She Was All That: This Single Chick Broke the Mold

I came to New York for my vision of what it was -for residential hotels and single women brooding over $2 meals in poorly lit restaurants. An affected longing, I suppose. But I was newly sprung from a long relationship-a de facto divorcee, cut loose and bewildered-and felt like a Victorian girl in a postmodern world. Rather than get with the times, however, I developed an unhealthy infatuation with the century-old archetype of defiantly unchaperoned spinsters. Was it some latent longing that organized itself around a pair of silk stockings and a cut-glass tumbler of whiskey? Or was it simply a reaction to the fact that, much to my dismay, nobody around me was interested in congratulating an educated quasi-professional in her late 20’s for the feat of striking out on her own? Now, had it been 100 years ago ….

Greenwich Village, circa 1900: all that collective idealism and heady individualism, tempered by cautious restraint. A loosening of corsets, but corsets nonetheless. And so I did what any bookish girl would do and took to the library stacks in search of a role model. There were plenty of false starts as I considered the usual contenders: Djuna Barnes was riveting, but too crazy; Louise Bogan alluring, but a bit self-obsessed; Elinor Wylie a tad histrionic. And so on. Until finally, there she was-a basically unknown New York City journalist and novelist at the turn of the last century. Her novels had fallen out of print decades ago. She was deliciously obscure. My hunt was over.

“I was born a bachelor, but of course several years elapsed … before my predestination to this career became obvious. Up to that time people acknowledged threatening indications by calling me queer, while elderly persons who wished to be disagreeable said that I was independent. [Their] prediction … has so far been justified. I did not marry. The alternative of course was a profession.”

So begins the first installment of 26-year-old Neith Boyce’s declaration of independence-an 1898 Vogue magazine column spiritedly defending her radical decision to devote her life to her writing, not marriage, to “convince the world that she is possible.”

Tall and good-looking, Neith could have been the poster girl for the national metamorphosis going on around her-her porcelain skin and elegant bearing were pure Victorian, her sultry, heavy-lidded eyes and wild, red tresses perfectly bohemian. Newly transplanted from Boston, she was renting a room in a little family hotel on Washington Square and working as the only female reporter on the Commercial-Advertiser , the city’s oldest daily newspaper. To augment her modest salary, she started writing freelance.

Well, it took “pluck,” as Neith would say, to be a bachelor girl in 1898. But as she would be the first to point out, one can’t even begin to be a bachelor girl without having “individuality, pluck and a sense of humor.” And that’s not all. A girl must be a bachelor by choice, not necessity, and pay no mind to warnings that she’ll end up a lonely old maid at 40-for “the principal joy of being independent is to take no thought for the morrow, much less a morrow a score of years removed.”

It wasn’t that I agreed with her fundamental anti-marriage stance. Or even that she had anything new to say about the bachelor girl’s conundrum over how to “reconcile the ideas of the world and our own idea of living.” It was that she had the courage to address these questions with such sobriety. For amid Neith’s winks and sly asides there was a tone of unself-conscious gravity that was absent from the present-day single-girl drone I’d grown so weary of.

What else did it take to join her ranks? The bachelor girl must have self-confidence (for without it, “no Napoleon nor even a war-editor or a woman reporter ever achieved success”) and a “just estimate” of her own abilities (“There is a true saying that the world takes you at your own estimate-less fifty per cent, discount. Do not make the mistake of putting the original estimate so low that the discount will wipe it out entirely”). She must like eating out frequently (thereby exhibiting the “ability to appreciate good company and a capacity for lounging and forgetting temporarily whatever cares her day may be infested with”), not be too concerned with finances and not be “obtrusively feminine.”

Neith was disdainful of marriage. Not only were those who took the plunge renouncing their careers and bachelordom, they were stiffing her on the rent. “It is a little unsettling to one’s own mind to watch one chum after another take the matrimonial fence,” she says, “leaving one’s sympathetic self to look out for another recruit to share the apartment and the rent. It is melancholy to reflect how many of them have come croppers in the course of that perilous leap; how many have married dreadful little men to whom you would begrudge a cup of tea.” She doesn’t shed any tears, though. When she moves out of the two-bedroom apartment she shared with a roommate to return to the boarding-house, she thanks her stars that she was “really a bachelor, and [not] a man and married to Olivia.”

For Neith may have been all about women’s liberation, but she would have nothing to do with sisterhood. Those women friends of hers who did go in for new coats, carfare and cologne (and most of them did), she dismisses as “neurotic fellow-women”; her boarding-house roommates she pejoratively passes off as having reached “what may be called the meal-time of life. Their principal interest, obviously, centred in the dining-room.” But she wasn’t averse to feminine companionship in general, especially when it came time to host meetings of the Bachelor Dinner Club and the Anti-Matrimonial Bureau, during which she would bemoan things like having to fork over her paycheck for countless wedding presents.

And so, looking through those old magazines, I worried: What would Neith think if she knew her current incarnation was a trussed-up, millennial version of one of her own “neurotic fellow-women”? And will the bachelor girl ever “reconcile the ideas of the world and our own idea of living”?

Later that week, a package arrived in the mail from a professor at Brown who was helping me track down Neith information. In a June 1898 letter to the writer Hutchins Hapgood, Neith muses over her friendship with Vogue ‘s first editor, Josephine Redding. “She likes me because I’m an independent young woman,” Neith writes, then adds, mysteriously, “but I’m sure if she knew that I had ever thought of joining the vast majority her interest in me would cease and determine.” Exactly one year later, mere months after the last installment of her column, Neith and Hutchins were married. Turns out they went on to enjoy one of the era’s most famously sexy open marriages, which is a whole other story.

Ah, Neith-the defiantly independent woman of my wildest dreams. That she set out to convince the world that she was possible, and then took the matrimonial fence, just like the rest of them-well, it hardly matters. We all come a cropper one way or the other. And besides, the more meals I take alone in poorly lit restaurants, the more I start to think it wouldn’t be all that bad to have someone sitting across from me.

She Was All That: This Single Chick Broke the Mold