From Jazz Age Renegade to Best-Selling Chronicler of Women’s Lives

On the last day of March 1929, a young woman named Nancy Hale joined what appeared to be a political campaign called “Torches of Freedom.” While boldly smoking cigarettes, she and her comrades marched down Fifth Avenue during the fashionable New York Easter Parade, to protest the stigma around women smokers. It was still the Roaring Twenties, a decade of unprecedented autonomy for women. The new permissive attitudes didn’t extend to smoking in public, however.

“Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom,’” The New York Times reported the following day. Photos chronicling the event show Hale as a Jazz Age renegade, picture-perfect for the media of the time: young, well-heeled, with bobbed blond hair tucked beneath a chic cloche hat. And, crucially, white — as in “free, white and 21,” the era’s infamous catchphrase. After marrying and leaving her childhood home to work at Vogue, Hale was about to turn 21 herself.

Born in Boston in 1908 (the same year as Simone de Beauvoir) to a prominent old New England family, Hale belonged to the first generation of American girls to come of age with the right to vote, and to assume the future was theirs for the taking. Her successes came fast. A year after the Easter Parade she gave birth to her first child. In 1931 she sold the first of what would become nearly 80 short stories to The New Yorker (about a stylish young woman smoking alone in a train’s club car). In 1932 she published her first novel, and soon became the first woman hard-news reporter at The Times.

By the time she died, in 1988, Hale had published 21 books — among them novels, memoirs and a biography of Mary Cassatt — and more than 100 short stories, 10 of which won O. Henry Awards, securing her status as a prolific and decorated writer. As Beauvoir did in her novels, Hale applied her gift for self-analysis to women in general (often, though not always, of the affluent variety), providing the heretofore missing link between Edith Wharton (who skewered her own posh Gilded Age milieu) and Mary McCarthy (who shocked with her postwar portraits of liberated women). Even so, today most readers — including well-read readers — have never heard of her. I can indict myself: Hale came to my attention only in 2019, when the Library of America published “Where the Light Falls: Selected Stories of Nancy Hale,” edited by the novelist Lauren Groff.

That this was possible both staggered and vexed me. I grew up in Hale’s small, salty corner of northeastern Massachusetts, driven by similar aspirations, which makes my ignorance of her existence all the more disheartening. In 2000, when I moved from Boston to New York, I was also the media’s preferred image of yet another era’s “modern woman” — single, childless, self-supporting (though not nearly as well shod as Carrie Bradshaw). Also like Hale, I fell straight into the gulf between the boundless freedoms I assumed were mine and the invisible restrictions I was in fact up against. Given the marketplace’s enduring fascination with women authors who obsess over these realities, it’s remarkable that Hale’s example has become so remote.

How is such cultural amnesia possible? I’ve come to think that, in Hale’s case, it has a great deal to do with the paradoxes of her historical moment, and her enmeshed relationship with it, all rather neatly embodied by the so-called Torches of Freedom campaign.

It wasn’t actually a political demonstration. Rather, the American Tobacco Company had deduced that the biggest barrier between sales and female buyers was the stigma against women smoking in public. Seizing on the prevailing post-suffrage appetite for rousing feminist rhetoric, a publicist hired by the company enlisted a dozen photogenic debutantes to “protest man’s inhumanity to women” by lighting up outdoors. Once again, and not for the last time, women were instruments of a business plan.

This was precisely the sort of contradiction — the gap between what liberation looks like and what it actually is — that Hale often mined in her fiction, and which propelled her third and most important book, “The Prodigal Women,” to the best-seller lists in 1942. Deeply felt and richly immersive, the novel chronicles the intertwined lives of three girls who meet in small-town Massachusetts in the 1910s and go on to pursue careers, marriage and motherhood in the 1920s and ’30s, while living in Boston, Manhattan and Northern Virginia. Along the way, each proves in her individual fashion the truth of Tocqueville’s famous observation that, in America, on the road from maiden to matron, “the independence of woman is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony.” The tragic irony, of course, is that Tocqueville wrote that line in 1840, making its relevance to Hale’s book all the more depressing.

It may come as a surprise that a dense dramatization of the smoke-and-mirrors quality of the feminist project — in which political, social, psychological and structural changes occur at varying paces, sometimes even doubling back and erasing themselves — was a national cause célèbre during World War II. But for 23 weeks Hale’s novel was a fixture on the New York Times best-seller list. RKO snapped up film rights. Joan Fontaine, fresh from her Oscar-winning role opposite Cary Grant in “Suspicion,” signed on to star.

Clearly, along with craving fantasy and distraction, women also hungered for stories that cut through idealized depictions of It Girls and flappers, to reflect the tangled truths of their day-to-day existences.

“There’s quite a bit of autobiography in my book,” Hale told a Times reporter upon the publication of “The Prodigal Women.” By then, she was a world-weary 34, newly married to her third (and final) husband and splitting custody of her two young sons from her two previous marriages. Rather than write about her personal struggles directly, Hale turned them into art, making “The Prodigal Women” a book about what happens to any woman making a life during an era when old attitudes haven’t caught up to new realities — which, once you alter a few details, is almost every era.

It’s reasonable to suppose, if hard to confirm, that Hale’s near-contemporaries and fellow Massachusetts natives Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton read her fiction. If so, the mind races, wondering whether Hale inspired them, no matter how subliminally, to expose their own “messy” female experiences in their poems, forever changing the use of the first person in American letters.

In a timeline twist, the movies were becoming more conservative just as Hale was hitting her stride. She’d begun writing “The Prodigal Women” around 1934, when the Motion Picture Production censorship guidelines (the “Hays Code”) went into effect. With its epic scope, meticulous attention to visual detail, strong female characters and unapologetic treatment of controversial themes — abortion, ambivalent motherhood, domestic violence, adultery — Hale’s novel seems in direct conversation with 1920s and early ’30s pre-Code films, more so than much of the literature of the era. But by the time her book arrived in stores, the movies were no longer so saucy.

In the end, RKO — and Hollywood at large — kept its distance from Hale. If the movie version of “The Prodigal Women” had materialized, perhaps we’d still be debating whether its characters are heroes or villains, or something in between (such as ordinary women). Or not. Literary reputations are famously fickle. Plenty of people fall through the cracks. The rediscovery of Hale’s novel — and her stories — is a chance to restore her to a place of prominence in the American literary landscape.

Kate Bolick is the author of “Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own,” and a co-author of “March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women.” This essay is adapted from her introduction to “The Prodigal Women,” by Nancy Hale, reissued this month by the Library of America.

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