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May 16, 2015

A Day in the Life of a Working Girl in 1940

In 1940 LIFE magazine had a photographic essay about a working girl in a big city based-on the “White Collar Girl” of the Christopher Morley's best-selling novel Kitty Foyle which was adapted into a film starring Ginger Rogers.

The photographs were taken by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt featuring Carol Lorell, a Ginger Rogers look-alike whose life happened to mirror Kitty Foyle's: “Like Kitty, she came from Philadelphia, ran away from home, first lived in a lonely female hotel.” Lorell's poses took readers through a day in the life of a woman like her: grabbing a bite at a lunch counter, serving customers at her job and dressing for a date.

Model Carol Lorell stands in for Ginger Rogers, star of the upcoming adaptation of novel "Kitty Foyle," about a working girl in the big city.

LIFE sent out a camera expedition to explore the ways of the White Collar Girl. Its guide was Christopher Morley. A girl named Carol Lorell, who looks like Ginger Rogers, went along to act as Kitty.

The White Collar Girl wears the collar which gave her kind its name. She dresses neat but not gaudy. When she types, she doesn't watch her hands. Somewhere in the background of the office stands the inevitable tier of wire incoming-&-outgoing baskets.

In a quick-eats joint on Sixth Avenue, she stops for a sandwich to get away from the routine of tea rooms and drugstore counters. She notices that the men eat with hats on and that their chewing makes their hats ride up and down - something for a movie-camera close-up.

She works as secretary-demonstrator for a cosmetics maker named Delphine Detaille. This is Germaine Monteil who could easily double for Delphine. Here she shows Kitty a new way to apply perfume - spray it in the air, then walk through it so that only the ghost of it clings to you.

The Five p.m. feeling is awful. Finished with work, she is sure of meal and a bed. But she suffers the dreadful loneliness of the White Collar Girl because she has nothing to do between work and bedtime. Here is the Five p.m. feeling in Times Square.

The hotel for women, where Kitty lives at first, is built of small rooms around a narrow court. It gives a chance for some nice camera work.

A good address, which Kitty acquires, usually has something the matter with it. In the East 60's, Third Avenue "El" clatters a few feet away.

Demonstrating beauty, as Kitty does, is hard work. She learns that though the young women are the ones who crowd around the counter to try things, it is the middle-aged ones who shyly shuffle to buy them.

In the large dining room of the Pocahontas, where Kitty Foyle first lived, there was not a man in sight. At "The Wigwam" bachelor girls ("they called themselves bachelor girls" says Kitty, "But a bachelor is that way on purpose") pay only $8 to $12 per week for their room and two meals. The girls get their money's worth but their souls suffer.

"The twice a week chicken croquettes and those rocky little peas, sort of crumpled so they wouldn't skid." Kitty vividly recalls the food at the Pocahontas. Sometimes corn was mixed with the peas, "They couldn't even have men waiters to remind them what a pair of pants look like" and take a girl's mind off the monotonous fare. After dinner, through the evening, girls who have no dates and don't know how to mix, sit in the lounge trying hard to absorb themselves in the evening paper or the communal radio.

The kitchenette in her own apartment is a great advance over the women's hotel, a jump from croquettes to canned soup. "Just fussing round in a kitchenette helps," says Kitty.

The mutual bedroom, when three girls live together, frequently has one big double bed and one single bed. The latter is a studio couch, hallmark of almost every White Collar Girl's furniture. The girl who comes in last at night sleeps on the couch so as not to disturb her roommates. Here, in the last few idle minutes before turning out the light, Kitty manicures her fingernails while one roommate finishes her nocturnal creaming. The other, trying to get some reading done, finds the conversation too engrossing.

Getting dressed up for a big date, Kitty pins on her gardenias. If her date is thoughtful, he sends the flowers. If he isn't, Kitty may buy them herself. Here, of course, is one place where the movies can dress up Ginger Rogers to look very gay and glamourous.

Out dancing, the White Collar Girl often prefers not to get too dressy because it costs money and is an awful lot of trouble at the end of a hard day's work. Kitty remembers dancing with Wyn, "mouth and ear close together, like those new French telephones."

In Giono's little speakeasy in the West Forties, Kitty Foyle sits between a bottle of Scotch and a decanter of water, turning a little glass stirring rod around in her hand. Wyn is lost to her forever, engaged to marry the kind of Main Line girl she always knew he was destined to marry. In the novel, Kitty goes on to success but finds no one to fill Wyn's place in her heart.

(Photos by Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)



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