Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture

Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture

Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture

Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture

Synopsis

Smart women, sophisticated ladies, savvy writers ... Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Lois Long, Jessie Fauset, Dawn Powell, Mary McCarthy, and others imagined New York as a place where they could claim professional status, define urban independence, and shrug off confining feminine roles. It might be said that during the 1920s and 1930s these literary artists painted the town red on the pages of magazines like Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. Playing Smart, Catherine Keyser's homage to their literary genius, is a captivating celebration of their causes and careers.

Through humor writing, this "smart set" expressed both sides of the story-promoting their urbanity and wit while using irony and caricature to challenge feminine stereotypes. Their fiction raised questions about what it meant to be a woman in the public eye, how gender roles would change because men and women were working together, and how the growth of the magazine industry would affect women's relationships to their bodies and minds. Keyser provides a refreshing and informative chronicle, saluting the value of being "smart" as incisive and innovative humor showed off the wit and talent of women writers and satirized the fantasy world created by magazines.

Excerpt

The December 1923 issue of Vanity Fair featured “A Very Modern Love Story” by Nancy Hoyt, sister of the poet Elinor Wylie. In this fable, a “young, fashionable, well bred, and rich” man laments that he has “found no maiden at all up to his standard.” He watches a beautiful modern girl, waiting for her to develop sufficiently to spark his interest. Like Goldilocks, the modern girl samples each cultural brew: lowbrow, highbrow, and finally middlebrow, the concoction—or confection—that is just right. First, the modern girl is too uncultivated: “noisy and raucous,” singing a jingle for “‘Booth’s old-time gin.’” Then she is overly intellectual, “mus[ing]” and “hushed,” “wistfully” reading Rupert Brooke. The young man longs for her to “grow just a little more cynical, a little more sad, a little more able to regard her past loves with her tongue in her cheek and through amused, sardonic eyes! To read authors who were flippant about serious things, and serious about flippant ones.” Finally, the young man sees the sign he needs that “his every hope would be fulfilled; for, under one of her arms, she held the latest issue of Vanity Fair.”

This tale treats humor as seductive and nonthreatening. The man wants a woman to be “subtle” and “charming,” but he does not want her to be “too serious” or “too heavily cultured.” Bon mots and cynicism together convey the exquisite impression that she has “admired and passed beyond all the imbecilities of society,” turning her worldliness into a status symbol for this young man with “his yacht and his motorcars.” Lest fulfilling the prince’s fantasy seem the fable’s prescription for women, tongue-in-cheek narration tweaks the young man’s . . .

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