Loophole Women

I had been at McCall’s magazine only a few months as senior editor in charge of features when the galleys of Lois Gould’s Such Good Friends arrived on my desk.

It was 1970 in New York, and the Women’s Liberation Movement was at its height. I was attending meetings all over the city: sit-ins at all-male bars, rallies against the Vietnam War, bra-burning marches, abortion-rights vigils. Leaders—charismatic leaders like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug—were emerging.

Every morning when I woke up, I felt a rush of excitement in the air, and Such Good Friends was a part of that excitement because the novel was the talk of publishing—this daring roman-à-clef about a woman, Julie Messinger (said to be really Lois Gould), who discovers, as her husband lies dying in a hospital, a coded diary of his many infidelities. There were frank descriptions in the novel of everything from orgasms experienced to positions used, and dates and initials of every mistress.

I sat up all night reading the book, impressed with the slashing, quipping style that gave the prose enormous concentrated power. The story was filled with such intense psychological cruelty and game playing, it boggled the mind. And Julie Messinger took it all in silence; it was quite astonishing, these descriptions of a paralysis so profound as to keep many women in their place—immobile and in pain as they try to hold marriage and family together while husbands merrily philander.
The next morning I phoned Lois. We knew each other from various protest groups. I told her I loved the novel and was going to get it reviewed. She seemed pleased. We made plans to have coffee the following week.

I subsequently assigned a terrific writer, Lucy Rosenthal, then the only female judge at the Book of the Month Club, to write the review. When it came in, it was a rave. I sent the review and the galleys as a matter of protocol to my boss, Shana Alexander, attaching a memo saying how important I thought the novel was, that it went along with the feminist rebelliousness of the times.

I waited for a reaction but none was forthcoming until about two weeks later, when Shana, who had recently been hired away from Life to energize the pages of McCall’s, invited me to attend one of her staff luncheons, a ritual that featured “star guests” who were supposed to give the editors “fresh new ideas for the magazine.” I soon learned the guests du jour would include Truman Capote, David Merrick, Arlene Francis, and former Senator Eugene McCarthy.

I can’t remember many of the so-called “fresh ideas” that were brought up that afternoon. I think Arlene Francis suggested we review a movie called Bonnie and Clyde (I said we already had). Senator McCarthy was very concerned about Biafra—we should do a behind-the-scenes report on what was really going on with the food airlifts. Meanwhile, Truman Capote said nothing. He was a funny-looking little man with an enormous head set on a squat body. He appeared very hungover.
During a lull in the conversation, Shana suddenly held up the galleys of Such Good Friends and ordered me to explain why I’d chosen such a “filthy, obnoxious book to be reviewed by McCall’s.”

Although I was taken aback by her vehemence (Shana was a tiny, delicate blonde with a hesitant way of speaking), I managed to explain that I thought Lois Gould was writing a new kind of fiction, which one critic had already called “protest fiction,” and that her novel was filled with irony, frustration, humiliation, all of it made bearable by her very dry wit. And, yes, she was angry at her husband’s infidelities and she was angry because she had a giant need to be controlled by an authority figure. She had such a need, she didn’t question her husband’s right to use and humiliate her. All this McCall’s readers would really relate to, as they did to other feminist novels of the period, such as Alix Kates Schulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen.

With that, Shana, in a trembling voice, began reading from Such Good Friends; her selection recounted a sexual fantasy in which Julie performs fellatio on various men who give her nothing in return, after which she mocks herself: “Now, ladies and gents, the contract demands that Julie the Sword Swallower perform her world-famous teeth-grinding trick.”

“I ask you,” Shana demanded of Truman Capote, “would you recommend this novel to McCall’s readers?"

Capote murmured he’d never heard of the book, but after listening to that one paragraph he intended to go out and order it immediately!
As soon as the luncheon ended, Shana informed me that Such Good Friends would not be reviewed in McCall’s under any circumstances. I attempted to argue for it, even enlisted others on the magazine to support me, but it did no good. Shana was the editor-in-chief, and she prevailed.

I was devastated. All the more so because I had to tell Lois. I phoned her, describing the lunch and the exchange with Capote. When I finished, she burst into delighted laughter. “Shana is taking it much too seriously!” she said, her voice cracking with amusement. “It’s only a novel, for God’s sake!”

I was too upset to respond. After a pause, Lois suggested we have a drink that evening. “I wanna cheer you up,” she drawled.

Later, at the Plaza’s Palm Court, against a background of wistful Cole Porter music, we proceeded to get quite drunk on a bottle of extremely good champagne. And we talked and talked. I soon realized Lois was more concerned about my emotional state of mind than she was about whether or not her novel was going to be reviewed.

Lois drew me out. We discovered we both had beautiful, controlling mothers who were trying as hard as they could to make us feel worthless. That fact bonded us then and there. Then Lois changed the subject to careers. She told me that she’d been in magazines a lot longer than I had—indeed, she had been, until recently, executive editor of Ladies’ Home Journal. So she was used to being “powerless in a powerful job.”

What Shana had done was par for the course. As Lois said, “You had a good idea, she shot it down because she didn’t think of it first, and also she might have been threatened by the content of the book. Who knows? The bottom line is you’re going to have a lot of great ideas as an editor that are going to be shot down, and you better get used to that and just go on and don’t take it personally and believe you won’t be in magazines forever because they are a trap. They lead nowhere creatively. Eventually, you’ll write if your dream is to be a writer.” (I’d already confirmed it was.) She finished with, “You and I are loophole women.”

“What is that?” I asked.

It was a phase she’d borrowed from Caroline Bird, who’d just written Born Female—The High Cost of Keeping Women Down. As far as Lois was concerned, “loophole women” were exceptions in a field where men were still in a majority of power positions: “We’re hired to be exceptions, but we still have to toe the line. That’s what Shana is doing, toeing the line. She’s afraid to take a chance on my book.” Which was too bad, since Such Good Friends soon garnered wonderful reviews all over the country and was widely read and then made into a big Hollywood movie directed by Otto Preminger.

In the next months, Lois and I found more opportunities to be together—we not only enjoyed each other’s company but were both caught up in the movement. We joined a consciousness-raising group as well as two different writers’ groups. It was an enormously exciting time.
I can still see Lois—moody, elegant, mysterious—drifting in and out of depression. For a while, she cut her hair short as a man’s, wore a monocle, and flew to Rome to spend the summer writing a novel. For a while, she camped out in the shadowy loft she shared with her husband, the psychiatrist Robert Gould, who was as unconventional and strangely lovable as she.

Over the next twenty years, our friendship deepened, and the fears, doubts, conflicts, and persistent melancholy that simmered under Lois’s formidable presence became clearer to me and contributed to my seeing her as a truly valiant creature.

In 1977, we were both active in a group called Women Against Pornography. Lois held many meetings in her loft. They often turned into shouting matches, because everybody had a different idea about how to define porn’s dangers. I remember Lois serving cocktails and hors d’oeuvres before we marched on Times Square to protest the mainstreaming of violent hard-core porn up and down Forty-second Street.

Our antipornography campaign ultimately disintegrated in a tide of philosophical differences and name-calling. Lois was bitter about that. She thought this project was a true expression of radical feminism. She believed pornography was the synthesis of all violence against women’s issues, including poverty, because women who get involved in the sex industry don’t have many other economic options . . . and also included racism, because so many black and Asian women were stereotyped in Hustler and Penthouse. Eventually, Lois wrote a brilliant article about women and pornography for the New York Times Magazine.
Lois was tremendously productive at that time—dashing off essays and reviews and quirky original novels like La Presidenta (inspired by Eva Perón) and Final Analysis, a lethal satire about a woman in love with her ex-shrink. A Sea Change was her most ambitious radical work, a drama about vicious power plays and vulnerability, a story that rose to mythical proportions as Lois’s heroine, in the process of getting rid of her weakness—her womanhood—harnesses her aggression and transforms herself into a man. It all takes place at the height of a raging hurricane, a storm so huge and forceful that the heroine sucks its power inside herself.

And then, in the middle 1980s (or was it the early 1990s?), Lois took off for Ireland, where she lived in a windswept castle for nearly five years, returning to New York periodically to see Bob, who waited patiently for her, and to be with her sons. By then, she told me, she felt undervalued by the world, felt she was being forgotten as a novelist. Never having been convinced that she was anything special, she longed for more recognition, but when her latest novel was praised to the skies, instead of promoting it around the U.S., she kept her potential celebrity at bay by staying in Europe.

We always kept in touch by letter and phone. Once, while I was struggling to write a memoir about my family, I told Lois I didn’t want it to be “confessional.” Lois almost snapped at me. “Don’t use the word confessional!” she said. “You’re having a confrontation with yourself!”
Lois died of cancer in 2002. Today it’s hard to believe she’s gone. Lois gave of herself with intense compassion, humor, and maternal tenderness, the kind of maternal tenderness she never received from her mother.

At her memorial, nobody talked enough about the impact her novels had made during the 1970s. Her books comprise part of a new genre, a protest fiction filled with women’s contradictions and concerns. For Lois, the subtext was always the same, that the power of feminism lies in its capacity to transform women’s consciousness at the deepest possible level.

I count myself lucky to have been one of Lois Gould’s friends.