Book Review: City of Girls

When you see an old woman, can you imagine her wild and crazy youth?

In City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, Vivian Morris, who is in her 90s, tells the story of her life to Angela.  Ms. Gilbert describes it as:  “looking back with rueful affection at her promiscuous, chaotic, but very memorable youth.”

Vivian’s Grandmother Morris had taught her to sew and bought her a sewing machine which Vivian leveraged into a career after she was expelled from Vassar in 1940.  Vivian landed at her Aunt Peg’s theater, the Lily Playhouse, in New York City where she made herself useful crafting low-budget costumes.  Celia, one of the theater’s showgirls, introduced Vivian to the excitement of New York nightclubs.  As Ms. Gilbert explains, they:  “chose excitement over safety, sexual pleasure over self-denial, and a hard-earned sense of authentic carnal joy over shame. Because that’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for a long while.”

We first encounter Frank Grecco after Vivian was exiled from New York City for having a wild fling with Arthur Watson, the husband of actress Edna Parker Watson, who was the star in the hit play City of Girls at Vivian’s Aunt Peg’s struggling theater in 1941:

Arthur Watson had completely gotten away with his misdeeds and lies.  Celia had been banished by Peg, and I had been banished by Edna ~ but Arthur had been allowed to carry on with his lovely life and his lovely wife, as though nothing had ever happened.

The dirty little whores had been disposed of; the man was allowed to remain.

Frank was the first to call Vivian a “dirty little whore,” and his words haunted her as she tried to assimilate into life with her very traditional, country-club parents in upstate New York.  She went to work for her dad and got engaged to a rising star in his company.  World War II started, and Aunt Peg rescued Vivian from suburbia with a job offer from the Navy in 1942.

Elizabeth Gilbert sailing the Aegean Sea in Greece, 2015

Frank knew Vivian’s brother Walter from Officers Candidate School and served with him on the USS Franklin which was hit by a kamikaze pilot on March 19, 1945 near the end of World War II.  Walter was killed; Frank survived.

After WWII ended, the Lily Playhouse was demolished.  Vivian went into business making wedding gowns with Marjorie Lowtsky, whose parents owned the used clothing store where Vivian found the treasures she transformed into costumes.  They called their boutique L’Atelier.  The duo never married, but Marjorie had a son Nathan.

Frank and Vivian met again decades after the war.  His PTSD prevented the couple from consummating their love, but he is the love of Vivian’s life; and he is Angela’s father.  Vivian and Angela met when Frank sent his daughter to L’Atelier for her wedding gown in 1971.  He died in 1977, and Angela wrote to Vivian after her mother died in 2010.

U.K. photographer Simon Andrew MacArthur is Elizabeth Gilbert’s new love. They connected over their mutual love for the late Rayya Elias.  She describes their relationship:  “his heart has been such a warm place for me to land.”

City of Girls is all about the joys, the dangers, and
the ineffable wildness of a misspent youth.
– Elizabeth Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert wrote City of Girls while mourning the death of her beloved partner Rayya Elias.  New York City is where she goes when she needs to heal.  Before the book was published, she told her fans:

Here’s a toast today to all us who made terrible and reckless decisions when we were young, and who survived it, and who now have the grace to laugh at it.

And here’s a toast to all of you who are STILL making terrible and reckless decisions. I see you and I love you. Someday, may you remember it all and smile.

I myself have clung to existence like
a barnacle to a boat bottom.
– Elizabeth Gilbert, City of Girls

The last page of the book had me gushing tears because there is so much truth in these words:

This is what I’ve found out about life, as I’ve gotten older:  you start to lose people, Angela.  It’s not that there is ever a shortage of people ~ oh, heavens no.  It is merely that ~ as the years pass ~ there comes to be a terrible shortage of your people.  The ones you loved.  The ones who knew the people that you both loved.  The ones who know your whole history.

Tracy Verdugo’s painting of Rayya Elias and Elizabeth Gilbert

Those people start to be plucked away by death, and they are awfully hard to replace after they go.  After a certain age, it can become difficult to make new friends.  The world can begin to feel lonely and sparse, teeming though it may be with freshly minted young souls.

Yes, we old broads have some amazing memories.  Some of them may light your hair on fire.  My wish for all of you is that you are living each day and making memories which will make you smile when you too are old.

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