On Saturday, August 1, 1936, the woman who was poised to become the Depression-era guru of the smart single girl was alone in her midtown Manhattan apartment, preparing to celebrate the release, and the early glowing reviews, of her first book. The following day, the New York Times would sound a note that would soon become familiar, calling it “amusing, sensible, worldly wise and very practical”—not gushing words, perhaps, but perfectly suited to both the book and its author, a plain, good-humored magazine editor in her midforties, who would soon be America’s most famous “bachelor girl.” But this description won’t quite do, still less the sour-sounding “spinster.” The best word for who and what she was is the one she coined herself: “Live-Aloner.” It explains her by the choices she made, not the husband she happened to lack. It was a status that depended on equal parts knowledge, pluck, willpower, and self-indulgence—all of which she would share with readers in her book: the bluntly titled, wildly popular self-help manual Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman.
For a celebratory occasion like this Saturday night, a single lady needed rituals. First came a long soak in the bathtub, and with it the habitual prayer of thanks that she wasn’t at that moment being jostled onto a train at Grand Central Station by commuters bound for the suburbs. After the bath came whatever lotions and perfumes she most loved, whether they were gifts from admirers or treats she’d bought herself. Then, wrapped in a summer-weight negligee (single women ought to own at least two, to be changed with the seasons), she might pour a glass of sherry or shake up a cocktail from the small stash of liquor she kept on a pantry shelf—something her teetotal parents would never have done, but which was now not only acceptable but a marker of a single woman’s sophistication. With glass in hand, she could apply her makeup—another formerly scandalous practice, now perfectly commonplace—and choose what to wear for her evening out.
Marjorie Hillis had never been a beauty, especially not in the wide-eyed, china-doll style that was popular when she was growing up in the first decades of the twentieth century. But by the age of forty-five she had grown into her height and strong features, and knew how to command a room. Working for more than twenty years on the staff of Vogue magazine, rising from caption writer to associate editor, had taught her how to dress and set her dark hair in flattering and fashionable finger waves. Although she could afford to shop at the best department stores in town, with money she both earned and inherited, she was no spendthrift. Instead, she invested thoughtfully in well-made clothes, making sure they coordinated with what she already owned, and taking care of them diligently so they would last. This philosophy had implications far beyond her wardrobe. Happiness, she believed, lay in making one’s own careful choices about everything from what to wear, to where and how to live. And now, in a slim little greenish-gold jewel of a book, she was going to share those lessons of glamorous independence with single women everywhere.
The shiny cover of Live Alone and Like It was deliberately enticing and slyly misleading. It depicted a series of bellhops in matching red uniforms marching to the Live-Aloner’s door, bearing flowers, gifts, and invitations, suggesting that the ultimate goal of her solitary lifestyle was romantic attention from men—and plenty of it. In his introduction to the book, the irreverent Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield played up this idea, suggesting that the truly successful Live-Aloner was just playing hard to get. Like medieval nuns, he wrote, self-reliant single ladies “would soon find suitors playing the guitar under their windows … placing ladders against the walls, sending them amulets by the Mother Superior.” But Marjorie Hillis’s model of the Live-Aloner was far more proactive than this cloistered sister. She made her own choices, mixed her own cocktails, and enjoyed the company of men without feeling any desperation to land one for life. She might spend her evenings in thrall to the adventures of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, another brand-new best seller in 1936, but she had no intention of behaving like the swooning heroine of romantic fiction.
Live Alone and Like It announced in its first sentence that it was “no brief in favor of living alone.” Marjorie was not here to argue that a solo state was preferable to any other arrangement, but rather that it was quite likely, “even if only now and then between husbands.” A woman could be plunged by death or divorce, as much as by choice, into what the book called “solitary refinement,” and in these circumstances the challenge—and the necessity—of learning to make the best of it was more important than ever. Although marketers and reviewers preferred to focus on the lighter, sexier model of the Live-Aloner, a stylish young woman having too much fun to settle for marriage just yet, the author herself never lost sight of those who were single against their will, nor of how quickly the sands could shift under a person’s feet. Conventional wisdom still held that marriage meant security—but then again, people had believed the same thing about the stock market before the crash.
By the mid-1930s, the Depression had dragged on for so long that its conditions had begun to look like the new normal. FDR’s government tried everything it could to jump-start the economy, but although the New Deal had plenty of individual success stories, the mood of the country as a whole proved harder to shift. Into this sputtering recovery came a crowd of self-appointed sages and a library of self-help books, which brought their readers psychological comfort, even if their formulas for success were questionable at best. The immediate best seller among these was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936 and like most of its peers, addressed primarily to white-collar men— aspiring salesmen, struggling clerks, and middle managers—to whom the books promised to divulge the secrets of the conquering corporate heroes, millionaires, executives, and captains of industry. In a relentless fantasia of optimism that refused to acknowledge the power of the economy at large, these books encouraged men to look inward in order to generate success for themselves—and couldn’t help but cruelly imply that those who failed had only themselves, not circumstance, to blame. Few addressed themselves directly to a female reader, and fewer still to those who lacked the husband and family that were supposed to make her happy.
Marjorie Hillis, too, believed in the power of positive thinking, but she also demanded that her reader face the reality of her circumstances. The path from “extra woman” to “Live-Aloner” took guts, and it began with throwing off the disparaging nicknames and grudging charity that single women were used to enduring. It meant rejecting the drummed-in lesson of a lifetime, that a woman’s true purpose was self-sacrifice to the happiness of others. In this new independent light, Marjorie promised, the Live-Aloner could base the major decisions of her life on her own needs and desires—living where she wanted to, not wherever was most convenient for her relatives. Her book is full of anonymous case studies of women who leave behind suffocating hometowns and husbands for a fresh start, and it’s easy to imagine the thrill that these stories of freedom must have offered to readers. It could never be as easy as the book made it sound, to start a life over alone, but Marjorie wrote with such confidence and passion about the value of independence that it was obvious she was speaking from experience. She knew what it was to feel domestically trapped, and she knew what it took to break free.
Joanna Scutts is the inaugural Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society and a contributor to the New Republic, the Guardian, and other publications. She lives in New York.
Excerpted from The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It by Joanna Scutts. Copyright © 2018 by Joanna Scutts. Published with permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.