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Authors: Jeanne Mackin

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BOOK: The Beautiful American
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Perhaps the enforced isolation destroyed more than one dream for her. When I got older, and was mooning over Rudolph Valentino instead of an ice-cream soda, I heard the gossip that Theodore Miller flirted with his factory girls and sometimes it was more than flirting. He was tall, blue-eyed, very good-looking. More than one woman in town was secretly in love with him.

My father’s great-grandfather had been a perfumer in Paris, a cousin of the great interior designer Dandrillon, who mixed the scents of violet, jasmine, and rose into his paints to hide the smell of varnish. His fragrances were said to last for years, not months. Dandrillon purchased those floral essences from my great-grandfather, Gerald Thouars. Gerald had to flee France along with his aristocratic clientele when the revolution arrived. That was how my father spoke of that event, as an arrival, like a guest, or a debt collector.

Great-grandfather Gerald Thouars ended up in the forested wilds of New York as Jerry Tours, and took up farming. He was a failure at it, mostly because he spent all his time and money growing flowers and herbs and letting the corn and wheat fend for themselves. But he had the prettiest garden in the state. Even after the city of Poughkeepsie grew up all round the Tours’ land, and generations of poverty reduced the holding to a small city plot, it was still the prettiest garden for miles around, showing the bones of the original design in the gravel walks and ancient cherry trees standing sentinel in the corners.

Sometimes, after my father had had his three after-work gins and was working up to the fourth, he would take me outside, into the old garden begun generations before, and we would just stand there, inhaling the fragrance.

When the lilacs and roses and lavender were in bloom, you could close your eyes and imagine you were in Provence, on a terrace overlooking the blue sea, or in a secret garden in the walled city of Peking, where courtesans gossiped, or in a pharmacy in Paris, where a bottle of perfume had been spilled. And then you would open your eyes and you would be in Poughkeepsie, with the next-door neighbor’s laundry blowing on the clothesline and dogs barking down the street and smoke from the DeLaval Separator company painting gray strokes in the sky.

Daddy had a special peony, an old Duchesse de Nemours that burst into fragrant clouds of flowers each spring, planted fifty years before by Gerald Tours’ son, my great-grandfather. A stone crouched under the leaves of this plant, and under the stone was a tin cigarette box, and every month Daddy added two quarters to the secret savings. “For you,” he said. “Something of your own, when it’s time to leave.”

“How do you know I’ll leave?”

“How do you know you won’t? You’ll want to go look at things in the world. See things I’ve never seen.” And so do parents begin the journeys of their children.

Aside from the good looks of our most popular industrialist, my town, and Lee’s, was famous for Vassar College, where moneyed coeds with bobbed hair and short skirts carried around Sinclair Lewis novels. They would fill the train station at every break and we townie girls would go and gawk to see what the new fashions were.

And every June, just as the college girls were leaving for the summer vacation, the town would fill again, this time with moneyed young men arriving for the annual regatta of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association, held on the Hudson and beginning at Poughkeepsie Bridge. Boys from Cornell, Columbia, and as far away as
Stanford, swaggering young men with sunburned faces and straw hats worn at a tilt, filled the town during regatta week. The girls of Poughkeepsie rolled down their stockings and rolled up their skirts, rouging their lips as soon as they were out of sight of their frantic mothers.

And every year, nine months after the regatta, some girl, or perhaps two, would give birth to a baby whose father had long since returned to Ithaca or La Jolla. If the girl was rich, she went “to visit an aunt” as soon as she began to show, and came back after the baby was born and handed over for adoption. If poor, she gave birth at home, and that was that.

Either way, she was ruined. Forced to marry beneath herself or face not marrying at all, the working-class girl married her father’s mechanic and the rich girl married an unattractive boy from a family down on its luck, willing to overlook her fall from grace in exchange for currency. For the rest of her life, conversation would cease momentarily when she entered the room. People would whisper; ruder people would point. And the already-poor girl would spend the rest of her life doing laundry for the richer folk.

“I find you messing with those boys, don’t expect anything from me,” Momma said one Christmas after church, when we heard that Mrs. Charles’ daughter, Edith, had gone “to visit her aunt.” “Don’t expect help or sympathy.”

CHAPTER THREE

O
nce in a while during my girlhood years, I saw Elizabeth Miller from a distance.

When we were ten, the country entered the war already going on in Europe. Overnight all the shops and facades of Poughkeepsie were draped in flags and patriotic signs. I saw Elizabeth at the Collingwood Opera House, which was also our movie theater. They showed Saturday afternoon matinees of German soldiers looking like hellish fiends in their spiked helmets, raping girls and nuns as the Kaiser laughed.

The next year I saw Elizabeth at the Collingwood when the Divine Sarah Bernhardt recited Portia’s speech from
The Merchant of Venice
. Sarah Bernhardt spoke in French and no one knew what she was saying, but it was Portia’s speech, and we cheered and stamped like mad.

I glimpsed Elizabeth at the Armistice Parade when the war ended, and later, when she played the White Queen in a stage version of
Alice in Wonderland
. She was already tall by then, very athletic looking. No one would ever guess how much of her childhood
had been spent in illness. When she was just entering high school, Elizabeth Miller set tongues wagging when she marched into a barbershop and had her hair bobbed, like the girls in the Fitzgerald story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” Elizabeth wore short, expensive dresses bought in New York City, had a gramophone, played jazz music, and read
Photoplay
magazine, according to gossip. She was friends with the rich prep girls from Putnam Hall, had tantrums, ran away from home often, used foul language, smoked cigarettes, and drank gin out of a flask.

When I was sixteen, I lost interest in the doings of Miss Elizabeth Miller. Whenever I was in a crowd or at some public event, my eyes were on the lookout for Jamie Sloane. And when I did find him, when our eyes met, I was certain he was the only boy in the world, and I the only girl. Everything else was shadow.

Jamie, the school’s star quarterback, who sat behind me in our French and Latin classes, was tall and sandy haired and had a long nose made all the more interesting for having been broken in a football game. The youngest son, the darling of the Sloane family, he had that I-own-the-world self-assurance of beloved children. He was a star on the field, in our Latin and physics classes, on the dance floor, and there was something in his stride that made you want to walk with him, in whatever direction he was going.

When he looked at me, he locked onto my gaze the way big cats in the zoo sometimes lock eyes with you, inviting you to put your hand through the bars and pet them. His eyes were golden brown like a big cat’s, and slightly tilted over his sharp cheekbones.

His family owned the Tastes-So-Good Bakery, supplying breads and dinner rolls to restaurants as far away as New York City. They were a part of working town society, not the river families in their cliff mansions, and though Mr. Sloane was one of the first in
town to buy a Model T, he still wore overalls, not a suit. Jamie was working his way up the ladder, learning the business, waiting his turn, all those other platitudes fathers tell the youngest sons for whom opportunity is scarce, even in a family business. He made the deliveries, and he always left an extra sweet roll in the box for me. He would bow and pretend to doff and swirl a feathered hat, like John Barrymore in
The Beloved Rogue
.

On Sunday afternoons he would come for me in the bakery’s truck, honk the horn, and yell out, “Come on, Nora! Motor’s running!” We would roar and clatter up and down the country roads outside Poughkeepsie, drinking a little bathtub gin and shouting out the Burma aftershave signs as we passed them: “Within this vale of toil and sin, your head grows bald, but not your chin! Use Burma- Shave!”

We talked about the places we wanted to see, the things we wanted to do. Jamie wanted a life of adventure, never mind the bakery, never mind Poughkeepsie.

“What do you want, Nora?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said to him. You, I said to myself.

“You watch yourself,” my mother said when she saw me walking with Jamie, holding hands. “Don’t ruin your life like I did.”

When I was seventeen, my father died. Heart, the doctor said. Gin, my mother said. “God forgive him, I won’t,” she added. “He’s at peace,” Elizabeth’s mother intoned at my father’s funeral. The only flowers in the chapel came from the Millers, a wreath of yellow roses and red carnations wrapped in a banner that said “He will be missed.” “Not by me,” said my mother. I sniffed the wreath and it smelled of dust, not roses.

Of course Momma did miss him, the very next payday, when it occurred to her that drinker though he was, he had been the
breadwinner, and had made the difference between working-class skimping and true poverty. Broke, we moved in with her sister, older, never married, who welcomed us coldly and gave us a single room with twin beds.

Mother grew more brittle, more full of complaint, till we stopped speaking to each other completely, because all she could say was “I had such potential,” and all I could say was “I hate this.” I hate living here, I hate your sister, I hate the stench of cabbage and arthritis liniment and dog piss from that damn poodle.

By then Elizabeth had been expelled from two schools and finally finished high school only by the skin of her teeth. She was acting and dancing in local productions.

Jamie took me to see the Rutherford Dance Studio perform their “music visualizations” of writhing snakes and Cretan peasants, and there was Elizabeth, barely covered by gauze, wiggling and tiptoeing around with her legs bent at strange angles. Jamie thought it was funny and I had to explain that it was interpretive dance like the kind Ruth St. Denis did. Like the kind D. W. Griffith used in his movies. After this performance, Elizabeth danced the hootchy-kootchy in the chorus of a musical comedy, and I thought the eyebrows of the old lady churchgoers of Poughkeepsie would disappear right up into their hairlines and never settle down again.

Elizabeth was also in a performance of
The Girl from the Marsh Croft
, a play by a Swedish woman about a girl who has a child out of wedlock and finally marries a rich boy who admires her courage. Elizabeth played the rich boy’s sister, a small role, but she danced a polka onstage and showed a lot of leg.

“It isn’t like that,” Momma said when we left the theater. Jamie hadn’t been able to come with me that evening, so I’d given the
ticket to Momma and pretended I had intended it for her all along. She wasn’t fooled.

“Like what?” I asked, already knowing.

“Girls who get in trouble don’t get rescued by a rich man’s son.” Momma gave me a stormy look. “They don’t buy the cow if they get the milk for free.”

Once, I ran into Elizabeth at Lindmark’s, the bookstore run by bohemians from New York City. Elizabeth was in the travel section, looking at guidebooks to France.

She had rimmed her eyes with black, making their blue even bluer, skylike. She was wearing perfume, L’Heure Bleue, the twilight hour. The ads said it was for women who wanted everything. It was the last perfume my father had bought for my mother, the smallest bottle available because it was very expensive.

If Elizabeth remembered me, there was no flash of recognition in her eyes. I had become a stranger. Stung, I pretended not to remember her as well.

“I need to get out of P’oke,” she said, looking up from a page that showed a photograph of boats on the Seine.

P’oke. That was what she called Poughkeepsie. She made that casual comment to me the way one addresses a stranger, to impress and amuse. She had already forgotten our days of shared childhood. Perhaps it was just as well, I thought, considering how they had ended, that little girl in her white dress smelling of sharp medicines and ointments; my mother, like a member of a Greek chorus, whispering “ruined” in my ear.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked, looking over Lee’s shoulder and standing close enough to smell the gin and tobacco of her jacket.

“There.” She jabbed at the photo of the river, banked with
bookstalls and strollers, the great church of Notre-Dame rising in the distance. “The Left Bank. Paris.” She looked up at me. “What a strange hat you’re wearing. I think I like it.”

It was one of my father’s old gardening caps. I had washed it, trimmed it with ribbon, and wore it slightly tilted over one eye.

“Can I buy it from you?” she asked.

“No. You can have it. Here.”

She put it on, tilting it deeply over her right eye, almost concealing it.

“Thanks. Here, take these. We’ll trade.” She gave me her nicotine-stained gloves.

When I finished high school in 1925, the year I learned how to dance the Charleston, the year I first read Gertrude Stein, I got a job at Luckey Platt’s department store, at the glove and perfume counter. I wore a pink smock with matching cap and spent my day dusting bottles and sorting gloves by size into their proper bins. When no one was looking, I would test the perfumes on my own wrist, inhaling foreign places, exotic lives.

The same year I was snitching perfume and reading romances under the counter at Platt’s, a German politician, Adolf Hitler, had organized his new Nazi party, but no one was really paying attention. Not yet. That year, Elizabeth went to France, supposedly to finishing school in Nice.

I looked it up on a map and there it was, a dot in southern France, on the Riviera, a dot that to a girl from Poughkeepsie represented all the sophistication and beauty the world could offer. “Oldest and largest town between Marseille and Genoa,” the encyclopedia in the library said. “A popular summer home for royalty and the fashionable world. Named by early Greek settlers for Nikea, the goddess of victory.”

BOOK: The Beautiful American
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