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Trivial Pursuits

From Ann Harding to Kay Francis—the romantic politics of the adventuress

A woman in romantic pursuit is misread as a desperate woman. In order to articulate her desires she must be pushed to the brink. She comes off as unappealing and gauche, or even worse—eager. In Biography of a Bachelor Girl, Robert Montgomery convinces Ann Harding to write a memoir about her romantic escapades. She accepts the advance only after receiving a bill for a $1,500 ermine bedspread. He explains that the memoir will be about her impulse “to leave home and wander about, attempting to escape respectable boredom.” Harding plays promiscuity off as an elegant affectation. It is simply a consequence of being charming. She responds to the idea with, “The woman who dared sort of thing, the last of the great adventuresses. . . . Young man, you make me feel like an institution.”

Just as Montgomery is courting her talents, Harding has already decided he is the object of her pursuit. He realizes her intentions halfway through the film, only after he’s criticized her for being the embodiment of all he opposes. “[B]ecause you’re superficial, casual, and irresponsible. You treat life which is a tragic thing as if it were a trivial bedroom farce.” These remarks slip away without effect. It is with the grain of her gentle, casual nature that he begrudgingly congratulates her. “One has to die,” he says, “the point is to have as much fun as you can while you’re alive, I suppose. Well, you’ve succeeded.”

Christopher Isherwood wrote that without an abortion, the infamous Sally Bowles would just be a “Silly little capricious bitch.”

Too much seeking leads to madness, think Jean Rhys or Zelda Fitzgerald. If you are too much in the world, you leave yourself open to punishment. Even now, there is the archetype of the party girl who overindulges, and then must rehabilitate and reform. Christopher Isherwood wrote to John Lehmann in 1937 that without an abortion, the infamous Sally Bowles would just be a “Silly little capricious bitch.” I laugh each time I am called frivolous, too light—just the other day, too “effervescent.” It is always a criticism. Pursuit and pleasure must be quashed for the story to carry weight. But what if after a plot device she stayed silly and capricious?

Kay Francis plays a glamorous, terminally ill woman on an ocean liner to a sanatorium in One Way Passage (1932). Her doctor advises her to stay in her cabin until they dock in San Francisco. He says no more parties, cigarettes, dancing, and cocktails. At first she agrees, “It’s funny how we cling to life, even when it’s worthless.” Upon spotting William Powell through her window, she quickly changes her mind. “I was wrong, I know now what I want. I want to crowd all the intense, beautiful happiness possible with what life I’ve got left . . . I want to have it, and I’m going to have it, all I can get my hands on.” Who really gets the last laugh?

Barbara Stanwyck sits at a bar next to Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. He has just found out she is a con artist. She says, “I suppose you’re right to worry, falling in love with an adventuress on the high seas.” Henry Fonda, with a knack for playing dumb, asks, “Are you an adventuress?” And, like she is taking stock of a to-do list, she says, “Of course I am. All women are. They have to be. If you waited for a man to propose to you from natural causes, you’d die of old maidenhood. That’s why I let you try my slippers on. And then I put my cheek against yours. And then I made you put your arms around me.”

The term “adventuress” fell out of vogue during the last half of the twentieth century. In its traditional definition, it is “a woman who seeks position or livelihood by questionable means.” I am not interested in what is questionable. Like I tell people in England, morals have never been in. I wish more women sought.

The conversation waned after one-and-a-half cocktails—we resorted to Deep and Abstract topics. The thirty-nine-year-old futurist told me, “Nostalgia is the basis of romantic pursuit.” He elaborated, “You look for something you’ve had before.” I adjusted the fuchsia ribbons on my sleeve and said, “I’ve never thought about it like that.” I thought he was wrong. Shortly after, he asked, “How do you like to be pursued?” and I said, “I don’t.” We kiss on each cheek like they do in Europe and never speak again.

I went to a party for an erotic magazine—the music looped into the night with no purpose. My friends were in bustiers; not the polyester sex shop kind, but rare like Vivienne Westwood. I spotted a part-time model standing in line at the crowded bar.

Across two people I reached over and prodded him. I said, “I know you. Do you read women? Do you like cats?” Apparently, this was my only criterion—I had not had dinner, but I had had wine. I’d noticed him before—handsome but a little dull. A resemblance to Gregory Peck, with heavy brow and gentle eye, but the reference was lost on him. I say, “I hear you’re going through a breakup, you must be sad.” He said, “No, not really.” And I said, “Well, I’m sad! Let’s go. I’ll give you ten minutes.” We left in a cab while his beer was still cold, laughing.

A friend’s birthday dinner has ended and our party split down different streets to go home. I was the only one who lived south. It was about ten o’clock, and a familiar melancholy from my party girl days came over me, a hesitation to call it a night. I could have another drink or say hi to Sally at the cocktail bar. I was wearing a floral headband and a high-neck blouse—my neighbour remarked, “You look like a Manson girl, or at least a girl susceptible to cults.” Before turning towards my apartment, I heard music coming from the nearby hotel. A karaoke night. A man in New York texted, asking what I was up to. I said, “Is singing karaoke alone too crazy?” I do not wait for an answer as I pull open the doors.

I finished a second glass of cava with a man in a non-monogamous relationship. He yawned, said he had an early morning and must go home. This was my second stop of the evening—just an after-dinner diversion. I ask if anything is wrong. He shrugged his narrow shoulders and said, “You have no self-doubt.”

To pursue as a woman is to instigate. The word “agency” gets thrown around, but it feels wrung of any glamour or excitement. The woman is chasing. She asks, “What do I want?” Sometimes the answer doesn’t come right away or maybe the destination is far off—like scenes of dinners al fresco, or a life of leisure filled with curb-to-car shoes. The seeking can be exercised even without a clear object of desire. A quiet edging towards anything will do as long as it’s definitely more. As Jean Harlow says in Red Headed Woman, “A girl’s a fool that doesn’t get ahead.” I go ahead in any direction.