I do things because they make sense, and because they are elegant. Solutions of style have a greater moral force than those of obligation.
— Kathleen Rooney, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
It’s the last night of 1984, and Lillian Boxfish is an 85 year-old Manhattanite out for a walk. After a disappointing dinner at her usual New Year’s Eve restaurant, Lillian decides to take a walk around her true love, New York City.
As she circles Manhattan on her feet, she meets those that make that city so strong. Bartenders, bodega clerks, parents, VERY pregnant women, criminals, children, limo drivers, security guards — all decent people living in Manhattan at a time when Manhattan wasn’t so decent. She finds common ground with all of them.
During her walk Lillian reminiscences on her life. Coming to Manhattan as a young woman, she took the city by storm as a copywriter and then an advertising wonder for R.H. Macy’s, becoming the highest paid advertising woman in the country along the way. But that wasn’t enough for Lillian: she also used her quick-wit and her way with language to become a celebrated poet.
There was love and marriage, a child, and then heartbreak. There were incredible highs and horrendous lows, and a life lived between the two extremes.
Lillian’s life is the story of a generation of forgotten women–strong and seemingly able to do it all. It’s also the story of a beautiful city that had lost its way (although we all know it found it again, thanks to Lillian and people like her).
Okay, I love Lillian Boxfish. I LOVE her. She is the grandmother I want around right now (I loved both my grandmothers, but they’re both sadly gone). I love her as much as I love Jessica Fletcher (Read about my “Murder, She Wrote” OBSESSION).
I was sucked into Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk from the very start. Lillian hooked me. Her walk around mid 1980’s Manhattan had me racking my brain — I moved to New York in 1989, so a lot of the construction she talks about was just finishing. And the whole Bernie Goetz/Subway Vigilante thing? I remember that, from the national news (although it was still a thing when I lived there).
Lillian takes everyone she meets on her walk at face value, creating a connection with everyone of them. This is a lesson in life — find something you have in common with everyone, even those trying to hurt you. We’re all human, and we all want the world to see the best in us. And CIVILITY, such a wonderful thing. We all need more of it (especially on social media, especially in today’s highly political world!) Lillian takes civility as her watchword, but not just for civility’s sake. To her, it makes the world a better, more reasonable place.
. . . but I say civility because I believe that good manners are essential to the preservation of humanity — one’s own and others’ — but only to the extent that civility is honest and reasonable, not merely the mindless handmaiden of propriety.
So, in creating connections and using civility, Lillian makes friends and helps those she meets in little and big ways.
But not only does Kathleen Rooney use the ineradicable Lillian to show us Manhattan in its 1980’s unseemliness. Lillian’s walk is a pageant of New York City’s history and grandeur, from The Jazz Age to the beginning of rap and hip hop (which Lillian, as a poet and a lover of language, really liked, at least The Sugarhill Gang and “Rapper’s Delight”), from prohibition to the beginning of Donald Trump.
Lillian is lovely in her ability to look at every facet of The City and her life with realism. She doesn’t shy away from the bad or the ugly, knowing that there is beauty there, as well. I like to think she knows that you can’t have beauty without ugly, you can’t have the good without the bad.
Knowing that, Lillian (though the wonderful Kathleen Rooney) faces her own bout with true depression, presenting it in all its ugly sadness. Through Lillian, we see that even those that seem immune can fall into deep depression, a hole from which they cannot be pulled without serious professional intervention. Rooney delves into this with forthrightness and realism; exposing readers to the shame that shadowed depression and mental illness in the past, but presenting it with the frankness it needs and deserves.
Lillian was an artist, one that found a way to use words and language to sell the American dream (and R.H. Macy’s products), but also to describe the world around her in poetry. She was down-to-earth and humble about her gift, but also knew it drove her forward and improved her life. She used her gifts to make a living, creating an exceptional life in the process.
Kathleen Rooney styled Lillian Boxfish on a real person — Margaret Fishback, who was quite a bit like Lillian in profession and accomplishments. As Rooney says of her high school friend who discovered Fishback in the archives at Duke:
Angela. . .quickly realized that Fishback was a figure –a poet, a protofeminist, a successful career woman, and a mother — who would appeal to me as a poet, a feminist, and a professional myself.
And, after reading through Fishback’s works, Rooney confessed:
I instantly felt a deep connection to Fishback — an affinity for her writing both of ads and of poems, and her overall sensibility — though she’d been dead since the mid-1980’s. I knew that I wanted to do something to bring her story and those of others like her (this whole forgotten generation of pre-Mad Men advertising women) into the light.
Rooney is very clear, though, that Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is not a biography of Margaret Fishback, although the poems and ads in the book written by Lillian were Margaret’s creations (she’s used them with permission from her estate and Margaret’s son). In reading between the lines, I have to think that she used Margaret’s professional career for Lillian, but created Lillian’s life from her imagination. Or at least that’s what I think–so take that for what it’s worth.
Any way, Lillian Boxfish is wonderful. She’s pure New York and her life is a 20th Century life of a remarkable woman. There were many women like her, before the word feminism was uttered, women who did it all because it was what they wanted, or needed, to do.
Seriously, run out and get this Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. It will make a trip to NYC seem necessary. In fact, I think we should all take Lillian Boxfish walking tours on our next visit! Yes, it’s 10 miles. But, if Lillian can do it, so can we–right?!