“Gentlemen for Rent”
Cities like New York have a way of coming up with solutions—skyscrapers, doormen, take-out coffee, laundry delivery, human rickshaws—to problems that they create themselves. In the late nineteen-thirties, as the city was gearing up to show off its forward-looking technological ingenuity at the World’s Fair, a problem that it hadn’t solved was what to do about unaccompanied women—both those who lived and worked in the city and those who would be visiting to stroll through the “World of Tomorrow.” At the time, single women enjoyed an unprecedented level of freedom and autonomy to go to work, live alone, and even—in the words of their soi-disant guru, a self-help writer named Marjorie Hillis—to like it. But, to really enjoy the city’s post-Prohibition night life, a see-and-be-seen matter, women needed men. Single female non-celebrities were turned away from the lounge of the New Yorker hotel, even if they were paying guests, and “hen parties” attracted horrified disdain from the guardians of glamour. Women could meet their female friends in dull, obscure restaurants, but they couldn’t hunt in “Sex and the City”-style packs. So what was a single girl to do when the best tables were behind closed doors? Nobody who visited the city in 1939 was really there just for the museums, the Trylon, and the Perisphere. They were there for the Stork Club and the Mirador, the Cotton Club and the Savoy, for midtown café society and uptown jazz adventures. They had money to spend, and yet an absurd combination of convention, prejudice, faux concern, and fear kept them from where they most wanted to be. And, of course, it would take an entrepreneur to solve the problem.