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The Dark Side of the Jazz Age

On Ursula Parrott’s life and work

Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott. McNally Editions, 232 pages. 2023 [1929].

Becoming the Ex-Wife: The Unconventional Life & Forgotten Writings of Ursula Parrott by Marsha Gordon. University of California Press, 312 pages. 2023.

The writer Ursula Parrott once remarked that “melodramatic [is] just a word men use to describe any agony that might otherwise make them feel uncomfortable.” It’s an observation that her newly reissued novel, Ex-Wife, animates in its scenes of marital break-up, thwarted romance, and domestic and sexual violence. Narrated by Patricia, a fashion copywriter living in New York in the 1920s, Ex-Wife charts the slow dissolution of her first marriage, her ensuing entanglements with callous men, and her friendships with other single women. Caught between Victorian sexual mores and the libertinism of interwar Greenwich Village, Patricia brings a gimlet eye to the pervasive misogyny and sexual hypocrisies of her generation.

In perhaps the most obvious example, Patricia reveals that her “theoretically modern young husband,” Peter, asked for a divorce because, after he slept with another woman, she slept with another man. Though they shared “theories about the right to experiment and the desirability of varied experience,” Peter can only respond, “And I always thought you were the cleanest person in the world” after she tells him of her infidelity. His wish for a “clean” woman and subsequent fetishization of her “pure” friend Hilda while carousing and having dalliances with women himself encapsulates the dull and familiar double standards underlying this supposedly freer age.

As we discover in Marsha Gordon’s rigorous new biography of Parrott, Becoming the Ex-Wife, these events mirrored those of Parrott’s own first marriage, to the journalist Lindesay Parrott. But Lindesay took his revenge on Parrott in a way not recorded in Ex-Wife: he blackballed her with seemingly every newspaper in New York City, where she hoped to work. After numerous humiliating interviews with editors primed by her husband to reject her applications, she ended up taking fashion copywriter jobs to make ends meet, eventually becoming a publicity director for Bedell’s department stores. This was the second time Parrott’s chosen career path had been blocked by a man in her life, the first being when her father refused to allow her to train to become an obstetrician, deeming it improper for a woman.

Private domestic spaces house some of the most disturbing events in Ex-Wife, which take on a quality of gothic horror.

While Gordon’s biography demonstrates how male social networks helped to enforce the gendered division of writing jobs and often excluded women from consideration for positions outside the society and fashion pages, Ex-Wife chronicles the thrumming male hostility and gender-based violence that women of the early twentieth century faced. Though the central couple separate, they continue sleeping together, and Peter begins physically abusing Patricia in a series of escalating episodes that she recounts in staccato sentences evoking her own dissociation: “He did not kill me. He just picked me up and threw me through the glass door of the breakfast room. Then he went out.”

The detail of Peter throwing Patricia through the door of “the breakfast room” reveals the space as that of a striving young professional’s Manhattan apartment, where a line from a real estate listing now describes a violent crime scene. Private domestic spaces house some of the most disturbing events in Ex-Wife, which take on a quality of gothic horror, intensified rather than reduced by Patricia’s ostensibly dispassionate recounting. Her blasé tone reinforces a sense of the dailiness of such male violence. As Patricia notes, “the first time I had wandered about with a bruise on my mouth, it did something rather permanent to my soul, or whatever I had like a soul. After that, I just jested about falling against a table in the dark.” Later in the novel, a male acquaintance of Patricia’s lures her to his friend’s apartment, only to leave in the middle of the night and enable the other man to rape her. It transpires that an acquaintance raped Parrott in similar circumstances. As Gordon’s biography unearths, Parrott wrote that the men “thought their attack ‘ever so funny’”; afterward, she was suicidal. Their chilling merriment is not included in Ex-Wife, but the persistent threats young women encountered once they were deemed sexually available recur throughout the novel.

In moments of intense emotional distress—violent or otherwise—Patricia often turns her attention to objects, clothing, and furnishings. When Peter first leaves her, she contemplates slitting her wrists, but a few lines later, she remarks, “the lamp beside me was among the first modernistic ones. I remembered that Wanamaker’s had not been paid for it.” Sadness and disappointment are yoked to consumer goods, and followed by swift pursuits of new things to assuage Patricia’s unhappiness. She recounts, “once I saved five dollars a week for a year, for a rug that would be ‘nice enough to keep when we had a house.’ After Peter left, I sold the rug for forty dollars, and bought a pair of shoes and a hat with it.” Gordon notes in her biography that such calculations shaped the novelist’s life. Parrott wrote, “Every time I buy a new chair, it is to save me the trouble of thinking of chairs when I am forty and want to think only of the people in my books”—the sad irony being that Parrott would spend her vast fortune a decade before she died “destitute” in 1957, and that her late life was marked by her inability to finish any writing projects.

Despite her thwarted dreams of domestic stability, Patricia clings to clothes shopping as a way to project feminine sophistication and urbanity: her Patou dresses form a carapace against constant onslaughts of physical and verbal male abuse. Nowhere is this more pronounced than when she prepares for her abortion appointment after Peter has gotten her pregnant for a second time (she had the first child, a son, but he died soon after birth). Preparing for the illegal procedure, she remarks to herself: “Wear the Jane Regny original that the manufacturer sold me for a song and a couple of ads for Women’s Wear. Soft grey tweeds, a grey wolf collar and deep cuffs, a cream-colored blouse. Its scarlet piping matches the close fitting hat, and the shining flat purse. Brilliant scarlet and blue scarf, grey mocha gloves that matched my stockings precisely, and black lizard sports’ shoes.” In this moment of acute pressure, she lapses into fashion copy, her professional competence taking over and allowing her to create an ensemble that will dignify the situation and shore up her nerves. Of course, her unassailable appearance does nothing to protect her from humiliation at the hands of male doctors, as she notes in a glancing parenthetical after the abortion: “(. . . I would not cry in front of that disgusting doctor who made a joke about the price of pleasure.)”

Gordon’s biography again proves an enlightening companion to the novel here, in her discussion of Parrott’s own experiences of abortion. Women were implicitly expected to take on responsibility for birth control, which remained difficult to obtain and unreliable in this era. Abortion was illegal and could also be troublesome to access, but women of Parrott’s class and race could find and pay for doctors, so those in her social set often had abortions. Parrott herself had at least four over the course of her life, which left her with serious gynecological problems, including hemorrhaging. Of one of her abortions, Parrott wrote to her friend, the successful crime reporter Mildred Gilman Wohlforth, that she was in “another difficulty” which would be “resolved in a couple of days.” Gordon’s biography pairs this with terms the historian Leslie J. Reagan uncovered in her work, When Abortion Was a Crime, to reanimate the historic language of abortion used by women living in American cities in the early twentieth century: a casual, euphemistic vocabulary that made light of the procedure in a show of bravado, despite its frequent health complications.

The slim folder of correspondence that Gordon found in Wohlforth’s archives at Princeton gives a tantalizing glimpse of the kinds of exchanges Parrott had with friends. But Becoming the Ex-Wife in general is faced with the difficulty of archival lacunae when it comes to Parrott’s friendships with women: Gordon has recovered Parrott’s voice by painstakingly tracing her private letters in the archives of better-known male lovers, friends, and agents. As a result, Becoming the Ex-Wife largely revolves around Parrott’s romantic, maternal, and professional lives.

By comparison, relationships with other women take up much space in Ex-Wife, though Patricia and her roommate Lucia—a fellow divorcée—often spend their time discussing male partners and remarriage, and shy away from being emotionally demonstrative with one another. Nonetheless, Lucia shepherds Patricia through the painful weeks and months of early separation with élan. Their friendship is a source of reliable emotional support, but not necessarily of emotional honesty: it is unclear, for instance, if Patricia ever tells Lucia that she was raped. And, when the pair go for a celebratory dinner after Lucia eventually gets engaged, Patricia thinks wistfully:

I wanted to tell her that I had loved sharing an apartment with her, and that I liked her better than any woman I had ever known—but Lucia and I were inarticulate with each other about things like that. So we talked of places Lucia and Sam would visit, and things I wanted her to get me in Paris, and ate tomato en gelée, and lobster, and alligator pears [avocados]—the preposterous sort of meal women order when they are dining together.

Patricia’s friendship with Lucia offers a sense of mutual comfort and pleasure, and this relationship—along with their queer-coded friend Helena who “sneered at those of us who got involved with men; made three times as much money as Lucia and [Patricia]; was always disposed to lend it to friends who were hard up; and had a passion for reading Greek dramatists in the original”—intimates ways of living that don’t revolve around men. Yet Lucia and Patricia ultimately both take conservative stances in response to the prevailing gender hierarchy (much as Parrott herself did) and retreat into the dubious protection afforded by a husband. At one point, Lucia remarks, “the principal thing that relieving women from the dullness of domesticity did, was to relieve men from any necessity of offering stability in return for love, fidelity and so on. . . . Women used to have status, a relative security. Now they have the status of a prostitute, success while their looks hold out. If the next generation of women have any sense, they’ll dynamite the statue of Susan B. Anthony, and start a crusade for the revival of chivalry.” It’s thus no surprise when Lucia goes on to remarry, choosing a rich and dull banker whose dinner conversation consists of discussing who will float loans to meet German reparation payments.

Ex-Wife traces burgeoning anti-feminist attitudes among young upper-middle-class white women and their reactionary appeal to chivalry. Of course, this represents merely one slice of this social set. As historians Christine Stansell and Joanna Scutts have explored, Greenwich Village in this period was home to many feminists, including prominent socialist feminists—something of which Parrott herself was aware. After the breakdown of her relationship with Lindesay, she began to see the married journalist Hugh O’Connor, who was working on a book project about Greenwich Village. She exhaustively researched the history of the Village for him and spent hours each day devoted to hunting down sources. Gordon indicates that Parrott’s outward vociferous rejection of feminism sat uneasily alongside her enthusiasm for “the cigarette-smoking female intelligenzia [sic]” she discovered in her archival research, and her female characters in Ex-Wife exhibit similar instances of internalized misogyny paired awkwardly with interest in and sympathy for other women. O’Connor eventually abandoned the book on the Village, much to Parrott’s disappointment. Then again, he repeatedly disappointed her: O’Connor convinced Parrott for years that he was on the cusp of divorcing his wife, only to come up with excuses as to why the final separation could not yet happen.

Ex-Wife traces burgeoning anti-feminist attitudes among young upper-middle class white women and their reactionary appeal to chivalry.

When it was published in the late 1920s, Ex-Wife sold sensationally well and transformed Parrott’s life—she netted approximately a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money in her first royalty check—but money couldn’t solve her relationship deadlock with O’Connor. Roughly two years after selling her debut book, Parrott commented on her own life’s resemblance to an outdated novel. Angry that O’Connor kept her as his mistress without marriage or a child, even after his separation from his wife, she wrote, “such an old Victorian plot this is, after all. . . . It makes me a little sick to recognize it. The woman ‘gives her all’ to a man without marriage, and he ‘spurns’ her, finally.”

Parrott had played with just such nineteenth-century tropes in Ex-Wife’s plot. Following Patricia and Peter’s eventual divorce, Patricia gets involved with a married reporter, Noel, modeled on O’Connor. Rather than a mad wife in the attic, a sad wife from a house upstate descends on Manhattan to thwart Patricia’s post-divorce love affair. Disfigured in a drunken car accident by Noel, his wife—who Patricia calls Beatrice with Dante-inflected flair, though it’s not clear if that is her actual name or just how Patricia chooses to refer to her—wears a black mask over the left half of her face. If Bertha Mason haunted Jane Eyre as an avatar of repressed rage at male structures of power and suppressed colonial guilt, then what anxieties and repressions does Beatrice express? Patricia immediately clocks that Beatrice had “a figure that might have been good, had she chosen her clothes carefully,” instead of a dowdy tweed suit and poorly styled blonde hair. Even her voice is unsophisticated: “unformed, girlish.” Patricia is dogged by a woman who is unable to make use of her sexual capital and is wholly dependent on her estranged husband, yet because she is pregnant in wedlock, she suddenly supersedes chic and witty Patricia in the sexual marketplace.

In its latter sections, Ex-Wife also includes Orientalist plot points befitting a nineteenth-century novel: Noel and Beatrice leave together in the end on a trip to “the East,” while Patricia and her new husband embark on a round-the-world vacation. Much as a missionary trip to India is held up as a potential ending for Jane Eyre, and dispatches her would-be suitor St. John, here non-Western regions are spoken of in exoticizing terms and used as instruments to resolve white characters’ storylines. This is of a piece with the casually primitivizing language that Patricia uses to describe her trips to Harlem—she speaks of the “jungle sweat” in the dance halls of this Black neighborhood—which for her signifies a place of vice and abandon, as it did to many white New Yorkers who went “slumming” uptown in the 1920s. In more ways than one, Ex-Wife records the essentially reactionary ideas lurking in the ostensibly liberated social milieu of Jazz Age Manhattan’s young white creative professionals.

Ex-Wife shadowed Parrott’s life and career, as hugely successful debuts are apt to do. Indeed, as Gordon relates in a remarkable passage of her biography, Parrott tried to renegotiate the terms of her relationship with O’Connor following the huge financial success of the book. In February 1931 she offered to pay him a stipend of $6,000, a sum that matched his salary at the New York Times but was dwarfed by what she could charge for one magazine story thanks to her popularity. In return, she asked to live as his wife for that year and to take any pregnancies to term—at this point she had had at least two abortions, one at his request. He refused, and they separated a couple of years later. Her newly earned financial capital did little to shift the power balance of their relationship and created new tensions between them. Unsurprisingly, her abiding subject in stories and articles over the following decade lay in women’s difficulties in reconciling a professional career with romantic fulfillment.

Parrott went on to three more marriages following the dissolution of her relationship with O’Connor. (In a thuddingly obvious twist, at the age of forty, he married a twenty-four-year-old.) She had a few brief stints in Hollywood, and Ex-Wife was adapted into The Divorcee (1930), a Pre-Code classic starring Norma Shearer. Some of the most vividly written sections of the biography give a picture of Parrott’s writing life after Ex-Wife through her copious correspondence with her agent, George Bye. Parrott wrote for Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal in the 1930s, and her letters of this period depict a feminine version of George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) in their cycle of debts, deferred deadlines, and new commissions.

Gordon notes that “it was not unusual for Parrott to earn $10,000 or more for a substantial or multipart story in the 1930s—that’s around $200,000 in today’s money.” At the same time, she could spend it quickly: Parrott bought a house in Connecticut in 1931 in an attempt to find the space and tranquility to work on literary fiction, but the upkeep of the house, frequent trips back to Manhattan, and her continuing appetite for parties, drinking, and shopping, meant that she often had to take on magazine commissions and book contracts with quick turnarounds to cover her huge expenses. She could be a scrupulously detailed and diligent writer—once spending four days in a library researching a single scene set at a Manchurian train station for a novel—but had difficulty finishing pieces on time.

Parrott recounted how her finances hung over her as she worked. Needing to fund an artesian well for the Connecticut house, she accepted an assignment and remarked, “every time I wrote a page I wondered if it would pay for another foot.’” She was aware of her literary precedents, noting that “the Victorians and the Russians all did their best work on a deadline, usually for a newspaper,” but Gordon traces how Parrott’s profligacy, at first amply funded by huge publishing, film, and magazine payouts, slowly descended into unmanageable debt by the 1940s. Bye tried to appeal to her to reduce her spending, but to little avail, and he eventually quit. Parrott owed money to the IRS, to her literary agency for missed deadlines on projects, and to department stores and hotels. By the 1950s, she was subject to cruel reporting by the gossip columnist Walter Winchell who detailed that she was shabbily clothed and unhoused. In 1952, she briefly lived in a Salvation Army shelter before finding a cheap room to rent in Brooklyn, working in a dry cleaners for $1 an hour. She received a modest allowance, likely from her third ex-husband, who also covered the rental of a typewriter to help her write a memoir, but she never finished the manuscript. She died five years later at the age of fifty-eight in a New York hospital charity ward.

It is no coincidence that Ex-Wife has been forgotten more than once.

Parrott’s literary reputation fluctuated over her career and after her death. Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith first published Ex-Wife, publicizing it alongside their other 1929 releases, including William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and D. H. Lawrence’s collected poems. But the publishers used the mass market gimmick of anonymous publication to stoke interest in the scandalous material, and, just four years later, the critic Margaret Widdemer cited Parrott’s writing as a prime example of middlebrow literature. For Widdemer, the label was not the derisive put-down it would become in the hands of Virginia Woolf and later Dwight Macdonald. She valued middlebrow literature as an expression of “popular mores” and defined its audience as people between “the tabloid addict class or the tiny group of intellectuals.” Nonetheless, she lightly mocked women’s popular literature and referenced Parrott as one example of a group of successful women novelists who were widely read by young women and whose works expressed the odd combination of nihilism and romanticism allegedly typical of the younger generation. Gordon recounts that Parrott “bemoaned that she was developing a reputation for being a light writer of emotional stories,” rather than a literary novelist—thanks in part to financial pressures. Of course, as Gordon points out, such denigration of Parrott’s work rested on sexist undervaluing of women authors’ interest in gender and sexual politics, the feminized romance genre, and, by extension, women readers.

It is no coincidence then that Ex-Wife has been forgotten more than once: the first reissue of the novel came not this year with McNally Editions, but in 1989 with the New American Library’s Plume American Women Writers series. Headed by Michele Slung, a devotee of the British feminist publisher Virago, the series published numerous overlooked works by women authors based on Slung’s research in the Library of Congress. But the Plume American Women Writers series has long been defunct, with much of its backlist now difficult to find.

The re-rediscovery of Ex-Wife points to the labor of another generation of dedicated editors and literary agents—many of them women—searching out neglected titles in used bookstores and old backlists, or, as was the case for Parrott’s Ex-Wife, a library sale. In this latest reissue, Parrott’s writing emerges as deftly crafted, wryly observed, and thoroughly unsettling. At one point during a particularly upsetting encounter with Peter, Patricia remarks, “Thank Heaven for Scotch. Everything swims gorgeously, not real any more. Vistas in hell, but a well-anaesthetized hell.” Parrott’s Ex-Wife conjures the well-anesthetized hell of this well-heeled young woman’s divorce and remarriage, and in doing so, offers a provokingly infernal twist on the old marriage plot.