White Gloves ~ Laurie Levy

           

Two women are sitting on the couch, another is perched on a chair adjacent to the couch, and Rock Hudson, grinning, is draped along the back of the couch, braced on his splendid right elbow. The women are all looking straight ahead, smiling into the camera.

The older woman on the couch, Mrs. Edwards, is silver haired, utterly composed and pleased.  She has the kind of face about which people declare, “She must have been lovely when she was young.” She was. She knows it and thinks she still is. She is. Over her chignon lies a little blue straw hat. She has met many celebrities and enjoys them.

The other woman on the couch, Mrs. Glass, a brunette wearing a beige wool hat that looks like a button mushroom, is two decades younger. She is attractive, a bit stolid. She appears to be bustling, even seated.  She has children at home who are proud of a mother who works. She too is pleased to be on the couch, not attracted to Hudson and probably pondering what she is going to make for dinner when she gets home.

The third female, in the chair, is 23, not long out of college. Her look is a cross between  deer-in-the-headlights and look-ma-I’m-dancing.  She can’t believe she is having her picture taken with Rock Hudson lying across the back of the couch.  She is wearing magenta lipstick, a trademark of women her age in the fifties.  She looks as if she might need a lip wax. She is not quite old enough to be  considered beautiful, which will begin when she is about 25 and  will continue until she’s about 28.

All three women are wearing suits, unobtrusive ’50′s jewelry, and pumps.

The occasion is a cocktail party Universal is throwing in New York for their new film, The Magnificent Obsession, which stars Hudson and Jane Wyman.  Universal believes it’s going to be a block buster and this party in the New York office is for the press.  Wyman isn’t present, but Hudson has flown across the country, living and breathing handsomeness. He knows that the women on the couch – the Movie Editor of Parents’ Magazine and the Editor of Parents‘ teen subsidiary Calling All Girls — are awarding Movie of the Month prizes to the new film, and he and Universal are appreciative.

 ***

Possibly my glassy-eyed state in the photo was due to the fact that I was seeing up to three movies per day, which made me very happy.

I  had not been educated at Mount Holyoke to watch movies. It was just another lucky break.   My first was to win the Mademoiselle Magazine college contest in 1953.  Among my co-winners were Sylvia Plath and my friend Dinny Lane, now known as Diane Johnson. The 19 co-winners and I  were flown to New York to put out the college issue of the magazine during the month of June. Then, thanks to a graduation present from my parents,  I went off in July on a National Students Association tour to Europe  — college students aboard a rusty World War II battleship. The voyage en route was enlivened by a chance to work on the ship’s student newspaper. One issue was headlined, “Ship Continues To Sail”. I considered this brilliant, and wished I had thought of it.

After all that fun, I went home to Iowa and sat on my bed with the eyelet coverlet and had asthma until I convinced my father (still known, long years after his death, as the nicest man in Mason City) that my destiny demanded that I explore newspaper work in New York.

“What about the Mason City Globe Gazette?” my father wanted to know. Or, if that was too docile, how about the Des Moines Register or, if I must go so far away, the Chicago Tribune?

No.  It was de rigueur for midwestern girls like me to go to New York (there was a resurgence about that time in the popularity of books by St. Paul’s F. Scott Fitzgerald).  Nothing would do but Manhattan.  My father said, OK, he would give me enough money to support me for three weeks.  If I hadn’t found a job in three weeks, it was back to Iowa.

So there I was in the third week, desperate, with three roommates waiting on east 83rd street for the next month’s rent.  And I answered my twentieth ad and finally got a job, hired by a lovely man named Oscar Dystel at  Parents’ Institute. This was the umbrella company then for four children’s magazines (Humpty Dumpty and Children’s Digest  were two of them), the teen bible Calling All Girls, the dowager Parents’ Magazine, and one or two more publications.

I was a coffee girl, file clerk and general girl friday for the editors of the children’s magazines, helmed by a fun-loving group of burly men, which at the time I wasn’t savvy enough to find  incongruous. I adored the men and they seemed to adore me; we found everything similarly amusing.  I sat around re-reading Fitzgerald and writing short stories (I was taking a post-graduate creative writing class at Columbia at night) and I never had such a good time in my life, although I suffered from the fact that I made terrible coffee. The one unmarried editor, Duncan, took me on coffee dates to places in the neighborhood to try to instill the techniques of correct coffee creation, but I never improved.

I loved the whole Institute. I loved the location at 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, so close to Grand Central Station, less than a block on Madison to the Hotel Biltmore on East 44th , where I would meet my dates under the clock.  I loved the whole building, the heft of it, the history and importance of it.  I loved the people, and I loved the fact that of all of New York this was where I had been hired.

One day, I heard that the movie editor of Parents’ Magazine was looking for a new assistant.  The qualifications were that she be a good writer and adore movies.  I had been the feature editor of  both my high school and college newspapers and had grown up in the darkened environs of Mason City’s Cecil, Palace and Strand Theaters. All of my baby sitters read Photoplay and Modern Screen, so naturally I spent early grammar school devouring every movie magazine I could find,  and I had, of course, aimed to become a star myself from a very young age, so I thought I qualified.

On my lunch hour, I traveled to a higher floor and met the editor of the Parents’ Magazine Family Movie Guide, Catherine C. Edwards.  When I entered her office, I was nearly paralyzed with panic, but the desperation, perhaps, gave me a certain star quality.  I wasn’t usual.

Still, I don’t know if I would have been approved so quickly  if she hadn’t told me she had come to New York from Des Moines.  I said, “I’m from Mason City.”

I was of course hired.

She was in her late fifties, although she looked younger on good days.  One of my duties was to book her very regular appointments at Georgette Klinger on Fifth Avenue and her skin reflected this care. She was a client of the skincare queen herself, and that crystalline complexion was the result. In contrast to most women in New York, she did nothing to color the gray hair which she wore in a bun or chignon; she used makeup well, and she usually looked like someone’s stunning older aunt, but she was a bit too austere to be an Auntie Mame.

She generally wore a tailored hat and white gloves.  She wore them at screenings, and in the office.  She kept extra pairs of white gloves in a desk drawer and changed them when they went gray.  Her hats were small, straws in summer and wool felts in winter, and tilted toward the back of her head, and she usually forgot she was wearing one.

She saw all the A (and some B) pictures, and I saw all the C-Z pics.  That was why I was shuttled off to see things like Creature From The Black Lagoon in 3-D.   When she was in doubt about which A picture would be awarded our monthly Family Medal or Special Merit Award  I would be included in a screening and asked for my opinion.  She grew to trust my views.

Our job was to rate movies for Adults, Children and Young People (this meant teens and pre-teens); she took care of the adult end.  Besides bringing me in on really good films, she wanted to further my film knowledge.  She sent me off to museums, to old movie palaces like the then-Thalia that ran ancient movies (a festival of Chaplin or Buster Keaton films), she gave me magazines like Cahiers du Cinema and film books from her private collection.  She taught me about directors like Truffaut and Malle and other auteurs and the Italian realism of Rosellini; we adored “Paisan.” She deeply regretted that she had never met Orson Welles, with whom she once shockingly admitted she would’ve run away to sea. She wasn’t kidding; she didn’t kid.   There was very little she didn’t know about movies, and she was bound to mold me in her image.  The mutual love of movies firmly united us. We were consumed with our responsibility.

I wrote capsule reviews of my movies, usually a long paragraph; she typed her own. It was my job to read the galleys monthly which took long hours, as we covered every film every month.  The tedium of proofreading pages of short reviews was not tedious to me and I doubt it was to her.  In those days, there was no national rating system, PG -13, R and so forth, and thus parents throughout the country read our Movie Guide to check if such and such was appropriate viewing for little Sally and  brother Billy.  Parents’ was a very popular magazine, the Movie Guide a large part of that popularity. Truly, Mrs. Edwards felt that she had a mission, and so I felt that, too.

She coddled me. She found me a kind dentist when it was necessary to remove my wisdom teeth.  I never heard her use the word feminist, though she was aware that she was one of very few women in the magazine critics’ group who moved from screening room to screening room, most of them on Broadway or seventh avenue, throughout the day, and she surely was the only one who covered all the movies; most of the critics picked just a few of the plums monthly. There was the man from Time, and the man from Life. There was even a male reviewer for Seventeen.  Two of these men asked me out but I usually was desperately in love with men closer to my own barely post-pubescent age, and Mrs. Edwards allowed me occasionally to bring one of the latter along as a date for the better evening screenings; she called it getting a male viewpoint, but I never thought she paid that much attention.

None of the other male critics ever had an assistant like me who saw and wrote about so many movies, but I didn’t know any better how to make a point of this, and I never would have dreamed of leaving Mrs. Edwards like the girl before me had – she had unbelievably gone off to the west coast to take some kind of studio job and “further her career,” as she had informed me.  She and Mrs. E. had been friends, but never as close as Mrs. E. and I were.

Mrs. E. had been married once, but he had died long ago.  She’d never had children.  Her family was sparse, and most of it far away.  She lived alone. I was too oblivious to see that she was lonely.

She almost never took a sick day.   But, one afternoon while I was reading galleys, she told me to come with her, as she felt so ill — she had a terrible migraine — she must go home, she was almost blinded, and she couldn’t manage by herself.  Following her directions, I got us on the right subway, and when we came to the right stop – I think she lived in Jackson Heights – I found us a taxi to her apartment building.  She had a beautiful homey apartment, very large, many shelves of books, lovely ancient furniture and art,  and while she took off her hat and gloves and swallowed some Empirin compound #3, I made tea.

She lay on a couch in her living room and finally she slept.   I stayed there for four hours, made  a sandwich for her dinner, put some applesauce in a lovely little dish printed with roses and sprinkled some cinnamon over it. I wandered the apartment, intuiting something Miss-Haversham-ish, examining the books and family photos. One displayed  a girl in pigtails on a tricycle in Des Moines; she looked like a blond version of me at that age; another, in a silver frame, showed her with an older navy officer I took to be her husband, who gazed at her the way I think she wished Orson Welles would have looked at her. I examined the frame; it was sterling and highly polished.

She had a large collection of exquisite perfume bottles on her dressing table.  I’d never noticed that she wore perfume. She was so tailored I never thought she was very feminine but, in her apartment, she was.  I dabbed on a tiny bit of “Joy.” After a while I returned to her impeccable kitchen, perched on a stool and read a Norman Mailer paperback I had in my tote bag – green and printed with Mount Holyoke griffins — until she awoke.  Her headache was a bit better.  She took another Empirin with codeine. It had been one of her worst migraines, and she didn’t usually give in to them, but she was grateful for my coming with her.

I said it was nothing.  I wish now I had stayed longer, cared more for her.  I forgot to tell her about the sandwich and applesauce in the refrigerator.  I was young and thoughtless.

It was late, but I had a date – I always had a date – and I called him and told him I’d meet him.  She asked me to call her from the jazz club, so that she could be sure I had made it on the subway into Manhattan.  I know she wanted me to stay; she said faintly that it was good to have company after such a migraine, but I also think it was because she was afraid for me out alone at night.

But I was all right.  I was always all right.  Just as I was always in love.

I loved my job.  I was now writing an additional review of a leading movie of the month for  Calling All Girls.  So in addition to the mothering from Mrs. E.,  I was now doubly protected:  from the beginning, the editor, Mrs. Glass, impressed me as one of those terribly competent women  who wants to be sure everyone, both at home and at work, is all right.

I slipped through Manhattan enveloped by a protective glaze, like a specimen under one of Sylvia Plath’s bell jars.

Among Mrs. Edwards’ regular publicity perks was meeting the occasional movie star. So this is what led to the evening of  the cocktail party for Rock Hudson, and since The Magnificent Obsession was not only going to be a Parents’ medal winner, but  also the movie of the month for Calling All Girls, we all were invited.

The hotel suite was lavish, the drinks (I always ordered a weak gin and tonic) were cold, there were cigarettes in crystal holders.  Mrs. Edwards and Mrs. Glass did not smoke. Rock and I did.   He talked to all three of us lengthily before the photo was taken, at which time he stretched out along the back of the couch. Mrs. Glass said later that she was surprised he hadn’t taken a tumble for me (people talked like that then) and Mrs. Edwards said she had heard “he doesn’t do that.”  I couldn’t imagine what she meant.

 

The Academy Awards in 1954 were split between an event in an auditorium in Hollywood and one in New York.  Among the New York contingent up for awards was a group behind Judy Garland’s A Star Is Born.  Garland herself was in the hospital, having just given birth to her son, but the NYC crowd in the auditorium that night was rooting loudly for Garland. I was Mrs. Edwards’ guest, and I sat there reveling in the fact that I was here, and groaning with disappointment when Garland lost to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.  Mrs. Edwards took me to a reception that night where I met a man who became  my number one boyfriend. He had gone to Princeton. Strangely, a day later, I  met another man who had gone to Princeton. I loved these Princeton men probably because they seemed to embody F. Scott Fitzgerald. The second one, who had an apartment in Brooklyn,  became my favorite.  Oddly, for a partially unsophisticated girl from Iowa and Mount Holyoke, I seemed to have few, if any, compunctions about flings and affairs.  I thought for a long time my promiscuity was rather out of touch with the mid-’50′s (though I learned later that it wasn’t).   I never dreamed that anything untoward would ever happen to me, and it didn’t.

But it did happen to a dear friend, who told me one day that she was pregnant and that she was going to Puerto Rico for an abortion.  He wouldn’t marry her.  Like another friend to whom this had happened in college, she was unafraid and she didn’t want a baby then.  It was an expensive trip, a difficult abortion performed by a rotten doctor, and the whole experience was ghastly. Just as it had happened to my college friend.  Years later, they each married and had children, thank God, but at the time everyone was beyond upset.  When Roe vs. Wade happened,  these were the people I called long distance, joyous for them and me and all women. No more horrific trips to Puerto Rican doctors.

It seems very strange that people thought no one took chances in the ’50′s. I think they took more chances than anyone has taken before or since, but I was just lucky.

Then it was over.  In 1956, Mrs. Edwards was talking about me taking over her editorship.  She would retire in a few years, she said, and I would step in.  But I had become engaged to a man who had come out of the army and into my life and he was bound for law school and he was from Chicago.

“Don’t go,” Mrs. Edwards pleaded. ”Can’t he go to law school in New York?”

He thought not.   And so, like most of the ’50′s women, I was off to  where he was.

I packed, there were parties, I said my goodbyes (including bedroom finales with the Princeton boys) and I saw my last screening and wrote my last review.

Mrs. Edwards hugged me so tightly I could smell the Joy. She had tears in her eyes.  “I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said in full hearing of the girl whom I had trained for my job, poor thing.

All the way to the airport, I cried.  My white gloves were drenched.

“What’s wrong?” the cabbie said, concerned.

“I’m leaving New York to go to Chicago to be married,” I sobbed.

The cabbie nodded.  “I don’t blame you.”

We flew over Manhattan on our way west and it looked exactly like the opening shots in a technicolor musical comedy usually distributed by MGM or 20th Century Fox.  The curtains parted to reveal the orchestra playing the excitable composition that introduced  How To Marry A Millionaire.

Of course, later, I found it wasn’t like that at all.