A Woman of Her Time: An interview with Joanna Scutts

Today on Gotham, editor Nick Juravich sits down with Joanna Scutts to discuss her new book, The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like it.

(Joanna recently moderated a panel at the New-York Historical Society with Lauren Elkin about her book on the history of female walkers in the city; our Tuesday interview.)

The first and most obvious question we ask is always "how did you come to write this book?" You discuss this in the text, of course, so feel free to recap, re-hash, or re-word however you like!

The answer to that is really one of those writerly clichés — I wrote the book I wanted to read. An old friend gave me a copy of Marjorie Hillis’s first book, Live Alone and Like It, several years ago — it was just after my father had died suddenly, so partly for that reason, and partly for the book’s own sake, I responded really powerfully to it, and wanted to find out whatever I could about the author. But not only was there no biography, there wasn’t even a Wikipedia page, so I had very little to go on. And that absence sparked my curiosity all over again. The other thing at play was that I was deep into my dissertation research, so this was light relief, or perhaps just an elaborate form of procrastination.

As historians, we're keen on process questions (which also appear, delightfully, in your introduction). How did you go about researching the book? Where did the research take you? What did you find along the way that surprised you?

It was very haphazard! I’m not trained as a historian, and I’d only done a little archival work during my graduate studies in literature. So I was piecing it together. I found out that Marjorie HIllis’s father was a prominent preacher in Brooklyn around the turn of the century, so I used archives at the Brooklyn Historical Society to research his life. My main source, though, was Marjorie Hillis’s publisher’s archive, at the University of Indiana library. They gave me a research grant and I remember sitting in a hotel room in Bloomington — this was long before I had a book deal or even an agent, I think — and thinking, “what on earth am I doing here?” But somehow I was compelled to keep digging in these places for anything I could find.

The biggest surprise along the way was finding out that after making her name as the most famous single woman on the planet, while she was in her late forties, Marjorie Hillis got married, in 1939, and the snarky headlines were just what you’d expect to see today.

A related question: was there anything along the way that got left out of the final book? Something you found that you might come back to in future writing?

I definitely didn’t end up writing as much about Marjorie’s parents as I could have — as the book took shape, it became more of a story about her books and their wider cultural impact than about her personal life. But Reverend Hillis was a fascinating guy and a real product of his time, a child of the rural Midwest whose family were farmers and teachers, who moved to Chicago and then to New York just after it had absorbed the city of Brooklyn. He was a wealthy and successful public figure, as religious leaders could be at the time, a friend of Teddy Roosevelt’s and a huge campaigner for America to enter World War I. Also a fierce eugenicist, which is another story that I don’t think has been explored enough in popular history or understood for how pervasive it was in the early twentieth century.

On to content... Marjorie Hillis was born in Brooklyn, and her story is a New York story in many ways. To be exceptionalist, how important was the city to her and her work? At one level, perhaps, this is a dull questionher life was here, and thus NYC was important to everything. But how much was her independence and her status as an "extra woman" or "live-aloner" more or less scrutinized, or even possible, in New York City, as opposed to other cities or places?

Oh, New York was crucial to her. Specifically Manhattan. She grew up in Brooklyn Heights, near her father’s church, arriving there with her family from Chicago when she was ten years old, and she remembered it as a staid, sleepy sort of place, not really the city. She worked at Vogue magazine for many years, which was headquartered in the Greybar Building next to Grand Central, and after her parents died she moved to Tudor City, on the east side of Manhattan, a fairly new development that was walking distance to her office. She loved the city, which in the '20s and '30s saw an influx of young working women, and it’s true that the “Live Alone” lifestyle she champions requires a certain freedom from family and social surveillance that was much easier to achieve in cities. New York was not the only place — her books have “case studies” from all over the country — but it really lays the pattern for that kind of independent life. As it continues to do.

I got a kick out of the idea, in your introduction, that there was a British "translation" of Live Alone and Like It. Were there "San Francisco" or "Chicago" translations? Or, for that matter, actual translations? There seems to be an element of urbanity to the Hillis story / vision, but is it an American / Anglo-American story, or a proto-global-city story?

This is a great question. To answer it in two sections — the New York version worked across the United States I think because in the late 1930s the neglect and abandonment of city centers (by white people with means) had not yet happened, so actually one of the most poignant things I discovered researching the book was how robust both the local press was in American cities, and also how important big department stores were. So Hillis toured the book all over the country, and department stores did events and put up window displays aimed at the Live Alone, which sold the book alongside negligees and cocktail shakers and apartment-sized furniture (I found a great photo of the Emporium in San Francisco, which is now a super glitzy mall.) And so Marjorie would visit, say, St. Louis, and not only be interviewed by women’s page editors from maybe three local papers, but there would be a fashion show at the local department store. There were obviously local differences, but those urban cores hadn’t been hollowed out at the time.

And the UK question — I just recently got back from a UK tour, and so decided to dig more deeply into the question of the global reach of the book and the way it was received. There was a British “translation” which turned, say, Central Park into Regent’s Park and Broadway into the West End, and it sold pretty well, but nothing like it did here, for a couple reasons. One is that it was describing, or promoting, a pretty glamorous and exotic life — the kind of fully staffed apartment complex where Hillis lived existed in London, in a small way, but nowhere else, really. A group of women meeting up in a restaurant and drinking alcohol would have seemed to British readers bizarre and even shocking. The other reasons it didn’t sell as well in Britain was timing — Live Alone and Like It was published in Britain in December 1936, right at the time of the abdication crisis, so first of all nobody was buying books, and secondly, with Wallis Simpson all over the news, the British public was not exactly feeling friendly towards outspoken American women of a certain age. The publishers did try to sell the book in Europe (successfully I believe in Czechoslovakia) but it was the late 1930s, and you weren’t going to get far with a book promoting women’s independence in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy.

Hillis ALSO wrote a book for the single-woman tourist to the 1939 World's Fair in New York. How did this particular book build her "brand" (to state it in a modern, somewhat crass formulation)? How was it received?

The book, “New York: Fair or No Fair” was intended to capitalize on the World’s Fair in 1939, although actually it only has a few pages about the fair, and is mostly a general guide to shopping, dining, hotels, and so on, aimed at single women visitors to the city. It was a pretty big success, and a return to form that made Hillis’s publishers very happy. Her previous book had been a poetry collection — really a book of linked stories in verse — about seven female friends in New York, which is an interesting and much darker take on the “Live Alone” lifestyle. So yes, the New York book fit much better with the brand she’d established with her earlier three Live Alone books — the first one, then “Orchids on Your Budget,” which is about personal finance, and “Corned Beef and Caviar for the Live-Aloner” which is a co-authored book of (somewhat terrifying) recipes, menus, and entertaining tips.

Hillis was a bestseller in her today, but largely forgotten before The Extra Woman. What accounts for this? (Hillis DOES, now, have a Wikipedia page, albeit a short one, and all of its external references are to your work).

My crusade is working! Some people have suggested that she was forgotten because she was ahead of her time, but it’s not that, exactly — she was very much of her time. I think the bigger issue is that we’ve forgotten the 1930s. We’ve forgotten how many gains women made in the workforce and in public life between the wars, and into World War II, and how vicious the postwar backlash was. I drew heavily on Elaine Tyler May’s work about the 1950s, and I’m convinced that the project of that decade was really to wipe away the memories of women’s prewar independence. You look at Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and much of it is a media history — she’s reading women’s magazines from the '30s and '40s with all these stories about working women, and essentially asking, what happened? How did all this get shoved into the memory hole? And I think Hillis might have been a part of that. I think she’s a wonderfully sharp and funny writer, and she was compared to Dorothy Parker quite a bit in her day, but her books aren’t literary, so they didn’t really get elevated to canonical status. But then again (as you well know!) the problem with women authors is that usually there’s only room for one. It’s kind of Woolf or nothing in that era. So someone like Dawn Powell, a hugely popular and highly respected '30s author, who at one point had a joint book party with Marjorie Hillis, is also well forgotten. There are so many. And there is work being done to bring them back, but there’s so much more to do.

New York City has been, and remains, a place where women live alone, and where stories about women living alone are told (Sex and the City, Girls, etc). What would Marjorie Hillis think of the contemporary lives of New York women? Do her recommendations still hold up?

I think there’s a lot that holds up, but the city is so expensive now that her single-lady apartment dream is out of reach for a lot of people. She thought it was a better trade-off to find an out-of-the-way apartment alone rather than live with roommates, but today I’m not sure how far out you’d have to go to afford that if you’re in, say, an entry-level role at a magazine. But even if the logistics are harder today, a lot of her general principles hold up, I think. Mostly that it’s up to you to decide what kind of life you want, and up to you to do what you can to get it, even — especially — if it’s not what your family or friends think you should want. That’s really at the core of her message throughout the books: make your own choices. And don’t be afraid to go after the things that give you pleasure. Everyone has a right to pleasure and happiness, no matter what their romantic circumstances.