Lives and Limits of the Known and Unknown

In spring of 1951, during the semester at whose end she would graduate from George Washington University, Jacqueline Bouvier competed in the Prix de Paris contest put on by Vogue magazine. This competition was no joke. Contestants submitted a personal profile, four papers on various fashion-related questions, an outline for a full issue of Vogue, and an essay on three people the applicant wished she had known. The winner’s prize: a yearlong trainee position at the magazine – six months in the Paris office, followed by six months in the New York headquarters. Bouvier, fresh from a junior year in France, which had inspired, for all intents and purpose, a growing interest in fashion, culture, and writing, submitted the winning application. Out of nearly 1300 applications, hers was the best.

Historians love the Prix de Paris application materials. As Jacqueline Bouvier became Jacqueline Kennedy (and then Onassis), she was not a figure known for her transparency. But in these documents, she is forthright and open. She recalls, as a child, pretending to sleep when in reality she was reading the Chekov and Shaw she found upon the shelves in the room appointed for napping. She suggests an advertising campaign to link perfume with wine, given that “both are liquids that act upon the closely related sense of taste and smell to produce an intoxicating effect.” She wishes she’d known, among others, Oscar Wilde, revealing an admiration for the power of his wit: “with the flash of an epigram,” she wrote, he could “bring about what serious reformers had for years been trying to accomplish.” She reveals, in this personal writing, something of the “real” Jackie.

prixdeparispictureJacqueline Bouvier’s picture as winner of the Prix de Paris competition.

When I read Bouvier’s materials, they communicate the time and thought and care put into the application. They reveal a keen but also pragmatic mind, showing an understanding of the need to blend one’s esteem for the arts with the practicalities of publication. I imagine there are those who would dismiss Vogue as not a site of serious publishing – but those people are wrong, especially about Vogue in the 1950s. There was the fashion, but the publication was also a bastion of high culture, publishing essays by and about great artists of varying fields. When I imagine Bouvier taking this opportunity at Vogue, I wonder what the experience might’ve meant to her.

But I can only imagine Bouvier in Paris at the Vogue offices. She turned down the prize, later noting “I guess I was too scared to go to Paris again. I felt then that if I went back, I’d live there forever. I loved Paris so much. That’s such a formative year when you get out of college.” The inside scoop – or at least the theory that is most often bandied about – is that her mother and stepfather dissuaded her from accepting the Vogue position, afraid, indeed, that Jacqueline would become an expatriate and live forever outside the United States. And so in Washington, D.C. she remained, becoming the Inquiring Camera Girl at the Washington Times-Herald in 1952 and marrying Senator John Kennedy in 1953. And so on.

I’ve now spent a decent amount of time thinking about a) American women at mid-century and b) Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. And I now here declare that the Prix de Paris turn of events make me mad. Admittedly, it’s impossible to test the veracity of the “we remember Jackie when” sentiments that came in the years after the American public “knew” Jackie, but across the board, the reminiscences of friends, of classmates, of teachers identified in Bouvier intelligence, wit, curiosity, and, possibly most importantly, potential. I want her parents to get out of her way. I want her to take a chance, rebel, and GO. Who knows what she might have done? All I can think: what a missed opportunity. These feelings are not for my professional consideration of the past, but they are there, and I’m grappling with them.

To that end, I communicated my indignation to the other historian of the household. From him, I get a decent amount of the devil’s advocate, and I’m pushed (Intentionally? For fun?) to defend my points of view. When it comes to regretting historical figures’ missed opportunities, I’ve thought about Hillary Clinton in this way, too, and I brought this up. Years ago, I read the early chapters of William Chafe’s Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal. In those early chapters about Hillary Rodham, the underlying sentiment is “Holy shit. This woman.” She was a force, and people saw it. But then there was the relationship with Clinton and her efforts to support him and what this meant for her own ambitions. When they moved to Arkansas for his political ambitions, I had to stop reading. In thinking about Bouvier and Rodham (eventually Kennedy and Clinton) my devil’s advocate suggests I’m fighting an uphill battle in suggesting they deserve sympathy or indignation at opportunities missed and paths not taken. The fame, the wealth, the privilege as a whole – and for HRC, obviously, the political power outside her time as FLOTUS. In so many ways, and in comparison to so many women (in the US and around the globe), they win. And I know that. (Sidenote: there are so many opportunities to talk about the personal sacrifices these women made inside their marriages – but that’s a topic for another time. I just want people to know that I know that’s there.)

But then I also think about how, even in their privileged positions, they faced and in many ways capitulated to the social and cultural expectations of their times and places. Back specifically to Bouvier here – she had the education and the connections and the status (the money was more complicated) enough that she might have achieved cultural and intellectual and professional success outside the confines of her link to any man. But the expectation of the link to a man was THE expectation – even for someone of her elite standing (and maybe especially for someone of her standing?). In many ways, I think her giving in to her parents’ wishes, staying stateside, finding a man, and marrying well speaks volumes about the powers of convention on women during the 1950s – and the limits of alternative possible roles they imagined for themselves. Do I wish that she would have bucked the trend, accepted the prize without parental approval, and found out what she could do on her own? YES (as previously noted). But I am (big time) of the post-Port Huron generation, where fulfillment of personal desire is of the utmost importance. In 1951, that was not the norm, and particularly not for a person of Jackie Bouvier’s station.

I know as I wonder what sort of voice and what sort of influence Bouvier would’ve developed I’m asking for people to remind me of the influence she had as First Lady. And then as National Widow. And as cultural icon. And as publisher. Etc. Etc. Etc. And again, to remind me of the power and the privilege of her many roles. Am I privileging too much the idea that the development of voice and influence on one’s own and by one’s own merit is more natural or more satisfying? Is it wrong to speculate that she may have enjoyed her position more were it to come from her own efforts? And even if she’d not become “A Voice,” would it have been more satisfying to have followed personal predilection? Am I projecting too much of here and now onto the past? I don’t know. Maybe? Could be.

In the course of working through this (thank you for your patience), I maybe end up here: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is a famous case, a person who was and is known. So privilege is definitely going to be there. For me, when I think in terms of the famous and the known (a limited population), I think, too, about all those many more unnamed and unknown people of the past. For women’s historians, there are many, many unknown figures. Perhaps it is best for me to frame my indignation at the missed opportunities of one who ultimately had so many opportunities in this way: the power of convention, the dictates of family, the expectations of her time limited even Jacqueline Bouvier, someone who had so much. If that’s true, than what of those without? The power of convention, the dictates of family, the expectations of their time, not to mention the factors of their race, their religion, their class, their region, influenced so many unknown women – and who knows what they might have been and done?

Goodbye Norma Jean (and Fall Semester 2014)…

“It doesn’t really take any talent to spread your legs.” So said a student during a discussion of Marilyn Monroe during my first offering of a class on the history of the American Dream. He was referring to the notorious “casting couch” spirit of the postwar Hollywood studio system and Monroe’s willingness to engage in whatever it took to get noticed, get cast, or, ideally, get a contract in that climate. As the discussion continued, this student revealed he’d never seen a Monroe film, but he was inclined to regard the “dumb blonde” archetype she portrayed across her career as an expression of the real Monroe rather than an indication of any sort of comic acting chops. Well, then. I pushed this student, but he was unwilling to bend in his assessment. Apparently our efforts to “reconsider the past through analysis of historians’ arguments and primary source evidence” were not encouraging him to reconsider his pre-class opinions.

I’ve been teaching for a while now, and increasingly, when I find myself in this kind of position in the classroom, my response is to head back to the drawing board. Something isn’t working.

I’ve just concluded my offering of the American Dream class for a second time. For this installment, I revised the entirety of the course from top to bottom. Marilyn was among the few figures not cut in the overhaul (a] she is FASCINATING; b] I owed her redemption!). As part of the revision process, Monroe was much better situated in a discussion of idealized 1950s womanhood, a brand of womanhood that suggested a woman’s earning power was directly linked to the career aspirations and success of the man she managed to marry. His American Dream was hers (or maybe more accurately, he was hers?). To that end, Monroe is both an embodiment and a challenge (in her films and in her life), and fits beautifully in a section of the course that is all about invention and reinvention.

I assigned segments of Lois Banner’s biography of Monroe, 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire (where Monroe is SO BEAUTIFUL and SO FUNNY), and excerpts from Gloria Steinem’s Marilyn biography. The readings are really engaging (if I do say so myself), with Banner considering the public image of Monroe, the views of those she worked with, and Marilyn’s efforts to establish agency and personal power in a time when both were in short supply for a woman in her field. Steinem thinks about Monroe’s legacy – with a particular focus on what the feminist movement has meant for her memory and what it might have meant for her, both personally and professionally, had she lived longer. Along with the film and some in-class source work, it is a good section of the class (again: if I do say so myself).

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Monroe as Pola Debevoise in How to Marry a Millionaire

Really good for me: I had a *great* class. They were smart and engaged from the first. They did the good work of highlighting themes across the course, of putting figures into conversation with one another, of establishing what has given the American Dream the longevity it has enjoyed and where it has revealed itself as a mythic and often unattainable creation. And, as it turns out, they were willing to disagree with each other. But it took Marilyn Monroe for that willingness to reveal itself.

Banner’s chapter on Monroe talks about the years leading to super stardom where MM would wear the sexiest possible dress to a party in order to assure that she’d be noticed. Banner writes about Monroe’s conflicts with authority and her habitual lateness on the set, but she reminds readers about the tyrannical nature of 1950s directors and their impatience with “silly women.” She highlights the difference between the studio’s focus on the bottom line versus an emerging view among Hollywood stars that they were artists, not interchangeable parts that could be turned on and off at a moment’s notice. She reveals that Marilyn, for all the trouble she allegedly caused with her demands as she made films, was never once late to a dance class or voice lesson.

For me, it was clear that Monroe worked – and worked hard – during her early years in Hollywood. She consciously had cultivated a style intended to aid her ascendancy to stardom. She did what she had to do to get by in terms of appearance and enduring typecasting, but beyond that, she showed tremendous savvy in developing a compelling interview style and crafting an unforgettable screen presence. Some students in the class agreed. Others: not so much. While several students commended Monroe for her understanding of the way media worked, others were resistant to see Monroe as active in shaping her stardom. What’s more: they didn’t like her. They thought she was cocky and arrogant. In this class, we discussed Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Welles, and not once had the charge of arrogance been made. Even after discussing the context of late 1940s/early 1950s womanhood, when being linked to a man was the surest way of succeeding, the class was divided on whether or not we wanted to assign Monroe “risk-taker” status (an important element to achieving the American Dream, so said my class). When she was still a teenager, with no family and no sure source of income, she basically walked away from her ace-in-the-hole husband with hopes a modeling and film career would pan out. IN 1946. And we don’t know if we want to call her a risk taker? Hopefully my face was not communicating what my brain was screaming, which was WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!?

Even after watching Monroe on screen, the divides persisted. When I asked if she had not played a great dumb blonde, the old view reared its ugly head: “I’m not so sure she’s ‘playing’ dumb,” said one student. Others nodded in agreement. Multiple students expressed the belief that it hadn’t needed to be Norma Jean Mortensen/Dougherty who became Marilyn Monroe – someone else could’ve done it. Apparently students were ready to shed their faith in individualism during Week 13, when only two weeks earlier they’d been adamant that only Jackie Robinson could’ve been Jackie Robinson. Unwilling to accept the necessity of Monroe’s alleged use of sexual favors to make her way up the star ladder, another student noted, “I don’t know a lot of women stars from this time, but I’m sure not everyone did that.” And yet this student admitted that she’d known Marilyn Monroe before she enrolled in a course on the History of the American Dream, begging the question: what was the surest path to stardom for a woman determined to be a star? Particularly a woman with no money, no education, no connections? Over the course of the semester, it was not uncommon for students to commend figures of the past for trading in on whatever currency they had. And yet sexual currency seemed not a currency to commend.

The unwillingness to accept neither the labor of beauty nor the labor of feminine agreeability (which Marilyn often displayed in spades) and the further unwillingness to accept the potential talent of a sexually attractive woman (Monroe’s great sadness during her life) reminded me of things I already know. But I was disappointed to see these truisms revealed in my class. HOWEVER. I did note my class’s willingness to debate, and there were strong voices supporting Marilyn, too. Several students placed her squarely in the mold of 1950s womanhood – and saw, as I hoped they would, both the possibilities and limits of her role. After reading Steinem, one student said she’s wished for Marilyn to have lived long enough to read The Feminine Mystique while another noted that she believed Marilyn would’ve thrived in the world of women’s liberation where she would have found a community of women with whom she could’ve discussed their many shared experiences (sexual abuse, miscarriages, general anxiety). Another student, who felt so sorry for Monroe, reported to me days later that her philosophy class had just read feminist philosophy and her feelings for Marilyn weren’t just sympathy: she was looking at her through a feminist perspective! HALLELUJAH! I did NOT have this cluster of defenders in my first discussion of Monroe.

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And that has been my point in writing this far too long post: there is POWER in education to change perspective even if we feel like we’re sometimes going up against a wall. Students who have taken classes on women’s history, human sexuality, or any number of other courses that encourage consideration of the roles of gender and sexuality in social or cultural construction used their analytical skills and their content knowledge to challenge reductions of Monroe to a mere sex symbol bombshell. They considered who and what made her what she was – and what she did to challenge expectations and ideals and the obstacles she faced as she did. The idea that they’ll take with them this willingness to consider alternative perspectives and challenge widespread assumptions as they leave the classroom and head into the future not only gives me hope but also a sense of the power of what we do in the classroom to make a difference in the world beyond. And I’m grateful for this now, at this moment, when I have been feeling so powerless. As I’ve just concluded a long semester and face another one looming after a too short break, I’m determined to take this optimism with me. As I’m gearing up for another 15 week stretch, it’s good to be reminded that both the time we spend in and the time we spend on our classes is time well spent.

Poor job performance? Get a wife!

Gary Player, famed and aged professional golfer, recently offered some advice to twenty-four-year-old Rory McIlroy, a golfer many believe has failed to reach his full potential.

“[T]he thing is for a man like Rory with talent galore he’s got to make sure he has a woman like I’ve got, who has been married [to me] for 56 years, that has only encouraged me to do well and made sacrifices. He’s got to be intelligent and find the right wife. If he finds the right wife, if he practices and if he’s dedicated, he could be the man.”

Of course he could.

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Gary Player: golfer, relationship guru, nude model.

On the one hand, Player isn’t wrong to suggest that successful people need a support system behind them. No man (or woman) is an island. But the idea that a woman who’s “only” job is to encourage her man and to make “sacrifices” on his behalf is the perfect solution to a lack of professional success is one that belongs in a different century. When my PTI friends Tony and Wilbon discussed this topic, they shared my disdain for Player’s views. They discredited Player’s ideas by pointing to famed bachelors Derek Jeter and Wilt Chamberlain as examples of stars who’ve done just fine without wives to guide them along. My thoughts went more to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, McIlroy’s girlfriend of three years. It’s pretty clear to me that Player doesn’t believe Woz is the “right wife.” Why? Because she’s busy focusing on her own career and presumably making sacrifices intended to improve her own professional standing rather than McIlroy’s. As far as I know, however, no one’s suggested that finding a man, “the right husband,” dedicated solely to advancing Wozniacki’s professional success would be a surefire solution to her recent string of poor performances in Majors. When Chris Everett and John McEnroe and Brad Gilbert and others comment on Wozniacki’s fall from her previous number one ranking, they focus on her serve, her movement, her confidence, not her romantic status. The responsibility for her success is her own, not that of some fictional future caretaker willing to table any personal aspirations so that his mate might succeed. And my suspicion is that Player would be shocked if someone were to suggest a man take on such a role.

Woz&McIlroy

Woz & McIlroy, a dual-career couple, common to the 21st century

Player’s ideas are not new – and they suggest the stale ideas of yesteryear still have some traction. Literature of the 1950s spoke directly to the idea that a woman was fundamental to a man’s success (and, of course, this idea held great power well before the 1950s as well). Mrs. Dale Carnegie, not even credited with a first name of her own, published numerous articles in ladies magazines of the era and in 1957 published a book-length set of prescriptions, How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead. From getting along with his secretary to keeping a clean house to giving him alone time to watching his weight, a wife’s primary endeavor was to make a man’s life as conducive to professional success and personal satisfaction as possible. Her greatest individual desire should be that he was able to fulfill his.

1957helpyourhusband

By all accounts, having a wife of this kind would be awesome. And so I give you a perennial feminist favorite to argue why we should all have one. For those of you who’ve read this before, say hello to an old friend. For first-timers, you’re welcome.

“Why I Want a Wife,” Judy Syfers (1971)

(This piece appeared in the premier issue of Ms. Magazine.)

I belong to that classification of people known as wives. I am A Wife.

And, not altogether incidentally, I am a mother. Not too long ago a male friend of mine appeared on the scene fresh from a recent divorce. He had one child, who is, of course, with his ex-wife. He is looking for another wife. As I thought about him while I was ironing one evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I too, would like to have a wife. Why do I want a wife?

I would like to go back to school so that I can become economically independent, support myself, and if need be, support those dependent upon me. I want a wife who will work and send me to school. And while I am going to school I want a wife to take care of my children. I want a wife to keep track of the children’s doctor and dentist appointments. And to keep track of mine, too. I want a wife to make sure my children eat properly and are kept clean. I want a wife who will wash the children’s clothes and keep them mended. I want a wife who is a good nurturing attendant to my children, who arranges for their schooling, makes sure that they have an adequate social life with their peers, takes them to the park, the zoo, etc. I want a wife who takes care of the children when they are sick, a wife who arranges to be around when the children need special care, because, of course, I cannot miss classes at school. My wife must arrange to lose time at work and not lose the job. It may mean a small cut in my wife’s income from time to time, but I guess I can tolerate that. Needless to say, my wife will arrange and pay for the care of the children while my wife is working.

I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after my children, a wife who will pick up after me. I want a wife who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who  will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it. I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook. I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up while I do my studying. I want a wife who will care for me when I am sick and sympathize with my pain and loss of time from school. I want a wife to go along when our family takes a vacation so that someone can continue care for me and my when I need a rest and change of scene. I want a wife who will not bother me with rambling complaints about a wife’s duties. But I want a wife who will listen to me when I feel the need to explain a rather difficult point I have come across in my course of studies. And I want a wife who will type my papers for me when I have written them.

I want a wife who will take care of the details of my social life. When my wife and I are invited out by my friends, I want a wife who take care of the baby-sitting arrangements. When I meet people at school that I like and want to entertain, I want a wife who will have the house clean, will prepare a special meal, serve it to me and my friends, and not interrupt when I talk about things that interest me and my friends. I want a wife who will have arranged that the children are fed and ready for bed before my guests arrive so that the children do not bother us. I want a wife who takes care of the needs of my quests so that they feel comfortable, who makes sure that they have an ashtray, that they are passed the hors d’oeuvres, that they are offered a second helping of the food, that their wine glasses are replenished when necessary, that their coffee is served to them as they like it. And I want a wife who knows that sometimes I need a night out by myself.

I want a wife who is sensitive to my sexual needs, a wife who makes love passionately and eagerly when I feel like it, a wife who makes sure that I am satisfied. And, of course, I want a wife who will not demand sexual attention when I am not in the mood for it. I want a wife who assumes the complete responsibility for birth control, because I do not want more children. I want a wife who will remain sexually faithful to me so that I do not have to clutter up my intellectual life with jealousies. And I want a wife who understands that my sexual needs may entail more than strict adherence to monogamy. I must, after all, be able to relate to people as fully as possible.

If, by chance, I find another person more suitable as a wife than the wife I already have, I want the liberty to replace my present wife with another one. Naturally, I will expect a fresh, new life; my wife will take the children and be solely responsible for them so that I am left free.

When I am through with school and have a job, I want my wife to quit working and remain at home so that my wife can more fully and completely take care of a wife’s duties.

My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?

La Liz & the Evolution of Mid-Century Celebrity

I had an idea of who Elizabeth Taylor was from the time I was pretty small, I think. When my mom said La Liz, I knew exactly who she was talking about. My dad would buy my grandmother the gift set of White Diamonds from the PX every Christmas. I remember thinking how odd it was that she and Michael Jackson should be good buds. I knew nothing of her as a movie star and only saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was maybe 18 or 19 (I only just watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Whoa.). Still, I am certain that I knew of her as a public figure marked by fame, extravagance, and luxury (reading about a run-of-the-mill morning that had her answering husband Richard Burton’s question of “What are you doing?” with “Playing with my jewels!” suggests my sense of her was on the right track). Also, at some point, I knew she was a woman many times married.

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As I’ve been thinking about women and celebrity in the 1960s – and about which women were the most famous celebrities, Liz has become a source of fascination. She was a MOVIE STAR (who loved being a MOVIE STAR) and potentially the most famous woman in the world (whose fame ultimately extended well beyond her movie star status). With her fame came power, a power she embraced and channeled toward her chosen ends. LT challenged the studio system at mid-century and ultimately, I’d argue, played a role in diminishing its authority by following her own desires rather than studio directives. A central element of her challenge was the assertion that she should have some measure of control over her private life. Joining with other stars of the 1950s and 1960s, among them Monty Clift and Marlon Brando, Liz rejected the ideas that a) she owed fans more than what she gave them on the screen; b) that her personal life had to live up to a moral standard determined by forces beyond her own purview. And her purview was that eight marriages to seven men – interspersed with a variety of non-marital relationships – was perfectly legit.

All that said, it seems to me that it took an overextension of studio power and a fairly dramatic encroachment into Taylor’s private life to set her on the track to independence. The kind of celebrity she ultimately helped to create stemmed from a deep dissatisfaction with the nature of celebrity she first encountered during her early days of stardom. As LT took on the part of Kay Banks for the 1950 film Father of the Bride, she likewise began a fledgling romance with hotel heir, Nicky Hilton, a romance MGM encouraged her to cultivate. By February 1950, the two were engaged, and the eighteen-year-old Taylor spent the spring playing bride on the Metro lot while planning her “real life” wedding to Hilton off set. After being fitted for a dress onscreen as Kay Banks, LT flew to New York City where she selected her wedding trousseau. Her father, like Spencer Tracy’s Stanley Banks, played up his father of the bride role and found his responses to questions about the wedding quoted in fan magazines. The line between art and life blurred as LT, after filming a wedding scene, reported to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, “I wish you’d seen the wedding. The ceremony was so wonderful, I cried just as brides do.”

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I don’t deny LT some element of agency in her relationship with Hilton, and pretty clearly, she enjoyed both the fanfare and the idea of what being married might really be like, but MGM’s orchestration of events speaks to the studio’s desire to link the young star’s private life to her film persona and to use that private life for publicity purposes. And as an eighteen-year-old raised in the studio system, one can imagine the influence MGM had over Liz. Father of the Bride, released in June, was preceded by the wedding, held on May 6. Very clearly, the studio had a direct hand in staging the Taylor-Hilton wedding. Liz, greeted by a cheering crowd, arrived at the Church of the Good Shepherd in a limousine that had been accompanied by an honor guard of off-duty police escorts. Accustomed to such crowds, LT took it all in stride, waving graciously to her many fans before entering the church. Studio florists were responsible for the arrangements; studio photographers snapped pictures; a studio contract singer performed. Even Liz’s bridesmaids were contract players with studio connections. Seated near Taylor’s own parents were Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, the actors who’d just completed their turns as mother and father to Liz in Father of the Bride. Images from Liz and Nicky’s reception at the Bel-Air Country Club made for a perfect preview of the forthcoming film. As the two set sail for a European honeymoon a month later, Father of the Bride opened and became a great hit, earning $4 million and ultimately becoming the sixth biggest picture of the year.

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Art imitates life. Top, Kay Banks & Buckley Dunstan wed in 1950’s Father of the Bride.

Bottom, newlyweds Nicky Hilton and Liz Taylor cut their wedding cake a month before Father of the Bride’s opening.

But while the studio prospered, Liz suffered. Less than six months after the wedding, she’d left Nicky Hilton. Rumors of an affair with the married director of her next film shocked the public. In less than a year, LT went from adored child bride to Hollywood harlot. Beyond the fact that the glamour of the wedding had worn off, Hilton revealed himself to be a drinker, gambler, and womanizer, not to mention a man who, as Taylor put it “kind of got a kick out of beating the shit out of me.” When the two finally divorced in January of 1952, Liz used a demure courtroom appearance in an effort to win back some sympathy, but public opinion (news of Hilton’s abuse wasn’t dispensed publicly) had shifted. No longer a sweet ingénue, Liz was painted as spoiled, childish, and flighty by popular media.

But rather than looking to regain her position as Hollywood’s sweetheart, rather than choosing to do her penance and stay home and hide from the spotlight until the scandal dissipated, Liz Taylor decided to embrace adulthood as a woman who followed her own desires. Public opinion be damned. From her youth, she’d followed the directives of her mother (who, today, we’d definitely call a momager) and the studio, and in the aftermath of her marriage debacle – a crisis from which she’d extricated herself by force of her own will – she questioned the direction the influences of her youth had given her. Rather than trying to fit a predesigned role or assume a link between her screen persona and real life, Taylor seemingly made a conscious decision to let her work speak for her. And her timing was perfect. In August 1951, Paramount released A Place in the Sun, for which LT received tremendous praise and for which she’d had to do virtually no promotional glad-handing. Her beauty made her a charming screen presence, but her talent would win her respect and a certain modicum of freedom to do as she liked. Her work on screen could feed her stardom – and as Liz came to believe that, she came likewise to believe that her personal life could be her own.

The Best of Everything

When I’m working on a project, in addition to reading historians’ evaluations of people, events, and topics, I like to get myself into the mood of a time period by reading contemporary novels, watching films of the era, listening to popular music of the moment, and things of that nature. I find it gives me a more nuanced understanding of the time, and it also allows me to keep working even as my concentration levels rise and fall. To that end, as I’ve been giving some thought to American women’s experiences of the 1950s and early 1960s, thinking especially about what life was like for women who intended to marry before they married, I picked up Rona Jaffe’s 1958 bestseller The Best of Everything.

BestofEverything

In many ways, The Best of Everything is like a fictional account of Sex and the Single Girl before Sex and the Single Girl (published in 1962), which makes sense since many of the stories within stem from Jaffe’s own experiences working in an urban office environment. In the book, a host of characters serve as “career girls” at fictional Fabian Publishing where they navigate expectations and challenges of the workplace (wolves who see them as easy prey; senior women who identify them as threats) while also facing the challenges of maintaining active New York City social lives on their paltry salaries. In reviews and retrospectives of the novel, I’ve found some discussion about how the book suggests that the women see their jobs as secondary to their desires to meet men and, ultimately, to marry. I found the text far more complicated than that.

While certainly, there are plenty of women in the office pool who are career girls only so long as they need to be, there are others, most notably Caroline Bender, who find work at Fabian to be something of a revelation. As she began to read and review manuscripts, she thought “It was good to be able to care so much about work….For her the thrill was in the competition and in the achievement.” When we see her matrimonially focused coworkers through her eyes, the picture is not especially complimentary. Mary Agnes is a case in point. She works at Fabian as a means to an end, bringing her lunch every day rather than going out so she can save money for the wedding of her dreams. Even in the high speed, and from Caroline’s perspective, extremely exciting world of metropolitan publishing, Mary Agnes doesn’t feel tempted to wish for something more. Caroline indulges Mary Agnes, complimenting her wedding plans and smiling at details shared in the workplace. More critical (and more reflective of Caroline’s real views) are the thoughts of her roommate Gregg, an actress who’d temporarily worked at Fabian when desperate for income. Her evaluation of women like Mary Agnes: “‘The Happy Ones’ [she] called them, not knowing exactly why they were happy and not wanting to join them, but sometimes going so far as to say that it was a shame she couldn’t end up in such a bovine and contented way. She also called them ‘The Grapefruits,’ because she said if you were to slice one of them in half she would be revealed to be all partitioned off into nice little predictable segments, every one of them the same.”

Well. Those are some views (BOVINE!?). Really, such perspectives – even in 1958 – should come as no surprise to anyone at all familiar with the many varied experiences of American women of the era. Furthermore, these assessments directly reflect the propensity to dissect and critique the nature of conformity in 1950s American life more broadly. Still, such views tend to catch me off guard, and I know I’m not alone. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the media, advertising, and larger culture of the age, which suggest dreams of weddings and marriage and family life were universally shared across the population (a population universally imagined also, it must be noted, as white and middle class). But thoughtful and, clearly, even critical views existed. More importantly, they made their way into a culture that regularly ignored alternative perspectives or dissent, proving, yet again, that the 1950s are not merely the boring, staid prelude to the 1960s so many people imagine them to be. Further, such views reveal that ideas of women as historically devoted to romantic relationships – and at any cost, personal or professional – and preoccupied with dreams of weddings and marriages and babies ignore the diversity of goals and desires experienced and expressed by women over time.

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