The week after graduation I started teaching classes in grooming, posture, walking, finding the right style for your figure, entering a room and presenting yourself in an interview, everything that was part of the Barbizon curriculum except make-up, which I never mastered. I’d been a nervous wreck on my first day as a student, but I sailed into my first class as if I’d been a skipper all my life. I’d just taken the program, the teaching materials were excellent, and my fellow teachers were supportive.
We were encouraged to be creative and I had each of the girls make a personal style scrapbook of magazine pictures captioned with phrases that expressed how it felt to wear clothes that made you feel good about yourself. To provide an example I put my own book together and asked a friend who did calligraphy to design the cover with the words, “As you go down the runway of life, SMILE!” This was the message I wanted to give the half-dozen beautiful young girls who hung on my every word every other Saturday morning, and I needed to hear it as much as they did.
The modeling course ended with a luncheon at an upscale restaurant in Stamford, followed by a fashion show featuring the new graduates modeling clothes from Bloomingdales. I invited my mother and reserved a place for her at the VIP table, which turned out to be next to the director of the school. While I waited behind the platform for the show to start, I could see Jean Curt and Jean Luciani sitting side by side and it struck me that the only thing they had in common was their first name.
Mom was a sturdy-shoes scout-leader, a “no froufrou gal” (as she described herself), for whom combing her hair and brushing her teeth were a complete beauty routine. Jean Curt always looked like she was on her way to a photo shoot for Vogue. But I knew my mother was an amiable conversationalist and I wasn’t worried about them getting along. Besides, they were both in my corner.
Despite having practiced my turns hundreds of times while doing housework or taking the kids on walks, when I mounted the steps to the runway for the first time I was sure I’d trip, forget to smile or make a fool out of myself in some other way. Yet once I was up there, my fear vanished and my feet took over. I could feel myself gliding out and back with my head held high and my arms swinging in sync with my stride. I’d never moved with so little effort. With each change of clothes I felt more relaxed, and when the finale came, my full Dior in a flowing evening dress was perfect.
I was twice the age of the other models-in-training, which didn’t feel odd at all because as an only child I’d always felt comfortable in the company of much younger or much older people, and in my teenage years I was more often surrounded by a gaggle of young children I babysat or taught piano to than my peers.
I adored my Barbizon classmates the same way I had my junior high students during my brief student teaching experience. I’d forgotten how much I liked being around giggling, blossoming young girls.
At the end of the third session, Jean Curt, the director of the school, asked me to come see her before I left. She greeted me at the door and walked across the room in a way that demonstrated everything the school taught about graceful movement and sat down at her modern, glass-top desk. She lit a cigarette and brought it to her mouth with flawlessly manicured fingers and inhaled it like the leading lady in a 1940s movie.
I felt like a country bumpkin, sitting across from a woman dressed and coifed like the glamorous fashion models in the photographs that accented the burgundy and pink walls of her office. I was afraid she was going to tell me I couldn’t stay in the class because I didn’t fit in. Instead she invited me to come back to teach after I finished the course.
One day I was sitting in the pediatrician’s office with my seven-year old daughter who was suffering from yet another earache. We’d been waiting a long time and she began to sob and to distract her I lifted her onto my lap, grabbed the only reading material within reach, a dog-eared copy of Soap Opera Digest, and made a game out of having her pick out any “pretty ladies” she saw as I flipped through the pages. When I came to the back section, filled with small ads for things like longer nails, wallet photos and slave bracelets, a phrase caught my eye: “Be a model or just look like one.”
It wasn’t the promise of being a model that interested me. I was, after all, a thirty-year old mother of four—plus, ever since I’d learned to walk, my parents had been telling me I was clumsy and I’d believed them. My mother had never been interested in fashion, but I loved it and had always wanted to learn how to dress, use make-up and move across a room with the poise and confidence of Loretta Young, known for her whirling entrance at the beginning of her TV show. I borrowed a pen from the receptionist and jotted down the number of the Barbizon School for Modeling on a coupon I found in my pocketbook.
A year later, Baby Heather had graduated from the fruit basket to the booster seat. One day we were all piling into the car, and just as I was about to lift all 22 pounds of her up to the booster seat, I noticed that the small soft dolly that never left her side wasn’t there, so I left her standing on the floor of the backseat and went to fetch it. When I returned, she had climbed up and sat down where she belonged all by herself. I’ve often heard mothers say they thought changing diapers would never end, but that wasn’t as hard for me as the lifting and carrying. On the day my last baby took her place on her own, I thought to myself, “I’m going to make it.”
My days were filled with all the tasks required to sustain a family of six–child care, cooking, cleaning and lots of laundry. And since I didn’t drive, unlike mothers of today who spend much of their time in the car taking their kids places, that was all I did.
I had not gotten my license when I was sixteen like most of my friends. A month after my birthday I’d been a passenger in a car driven by a new driver and we’d skidded off the road on a snowy night. No one was hurt but it scared my parents and they asked me to wait until I was older, and I had so many other things going on—earning good grades, singing in the chorus and giving piano lessons—that it wasn’t a big deal.
In my senior year not being able to drive to school might have been a drag, but my cousin, Louie, came to live with us after he was discharged from the Navy. He drove a corvette and liked showing it off, and I liked being chauffeured by a handsome guy with a hot car. When we’d pull up in front of my high school with the top down, everyone would gawk first at the car, then at Louie and finally at me as I nonchalantly untied the scarf around my windblown hair. It was the only time in my life I felt as cool as Annette Funicello.
People! flung wide and far, born into toil, struggle, blood and dreams ... the loved and the unloved, the lonely and abandoned, the brutal and the compassionate—one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being.
I arrived in Washington late afternoon with just enough time to go visit the Phillips Collection, where all 60 panels of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series have been reunited in celebration of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall. The series tells the story of the mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between the first and second world wars. I had seen the odd numbered panels at the Phillips before, and the even numbered ones at Museum of Modern Art in New York, but never taken every step of the journey with the artist’s stark images and narrative captions.
As I moved around the perimeter of the room from one 12 x 18 inch panel to the next, the scenes of overflowing railroad stations, crowded trains, bleak tenement rooms, abandoned fields, blazing foundries, menacing Southern landowners and mercenary Northern labor agents erased all other thoughts from my mind. By the time I stepped away from the last panel, captioned, “And the migrants kept coming,” the poverty and oppression I’d been immersed in made the elegance of the gallery I stood in seem unreal.