Before Peggy Olson of “Mad Men,” there was Margaret Fishback.
In the 1930s, the Macy’s ad exec was the highest paid female copywriter in the world. The society page staple turned out books of poetry and etiquette, in addition to crafting “irresistible little eye-drop-sized points of wit” about everything from pea shellers to hosiery.
The ads are long gone and her poetry (“Dorothy Parker by way of Edna St. Vincent Millay”) is out of print. But a new century is lucky enough to be introduced to Ms. Fishback, at least in fictional form, in Kathleen Rooney’s witty new novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk.
The book takes place on New Year’s Eve in 1984, where, after an unfortunate encounter with a box of Oreos, Lilian resolves to break with tradition (veal rollatini and green noodles at her favorite Italian restaurant) and attend a party. Applying her Helena Rubenstein Orange Fire lipstick (which she stockpiled after the color was discontinued) and putting on her mink, Lillian starts walking.
“A motto favored by the ancients was solvitur ambulando: It is solved by walking.
Sometimes, I might add, by walking out,” Lillian, who remembers a more elegant and sophisticated age, thinks.
This isn’t today’s shined-up New York or the Jazz Age playground of her youth. “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,” Lillian says. Her walk takes place shortly after subway vigilante Bernie Goetz shot four teenagers he claimed tried to rob him of $5 – and her son is desperate to have her leave her Murray Hill apartment and join him in Maine, where it’s safe.
But New York has been home to Lillian since she fled her disapproving mother and the narrow life open to women in the 1920s. Lillian used her intelligence and wit to carve a life for herself, and she’s not going to abandon the city she loves because of a crime wave.
“The city is dazzling but uncompassionate,” she says. “It always has been, but I feel it more now.”
Lillian, however, still has reserves of compassion and civility to share with both readers and everyone she encounters. As she travels – mingling with limo drivers, teens, waiters, thieves, artists, and convenience store clerks – she recalls other memorable walks during her almost 50 years in the city.
Long ago characters include her boss, Chester, who couldn’t write copy but had an instinct for what would sell and a sign behind his desk that read: “Never Use a Superlative in Any Ad Here. It May Lead to Exaggeration.” Her hapless rival, Olive, whom Lillian couldn’t seem to help needling, even though she vowed “never to waste her exertions cultivating an enemy.” Her beloved poetry editor, whom she had to stop from changing the title of her first collection from “Oh, Do Not Ask for Promises,” to “Frequent Wishing on the Gracious Moon.”
Lillian wonders if maybe her life would have been different if she’d listened to him. Readers can only be grateful she stuck to her guns – I would not spend 10 pages with the author of “Frequent Wishing on the Gracious Moon.” Lillian, the “world-weary but cheery” writer, on the other hand, is very good company indeed. And then there’s Max, the handsome rug buyer for whom she gave up her vow never to marry – and ultimately, a whole lot more.
An octogenarian on foot late at night is a subject of concern to many passersby, but Lillian waves off all warnings breezily.
“ ‘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.”
Of more concern to her is what kind of housewarming present she can purchase at a bodega – and whether she can find out the name of the rap song she caught just a snippet of from a passing car. Lillian’s New York life has taken her from the Lindy hop to break-dancing, and she has relished it all.
“The point of living in the world is just to stay interested,” Lillian thinks at one point. Time spent with Ms. Boxfish could never be boring.