“It saved me,” says author Elizabeth Gilbert, best known for the best-selling 2006 memoir “Eat, Pray, Love.”
She’s walking down a New York street during an animated telephone interview last week, talking about her latest novel. “City of Girls” is set in a carelessly glamorous 1940s Manhattan world of showgirls, musicals, ratty theater seats, flirty rayon dresses and youthful exuberance — it’s a book whose very lightheartedness pulled her out of deep personal grief. Early last year, Gilbert’s romantic partner and longtime best friend, Rayya Elias, died of cancer at the age of 57.
You might expect someone famous for exploring her own life through memoir to process the aftermath of loss by writing nonfiction — and it’s what Gilbert herself expected. She had begun research on “City of Girls” before Elias’ illness, but after the diagnosis “couldn’t imagine ever caring about this novel again.” The problems of New York City showgirls seemed trivial, and Gilbert fully expected to never resume work on the book.
Then, shortly after Elias’ death, Gilbert felt compelled to dive back into “City of Girls” — “I felt like I got a message from the mothership, saying that the best thing I could possibly do was write this book. I’d been in so much pain, so much grief, it was as if the cosmic scale needed to be righted by going in the exact opposite direction.” It was life imitating art, with Gilbert using fiction the way her character Aunt Peg — a director of cheerfully tatty musicals — uses theater. “People are suffering, life is hard, let’s put on a show. That was very much the spirit with which I approached the book.”
Gilbert, who’ll discuss “City of Girls” in Seattle on June 15 at the Moore Theatre, began exploring ideas for the book about six years ago. She was intrigued by the idea of centering a novel on a young female character — Peg’s 19-year-old niece Vivian, who arrives in New York fresh from being kicked out of Vassar — who is sexually free, but whose life isn’t destroyed by those choices. “So many stories of women’s desire end with the ruination of the woman,” said Gilbert — among them Hester Prynne, Anna Karenina, Daisy Miller, Emma Bovary. That’s not to say Vivian’s behavior doesn’t have consequences — it does — but it doesn’t bring about her downfall.
And the 1940s setting came to her after reading a collection of essays by Alexander Woollcott, a midcentury critic for The New Yorker, in which he profiled a series of prominent actresses. The period had “an impossible glamour,” said Gilbert, sending her off on a deep dive into authors writing about that time: John O’Hara, Mary McCarthy, Maeve Brennan. And she researched numerous letters from the era — “that’s the only way you can get people’s actual voice.”
A few real-life names appear in “City of Girls” — Walter Winchell makes a cameo appearance, as does socialite Brenda Frazier — but the main characters are fictional; if you Google showgirl Celia Ray, as Gilbert tells me readers have done, you won’t find her. She and Vivian are informed, however, by interviews Gilbert conducted with some now-elderly former showgirls; one former Stork Club dancer, now in her 90s, cheerfully told Gilbert about her affair with John Wayne.
“I thought, I need to talk to some women who were there, but I need to talk about sex and I’m not sure I can get them to talk to me about it,” Gilbert recalled, laughing. “With her, I didn’t think I could get her to stop!” Aunt Peg was inspired by a nearly 100-year-old woman Gilbert met who was a former Tin Pan Alley songwriter and radio producer. “There was an urgency, as I was researching the book — I had to get to these people quickly,” Gilbert said. “There aren’t that many 1940s showgirls left.”
Edna Parker Watson, a legendary actress created by Gilbert for the book, is a composite of many performers of the time, particularly Katharine Cornell. Watson’s inimitable way of dressing, in beautifully tailored jackets and trousers, had a more modern inspiration: her style, greatly admired by Vivian, was borrowed from the novelist Donna Tartt. “I’m always so dazzled by the way Donna dresses,” said Gilbert, who described herself as, unlike budding designer Vivian, “not fashion driven.” Tartt, she says, enters the room, “and everyone else looks wrong.”
Now that “City of Girls” is finished and out in the world, Gilbert isn’t sure what she’ll write next; she tends to alternate between fiction (the 2013 novel “The Signature of All Things”) and nonfiction (her latest was 2015’s self-help volume “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear”). But she’s hoping the upbeat spirit of “City of Girls” will make its way to the reader.
“It was a joy to research, and a joy to create,” she said. “Writing it made me feel a lot better; maybe reading it will make you feel better.”
Elizabeth Gilbert will speak about “City of Girls” at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 15, at the Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; tickets are $35.50 and include a copy of “City of Girls”; 206-624-6600, stgpresents.org