When I was four, Peggy LeBoutillier and Virginia Cowles wrote an article in Collier’s about the downside of the debutante community. It said, “The society girl is less of an individual than any other class member. She is, in miniature, a perfect reflection of American mass production. She looks alike, she talks alike, she thinks alike, she plays alike. She is the result of a formula. And from the time of her birth her life is run by this formula.” And when I look back at my life, I followed the formula.
My father was an important professional (no doubt you’ve heard of him, Roy Gladwell). And my mother did have a thousand social connections, (I mean, even if you don’t know much about her, Pauline Gladwell, you’ll know her family. She’s a third cousin of the Lowell Whitney). They, in fact, did send me to a wonderful primary school and then boarding school at age 14. And it was amiable, expensive, and it did satisfy my parents, just as the authors said it would. But I did not crave sophistication like the article said. My parents followed the instructions, but it was as if parts were missing and so the whole never came together.
During my debut season, a nice young gentleman, whose family name you would know, asked me who my favorite author was. I think he was hoping I’d say one of the Bronte sisters, but I told him the truth, Franz Kafka. He turned beet red. And Pauline Gladwell? She was horrified! I promise you, the best fun you can have at a cotillion is answering people’s stupid questions with such bold honesty that you make your own mother sick.
It made me sick to be debuting with the war happening. One girl’s father was one of the Dollar-a-Year men, and he seemed so damn pleased with himself every time he would show up at dinners and dances. He would “blah blah blah my patriotic duty blah blah blah!” It’s deceitful to pretend you care about those boys overseas; meanwhile, you’re throwing 70-guest dinner soirees where everyone gets a porterhouse steak and their own vanilla white chocolate mousse cup as if there is no such thing as rationing.
Don’t get me started on my family, though. Sure, my brother, the Roy Whitney Gladwell, Jr., and my brother-in-law, yes the Lou Porter Ransom, both joined up when we entered the war. But they were glorified errand boys for the higher-ups, because my father performed a quid pro quo, as it were, via cheque to the United States Military. Just as his father had done for him during the First World War, and his father to him during the Spanish-American War, and so on ad nauseum since the War of the bloody Roses.
To be sure, I know there is no shame in being born wealthy. I am certainly aware of that. But there is also no freedom in it. “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage,” the old song goes. For my father’s family, the Gladwells, predate the United States herself, so there is a legacy, so much to lose if one generation decides that this path no longer suits us. Or we could be like the Roosevelts if we play our cards right. My mother’s family is Nouveau Riche by comparison and so she must always prove herself worthy of her place at the table. It is a full time job to keep up with Joneses while simultaneously being the Joneses. Which is why my sister, the Ophelia Iris Ransom neé Gladwell, almost died from taking too much Veronal. You surely heard about that one in the gossip column. Or maybe from that circle of vicious bitches my mother charmingly refers to as her “friends.”
Running the numbers, I could imagine that the next 60 years of my life (i.e from now until I die) are going to bury me in pleasantries. I could spend that whole time hoping and wishing and praying for death. Instead, I think I’ll run away to Cuba or Los Angeles or Spain. I don’t know. Anywhere but here. I’m gonna take you with me, too. So that way they don’t sear your brain like a cheap steak. I’m going to move to Manhattan after that and get a flat with a man who I won’t marry on principle. I am going to shoot pool for money. Or I maybe I’ll taxi dance to make rent. Or better yet, become a starving artist. When Leland Stanley thinks of me, I want him to be angry. I want him to slam his fists onto a table and weep when he thinks about me. I want his mother to gossip about me and call me bitch. I want Mother to scream at me over the phone and I want to hang up on her. Then I want her to disown me and pretend I died of a rare tropical disease. I want to make racy horror comics. I want Peggy Guggenheim to invite me over for dinner. I want to take a lover. I want my art to show up in some obscure magazine. I want to paint every emotion that I feel in my toes and fingers. I want the paintbrush to become an extension of me. Maybe we will murder Lou on the way out the door. Maybe that’s all we need.
When Effie was recovering the hospital, I took a train to Manhattan. I grabbed whatever clothes I could find and just took the train from school to the city for the weekend. Stayed in a seedy hotel. Went to a jazz club and introduced myself to the first handsome man I saw. And this, folks, is when I told my first lie. Not a little white lie. I’d done plenty of those: “No, you’re not boring me,” “Oh I could not possibly eat another bite,” “No, of course, you don’t look tired,” “Why yes, Wuthering Heights is just oh so romantic.” This was my first big black lie. But what a relief it was to look someone in the eye and say, “Hi I’m June,” instead of “Hello, I’m Rosemary Gladwell, daughter of Roy Gladwell.”
I could be June: beer-drinking, hot-dog-and-peanut-eating, boxing-loving, comic-book-reading, poetry-spouting, cussing-like-a-sailor, doesn’t-know-the-difference-between-a-fish-fork-and-a-salad-fork June. And he likes June. June and him get ice cream on hot days then go to the movies. June can play darts and talk smack with hepcats in seedy bars. June can discuss Sugar Ray Robinson and Rembrandt van Rijn. June can talk about Aristotle in the same breath as Cat People. June makes him laugh. He makes me laugh. June and him, we get along great. We’re saving up money to spend four days in Havana this summer.
To distract everyone from Effie’s recovery, my mother arranged for me to have dinner with Leland Stanley, yes the Leland Stanley. I’ve had better dinner conversation with houseplants than with Leland Stanley. But my mother will be damned before she’d let me stop seeing him just because we have nothing in common. Do you want to know what Leland Stanley has that my mother wants for me, ergo the family? Good press coverage, because his uncle owns a press syndicate. And do you know what I have that he so desperately wants? I come from a Family with a capital F. In case the metaphor was too subtle for you, he also very much so admires my father’s prized thoroughbred broodmares.
His parents invited me on a summer holiday to Paris to see the Louvre, because I am getting my degree in the humanities. He tells me I should really study the great masters in Europe for the whole summer on tour. I just smile. I smile a lot at him. My mother tells all of her friends lately that we are expecting a proposal any day now.
I took to modern art galleries, figure drawing classes, cigar smoking, whiskey swilling, night swims, parties in the Lower East Side, drives with my other guy. Anything to just be June for a few hours. It works too. Because somehow, I don’t claw out my own eyes with my very well-kempt nails or a fish fork at another party at my parents’ house in Martha’s Vineyard. I have survived thus far. But how much longer ‘til there’s a bottle of barbital with Mrs. Leland Stanley scrawled on the label and it starts looking too tempting?
You see, I’ve been bred and trained my whole life to be Mrs. Leland Stanley. And if not him, then some other important man’s wife. Whose? It really doesn’t matter. I was bred to be an aristocrat and oligarch in our egalitarian democracy. To be a homemaker in a house I will be too rich to take care of. To be a good mother to children I will be too busy to raise. To be charitable with my pocketbook but never with my spirit. To come out in perfect synchronization with the other automatons from the debutante factory. In other words, I was born and raised to the Rosemary June Gladwell.
But, please, call me June.