Book Review: Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty
The Memoir of a Romantic Feminist
by Alida Brill
Schaffner Press, 2016
Feminist critic and author Alida Brill’s new memoir, Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty begins on a charming note: as a girl, she tells us, she wrote a fan letter to Princess Grace of Monaco and was stunned to get a reply. The status of such female icons in her childhood home in California is complicated by the publication in 1963 of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which had a profound effect on her mother as it did on countless thousands of middle class women all through the Western world, eruditely and convincingly arguing that such women were voluntarily submitting themselves to a cultural servitude from which they could escape at any minute (confronted with the mischaracterization of her message as “women of the world, unite – you have nothing to lose except your men,” Friedan used to quip, “no, you have nothing to lose except your vacuum cleaners”).
That classic work would have far longer-reaching effects on Brill’s life than she could possibly have expected as a girl, since later in her life she actually became a close friend and literary confidante of Friedan’s. Once the book makes its way out of the bracken of typical memoirist sentimentality and hypochondria, in fact, it settles into being a warm and sometimes quite challenging impressionistic memoir Brill’s time with Friedan. We follow at sometimes very close range the progress of Friedan’s career triumphs and frustrations, and we have an insider’s perspective on such things as the long genesis of Friedan’s second major work, The Fountain of Age, as well as the autobiography that followed it, a book that initially gave Brill pause:
I am one of those who felt that Betty should have ended her writing career as the woman who wrote two substantial books – Mystique and Fountain. By the time Fountain was published, she was older, and frail from illness. It wasn’t necessary for Betty to write another book to secure her legacy. But she was resolute that she ha to write her memoir. I sensed she wanted to get the microphone back to have the last word, and I feared it would be a tit-for-tat volume. As she began writing the new book and started talking about it, my worries eased. It appeared it would be an illuminating look at her life, and not at all petty.
The knowing sympathy and humane perspective Brill brings to these chapters, the careful balance of estimating a legendary but very human figure and charting the fractious psychological give-and-take of a long-term friendship, makes these sections of the book absolutely compelling reading. Brill is well aware of the complaints that have been lodged against the middle-class white perspective of The Feminine Mystique, and she has a defense ready that was also Friedan’s occasional defense when the subject came up:
Here’s what I have to say about all the negative descriptions of Mystique. Betty began where she was and with what she knew of women’s dissatisfaction and their feeling of domestic entrapment. And, then she researched the hell out of those issues. She had a vision of a better and more meaningful life for white women in the suburbs in the 1960s who were still bound by the 1950s rules for women and for men. That was he starting model, and she took it as far as she could. That focus did not make her a racist. She didn’t pretend to understand the lives of African-American women who have always worked and knew the names for their problems.
The lopsided and slightly schizophrenic nature of Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty is evident even in the book’s title, and this is the only real regret I had of it. I doubt I’ll be the only reader who’ll finish the book intensely wishing it had been three times as long, focused entirely on a single subject, and called Dear Betty. Brill is in a perfect position to write such a book, perhaps next time keeping one ear tuned to a piece of advice often barked by Friedan’s sometime-friend-sometime-enemy Bella Abzug: “Less you, more me.”