There’s Always Tomorrow: On Ursula Parrott and Marsha Gordon’s “Becoming the Ex-Wife”
By Adam SobseyJuly 10, 2023
Becoming the Ex-Wife: The Unconventional Life & Forgotten Writings of Ursula Parrott by Marsha Gordon
Then there’s the pileup of car accidents in Parrott’s circle, including the one suffered by her older half sister, a silent-screen actress turned Hollywood scenarist who became “one of filmdom’s cleverest subtitlers” until she sustained a severe injury when, as the newspaper reported, her car “turned turtle” while swerving to avoid a collision. And there were Parrott’s own lifelong automotive misadventures. These included an arrest for reckless driving with a dubious fellow she took up with during college—dubious fellows would heavily populate her life thereafter—a carjacking in Arizona by a hitchhiker, and a prison-break caper in which Parrott herself drove the getaway car.
It comes as no surprise when Marsha Gordon notes, in her vigorous, entertaining, and well-researched new biography, Becoming the Ex-Wife: The Unconventional Life & Forgotten Writings of Ursula Parrott, that Parrott “became so obsessed with automobile wrecks that they occur in almost two dozen of her stories, usually with fatal consequences.” Nor is it a surprise that Parrott, finding herself in dire financial straits in 1933 after having managed to spend her entire fortune—she was earning the adjusted equivalent of about two million dollars a year from her books and screenplays—joked about resorting to the escape route of suicide by “tak[ing] the Packard out and manag[ing] an accident.”
It seems that Parrott always had at least a partial awareness of the coming crash. In a letter written before her 30th birthday to the most significant of the many men in her romantic life, she lamented: “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.” Perhaps Parrott was speeding along too fast to perceive that she was surrounded by all the building material she needed: not the wreckage of old codes but of her present life, which she was constantly smashing to smithereens with her own reckless driving.
Enter Gordon to pick up the pieces. Her biography salvages and reconstructs Parrott’s many remains, rescuing an important American voice and cultural figure from near oblivion. Gordon plumbs her sources both widely and deeply, carefully and even affectionately reading Parrott’s work (over 130 novels, stories, serials, and nonfiction articles in all) and drawing heavily on Parrott’s many surviving letters to her lover Hugh O’Connor and her longtime (and long-suffering) agent George Bye. Gordon also firmly surrounds her subject with detailed historical context—particularly in her descriptions of the societal upheavals experienced by women during the Jazz Age—and an ample display of visual materials to help tell her story.
The result is a clear, full, yet unlabored portrait of Parrott, written in agile, accessible prose. Gordon’s tone is warm but unsentimental (as was Parrott herself), occasionally displaying a subtle and welcome bit of cheek or zing befitting her subject. Gordon clearly admires and empathizes with Parrott—she calls her “Ursula” when she wants to get close—but she isn’t fooled by Parrott’s antic self-sabotage and the wreckage she wound up making of her life. Despite Parrott’s underappreciated importance in both the literary canon and American women’s history, a decades-long neglect that the publication of Becoming the Ex-Wife does much to redress, Gordon cautions the reader that “Parrott’s life cannot be told as an inspirational feminist story.”
Parrott was born Katherine Ursula Towle in 1899 (she took the surname Parrott from the first of her four husbands). Young “Kitty,” as she was called, was the daughter of a successful Boston-area obstetrician; in her early adulthood, she wanted to become one herself. She had all the privileges of a comfortable upbringing, but by the time she was in her teens, she was already showing a “lack of regard for convention,” writes Gordon, who supplies visual evidence of that lack of regard: behold 17-year-old Kitty lunging out toward the camera from the orderly rows of students in the Boston Girls’ Latin School class picture in 1916. By what mysterious nature-nurture happenstance do most people live ordinary lives—like Parrott’s older sister (not the Hollywood-scenarist half sister who turned turtle), who became a dutiful family caretaker—while a staunchly nonconformist few seem hell-bent on social rebellion and absolute self-expression, become drawn to margins high or low (both, in Parrott’s case), and are bound for glory or ignominy while subjecting themselves to the constant threat of crack-ups, whether of the automotive or Fitzgeraldian kind?
“All my youth in Boston, I looked forward to going to live in Greenwich Village,” she wrote in a letter to one of her lovers after she had come of age and moved, at the turn of the Roaring Twenties, to that bohemian hothouse “where one was clever and gay and young … and talked about ‘Things that Mattered,’ ’stead of church and successful marriage, and babies people had or didn’t have.” With the first of her four husbands, Lindesay Parrott, she had one baby: her first and only child, Marc Parrott, born in 1923, whose reflections on his mother provide a posthumous afterword (he died in 1988) for McNally Editions’ recent reissue of Ex-Wife.
She could likely have had many more babies. An avid participant in what Gordon calls “the hookup culture that ended up becoming part of her generation’s pursuit of uninhibited pleasures,” Parrott endured numerous abortions in an era when they could be acutely dangerous and leave women with lifelong consequences. She suffered injuries, hemorrhaging, and, finally, permanent damage. While she was still in college, Parrott had an unspecified “obstetrical incident,” after which she considered switching schools to study medicine and specialize in obstetrics: “I always had the idea […] that it was pretty awful for any woman to have to have a man doctor around during all that messiness.”
One of the men with whom she could have had—and badly wanted to have—a family helped her beget Ex-Wife instead. Hugh O’Connor was a member of the “cohort of wisecracking, booze-loving, and almost exclusively male reporters” with whom Parrott tangled, both romantically and professionally. During her Greenwich Village days, she worked as a sometime journalist, bouncing between what she called “jobs-but-not-careers,” anticipating today’s gig economy by nearly a century. O’Connor was the love of Parrott’s life. Their affair began while both were married, although Parrott was separated from Lindesay, who was part of the same clubbish group of newspapermen. O’Connor kept tantalizing Parrott with promises of getting his own divorce so they could marry, but he never made good on them—an example of one of the many kinds of exercise of male control over women out of which Parrott often built her fictions.
Her real life could out-invent any fiction she wrote. Parrott was so desperate for even a temporary union with O’Connor that, three years after she published Ex-Wife—a book he inspired her to write—and already well established in the lucrative career that ensued from it, she made O’Connor what Gordon calls “an extraordinary proposition” that would be hardly less extraordinary today: “She offered him $6,000, the equivalent of his annual salary at the New York Times but less than what Parrott typically earned for a single magazine story.” Her only requirement? A year of marriage. If during that year she should “happen to get pregnant,” she wrote him, he would have to “let [her] go through with it.” Gordon astutely observes that,
[h]ad Parrott written this scenario into one of her novels, which she never did, it would have seemed a ludicrous plot twist. But it is proof positive that she was radically rethinking male-female relationships in ways that defied tradition beyond recognition. If society was evolving to allow women more economic, social, and political power, then why shouldn’t the institutions that had developed at a time of male domination evolve along with them?
Yet those institutions, and the men who built them, were reluctant to budge. “O’Connor did not take Parrott up on her offer,” Gordon tersely concludes. Whether his rejection was purely romantic or was driven by his compulsion to protect his marriage or his pride, O’Connor was enacting the same intractable “fatal flaw that men in Parrott’s stories rarely transcend: male pride about money.”
Ironically, it was O’Connor who launched Parrott toward making so much of it. At a 1928 New Year’s Eve party, he announced to the room of revelers that Parrott was going to write a book. In the sober light of New Year’s Day, he reminded her that she had better go through with it since he had “mentioned it to so many people.” Seven weeks later, she finished a complete draft of a manuscript titled “Confessions of an Ex-Wife.” Much of Parrott’s subsequent writing career would progress on these manic bursts of output. During the heyday of her later ascendance as a short-story writer for magazines, Gordon reports that Parrott could “produc[e] up to 8,000 words in a single day to meet a deadline.”
The publisher who bought “Confessions of an Ex-Wife” shortened the title to Ex-Wife. He also directed her to publish not as Katherine but as Ursula, a name that would better stand out. He made the simultaneous decision to drum up further attention by publishing the novel anonymously, a tactic that was by then, as Gordon notes, “a well-tested gimmick used to build curiosity with the implicit promise of illicit material” and “scandalous contents […] based on real life.” Part of the publicity push meant deliberately leaking the author’s identity. As the celebrity gossip columnist Walter Winchell put it: “Ursula Parrott, the ‘anonymous’ author of the sensational ‘Ex-Wife’ tome, is not permitted to admit that she is.”
Once she was permitted, however, Parrott was suddenly one of the most famous writers in the United States, her pen right on the pulse of “confusing and anxious times for women,” writes Gordon. Gordon builds a convincing context around Ex-Wife as an exemplar of its post-suffrage moment: a “feminist crash” that roughly coincided with the one on Wall Street. More independence for women meant less protection from men. The suddenly available job market was also a meat market—and the workplace was yet another arena where men exercised control over women: economically, socially, psychologically, physically.
While divorce was much more readily available during the Roaring Twenties, the procedure wasn’t as liberating as it seemed: getting one was a trial that often required “adulterers-for-hire” with whom affairs were faked to meet the courts’ requirements. Abortions were even worse: although still illegal, they were nonetheless available—but often by an exceptionally dangerous and ghastly array of methods that included uterine injections of soap solutions, paraffin, or Lysol, often resulting in injuries or hemorrhaging. Clandestine clinical procedures were no less risky. Still, “many women […] considered [abortion] an acceptable hazard of modern sexual life,” Gordon concludes with an almost audible sigh.
As modernity has shown time and again, freedom itself can prove its own hazard. In an article called “Leftover Ladies” that appeared shortly after Ex-Wife was published, Parrott described the paradoxical predicament: “[The women of my generation] are all Free Women, free to work, to vote, to experiment with alcohol and extramarital arrangements, or what they choose. And their grandmothers had more actual freedom than they have.” She concluded that, in this context, the word freedom “may mean something very wonderful—or just something very wearying.”
Worse than wearying: Ex-Wife, Gordon suggests, was “written with grief in mind.” It’s a “charred earth, world-weary” story “from the trenches of marriage, infidelity, divorce, dating, and remarriage in boozy, dissipated Manhattan.” The book “peeled back the glimmering surfaces of that often romanticized idea of effervescent New York youth to reveal,” among other things, “a world no woman would wish to inhabit.” Rather than presenting “a celebration of ‘the new woman,’” Gordon writes, “it was a warning about and for her.”
The novel’s protagonist, Pat, cheats and is cheated upon. Her husband holds himself unaccountable for his indiscretions; for Pat’s, he subjects her to retaliations that include hitting her in the face, twisting her wrist so hard it breaks, and throwing her through a plate glass window. The treatment for these injuries is usually Scotch.
It gets worse still. The doctor who stitches up Pat’s glass-lacerated arm, whom she informs that she is unwantedly pregnant, offers to chaperone her to an abortionist, then shamelessly propositions her on the way. Later, she has a one-night stand with a man who, after she falls asleep, facilitates her rape by another. As Parrott herself put it, “this freedom for women turned out to be God’s greatest gift to men.”
Ex-Wife might have been called something like God’s greatest gift to divorce. The novel’s success did much to popularize the suddenly burgeoning but still novel institution, and the public consciousness hadn’t quite acknowledged the concept—or even the word—of the “ex-wife” until Parrott’s title insisted upon it. Radical as her ostensibly divorce-positive fiction seemed, however, Parrott was no crusader on behalf of Sex and the Single Girl. She was wary of the insecurity and loneliness of an unmarried life and dreamed of a marital stability she was never able to find. Despite fulfilling her dream of liberated life and love in the Greenwich Village demimonde, she had a deeply old-fashioned streak. To O’Connor, she wrote: “I want to belong to one man, forever, all the world knowing it and to be good to him, always, helpful to him in his work, [and to] work […] alongside him.”
She ended up pouring herself into ghostwriting a book for O’Connor that he couldn’t be bothered to write himself; he abandoned it after she’d labored over it for months. “She loathed feeling so 1880s about O’Connor, but perhaps not as much as she hated him for acting so 1920s,” Gordon notes in one of the characteristic moments of laconic wryness that pepper her brisk, no-nonsense prose.
In 1930, Ex-Wife was sold to MGM in Hollywood, netting Parrott $20,000—a fortune at the time—and was filmed that year as The Divorcee starring Norma Shearer. Parrott soon went to Hollywood herself, where her not-yet-published second novel, Strangers May Kiss, was quickly adapted into another Shearer vehicle in 1931. Over the next year or so, Parrott made what Gordon calls “staggering sums of money” writing screenplays, growing even more famous and admired: one trade story called her “the best box-office writer in the country today,” suggesting she had upstaged her half sister the scenarist. Yet all the while, she hated Hollywood so much—indeed, “[h]er instant celebrity felt unwarranted, even undignified,” Gordon writes—that she left without warning or announcement nearly three months before her contract with United Artists was up.
By this point in Gordon’s biography, frequent references to Parrott’s eventual undoing have piled up. In short, she was “a born spender,” Gordon observes, admirably casting virtually no judgment on her subject’s profligacy. Parrott was quite aware of the problem herself and eventually asked her agent to supervise all her purchases—then ignored his supervision, driving herself into constant financial and other crises. For the next two decades, she was in and out of Hollywood, marriages, pregnancies, and publishing contracts—despite her prodigious output when deadlines loomed, she sometimes simply didn’t write what she had agreed to—and, most critically, money.
Parrott tried to force herself into a responsible, settled life, buying a house in leafy Connecticut where she set about raising her son and flower beds, but comfortable quietude didn’t suit her, and she didn’t last there. Her 1933 novel is aptly named The Tumult and the Shouting (an infelicitous echo of The Sound and the Fury, published four years earlier). One of its characters offers a concise description of people like Parrott: “It is a kind of permanent hysteria, a hypnosis of motion, which keeps them going.”
Parrott’s hypnosis of motion reached literally new heights during World War II, when she took her fixation with cars to the skies by learning how to fly so she could go on airborne patrol after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Amazingly, she “had no mishaps related to her new hobby,” Gordon writes. But back on terra firma, Parrott took her most antic and perilous joyride. It involved yet another dubious fellow, along with sex and drugs and jazz (only because rock ’n’ roll hadn’t been invented yet), aiding and abetting a military deserter during wartime, and three federal felony charges. Amazingly, Parrott never published a story based on the caper. Luckily for us, Gordon does it for her. Taking advantage of the dubious fellow-in-question’s last name and leveraging her expertise as a film scholar, Gordon titles her entertaining account of this “tawdry wartime melodrama” “Saving Private Bryan.”
“Tawdry” and “melodrama” are words that would certainly have been applied, and often were, to a good deal of Parrott’s writing. She was never considered a literary writer, and Becoming the Ex-Wife is not a literary biography; it’s weighted less toward the work than toward the life, and no wonder—what a life Parrott had! Nonetheless, Gordon mounts a contextualized, evidenced, and heartfelt defense of the worthiness of her subject’s thought and prose, even as she claims that she can only give it “woefully inadequate attention in these pages.” She convincingly defends Parrott against her dismissers by making both a socioeconomic case and a concise counterargument against literary snobbery and its sexist old-boy culture.
Parrott’s stories were generally written for popular “middlebrow” magazines like Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as lesser-known publications that paid more than livable fees—sometimes as much as the equivalent of a year’s salary for a single story. These magazines’ audiences tended to be disproportionately women who were interested in stories about familiar, real-world experiences and issues, especially gender issues. The so-called “literary” writers, on the other hand, “earned their elite status in part because their writing was neither relatable nor useful, which is precisely what made it seem more like art,” Gordon asserts.
Although Parrott’s stories were aimed at middlebrow tastes, they didn’t really conform to the middlebrow mold. “[H]er stories,” Gordon writes, “were relentlessly cynical; they have plenty of romance in them but are rarely romantic. Could you be considered—and, as was also the case, dismissed—as a romance writer if the relationships you imagined were almost all failures and if you used your romances to address” touchy subjects like abortion and single motherhood? Parrott herself, in her characteristically sharp way, offered perhaps her own best self-defense, just as characteristically framed as part of the battle of the sexes: “[M]elodramatic,” she proclaimed, is “just a word men use to describe any agony that might otherwise make them feel uncomfortable.”
Gordon is especially persuasive in her discussion of Parrott’s later work from the 1940s, when her “characters worked through problems instead of escaping from them.” “In a 1930s Ursula Parrott story,” she suggests, “deception, drinks, and divorces would have ensued,” but the “older and wiser author gives her literary couples the more difficult path of building instead of destroying.” Gordon deepens her reading of Parrott’s later fiction by comparing it to her concurrent nonfiction. In a 1946 article directed at the United States’ suddenly burgeoning demographic of postwar housewives slavishly catering to their husbands—one of the last pieces of writing she ever published—Parrott no longer characterizes divorce as the unorthodox, slightly fashionable, but somewhat dangerous novelty it had been during the 1930s. Instead, she firmly encourages women to make the choice to free themselves from their marriages on practical, sober, and self-protective grounds: “[T]he sooner the wife … gets a divorce and goes back to mother, job or both, the smarter she is.” Gordon perceptively jumps in here:
So much for staying the course and overcoming marital difficulties; this was about intractable ideological chains and the need for an emergency exit. […]
Instead of wondering about the unintended consequences of marital instability, Parrott was now making a case for divorce for a new generation of women, urging them not to waste their lives in dead-end servitude. Her argument had become sharper and less tentative: divorce was a tool that women could use to set themselves free.
By the time she published this article, Parrott was two years removed from her fourth and final divorce. But all it set her free to do was to continue wrecking her life alone. She had been hit with a ruinous IRS bill for unpaid back taxes from 1942, and her writing output couldn’t maintain sufficient income, especially not after her agent, Bye, finally resigned in 1940, frustrated with her increasing unreliability regarding contracts and deadlines. She published her final novel in 1944 and her last story in 1947, and wound up pilfering money from another agent for whom she never produced any writing. She walked out on steep hotel bills (she was briefly jailed for one of these dodges) and stole and pawned silver out of the house of a couple who had lent her their 15-room home while they were on vacation. By 1952, she had moved into a Salvation Army shelter, literally fainting from starvation, and soon after that, she was sleeping in the New York City subways.
Had she died that way, it would have provided the tawdry and melodramatic ending Parrott’s stories habitually avoided. But “Ursula was a fighter,” Gordon writes, and she punched her way out of homelessness with her preferred weapon: the typewriter. She cadged one of those devices, and a little money, out of yet another agent, rented a room in Brooklyn Heights under the alias “Sarah March,” and promised to produce something for him. She worked at the nearby dry cleaner to support herself.
She apparently started a memoir and perhaps an account of the “Saving Private Bryan” incident, along with what she described as some “Brooklyn Heights” stories, which she proposed to publish under a (male) alias, as though to find another protective cover, like the “Anonymous” originally credited as the author of Ex-Wife. But she never delivered any writing to the agent. A few allies, including one of her ex-husbands, tried to help her, but beset by ailments, poverty, and mental fog, Parrott died in 1957, virtually without notice.
Gordon notes the disproportionate number of Parrott’s stories whose titles include the word “tomorrow”—“There’s Always Tomorrow,” “Appointment with Tomorrow,” etc.—and there are plenty of others (e.g., Even in a Hundred Years) that echo the theme of “hopes and expectations that are deferred or dashed.” Parrott herself insisted, “Women like me will be better off in a hundred years,” and Gordon agrees: “I am convinced that Ursula Parrott was right, that it would have been significantly easier to be her now than it was a hundred years ago when many of her ideas and actions seemed untenable, off-putting, even outlandish.”
I’m not so sure. No doubt Parrott’s life as she lived it then would seem, if not exactly ordinary to us now, then perhaps no more outré than something you’d see on Real Housewives. But would she have lived that life today? Parrott was constitutionally contrary, singular yet “embodying and espousing many contradictions,” as Gordon acknowledges, and so fixated on the tomorrow that awaits down the road that it’s hard to imagine her conforming to the mores of any era in which she might have lived. Were she alive today, she might be likelier to build a totally different yet equally radical life, no less “untenable, off-putting, even outlandish,” in which she would instinctively find, challenge, and flout the conventions of our age rather than settle comfortably into the ones she helped establish during her own.
Continuing to push against them is the only way to keep them from falling in on us again. The torpedoing last summer of Roe v. Wade (1973) was a shocking and grim reminder that the old oppressions are always massing around us, waiting to deprive women of the liberties they’ve won—gains unquestionably gotten with the help of people like Parrott. We rely on a few ardent, unpredictable, unprotected souls who are driven by that peculiar “permanent hysteria” and “hypnosis of motion” to make themselves vehicles for change and who are willing to expend everything they have of themselves for the cause, no matter when in history they’re alive to fight for it. We rely, too, on people who will shore up their ruins and preserve them in historical memory. And not just any people, but the right ones, as Gordon is for Parrott. With Becoming the Ex-Wife, Gordon has lovingly, soundly reassembled her subject’s chaos of building materials into a shelter that is far better than adequate. It should last a very long time.
Adam Sobsey’s biography of the rock star Chrissie Hynde is published by University of Texas Press.
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