Tackling Timeless Subjects: The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights by Kitty Zeldis
BY ELISABETH LENCKOS
Although The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights (Harper, 2022) takes place largely in Brooklyn in 1924, the story it tells about the surprising bond between three seemingly very different women—successful immigrant Bea Jones, upper-class Catherine Berrill, young, adventurous Alice Wilkerson—would not be the same without New Orleans, the city’s permissive attitude, and sensuous culture. Having visited it in the 1980s, author Kitty Zeldis became fascinated with the period between 1897 and 1917, when prostitution was made legal in the Big Easy, an admission by the local government that the trade was so entrenched, the only way to control its presence was to legalize it. Intrigued by this urban historical anomaly, Zeldis studied the infamous Blue Books, which served as guides to New Orleans’ brothels and sex workers. “The prostitutes were listed by name, age, and ethnicity,” Zeldis told me, adding that when she noticed an entry which read, “White, twenty-one, Jewish,” her curiosity was instantly piqued.
“A Jewish prostitute in New Orleans? How had she gotten there? What was her story? Because I’m a novelist and not a historian, I didn’t want to research her. I wanted to invent her, whole cloth. I was fascinated by the idea of a young Jewish woman who had become a prostitute in New Orleans and so I decided to create her, and in so doing, imagine why she might have made that choice. To me, it always seems that some form of trauma has occurred, some damage or hurt that makes a woman choose such a life. What was hers? That’s what I set about to discover. ”
A further inspiration for The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights was Zeldis’ grandmother, “a difficult, angry, and deeply troubled woman. She came from Russia and had a traumatic life but I was not terribly sympathetic to what she had been through. So I was unprepared for the torrent of grief and regret I felt when she died. Why had I not been more patient, more understanding, more kind? Because I could not make things rights between us in life, I began to do so in my writing, and I wrote stories about her in which I gave her the dignity, agency and complexity I could not while she was alive. Writing about her was a form of apology. I used certain parts of her life to create the backstory for the character of Bea in my novel though I will say, in case she is listening, that she did not ever live in New Orleans, become a prostitute, or a madam.”
The plot of The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights begins on the day Catherine walks into Bea’s haute couture shop to buy a chic, new outfit to console herself. Unable to conceive a child, she is deeply unhappy, although she has a beautiful home, a doting husband, and servants to wait on her. From the start, she feels drawn to Russian-born Bea, a recent arrival from New Orleans, who has come to Brooklyn with her ward Alice to make a fresh start. But Alice feels excluded from the growing intimacy between the two women and throws herself into dangerous encounters with potentially abusive men. The novel reaches its climax when Bea feels compelled to make a clean breast of her biography to Catherine, fearing it might endanger their budding relationship.
Asked to comment on her characters, Zeldis explains: “Bea is the ultimate survivor, but her survival comes at a very high price. She learned to protect herself so well that she eventually found herself isolated and alone. Her journey is one toward greater connection and greater intimacy. Alice, by contrast, has developed no shell, no armour, and no sense of self protection. She is taken advantage of and abused by more than one man. She needs to learn to value and protect herself. Catherine is the most privileged of the three, but even that privilege cannot fully safeguard her from heartbreak and despair. She has to examine what she thought she wanted and find a way to accept what’s been offered to her.”
In addition to such timely issues as displacement, exile, misogyny, and racial prejudice, The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights deals with an important, timeless subject. Partway through the novel, a scandalous revelation hints how the fates of the women might be related, asking us to reappraise what we know about Bea, Catherine, and Alice, and the ways in which they understand their roles as mothers, daughters, and friends. As Zeldis elaborates:
“Motherhood was for me a transformative experience. I don’t believe that it’s right for everyone, and also believe that a life without having had a child can be rich, full, rewarding and complete. But if you have had children, I would argue that you are changed and even remade by assuming that role—I know I was. So I’m interested in how motherhood—longed for, elusive, unwanted—affects all of us as women. It’s not the only life open to us, but if we’ve chosen it—or been unwillingly thrust into it—we are never the same again. And that, to me, is inherently interesting.”
Although the history it relates is often serious and even tragic, The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights draws a vibrant, joyful portrait of female immigrant life in 1920s North America, complete with loving paeans to the cultural contributions women made to contemporary society. While highly entertaining, the novel is not afraid to tackle controversial topics. As Zeldis explains: “As a Jew in largely Gentile country, I’ve always felt myself to be something of an outsider, and that has made me keenly aware of the ways in which others have been made to feel the same way. It seems that there are always people who need to bolster their own sense of worth by devaluing someone else’s.”
About the contributor: Dr. Elisabeth Lenckos reviews and serves on the Social Media Team for the Historical Novel Society. She is at work on a novel about a German Jewish family in twentieth-century Berlin.