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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Book review: Biography of 'Live-Aloner' author Marjorie Hillis is a fascinating account of women’s empowerment

Hillis wrote Live Alone and Like It in the spirit of the anticipation of a bright future for fellow bachelorettes, and as those initial sales figures suggest, she was boldly leading a vanguard of young women into a self-reliant, judgment-free future

‘Live Alone and Like It: The Classic Guide for the Single Woman’ (1936), inspired a generation of independent women, like Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in Sex in the City. Getty
‘Live Alone and Like It: The Classic Guide for the Single Woman’ (1936), inspired a generation of independent women, like Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in Sex in the City. Getty

In the United States, in 1936, Marjorie Hillis’s Live Alone and Like It: The Classic Guide for the Single Woman became an unlikely success. Published in July, it raced up the bestseller lists – more than 16,000 copies sold in August, 19,000 in September, and an astonishing 22,366 in October.

Hillis was in her mid-40s and had spent nearly 30 years working at Vogue – hired as a caption writer back in 1907, she had risen up the ranks to associate editor – and she lived alone in an apartment in the desirable Tudor City complex in Manhattan’s Midtown.

Despite the independence she had secured for herself (she hailed from a comfortable if conservative Brooklyn family, her father was a preacher and her mother a homemaker), Hillis wasn’t exactly an ardent feminist, nor was Live Alone and Like It a manifesto advocating solitary living, but rather a practical (albeit it for the relatively privileged) “how (best) to” guide.

“This book is no brief in favour of living alone,” reads the opening line. “Five out of ten people of the people who do so can’t help themselves, and at least three of the others are irritatingly selfish. But the chances are that at some time in your life, possibly only now and then between husbands, you will find yourself settling down to a solitary existence.”

Instead, it’s an etiquette guide-meets-self-help book, written with a delightful bounce and absence of self-pity. As Joanna Scutts explains in her fabulous new book, The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It, Hillis’s “Live-Aloners” are a breed of elegant, resourceful, intelligent women of the kind an earlier generation would have described as possessing gumption in spades.

Scutts’s book, written with an enticing no-nonsense clarity that is reminiscent of Hillis’s original, acts as both a biography of Hillis and paints a fascinating portrait of the cultural context surrounding her work. Live Alone and Like It was the first in a series of seven books, the last of which, published three decades later, was called Keep Going and Like It: A Guide to the Sixties and Onward and Upward. None were quite as popular as the first, which, Scutts tells us, was a “cultural phenomenon, with a life that reached well beyond its pages”.

Hillis shone in her very public role as “the exemplary Live-Aloner, enjoying her privacy and solitude amid the glamour and excitement of New York City”, and this, combined with high-profile readers – the likes of Margaret Fishback, the highest paid female advertising copywriter of the 1930s (she worked at Macy’s department store), poet and general girl about town; and the prolific and hugely popular journalist and columnist Dorothy Dix – and great reviews, and innovative department store-based advertising campaigns, all ensured the book’s impressive sales figures.

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Hillis typified the glamorous, independent Live-Aloner of the Depression era. These women were a lot more down to earth than the giddy Flappers of the Jazz-stepped 1920s, but they still had more time for fripperies – whether that was the indulgence of breakfast in bed while wearing a beautiful negligee, fresh flowers around one’s home, or a diverting hobby, all of which Hillis highly recommends – than the can-do Rosie the Riveter types of the 1940s when the Second World War pushed women out of the home and into the workplace, not to mention left many of them without men in their lives for the duration of the conflict.

The post-war years of the 1950s, Scutts explains, were harder for Hillis and her kind since this was the decade of suburban cliché and a return to almost Victorian family values and traditions. Then, in the earliest wave of the feminist revolution that began gathering force in the 1960s, although the fundamentals underlying Hillis’s philosophy were more relevant than ever before, her particular approach seemed a little dated compared to that of soon-to-be editor of Cosmopolitan magazine Helen Gurley Brown’s popular Sex and the Single Girl.

That said, as Scutts reminds us, “Feminist writers and icons like Mary McCarthy and Betty Friedan had come of age during the 1930s and knew that life for single women had once looked both satisfying and thrilling.”

This, of course, is one of the reasons why Scutts’s book makes for such fascinating reading today. Not only is it a well-researched account of 30-odd years of social change surrounding the figure of the single woman in the history of the United States – among these pages, Hillis is joined by an exciting array of equally forward-thinking characters, all of whom together paved the way for women today – it’s also a reminder of how little progress has actually been made.

Hillis wrote Live Alone and Like It in the spirit of the anticipation of a bright future for fellow bachelorettes, and as those initial sales figures suggest, she was boldly leading a vanguard of young women into a self-reliant, judgment-free future. We know now, of course, the path ahead of them wasn’t exactly impediment-free.

Even today, a single woman of a certain age is often looked upon with a mixture of suspicion and pity. All the same, it’s true that the iconic single women of today, whether it’s acknowledged or not, follow in Hillis’s footsteps: “Carrie Bradshaw, Bridget Jones, the girls of Girls, and all their real-life counterparts owe an unspoken debt to Marjorie Hillis.”

Hillis did marry – in 1939, the year before her 50th birthday, to a wealthy widower 10 years her senior – something she was roundly criticised for.

Tellingly, she didn’t write anything during their years together, but when he passed away, only 10 years later, her response was her movingly titled penultimate volume: You Can Start All Over: A Guide for the Widow and Divorcee.

Scutts puts it best when she says that Hillis’s “smart and witty books – and the life on which they were based – lit a path through the middle of the 20th century for women who didn’t think they could ‘have it all’, but understood that having anything at all depended on being able to make their own choices”.