I just finished Vanessa Williams’ new autobiography, You Have No Idea. It’s a fast read (especially compared to the book I read right before it, The Emperor of All Maladies, a medical history of cancer), and I read it in a day. Since Vanessa’s two years younger than me, and was a couple of grades behind me in school, I indeed had no idea of much of anything in her life (when you’re young, even a small age gap is a great social gulf). But we did live in the same very small town, go to the same schools, and ride the same school bus (her kid brother and my kid brother were good friends), and so I was interested to see what she’d say about Millwood, and how well her memories would match mine. Since Millwood’s the only place where my life overlaps Vanessa’s at all, the Millwood and Chappaqua part of the book is the only part I’ll comment on.
The town of Newcastle, New York includes the hamlets of Millwood and Chappaqua. Millwood’s a very small town, with under 2000 people. And I do remember the town, and the times, pretty much as Vanessa describes them. I’m pretty sure we had, in our family fleet of bikes (I’m one of nine children, seven children when I was growing up in Millwood), at least one with the sort of banana seat she describes riding to her childhood accident. The town had, as she says, one supermarket and one church. The supermarket was A & P, and the church was Catholic (for which reason my family went to a neighboring town for church.
Vanessa describes Millwood as a working class town. I’d have said middle class, but that may be a matter of semantics (don’t we all see ourselves as middle class in this country?). Compared to Chappaqua, Millwood was definitely the lower income hamlet. Though my own father rose through the ranks at IBM to the point where, by the end of my childhood, no one would have described him as working class, I expect we landed in Millwood rather than Chappaqua, when I was ten months old, because Millwood nicely combined being part of the really good Chappaqua school district with not having as pricy housing. At any rate, the rich kids at school were generally the Chappaqua kids. When a Law and Order episode takes a jaunt to Westchester, and the show lets you know you’re heading toward wealth, it will be a town near Millwood, and not Millwood itself, that the cops must visit. I’ve said, in blogging about Mad Men, that I grew up in the world of Don Draper, but Don Draper himself of course lives in a neighboring town, not mine. Some parents did, like Don Draper, commute to New York City to work (my mother, when she eventually went back to school and then to work, commuted first to Columbia University and then to Mt. Sinai Medical School), but many (perhaps, as Vanessa says, most) worked locally, with the mothers mostly at home (though Vanessa’s parents, of course, both worked as teachers). My own father worked at an IBM Research Center that was, though not in Millwood, in a part of Yorktown Heights so close that we could walk to it (and sometimes did, for the IBM grounds included a small playground area for employees’ children). It may have been (as I remember someone suggesting when Paul Krugman described his similarly free suburban childhood) that ubiquity of at home mothers who all knew each other that allowed the unlocked doors, free roaming kids, and non-helicopter parenting that we all grew up with in those days in Millwood, but I expect some of it was also the effect of living in such a small town, whether your mother worked outside the home or not.
Vanessa remembers Elmer’s, the five and dime store where she bought candy (but doesn’t mention Rocky’s, the Millwood deli that now has its own Youtube channel, which I remember as the other local store of interest, besides the supermarket). The three siblings closest to my age and I (four of us were within three years of each other in age) used to walk down to Elmer’s often for candy, and, even more interesting to me, comic books. I would read the comic books on their stand until I got the warning, “This is not a library,” letting me know that I had better buy something or go. Near Elmer’s was a liquor store, which burned down during my childhood; my sisters and brother and I (the four of us closest in age) all walked there with our sketch books to sketch the wreckage. Also near Elmer’s was the building that housed the volunteer fire department, as well as my Brownies troop.
Like Vanessa, I took ballet, a class for which I seemed well suited, since my feet naturally pointed out in the proper ballet pose (a relief after gym class admonishments to try to run with my feet pointed straight forward). I was also flexible, and could walk easily on the tips of my toes. But that was the extent of my accomplishments; unlike Vanessa, I abandoned dance early. I preferred (with my brothers and sisters, especially the three closest in age) to take long walks in the woods, when I wasn’t curled up somewhere with a book, or making up stories about glass and china animals.
Other places where Vanessa’s memories match mine: Her family being one of only two black families in town, the preppie clothes and the girls with long, straight blonde hair. In another post, I once described Millwood and Chappaqua as something like Woody Allen’s Jew meets WASP world, with a few more Italians. When I was young, we were the only Greek-Americans I knew, and so I tended to identify ethnically with the Jewish kids, who could tell me of immigrant grandparents rather like my own immigrant father. Later, two other Greek-American families settled right near mine, making my little hill the Astoria of Millwood (I also met a couple of other Greek-American kids in high school). Because I compared myself with the WASP kids, I spent my young years under the illusion that I was actually dark complexioned. I’m not. Even by white people standards, I’m medium in complexion rather than dark. Anyway, definitely a small town where you could name all the black kids.
Here’s how my memories compare with Vanessa’s on other matters.
The schools: Westorchard, the elementary school that Vanessa describes as progressive, was newly built when Vanessa went there. My sister in Vanessa’s grade was part of the first set of kids to go there, and I was one of the last set in our neighborhood not to go. Instead, my elementary school years were all spent at Roaring Brook. The whole Chappaqua school district was known for good schools; we were often told that our school district and Scarsdale’s were the best in Westchester county. (When my sister and I got our National Merit scholarships, we were brought together with that year’s bumper crop of National Merit scholars, to talk to the local paper: we were more evidence of what a special public school Horace Greeley was.) Within those schools, though, Westorchard differed from Roaring Brook: It was the cool, new, progressive school, built to suit new, flexible educational principles.
For junior high school and high school, I went to the same schools as Vanessa: Robert E. Bell School and Horace Greeley High School. I wasn’t in the theater crown in high school. In the clique naming system that my high school friends used, I was what was called “a brain.” This meant that I hung around with other girls who carried hefty AP history textbooks (and in my case AP calculus as well); one couple I knew sealed their dating relationship with the exchange of Palmer, the textbook for the AP European History class. I did have one friend in the theater crowd, Marcia. She lived in the Shingle House, from which the road I lived on took its name, a house that had been built back around the time of the Revolutionary War. I doubt Vanessa and Marcia had much to do with each other, though, since Marcia was two years older than me, while Vanessa was two years younger.
I do, though, remember Phil Stewart, Vanessa’s theater teacher at Greeley. I might have taken one class with him (I don’t remember for sure), and I definitely remember the day I auditioned for Godspell, with Phil Stewart evaluating my audition. Marcia had tried to allay my stage fright by showing me how to act the role of a horny tree, but it was in vain. I fell apart in the audition, and thus ended my musical career.
Greeley did send rather more of its graduates than I’d expected (not being in the theater crowd myself) off to Broadway, TV, or Hollywood. Vanessa names four of the more notable ones from her time, two of whom I remember. At Greeley, sometimes one of us students would get to teach a class about something we knew particularly well, either at the annual student organized seminar day event, or by special arrangement with a teacher. I taught a German class about Nietsche one day, and Matt Arkin once spoke to a class of mine about acting. I didn’t know, at the time, that his father was a well known actor. He’s since gone on to an acting career himself. But the one I remember most is Joe Berlinger, who was responsible for my playground nickname, and whom I later knew in high school because we both took German. (I’ve since connected with him on LinkedIn – if any old Greeley friends of his want to find him again, you can find him there.) A couple of other people I knew went on to be working actors; there was John, the boy I remember liking best in grade school, something of a class clown then, who later played Pharaoh in a high school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and who I hear has gone on to Broadway, and there’s Bill, with whom I’ve reconnected on Facebook (where Christine made it her business to reconnect as many of us as she could), and who posts statuses there about the plays he’s in.
The abortion: My Alexandria co-blogger, Wired Sisters, has said that a large fraction of her high school class got pregnant in high school. I knew of no babies, exactly zero, born to girls in my graduating class. There was one girl a grade or so before me, whom I remember as riding the same school bus as Vanessa and me, another Millwood kid, of whom I heard rumors. She vanished from school at one point, and at first I assumed she’d moved (since she had picked on me when I was young, she was the last girl I’d miss). But later I heard stories from my friends that she’d actually gotten pregnant, and, because she was Catholic, it was said, she had gone off somewhere to have the baby. I heard a similar story about another girl at Fox Lane. Other than that, no teenager anywhere in my vicinity seemed to have ever gotten pregnant (though one of my friends had a pregnancy scare).
Looking back, I’ve always figured that meant that at least some of my classmates must have gotten abortions. It stands to reason. The statistics I’d heard, when I was in high school, had about half of my generation still virginal at graduation. I was in that half. Number one, my mother had told me she didn’t want me having sex in high school (and gave me what I considered good reasons), and number two, I was way too shy to have the opportunity. In fact, when we all reconnected on Facebook, my former classmates voted me “Most Shy” (evidently my shyness was my most memorable trait). I even suspect that more than half of my friends may have remained virgins till graduation, since my friends tended to be in the nerd set. But some of the people I knew at Greeley were, after all, having sex, and it was hardly likely that everyone’s birth control always worked. So it doesn’t surprise me that Vanessa got an abortion. There must have been others.
Madeleine Davis at Jezebel describes Vanessa as “an unapologetic badass” for the way she talks about her abortion when promoting her book. In the book, well, she talks about a mix of feelings at the time – fear, sadness, guilt as a Catholic girl doing this – but does affirm her right to choose not to become a mother when only sixteen; she has always been, and remains, pro-choice. So, nuanced but ultimately unapologetic.
The pictures: I was, of course, on the West Coast by the time the pictures came out. I remember being angry with the pageant on Vanessa’s behalf (Millwood people should stick together – and it really was unfair to dump her six weeks from the end of her reign over that), and I did hear news of the little hometown demonstration of support for her (but not about the “Vanessa is a lesbian” graffiti by the local grocery store). But what I can speak to is the part where she says:
People will say, “You’re an intelligent woman; how could you think nude pictures wouldn’t come out if you became famous? Especially if you became Miss America?”
Well, guess what? I never imagined I’d be any type of beauty queen, that’s for sure – let alone Miss America!
I don’t know, having grown up white, what it was like to be Vanessa back in the 60s and 70s, and not dream that you’re ever be any type of beauty queen because all the beauty queen images you saw were white (which is what the rest of that chapter is about). But I do know that of course no one expected Vanessa to be famous, because none of us, in Millwood, expected any Millwood kid to grow up to be famous. Why would we? When we reconnected on Facebook, someone from the local summer acting group that some of the teenagers were in posted a photo, and there was Vanessa, off in the back row. Consider her talented enough to make it to Broadway in some role? Sure. See her as a future star? If anyone had that premonition, we’d have saved better photos of her. And, neither expecting to be famous, nor having the kind of Internet we have now, where even ordinary people can have their careers ruined by racy photos, who would expect nude photos of yourself to be nationally famous years later? You might think, as Vanessa says she did at the time, before ignoring the caution, of what your mother would think, but not about what would be on the evening news.
And of course the photos do last indefinitely, even after she’s long since shown her detractors by proving to be the most talented former Miss America ever, someone who’d have made it as an actress beauty queen or no, scandal or no. A couple of years ago, during lunch break at work, I thought to do an image search on Vanessa Williams on Google, to see if there were any new photos of her latest project. Oops! This is one celebrity whose Google image search results will never quite be worksafe.
But I can remember, when I was about the age Vanessa was when those photos were taken, the guy who stopped me on White Plaza at Stanford, and assured me that I could be a model. And the warning bell that made me blow him off was not any worry about what kind of photos he’d take, or where they’d turn up, but the fact that he wanted me to get in a car alone with him (my thought was, if you have a real modeling job, it should come with a business card that leads to an office with people other than you also in it). And I can remember, at around the same age, going to the Gay Freedom Day parade in San Francisco with friends, and considering, for a few minutes, whether I should go to the “Take Your Photo in Bondage” booth. Wouldn’t it be fun to do that and post it on the Synergy kitchen wall, I think I said to one of my friends, and someone may have suggested I go for it, but in the end I didn’t. But it didn’t seem, at the time, a big deal.
Nude photos? I had friends who posed nude for art classes. I’d auditioned for Equus, where I might have gotten a part that would have required me to appear nude. I was free; nudity could be artistic. I’m pretty sure, if I’d been in Vanessa’s shoes, that I wouldn’t have done the Gregg photos (I’d have bailed when I found out the modeling wasn’t at an actual office), but the Tom photos? For the boss for whom she’d been doing normal modeling work for a while, and getting paid to apply make up to other models, and whom she considered a friend, and who assured her the photos would be artistic? Yes, I might have done that at nineteen. And if I didn’t, I’m sure other people I knew, and not just Vanessa, would have. And those were the photos that came out in Penthouse and got her booted as Miss America.
I just don’t think it was something an ordinary college student, who never expected to be famous, would have seen as career ruining. You’d think about your parents faces, and either heed whatever warnings they’d given you or rebel, but you’d never imagine that your photos would be news to the larger world.
As for the rest of the book, where she comes back from those photos and launches her career, well, at that point she moved beyond my sphere, and I have nothing to add. Except, go Vanessa! You showed them.