What would you do if you discovered a large stash of material about a once-famous, now-forgotten woman? Kathleen Rooney wrote a novel. A librarian friend was one of the first to process a donated archive about the life of poet and advertising maven, Margaret Fishback. She was so fascinated that she immediately contacted Rooney to take a look.
The resulting novel is not a biography, but it follows the major turning points in Fishback’s life—her sexual adventures in the 1920s, a meteoric rise through the advertising department at Macy’s, and fame as a writer of “light verse.” It also includes her big disappointments—a mental breakdown, a failed marriage and a somewhat strained relationship with her son.
This life history is conveyed in the course of a long walk through Manhattan when Lillian Boxfish (the alter ego of Margarent Fishback) is in her mid eighties. The time is New Year’s Eve, 1984. The place is Manhattan, where she has lived for the last sixty years. In the course of her long walk she visit important places in her life, making the story as much about New York as it is about her.
Boxfish is an older woman who takes care with her appearance. “Someday soon I may not be able to dress myself, so I intend to try to look stylish until I can’t any longer.” (14) She dresses for the evening in a green velvet dress, applying some of her stockpiled Helena Rubinstein Orange Fire lipstick. Riding boots and a blue fedora complete the outfit. On top of all that comes a mink coat she bought for herself in 1942. The cover image is meant to recreate the outfit; I was disappointed to see that the lipstick wasn’t orange.
In her long walk through Manhattan, Boxfish conveys some her secrets of a satisfied long life—keep walking, talk to strangers, and stay curious about the world.
The novel is a treat to read, but I am hoping that someday soon someone returns to the archive to write a book about the real Fishback and her twentieth century life.