Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walkby Kathleen Rooney
Fall 2016 Library Journal Editors' Pick
“In my reckless and undiscouraged youth,” Lillian Boxfish writes, “I worked in a walnut-paneled office thirteen floors above West Thirty-Fifth Street…”
She took 1930s New York by storm, working her way up writing copy for R.H. Macy’s to become the highest/i>/i>/b>/i>
Fall 2016 Library Journal Editors' Pick
“In my reckless and undiscouraged youth,” Lillian Boxfish writes, “I worked in a walnut-paneled office thirteen floors above West Thirty-Fifth Street…”
She took 1930s New York by storm, working her way up writing copy for R.H. Macy’s to become the highest paid advertising woman in the country. It was a job that, she says, “in some ways saved my life, and in other ways ruined it.”
Now it’s the last night of 1984 and Lillian, 85 years old but just as sharp and savvy as ever, is on her way to a party. It’s chilly enough out for her mink coat and Manhattan is grittier nowher son keeps warning her about a subway vigilante on the prowlbut the quick-tongued poetess has never been one to scare easily. On a walk that takes her over 10 miles around the city, she meets bartenders, bodega clerks, security guards, criminals, children, parents, and parents-to-be, while reviewing a life of excitement and adversity, passion and heartbreak, illuminating all the ways New York has changedand has not.
A love letter to city life in all its guts and grandeur, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney paints a portrait of a remarkable woman across the canvas of a changing America: from the Jazz Age to the onset of the AIDS epidemic; the Great Depression to the birth of hip-hop.
Lillian figures she might as well take her time. For now, after all, the night is still young.
Inspired by Margaret Fishback, poet and Macy’s ad-writing phenom of the 1930s, Rooney imagines an extraordinary walk through the streets of New York City on the last night of 1984, one that triggers a flood of memories for fictional ad woman Lillian Boxfish. The octogenarian muses on the changing urban landscape as she stops at favorite haunts: an intimate neighborhood bar that’s just installed a TV, a restaurant where she’s dined every New Year’s Eve that’s about to change owners, the famed Delmonico’s, where she ended her marriage. Further stops include a changing lower Manhattan landscape where she meets a haunted Vietnam veteran and engages him in a “best last-line contest,” a detour to a hospital emergency room with a frightened woman about to have her first baby, and a party where she’s both scorned and adored by a new generation of artists, followed by a hilarious encounter with three muggers. Meanwhile, Lillian carefully recounts her celebrated career in advertising, her adored husband and son, and her emotional breakdown. Elegantly written, Rooney creates a glorious paean to a distant literary life and time—and an unabashed celebration of human connections that bridge the past and future. Agent: Lisa Bankoff, ICM Partners. (Jan.)
“Transporting…witty, poignant and sparkling.”
People (People Picks Book of the Week)
“Prescient and quick....A perfect fusing of subject and writer, idea and ideal.”
“Extraordinary…hilarious…Elegantly written, Rooney creates a glorious paean to a distant literary life and timeand an unabashed celebration of human connections that bridge past and future.
Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed)
"Rooney's delectably theatrical fictionalization is laced with strands of tart poetry and emulates the dark sparkle of Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Truman Capote. Effervescent with verve, wit, and heart, Rooney’s nimble novel celebrates insouciance, creativity, chance, and valor."
Booklist (starred review)
“Needle-sharp....A delightful stroll with a colorful character.”
Library Journal (starred review)
“Easily the best gadding-around-town novel since Dawn Powell and Dorothy Parker.”
Daniel Handler, author of Why We Broke Up and We Are Pirates
"There is a little of Lillian Boxfish in all of us. And if there isn’t, there ought to be.”
Julia Claiborne Johnson, author of Be Frank With Me
"A lively, fictionalized version of Fishback's story...[with] plenty of charm."
“Vividly depicts an evolving New York City as well as the changing roles of women over the course of the 20th century.”
It's New Year's Eve 1984 and indomitable octogenarian Lillian Boxfish has places to go. Manhattan is her playground, and she's not going to let a subway vigilante or the winter chill keep her indoors. Outfitted in her beloved mink coat, which she bought for herself in 1942, Lillian briskly sets off from her Murray Hill apartment, reminiscing about her illustrious career as the highest-paid woman in advertising, her first love, Max, and her darling son, Gian. She joins a family of strangers at Delmonico's for dinner, charms a Filipino convenience store clerk, smartly tells off a boor at a trendy loft party, and unflappably transforms a mugging into a business transaction. Lillian's needle-sharp observations are astute and her unceasing love for New York City shines through. Her life has not always been breezy, but she keeps putting one fashionable foot in front of the other. VERDICT Rooney (O, Democracy!) takes us on a delightful stroll with a colorful character, inspired by the life of poet and ad woman Margaret Fishback, sprinkling just the right details and arch bons mots appropriate to Lillian's reputation as a woman of words. [See Prepub Alert, 8/1/16; Editors' Fall Picks 2016, LJ 9/1/16.]—Christine Perkins, Whatcom Cty. Lib. Syst., Bellingham, WA
A poet and writer of clever, innovative ad copy, Margaret Fishback was admired in her time—the pre–Mad Men era—but is mostly forgotten now. Rooney (O, Democracy!, 2014, etc.) has written a lively, fictionalized version of Fishback’s story, drawing on real milestones but imagining her subject’s inner life.Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish comes to Manhattan in 1926 to make her mark. A smart, stylish, independent young woman, she lands a job at R.H. Macy’s, where she turns out witty rhymes that promote the department store; on her own, she writes light verse, eventually published in several volumes. Though a self-styled “scoffer at love,” Lillian falls hard for Max Caputo, the head rug buyer at Macy’s. They marry, but when she becomes pregnant with their son, Johnny, she's forced to quit her job—maternity leave being a thing of the future. The marriage eventually fractures, and Lillian suffers a mental breakdown. Intercut with this narrative is the more fanciful story of Lillian’s adventures on New Year’s Eve 1984. An old woman now, she roams the streets of Manhattan alone, passing landmarks public as well as private and befriending several New York characters (all too benevolent to be believed) along the way. The city is in decline—the Subway Vigilante is on the loose—which Lillian seems to equate with her own fall from grace. But the chance encounters lift her spirits, helping her come to terms with her past. While the book effectively underscores the fierce struggles of career women like Lillian in a pre-feminist time, it can also feel schematic. And Lillian’s dialogue is sometimes too arch, too written, to be credible. There is plenty of charm and occasional poignance here even if the novel makes you long for a proper biography of the real woman who inspired it.
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Read an Excerpt
Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk
By Kathleen Rooney
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Kathleen Rooney
All rights reserved.
The Road of Anthracite
There once was a girl named Phoebe Snow. She wore only white and held tight to a violet corsage, an emblem of modesty. She was not retiring, though, and her life spun out as a series of journeys through mountain tunnels carved from poetry. I never saw her doing anything besides boarding, riding, or disembarking a train, immaculate always, captivating conductors, enchanting other passengers.
No, there wasn't. She was just an advertisement: the poster girl for the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. Her unsoilable Antarctic-colored clothes were proof that the line's anthracite-powered locomotives were clean-burning, truly — unlike their sooty and outfit-despoiling competitors:
Her laundry bill for fluff and frill Miss Phoebe finds is nearly nil. It's always light, though gowns of white, Are worn on Road of Anthracite.
* * *
I was five years old when I first laid eyes on her, on a postcard sent me by my dearest aunt, Sadie Boxfish, my father's youngest sister, daring and unmarried and living in Manhattan. Sadie visited us in the District of Columbia, but not very often. Her rare physical presence she supplemented with correspondence in snips and flashes. After I scrawled back how much I adored Phoebe, star of the story-poems, they became the only kind of card Sadie ever posted.
The earliest ones my mother read aloud (though I could read):
Miss Phoebe Snow has stopped to show Her ticket at the gate, you know. The Guard, polite, declares it right. Of course — it's Road of Anthracite.
* * *
Mother clutched me in her lap, talking about the image — Phoebe in a hat, Phoebe in a dining car, Phoebe blue-eyed and mannerly chatting with the engineer — and reciting the poetry:
Here Phoebe may, by night or day, Enjoy her book upon the way. Electric light dispels the night Upon the Road of Anthracite.
* * *
In her clear contralto above my ears I could hear, in her neat bosom behind my head I could feel, her disapproval: not of Phoebe, but of Sadie. My mother — who was well-educated, read widely, passably fluent in German, conversant with the works of Freud and Adler, married at twenty, and never received a dollar of wages in her life — was also a woman who took difference as a slight. Anyone not living a life that fit the mold of her own — wifedom, motherhood — constituted a personal affront, an implied rebuke, an argument against. I thought Sadie quite bold.
"What a smart girl," my mother would say of Phoebe, who (I saw later) must have been so light and unburdened for having only air, and not one thought or care, in her golden head. Mother, stroking my own red-gold hair, meant only that Phoebe's frock was smart, or her little white gloves. Not Phoebe herself. Not smartness of that kind.
"Aunt Sadie's a smart girl," I said only once. To no reply. To my mother, gritting her small neat teeth, pearly and needle-like, reading that day's card more loudly than usual:
A cozy seat, a dainty treat Make Phoebe's happiness complete With linen white and silver bright Upon the Road of Anthracite.
* * *
Sadie, career girl, and Phoebe, socialite, embedded inextricably into one another in my mind. Both of them expressed the inexpressible, suggesting that sex appeal existed but probably ought not to be named while one was living at home. Suggesting not so much a passenger train as speed and freedom, not so much a gown as style, not so much a hairdo as beauty.
Mother saw Sadie as wasting that last, working as hard as a beast of burden as a nurse in a hospital in New York City. Though now I know that Sadie can't have been living the life of Riley, I wanted to move there and join her. What a smart girl.
My mother resented Sadie like a stepsister resenting Cinderella, but she was polite. She did her no social violence. Was always hospitable and gracious on Sadie's visits, both as a point of pride and because my father would not have abided otherwise. Though he, too, a lawyer, thought Sadie's work beneath her.
My devotion to both Phoebe and Sadie has remained constant over the decades. When I think of either, I also think of lofty mountain chains and cool delights.
The New York I moved to eventually was empty of Sadie, though I've since walked by St. Vincent's, the hospital where she worked, I don't know how many times. She died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.
Phoebe, deathless, simply faded from public consciousness like a once-popular song. Anthracite, needed to fight the Great War, was not to be used on railroads anymore. The world changed, and Phoebe disappeared forever:
On time the trip ends without a slip And Phoebe sadly takes her grip Loath to alight, bows left and right, "Good-bye, Dear Road of Anthracite."
* * *
But I never forgot her. I didn't want to be her, so much as to have her — to create her.
Sadie led me to Manhattan, but Phoebe led me to poetry, and to advertising. So enrapt was I at her entrancing rhymes that when the time came to apply for jobs, I rhymed my letters and my samples alike:
To work for you Is my fondest wish Signed your ever-true Lillian Boxfish
* * *
Fifteen inquiries. Five favorable replies. Including one by telegram from R.H. Macy's. This was the one I chose: my first serious job in New York City. A job which in some ways saved my life, and in other ways ruined it. What a smart girl.CHAPTER 2
New Year's Eve
The only man I ever birthed, though not the only one I mothered, is on the other end of the line, and he is giving me news that is sad and bad and that makes me jealous. Julia, my ex-husband's second wife, has been hospitalized after a heart attack, her third. She will likely not survive. She is much younger than I — fifteen years if you go by my age as I've been lying about it forever, sixteen if you go by my age as I am pretty sure is correct. Either way, she is 68.
Either way, it is 1984, and she is with them, and I am alone on New Year's Eve in New York City, and it's too warm. I wish it were snowing, but gently, gently, like sugar falling on a great, gray cookie.
Unlike Julia, my health is and always has been — physically — impeccable.
"She was struggling in all this Maine snow, when there's none in California," says Johnny, says Gianino, my Little John, says my son, says Gian, as he asked to be called back in junior high school, when it occurred to him that he had the wherewithal. "She collapsed coming up the driveway after taking the kids to the library. It's pretty grim this time, Ma."
"Ma," he calls me — incongruous, ugly — but I enjoy it. Max, my ex-husband, taught him that: the harsh monosyllable sounding working-class, hardly our income bracket. But that was part of what I loved about Max. The blue of his collar to the white of mine. I was not entirely un-maternal toward Max. Of course when, finally, I needed his unconditional support, he could not afford the same care to me.
"Dreadful," I say. "I hope the ambulance didn't founder getting out to Pin Point."
Gian spends his time between semesters at Pin Point, the summer home Max and I bought in the thirties; perversely, he likes it in winter, too.
"No, they made it all right," he says. "I'm at the hospital now. Claire's mom took the train up from Boston to help out with the kids so I can stay here with Julia. The university's not back in session until the third week of January, so this honestly couldn't have happened at a better time."
This announcement that Gian is calling from the hospital forces me to revise the image of him in my mind, an image I wasn't even aware of until I knew it was wrong. I picture him now in an overly bright lounge among grim institutional furniture, murmuring into an oft-disinfected courtesy phone. He rests his free hand atop his shaggy head in his distracted fashion — the absentminded professor, father of three, black hair threaded with gray at the temples, forty-three years old next month — and that imagined gesture recalls another, from what seems like yesterday: Gian placing a flat palm on the crown of his skull to measure his height against his bedroom wall.
The line goes quiet: He's stopped talking, and I realize I'd stopped listening. "How are the kids taking it?" I ask. I picture the three as last I saw them, the day after Christmas, bundled up like ornaments in red and green coats, and boarding the train north. I want to know how they will react when I die.
"They're upset. They're old enough to understand that this is it. That death is it. They're excited, though, that their aunt is going to fly in from California. We can't move Julia back there because she's too sick. She's going to be buried here anyway."
I imagine Gian's much younger half-sister, the second child Max wanted, then got, standing graveside with him there in Maine. I'll be buried in that same boneyard. On Max's other side. It galls me to share. But where else would they put me? By then I won't care.
"If you want to send the kids back down here while you're dealing with this, you should," I say, knowing he'll never take me up on it, wishing he would. I only got to see them for a week at Christmas; there's so much more I could show them in the city, and I like when this apartment feels crowded — when they stay here to save money and avoid the fleabag hotels.
"I think they kind of ought to stick around, Ma, since their grandmother is about to die. They're grown up enough to go to a funeral."
"Step-grandmother," I say. I am interested in politeness; I am not interested in propriety. "And I don't know how character building a funeral is for a young person, or how much that will help Julia, past help as she'll be."
"Thanks anyway, Ma," he says. "How are you doing?"
"You just saw me. Healthy and hardworking as a Central Park carriage horse."
"Is that lady who comes to check on you still checking through the holidays?"
"Vera moved to Texas with her husband when he got that oil-field job six months ago," I say. "I've told you three times."
"Who's taking care of you now?"
"Vera is my friend, not my caretaker. Rest assured that if I should drop dead I won't be reeking in the apartment for weeks, with the cat gnawing my carcass. There are a few people who would miss me. Not many."
"I wish you'd just come up to Brunswick for good, Ma. We've got the room. Murray Hill's not what it used to be. The city's not what it used to be. You're not safe."
I had hoped that the impending death of the false mother, of Julia, would have spared me another round of his entreaties to migrate permanently to Maine, if only because these efforts would be unseemly, would cast him in a bad light: my Gian, the Bluebeard of mothers. Once Julia's been in the ground for a few weeks, I'd reckoned, his Vacationland campaign would resume in earnest.
But no such luck. "I'm not leaving, Gian," I tell him. "The city has been unsafe for twenty years, and I've survived."
"Well, you're twenty years older now," he says. "And the city's getting worse. It's never been such a cesspool. The crime and disorder. The murders. The Subway Vigilante, Ma! It's out of control. What if you'd been on that train? What if you'd been on it with the kids?"
This, more and more, is Gian's attitude when I speak with him: a skittishness about the city's numberless perils. It strikes me as odd: He was never a nervous child. But as his own kids have grown older and more independent, his inventory of potential threats has steadily expanded — as, apparently, has his authority to give advice on such matters. Like many parents in middle age, he's quick to spot changes in the world, slow to note shifts in his own perspective.
That said, he is not incorrect. The city I inhabit now is not the city that I moved to in 1926; it has become a mean-spirited action movie complete with repulsive plot twists and preposterous dialogue.
Last week a man — neatly dressed, wearing wire-rimmed glasses — snapped on a downtown 2 express. Midafternoon, on a train full of people. Four teenagers surrounded him, asking for five dollars; people have been killed for refusing less. The paper says he says they threatened him with sharpened screwdrivers. The man pulled a gun from his waistband. I have five dollars for each of you, he is said to have said — as if he had practiced — before shooting them all. Two women collapsed at the end of the car in fright, and like a gallant gentleman, he helped them up before fleeing into the darkness of the tunnel at Chambers Street. Mayor Koch has said vigilantism won't be tolerated, and it seems he is right: Callers have been flooding the tips hotline the police set up, but their calls congratulate the shooter, thank him, offer to pay his bail if he turns himself in. The Subway Vigilante is not being tolerated; he is being idolized.
Gian just about about-faced the family back to Maine when it happened, even though we'd been uptown at the Museum of Natural History at the time, safe beneath the blue whale hanging by its dorsal fin, unarmed and pacific, silent as ever, a sentinel in the lurid tabloid nightmare this city's been dreaming.
"I walk everywhere, dearest," I say. And it's true: I like the exercise, and the subway cars are graffitied with so much text it's like being screamed at, like the voices inside my head and everyone else's have manifested their yelling outside, ill-spelled with spray paint. "And we weren't on that train. And he isn't shooting elderly ladies and adorable tots."
"But guys like the guys he shot are everywhere. Hoods. Gangs. Toughs. Whatever you want to call them."
"I would not resist if young thugs approached me for money," I say. "I would acquiesce. I agree with Governor Cuomo that a vigilante spirit is dangerous. Rude, too."
"Rude?" he says.
"Yes, Gian. Incivility is not incivility's antidote. I don't know whether I believe that vigilante really had reason to think those young men were going to harm him. It sounds to me like he planned to shoot someone regardless — like he'd seen those I Want Death movies one too many times."
"Death Wish?" says Gian.
"One of those young men is paralyzed. Eighteen years old. Never going to walk again."
"Maybe they deserved it, Ma. The city's a sick place. People are sick."
"This city may be a rotten egg," I say, "but I'll still be the last one out. What have I got to lose?"
"Ma, you sound depressed again."
"Of course I do. This time of year is depressing. New Year's Eve is a bigger thug than any mugger, the way it makes people feel. Being old is depressing. The Subway Vigilante is depressing. But I love it here, this big rotten apple. I'm near my old haunts, my sycamore trees, my trusty R.H. Macy's."
"I will never understand," Gian says, "why living near Macy's is more important than living near your grandkids. You haven't written an ad for them in twenty-five years."
"It's not just R.H. Macy's, Johnny," I say, though I'd miss the department store like I'd miss a parent; the company gave me a life that I would not have lived otherwise. "In Murray Hill I don't have to drive. I don't have to rely on anybody. If I came to Brunswick, my brain would waste into a raisin and I'd break both my hips."
He goes on, and I listen, but he won't persuade me. I'm not leaving this city no matter how far it falls in its hellward slide. Over the years I have entertained the idea of moving. I adore my son, the kids, adore the idea of usurping the fake mother. And yet.
"Gianino, darling," I say. "I thought this call was about Julia, not your old ma. What will you do with the evening? I imagine this heart attack has quashed your plans?"
"We're going to let the kids stay up until midnight this year. They're all old enough. Even though I'll be at the hospital — just being awake will be enough of a treat for them. What are your plans?"
"Same as always. Dinner at Grimaldi at five, and then early to bed with a book."
"Veal rollatini with green noodles?" he asks.
"As ever," I say. "Alberto's specialty."
The Grimaldis were family friends of Max's family. Max, whose full name was Massimiliano Gianluca Caputo. The restaurant is just around the corner on Madison Avenue, and I've been going there since they opened in 1956. Max and I had divorced — why say it that way? Max had divorced me — before then, but because I got to keep the apartment, got to keep the city, I also got to keep the restaurant and that set of friends. It's been my New Year's Eve standard since the late seventies, back before pasta became the rage of the age.
"Tell Alberto that Massimiliano Gianluca Caputo, Jr., sends his regards," says Gian. "Tell Al junior that I say ciao."
"I will to Alberto," I say, "but I can't to Al. He absconded to Palm Beach to serve tortellini to the snowbirds."
I think of my rollatini, and I don't feel hungry.
"I bet his new place won't require jackets in that Florida heat," says Gian.
Excerpted from Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney. Copyright © 2017 Kathleen Rooney. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. She has been recognized as one of Newcity Lit's "Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2016." Her previous work includes poetry as well as both fiction and nonfiction, and has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Allure, Salon, The Rumpus, and the Chicago Tribune. She works as a senior lecturer in English and Creative Writing at DePaul University where she teaches, among other things, a workshop on The Writer as Urban Walker. Kathleen is married to the novelist Martin Seay.
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I was utterly charmed by Lillian Boxfish.