From Barbie to Betty

By Sally Susman
Alida Brill Michael Markham

“Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty”

Alida Brill

Schaffner Press, $24.95

Alida Brill has impeccable timing. The assignment to review “Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty: The Memoir of a Romantic Feminist” came on March 8, International Women’s Day. And the book will be released this month amid an election cycle full of conjecture about the fate of Hillary Clinton, the first woman to launch a serious presidential campaign. This past weekend I walked by a pop-up fashion boutique in Manhattan’s meatpacking district that was celebrating “The F Word” and promoting a dialogue at #Fstandsforyou. Feminism is a river that’s running just now.

In “Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty,” Ms. Brill reflects with candor and clarity on the female icons who shaped her perspective and forged her views. She tells her story through the prism of relationships — real and imagined — with Princess Grace of Monaco, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem, as well as the Barbie doll, an unhappy mother, a resilient aunt, and many women writers. 

Ms. Brill opens with “When I was six, I fell in love with Grace Kelly.” As she was for many of Ms. Brill’s generation, the beautiful film star turned princess of Monaco was a powerful, intoxicating fantasy. That childhood dream, particularly the notion of being “chosen” by a prince, shadowed Ms. Brill’s ambition for much of her life. 

She was a student in Paris, an antiwar activist, married and childless by choice, then divorced, and always deeply committed to intellectual pursuits and women’s equality. 

Ms. Brill’s closest friendship was with Betty Friedan, the author of “The Feminine Mystique.” The author’s descriptions ring true to many we’ve heard — that Ms. Friedan was argumentative, self-centered, and vain. Despite the intimate tie, Ms. Brill observes Ms. Friedan with clear eyes: “For all her insights and intelligence, Betty was unable to connect the dots from her behavior to the attacks and criticisms made against her. She couldn’t own what she had done to others and often felt victimized, when in fact others felt the same or worse.”

We feel the heat of their intergenerational kinship. Ms. Friedan, who died in 2006, was more than two decades older than Ms. Brill, and they often seem more like mother and daughter than friends. Their exchanges are fierce and fiery. I wish I could have been present on those nights when they drank too much, stayed up too late, and talked about life and books on Glover Street in Sag Harbor: “[S]he could be impossible, tyrannical, controlling, larger than life, enraged, and enraging. Betty excited, inspired, and exhausted me. And sometimes she broke my heart.”

“The Feminine Mystique,” referred to as “The Book,” is omnipresent in the memoir: “But what overshadowed everything in my relationship with Betty was The Book, the text that freed my mother. ‘The Feminine Mystique’ resonated with millions of frustrated women. It has profound personal significance for me. It is an essential part of my autobiography. Friedan’s thoughts and words eased my mother’s suffering, and so I, too, was liberated.” 

Many readers will recall The Book’s impact — when they read it and how it made them feel. In 1983 as I was graduating from college, my mother gave me a copy of the 20th anniversary edition with an inscription warning that women face difficult choices about work and family, but that our decisions need not be stagnant but can grow with our desires and aspirations. I suspect many a mother and daughter have communicated with and through The Book.

Much attention is given to Ms. Friedan’s jealousy of Gloria Steinem. It’s a famous feud that clearly weighed heavily on Ms. Friedan but merits a mere mention or two in Ms. Steinem’s excellent new memoir, “My Life on the Road.”

Ms. Brill also speaks with great authority about the trials of her own life with a chronic condition and the prejudice women in pain have suffered at the hands of the largely patriarchal medical profession. Ms. Brill suffers from a rare autoimmune disease, a type that is notoriously hard to diagnose, difficult to treat, and that predominately affects women. In her author notes, Ms. Brill writes, “My adolescence and then my adulthood were interrupted by chronic illness, which gave me my understanding of fairness and unfairness, and from there feminism.”

While the content is vastly different, the thinking behind this book reminds me of Mary-Louise Parker’s recent literary debut, “Dear Mr. You,” a set of memoiristic letters that has received much acclaim. In each work the author considers herself through the experience of others, seeing herself largely as a supporting actress. It is not until the very end of “Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty” that Ms. Brill delves deeply into herself, writing about loss, gratitude, the meaning of “romantic feminism,” and love. 

The author introduces a concept, the “Slow Love Movement,” in which one develops “relationship tastebuds” and learns to “savor experiences with another. . . .” She writes, “Living as a romantic feminist won’t leave you constantly hungry to be wanted and always eager to be chosen. It will take us to attachments that are based upon authenticity, trust, and equality.” Ms. Brill’s final chapter is her most powerful.

“Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty” is not for everyone. It’s unlikely Oprah will select this memoir for her book club or that the author will retire rich from book sales. But for those of us who like to swim in the deep waters of the female experience of the last 50 years, this book is a true gift.

And, a final word I’d like to offer Ms. Brill directly:

Dear Alida, 

Though we’ve never met, your bio identifies you as a “feminist, social critic, and author.” In “Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty,” you’ve added fresh insights and broadened the feminist conversation to include the Slow Love Movement. Thank you for your intellect and courage for wearing the moniker of feminist without apology.

Sally Susman, a regular book reviewer for The Star, lives in Manhattan and Sag Harbor.

Alida Brill had a second home in East Hampton for many years. Her previous book was “Dancing at the River’s Edge: A Patient and Her Doctor Negotiate Life With Chronic Illness.” “Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty” comes out on Tuesday.