Lord, I have been more chased than chaste.
—Ursula Parrott, Ex-Wife
Seemingly out of nowhere, precociously aphoristic and coolly unsentimental, the debut novel Ex-Wife appeared in 1929 to much scandalized acclaim; originally published anonymously, it brought a life-altering celebrity to its hitherto unknown author, Ursula Parrott, just thirty years old, who found herself not only controversial and an immediate best seller but, more questionably, something of a spokesperson for the “new woman” of the era—a female counterpart to her almost exact contemporaries Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the trajectory of her career as in its vicissitudes, Parrott is more akin to Fitzgerald than to Hemingway, whose expatriate characters and stark themes of war, manly valor, and the ubiquity of death-in-life take him far from the domestic dramas of romantic disillusion, marital strife, and divorce that preoccupied Parrott and Fitzgerald and made them, each for a vertiginous while, rich.
Like Fitzgerald but from a woman’s perspective, Parrott examined the fraying social fabric in the aftermath of World War I, the final vestiges of a Victorian era in which the place of a woman was defined almost exclusively in reference to men: fathers, husbands, ex-husbands, lovers. In the pre-war world to be a woman was to inhabit a role; the essence of the role was duty. But in the 1920s to be a woman was to find oneself with no specific role and to confront a radically altered landscape in which the confining security of the past could no longer be taken for granted. “An ex-wife is a young woman for whom the eternity promised in the marriage ceremony is reduced to three years or five or eight,” wrote Parrott in Ex-Wife.
This rueful-wise voice of Parrott’s divorcées set the tone for much of her writing from 1929 to 1947, when she published approximately 130 works: novels, stories, novelettes, and serials. (Of these, only Ex-Wife is currently in print, in a new edition.) In her prime in the 1930s Parrott was earning the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year; like Fitzgerald, she found a financially bounteous market in such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and Ladies’ Home Journal. Unfortunately, like Fitzgerald, she managed to outspend this extravagant income, invariably finding herself in debt and dependent on publishers’ advances and the gradually waning support of editors and friends; her talent for prose would come to seem, in the later years of her productivity, fueled by desperation. Holding an unsparing mirror up to herself and others of her generation, Parrott dramatized the oscillating fortunes of a fitful life that reads like the script for a screwball comedy veering into something like crude farce and finally a sordid sort of tragedy.
Ex-Wife is a sharply observed, intimate account of a failed marriage, several failed love affairs, an abortion, numerous alcoholic interludes and one-night stands, and an abrupt, pseudohappy ending when the ex-wife decides, for purely pragmatic reasons, to marry a man she doesn’t love: “Yet I shall hope, through all my youth, through all my life, that in some far city I shall find my love again.”
At its most entertaining Ex-Wife is a Broadway play in novel form, with briskly clever dialogue tending toward the comic-aphoristic, as if Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, and Oscar Wilde had collaborated to examine the war between the sexes in the post-Victorian era. The setting is an upscale Manhattan world of high-priced restaurants, hotels, and speakeasies in which young divorcées find themselves popular yet exploited by men. “They all want to sleep with us,” the novel’s narrator, Patricia, complains to her fellow ex-wife Lucia. “So soon as they get here for dinner they begin arranging to stay for breakfast.”
When the women are alone together their rapid-fire one-liners spring from the page: “An ex-wife is just a surplus woman, like those the sociologists used to worry about, during the war”; “Ex-wives…young and handsome ex-wives like us, illustrate how this freedom for women turned out to be God’s greatest gift to men.” Sagely Lucia points out that not every woman who has been divorced is an ex-wife—some have moved on and managed to establish new lives for themselves. But Patricia is not one of these and, to the reader’s exasperation, never grows beyond her humiliating need for men to define her: “You’re an ex-wife, Pat, because it is the most important thing to know about you…explains everything else, that you once were married to a man who left you.”
In its more didactic mode, Ex-Wife replicates the sort of articles published in women’s magazines on the subject of modern love and marriage through the decades. Patricia is lectured by the more experienced Lucia:
Fifty years ago, you wouldn’t have been unfaithful to [her husband Peter] once; because you wouldn’t have twenty opportunities for infidelity flung at you in a year; and, if he were unfaithful to you, he’d manage it discreetly, because he’d be socially ostracized if he didn’t. And he wouldn’t have told you to go your way, blithely; because there wouldn’t have been any way for you to go….
Women used to have status, a relative security. Now they have the status of any 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….
The choices for women used to be: marriage, the convent, or the street. They’re just the same now. Marriage has the same name. Or you can have a career, letting it absorb all emotional energy (just like the convent). Or you can have an imitation masculine attitude toward sex, and a succession of meaningless affairs, promiscuity….
But I think chastity, really, went out when birth control came in. If there is no “consequence”—it just isn’t important.
Though it is tempting to see Parrott as a precursor of successful career women and feminists of the second half of the twentieth century, she has nothing good to say about feminism as a political movement and rarely passes up the opportunity to sneer at nonconforming women: “The abnormal ones, I suppose, had a rotten time of it, and so they yelled and pushed and tipped over the applecart for the rest of us in the end.” In an interview when Ex-Wife was published Parrott insisted, “I am not a feminist. In fact, I resent the feminists—they are the ones who started all this. I wonder if they realized what they were letting us all in for.” This predilection for blaming other women for the marital problems exacerbated by her own alcohol-fueled behavior suggests a curious sort of logic that prevails through her career; it was her conviction that the women of her grandmother’s generation had more “actual freedom” than those of her own.
In flashback scenes in Ex-Wife Parrott glides lightly over Patricia’s marriage to a young man named Peter, with whom she’d fallen in love while still in college: “We had loved each other for three years, and hated each other half the fourth.” Not much is made of the newlyweds having a baby who died, with no explanation, at the age of three months; of this baby Peter “did not talk…at all.” Yet naively Patricia imagines that having a second child might be good for their marriage: “I thought it might be rather nice…a small son something like Pete.” His brutal response to her announcement of her pregnancy is a surprise to her but not the reader:
Where in hell will we put it in a livingroom-bedroom-and-bath? We’ll never be alone again. It’ll take all your time. They have to be washed and rocked and fed incessantly….
Oh, God, they cry all the time, don’t they?
Yet more naively Patricia later confesses to Peter that she has been unfaithful to him with a mutual friend when both were drunk; this confession, which will destroy their marriage and set the course of her life onto its downward spiral, she undertakes as coyly as an ingenue in a romantic comedy: “Peter, I want to put on a wife-confesses-all show.”
It had been Patricia’s understanding, based on her husband’s admission that he’d been unfaithful to her once or twice, that as a modern young couple they were “very definitely committed to the honesty policy.” Analyzing the situation in retrospect, she acknowledges:
I know it all sounds absurd—as if I thought then the thing [confessing infidelity] should be played as a farce. I did not. There was anguish and regret and bewilderment. But they have faded. I only remember my surprise that all the theories about the right to experiment and the desirability of varied experience—theories that had seemed so entirely adequate in discussing the sexual adventures of acquaintances—were no help at all when the decision concerned Peter and me.
Initially Patricia mistakes her husband’s seeming placidity for acceptance of her infidelity and for forgiveness, but he has not accepted it, and he is not mature enough to forgive her. Soon he demands a divorce, for he has ceased loving her: “You look like hell nowadays; you aren’t even pretty any more.” In one of the most disturbing scenes in a novel primarily comprised of conversation, Peter begins to strangle Patricia, who has been taunting him: “He just picked me up and threw me through the glass door of the breakfast room. Then he went out.” Bleeding profusely, she bandages herself and makes her way to a doctor; while she is being treated (he discreetly makes no inquiries when she tells him that her husband is responsible for her injuries) she asks him to arrange for an abortion, which he does, with the sort of dispatch that suggests how common abortion was in the 1920s, at least in reasonably well-to-do circles in Manhattan.
Typically rueful, Patricia takes care to dress stylishly for the abortion: “I might be turning up a corpse before sunset, and that did not matter very much; but I would prefer to be a well-groomed one.” Since she is a fashion-conscious young woman with a modest career in advertising copywriting, she wears a “Jane Regny original” to the abortionist’s office:
Soft grey tweeds, a grey wolf collar and deep cuffs, a cream-coloured blouse. Its scarlet piping matches the close fitting hat, and the shining flat purse. Brilliant scarlet and blue scarf, grey mocha gloves…. A small, slim, scared, extremely smart young figure. “I may not be pure, but thank heaven I look immaculate.”
Describing an appointment with an abortionist in fashion terms is brilliantly ironic, but the scene passes too swiftly and bloodlessly to register as altogether convincing.
Despite these humiliations Patricia resists giving Peter a divorce for as long as she can. She fantasizes that he will change his mind and return to her, so she is always prepared: “Clothes were real. I bought many clothes so that, when Peter called up, I could say ‘come over instantly’ and I would be marvellously dressed.” When Peter does call, however, it’s to discuss their divorce. Patricia manages to seduce him, but their relations are not altered: to Peter she is a “slut” who “can’t help being what you are, I suppose.” Every scene in Ex-Wife involving the estranged husband ends with Patricia’s humiliation, both physical and emotional, yet she continues to pine for Peter, even after he has physically abused her.
Following the divorce, as her creator would do with the spoils of the success of Ex-Wife, Patricia spends money extravagantly as soon as she acquires it, mostly on clothes: “While I was married, I saved money and made plans for the next fifty years…. Afterward, I did not make plans for the month after next. It seemed such a waste of time.” The most lyrical chapter of Ex-Wife pays homage to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, much loved by Patricia and Lucia as the musical expression of romantic Manhattan:
“The tune matches New York,” Lucia said. “The New York we know. It has gaiety and colour and irrelevancy and futility and glamour as beautifully blended as the ingredients in crêpes suzette.”
I said, “It makes me think of skyscrapers and Harlem and liners sailing and newsboys calling extras.”
“It makes me think I’m twenty years old and on the way to owning the city,” Lucia said. “Start it over again, will you?”
As a divorcée, Patricia makes an effort to be “harder, inside”: “To try to take all this sort of thing as men are supposed to take it, for the adventure, for the moment’s gaiety…against feeling so alone.” Her life soon shifts out of her control, however: she begins to drink heavily and becomes involved with a succession of men, most of whom are charming but innocuous, though at least one, named Stepan, is a brute who treats her more cruelly than her husband did, and she eventually comes to love another, Noel, more than she’d loved Peter, but he is married to a woman he will never leave for her.
By the time Ex-Wife arrives at its abrupt ending, with Noel lost to Patricia and Patricia betrothed to another man, a sensation of exhaustion has set in for both her and the reader. The novel’s final line trails off in an aura of nostalgia: “New York lights blurred behind us…. That was a shining city.”
Marsha Gordon’s Becoming the Ex-Wife: The Unconventional Life and Forgotten Writings of Ursula Parrott is a thoroughly researched, sympathetic, but not uncritical portrait of a woman who achieved exceptional commercial success as a writer and who was, for a while, “the most famous divorcée in the United States.” As an expert on marital strife and its aftermath, Parrott was frequently interviewed in popular publications even as, in private, she was often struggling with “desperate,” “hopeless,” “suicidal” moods exacerbated by alcohol; and like many female writers prominent in their time, she was subsequently forgotten. (Notably, Parrott does not appear in Elaine Showalter’s magisterial A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, 2009.)
Biography is an art most powerful when it is not a mere summary of a life, however interesting it may have been, but an illumination of a life (and a career) that has been misunderstood, perhaps even by the subject, and undervalued. Gordon argues:
Like many of her female contemporaries, [Parrott] was categorized as a woman who wrote trivial and sentimental romances, although her tales were about much more: difficult divorces, phenomenally successful women’s careers, and single parenting; female piloting, adventuring, and traveling; risk-taking on the Underground Railroad, combat, and labor organizing; World War II veterans returning to civilian life and nefarious Nazi plots.
Parrott’s turbulent life, Gordon concedes, can hardly be told as an “inspirational feminist story”: she was a “wildly successful woman” who would have preferred to have had a conventionally happy marriage; a “romantic” who nonetheless burned through a succession of lovers and married—unwisely in each case—four men. In her uninhibited letters to the Herald Tribune reporter Hugh O’Connor, the unfaithful, unreliable, married man who seems to have been the love of her life but whom she never succeeded in marrying, Parrott confesses the most pitiful weaknesses, declaring herself a woman who merely appears modern, independent, and radical while craving the stability of a long-lasting relationship—marriage:
We hunt about among the wreckage of old codes for pieces to build an adequate shelter to last our lifetime…and the building material’s just not there…. Women like me, here and now, feel one way, believe another…and on neither side is happiness to be reckoned…
The ironic intelligence suffused through Ex-Wife does not seem to have prevailed in her own life.
Ursula Parrott was born Katherine Ursula Towle on March 26, 1899, in Dorchester, Massachusetts; her father was a family physician described in the press of the day as “one of the last of Dorchester’s old family doctors,” though he also had, in his daughter’s words, “a small very highhat practice as a consultant and obstetrician.” As a girl Parrott received an excellent education at the prestigious Girls’ Latin School in Boston, where her potential was recognized though her grades and “work ethic” were not outstanding. At Radcliffe she majored in English, involving herself in a number of undergraduate activities (including a short-lived membership in the Suffrage and Socialist Club), and only just managed to graduate in 1920 with mediocre grades and a reputation for purchasing “ghostwritten” papers for her courses. Years later her son Marc would speculate whether his mother’s “showoff traits, some charming, some very dangerous, derived from the snubbing she took in Cambridge as a pushy lace-curtain Irish girl from Dorchester.”
After her graduation from Radcliffe, her conservative Catholic father put pressure on her to live at home and teach English in a Catholic convent school nearby. Instead of placating him, Parrott acquired a job as a cub reporter to please herself; instead of pursuing a graduate degree in English, in 1922 she married Lindesay Marc Parrott, whom she’d met at a Princeton prom and who was twenty-one to her twenty-three. Soon Lindesay began a career as a reporter at the Newark Evening News and became a member of a “booze-loving” brotherhood of reporters who lived in New York City and environs, “many of whom drifted between papers and crossed paths between pressrooms, speakeasies, and women”—the same romantically lively, rowdy, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous Manhattan netherworld evoked in Ex-Wife.
As in Ex-Wife, Parrott’s young, immature husband was strongly opposed to having children, while she looked forward to motherhood; very likely their marriage was seriously compromised when she kept her pregnancy a secret until it was too late for him to pressure her to have an abortion. As in Ex-Wife, Lindesay could not forgive Ursula’s being unfaithful to him though he’d been unfaithful to her. Naively assuming that she and her husband were equals, she unwittingly destroyed her marriage through her honesty: Gordon reports that Lindesay “deemed her one-night stand an irreparable moral failing. The wounds she inflicted, he told her, would ‘never mend’; he could not trust her or, for that matter, any other woman again.” This single act of unfaithfulness, or rather the impulse to confess it, catapulted the vulnerable young woman out of the security of marriage, making her both a divorcée and a single mother in an era in which to be either was considered scandalous, if not immoral.
Later she reflected wryly on the “ethics” of the so-called new morality in which, as in the old morality, women were held to a far more severe standard than men, and she recalled her reckless act of infidelity with a notorious heavy drinker and womanizer who had meant little to her, as she’d meant little to him, when she “needed to think of something funny. It was so funny in its devastating consequences.”
If it was funny, then only in retrospect. More immediately it was catastrophic for the young wife, who never fully recovered from the shock of losing her husband and was long haunted by
a memory…of [Lindesay] and me standing in that funny livingroom of the last apartment we had—the color of the walls, the way that the sunlight had faded an oblong on the green sofa, the pattern on the rug, and he and I so very young and bewildered, on the day he left. We had a banjo clock that belonged to his family…. It had an odd sort of tick. I can remember the sound of it. I’ll remember the sound of it ticking when I’m seventy if I live so long.
In melodramatic fiction and films of the era it was often a single reckless act (like a confession of unfaithfulness) that precipitated a sequence of unanticipated consequences; unfortunately for her, Parrott’s life followed this formula. Even before her divorce was finalized in 1928, she had begun an intense romantic relationship with O’Connor, who would dominate her emotional life for years, even when she was married to other men; not Lindesay, who in his fictional guise as Peter casts such a shadow over Ex-Wife, but O’Connor would emerge as “the most wonderful and most awful thing that ever happened to her.”
It was O’Connor who rescued Parrott from the emotional wreckage of her divorce and strongly encouraged her to write her first novel, in which he is enshrined, nearly idolized, as Noel. (“Noel, your hair is a colour destined to shine in my soul.”) Like numerous men in Parrott’s life, O’Connor was married not happily but (as he led Parrott to believe) permanently; in Ex-Wife, Noel’s wife is described as “disfigured” as a result of an automobile accident, and Patricia helps to ensure that their marriage prevails. In real life, the ex-wife had no such agency over her married lover. Though O’Connor seems to have assured Parrott that she was “‘the one woman’ whom he believed his ‘equal,’” he could not be convinced to divorce his wife and marry her, or even to be faithful to her.
It is a measure, however, of Parrott’s increasing desperation that she had several abortions at O’Connor’s request, though she had badly wanted to have a child with him; still more desperately, after the failure of her second marriage (to Charles Terry Greenwood, a Manhattan banker for whom she seemed to have felt little emotion), she offered O’Connor $6,000, the equivalent of his annual salary at The New York Times, if he would agree to be her husband for at least one year, piteously begging, “‘If I happen to get pregnant’ during this period, ‘let me go through with it.’” Gordon interprets this astonishing proposal as “proof positive” that Parrott was “radically rethinking male-female relationships in ways that defied tradition beyond recognition,” but the reader is likely to wonder if it isn’t a painful sign of her mental deterioration.
That O’Connor rejected the eccentric offer is not surprising, nor is it surprising that Parrott continued to barrage him with letters alternately cajoling and accusing: “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.” Another time Parrott suggests that she and O’Connor have a baby together: “If you would like to have a child…I am entirely willing. I should be very glad in fact, to have the child”—hastily adding that, if O’Connor wanted her to have an abortion, she would be willing to have an abortion. All to no avail: O’Connor did eventually divorce his wife but married a much younger woman in 1934.1
Ex-Wife was a publishing sensation in 1929, receiving excellent reviews and selling over 100,000 copies on its first print run; it was on the best-seller lists with Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and advertised alongside Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. When the anonymous author was outed in Walter Winchell’s syndicated gossip column On Broadway it was assumed, by Winchell and subsequently by others, that Parrott had written an “autobiographical” novel despite her protestations that this was not the case, at least not entirely—an identification that would persist through her life.
Much of Ex-Wife’s success had to do with its novelty as a racy sort of sociological document in the guise of a titillating tale of young divorcées behaving badly in Manhattan; even as divorce rates were rising alarmingly in the 1920s, the very category ex-wives scarcely existed. The first check Parrott received from her publisher, the new transatlantic firm Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith, was for $16,000, the approximate equivalent of a quarter-million dollars in today’s currency.
Naturally, Hollywood was intrigued by Parrott, optioning Ex-Wife for $20,000 as a vehicle for Norma Shearer; retitled The Divorcee, it was a success at the box office even as the country was plunging into the Great Depression. Other films adapted from subsequent work by Parrott had such titles as Strangers May Kiss, There’s Always Tomorrow, and Next Time We Love (starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan); in 1931 she published what her biographer calls a “gangster novel,” Gentlemen’s Fate, which was made into a movie starring John Gilbert and was criticized, perhaps not surprisingly, for its lack of “vigorous credibility.”
A Hollywood “feeding frenzy” erupted over the rights to Parrott’s The Tumult and the Shouting. Even as she was involved in writing a screenplay for Gloria Swanson based on her as-yet-unpublished novel Love Goes Past, she reported to friends that in this “gaudy hell” she felt “like a dead woman, in a sort of daze.” Tersely, without elaborating, Gordon notes that in Hollywood, Parrott’s antisemitism “flared up in a town and industry run by Jews.”
Disillusioned with Hollywood, chastened by professional setbacks, Parrott fled back to the East Coast and to a second misbegotten marriage that ended in divorce within a year—a “brief absurdity,” she called it—with charges against the husband of “intolerable cruelty, drinking, and abusive language.” Two more husbands followed, each apparently a brief absurdity soon rectified by divorce, luridly heralded in tabloids and gossip columns in which Ursula Parrott had become a familiar, scandalous name.
By this time her frantic life was coming undone as a consequence of extravagant spending, heavy drinking, and increasing failures to meet publication deadlines. Her advances for stories were sometimes as high as $8,000; pressure was put on her to return them if she failed to deliver on time or editors rejected her work, which was beginning to happen with disconcerting frequency. Her son Marc recalled Parrott working “like a galley slave [with]…the chaos and tension of making those eternal deadlines.” Gordon remarks sympathetically, “Mass-market fiction writers have been defined by ‘speed, volume, and predictability, none of which aids in composing great literature.’” Amid a life of turmoil complicated by needless spending, in 1940 Parrott took flying lessons with the notion of helping “defend the United States during the war,” her biographer tells us without evident irony.
In the final phase of her career in the 1940s, Parrott wrote fiction for popular magazines about World War II from the perspective of a generation of women younger than she, whom she could imagine as more optimistic and less disillusioned than her own generation; her themes were marital strife, reconcilations and divorces, women’s careers curtailed or tempered by the demands of men. By then her longtime agent George Bye had cut ties with her and she was “drowning in debt”—in her biographer’s grim words, “completely worn out.” It is nearly miraculous that somehow she managed to set aside enough money to send Marc to Harvard: “Parrott took comfort in few things, but she delighted in her son’s academic achievement.”2
There followed then a series of increasingly unfunny episodes presumably linked to Parrott’s alcoholism. The most scandalous involved Michael Neely Bryan, a twenty-six-year-old army private with a fondness for marijuana seventeen years Parrott’s junior, whom she recklessly aided and abetted in escaping from a Miami prison stockade in December 1942; with Parrott at the wheel of a rental car, pursued by law enforcement, the fugitive lovers surrendered within twenty-four hours. The sensational adventure was recounted in tabloids and gossip columns. The “four-times-married, thrice-divorced author” Parrott and her paramour were charged with federal crimes; Bryan was sentenced to a year in prison for breaking confinement, while, to her great relief, Parrott was found not guilty of “subversive activities in undermining loyalty, discipline or morale of the armed forces.” But the damage to what remained of her reputation was irrevocable.
Parrott’s last novel, Even in a Hundred Years—described by Gordon as an “introspective tale about generations, tradition, loss, and hope…. A far cry from the hedonistic, destructive freneticism of Ex-Wife”—was published in 1944; her last story, ironically titled “Let’s Just Marry,” appeared in 1947. Seriously in debt in the years following and hounded by the IRS for unpaid taxes, Parrott tried to write her way out of disaster as she had in the past, but without success. She borrowed money from her new agent that she had no intention of repaying; she wrote bad checks and “was the subject of unwanted press for ‘smuggling herself out’” of hotels without paying her bills; in a particularly embarrassing incident she was arrested on a charge of grand larceny for stealing silver items from the home of wealthy friends. She became destitute and homeless. A final time she wrote to O’Connor saying she was penniless and faint with hunger and asking if he could send her five dollars. (Gordon doesn’t confirm whether O’Connor replied.) In September 1957 Parrott died in the charity ward of a New York hospital. Not a single obituary appeared.
This piling on of pratfalls and pathos in the concluding chapters of Becoming the Ex-Wife fatally diminishes its already minor, vulnerable subject. The reader winces for Ursula Parrott, humiliated by pleading letters to a man who seems to have exploited her naive adoration of him, as well as by the vicissitudes of a life ravaged by alcoholism. Holding the biographer’s magnifying glass up to an individual so unstable and self-destructive undermines the claim for the subject’s significance; it is difficult to believe that a woman who so frequently behaved as foolishly as Parrott could have possibly written much of consequence after her initial success with Ex-Wife.
It might be called the Brobdingnagian effect: a predilection in even the most sympathetic biographies (including most recently Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work and Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography) to dwell upon minutiae of the most petty sort and by sheer corrosion wear away the dignity of the subject, undermining what should be the fundamental effort of the biographer—to enhance, to illuminate. One thinks of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver in the land of the Brobdingnagians: forced to see too much, at too-close quarters, appalled by the grotesque physicality of his giant hosts, suffused with disgust, and desperate to escape.
Ironically, Becoming the Ex-Wife could not have been written without Gordon’s access to Parrott’s letters to O’Connor, preserved in his archive at the University of Oregon; apparently he saved most of her letters, which were immensely flattering to him. ↩
In a breezy afterword to a 1989 reprinting of Ex-Wife, included in the McNally edition, Marc speaks of its succès de scandale, which taught her that she could make a good deal of money as “one of the chief practitioners of what’s now a dead trade…women’s magazine fiction, formula stuff.” Scornfully he relegates her to a catalog of “other brand names of this kind of writing, most of them as forgotten now as my mother’s”—Faith Baldwin, Margaret Culkin Banning, Kathleen Norris. ↩