Jessica at Fifty
IN March 1925, when Elsie Clews Parsons was fifty years old, the novelist Robert Herrick described, in fictional form, the woman he had fallen in love with two years before. She was "a tall slight woman with waving blond hair . . . meditatively smoking a long cigarette of a peculiar shape which she held to her lips with tiny fingers of one hand . . . like a delicate, contemplative bird of prey, waiting with keen eyes, determining where next she would make her plunge, her swoop into the human pool to grasp with her slender hands the desired morsel that her mind coveted."
She was fairly famous, intellectual, distinguished, in men's fashion, and yet as if to prove that she could do the women's thing too, with one hand, she had taken a husband, produced children, lived as others. Yet was never like others . . . [she] was comely, alluring in a delicate white and gold manner (with the sunlight evoking the nimbus of her flowing hair, bringing out the tawny warmth of her skin, lighting the jade depths of her roving eyes). And she was young, still something youthful to her, in spite of her long record as writer and mother known to all, something wilfully and mockingly youthful, superior to [other women] worn by their hearts.1
Over the course of their five-year relationship, from 1923 to 1928, Herrick was both fascinated and repelled by this woman who refused, unlike most other women he knew, to be "worn by her heart." He described her again and again, trying to capture the essence of this new kind of woman whose passion was for her work and for her children, and only secondarily for the men in her life. In 1926, as their relationship started to deteriorate, he began to formulate ideas for a novel he called "Jessica at Fifty," which became, finally, The End of Desire, published in 1932, four years after their affair ended.
Herrick introduced Jessica into his work from the beginning of his relationship with Parsons, making her one of the symbols