The publication of Ursula Parrott’s first book coincided not only with her personal heartbreak but also with a cultural rift: a fault line dividing the Victorian age, into the tail end of which she was born, from what we might call the modern age. Parrott’s formative years were colored by the traumatic upheavals of the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918 and the Great War, which endowed her generation with a sense of life’s fragility, easily evidenced in the “omnipresence of death from every daily paper’s casualty lists,” as the narrator puts it in her sixth novel, Next Time We Live. In the postwar era, she observed her generation indulging in a host of hedonistic impulses, squeezing life out of every waking moment in case tomorrow never came. Those who lived by this ethos, Ursula eventually among them, often found that their pursuits were a recipe for exhaustion as they muddled through missteps made in the spirit of free living.
Although she is almost entirely unknown today, Ursula Parrott spent a high-profile career exploring what she called “maxims in the copybook of modernism.” From the late 1920s through the late 1940s, she published twenty books, several of them best-sellers, and over one hundred short stories, articles, and novel-length magazine serials. Parrott made and spent astronomical sums of money during the height of the Depression through the post–World War II years, some of which she earned during brief but lucrative stints in Hollywood. Her movie and book deals, as well as her divorces and run-ins with the law, regularly generated newspaper headlines. She was a world traveler, a partner in a rural Connecticut newspaper, an informant in a federal drug investigation, and a pilot in the Civil Aeronautics Administration during World War II. She navigated a wildly fluctuating career and personal life, including four husbands and as many exes. For the most part she was a single—or unmarried, as it was usually termed—mother with strong beliefs about child-rearing, which she shared with the reading public whenever given the opportunity to do so.
Starting with her debut best-seller in 1929, Ursula Parrott wrote thousands of pages about modern life and especially about the modern woman, probing the perplexing times in which she lived. Her experiences—with marriages, divorces, and raising a child; with career ambitions and loneliness; with birth control and abortions; with alcohol and depression—made their way into the pages of her stories, which are about how women broke with much of what had previously both constrained and protected them. Ursula frequently bemoaned her imperfect balancing acts as she tried to find the right mate to copilot the ship of life while balancing a demanding writing career that supported her unconventional family and lifestyle. She became a voice of alarm about what was happening to women like her—white, educated, city dwelling, and economically privileged by birth, career, or marriage—who were caught between a push for “equal everything,” as she put it, and an uphill battle to succeed on so many fronts at a time when men’s interests were often at odds with women’s ambitions. “I’m not important,” she once declared; but the story she was writing at any given moment “might be a comfort to” her readers. She described the sticky situations in which women found themselves with the hope that greater understanding would lead, eventually, to less disappointment, especially if and when men accepted women’s “new existence” on equal terms with what they expected for themselves.
After publishing Ex-Wife—a bold book about a young married woman who becomes, against her wishes, a divorcée—the exploration of male-female relations became Parrott’s raison d’être. Her autobiographically inspired first novel also became the blessing and curse that defined her, personally and professionally, for the rest of her life. When it was published in 1929, the New York Times credited Parrott with creating the category of the ex-wife, which they described as “a new descriptive tag to the American language.” Although the term ex-wife had been in circulation for years, Parrott endowed it with a vivid new life at a moment of widespread curiosity about what was happening to society in an age of marital impermanence. Many years and marriages later, the Boston Herald proclaimed that “‘Ex-Wife’ is more than a best seller to Ursula Parrott; it’s a state of mind!,” and the Los Angeles Times called her “the logical candidate for the presidency of the ‘Ex-Wives’ Association of America.” Ursula’s debut novel branded her in ways that were simultaneously profitable and impossible to shake.
Parrott became known as a specialist in “‘the maladjustment emotionally’ of women whose marriages had gone on the rocks” at a time when the number of women who fit this description was growing. If a journalist in the 1930s was writing an article about women’s careers or the institution of marriage, they often called Ursula Parrott for an expert opinion, as Helen Welshimer did for “What the Best Known ‘Ex-Wife’ Thinks of Marriage,” one of many like-minded (and like-titled) articles published in this era. Parrott became a spokeswoman about life in a period of dizzying change in part because she expressed the contradictions of her own moment with great candor and lucidity.
Parrott published her stories in commercial magazines—the likes of Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, American Magazine, and Good Housekeeping—which had enormous circulations and paid extravagantly, even during the Depression. Her words became, as Hollywood’s Photoplay magazine put it in 1931, “important to the modern woman”: She told tales about failed marriages, work-life balance, the dilemmas of single motherhood, and the seemingly incompatible desires for independence and security. Parrott dramatized contradictions about modern life that remain unresolved, especially regarding women’s roles at work and at home. She exposed dilemmas that Betty Friedan would describe in The Feminine Mystique in 1963, that Helen Gurley Brown would imagine pushing past in Having It All in 1982, and that Sheryl Sandberg would encourage women to transcend in her 2013 Lean In. She wrote about women stumbling through frustrating rituals of modern courtship and proto hookup culture; paying bills and keeping things together when their lovers or husbands failed to hold up their end of the bargain; raising children whose fathers were absent because their “liberated” views allowed them to shirk responsibility; and numbing themselves from the miseries of modernity with alcohol. It is easy to see reflections of her life in her fiction; she wrote about what she knew.
Her stories rarely have happy endings. After pages that point to numerous paths to contentment, Parrott’s smart and savvy female characters leave or are left, accept their loneliness with resignation, compromise their moral standards to have affairs instead of marriages, soldier on unaccompanied, or die. If they are not disillusioned on the first page, they are almost always disappointed by the last. Her stories regularly conclude with an emptiness reminiscent of her contemporaries, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, delivered with the kind of wisecracking wit practiced by Dorothy Parker. Like these benchmark figures of twentieth-century American literature, Parrott was committed to writing with “terrible honesty,” the phrase historian Ann Douglas uses to describe the ethos shared by New York writers of this period. Parrott wrote about romance but was not just a romance writer, though she was widely perceived as one during her lifetime. She did, however, write about the consequences of romance and sex in a newly liberated age. Parrott once said that she confined her “literary attention to women who understand the meaning of life,” possessed of real-world problems and survival skills built on a track record of letdowns, as well as sexual experience, often outside the safe confines of a marriage.
Ursula Parrott blamed the “Equal-Everything” feminists for many of her generation’s difficulties. “I am not a feminist,” she told an interviewer. “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.” She believed that young women of her generation inherited a drive for equality—for the vote, at first, but subsequently in the realms of education, work, and marriage—that made their lives harder, and her stories dramatized the consequences of this unwanted bequest. She was twenty-one when women got the vote in 1920, so she was aware of the fight it took to earn the right. However, by the mid 1920s, with the suffrage victory behind them, a sense of battle fatigue for the old guard of the women’s movement set in just as a younger generation started to reject many of the movement’s ideals. Some “ex-feminists” began speaking out about their husbands’ resentment toward them, debunking the optimism that carried them through the suffrage years; what they had fought for in theory, they could not execute with satisfaction in practice. Scholar Elaine Showalter describes this post-suffrage era as a “feminist crash.” Women who wanted to work, marry, and have children were finding “that such a life was still unattainable, and they interpreted their inability to find exciting jobs and reliable childcare as personal failures, rather than challenging the patriarchal assumptions of American society.”
Parrott’s stories collectively offer an argument about how much women’s lives were changing during the first decades of the twentieth century, and what a bad job men were doing dealing with these changes. Her male characters tend to be fragile and insecure, falling apart in the face of women who are more independent and ambitious than they are. These men try to marry ambitious women away from their work or lash out at their girlfriends and wives when they are more successful, as is almost always the case. They drink themselves into oblivion and sexual misconduct, seeking out other women, young or without career aspirations, to make them feel powerful after their wives or lovers outpace them in talent, fame, or fortune. They shield themselves from self-scrutiny by blaming their demise on women who are unerringly—and sometimes embarrassingly—dedicated to them. Virtually no Parrott heroine overcomes the disequilibrium between them and the men who come to resent them. An advertisement for the 1936 movie based on Parrott’s novel Next Time We Live, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, sums up the dilemma that Parrott saw as the pathology of her age: “What happens to romance when the wife becomes the breadwinner and the husband becomes the housemaid?” Spoiler alert: It does not go well.
Ursula Parrott became “sufficiently important,” and then she was forgotten. Widely read and highly sought after in her heyday, she suffered the fate of many women authors of her time, dismissed as a money-writer churning out romantic pablum for undiscerning female readers. Yes, she wrote many a romantic storyline—but she used most of these to critique a culture unwilling to grant women real equality, or to point out how impossible it was for women to try to do it all. While she also wrote to earn money, especially during financially exigent times, so did all writers of her time who had to survive without inherited wealth or patronage; after all, she had a family to support.
Writing to her longtime literary agent, George Bye, about a missed deadline, Parrott blamed “one of those GREAT TRAGEDIES which seem to punctuate the lives of female authors (and may be traced in their plots, a couple of years after the event, for thus the young women turn life’s losses into life’s gains, which is damn sensible of them).” True to this witty remark, Ursula Parrott made a career out of turning her experiences and observations into salable tales about women’s uncertain fate in a complicated age.
Excerpted from Becoming the Ex-Wife: The Unconventional Life and Forgotten Writings of Ursula Parrott by Marsha Gordon, published by the University of California Press. © 2023.