Creative Careers in the Arts

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Spirited Woman Q & A

Interview with 'A Woman of Independent Means' Author Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey

By Nancy Mills | Posted June 1, 2006 | Updated May 12, 2019

I originally met Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey through my "Auntie Vera," my mothers' best friend of 73 years! Vera owned a popular beauty retreat in LA, and Elizabeth ("Betsy") was a client, whom she thought I'd like to meet. She said she wrote this book called "A Woman of Independent Means" I almost fainted. A huge bestseller when it was published in 1978, the book had had an enormous influence on my life. So, when I met Betsy four years ago, I was very nervous and I kept on saying, "You're an idol of mine. You're an idol of mine."

Absolutely no need to be nervous. Betsy welcomed me as if I was a long lost friend. She was thrilled to find out that I was a writer, and seemed to genuinely appreciate my enthusiasm for her work. She was just so nice and gracious. An "ordinary" person with extraordinary talent. And that meeting actually did start a friendship of two kindred spirits — particularly in our love of travel. Between the two of us, I think we've been to over 50 countries.

Now widowed, Betsy, age 67, was married to the famous playwright Oliver Hailey for decades. They had two daughters, Kendall, a writer, and Brooke, a therapist. Not only were Betsy and Oliver partners in marriage they worked as a writing team in film and television — most memorably on the classic TV soap opera "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."

It wasn't until Betsy was forty that "A Woman of Independent Means" was published, and it was at that age, when mega-fame knocked on her door. Her novel was later turned into a successful TV mini-series starring Sally Field and now tours as a one-woman play starring Barbara Rush. She went on to publish three more successful books, and is now a new grandmother and a community activist. She says, "I missed the 60's when I was in my 20's because I was too busy being a wife and mother, but now that I'm in my 60's, I'm ready to march."

Betsy is an amazing woman, with an amazing talent. Her life truly has been a journey of endurance, tenacity, and joy. In a rare interview, she is absolutely inspiring. Enjoy!

Q: What is the basic message of a "A Woman of Independent Means?"

A. I think the message is that we all have within ourselves independent means. It refers to much more than money. It refers to a sense of self and a sense of purpose and a sense of power.

Q.Why do you believe it became a bestseller and touched so many women?

A. I was astonished at the reaction and continue to be, but I think it reminded people of someone in their own family. My main character Bess — who was inspired by my grandmother Bess — was not a historical heroine by any means, but I think there were so many unsung women who have stood up for themselves and for their families, without any kind of publicity or fanfare, that it's very good to be reminded of the role models of family.

Q. What are you working on now? Please tell us about it.

A. My long term goal and I refer to it in the 20th anniversary edition of "A Woman of Independent Means" — the one I wrote a new foreword for back in 1998 — I said then and it's a promise I intend to keep — I want to write my mother's story in letter form as a sequel using the standing characters and inter-cutting her story with what we already know about Bess. I really couldn't do it until my mother had died, and she died in 2002. I have 12 boxes sealed, still in my hallway that I haven't unpacked with notebooks and memorabilia and I think now that I have a grandchild, I'm ready to continue my own family story.

Q. You have two daughters — what was your basic philosophy in raising them?

A. My two daughters were one of the reasons I wrote the book so that they would have a sense of their Texas great grandmother and of their heritage. I wanted them to know that there were women in their own family to emulate and to admire on their mother's side, because they knew their father's mother who lived with us but they didn't know my side of the family so well and I have just always wanted them to have a sense of who they are and to know that anything was possible for them. Now, they're struggling like all women of the next generation with too many options. It's almost overwhelming.

Q. Did your mother have a great influence on you?

A. I am very slow to appreciate my mother. Like a lot of daughters I didn't want anything like the life my mother had. She had been a rebel in her time — she left college after two years and gone to Europe to live and study in the thirties — when no one was doing it. But my grandmother put a lot of pressure on her to come home and be the dutiful daughter. And she did. Married a very nice man, a lawyer, but lived I think a subversive life. She's much more of a challenge to write about than my grandmother. I didn't want to be an artist like my mother — kind of undercover. She started out to be a painter, a sculptor — but didn't have a lot of confidence and didn't have a lot of encouragement, I think either from her family or society. She lived the role of a housewife who took classes all her life so she ended up being much better educated than most of her friends. She studied Dante and Shakespeare and Faulkner to the end of her life. She died with her bookmark in the last volume of Proust's "Remembrances of Things Past." Her artist life was very separate from her public life, as a lawyer's wife and mother. I was always pained by that. I felt she should have been able to live fully who she was, but I appreciate the effort it took to be true to those artistic yearnings and still be the dutiful wife. But I think the split was hard — it took a toll on her.

Q. Is there any message you'd like to share with us from your life's journey?

A. Just the journey itself. It's always an adventure, a new adventure at every turn even when it's difficult, a challenge. It never stops being an adventure. Sometimes it's more of a physical adventure, sometimes it' more of an emotional or spiritual adventure. I feel I travel in different arenas at different times of my life. I'm not going to be traveling as much for long periods of time — now that I have this grandchild — that's an adventure, too. Someone once told me in college you can travel vertically or you can travel horizontally, and I've done a lot of horizontal traveling in the last decade since my husband died. Now it is time to do some vertical traveling.

Q. What do you feel is the greatest gift a writer can give to herself?

A That's very interesting. I think it's to live the fullest possible life — which is what I feel when I'm writing. I've spent long periods of time not writing, but I think you're in touch with your deepest thoughts and passions and you feel most whole. No one has to hire you to write your own things.

Q. What characteristic in you do you feel has most contributed to your success?

A. Patience and persistence.

Q. Elizabeth, why do you feel you are a spirited woman?

A. Spirit is what really counts beyond anything else. Spirit is adventure, intellectual explanation, the excitement of things unseen. I feel that I try — it's always a bit of a struggle — to look beyond the surface and see the inner-life of people and places and connect with the spirit in other people because we're all truly alike in spirit.

©2006 Nancy Mills. All rights reserved.

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