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Authors: Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey

A Woman of Independent Means

BOOK: A Woman of Independent Means
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A Woman of Independent Means
Inspired by her grandmother's life, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey wrote
A Woman of Independent Means
for her daughters, Brooke and Kendall. Since its publication, Hailey has had the pleasure of seeing Brooke make her TV acting debut in the miniseries, portraying the eldest grandchild, as well as the publication of Kendall's first book. The author of
Life Sentences
Joanna's Husband and David's Wife
, and
Home Free
, Hailey lives in Studio City, California.
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York,
New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2
Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road,
Auckland 10, New Zealand
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
First published in the United States of America by
The Viking Press 1978
Published in Penguin Books 1998
Copyright © Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, 1978
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
eISBN : 978-1-101-49842-2
CIP data available

for my grandmother
whose life inspired these letters
and for my husband
who inspired me
May 1998
Hollins College, Virginia
Dear Reader,
I was born in 1938,
and every twenty-year interval seems to culminate in some kind of watershed experience that propels me into the next chapter of my life.
I spent 1958 in Paris on a year-abroad program offered by my alma mater, Hollins College in Virginia. It was the first time I had ever been abroad, and the experience of living in a different culture—among people who not only spoke a different language but spoke it with much greater precision and pleasure than I did my native English—forever changed my idea of the kind of life I wanted to live. I resolved that no matter where my future took me or with whom I shared it, I would live in a larger world than the conventional one in which I had been raised. And somehow I sensed that writing would be my passport.
The next year, working on my hometown paper,
The Dallas Morning News
, I met an aspiring playwright, Oliver Hailey. We married and moved to New York and then to California, where our two daughters, Kendall and Brooke, were born. Like a lot of wives of my generation, I was struggling with what Betty Friedan called “the problem that has no name.” I was married to a man whose needs and ambitions often seemed so much larger than my own that at times I lost sight of who I had been before I met him and who I still hoped to become. I needed to find work of my own—preferably something I could do from the kitchen table or an unoccupied bedroom and still be available to help the children with their homework and fix dinner at night.
The idea of writing a novel seemed highly audacious but extremely convenient. My husband worked at home and liked having me around as a sounding board for his plays and as an occasional partner on television projects. However, I had very little confidence in my abilities as a writer of fiction, having almost flunked the only creative writing course I had ever taken (the professor said he only gave me a “C” because he was new to the college and hated to flunk anybody his first semester).
To overcome my fear of fiction, I came up with the idea of a novel in letter form. I planned to call it “Letters from a Runaway Wife.” My husband was not amused. He assured me runaway wives were a passing fad and would be history before I had time to write a first draft. “Why don't you write about a woman who doesn't have to leave home to be liberated?” he suggested. “A woman like your grandmother.”
I thought about it overnight and decided he was right. Though not a heroine by any historical measure, my grandmother had challenged the conventions of her time, and her saga was a portrait in miniature of the broad changes in American life over the twentieth century.
She had also lived through more tragedies than I would have dared invent for a fictional heroine. By comparison I felt relatively untested by life. I hoped that by putting myself through her ordeals, at least in my imagination, I could discover the sources of her strength and of her joie de vivre, which continued unabated into old age.
But I was still intrigued by the idea of a novel in letter form. Letters are a very dramatic device, spanning time, eliminating the need for narrative description, and, most important, enlisting the imagination of the reader to supply the offstage action. I also wanted to write a novel my playwright husband would read. Like most dramatists who are challenged by the strict economy of the stage, he was impatient with prose.
So, using the large events of my grandmother's life as a framework, I tried to imagine the letters she might have written from childhood to old age and in the process show how full of drama even a seemingly ordinary life can be. And how very quickly it passes. In writing the book, I realized the only villain of the piece was time.
In 1978—just as I was facing my fortieth birthday—
A Woman of Independent Means
was published, and I was launched on a new career as a novelist. My best review came from one of my grandmother's friends: “How like Bess,” she said, “to have made carbon copies of all her letters!”
The traditional advice to writers is “write what you know.” I always amend that to “write what you can imagine knowing.” The experience of loving a husband or a child is knowledge enough to be able to ache with the imagined loss.
When I was writing
A Woman of Independent Means
, I thought I was writing fiction. I know now that in recreating my grandmother's life, I was in fact charting a map for my own future.
Four years after the book was published, just as I was setting out on a tour for my second novel,
Life Sentences
, my husband, who had encouraged and supported me through every turn, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative illness attacking the nervous system for which there is still no cure. He had struggled with it for ten years when he was told he had inoperable cancer. He died a week later, at home, surrounded by family and friends. I had never seen anyone die, but I had been with Bess when she lay down beside her dying husband and told him good-bye. I knew then it was what I would do. I just had no idea how soon I would have to do it.
That same year my mother suffered a sudden, massive stroke that doctors did not expect her to survive. She amazed all of us by returning to consciousness and full power of speech. We knew she was on her way back when she corrected a young therapist in the rehab center who asked if she was tired and wanted to “lay down.” From the depths of her soul came a roar: “
down! You lay an object!”
I realized then that the saga that began with my grandmother is still unfolding, and so I am finally at work on the sequel I never knew how to write. It is the story of my mother's generation—a generation at odds with their daughters who seemed to ask for so much more from life than they did and in the asking, caused them to feel that their own lives had been judged and found wanting.
And so now, twenty years after the publication of
A Woman of Independent Means
, I find myself approaching another watershed birthday—my sixtieth.
I am back at Hollins College for the spring semester—this time as Wyndham Robertson Writer in Residence (despite that “C” in creative writing the first time around). My daughters are grown now and living their own lives. My husband, with whom I shared so many adventures, has embarked on his last without me, and I am once again preparing to leave this sequestered quadrangle in search of my life as a woman alone. I write in my journal every morning, but I know in my heart I am making notes for the third novel in the generational saga that began with my grandmother, the one that will tell my story.
To be continued ...
Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey
Art TK
December 10, 1899
Honey Grove, Texas
Dear Rob,
I just asked Miss Appleton to put us on the same team for the spelling bee. Since we're the only two people in the fourth grade who can spell “perspicacious,” our team is sure to win.
Can you come over after school? The gardener is clearing the hollyhock bed so there will be more room to play tag. It was my idea.
January 2, 1900
Honey Grove
Dear Rob,
Happy New Century! I wish I could live to see a new millennium (if you don't know what that means, I'll tell you after school).
Can you come over today? I'll show you everything I got for Christmas. I got everything I asked for, but I always do.
BOOK: A Woman of Independent Means
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