I would like to tell you that I was a well-dressed child, but I was put together with odds and ends. My mother would get free pieces of men’s wear material, many from dye lots that had gone bad — black streaked with green or gray zigzagged with brown. My mother had the material pleated into skirts that hung over my skinny frame like lamp shades. I owned exactly one dress at a time, navy blue with a sailor collar, and invariably my overcoat was too short. My mother suffered a great deal because I didn’t conform to her notion of prettiness — on the streets I was known as “skinny pickle.” My father defended the fact that I read incessantly, but my mother wept, wrung her hands, and assured me that no man would marry a girl who read so much.
I entered college at 16, and, like the ugly duckling in the fairy tale, I was suddenly a passable swan. One of my professors asked me to meet him for an evening of talk at Danny Bell’s house (later Professor Daniel Bell of Harvard). My father was not at home to oversee my outfit, and it never crossed my mother’s mind to buy me a simple but appropriate costume for the occasion.
Instead, she took a dress from her closet, white with tiny black polka dots. It sported a peplum, a piece of gathered material that hung from the waistline like a short apron. My father had never approved of the dress for my mother, let alone for me; it was too large, too matronly. Undaunted, my mother lifted the skirt and tucked it under the peplum, holding it in place with basting stitches.
From her outcast box she drew a mustard-colored hat with a wide brim. She teased the front of my long hair into a pompadour. The back was a messy upswept lump held together with hairpins. The hat wobbled on my head. She smeared red lipstick on my lips (I never wore makeup) and added rusty dangling earrings to my ears. My shoes were black with pom-poms cut from black leather. I slipped into my mouton lamb coat and clutched a fake alligator bag under my arm. My mother stood back to appraise me and, delighted with her handiwork, exclaimed, “You look stunning.”
But I knew it was wrong; I felt and looked wrong. This was verified when my escort met me at the door of our host’s Greenwich Village apartment and asked, “Aren’t you dressed a little high this evening?” Worse was yet to come.
The guests were the art critic Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Paul Goodman, Dwight MacDonald, Pearl Kazin, Nora Bell, and several women done up in austere secondhand black: small washed-out sweaters, black tights, and black skirts, some with hems unraveling. I headed for the bathroom and rubbed my too-red lips with toilet paper. I dumped the earrings into my purse, rolled the hat up and jammed it into my coat pocket. What to do with the hair? A few of the hairpins came out and released some strands. But there was nothing I could do with the pompadour, the large white dress, the pom-poms on my shoes.
In the living room a heated discussion was taking place. My escort was in the middle of the verbal fray, happily ignoring me. I took a chair in the darkest corner, beside a man whose face looked like a crumpled dollar bill that had been left in the gutter in the rain. There were discernible features in the mashed-in face, but they didn’t match or go together. He was more of a mess than I — clothes rumpled, brown hair greasy, eyes cloudy, brimming with sadness. He was sipping a glass of milk. “I’m Jim,” he said.
I was close to tears. The men were twice my age or more. The easy intimacy of the women intimidated me. My one desire was to flee, but Jim put his hand on mine and said softly, “Don’t let these phonies frighten you.” He gazed at me thoughtfully. “After all, you’re the girl with the tiger-lily eyes.” He held my hand during the brief, torturous interval that I remained there. Unable to relax, I got up to leave, carrying my coat on my arm and tugging at my hair, trying to let it fall naturally. As I was about to escape, the man who had brought me jumped up and asked, “Why are you leaving so early?” “I have a test tomorrow,” I lied. Then I said, “That man sitting next to me, Jim, he was very kind. Who is he?” “Oh,” came the reply, “that’s James T. Farrell, the novelist who wrote Studs Lonigan.”
I took the subway to the Upper West Side, where we now lived. My father waited for me in the living room. “Who dressed you?” he asked, dismay visible on his face. “Mother,” I answered.
He was very gentle. “Go take a shower, get that goop off your face and hair.” When I came out in my pajamas, he began at once. “I say this to you with all friendly intent. Never, ever wear your hair that way again. Part it on the side, or in the middle, and let it fall to your shoulders. Never, ever wear bright red lipstick or clothes that aren’t who you are. They must be appropriate for you, Eleanor Rackow, and no one else.” I was crying softly, not saying a word.
My father went into the bathroom to gather up the dress, the shoes, the mustard-colored hat, the fake alligator purse, and he walked out of the apartment to the hallway incinerator, where he consigned these items to flames. When he returned, he took his comb from his vest pocket and parted my hair on the left side. “There,” he said. “That’s better. Shoulder length. Keep it that way.” I still do.
This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.