I don’t recall anybody saying of my aunt Anne, “My, she looks like Joan Crawford, doesn’t she?” They may have… she did.
Looking back, I think I noticed it when I was young but at the time I put it down to nothing but coincidence. Another aunt, her sister Mary who was blonde, looked a lot like Marilyn Monroe when she was in her prime. (To me. In photographs. Marilyn was not a star yet though when Mary was a girl, so maybe like my aunt, Norma Jean emulated Carol Lombard: blonde bombshell of another age.)A third aunt (by marriage) – Lottie – always accused the two of trying to “look like movie stars” but at the age of 10 or 12, I just figured she was being mean. Lottie herself looked an awful lot like Norma Shearer (if you remember her; she’s not as famous as the other two, today).
I’m not referring here to hair color, facial features, build, or any other natural factor. Those really were “coincidence.” (But for the hair dye! Even then, much that came out of Clairol bottles.) I mean much more than that… what I see all these decades later, as a focused, concentrated effort to emulate those movie Icons of the time. And not only in appearance!
Well, it’s an age-old question, I suppose. Do movies and tv reflect US
- or do we reflect THEM? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?! Anne not only looked like Joan; she dressed like Joan. Tweed suits. Big bows. Giant shoulder-pads. Just like Lucille Fay LeSueur (Joan Crawford’s real name), she had the costumes – she had the props – she had the “script.” Seems to me, Anne did her best to live The Life of Joan - not the actress. Not Lucille, but the life she led in movie-roles. Anne had the the bearing and the attitude. She had the hats, the nylons with the seams, the high-heeled shoes with ankle-straps. She had the Perfect Manicure (truthfully, they all had that). She had a closet packed with blouses (Dry-clean only. Silk. They had bows or ruffles at the nape – you wore them under suits). She owned at least 400 scarves. She and Mary shared a room when I was young and they were always quibbling over space. Lottie, who had married young (they were single ladies, then) lived downstairs and had a treasure-trove of clothes and jewelry, furs and shoes as well… but even so, was wont to making smart remarks like, “Those two can’t take the garbage to the alley unless they smear on lipstick and mascara, first.” They all used to let me play with scarves and costume jewelry. Not the shirts! After all, they had to go to the dry cleaner; not the sort of things you tossed into the wash. Not the shoes. Too much chance of snapping heels off. Not the perfumes! Now and then, I’d sneak a spray of this, a sprtz of that… and to this day, the slightest whiff of certain scents will bring the memories back as though I’d seen them only yesterday, when I was 10. (Shalimar for Lottie. My mother wore Arpege. Mary chose Chanel #5 and Anne, fittingly, wore Tweed.) At 10, I didn’t see the problem! I do now, given the price of those perfumes…
Especially, I was not allowed to play with furs! Mind you, this was long before the anti-fur idea surfaced in society… plus, it was Chicago. These women – that includes my mom – .trudged to work (more specifically, they trudged to catch a train or bus – they had no cars) whether it was 35 F below or 107 F above. Whether there were gale winds, tornadoes, blizzards and/or snowdrifts 12 feet high! “Been There, Done That” – except that they had no A/C in summer in the house while (as Lottie used to put it) “Gussy-ing up for the day.”
“We keep those furs in mothballs over summer,” they informed me. “Those are poisonous. So leave those bags alone!” This probably had more to do with the RC Cola I spilled in the closet once… but either way.
In the end, I’m sure my aunt tried her best to imitate the life-style Hollywood was busy setting forth in films, just as they continue to today – with far different values and results. One wore a “certain kind of clothes.” One had “a certain sort of home, a certain sort of man, a certain sort of job, a certain sort of kids.” This seems especially true of the movies from the 1930’s/40’s – long before my time. But my aunts and mom were in their twenties and their thirties, then – the prime of life- cementing their careers, developing Personas, establishing their future paths.
Anne was the youngest of the sisters, and in 1939 she’d have been a Sweet 16. It isn’t true that “women didn’t work” back then because the fact is, many did. My mom was 26 by then. She’d become a dress designer/pattern maker, one of few (very few!) women in Chicago’s garment industry with such an elevated status (not to mention, elevated salary). In all honesty, and not to be impartial, I don’t think my mother emulated anyone! She did dress the part – it’s “what you did”- but for example, she alone never took up smoking and like Lottie, always told the others “you just want to look like move stars!” And, as with Lottie, it was not a compliment. Neither was she quite so fond of those martini’s, like the others …. one more Affectation of the Age. And one that took its toll in later years.
As for Anne, maybe she would argue with me now, were she still around (she was pretty good at arguing!) But I believe she drew on movie-roles in making many of the big decisions in her life. She had no interest in the garment industry – too much chance of being “just a seamstress,” as I heard the story later. This was in reference to her sister Mary, who became exactly that- though not for long. No, Anne was not about to “slave in a sweat-shop,” thank you very much! She enrolled in Jones Commercial College, made straight A’s and graduated in the top percentile of her class: the first woman in the family to get a degree, as a matter of fact. At the time, and for decades after wards, it struck everybody as The Perfect Choice. For those times, perhaps it was. In most arenas (never mind my mother, for the moment!), the words “Boss” and “Man” were synonymous. Again, I’m sure there were exceptions; but in the 40’s and the 50’s, a woman with a business degree … who was good, and who applied herself… could bring down quite a salary. As a secretary. She did not deign to be the CEO. If she was VERY good, and very enterprising, very clever, she could go further up the ladder to Executive Secretary – preferably, for someone (make that Someone Male) in a Very High Position in a Huge Top Company. Anne did all that.. becoming Executive Secretary first to Raymond Lowey the famous industrial designer (so famous, you will find 1,080,013 hits today, on the Yahoo search engine! Among other things, he designed the coca cola bottle.) Then, when she moved to Miami later on, she worked for an equally famous Hotel Magnate – the equivalent of Donald Trump, today.
So, you’re saying, this is a problem? Well, yes and no… she climbed to the top of her chosen profession (and believe it or not, there was great prestige in being Secretary, even in the 60’s and the 70’s. Nor am I denigrating secretaries now! I was one – although for not that long a time – and I believe, as Anne used to say, they “do 99% of the work but get only 5% of the credit.”) It did not prove the wisest option in the end, though… or maybe I should say, circumstances changed. And so did she. So it was not the happiest of endings, later on. She had to leave Miami under doctor’s orders; caught some kind of fungus there they couldn’t seem to cure, so returned to Chicago “for her health.” More to the story? — maybe! – but she did suffer with a skin condition after that, and for the rest of her life. Thing is.. or was… the world, as it always does, had changed in the interim as well. She found another job in Chicago – same title, same work – but by then, the penache was gone. By then. there was no particular prestige in being Secretary. And I don’t think she ever understood why I “got out of it” as soon as possible and went to management, instead. The photos tell another story too; tales of Miami Party Life. She had a penthouse overlooking Biscayne Bay in the days when Miami Beach was among the most prestigious – and fun-loving – cities in the USA to live. She was wearing summer clothing but was still Joan Crawford there, martini in hand, a handsome fellow always at her side.
We were not that close, given that she’d lived in Florida for years; not like I was with Mary. Mary got married later on – a bit to my mother’s disapproval, seeing as she “should have been an opera singer with that voice!”- a quote I heard about a million times. It wasn’t marriage per se that bugged my mom — she, after all, was married to my dad – but to “waste your talent” – that was something else!). So Mary was the one who fixed me lunch in grade-school and the one who took me to ballet class, piano lessons, came to my recitals (don’t forget; my mother worked) – the one who helped me learn to cook, the one I usually went to with my problems. And in later years, we stayed fast friends. So many things she said remain with me today – but one from 1989, was “When your Icons start to die, so does your universe. You wait. You’ll see what I mean.” That was the day Bette Davis passed away. She was big on Bette Davis! (Well, Marilyn had gone so early, after all … )
I don’t think I “got it”, when she said it. But Mary was right. I “get it” now. We do choose Icons; and we do model ourselves in some ways, on this celebrity or that. It is not a recent, or “modern” phenomenon: in the time of Mme de Pompadour, I’m sure half the girls in Paris were imitating her as best they could; more than likely “cave girls” were comparing notes — “Oh, I want to look like Thelma over there, when I grow up!” Seems to be a natural , often very helpful , rite of passage. “Find a template, try to follow it as best you can.” How else can people learn? The problem comes I think, when our culture gives us negative models. Or worse, harmful ones. And in such confusion and profusion, that we can’t tell the good from the bad or see the adverse effects from playing copy-cat if the choices we make are less than helpful to the outcomes of our lives. Thinking back, I had my templates too. Annette Funicello, first! (Depending on your age, you’ll say either, “Oh yeah, the Mouseketeer. Me too!” – or, “Huh?”) There was Twiggy – Farah Fawcett – some of you are still saying, ’Huh?" – and later, I recall wanting desperately to “be” Grace Slick.
Why is it never enough, just to be Ourselves? Or is the question, “Why did I not choose Rachel Carson (author and environmentalist), Emmy Noether (German mathematician), Caroline Herschel (astronomer; the first woman to discover a comet) or Maya Angelou?” Well, the answer’s in the way I wrote that sentence! But for Maya Angelou, I had to tell you who they were; and more than likely, if you know who Maya is we can thank Oprah Winfrey, as she’s had her on the show so many times. The problem for women, isn’t that we HAVE no beneficial Role Models, it’s that our society has failed to tell us who they are, or were! Much easier for adolescent girls today – or any other day – to pick the easiest,most obvious, most publicized (and the flashiest) of Icons for their life-time models. Whether Joan Crawford in 1939, Farah Fawcett in the 70’s or Lady Gaga now.
Anne’s life dream was not to be a secretary, but an artist. She was tremendously talented and had a real gift with oils. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago for a time, and even had an exhibition once. Despite admonitions from my mother, she did not return to art upon returning to Chicago. As far as I can see from where I sit today, she fell into a deep depression having given up that Party Life, the penthouse on the beach, the prestigious job, and all those handsome suitors down in Florida. The martinis didn’t help (alcohol being a depressant)… and the fact is, you can “play” Joan Crawford all you like (or anybody else) but without an audience, it’s like that old song by B.B. King. “The Thrill is Gone.”And it’s true, what Mary said… when your Icons start to die (as all flesh must), your world goes with them, in a very real way. They are no longer “Now.” They are no longer “Hot.” They are no longer applicable – to anything. Just memories of another time. Say their names, the young say, “Huh?”
Anne did get married late in life, but it was not how she’d envisioned in the least. That’s another thing about those big-screen Icons; how much of life’s “failure” to satisfy our expectations lies with life – and how much lies with our own all-too-often false ideals of the Way it Ought to Be? Life is not a 1930’s movie. Or a 1980’s movie. Or a 2010 tv show. Or a rock concert (or the Mickey Mouse Club, come to that!)
Same old question… which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Maybe art reflects life – or maybe the reverse – or maybe both! Either way, I wish we all had better role models than we do. I don’t think we can ever take away the urge to emulate people (nor, do I think we should); maybe we can work on making better choices though, in the models we present to the generations coming up. Fewer Hilton Sisters and/or Lady Gaga’s for example, and a few more women scientists?
(Something to think about)
The redhaired lady in the photo is my aunt Anne, probably in 1950 give or take. The others — Joan Crawford, as you may have guessed. Multiple layers, colors, light enhancements added in CS2.
A bit more family history (from my mother’s side) here (about my mom), here (my uncle George), here and here (me), here, here (my mother’s parents), here and here if you’re interested. More to come, I’m sure! And then, there’s my father’s side. So many stories, so little time… !
Mom (Before My Time)
(Who Were You, Then?)