“Never put a rat on your back.” I was five years old, hurtling through the subway station in New York, on the way to the garment district with my father when he gave me my first lesson in fashion. He was referring to muskrat or squirrel, furs that he regarded as beneath his contempt.
My father was a dandy, hair slicked back like George Raft’s, fedora turned down on all sides like Warner Baxter’s in the movie 42nd Street. The lapels of his double-breasted suit were hand stitched and his shirts were pale blue or white on white, white with an almost invisible pattern. On this day he wore a gray overcoat with real pearl buttons.
As we sat on the subway, my father pointed out the defects of the clothing of every woman in the car. Many men are said to undress women with their eyes; my father was exactly the opposite. A fanatic about women’s clothes, he wanted nothing more than to dress them to perfection.
At an early age he changed his name from Abe to Jack, and his mother, my Bubby, indulged him in his whim. My grandmother had been widowed at the age of 21 when my grandfather died of tuberculosis contracted in steerage as they escaped from Odessa and Tsarist Russia. Jack became the focus of his mother’s attention and love, and though she had many offers to remarry, she spurned them all. One suitor suggested that they lose Jack in a public park, leaving him to fend for himself. Another reminded her that they would live in a state of perpetual honeymoon if she would turn Jack over to the Hebrew orphanage. But no man could compete with her son, my father.
Once, at the movies, the young Jack had watched Constance Bennett lean against a grand piano covered with an embroidered silk shawl that ended in a cascade of white fringe. Jack badgered my grandmother to buy such a shawl for the dining room table. Who on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side possessed an item of such luxury? But Jack drove his mother crazy until she went to Orloff, the silk merchant who sold remnants from fire sales, to obtain a shawl. They also had a Persian rug, delivered “right off the boat” from a shady dealer.
Jack met my mother when she was 16, a study in monochromatic browns. On their first date she wore a brown blouse and a long brown skirt. Her hair was brown. Though she had flawless skin, the colors she selected did little to enhance it. Jack couldn’t stand women with “markings” such as moles, freckles, or, heaven forbid, a pimple. If my mother passed the skin test my father saw entire areas that needed his aesthetic touch.
Jack wasn’t conventionally handsome, but his height of six feet, his clothes, and his quick wit distinguished him from other young men. His ritual was to take his dates to my grandmother’s restaurant and then to the apartment, where they were overwhelmed by the Persian rug, the lavishly embroidered table shawl, and the fact that my father was a “City College man.”
The latter was more of a talking point than a reality. Jack attended classes sporadically at City College, while dreaming of Broadway musicals, of vaudeville at the Palace, and of the latest movies. Though he resided on Orchard and Canal Streets, his taste, his vocabulary, and his street smarts came from the movies. In addition, he was an omnivorous reader and talked knowledgeably about the theater, politics, and H.L. Mencken, the columnist. He liked to boast that he could sweet-talk women from 6 to 60. He started to work in women’s fashion when he was 15.
My mother struck a special chord in his sophisticated soul. She was shy, almost inarticulate, and she came from a family of 12 children, where she had to care for the rest of the ever-growing brood. But she had incredible green eyes and long, long legs.
Almost the first thing that my father demanded of my mother in my Bubby’s living room was that she lift her skirt, as if she were auditioning for a chorus line. Blushing, confused, she held up her skirt to her calf, then, at a nod from my father, to her knee. “What gams,” he exclaimed. “I could have you on Broadway in three months!” The very next day Jack took her to Pandy’s Beauty Parlor on Clinton Street and held her hand as he instructed Pandy on the honey-blond color he desired. The day after that he brought her an entire new outfit, down to her shoes. Within the year they married and moved into Bubby’s apartment.
Jack supervised every bit of clothing that my mother purchased. He despised dresses with buttons in the back, hated green with my mother’s complexion, advised her that she could wear black only if she offset it with a white jacket or white fur, and instructed her never to put her hands in her suit pockets — they were decorative, not intended to carry oranges. Jack despised costume jewelry, gaudy earrings, bracelets, and lapel pins.
At home, my mother never wore a so-called housedress or flat-heeled shoes. When Jack came home, he expected to see his wife in high heels to show her incredible legs and silk dresses with swirly skirts. Her coats were always lavishly trimmed with fur. In two Doris Day movies, Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, Doris Day wears a tweedy coat with a vast lynx collar. My father bought my mother a copy of that very coat. Far from protesting Jack’s molding her to his taste, my mother reveled in his fanatical attention. She saw it as a sign of love.
Once, a dealer sold my father a fur jacket made from patches of seal. Every time Jack looked at it he winced at his mistake. For a while it lay on my parents’ bed and I loved to take a nap in it. But in a moment of rage, Jack threw the jacket out the window on the Orchard Street side and a passerby made off with it. Jack never mentioned the jacket again.
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.