‘I don’t like good-looking men-one always thinks they’ll be dumb’
I spent my 30s,” she recalls, “having love affairs to make up for lost time and writing as a sort of sideline.” The handsome, graying woman gazes out at her picture-window view of San Francisco.
The speaker could be Eliza Erskine Hamilton Quarles, heroine of Alice Adams’ latest novel, Listening to Billie. But it is, in fact, Adams herself who not only survived that tumultuous decade but has emerged at 51 with a solid romantic attachment, a “first look” contract with The New Yorker for her short stories, and Billie, a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate.
The book’s heroine may bear some resemblance to the author, but her misadventures are purely fictional. Eliza Quarles must cope with the suicides of her father and her husband, a domineering mother, an unbalanced millionaire half sister and a daughter who has babies out of wedlock. It is Adams’ third novel; its title invokes the memory of blues singer Billie Holiday.
Her first novel, Careless Love (1966), was her most autobiographical. In it the author grappled with “the most disastrous” of her early love affairs. “Talk about exploitative men,” she exclaims. “He was a married, Catholic, Fascist diplomat—a likely prospect to leave his wife, right? Finally I began to think of it as funny, and that’s when I wrote the book.”
Partly through such exorcism she has developed great professional discipline. For four hours each day she faces the wall in a dim room and writes. “By the time Bob comes home I’m desperate for company,” she says. Bob is Robert McNie, a 52-year-old interior designer whom Adams met in 1964 and with whom she shares a floor-through apartment. “It’s what you would call a long-term illicit affair.”
With failed marriages behind them, both Adams and McNie are wary of trying again. “Marriage does seem to me primarily concerned with property,” she says. “We are rather private people who feel our relationship is not the business of the state.” Her first husband was a Harvard student she met while at Radcliffe. After graduating at 19, she headed for New York, but when “my first job in publishing didn’t work out well, I went back to Cambridge and got married.” She dutifully followed her husband, then a grad student, to the Sorbonne (“I loved Paris—except I disliked him so much”) and to California.
“Divorce was very much not the thing to do in the early 1950s,” Adams observes. “In those days being unhappily married was an indication of poor moral character.” She mothered her only child, Peter, and wrote when she could, “in a spasmodic, discouraged way.” (Her son, now 27—”the one positive note in the marriage”—is a painter whose large canvases are proudly displayed on his mother’s walls.) Adams was finally divorced in 1958.
Born in Virginia (like the heroine of her second novel, Families and Survivors, 1975), Alice grew up in Chapel Hill, where her father taught Spanish at the University of North Carolina. A self-proclaimed rebel who painstakingly rid herself of her accent, she recalls, “I was bright in school and ran into trouble because of that Southern thing that women are supposed to be stupid.”
When Adams first met McNie, however, she admits to reverse sexism. “We hated each other from the start,” she laughs. “I don’t like good-looking men. It’s a common prejudice—one thinks they are going to be extremely dumb. You can imagine how he felt about lady writers.” Adams says of him now: “His intelligence has been a sheer joy.”
Back when her son was in his late teens, the three of them lived together happily. “I didn’t want Peter to move out,” she recalls. “But he felt it was time. He always has a good sense about when to do things.” So, now it seems, has Alice Adams.