“Have you heard of Ursula Parrott?”
I’ve been asking this question for weeks, and everyone says no, even people well-versed in mid-twentieth-century American literature and film. It’s astonishing how this best-selling novelist, someone who was a regular in gossip columns, wrote for Hollywood, and who got enormous sums for her stories, disappeared from public memory. In “Becoming the Ex-Wife,” Marsha Gordon sheds welcome light on this remarkable and troubled writer, who knew too well how hard it was to be a modern woman who wanted sexual freedom and a career of her own choosing. In this well-researched and fascinating biography, Parrott emerges as a star who should be remembered alongside Jazz Age icons like Dorothy Parker and the Fitzgeralds. Parrott created many of her own problems, but Gordon gets us to admire and pity her. We’d even loan her money, knowing we’d never get it back.
Katherine Ursula Towle was born in Boston in 1899, the daughter of an Irish Catholic doctor. She goes to Radcliffe, but is a mediocre student and gets snubbed as a “pushy, lace-curtain Irish girl.” She becomes a journalist in the 1920s, when opportunities for women seemed to be opening. A petite beauty with gray eyes and black, bobbed hair, she married a fellow reporter, Lindesay Parrott, and had a child he didn’t want. He cheated on her, and then took great offense when she cheated on him. They divorced and Ursula found herself a “leftover lady,” caring for her son and no longer protected in the old Victorian way. She wrote about her experiences in the novel “The Ex-Wife,” a relatively new term for a growing phenomenon.
First published anonymously, the book became a sensation in 1929, sharing space on bestseller lists with Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” and Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Hollywood softened it into the movie “The Divorcee,” starring Norma Shearer, who won an Oscar for it.
Parrott went on to dizzying success, publishing about 130 novels, stories, novelettes, articles and serials. The ten movies based on her writing include “Strangers May Kiss,” “Next Time We Love,” and “There’s Always Tomorrow.” Though a tremendous worker, Parrott had three great failings—she drank too much, she kept believing she’d find the right man, and she spent more money than she made. These weaknesses led to her eventual downfall. She married and divorced three more times, and underwent multiple abortions.
During World War II, she had an affair with a much younger jazz guitarist, and smuggled him out of military prison for a rendezvous. This led to Parrott being the first person in U.S. history to be charged with violating the War Act—though she was acquitted, using the defense that she was helping to break up a marijuana ring. Parrott’s debts eventually surpassed her ability to write her way out of them, and she became impoverished—so desperate that in 1952, she swiped $1,000 in silverware while staying at a rich couple’s house. She died of cancer in 1957, and not one paper ran an obituary.
Gordon brings out Parrott’s voice through letters and excerpts from her published work, often autobiographical and all out of print. Parrott comes off as sad, funny and prescient about the hurdles women face in trying to balance work and family, and in finding a man who can tolerate independence. “Not only has a wife to be a combined Madonna and Cleopatra, but she often has to be a business woman… as well as a fairly good athlete, a perfect listener—and if she hopes to hold her man, she must also put on a ‘clinging vine’ act,” Parrott writes, summing up female plate-spinning from the 1920s through the present.
Gordon has a witty voice of her own, and sometimes comments on Parrott’s exploits with dry exasperation. For example, when Parrott checks into a hotel with her pot-dealing soldier, Gordon writes that “we must hope, for Parrott’s sake, [it] was a night worthy of the crime it took to experience it.”
A North Carolina State University professor in film studies, Gordon puts Parrott’s life in its historic context. She discusses, for example, the rising divorce rate, and how Parrott felt that it left men more free than women. Gordon also explains how Parrott managed such a high-flying lifestyle—writing was a different business in the twenties and thirties, when an educated public was hungry to read, and magazines paid big money for new fiction.
Was Parrott’s writing good enough to put her in the canon with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway? Maybe not, but it’s clear she didn’t deserve to be forgotten. She was pigeonholed as a writer of sentimental romances, but Gordon argues that she took on much more—tough divorces, single parenting, and risk-taking of all kinds. The fact that she was a woman writing about women’s problems seems a likelier reason for her obscurity than any lack of skill. As Parrott wrote, “melodramatic [is] just a word men use to describe any agony that might otherwise make them feel uncomfortable.” She thought that women like herself might be better off in a hundred years. It would be nice to have some of her work back in print, because, unfortunately, things haven’t changed as much as she hoped.
“Becoming the Ex-Wife: The Unconventional Life & Forgotten Writings of Ursula Parrott”
By Marsha Gordon
University of California Press, 304 pages, $29.95
Mary Wisniewski is a Chicago writer and author of “Algren: A Life.”