The Lady at the Bar
Age provides a new perspective on a stranger
Soon after my divorce was finalized, I headed downtown with girlfriends to mourn the loss of my role of “wife,” and attempt to celebrate an uncertain future. Our first stop was a jazz club in New York’s Greenwich Village, a dive that would’ve been a dime a dozen in the 1950s but today is considered an endangered gem. The entrance led to a steep flight of narrow stairs, and the washed-out guy who took our cover payments probably didn’t see much daylight.
In that room full of college kids and tourists, one woman stood out. Perched upright on a wooden chair in a far corner of the room, she wore bright red lipstick and sported a long mane of wild gray hair. If I’d been in my twenties, I would have thought her half-mad, moving her shoulders in time with the music, her eyelids closed. I might have elbowed my friend and looking for a cheap laugh said, “Check her out, that’s us in fifty years.”
But this particular evening I was in the last year of my forties. Gravity was pulling down the corners of my mouth enough that I had to perform a half-smile just to look neutral, while nightly hot flashes and adrenaline surges left me weak. Getting older was no longer theoretical.
My fears of aging were nothing new. Having sprung from a family of genetically tall, thin beanstalks, I remember the first time the question “Are you a model?” morphed into “Were you a model?” Both questions are pretty awesome, no doubt about it, but even the latter had died away about a decade ago.
I studied the woman in the bar more closely. The red slash of lips was sexy, not garish. Same with the silver curls surrounding her finely-wrinkled face. I wondered what her life had been like at my age. A couple of days later I headed to the Barnard College library to do some research on an article I was writing and discovered shelf after shelf of back issues of women’s magazines from the early 1950s.
As I pored through articles from the period, I was amazed that anyone had emerged from that era without multiple personalities. One article extolled the virtues of taking a part-time job, since working full time cut too deeply into the “satisfactions of housekeeping.” Another offered advice to the newlywed along the lines of “Put on lipstick and comb your hair before coming down to make the coffee.” Or the jaw-dropping, “The first time your baby cries and your husband calls for you at the same time, go to your husband.” It made me take a sobering look at the trials of my mother and others of her generation. As well as what it meant when, like me, you were now neither wife nor mother.
That night at the bar, I saw that woman — a creature without shackles or shame — as a model for my future self.
And I liked what I saw.
I vowed to take advantage of my newfound independence by figuring out how to fly solo. My best friends and I promised to live in the same apartment building and share wine-filled happy hours and home health care aides when the time comes. Using the Barnard articles as a jumping-off point, I wrote a work of historical fiction about a woman in the 1950s who’s determined to forge a successful career and remain single. A year later, I celebrated three milestones: buying an apartment of my own, making the leap from journalist to author, and selling my first novel. Today I write fiction full time, using my books to explore the way women’s roles have changed over time, as well as the ways they’ve remained the same.
And a few decades from now, when I’m the grande dame sitting in a bar, clapping hard as the last note fades out, I’ll turn to the forty-something staring my way, raise my glass, and pass on the inspiration.
Fiona Davis is a nationally bestselling author of historical fiction set in iconic New York City buildings. Her book, The Dollhouse, is available now.