Marjorie Hillis’s 1930s self-help bestseller, which celebrated women’s happiness, met a strange fate in England.
In the summer of 1936, a middle-aged Vogue editor named Marjorie Hillis became a publishing sensation, with a witty self-help book called Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman. When it landed in my lap about ten years ago, a gift from my oldest friend, I immediately wanted to know where it had been all my single life. Although I was finishing up a PhD in literature, I’d never even heard of this author, whose snappy voice and sound advice I couldn’t get out of my head. Several years into the Depression, the market was saturated with self-help books, but Hillis’s had an unusual feminist twist: It centered and celebrated women’s happiness even if they weren’t wives or mothers. A single woman, Marjorie Hillis said, had a right—no, a duty—to be as glamorous, curious, and adventurous as possible, no matter her age or circumstances.
By the end of the year, Hillis had sold more than 100,000 copies of her book, landed a syndicated column, quit her job, and embarked on a sequel.
In December, she sailed for London to launch the British edition, which swapped out references to New York landmarks like Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum for Regent’s Park and the National Gallery. But almost as soon as she disembarked, a royal scandal erupted. On the morning of December 10, King Edward VIII announced that he would abdicate, after less than a year on the throne. His reason caused a powerful aftershock: He was in love with a woman the government would not allow him to marry.
The king’s affair with the American divorcée Wallis Simpson was an open secret in upper-class circles, but the British press had been sworn to secrecy. American newspapers, however, were under no such restrictions, and eagerly pursued every salacious detail about the woman who might be queen. During the summer and fall of 1936, as Marjorie Hillis promoted her paean to women’s independence across America, she was repeatedly asked to comment on Mrs. Simpson’s morals and her marriage prospects. Hillis was perfectly sanguine about divorce as a solution to marital unhappiness, but begged interviewers to ask about anything else—her own love life, or even her grandmother’s—rather than pressing her to weigh in on the scandal.
But in England, that December, the subject couldn’t be discreetly ignored. Hillis’s British publishers reported apologetically that Live Alone and Like It had been thoroughly “swallowed up” by the abdication crisis. More than that: It had become scandalous by association. An outspoken, independent, American woman had rocked the English establishment to its foundations. It was hardly a conducive atmosphere in which to launch a socially subversive book by an outspoken, independent, American woman.
By the time the crisis died down, the book’s sales were respectable, but modest—only a fraction of their American numbers. Marjorie Hillis, and her ideas, were the product of a culture that felt both distant and decadent. The idea of single women meeting up for “wining and dining” struck a writer for the Yorkshire Evening Post as faintly shocking, while the “American luxury flat” where a woman like Hillis could live alone in style, was the kind of place most British women would only have glimpsed in a Hollywood movie.
Elsewhere in Europe, the book’s reception was colder still, and it was turned down flat in Italy and Nazi Germany. “The status of the ‘bachelor woman’ in the different European countries is so far behind that in America that it is likely to shock rather than attract the majority of conservative publishers,” reported Hillis’s British agent in early 1937. A Czech edition of Live Alone was sold that spring, but it was a last gasp. Within the year, Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia.
In the summer of 1939, as war loomed in Europe, Marjorie Hillis shocked her readers and the press when she announced her engagement to a wealthy widower, Thomas H. Roulston. She took her phone off the hook as reporters besieged her, demanding to know if her whole message was a scam. (The Chicago Tribune ran her photograph under the blunt headline “Didn’t Like It.”) Even the British press took notice, speculating that perhaps Hillis’s next book might be called “How to live with a husband and like him.”
It’s impossible to predict the social and political climate into which your book will be released, still less whether a scandal will swallow it whole. When I first discovered Marjorie Hillis’s Depression-era books, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, I thought I was researching a book about women and money. I wasn’t sure if her optimistic brand of self-help, emphasizing pleasure and luxury, and downplayed inequality, was really a radical philosophy. But still, that phrase in the subtitle of Live Alone—the extra woman—nagged at me, with its implication that a woman without a man is simply surplus to society’s requirements. Eventually, I reclaimed the phrase as the title of my own book, The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It—the story of Hillis’s life and work that I wanted to read when I first discovered her. At first, I didn’t think that a woman’s right to exist in the world on her own terms—to “choose the kind of life you want and then make it for yourself,” as she put it—was seriously open to question. But when my book came out in November 2017, amid the first wave of #MeToo and a year after Trump’s election, feminist history had taken on a new urgency, and the story of women laying claim to their own independence felt more radical than ever.
Joanna Scutts is a cultural critic and historian, and the author of Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism and The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It. A current board member of the National Book Critics Circle, her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, The New Republic, The New Yorker online, and many other venues. She holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, and has taught classes in literature and writing at Columbia, Barnard, and NYU.