Dusk had fallen. The heavens were a deep dark blue, and as I trudged up from the subway, teetering a bit in my high heels, I could hear music streaming down West Twelfth Street. The music was floating out of the open windows of Valerie Bettis’s vast townhouse.
She was hosting the Studio’s annual spring party, and as a new member, I’d been invited. I’d bought an expensive dress for the occasion, an off-white silk Jax shift.
I stood for a while watching the guests arrive by limo and cab and on foot. They would walk up the steps in twos and threes, laughing and talking, and when the door opened, light would bloom on their faces and I would recognize Shelley Winters or Mike Wallace or Jack Paar. I was nervous about going in but I had been invited, after all, so eventually I pushed my way up the stairs and into the edge of an enormous double living room just in time to see a bare- foot Marilyn Monroe, in a skintight black dress, undulating across the floor opposite Paul Newman, lithe and sinewy in khakis and a T-shirt. They didn’t dance very long, maybe three minutes, but what a hot, pulsing three minutes it was. A small crowd gathered as they kept time to the jubilant tune of Harry Belafonte’s trademark “Banana Boat Song.” (His phrase “DAYOOOH, DAY-HAH-HAY-HOWWW” had taken the nation by storm.) When the two broke apart, there was a spatter of applause; Marilyn giggled and Newman bowed and then moved past me through the crowd to grab a beer from a bar.
The room was alive with people I recognized but didn’t know. Everybody I’d ever read about and admired was passing before my awestruck gaze: Bennett Cerf and Dorothy Kilgallen (I’d seen them on What’s My Line?); Norman Mailer, who I noticed had big ears; Henry Fonda, who seemed miffed about something; Judy Holliday—she had dimples; Julie Andrews; Yul Brynner; Deborah Kerr; Josh Logan; Truman Capote; the director José Quintero.
“Hello, Patti.” Leonard Lyons, a tiny natty man in a pinstriped suit, approached me. Lyons was the gossip columnist for the New York Post. I’d had lunch with him and Daddy a couple of times at 21. Lyons wrote about the arts in his column “The Lyons Den,” but he also wrote a lot about politics. He often referred to my father’s problems with the blacklist.
“You can help me count the celebrities,” Lyons said. We posted ourselves by the bar and I reeled off the names while Lyons jotted them down on a pad. “Comden and Green, Garson Kanin, Ruth Gordon, Jed Harris, Gwen Verdon, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Betsy von Furstenberg, Farley Granger.” Many of them strolled by with a few mumbled hellos to the gossip columnist. “Hi there, Lenny . . . say hello to Sylvia for me.” Sylvia was his wife, who rarely appeared in public with him.
“Why won’t anyone talk to me?” I asked Lyons finally. “Stars prefer the company of stars.”
“Are stars starstruck?”
“We’re all starstruck.” He put his pad in his pocket and started to move on. “Gotta go.” I watched him disappear into the crowd. He would continue to make his rounds all over Manhattan, picking up tidbits of gossip. Before he was through (around four a.m.) he would have stopped at the Latin Quarter, the Stork Club, El Morocco, the Copa, Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe, maybe ending up at Nick’s in the Village.
Meanwhile the party continued to churn around me. Around midnight I did recognize somebody else I knew slightly: Marty Fried, the good-looking man with thick black hair who’d helped Rick and me set up our Studio audition.
“Hello!” I shouted through the din. My voice sounded unnaturally loud across the swarm of celebrities undulating around me. “Hello there!”
Marty turned. As I got closer, he gave a chuckle of recognition. “I thought you might be here,” he said in his soft, hoarse voice. Then he turned to the people with him. “This kid just passed her final audition at the Studio. Congratulations, Patricia Bosworth.”
Everybody laughed. Marty offered me a cigarette and lit it for me and I proceeded to inhale deeply and then blow a plume of smoke in the air. The tobacco burned my lungs and chest. I tried not to cough.
“Are you okay?” Marty asked. “You don’t have to smoke, you know.”
“I love to smoke,” I lied.
“Are you having a good time tonight?” Marty asked.
I could feel his black eyes studying me. “I don’t know anybody,” I admitted.
“I’ll show you around,” he said, and he did for the next hour. He introduced me to Cheryl Crawford, a tall stately woman with a mannish haircut who was one of the founders of the Studio with Kazan as well as a successful Broadway producer (her latest hit was Brigadoon). I would soon discover she was one of the kindest, gentlest souls in the business. I met Julie Harris. Red-haired and freckle-faced, she was smoking a cigarette and staring dreamily into a tiny cup of espresso. All I could think of when I saw her was her performance as the unconventional tomboy Frankie in The Member of the Wedding. Oh, how she’d burrowed into that strange little character who dreams of having a thousand friends.
“I can’t breathe anymore,” she cries out. “I want to tear up the entire world!”
I had the impulse to repeat those lines to her; they had meant so much to me when I first heard them. But we barely exchanged a word because she was pulled out of her reverie by a lanky, sallow-skinned man named Jay Julian.
“He’s her ex-husband,” Marty whispered. “Big-time lawyer.”
After circling the room a couple of times, we ended up on a deserted couch. The party was starting to thin out. I could see the contours of the double living room, hung with gilt mirrors and lit by many candles. We walked to the open windows and looked down into a big garden. Chinese lanterns glowed and rocked back and forth in the trees.
We remained by the window talking. Marty told me he wanted to be an actor and that he was Lee Strasberg’s driver. In return for free acting lessons, he chauffeured Lee all over New York in his medallion cab.
Around two a.m. the party ended. Marty left me. “I’ll see you later,” he promised. I decided I’d better go home. As I was walking into the front hall I saw Lee Strasberg shrugging into a black overcoat. He’d been surrounded by a group of adoring young actors when we were briefly introduced and he had barely looked me in the eye, but now he said gruffly, “Darling, do you want a lift?”
And he gestured to a cab outside—presumably Marty’s—idling on the curb.
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Strasberg.”
“Call me Lee, darling.”
We walked without speaking again into the street. Lee got in front with Marty, who gave me a wink.
I slid into the backseat, where I found Marilyn Monroe huddled in a corner dreamily puffing on a cigarette. Her bleached blond hair was tousled; she seemed to be wearing no makeup. I noticed there was dirt under her fingernails, but I couldn’t stop looking at her. We were about to pull away from the curb when a voice cried out, “Hey Lee, goin’ my way?” and Harry Belafonte hopped in beside me. We drove uptown in silence.
I knew Marilyn was aware I was looking at her. She was used to being looked at, and she wasn’t self-conscious. She had a mysterious indefinable quality that made her a star and separated her from everyone else. At the moment she appeared to be floating in another world as she puffed delicately on her cigarette and blew the smoke softly out of her mouth. The newspapers were full of stories about her—
It was muggy in the cab. A spring rain was falling, pelting down; lightning flashed as Marty drove through puddles in the street. Still no one spoke. After a while Lee rolled down the window and moist cool air whooshed in. Marilyn gave a sigh and shrugged out of her coat. That’s when I noticed the pearls. She was wearing a necklace of what looked like vintage pearls; they were lustrous and creamy and matched her skin, which seemed almost iridescent. She positively glowed.
“Those are gorgeous pearls, Miss Monroe,” I said.
“Yeah.” Marilyn fingered the pearls absently. “The emperor gave them to me.”
“The emperor?” Harry Belafonte asked.
“Hirohito of Japan. When Joe and I were on our honeymoon in Tokyo, he gave them to me in a private ceremony.” Her voice trailed off as if she’d lost interest in the subject. She had, we knew, lost interest in Joe DiMaggio. They were about to be divorced after a marriage that had lasted only nine months. Lately she’d been telling her friend, the Hollywood gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky, that she was going to marry Arthur Miller.
“Darling?” Lee murmured tenderly from the front seat. “Yeah, Lee?”
He turned and stared at her with adoring eyes. “How wonderful, darling.” His voice was full of feeling. (Marty told me afterward that Lee so rarely responded to anyone in an overt way that it was thrilling to see him react.)
Silence once more. Then we reached our destination, the Strasberg apartment on Central Park West. Lee stepped out of the cab and waited for Marilyn to get out; then the two of them disappeared into the ornate lobby. She was spending the night, as she often did, with the Strasberg family; daughter Susan gave up her bedroom for her and slept on the couch. Marilyn was between apartments; she was lonely and had a hard time sleeping. The Strasberg apartment had become her refuge, a second home. Her psychiatrist Marianne Kris lived in the building too. Marilyn saw her five times a week, and afterward she would go back to Lee’s apartment for a coaching session.
We continued to drive over to West Seventy-Fourth and Riverside. Belafonte vaulted out of the cab.
“Night, Thanks, Marty.” And he was gone.
“Harry’s apartment is twenty-one rooms,” Marty told me—then added, “Come on, sit up front with me. I’ll drive you home.”
He chauffeured me over to East Fortieth Street and parked.
Then we talked till dawn, mostly about his relationship to Lee. “I’m like his surrogate son,” he said. “I was an orphan brought up in a foster home. Lee and his family sort of adopted me after I began driving them all over New York in my cab. We got along—I didn’t talk if Lee didn’t want to talk. After a while Lee started to depend on me, take me here, take me there.” He knew Marty longed to be an actor, “so he invited me into his classes for free. Now I’m on call for Lee twenty-four hours a day—which means I am on call for Marilyn too.”
“It sounds as if your life isn’t your own,” I kidded him.
“That’s not true. I have a life separate from them,” he insisted. “Lemme take you to dinner in Chinatown tomorrow night.” And then he kissed me. It was a very nice kiss.
“I like you,” I said.
“I like you too.” He grinned. “I’ll pick you up at here at seven.”
* * * *
But it was never to be. The following night he phoned apologetically and said he had to drive Marilyn to Roxbury to see Arthur Miller. From then on, Marty kept on making dates and breaking them.
Then I ran into him one morning at the Actors Studio. “What’s been going on?” I demanded. I’d liked him—he was funny, he was sexy, and we’d been attracted to each other.
He looked at me helplessly. “I’ve been teaching Marilyn how to drive,” he admitted. “It’s . . . taking longer than I thought it would. She’s nervous . . . she’s forgetful.”
“But she’s Marilyn Monroe,” I kidded him. “That’s okay.”
“It’s not okay. I like you.”
“I like you too. So let’s be friends.”
Marty guided me over the years as I struggled to gain a foothold in the toxic celebrity-laden world of the Actors Studio and the Broadway theatre as well. And he once did take me to dinner in Chinatown.
* * * *
A few days after the party, the director Arthur Penn phoned. He’d noticed me at the party, he said, and thought I’d be right for a part in a play he was directing at the Westport Country Playhouse, the most prestigious pre-Broadway tryout theatre in the country as well as one of the top theatres on the summer circuit. Arthur Penn was one of the most successful directors of live TV in New York; he’d done countless shows on The Philco Television Playhouse, The United States Steel Hour, Playhouse 90, etc. It was said he was an actor’s director like Mike Nichols; he loved to experiment and improvise, to share his discoveries.
We met at his basement apartment on West Eleventh Street. The one room was like a monk’s cell—a single cot, two chairs, and a desk; books and scripts were piled on the floor. When I arrived, Arthur was pacing about; he couldn’t seem to stand still. A short, compact man with curly hair, immaculately dressed in khakis, a white shirt, and tennis shoes, he peppered me with edgy questions: “Where were you born? How old are you? Where’d you go to college? Who’d you study with—Sandy Meisner or Stella Adler?”
I had to admit I’d never studied acting. I’d just gotten into the Studio. When he pressed me, I confessed I’d never acted professionally on a stage. “But I was on a live TV soap for a summer—Concerning Miss Marlowe on NBC.”
“Good experience, live TV.” I agreed it was.
Then he told me about the play, Blue Denim. It was written by friends of his, James Leo Herlihy and William Noble. The play was about a fifteen-year-old girl named Janet who gets pregnant by her boyfriend. They are both thrown into a panic; she must get an abortion. She can’t tell her parents, so she relies on a mutual friend, another classmate who maintains he knows a doctor who can help. “The subject of abortion is taboo in this country,” Arthur said. “It’s a crime, it’s a sin, so the play will be controversial.” (Indeed, when it was performed, the word “abortion” was used only once, and when Blue Denim was made into a film, it was excised from the script entirely.)
“It’s an emotional story,” Arthur went on. “A very contemporary story. These kids are alienated from their families. They go through something very traumatic together, but they can’t talk to their parents. I relate to that. I had a very traumatic adolescence.”
He did not elaborate. Then he asked, “What about your growing up? Was it peaches and cream?” His tone was sarcastic. I ignored the question.
In the end Arthur asked me to read one speech from the play, Janet’s monologue when she discovers she’s pregnant. I’d had plenty of experience talking to myself in my bedroom to my fantasy husband. I read the monologue imagining I’d just come from the gynecologist’s office. I actually felt slightly sickened and empty inside. I knew when I finished that I had sounded pretty good.
Arthur nodded. “Not bad . . . Think you can do it?”
“Absolutely!” I exclaimed, although I had no idea whether I could do it or not. Arthur told me he’d be arranging for me to audition for the playwright and the producers and handed me the script.
As soon as I returned to Fortieth Street I shut myself up in my bedroom and festooned the script with notes. I composed a character sketch of Janet, trying to imagine what it felt like to be pregnant. I researched morning sickness. I remembered a classmate at Sarah Lawrence, a Chinese girl on scholarship, who had gone to some nameless abortionist in New Jersey. Her boyfriend drove her there in a rainstorm. Their car broke down. The abortion itself was botched. My classmate suffered terribly. She came back to Sarah Lawrence white-faced and bleeding. She had a miscarriage in her bathroom and was rushed to the infirmary. Weeks later she told everybody her ugly story. “I have never felt such pain,” she said.
* * * *
I auditioned for Blue Denim at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway. As I entered the shadowy backstage area, I counted six other actresses waiting in the wings to read. They were all recognizable to me, experienced “ingenues” with many shows to their credit. They looked at me curiously as I took my place at the end of line of wooden chairs. Sitting there, I pretended I was waiting to see an abortionist, hoping that would that put me in the mood.
When my name was called I felt my knees buckling, but I managed to walk out on stage in a straight line. Ahead of me, beyond the footlights, loomed the theatre itself, which seemed big as a football field, with rows and rows of empty seats. The house lights were half lit, so I could see Arthur Penn in his uniform of white shirt and khakis, deep in conversation with two people I didn’t recognize. They were introduced as playwright James Leo Herlihy, a tall shambling man with a handsome ruined face, and producer Lyn Austin, dark-haired with a thin mouth.
When I finished reading with the stage manager, who spoke his lines in a meaningless monotone and looked at me as if I was the worst actress he’d ever encountered, they said, “Thank you!” and then called, “Next?”
I was called back to audition three more times. Each time I read more of the script with Burt Brinckerhoff, who had already been cast as Arthur the boyfriend. Burt was very polite with me and superserious, in blue jeans and a T-shirt.
At the final audition I gave the penultimate speech—discovering I was pregnant. I’d been up half the night working. I gave it my all. When it was over, Herlihy ran up to the footlights to shake my hand and say I’d read the scene exactly as it should be read.
I ended up winning the role of Janet and felt briefly elated.
The rest of the cast was excellent: Katherine Squire played my mother (she would play my mother in three other shows). A member of the Actors Studio, she had a stern, prim quality. She seemed perfect for the part, as did Burt and Mark Rydell, who had soft blue eyes and a tough-guy manner. (He would go on to direct movies like the Oscar-winning On Golden Pond.) Back then he seemed to inhabit the role of Ernie, the friend who insists he knows the perfect abortionist but who in the end, we find out, is lying.
* * * *
The cast spent the first day of rehearsals for Blue Denim listening to Arthur lecture us about how we were living in an era of conformity; he seemed to be talking too much, maybe because he had never directed a play before. He was as nervous as I was. We went on to have a couple of table readings and then we did some improvisations.
Once we were on our feet, Arthur would hover around Burt and me as we were playing a scene, cupping his hands and zeroing in on our faces as if with a camera. I could feel his breath on my cheek as he murmured, “Where are you going with this character, Patti? I don’t think you know where the fuck you are going.”
He was right. I didn’t know what I was doing. For a while I existed on sheer nerve as rehearsals continued, with Arthur hammering at me that I wasn’t revealing anything. He couldn’t hear me, he said; I had no emotion. I’d return home at night in a panic and close myself off in my room. I’d sit on a chair, rocking back and forth. I believed I had talent, but I had to come to terms with the fact that I had no craft, no technique yet. Face it, I told myself grimly, I’d never acted on a professional stage before. But other young actresses had faced this challenge. I willed myself to get better, to concentrate more.
Arthur kept badgering me and I remained terrified that I’d be fired, but I wasn’t. However, he didn’t let up on his criticisms even after we’d arrived at Westport for the last days of rehearsal before we opened. He singled me out the afternoon Lawrence Langner watched a run-through. The distinguished, white-haired Langner was head of the Theatre Guild and ran the Westport Playhouse.
From the first day of rehearsal, I’d been kidded by the cast about the way I reacted to their constant use of the word “fuck.” “Fucking good weather,” Mark would say, and then Burt would add, “We have fucking good bagels here but fucking bad coffee.” They’d watch my disapproving expression and start chanting “fuck fuck fuck” and then the rest of the cast would howl with laughter (except for Katherine Squire—she didn’t like to hear the word “fuck” either).
I’d explain I’d grown up in a family that never used dirty words. I’d say things like “Please, I hate those words” or “It’s unnecessary,” which made them say “fuck” all the more.
The afternoon of the dress rehearsal I was in the midst of a very emotional scene with Burt when Arthur stopped us.
“You aren’t going to play Janet that way opening night, are you, Patti?” he asked in scathing tones.
“Well, I thought I was on the right track,” I answered in a tiny voice.
“Right track?” Arthur chuckled mockingly. “Jesus fucking Christ.”
“Oh, Arthur,” I blurted. “I wish you wouldn’t use that word.”
“You know . . .”
“You mean fuck?” he bellowed. “You mean F-U-C-K?”
I nodded, wondering how much longer this was going to go on. Meanwhile the rest of the cast had gathered in the wings to watch as Arthur marched over and took me in his arms as he would a lover.
“I feel so sorry for you,” he crooned. “You will never be another Kim Stanley. I am so sorry.” And he did seem genuinely sorry as he battered me with his criticisms.
Then he released me and we stood facing each other. “Now then,” he said ominously, “I am going to give you a little test. I am going to lock you in this closet.” And with that he dragged me, protesting, into the prop closet right offstage. “You will stay in this closet until you scream ‘fuck fuck fuck’ and then I will let you out and you will do this scene with Burt with all the emotion you’ve built up inside you. Do you understand?”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. I let my body go limp and allowed myself to be crammed into the closet, along with a ladder, a pail, and a broom. The lock clicked.
It was pitch-black and smelly; the broom prickled against my legs. I have claustrophobia, so of course I screamed and cried and pounded on the door. A couple of minutes later Arthur unlocked the door and I burst onto the stage screaming, “FUUCCCCKKKK!”
The closet experience became the abortionist’s office, and shaking and sobbing, I imagined the terror of having my womb scraped. Burt and I played the scene to a fare-thee-well and we repeated it on opening night.
How had I done it? I’m not quite sure, except I’ve always had an unshakable faith in make-believe. My imagination was going a mile a minute. I made believe I was Janet: being examined by the abortionist, my legs splayed apart on those hideous stirrups, rubbery fingers up my vagina and rectum, the whole ghastly experience. Looking back on it, I’d been so involved with my personal misery that it had threatened to take over my present. Maybe I’d needed Arthur’s brutal treatment to shake me awake. Now I felt strangely confident and I could concentrate on the work. I received terrific reviews for my performance as Janet, and for the entire run I was able to build and build on what I’d created for the character.
It was an exciting time. Every night my dressing room would be filled with friends. I basked in the compliments I was getting. Arthur, however, never praised my work and chose to ignore me.
Mama was in Europe, but Daddy sat through the show three times, maintaining, “You just get better and better.”
The entire cast had been living in a rustic old house right on Compo Beach. At the closing night party we roasted hot dogs over a fire near the bay. Mark Rydell and I sat on a blanket and drank bottle after bottle of cold beer while he assured me I’d developed during rehearsal and by opening night “you’d created a genuine character and it came out of yourself and what you went through with Arthur. Arthur Penn is a sadist. He’s like Kazan—but Kazan is more subtle and not as mean. But both directors will do anything short of murder to get actors to do what they want with a part.”
“Yes!” I cried out. “Arthur is a fucking bastard.”
We both burst out laughing. From then on, my conversations were peppered with expletives.
* * * *
I went on with my career. Arthur and I did not speak to each other again until 1966, when I happened to attend one of the first screenings of his landmark film Bonnie and Clyde. Everything critics say about the movie is true. Arthur’s revolutionary treatment of sex and violence transformed the film industry. The story was loosely based on two minor gangsters of the 1930s, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. In Arthur’s hands it became something dangerous and innovative; I remember distinctly how the audience at our screening gasped when a comic bank robbery climaxed with Clyde shooting the bank teller in the face. There was stunned silence at the end of the movie when the outlaw couple died in a torrent of bullets, their bodies twitching in slow motion, blood spattering everywhere.
People left the screening in silence. Arthur was standing off in a corner by himself.
“Hello, Arthur,” I said cheerily. “Fucking great movie.” He stared at me.
I was older now; I wore glasses; my hair was cropped short. Did he recognize me?
He looked at me oddly. “I beg your pardon?”
My voice grew a touch louder. “I said great fucking movie, Arthur.”
He gave a step back. “Oh.” He nodded, smiling slightly. “Oh yeah . . . Patti . . . Thanks.”
* * * *
After my success in Blue Denim I expected to be working again immediately, since my agent could now get me into most producers’ offices. I auditioned for every upcoming Broadway show, but to my great disappointment, I wasn’t cast in any of them. I longed to be given a chance to play high-strung, defiant young women. Instead I would appear on The Philco Television Playhouse as a flirty teenager in a two-piece bathing suit mouthing inanities.
I fell into a depression. When I wasn’t working I began to sleep all day. I’d wake up in the late afternoon and stagger down to the back deck of my parents’ duplex. Daddy was often there by himself drinking. He could see I was blue. I couldn’t tell him I thought I was failing as an actress. When I’d complain I was getting nowhere, he’d say I was being ridiculous. He had such confidence in me. He wouldn’t allow me to be negative. And then he’d change the subject by saying silly things like “Can you make love with a straight face?” Then we’d barbecue a steak and polish off an entire bottle of red wine.
We spent a lot of time on that deck, Daddy and I. It became our favorite place. It was full of cool green shadows from overhanging trees and it had a big awning. Daddy was in a better mood. His career was on the upswing. Rita Hayworth was keeping him busy; he was now advising her on movie roles. He thought she should play the dancer Isadora Duncan.
The main change in his life, though, was that the political climate was quite different from what it had been when he was defending the Hollywood Ten. The FBI was no longer pressuring him; he was sure our phones were no longer being tapped. There was a lessening of public interest in the hunting down of communists. The Korean War had ended, and in 1954 the Senate had voted to condemn the tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy. By 1955, HUAC was in a weakened condition, although committee members were planning four days of scrutinizing the entertainment industry in New York and there were plans to subpoena Arthur Miller.
* * * *
All that summer Mama was away. After making the disruptive move from the Sixty-Eighth Street brownstone to the Fortieth Street double duplex, she disappeared and spent the next three months traveling. We’d read her letters out loud—long enthusiastic, bubbly, funny letters about the people she was meeting, the recipes she was collecting, the sights she was seeing. She would try and phone us, but the connections were always very bad.
Daddy seemed genuinely pleased she was having a good time. “She needed to get away,” he said.
By August, Gene and Marcia were married. We gave them a champagne reception at the apartment. Now we were totally alone. We’d wander around the two duplexes feeling lost.
“Which living room shall we use tonight?” my father would ask. His eyes would brighten; his cheerful smile never let up, even as some secret anxiety etched new lines around his mouth. He wanted me to believe everything was within my reach. “So you are having a quiet time for the moment. Why don’t you enjoy yourself with your various men?” I would nod, although the suggestion irritated me. I didn’t like him monitoring my comings and goings.
Whenever I came home with a date he’d be up offering us drinks and we’d have to sit and talk with him. I didn’t like living at home. I wanted my own place, but I didn’t have enough money. I was determined to move. I asked my father to lend me $1,000. He refused. “Mama and I need you!” he’d exclaim, so I stayed for a while longer.
He thought it was wonderful that I was going out with so many eligible bachelors, like the genial ad executive Rib Smith. But I introduced my father to only a few of the men that I was seeing. Secretly I was going through a strange phase of sex without intimacy.
My phone rang nonstop, because I was divorced and considered a “hot property.” Supposedly I knew what I was doing in the sack; that’s what a Wall Street broker mumbled as he crawled on top of me. Except I didn’t know what I was doing, or more to the point I didn’t know what I wanted sexually, nor did I know the questions to ask. Jason’s “me Tarzan, you Jane” approach had left little to the imagination. I lay there and took a lot of pounding. It turned me on, but not for long. It took me awhile to find pleasure and harmony with a man.
Today it’s said that women own their sexuality and can have sex on their own terms. I don’t know if that’s true, but back in the late 1950s, just before the sexual revolution and the advent of the Pill, women bargained with sex for love and money, or they were too repressed and ignorant beyond belief—especially about their bodies. I for one was totally disconnected from my emotions. So many sad lost nights reaching out to so many sad lost men. The estates attorney who was so boring I had to stop seeing him, even though he gave me great orgasms. The musician who chewed speed gum and was constantly tripping out. He brought me to the only orgy I’ve ever gone to. It was held in an apartment on Central Park West with many bedrooms. I refused to participate. As I was leaving, I ran into a man dressed in priest’s robes. I was told he was George Plimpton.
Eventually I confessed some of my escapades to Marcia. She was appalled. “Haven’t you any self-respect? What are you trying to prove?”
I reminded her that we’d both read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps our last year in college. It was a book all our friends were reading—our mothers too. Mama had given it to me and festooned the most notorious story, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit,” with paper clips. In that story Margaret Sargeant (aka McCarthy) gets drunk on a train and proceeds to have rough sex with an overweight stranger. It was shocking; it was daring. A feminist before feminism, McCarthy seemed out to prove you could have a casual relationship with a man, a one-night stand where love didn’t enter the equation. Casual sex could be energizing, couldn’t it? Liberating, even? And you were not supposed to feel guilty.
“But as a Catholic I bet you feel guilty as hell,” Marcia exclaimed. I had to admit I did. I still felt tied up in emotional knots.
“As well you should, and let’s hope you don’t get crabs or gonorrhea.”
“Oh my God.”
“Well, you didn’t know any of these men, did you? Weren’t most of them virtual strangers?”
I admitted most of them were.
“Grow up, for God’s sake! How old are you now—almost twenty-three? You should settle down and get married.”
“I’ve already been married.”
“Okay, okay, but why don’t you go back to that Rib Smith, the ad guy? Gene really likes him and Rib liked you. You just brushed him off.”
“He was sort of boring.”
“You don’t know him enough to say he is boring. He is decent and hardworking—”
Marcia rolled her eyes. “You will never be satisfied with an ordinary man; he has to be weird and strange.”
I was getting tired of our conversation. “I’ll give Rib a call. I can take him to a cocktail party I’ve been invited to.”
So I did, and I had a better time than I’d expected.
* * * *
Rib was a tall, good-natured account executive from Young & Rubicam. Typical Mad Men type—chain-smoking, martinis for lunch, very popular with the models and actresses he was hiring for commercials. Then he started to date me and he stopped playing around. We’d have long drunken dinners at P.J. Clarke’s, where he’d try to persuade me to give up my career and live with him. He’d start fulminating about “the inner-directed man and the outer-directed man” (popular phrase of the time), and he kept urging me to read David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. I had no interest. I was too busy finishing Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
Rib’s family had a big home out in Douglaston, Long Island, right on the water. He kept his boat in their dock. We went sailing on it late that summer, all the way up to the Cape. By the time we reached our destination—Wellfleet—I was rosy with sunburn. We visited Gene and Marcia, who were honeymooning in a shack on the dunes. We went swimming in the bay, and then at dusk we roasted lobsters on an open fire, along with fresh corn and potatoes. Endless bottles of white wine were consumed; we sang Russian war songs, vowed eternal friendship, then passed out. I enjoyed myself. Rib was so likable and affectionate. Sometimes he’d pick me up and whirl me around in his arms. He wanted to take care of me. That felt good.
A week later we sailed back to New York and holed up in Rib’s cramped one-room apartment on East Forty-Ninth Street overlooking Second Avenue. He made gentle love to me over and over, and then he asked me to marry him. But I said no. It was too soon; I wasn’t ready to commit. I wanted to be “free” and didn’t want to be “possessed,” but I didn’t know that being free and unpossessed could tear the heart out of intimacy. I didn’t know that being free meant taking chances with my life. I hadn’t counted on what it would cost. The price was losing someone quite precious.
Even so, we continued to see each other for the next couple of years, although it wasn’t the same. We also saw other people.
From THE MEN IN MY LIFE by Patricia Bosworth. Copyright © 2016 by Patricia Bosworth. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.