|Publisher:||Schaffner Press, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty
The Memoir of a Romantic Feminist
By Alida Brill
Schaffner PressCopyright © 2016 Alida Brill
All rights reserved.
Dear Princess Grace ...
When I was six, I fell in love with Grace Kelly. I wanted to become Miss Grace Kelly, Actress, and I wanted to ascend the throne, where I, too, would be recognized worldwide as Her Serene Highness. Nothing deterred me from this fantasy. What did I really want — to be a movie star — to be the chosen princess of a romanticized kingdom? My adult self insists that my childhood delusions incorporated both: a working career as well as a handpicked princess-bride. I indulge this notion because it suggests a nascent, if fuzzy, concept of feminist thinking in a girl's brain.
My infatuation with Grace could not protect me from illness. There were frequent and unexplained episodes of high fevers and weakness. I was hospitalized and diagnosed with rheumatic fever. It was the prologue to later troubles. I was released and prescribed the maximum dose of penicillin and bed rest. My world shrank to my frilly lavender and white bedroom. It was in there that Grace consoled me. When in Grace-mode, I was powerful and beautiful; fears disappeared. Grace made me larger than life, made me think beyond illness, beyond the confinement of the bedroom. I dreamed of a prince, a kingdom and movie roles. As a Serene Princess I would rule as comonarch — my Prince would permit me to do so. I didn't know that the Principality of Monaco (about half the size of New York's Central Park) was smaller than the incorporated city of Lakewood, CA. I could not know that Grace's life would end in a car accident, with a daughter as both witness and injured passenger.
I had no idea Princess Grace was also keeping house, in a manner of speaking, and that she was more like our own mothers than I imagined. Grace had taken on a new career, of good wife and mother. Her job was to ensure that her husband the Prince was happy and satisfied. She had an enormous additional task: at all times and in all places she was to appear to be the perfect woman. It was the only way to be an appropriate spouse for a monarch. While Grace's lavish lifestyle diverged dramatically from that of Lakewood's moms, far less separated the Serene Princess of Monaco from many of our mothers. Grace fought boredom, depression, and her weight. She was confined by cultural norms and rules, just as were the era's traditional wives and mothers.
If the history of American women in the 20th century hadn't taken the turn it did, my preoccupation with Grace might have turned into a more harmful obsession. There were a number of serious flaws with my plan to follow in Grace's steps. There were few — as in, not one — available princes who would have found me on the corner of Arbor and Downey and would have gone on to choose me as the fairest of them all. I disliked boys who insisted they were in charge. I already questioned why doctors and school principals were men. Nonetheless I longed to be the ethereal Grace dressed in elaborate ball gowns waltzing with her prince, without a hair out of place, adored by everyone. It took a long time for me to admit that my impressions of Grace's life were influenced more by her Hollywood life than her married one in Monaco.
Grace Kelly was a woman with a career, a working actress. The life of that Grace Kelly ended when she emerged from the wedding ceremony in Monaco on April 19, 1956. From then on she lived as a monarch's wife and then a mother. She was ruled and controlled by ritual, custom, and the expectations and laws of her adopted country. Laws enacted at the time of her marriage specifically prohibited her films from being shown in Monaco. Grace Kelly got her prince, but paid a high price. Women throughout history have become transfixed by the power of romantic illusions, royal and otherwise. Some of us want to be chosen more than we want anything else, despite the costs and sacrifices.
During my exile in my sickroom of a bedroom, I discovered how to run away. I turned the bed into a cruise ship. Old shoeboxes became cabins. I was the cruise director; my dolls were the passengers, assigned to the boxes. The cabins were outfitted with scraps of cloth and other small items. Though I had little concept of social class, I decided the cabins were first-class, which I did understand meant pretty and fancy.
The cruise idea came from the Matson Steamship line, which took passengers from the West Coast to Hawaii. Mother had only one travel fantasy: to take a Matson ship to Hawaii. My parents weren't going anywhere--their life together didn't include a travel budget. She never boarded that ship but it was her dream. My parents went several times to the port to see a Matson steamer sail off to its destination. Watching the ship depart was probably enough for her. Financial considerations aside, my mother's fears about travel and leaving her home often kept her from taking excursions. The Matson steamer was an adventure of my mother's mind, and so it became mine as well.
Mother's friend, Tina, regularly sent postcards from her worldwide trips. I didn't know who Tina was or how she was able to travel in luxury, but she caught my attention. The postcards came in a steady stream and in every season. I envisioned transporting myself to the dreamy destinations from which she wrote. Her handwriting was a beautiful script, in teal blue fountain pen ink.
I never met Tina. She was an old friend who came from a different time and place in Mother's life, a time when she was something other than Mother. Tina flew on Pan Am or TWA, and her postcards arrived in my room of confinement like a trail of fairy dust. There was never much news on the cards, only a few lines about the place she was visiting, Paris, Nice, Capri, Lisbon, London, Zurich. The signature never changed: Love always, Tina. My mother loaned the cards to me. After I pronounced the ship-bed and its cardboard boxes seaworthy, the dolls and I set sail, arriving at fantasy destinations determined by Tina's postcards.
Who was Tina? What happened to her? Why and how was she able to travel? What was the meaning of those evocative cards she sent addressed only to my mother? How did my mother feel about them? Did she ever respond?
These are questions without answers which, had I obtained them, might have dissolved the magic dust. I didn't ask, because I didn't want to risk breaking the spell. I didn't question my mother because it seemed too private, and not my business. But Tina was the first evidence I had that female independence existed out there somewhere.
I knew she was not an airline attendant; they were prohibited from marrying or from weighing over a certain amount. Air travel then had the patina of glamour. Even the airports themselves were exciting destinations, but I wasn't seduced by the appeal of being a stewardess. My head was filled with stories of the waitresses who worked for and with my father. Many had hard, sad lives. I knew several of them quite well. I did not intend a career requiring me to walk up and down an airplane's crowded aisle serving drinks and food. This was not part of the Princess Grace agenda.
My rheumatic fever extended its stay. Confined to my bed, my imaginary travels unlocked my girlish prison cell. I shuffled through the shoeboxes where I hoarded Tina's cards. Alone, I quietly planned trips for the dolls. Perhaps I was readying myself for the itinerary of a life where travel was used as an attempt to escape from the reality of my disease. It would be behavior that lasted well beyond middle age.
Tentatively I finally emerged from the ship-bed. We began with evenings at the local drive-in. On Sunday nights, off we went with a packed dinner. My parents bundled me up in layers of clothing and brought blankets, as if we were living in the tundra.
I had encountered Grace Kelly on television and at indoor theaters, but not in the drive-in. It was there I saw her full magnificence. The movie was High Society, released three months before her marriage. Her personal trajectory was tailor-made for me. Her life as a princess was unfolding before my eyes, on the television and in the newspapers and magazines. Grace's idealized adventures into monarchy inspired my flights to the land of Let's Pretend. All I needed to do was pay close attention.
At almost seven, I was reading considerably well. The Long Beach Independent Press Telegram was filled with news of the upcoming wedding. Her wedding gown was designed by the costume designer Helen Rose of MGM and was a gift from the studio to Grace. There was news about The U.S. Constitution, the ship they were all on — the bridesmaids, bridal party guests, and of course, Grace and her whole family. When the ship docked, the Prince himself came aboard to escort his bride, or as one news report said, to claim her. There were parties onboard and events before the wedding. The pre-wedding and wedding coverage was an enormous amount of hype for the time. I wasn't the only person who wanted to immerse myself in the enchanted tale, it seemed the entire world did as well.
I had taken action the month before the wedding. Days before my seventh birthday, I decided to write to Grace. My mother was not enamored of fairy tales or of my ideas about a future on the screen or as a princess. I had to come up with a plausible reason to correspond with Grace. I announced my intention to begin a stamp collection. I would request a first day cover of the wedding. One of my teachers was an avid stamp collector and I had seen her extensive collection. My ploy worked. I wrote to Grace and she, the Palace, did write back, enclosing a first day cover as well as extra stamps. For all the dreams in my seven-year-old kingdom, the one I wanted most was for her to be happy forever and ever, and ever. And I wanted to be happy in the present and in the future.
When the small package from Monaco arrived, my mother took me, along with my precious mail, to the Press Telegram to meet the editor of the Lakewood Today column. I told him about the letter, and likely showed him my last draft. He wrote a few words about it in his column. Mother impressed upon me that the important event was that I wrote the letter.
Here's what I thought my mother's lesson was:
You wrote something. A reporter found out, your name appeared in the newspaper, and with that came instant local fame.
1, 2, 3, it was simple arithmetic.
Eventually I would turn away from my obsession with Grace and decide to become a famous writer. I quickly discovered the long odds against attaining celebrity through writing.
* * *
Lakewood bordered the city of Long Beach, which was larger and more diverse. Hollywood was a few miles up the freeway, and it had a powerful influence on childhood activities. I wrote plays and cast girlfriends in backyard productions. On weekends there were acting classes at the Peppermint Playhouse, and another long-forgotten children's acting studio. I diligently prepared for theatre studies, convinced Hollywood was in my future.
On the eve of adolescence, I anticipated doing big-girl things. My parents, Ida and Alfred, gave me a twelfth birthday party. My father turned our den into a makeshift soda fountain where he made root-beer floats and ice cream sundaes. We played hit songs on the record player, and took turns changing the singles. No boys wanted or invited. We danced with each other.
A teacher encouraged me to play basketball. I hadn't expected to be any good but surprisingly I was. It was a sport suitable for the tall girls. On the courts, tall girls called the shots, not the popular smaller girls who reigned supreme at recess and school dances. Basketball was the territory of girls who looked like me. I belonged. It took me out of my head, out of my books and expanded the horizons of a lonely, only child.
A few more months of this magic passed. Then the year of being twelve ended, at a full stop. I did not yet know that my twelfth birthday marked the last time I would be free from disease. What became a chronic illness began fleetingly. One morning my ankles were stiff and they hurt, but the symptoms vanished by the time I was dressed and ready for school. A few mornings later one knee was swollen and red. Over the next few weeks there were surges of pain, and then more enduring ailments. I was less able to hide the symptoms. My mother watched, as I stood still for several minutes, unable to take a step. It was difficult to walk without a noticeable limp. There were persistent fevers. I developed methods of disguise and denial and employed the readily available lie that I had injured myself dancing or playing basketball.
When I was thirteen a doctor concluded something was wrong, but he did not focus on my aching body. Perhaps I was crazy, though he wasn't quite that blunt. He announced: Maybe it's all in her head. I knew what he meant. But something was very wrong and I wasn't making it up or pretending. His arrogance was the last straw for my mother. Infuriated, she screamed at him and didn't care if he thought we were both crazy. In rapid-fire she spit out: It's in her bones, not in her brain. It was one of the few times I enjoyed a maternal outburst. In the quest to reach a diagnosis, more doctors followed and offered their opinions. They used unfamiliar words: Hysterical Tendencies, Psychosomatic Disorder, Hormonal Surges. I was unsure of the definitions but what I saw in their eyes told me what they thought.
I was: A Crazy Girl. They think I'm crazy and I'm not. And I will never convince them otherwise.
I viewed my teenage years through this prism. I first became a feminist as a sick girl. Although the women's movement was emerging, I didn't fully understand what it meant. What I did comprehend was that doctors, all older men, had the power, and that they might well harm me. The medical establishment, with its entrenched system of male authority, was a constant presence. I learned early that male doctors did not take the stories of a girl seriously. I gave detailed descriptions of what was happening based on what I wrote in my diary. Despite the precision of my recordings, they did not believe my accounts. They only believed me when I presented visible symptoms. Medical schools later did change their approach, but not soon enough to rescue my adolescence.
The practice of rheumatology didn't have the research knowledge or tools it now has. I was thirty before I found Michael Lockshin, a doctor who listened and believed, even when there wasn't much to see. Slowly I realized my childhood doctors were not so much cruel as clueless. They were also sexist. An understanding of sexism had not yet been integrated into our cultural ethos, so their attitudes and behaviors weren't considered inappropriate. I observed the way things were — and I did not like it.
Mother was barely five feet tall. Her eyes were crystalline blue, a color best depicted in antique prints of the Grand Canal in Venice. Her eyes were riveting when she was angry. She was a terrifying force. She was also smart, witty, articulate, and funny. I loved and admired her as much as I dreaded her outbursts. She bore me at forty-one, an advanced age in the 1950s. I was unplanned. Her first child William Terry (known only as Terry) died of measles meningitis. It happened in the space of one night when he was just six. I was born six years later. His sudden death would be the loss from which my mother never recovered. Her mourning dictated her rhythms and moods. The duplicated portrait of a beautiful boy sitting on a front porch next to his adoring mother, a photograph taken a few months before he died, was displayed in every room except my bedroom. Some cultures maintain elaborate shrines to dead relatives in their homes, and the parlors of the Victorian era were filled with memorial memorabilia. But in a 1950s Caucasian suburb in Southern California, it was creepy.
In the few hours before he died, Terry ran an extremely high fever. Mother took him to an emergency room, where she was cautioned against "maternal hysteria" and sent home with her sick boy. Their diagnosis: a passing virus or flu. No male authority figure was present to speak for her or on behalf of her son. The men in the family were away at war. Later that night she went to another hospital, where the explanation was essentially the same. She was being overly emotional and the boy would be fine by morning. Frantic, she went home and again tried to bring down his fever. When the first hospital finally admitted him, he was near the end. He could not have survived; in those days, measles meningitis was incurable. But how the medical community handled her was unforgivable, and avoidable.
Excerpted from Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty by Alida Brill. Copyright © 2016 Alida Brill. Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
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Table of Contents
Author's Note 1
1 Dear Princess Grace… 3
2 "Gigi, Oh! What Miracle Has Made You The Way You Are…" 17
3 Barbie, My liberator 21
4 Daddy, Marilyn, and Dallas 25
5 The BOOK 45
6 Kenny, My First Love 57
7 Frothing 71
8 The Way We Almost Were 87
9 A City of Women 107
10 A Woman Across Time 133
11 The Girl From Peoria Who Changed The World 159
12 Not A Fairy Tale 223
13 Toward Romantic Feminism 243