Born in 1871, Canadian artist and author Emily Carr offered some of the earliest depictions of life in British Columbia. And she let nothing distract her from her work. In her posthumous memoir, she tells of a response she once gave to a marriage proposal: “I don’t love that way. Besides—my work.”
When, in 1970, the Presbyterian Church forced executive Maggie Kuhn to step down at age 65—what Ralph Nader called “the most significant retirement in modern American history”—she founded the Gray Panthers movement to fight ageism. She was also outspoken about sexual freedom. “Many people ask why I never married,” she writes in her 1991 memoir. “My glib response is always ‘Sheer luck!’’
Diagnosed with lupus at age 26, Flannery O’Connor was given five years to live. She lasted 14. In that time, the Georgia native and eventual National Book Award winner did little but write, producing a pair of novels and more than two-dozen short stories, many collected in 1955’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find. “There is a great deal that has to either be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work,” she wrote in a 1956 letter to a friend. “There seems to be other conditions in life that demand celibacy besides the priesthood.”
Single doesn’t get more chic than Coco Chanel. Though she had many relationships long and short—Salvador Dalí and Igor Stravinski among them—the iconic fashion designer and perfumer never married. Not that she wasn’t asked. When proposed to by the Duke of Westminster, she allegedly answered, “Anyone can be a duchesses but there is only one Chanel.”
England’s most famous umbrella-wielding nanny doesn’t stay in one place long enough to settle down. Sorry, Bert: she says you’re just a friend.
In her 2011 memoir, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—the first female African-American to hold the position—acknowledges the fine line between ambition and overworking: “When you’re single, you have to be careful not to be drawn into working every waking moment; there are no spouse and children demanding your time and attention. But there are many things that I love to do, and years ago I told myself I wouldn’t become a workaholic. Even if I had very little time, it was important to get away. I particularly enjoyed an occasional Sunday afternoon at the piano.”
A short-lived marriage in her early twenties was enough for four-time Academy Award winner Katharine Hepburn. “Life was fun and easy,” she wrote her in 1991 memoir. “I was happy…I was not in the business of capturing anyone into a marriage. I just did not want to marry anyone. I liked the idea of being my own single self.”
Bestselling author, New York Times columnist, and former flame of Michael Douglas and Aaron Sorkin, Maureen Dowd is vehemently anti-matrimony. As she put it in a 2005 Times piece: “Many women now do not think of domestic life as a ‘comfortable concentration camp,’ as Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique, where they are losing their identities and turning into ‘anonymous biological robots in a docile mass.’ Now they want to be Mrs. Anonymous Biological Robot in a Docile Mass. They dream of being rescued—to flirt, to shop, to stay home and be taken care of. They shop for ‘Stepford Fashions’—matching shoes and ladylike bags and the 50’s-style satin, lace and chiffon party dresses featured in InStyle layouts—and spend their days at the gym trying for Wisteria Lane waistlines.”
A lifelong single, Hollywood icon Greta Garbo was romantically linked to the most eligible bachelors of her day, including author Erich Maria Remarque and photographer Cecil Beaton. According to some biographers, she also had affairs with women, including fellow actresses Louise Brooks and Marlene Dietrich. “The only good reason for two people getting married is that they can be together most of the time,” she wrote in a 1932 essay for Liberty Magazine. “That is impossible with me so long as I remain on the screen.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein never married but didn’t let that stop her from having a child. “When I had first contemplated becoming a mother, I was involved with a man who I hoped would be the father,” she wrote in a 2000 New Yorker essay. “But when we stopped seeing each other I felt there was no reason to abandon the project…For eight years, I had believed that the greatest regret of my life would be childlessness.” Artificially inseminated, Wasserstein was 48 when she gave birth to her daughter.
Acclaimed author and cultural commentator Fran Lebowitz is no fan of marriage. On the subject of same-sex unions, the single Lebowitz—who’s gay herself—told The Stranger in 2012: “I don’t care if people want to get married, they can get married, you know, as long as it’s not mandatory…I, as a single person who pays taxes, I think it’s unfair that anyone is allowed to get married, from a money point of view…It seems to me that the arguments are either about money, or about visiting people in hospitals, neither of which I find that sexy, to tell you the truth. To me, not having to be with someone else in the hospital? Perfect! Great! ‘I’d love to meet you in the hospital, but unfortunately, I can’t.’ That would be more my stance. I don’t want to have to visit you in the hospital. But as far as all of these financial advantages, I don’t see why that’s fair.”
Sci-fi matriarch Octavia E. Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred was groundbreaking for its inclusion of interracial marriage. But the reclusive author never wed. “I’m uncomfortably asocial,” Butler once described herself, “a hermit in the middle of Seattle.”
Prior to 2011, when J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore Web site revealed Minerva McGonagall’s backstory—which includes a late husband—Harry Potter fans knew the Transfiguration professor as the single, strict, and occasionally Slytherin-bashing head of Gryffindor House. But even in marriage, McGonagall was staunchly independent, choosing to keep the last name of her Muggle father rather than adopting that of her pure-blood husband.
In a 1961 essay for Vogue titled “Love—In Other Words,” 34-year-old Harper Lee wrote, “[T]o some of us romance is a word; in many of us the ability to feel affection has long since died; but all of us at one time or another—be it for an instant or for our lives—have departed from ourselves: we have loved something or someone.” Who that someone was for the never-betrothed To Kill a Mockingbird author is unclear, though in a letter dated that same year good friend Truman Capote wrote that he had “good reason to believe that she is unhappily in love with a man impossible to marry.”
Helen Fielding separated from her longtime partner and father of her two children in 2009. But judging by a 2002 interview, the Bridget Jones’s Diary author has few misgivings about staying single like her famously unlucky-in-love protagonist: “Nobody asks me whether I’m married any more,” Fielding told her publisher, Penguin. “And no more patronizing comments from my married friends; their attitudes really have changed. It sounds rude to go to a Smug Married and say, ‘How’s your marriage going, still having sex?’, but not to go up to a Singleton and say, ‘How’s your love life?’ It’s great if people realize that there isn’t just one way to live. That’s an old-fashioned concept, and I think it’s losing its grip on us. Life in cities is very similar all over the world, and people do tend to live in urban families as much as in nuclear ones. They’re not worse off or better off; the point is that it’s no longer abnormal to be single.”
No man could live up to her father, who died under mysterious circumstances when she was a child. But kindly Miss Honey from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book Matilda finds plenty of joy in looking after the students of Crunchem Hall.
Forget roses and candlelit dinner: an ideal Valentine’s Day for Lisbeth Salander—the bad-ass vigilante heroine of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy”—likely includes torturing rapists and hacking bank accounts.
“I remember when I was young I honestly believed in some ridiculous way that you would find someone who would be the person you lived with until you died,” Oscar winner and avowed single Diane Keaton said in a 2001 interview. “I don’t think that because I’m not married it’s made my life any less. That old maid myth is garbage.”
Agatha Christie’s famed spinster detective Miss Marple was based in part on the author’s grandmother. “Although a completely cheerful person, she always expected the worst of anyone and everything,” Christie revealed in audiotapes recorded in the mid-1960s but not discovered until 2008. “And with almost frightening accuracy [she was] usually proved right.”