How a single parent kept her glamor up
I was born in the shadow of Faye Dunaway’s cheekbones. Those cheekbones and I were introduced to the world the same summer — the cheekbones, via Dunaway’s break-out portrayal of Bonnie Parker in the 1967 Academy Award-nominated film Bonnie and Clyde, and I, through the auspices of my mother and the obstetrics ward of New York Hospital. Six years later, when Dunaway first appeared in the pages of Vogue, my mother, with her angular good looks and dirty blonde hair, seemed to have fallen into a disturbing parallel with Bonnie Parker. Like the nice-girl-turned-bank-robber Dunaway portrayed, my mother was on the run — from a collapsing mansion in Westchester, from a psychiatrist ex-husband whom she felt had used his profession to manipulate her, from the very conceit of the nuclear family. Like the most famous Dunaway heroines, my mother was stormy and impulsive and drawn to things that looked good from a distance. Maybe that’s why in 1973, the same year Richard Avedon shot Dunaway for Vogue, my newly divorced mother moved me and my older brother to Greenwich, Connecticut, the wealthiest town in America.
My mother was equal parts aristocrat and Bolshevik, raised by New York Philharmonic musicians, educated at the best private schools but also a paramour and friend of prominent American communists and a labor strike aide-de-camp during the height of the McCarthy era. She had tried to bury these extremes in the soft soil of family life but when her marriage came undone in the early 1970s, all the old inner conflicts resurfaced. Our big Westchester house became a suffocating trap for her and she slipped out whenever possible. Her more reliable twin sister often filled in during her absences, but that was of little comfort to a five-year-old. “You have to watch Mom,” I told my aunt at the time, “she’s tricky!”
While some mothers in our neighborhood sculpted the tiny affairs of their children my mother tracked our early life with a passive befuddlement. On learning that my brother had tried to convince me to sell all my toys to pay for our move to Greenwich she could only raise an eyebrow and shoot him a zinger. “Nice one, hot shot!” she hissed. Meanwhile, mail piled up in the stone foyer of our Westchester mansion — bills mostly, but also free pharmaceutical samples sent in care of my father, who had since decamped to Manhattan. The bills my mother ignored but the drugs she collected in a black suitcase “for later.” Mornings my brother and I would wake early and wait for breakfast, shivering on the heating grate in the cavernous living room while our dozen-odd un-spayed pedigree Siamese cats vaulted above. The thin patina of order that had existed for the sake of my father vanished after his absence became a legally binding agreement. My mother’s rare good moods and smoky laughter also disappeared even as she frenetically re-arranged furniture, recasting bedrooms as sitting rooms and parlors as dining nooks for intimate dinners that would never take place. The technicalities of life confounded her. The engine of our Land Rover exploded (my mother knew nothing of oil changes), and when the new owner of our house came for the closing my mother blushed hard. She had lost the keys.
It was in this jumbled up state that we rolled into Greenwich, our last sticks of furniture hanging out the back of the red Pinto she’d bought to replace the exploded Land Rover. But one important piece of luggage was left behind — the black suitcase of drug samples. Somewhere, somehow she’d put a crucial restriction on her new-found divorcée independence: she would not, like Bonnie Parker, exit life in a blaze of self-destruction. She would pull through — at least until her sons were grown.
Our first stop in Greenwich was a garage apartment on a large estate in the Stanwich section of town. I remember tagging along to sign the lease and finding the landlady luxuriating in a bubble bath. But the ramshackle estate suited my mother. The echo of the hippy era was still in her ears yet she had been just a little too old for the Age of Aquarius. As a friend put it, “Your mother and I were of that generation on the edge. Everybody else was in these vans painted with mermaids and going to the Haight and having sex and here we were in our lovely houses, terribly secure with insurance policies and all that.” My mother had abandoned the insurance policies but she still wanted a glimpse of the lovely houses, even if it was through the window of a garage apartment.
Much later, I would come across a still-photo of Faye Dunaway from the movie Chinatown and asking my aunt whether she thought my mother was styling herself after Dunaway. “Ho, ho!” my aunt laughed, “you betcha!” My mother, the closeted revolutionary would probably never have admitted to taking on a role model. But she also loved crisp fashion and movies with a good plot twist — two of Dunaway’s specialties. In films like Chinatown, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Three Days of the Condor, Dunaway consistently played women-in-rebellion tucked inside exteriors of fashionable respectability. You would never see Dunaway (or my mother) prancing around in a tie-dye t-shirt or a peasant skirt. You could, however, catch glimpses of them in jauntily angled berets and tight-fitting sweaters, never capitulating to the submissive role their beauty portended.
Still, a partial surrender could be considered. And perhaps the most appealing feature of that first Greenwich rental was the possibility of such a compromise in the person of the owner’s son. A tall, dark-haired man with thick glasses and a gait made shuffling by a childhood illness, J was twelve years my mother’s junior, a fact he became apprised of when I whirled around in my corduroy jacket in the big field opposite the manor house, shouting, “MY MOTHER IS FORTY YEARS OLD!” J was not deterred. In fact with my father’s role limited to three court-ordered days a month, J soon became the most consistent male presence in our lives. He introduced us to Cat Stevens and “the back” as he and my mother playfully called backgammon, the clicking of dice, the background rhythm of our most pleasant nights at home. He also, unsettlingly, introduced us to our mother’s sexuality. We made a family trip to Macy’s to buy red satin sheets and nighttimes I would walk to the bathroom head down, saving myself an accidental glimpse into their bedroom.
J proved to be a kind of footbridge to that more liberated generation my mother had missed. It was under J’s influence that she bought a Volkswagen camper and took us Florida-road-tripping while my classmates skied Val-d’Isère. And while my schoolmates swam their summers away at elite country clubs, J taught us to snatch night-time skinny dips by jumping the Stanwich Club fence. My mother continued to pal around with rich friends and drink double scotches in their enormous houses, but at the same time joined the boards of various environmental nonprofits and fought tooth-and-nail whenever anyone in town tried to sell off land and build something even bigger than what they already had.
But when it came to family life, my mother’s restlessness had a way of hamstringing every good possibility. Even J, the man with whom she had her most satisfying relationship, moved on. In the summer of 1975 my mother blew the leavings of the Westchester mansion sale on a land parcel two hours from Greenwich. We were to cut down the forest and move a “hunter’s cabin” onto the lot. My last memory of us all together was J holding an axe, my mother, a chainsaw, a cigarette dangling from her mouth clearing trees for a house that would never arrive.
We soon relocated to a different cottage even further back in the Greenwich woods. I felt lost and misplaced by the move until one cold night my mother walked me over to the lake at the back of the new property. Wearing a short-cut rabbit fur coat she raised her arms high. “Watch this!” she said. She reached around a tree trunk and threw a hidden switch. Lights blazed on around the frozen lake. We had our own private skating rink.
Tuition, housekeeping, clean laundry — these were the un-magical things that tripped my mother up, but she was always ready to dress in rabbit fur and pull something miraculous out of the darkness.
The skating rink house lasted only a few years and there forward my mother made a succession of lease-less, backdoor deals with other failing aristocrats in ever smaller houses in ever more distant parts of Greenwich’s woody interior. We would inhabit a total of five such cottages before I left Greenwich for college and put my mother’s itinerant ways behind me. But her unsettled approach to hearth-and-home had an influence over my own family choices for many years. I married and divorced a sulky Soviet communist in my twenties, chased a war-correspondent around the globe in my early thirties and only in mid-life came to stay put for any length of time.
Even in death, my mother managed to rope us in to one last evasion, one last backdoor deal. Just before dying she mentioned it would be “nice” if we spread her ashes at her favorite beach, a place exclusive to Greenwich residents. This was, of course, illegal. A week later my aunt got behind the wheel of my mother’s car and donned her twin sister’s dirty blonde cancer wig. My brother and I piled into the back, my mother’s cremains in a can clenched between my knees. As we pulled up to the guard station the sun glinted off my aunt’s cheekbones, once not as prominent as those of my mother but now, in later life positively Dunaway-esque.
“Nice to see you Ruth,” the guard said. My aunt was taken aback, hearing the name of her sister uttered as if she were still alive. Quickly, though, she gathered herself together. “Nice to see you too,” she said, drawing
her cheeks into a cool half smile.
This article originally appeared in April of 2010 in Vogue Magazine under the title “Runaway Spirit”