bow dressOpen Letters Monthly, October 2010


In the summer of 1936, as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind settled in at the top of the fiction bestseller charts, the top nonfiction slot was occupied by a book that – at first glance – couldn’t have been more different. Marjorie Hillis’s Live Alone and Like It is a brisk and bracing self-help guide for women who, by choice or accident, find themselves “settling down to a solitary existence.” Reissued in 2008 by the UK’s Virago Press, the book is a paean to making your own choices, mixing your own cocktails, and learning to enjoy the company of men while not being afraid of losing it.

The advice here is addressed primarily to a savvy urban reader – the kind of woman who is independent enough to scour the streets of New York or London for a smart little apartment she can afford by herself, but wily enough to charm a gentleman friend into installing custom-built bookcases. She might curl up on a rainy evening to read about Scarlett O’Hara, but she’s got no illusions about being a romantic heroine. Still, like Scarlett, she knows the value of home, and in their very different ways, both these books recognize and appeal to that desire for the security and independence it represents. Both tell stories about picking up after cataclysmic historical events that have wiped out livelihoods and lifestyles.

The subtitle of Hillis’s book, A Guide for the Extra Woman, may be tongue-in-cheek, but the term indicates the ways that women’s lives had changed over the course of the early twentieth century, and especially since the upheavals of the First World War and the Depression, more quickly than social norms could adapt. What Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair between 1914 and 1935, calls in his introduction “a series of devastating cataclysms” wrought social change out of economic necessity – business, “assisted by its handmaid Emancipation,” led to solitary women entering the workforce in significant numbers, creating the uneasy suspicion in male counterparts that their participation there might not be temporary. Hillis is not much interested in her readers’ spiritual health or the welfare of their families, as her predecessors in the self-help genre had been; instead, she speaks to a reader who has either achieved independence or had it thrust upon her. In either case, the worst sin is self-pity: “feeling sorry for yourself and arousing no feeling of any sort whatever in anybody else.” The successful “live-aloner,” by contrast, is encouraged and exhorted with the simple message underlying all guides for living well in the modern world: “You have got to decide what kind of a life you want and then make it for yourself.”

The life that Marjorie Hillis made for herself was carved out of a chaotic family situation, going some way to explain her books’ many warnings against relying on relative for security and support. She was born in 1889 in Peoria, Illinois, to parents who were both, in differing ways, non-fiction writers. Her mother, Annie Louise Patrick, published a guide titled The American Woman and Her Home in 1911, and her father, Dr. Newell Dwight Hillis, was a minister, who moved the family to Brooklyn when Marjorie was ten, to serve as the pastor of Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Congressional Church. Dr. Hillis was a charismatic preacher and a prolific writer who published his sermons weekly in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and also wrote pamphlets and even a novel. However, he also saw several business ventures fail, and in 1915 publicly admitted financial ruin. The support of his parishioners enabled him to recover, and to continue working and writing on spiritual topics and current events, including a sensationalist volume on “German Atrocities” in 1918.

For Marjorie, who was then a young staffer at Vogue in New York, the experience of her family’s near-ruin and the importance of writing in rebuilding her father’s fortunes must have been a powerful spur to her own interests in household economy and the literature of self-help. The books combine self-conscious sermonizing with the wit and verve that characterized Vogue’s columns at the time, and there are serious moral lessons among the rules about matching gloves and hats. Hanging a mirror at the end of the bed is encouraged, to make sure one is not “slipping” in boudoir appearance, but this kind of slipping is not just skin-deep. It represents a kind of moral failing, akin to despair, or admitting defeat, as well as an inverse extravagance: regular maintenance is cheaper than all-out repair. It’s clear that this is not just Vogue talking, but the minister’s daughter, urging an all-American can-do spirit and rigorous self-policing of one’s physical and moral qualities. After all, “when you live alone, practically nobody arranges practically anything for you,” and perhaps even more telling: “independence, more truthfully than virtue, is its own reward.” The worst fate in the book is loss of that virtue – a “maiden aunt” is not a fate to be surrendered to lightly.

The women whose stories Hillis tells to illustrate her theories throughout the book are testament to the slow economic recovery of the 1930s and the increased likelihood that women might be sole breadwinners, for themselves or their families. The phrase “extra woman” gained piquancy and poignancy in the interwar period, speaking to the enduring fear that many women’s best chance of a husband had disappeared in the trenches. Although even in the hardest-hit European nations the demographic impact of the losses was adjusted and many widows remarried within a few years, the popular conception that there was now a worldwide shortage of marriageable men proved hard to shake. Yet for Hillis the breaking-up of strict familial structures can be to the single woman’s benefit, freeing her up to remake her social circle in her own image: “It’s a good idea to collect Odd Numbers like yourself, as people collect paintings. You can build up quite a coterie if you take enough trouble, mix your friends intelligently, and show a little shrewdness as to when to invite them, and what for.” (And if your new single girlfriends have a brother or two, so much the better.)

Men and money – specifically, the adjustments women needed to make in the post-Crash era when the one didn’t guarantee the other – are also the subject of Hillis’s 1937 follow-up, Orchids on Your Budget: Live Smartly on What You Have, of which chapter four is bluntly titled “Can you afford a husband?” Also reissued by Virago (in 2009), Orchids expands on the lessons of its predecessor in more directly material ways; and as a guide to resisting consumer temptation and making sure your values and goals line up with your spending, it offers a message that resonates in 2010, although debt is unmentionable and credit cards unheard of. A lack of funds really means going without: one of Hillis’s illustrative “Cases” tells the story of an a Miss C, a pretty Southern girl who arrives in Chicago during the summer to take a job with a small salary, but who walks home past a series of tempting boutiques, and has no interest in budgeting her money. As a consequence, she has no money for a coat for the underestimated winter – without which investment she contracts pneumonia and is hospitalized (it’s okay – she catches the eye of a sympathetic doctor, and vaults from cautionary to fairy tale). Such damsel-rescuing endings are unusual, however – on the whole the book is pragmatically feminist in its argument that managing your money and exercising your independence are one and the same thing, and that, in the burned and sober years after the Crash, no woman could afford to live in blissful ignorance as a man took care of her money.

The books’ distinctive authorial “we” is the voice of corporate sisterhood – the familiar elder-sisterly tone of women’s magazines. By the time she hit on the angle that would make her debut self-help book a runaway success, Hillis had worked her way up from writing captions in the patterns department at Vogue and was a senior writer and editor, in her late forties, and single. In the memoirs of Edna Woolman Chase, editor of Vogue until 1950, an anecdote about Hillis reveals a pragmatic character well versed in masculine vanities, and uninterested in pandering to them:

One of Marjorie’s early Vogue recollections is of the day she was supervising a sitting when the great dancer Mordkin posed before our cameras. He felt his personality would be more dynamic if he wore only a cotton fig leaf. This was all right with Marjorie, who breezed through the sitting without a qualm, but she had quite a time explaining it to the beau who came to fetch her toward the end of the afternoon and spied all that Mordkin. “I think you should remember, Marjorie,” he said coldly, “that you are a minister’s daughter.”

As the chapter “Etiquette for a Lone Female” makes it clear, this minister’s daughter wasn’t afraid to take on the question of sex and the single girl – here, tactfully phrased as “How late is it proper for a woman living alone to entertain a man friend, and how can she get him to go at the correct time?” Her answer is radical in its way, suggesting that it depends on who you’re asking – “your Aunt Hattie,” “the girl on the floor below,” and “propriety” all have their convictions, but what really matters is what time you, the hostess, want your guest gone. If you want a man to “stay long enough to take the milk in” you might offend some people, but the idea is dismissed with a shrug. That’s between you and your milkman. Oh, and “There is little danger that you will have to call the lift man or open the window and scream. It may happen, but don’t get your hopes up. You have to be pretty fascinating.” Here and elsewhere, Hillis has little patience for fantasies and fairy tales, for stories invented to scare women into staying home or delude them into romantic uselessness. Amid the frivolity, there is a serious core to these books – a prerequisite of living well is being honest and realistic about yourself and the world you live in.

That frivolity, though, is first-class. For anyone with retro tastes in fashion, food, or design, the book and its illustrations (by Cipé Pineles, a graphic designer who worked for Condé Nast and became, atGlamour, the first female art director of an American magazine) are a delight. And what reader doesn’t need a lesson or two about her evening toilette? For the curious:

of course, you’ll need négligées – at least two, one warm and one thin, and many more as you can afford …And don’t think that four bed-jackets are too many if you belong to the breakfast-in-bed school. A warm comfortable one for everyday use and warm grand one for special occasions. A sheer cool one for summer mornings, and a lacy affair to dress up in.

Be in no doubt that being “of the breakfast-in-bed school,” and dressing up to belong to it, are vocally encouraged – it’s “one of the major delights of living.” However, I’m ashamed to report that even after owning this book for a year, my bed-jacket quota is still at zero.

At the sad moment when she finally does have to get out of bed, the reader is spurred on with promises of one-woman tinned dinners and the slightly equivocal reassurance that “though you may have no maid and are definitely anti-domestic, things are not hopeless.” Specific recipes for corned-beef hash, baked mushrooms and green turtle soup are airily delegated to other books and magazines – food clearly comes after drink, both in the chapter placement and the author’s interest. But in chapter nine, “A Lady and her Liquor,” the rules for cocktail hour, and the recipes for the drinks, are laid down with a will of iron. Be warned that “worse, even, than the woman who put marshmallows in a salad is the one who goes in for fancy cocktails.” Learn to pour Scotch over ice and mix Martinis, Old Fashioneds, and Manhattans, and “do not try to improve on them. You can’t.”

Outside the home, the books enthusiastically endorse activity, exploration, and a spirit of adventure, and condemn “repining” and helplessness as the cardinal sins. Live Alone and Like It, accordingly, offers a three-page list of “have yous” for the Londoner, cajoling single ladies to activity: “Have you walked a cross London Bridge on a cool summer night, or across Westminster Bridge in the autumn when the Embankment lights are brilliant red and yellow? Have you visited the great markets in the very early morning and seen the carts of green and yellow vegetables, and god and scarlet fruits, and the stalls of various foods and drinks of every nation? Have you been to a prize-fight?” (No, Marjorie, but I’ll go if you take me.) New in town and don’t have any friends? Well, “put your hat on at once and go out and start making them” – at “women’s organizations, political clubs, churches, YWCAs, poetry groups, bridge lessons, musical circles, skating clubs, riding-classes, university extension lectures, and what-not.” Whatever the “what-not” is that inspires you, the lesson is to use the resources of your community to find an identity beyond your job, your family, or (especially) your single status. “Be a Communist, a stamp collector, or a welfare worker if you must, but for heaven’s sake, be something.” Yet the picture Hillis paints of the sprightly and ingenious “live-aloner” offers an appealing identity in itself – I suspect readers then and now don’t want to be stamp collectors but want to be like Marjorie Hillis, confidently flitting through identities and experiences with a bon mot and a wink, all the while guarding her independence fiercely.

Those readers were therefore shocked when, on August 1, 1939, the 49-year-old Hillis married Thomas Roulston, a wealthy supermarket magnate several years her senior, and set up home with him in Huntington, Long Island. Newspapers relished the opportunity to trumpet Hillis’s betrayal of the phrase that had made her name, although from the first line – “This book is no brief in favour of living alone” –Live Alone and Like It makes it clear that “solitary refinement” should ideally be a temporary state. Its author certainly never suggests that solitude is better than companionship, or that renouncing love is heroic – in amongst the “Miss As” and “Mrs. Cs” whose stories illustrate the moral lessons of the book are plenty who end up, like the woman who has her admirer fix up her shelves, happily married – “thereby putting Miss. W. out of this book.” Hillis does not preach solitude as an end in itself – the virtue of independence lies in “liking it,” or developing the ingenuity, gumption, and self-confidence that it takes to really enjoy one’s own company. Accordingly, her writings after Orchids on Your Budgetdiversified to celebrate other pleasures: Corned Beef and Caviar for the Live-Aloner appears to be the cookbook that Live Alone had earlier promised (or threatened), while New York Fair or No Fair was a commissioned travel guide for women to the 1939 World’s Fair.

Marjorie Hillis Roulston was married only ten years before her husband passed away. She sold the house in Long Island and returned to the city, turning her attention to advice books for women whose prospects and pleasures were routinely ignored by the magazines she had worked for in the past:You Can Start All Over (1951), aimed at widows, and Keep Going and Like It: A Guide to the Sixties and Onward and Upward, published in 1967. Hillis died shortly afterward of a stroke at the age of 82. One can’t help but hope that her end was painless and sudden, and that she enjoyed a civilized breakfast in bed right up to it.

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