independence with the fear of being alone.” (It is worth noting that while researching the book, Scutts, like her subject, fell in love and married, despite the implied dissonance with her main thesis.)

The resulting book is itself a kind of a marriage, between Scutts’s academic training and her more personal engagement with Hillis as a flesh-and-blood character. The resulting book is far from a straight biography and offers instead  a colorful dissertation on midcentury womanhood, exploring Hillis’ impact from several angles in order to sketch out a prismatic understanding of feminism and freedom at the time. Scutts carves her chapters into short, information-packed sections on topics like the history of self-help books, the back-story of Hillis’ ambitious editor at Vogue, the politics of Rosie the Riveter, the origin story of The Joy of Cooking, and other deeply researched asides. This could make the book feel like a bowl of potpourri, but Scutts was smart to continually weave Hillis’ story into her diversions. This makes Hillis’ story feel far-reaching — she touched so many aspects of women’s rights and financial independence — but it also grounds an enormous history in a personal narrative.

Scutts makes an effort throughout The Extra Woman to connect Hillis’ story to contemporary feminism, but she is at her very best when she is recounting shimmering details from midcentury history. Her chapter on women and food — especially the section about women drinking alone, which pulls from sources as diverse as The Philadelphia Story, The Savoy Cocktail Book, and a 1933 tome about teetotalism called Bacchus Behave! — is peppered with quirky and crystalline factoids, the kind that you might want to recount at your next cocktail party. Scutts may not have known at first that Hillis’ life would make for a great book, but she did have a hunch that it would make a great window through which to view a forgotten and fascinating slice of women’s history. One obscure woman’s story can be a vessel for understanding the lives of thousands; it is in doing justice to this fact that Scutts does justice to her leading lady.

 

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