8. Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis

TITLE: Live Alone and Like It
AUTHOR: Marjorie Hillis
PUBLISHED: Originally published by Bobbs-Merrill Company in 1936; republished by 5 Spot with a preface by Laurie Graff in 2008
PAGE COUNT: 161 pages (including Graff’s preface), excluding About Author and Five Women Who Lived Alone and Liked It pages
READING TIME: 2 days

livealoneMary Tyler Moore celebrated her 80th birthday a few days ago. While her first big break came playing housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, she later starred in her own sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which launched her as a feminist icon. Mary Richards, portrayed by Ms. Moore, was a thirty-something woman who moved to Minneapolis after splitting with her boyfriend. She worked as an associate producer for the evening news at WJM-TV, lived alone in a studio apartment, and was even openly on the pill. The show aired from 1970-1977, and it changed the face of TV–never before was an independent woman’s career the focus of a television program.

I mention Mary Richards because 1.) I loved watching reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show growing up, even if I was too young to fully grasp its significance, and 2.) the 2008 reprint of Marjorie Hillis’s Live Alone and Like It includes a list of “Five Women Who Lived Alone and Liked It” in the back. Mary Richards is listed as number one, and she’s among good company–Coco Chanel, Murphy Brown, Louise Brooks, and Greta Garbo, who is famously attached to the phrase “I want to be alone.”

Hillis’s guidebook for the single woman, or “Extra Woman” as the subtitle of the 1936 publication referred to them, lists several women in each chapter who either heeded or did not heed Ms. Hillis’s advice and what happened to them as a result. The women aren’t named–she refers to them as Mrs. O. or Miss P.–and it isn’t clear how she knows them. In this way, Live Alone and Like It is a case study, providing evidence that its shared wisdom is essential for living the life of a single woman to the fullest.

First, what is a single woman? The book wasn’t meant to only provide guidance to twenty-something, career-driven, no steady boyfriend-having women like myself. It was 1936 so, yes, the book has a certain race and class of single woman in mind, but as far as singleness goes, Hillis writes for a spectrum: widows, divorcees, twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, forty-somethings & up, working women. If we go by Frank Crowninshield’s introduction to the book, there are three types of single woman:

  1. “There are solitary women (new-fashioned girls, subsisting mainly on old-fashioned cocktails) who seem only to appear at bar openings, drinking parties, and the popular night clubs, and whose solitude is undoubtedly dedicated to sobering up.”
  2. “There are women who hope to disperse their melancholy by inviting wary males to dinner at little tea shops and feeding them dainty repasts chiefly composed of diced watermelon, the lesser vegetables, like the lettuce and the watercress (with a very thin mayonnaise), a prune whip and a yellow peppermint to top off with.”
  3. “Then, finally, there are the women who really like to be alone.”

By this account, most women don’t live alone by choice, which is what makes this guidebook still relevant today. In Laurie Graff’s 2008 preface she notes, ” a woman living alone in today’s society may be routine, but most often her status is viewed as temporary, until she meets a man to marry.” The trend, after all, is that more and more women are delaying marriage to focus on other things, not that more and more women are uninterested in getting married. But no matter why a woman’s single, living alone for whatever period of time is a choice–a woman in her twenties could have roommates if she wanted, a recently divorced woman could immediately jump into a new relationship.

Ms. Hillis’s book is “no brief in favor of being alone,” but at least once, if not permanently, a woman will most likely find herself leading a solitary existence. Hillis was a Vogue editor and wrote several other non-fiction books for women. She also remained single until the age of 50, when she decided to settle down with a widower who owned a chain of grocery stores in Brooklyn, NY. The advice in this book is a bit dated, but I like to think it was written in a tongue-in-cheek manner, at least that’s how I read it. Her writing style is quite witty.

I love vintage books on manners and etiquette, and after reading a profile of Live Alone and Like It in a magazine a few months ago, I ordered it on Amazon right away. It didn’t disappoint. The book’s divided into 12 chapters on topics like “Etiquette for a Lone Female,” “Pleasures of a Single Bed,” and “A Lady and Her Liquor” (my personal favorite). A few of the chapters are written Q&A style, where Hillis answers what I gather were frequently asked questions by single women in 1936, but most of the chapters just provide advice on a particular topic and a list of “Cases” at the end–these are women who followed or failed to follow the advice.

My favorite Q&A from the section “Etiquette for a Lone Female” is all about men, pajamas, and sex:

Question: Is it permissible for a youngish unchaperoned woman living alone to wear pajamas when a gentleman calls?

‘…Assuming that she knows one pajama from another, it is entirely permissible. There are, however, sleeping pajamas, beach pajamas, lounging pajamas, and hostess pajamas. The first two are not designed to wear when receiving anybody, masculine or feminine.’

I wasn’t aware a woman should have so many different pairs of pajamas. I’m not even sure I know how to distinguish between them. I suppose that’s why we can all use a little advice from a graduate of Miss Dana’s School for Young Ladies.

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