Politics & Prose with Elizabeth Hailey
When Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey-that classy, classic-penning author of the trailblazing A Woman of Independent Means-told me over dinner in Los Angeles last January that she’d recently devoted herself to anti-war work, I remembered Ann Richards. And that of the many fine reasons Richards trounced Clayton Williams in the 1990 governor’s race, well known was this: The ladies of Dallas had closed their polished doors to him and, more devastating still, had disconnected their mighty Republican phone banks. It’s a lesson of which the political right, and any aspiring deb, should be ever mindful: Don’t rile the perfumed lovelies of Highland Park and expect to live to tell about it.
This is in many ways a poor beginning for an article about Hailey on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the publication of A Woman of Independent Means, her best-selling, stage-and-screen-adapted debut. After all, she hasn’t lived in Highland Park, her girlhood home, for decades. She’s a serious writer and liberal who long ago exchanged Dallas for Los Angeles, where she and her late husband, playwright and Pampa native Oliver Hailey, became successful Hollywood TV writers.
But for three reasons, those powerful North Dallas doyennes sprang to mind as Hailey discussed her activism. First off, she is, in person, so fine and friendly that she can’t help reminding you of SMU socials and lavender sachets. (My own Texas grandmother used to say, “A lady’s a lady wherever she goes,” a truism of which Betsy Hailey is living proof. I can affirm this in all certainty, because before our dinner date in L.A., I’d invited Hailey to a book reading I was scheduled to give at a famous gay bookstore in West Hollywood. Like most gay bookstores, it turned out to be just shy of a porno shop, and a real lesson in humility for me. Not only did Hailey enter this almost-off-color establishment and laugh at all my jokes, she also possessed the enormous good grace to play blind to the many floppy man-parts dangling and poking out from the bookstore racks. That, sir, is a lady.)
In the second place, there’s no doubting that Hailey, in a literary sense, owns Dallas as surely as Joan Didion owns Los Angeles. Since the 1978 publication of A Woman of Independent Means, the novel’s heroine, Bess Steed Garner (famously modeled on the author’s grandmother) has become as inextricably a part of the Park Cities as Miss Hockaday.
And finally, like those genteel matrons who put Claytie in his place, society-bred Betsy Hailey is flexing her own political muscle. “Like a lot of women my age,” said the silver-haired, silver-tongued Hailey, “I missed the ’60s because I was at home raising my daughters. But now that I’m in my 60s, I’m ready to march. In the third act of my life, I’m ready for the front lines.”
It’s a modest claim by a writer whose novels (including the lesser-known Life Sentences, Joanna’s Husband & David’s Wife, and Home Free) have always accomplished a kind of political work, each advocating a form of domestic feminism that pays homage to traditional wives and mothers while reveling in their rebellions. A Woman of Independent Means became, with good reason, a favorite novel of Betty Friedan and Sissy Farenthold, and Erma Bombeck even claimed to keep a copy at her bedside “like the Bible.” Like many novels with prim appearances, such as Little Women and The House of Mirth, it’s a book that continues to inspire feminist revolt. But unlike Louisa May Alcott and Edith Wharton, women who chronicled the eras in which they lived, Hailey’s historical fiction cleverly reached back in time to unearth a feminist foremother whose respectability was unwavering, but whose daring thoughts and deeds challenged even contemporary assumptions.
“I wanted very badly,” Hailey told me, “to write something about the women’s movement, because it meant so much to me … but what I discovered was that the most radical idea, when put into the mouth of my grandmother, became suddenly more accessible.”
Such artful mixing of the traditional and the progressive can be found throughout Hailey’s novels, and not coincidentally, throughout her life.
Among the deceits of literature is that fiction, unlike real life, has a plot; stories have momentum while lives merely meander. But let me tell you that Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s life has plot: A young girl from Dallas discovers her city and craft while working as a cub reporter for the Morning News. After marrying an aspiring playwright, she sets aside her own ambitions to support his. Then, in middle age, and with her husband’s encouragement, she resumes writing to astounding success. It’s a story worthy of a novel, so it won’t surprise you to discover that it is one: Hailey’s excellent and highly autobiographical Joanna’s Husband & David’s Wife, the tale of a Texas-born woman who, in a new twist on an old narrative, becomes a writer with her family’s support! In the book, it’s the bustling deadlines of the housewife-breakfasts, laundry, and homework-that provide Joanna with the structure necessary to become an artist. Instead of an editor, it’s a meatloaf that looms over her head, keeping Joanna sane and determinedly working. This experience reflects Hailey’s own, and upturns common assumptions about the conditions necessary for writing.
I mentioned to her, for instance, Virginia Woolf’s famous claim that for a woman to become an artist, she must isolate The Angel in the House (that tea-pouring, pillow-plumping hostess instinct ladies are socialized to internalize), and she must throttle that angel to death.
It’s the only time Hailey sounds irked. “Oh, I don’t agree with that at all,” she said. “To tell the truth, Virginia Woolf has always been a little thin-blooded for me … Somewhere in her correspondence to her sister Vanessa [Bell, the Bloomsbury painter], she writes, ‘You chose family, and I chose art,’ and that’s just so damned condescending. Because Vanessa Bell’s paintings are every bit as important as Virginia Woolf’s novels. And she had a husband and three children and a famous, beautiful home … I’ve always believed that it was possible for women to have it all in their lives. Just maybe not all at the same time. … Writing has always been a part of my life, but I’ve never defined myself solely by my profession, and I loved having a family. Both parts of myself fed the other.”
Now, Hailey said, it’s her newest family role, as grandmother, that’s inspired her increasing political involvement. “You first start figuring out power sharing in a family, in a marriage. Earlier in my life, while my husband was still alive, the politics that exist between women and men seemed nearest me-it was the political focus of my work. But now, as a grandmother during the Iraq war, I feel I have a new obligation, and new questions: Who are the people in your family? Doesn’t your family include people outside your bloodline? I’m having to reinvent what I mean by the term. … You know, my father loved Dallas and felt an enormous debt to his community. That was such a big word for him, community. And he worked tirelessly as a community leader. But lately I’ve been thinking about that and wondering, where is my community, and where does it end?”
Such questions led Hailey to join the steering committee of the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace through her local church. “All Saints’ is the most liberal Episcopal congregation west of the Mississippi,” Hailey said proudly. The Pasadena church is so actively left-wing, in fact, that its tax-exempt status was notoriously investigated by the IRS after a former rector delivered an anti-war sermon critical of the Bush administration in the days preceding the 2004 election.
The interfaith group is, likewise, gutsy. Since late September 2001, it has met weekly with the purpose of “promot[ing] critical examination of the costs of violence and war at home and in the world from the faith perspective.” It’s an endeavor of which Hailey speaks with an impressive lack of political bell-clanging, and with a sense of impending discovery. “I still haven’t quite figured out what my role is as an activist,” she said, eyes sparkling. “I just know that this work seems vital to me and that something about it keeps me showing up in that church basement every Friday morning at 7.”
It was kind of hard to sit across a dinner table from Hailey as she discussed her burgeoning political life without anticipating the arrival of something more important than dessert. Without feeling your hair rustle with that same rousing Life Is An Adventure spirit you get from reading A Woman of Independent Means. Without being reminded of the fictional epitaph she chose, in that novel, for her own adventure-hunting Dallas grandmother. And hard not to steal that ambitious closing line: To Be Continued …
Robert Leleux, a Texan in exile, lives in New York City and is the author of the newly published The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy.