Category Archives: American culture

Happy Valentine’s Day? Maybe

 Much of the world celebrates today, February 14th, as Valentine’s Day.

Are you celebrating Valentine’s Day this year?  I’m wondering just who among us is.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who have a loving spouse or an ardent beau, you’re probably celebrating this year.

I was a member of that fortunate group during my loving marriage to my darling husband.  Our blissful marriage came to a halt only because a terrible disease ended my husband’s life.  I like to think that we’d still be celebrating our love today if he’d survived.

Since he died, I’ve had one or two romantic liaisons with others, but at this moment I’m in a different place.  Today my kids and grandkids are my primary givers and recipients of valentine cards and gifts, red and pink hearts splashed all over them.

Of course, today is a bonanza for some commercial enterprises.  Americans spent about $21 billion on Valentine’s Day in 2021, and experts predict that nearly $24 billion will be spent this year, making today the fifth largest spending event of the year (after the winter holidays and Mother’s Day).  Will inflation and supply-chain issues affect these totals?  Valentine’s Day is probably inflation-proof, and delightful gifts can always be tracked down.

Benefiting the most are florists (about $2.3 billion), purveyors of chocolates ($2.2 billion), jewelers ($6.2 billion), and sellers of other heart-emblazoned cards and gifts. 

Which raises another question.  Aside from elementary-school kids, required to bring a valentine for every other kid in class to avoid any Charlie-Brown-style left-out feelings, is anyone still buying valentine cards this year

I hope so.  I’d hate to see an end to the decades-long practice of sending sweet wishes to loved ones and friends on February 14th

While we’re still stuck in the middle of a pandemic, confronting scary international events, and facing ongoing political divisiveness, I find it heartening to recall happier, simpler times.

Today I’m thinking about an old friend and the valentines he gave me many years ago.

My friend (I’ll call him Alan R.) grew up with me on the Far North Side of Chicago.  We were in a pack of friends who attended the nearby elementary school.  This was back when all of us walked to school, walked home for lunch, and walked back to school again for the afternoon.

In 5th grade, I acquired a handsome “boyfriend.”  (Although we thought of each other as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” those terms simply meant that we had some sort of pre-teen crush on each other.)  My best friend Helene had a major crush on my boyfriend, but I was the lucky girl for whom he made a misshapen plastic pin when he went away to camp that summer.

By the fall, Alan R. had replaced him.

Alan was never one of the best-looking boys in our class.  He was tall for his age and somewhat awkward, and he tended to be rather hefty.  But he had a pleasant face and a pleasant way about him, and he became my 6th grade “boyfriend.”

In October that year, he invited a whole bunch of us to a Halloween party at his house.  Helene and I decided to don similar outfits—black t-shirts and skinny black skirts.  For some reason, we were trying to look like French “apache dancers.”  I wasn’t really sure what that term even meant, but I suspect that Helene’s savvy mother inspired us to choose that costume.  However it came about, we knew we looked terrific in our very cool garb.  We may have even added a beret to top it off.

Alan played the gracious host, and when the party wound down, he led us outside, and all of us paraded through the neighborhood, knocking on doors and yelling “trick or treat.”  It was a truly memorable Halloween, probably the most memorable Halloween of my childhood.

I don’t have a clear recollection of the next few months.  The days must have been filled with other parties, school events, and happy family outings.  But I definitely have a vivid memory of Valentine’s Day the following February.

When my classmates and I exchanged valentines, I discovered that Alan had given me two.  Not one.  Two.  And they weren’t the ordinary valentines you gave your friends.  These were store-bought pricier versions.  One was sentimental, flowery, and very sweet.  The other one was funny and made me laugh.

What exactly inspired Alan to show his affection for me that way?  We were fond of each other, but I don’t remember giving him a special valentine.

Looking back, I wonder about his decision to give me those two valentines.  Did he choose them by himself?  Did he have enough money saved from his 6th-grade-level allowance to pay for them?

As a mother, I can’t help wondering about the role his mother may have played.  Did she accompany him to the card store on Devon Avenue, the one where we all bought our valentines?  (A long-gone kind of neighborhood store most of us patronized back then.)  Was his mother standing next to him when he bought his valentines, offering her advice?  If she was, what did she think of this extravagance on his part?

I like to think that Alan came up with the idea and executed it all by himself.  He saved his money and brought it to the store with the firm intention to buy a valentine for me.  Then, when he saw the colorful display of cards in front of him, he couldn’t decide whether to show his affection with a flowery card or to try to make me laugh with a funny one.

So he bought one of each, and, head held high, he gave both of them to me. 

I hope I exhibited a response that pleased him.  I can’t remember exactly what I did.  But I know that his delightful gesture has stayed with me ever since.

Sadly, those valentines disappeared when my mother scoured our home one day and tossed everything she considered inconsequential.  But they weren’t inconsequential to me.  I still remember the thrill of receiving not one but two valentines from my caring beau.

Everything changed in 7th grade.  A new school, new boyfriends, and new issues at home when my father’s health grew worrisome.  As always, life moved on.

Alan R. died a few years ago, and I wrote this story about him then.  He and I had drifted apart long before he died, but his fondness for me during 6th grade never faded from my memory.

Did Alan’s flattering attention give me the confidence to deal with some of the rocky times that lay ahead?  Teenage years can be tough.  Mine often were.  But his two-valentine tribute stayed with me forever.

Thanks, dear Alan, for being a warm and caring young person, even at the age of 12.  Although our lives went on to have their rough patches, the valentines you gave me back in 6th grade have never been forgotten.

A Christmas story? Not really

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

Is this about the supply-chain issues hindering the search for Christmas presents this year?

No.  It’s not.

What is it about?  Well, some of you may recognize the “Christmas presents” quote as the famous first sentence in a famous book.  “Christmas won’t be Christmas…” is the memorable first sentence in the enduring classic, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

The sentence is spoken by Jo, the most prominent of the book’s “little women” and Alcott’s alter ego, a strong young woman who’s determined to create a meaningful life for herself.  Jo, her three sisters, and their mother make up a New England family confronting the Civil War and its impact on their lives, while the girls’ father is a doctor treating Union soldiers somewhere far from home.  Short of funds, the family faces a Christmas with no presents.

This extraordinary book has long been the favorite of generations of readers.  In my case, it was one of only two books that, as a young girl, I read more than once.  I was a voracious reader and usually moved on quickly from one book to another.  Little Women was an exception.  (The other was Black Beauty.)  I reread Little Women because it was so beautifully written and so relatable to me as a young girl who, like Jo, wanted to create a meaningful life for myself.

Little Women has influenced a number of filmmakers, most recently Greta Gerwig, whose 2019 version offered a new take on it.  The “Christmas presents” line is buried nearly halfway through Gerwig’s film.  In every other film and dramatization I’ve seen, Jo speaks that line at the very beginning of the story, just as Alcott wrote it. 

Now I’ll explain how the “Christmas presents” line in Little Women relates to my own life.  Not as a reader or filmgoer, but as a preteen taking classes at the long-gone and now legendary Harand Studios in downtown Chicago.

I’m not sure how I first learned about the Harand Studios (officially called the Harand Studios of the Theatre Arts), but once I did, I promptly asked my parents to let me enroll there. 

I was eleven that fall, turning twelve the following spring, and my father had undergone surgery for colon cancer during the summer.  Happily, he’d recovered and returned to work as a pharmacist at a drug store at Sheridan Road and Lawrence Avenue, about three miles from our apartment on the Far North Side.  He didn’t love this job, but it was a source of needed income for our family of four.  My mother helped, working part-time elsewhere, and her earnings added to our coffers.

I knew it would be something of an extravagance for me to enroll at the Harand Studios (hereafter “Harand”).  Although my mother loved and cared for me, I don’t think she was terribly eager to pay for my lessons at Harand.  But Daddy was a softie, enamored with his two red-haired daughters, and he often indulged me when Mom didn’t.

And so I turned up at Harand one Saturday morning, excited to begin this new chapter in my young life.  Daddy drove me the twelve miles from our apartment to the studio, located on the second floor of a corner building on North Michigan Avenue, not far from the Allerton Hotel.  Michigan Avenue was still a quiet boulevard filled with low-rise, often charming and unique buildings, like the Michigan Square Building encompassing the exquisite Diana Court with its sculpture by the noted Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. 

Riding downtown with Daddy was a special treat.  During that ride, I had him all to myself, and I didn’t have to share him with my older sister.  After he dropped me off, he drove back north about nine miles to the drugstore where he worked, dispensing medicine and advice to customers for the rest of the day.

That first morning, I climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor, arriving at the studio not sure what to expect.  It turned out to be a magical place, filled with rooms that focused on three areas:  drama, music, and dance. 

The studio was the brainchild of two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand, who came up with the idea of a children’s arts studio in Chicago.  Sulie had studied opera, at one point coached by Kurt Herbert Adler, who later became the artistic director of the San Francisco Opera.  She won contests in Chicago and played clubs across the Midwest, performing tributes to Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and others.  Turning to musical theatre, she created one-woman shows, traveling throughout the country to perform in them.  And while she continued performing, she and her sister Pearl opened the Harand Studios.  

Pearl, a former member of the Chicago Repertory Theatre, primarily taught drama while Sulie primarily taught voice.

For me, the drama lessons at Harand were the most memorable.  Maybe because my love for drama had begun early.  As a small child, I took the part of Jerry, the animated mouse who’d appeared in a 1945 MGM musical, “Anchors Aweigh,” starring Gene Kelly.  Kelly danced and sang with the animated mouse in “The King Who Wouldn’t Sing or Dance,” inserted in the film as a charming story Kelly tells a group of kids. 

I must have been the very young student of a drama and music teacher who enlisted me to perform Jerry’s role in a recital.  I have only dim memories of this event, but I distinctly remember my own musical number and reveling in the applause as my older partner (playing Kelly’s role) and I took a bow.

My next dramatic role came along when I graduated from kindergarten.  My teacher chose me to play the starring role in our class’s performance of “Sleeping Beauty.”  (Prince Charming was played by my classmate Richard Just.  I wonder where he is now.)  Once again, I loved the audience reaction to my Sleeping Beauty, garbed in a wedding-party dress my cousin Anna hand-sewed for me. (Anna, my mother, and I had chosen the pale blue organza fabric at the long-departed fabric department at Marshall Field’s on State Street.)  But I had to pretend to fall asleep on the hard wooden floor of the auditorium stage, and I recall being mad that I couldn’t lie on a soft sofa instead.  A prima donna at age 6!

I later appeared on that same stage in other productions (we called them “assemblies”).  The most unforgettable took place one February around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I remember reading a poignant poem about Lincoln as well as portraying someone in his southern Illinois town.

Now, here I was, at age 11, immersed in dramatic pursuits at Harand.  And here was where the “Christmas presents” quote became a lifelong memory.   An abiding memory because Pearl Harand chose me to play Jo in the opening scene from Little Women, and I recited that line in many, many repetitions of that scene. 

At Harand, I also participated with enthusiasm in our music and dancing classes.  Music was usually supervised by Sulie Harand, along with Elaine F, a young and immensely talented pianist and singer.  Elaine was only 15 when she was hired to play at Harand on Saturday mornings and after school.  I vividly remember her piano artistry and how she taught our class some of the original songs she’d written.  (I can still sing much of “My First Big Dance.”)  I was lucky to forge lifelong friendships with both Elaine and her younger sister Natalie, another student at Harand.  To this day, Natalie, a steadfast friend, remembers that she “loved our Saturday mornings there!”

I enjoyed dance lessons as well.  Although my dance memories are pretty foggy, I do remember that we danced in a room with a mirrored wall and a ballet barre.

My best friend, Helene, who lived next door (and remains a friend), got wind of Harand and wanted to get in on the action.  She also recalls attending classes, taking buses to get there, but dropped out after a short time because she was “not talented!”  She and another friend, Renee, were “probably the worst ones” there.

But I was ecstatic about my Saturday mornings at Harand and kept going as long as I could.  When classes ended each week, I would emerge onto Michigan Avenue, sometimes stopping for a warm cookie at the small bakery on the first floor.  I’d catch a bus that would take me to my father’s drugstore, and my Saturday afternoons thus became memorable, too.

The drugstore had an old-fashioned marble-topped lunch counter, where Daddy would make sure I ate a good lunch, sometimes accompanied by a sugary beverage like a cherry “phosphate.”  I’d eat my lunch seated on a stool I could spin to my heart’s content.  Some of you may remember lunch counters like that one. 

They became famous a few years later when civil rights activists in the South protested segregationist policies, beginning in 1960 with a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The sit-in movement spread throughout the South, and places like Woolworth’s were ultimately forced to change their policies.

While I waited to go home with Daddy, I would carefully look over the drugstore’s merchandise.  I especially relished spinning the racks of paperback books and deciding which ones to show to Daddy.  Together we chose plays by Shakespeare and other classics, usually priced at the exorbitant sum of 25 cents.  I treasured our choices and saved them for years, until their cheap construction finally led to their literally falling apart.

At the end of Daddy’s workday, we’d climb back into our car, a 1948 Chevy, formerly a boring postwar gray and now a bright emerald green. (Daddy had hired someone to do the paint job.)  Together we’d drive home for dinner with my mother and sister. 

I never went much further with my dramatic pursuits.  That’s a story for another day.  But the “Christmas presents” line from Little Women has stayed with me, decade after decade.

Daddy died about a year after I began those classes at Harand.  The enormity of his loss changed my life and left a huge hole that remains today.

Those glorious Saturdays we spent together during the year before he died? They are enduring and powerful memories in my memory-bank, and they will remain there forever.

Dancing With Abandon on Chicago TV

He was a good-looking bespectacled teenager with a full head of shiny brown hair.  I’ll call him Lowell M.  He helped out after school at Atlas Drugs, the corner drugstore near the small apartment where I lived with my widowed mother and older sister during my high school years.

I grew to hate that cramped apartment and would often plead with my mother to move somewhere else, but she never would.  I eventually escaped when I went off to live on the campus of the great university 300 miles away that enabled me to make my escape by giving me what’s now called a “free ride.”

Back to Lowell M.:  When I exited from the crowded Peterson Avenue bus I took home from high school every day, Lowell was usually working at the front counter of Atlas Drugs, just across Washtenaw Avenue from the bus stop’s drop-off corner.  While the drugstore’s owner-pharmacist was busy dispensing meds in the back of the store, Lowell would dispense the kind of clever pleasantries expected of us, two of the best and brightest our high school had to offer.  He was in the class ahead of mine, and we happily chatted about school and a whole host of other topics while I would select a package of Wrigley chewing gum or some blonde bobby pins (which didn’t really match my bright red hair) or whatever else had brought me into Atlas Drugs that day.

Lowell must have taken a liking to me because one afternoon, out of the blue, he asked me to accompany him to Chicago TV’s “Bandstand.”  This was shockingly, astoundingly, incredibly fantastic, and I could barely believe it.  Somehow Lowell had secured two tickets to Chicago’s version of “American Bandstand,” an after-school TV show broadcast on WGN-TV.  I haven’t been able to track down anything about that show on the internet, so I don’t think it stayed on the air for very long.  But I’ve stored some vivid memories of it in my nearly overflowing memory-bank.

It was the late-’50s, and my mother had switched from reading the Chicago Tribune to the Chicago Sun-Times after my father died and we left our temporary home in LA to return to Chicago.  (I’ll save the story of that move for another day.)  But my father had been a faithful reader of the Tribune before he died, and I can still see the Tribune’s front page, proclaiming that it was the “World’s Greatest Newspaper.”  Its far-right-wing publisher, tycoon Col. Robert R. McCormick, came up with that phrase, and its initials—WGN—became the call letters of the Tribune’s radio station and later its TV channel.

During the semester I’d spent in LA, I watched its local TV’s version of “American Bandstand” when I’d get home from school.  Hosting high school kids from all over LA to dance on TV, it featured the exciting new pop music that was emerging all over the country. 

Now I was about to attend a TV program just like that one.

Why did Lowell ask me to join him?  I was never really sure.  Maybe, just seeing me at the drug store that day, he asked me on a whim.  But no matter.  I accepted Lowell’s invitation with alacrity and rushed home to tell my sister and mother about my upcoming appearance on local TV.  Dancing to the latest pop music, no less.

My sister kindly (and somewhat uncharacteristically) offered to lend me her smashing new top, a black-and-cream-colored number with tiny horizontal stripes (much more flattering than wide ones).  She was always more interested in fashion trends than I was, and for once I was grateful that she was.

Somehow Lowell and I met up at the appropriate time and made our way downtown to the Tribune buildings located on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.  We probably took the Peterson bus and transferred to the bus that ran along Michigan Avenue, but to be truthful, my memory’s a bit foggy on that score.  Eventually we entered the radio-TV broadcasting building, built ten years after the Tribune Tower itself, and we entered one of the 14 new studios added in 1950, probably one of the four designated for TV.

Ushered into the large studio, filled with other teenagers from all over “Chicagoland” (a term invented by the Tribune), we soon were dancing to the musical hits of the day.  My still-enduring favorites include “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley, “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes, and “Sh-boom” by the Crew Cuts.

TV cameras whirled around the studio, capturing Lowell and me in our own version of “Saturday Night Fever,” two decades before that film appeared.

I recall having a fabulous time, dancing with abandon to my musical favorites, and I thought that Lowell did, too.  But I was disappointed when Lowell never asked me to do anything else with him, like go to a movie (a favored pastime of my friends and me).  So it’s possible that he may not have had the truly memorable time I had. 

Did I continue to see Lowell behind the counter of Atlas Drugs?  Maybe.  At least for a while.  But my guess is that he eventually moved on to other after-school jobs that were more in keeping with his burgeoning interest in the business world.

As he approached graduation a year before I did, Lowell began dating a friend of mine who was in his graduating class, and the two of them later married.  Lowell went on to college, earned an MBA, and built a successful business career. 

I went in a different direction.  Fascinated by the world of politics, I pursued two degrees in political science and landed finally in law school, aiming for the kind of career I wanted to follow as a lawyer and a writer.

But the memories of my exhilarating afternoon at Chicago’s version of “American Bandstand” have stayed firmly lodged in my memory-bank.  I will be forever grateful to Lowell M, who—perhaps on a whim—opened the door to those dazzling memories so many years ago.

They’re my blue jeans, and I’ll wear them if I want to

What?  I’m supposed to give up wearing jeans because I’m over 52?

A few years ago, I came across a preposterous study conducted by CollectPlus, a UK parcel-delivery service, which asked 2,000 Brits this question:  When should people stop wearing jeans?  Answer:  Age 53.

This answer struck me as absurd.  Even the marketing director at CollectPlus was baffled by the results.  She told the Daily Mail, “Denim is such a universal material and, with so many different styles available, it’s a timeless look that people of all ages can pull off.”

The newspaper didn’t disclose relevant details like the age of the survey’s participants.  Who were these people?  How old were they?  Where did they live?  To make any sense out of this study, we needed details like these. 

What did the participants reveal?  Almost a quarter of them admitted they hadn’t yet found their perfect pair, another 29 percent had given up the quest for that perfect pair, and six percent admitted that they’ve been reduced to tears in the search for it.

Once they found their ideal jeans, however, they’ve held on to them, and 33 percent said they’d wear them practically anywhere, including the theater or a dinner party.

Do these devoted jeans-wearers really expect to give up their beloved jeans when they turn 53?  I doubt it.

Although my own go-to pants are skinny black pants with roomy pockets, my wardrobe also includes some skinny jeans.  I have happy memories of sporting a pair when I visited Yosemite National Park, where they were clearly the best choice.  They protected me from insect bites, spilled food and drink, and potentially hazardous falls onto jagged rocks and other obstacles.  When I hiked alongside spectacular Yosemite Falls, its watery mist hit my clothes, but my jeans’ cotton fabric dried quickly in the mountain air.  And I had pockets galore in which to stash any small items I needed en route. 

In short, they were perfect.  Why would I ever want to abandon them?

I wouldn’t.  But recent events have compelled me to question whether blue jeans are still the great choice they used to be.

The arrival of the pandemic has changed many jeans-wearers’ thinking, especially whether to purchase new ones.  Just look at the statistics.  In July 2020, The Washington Post reported that the pandemic was taking “a real toll” on jeans sales.  Levi’s had posted a 62 percent drop in second-quarter revenue and announced plans to cut 15 percent of its corporate workforce.  Why?  Because people were choosing comfort over the trendy jeans they formerly favored.

Things started to shift back as the pandemic began to loosen its grip.  But reports of sales haven’t been consistent.  Fox Business reported in April 2021 that demand for denim was back. It noted that sales of “the old reliable clothing staple” were on the rise, with consumers buying relaxed-fitting styles rather than the tight-fitting favorites of the past. It added that Levi’s was projecting a potential increase of about 25 percent for the first half of 2021, rebounding from a 13 percent decline.

One month later, in May 2021, a publication called Modern Retail also noted that denim brands like Levi’s were gearing up for the return of sales.  According to this source, skinny jeans continued to claim the largest market share at 34 percent of all jeans sales.  But The Washington Post reported in July 2021 that denim sales were still falling and people were still turning to “less structured” clothing for both work and recreation.  

Two other sources, CNBC and Stylecaster, have issued their own reports. According to CNBC on July 9, Levi’s second-quarter earnings crushed estimates, raising its 2021 forecast.  Stylecaster on July 19 determined that skinny jeans were out, but new/old styles like baggy jeans, low-rise jeans, flares, and even patterned jeans, were in.

Conclusion?  The jeans-scene is pretty foggy.  Trends aren’t completely clear.  Just as the pandemic has surged in some areas and declined in others, the jeans-scene is having its own ups and downs.  Some jeans-wearers will probably return to denim, with possible changes in the styles they choose, while others may abandon buying any new jeans, even though they hold on to the ones they already own.

Here in San Francisco, we treasure the legacy of blue jeans, thanks to Levi Strauss and the jeans empire he and his partner created in 1871.  The Levis Strauss Company is still a big presence in the city, and Levi’s descendants are among the Bay Area’s most prominent philanthropists and civic leaders.  The Levi’s company notably maintains a vast collection of historic jeans in its San Francisco archives.

Right now, San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum is sponsoring an exhibit focused on Levi Strauss and his legacy.  Its website notes that in 1873, “at the end of the California Gold Rush, Levi Strauss & Co., named for a Bavarian Jewish dry goods merchant in San Francisco, obtained a U.S. patent with tailor Jacob Davis on the process of putting metal rivets in men’s denim work pants to increase their durability.  It was the birth of the blue jean.” 

The CJM calls ‘Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,’ “an original exhibition showcasing the life of Levi Strauss, the invention of the blue jean, and their iconic place in the history of American style.”  The exhibit includes over 250 items from Levi’s archives as well as items worn by notables like Albert Einstein.  It celebrates how “the democratic blue jean became a cultural staple and a blank canvas for the rising international youth culture.”

“Youth” is the key word here.  Young people will almost certainly stay loyal to jeans.  Let’s remember that jeans are gender-neutral, racially and ethnically neutral, and still central to the wardrobe of young people, including those in Generation Z.  

Regardless of their age, I predict that jeans-devotees will keep wearing jeans. The result?  Despite the appeal of loose-fitting pants, jeans will probably maintain their place in the world’s collective wardrobe. 

Will I give up my skinny jeans?  Nope.  And I don’t think many other over-50s will abandon theirs.  Together, we’ll defiantly sing (with apologies to Lesley Gore):  “They’re my blue jeans, and I’ll wear them if I want to!” 

{This post previously appeared in a different version on Susan Just Writes. It has been revised for July 2021.]

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

This month I’m beginning something new.

I’m beginning a series of posts that will focus on my personal recollections of working as a law clerk for a federal judge–a judge who became notorious shortly after I left my clerkship.

Judge Julius J. Hoffman was a U.S. district court judge in Chicago who became notorious when he presided over the “Chicago 7” trial that began in the fall of 1969.

As Hoffman’s law clerk from 1967 to 1969, I observed him closely throughout my two-year tenure with him. This two-year period included, in its final months, the road that led to the “Chicago 7” trial.

This trial is now the subject of a new film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Because the film has inspired new interest in Judge Hoffman, this seemed to be an appropriate time to publish my recollections.

As Judge Hoffman’s law clerk during the two years before the trial began, I could foresee much of what would happen in his courtroom.  I later sat in on the trial, as a spectator, on two very cringe-worthy occasions.

This is the first post in a series that will examine what it was like to clerk for a judge like Hoffman. I’ll begin at the beginning: my first encounter with Judge Hoffman and how I came to work for him.

I’ll go on to describe a wide range of issues that arose during my tenure. These will include my observations during the frenetic time just before and during the “Chicago 7” trial. I’ll conclude with my final communications with the judge, just before I left Chicago in 1970.

Post #1

          In the fall of 1969, Judge Julius J. Hoffman moved from relative obscurity into the spotlight of national attention.  Although he had earned a reputation within the Chicago legal community as an irascible judge with a strong conservative bent, he was otherwise a little-known figure.  The public knew him only as one of Chicago’s U.S. district judges, and as such, he was generally respected.  Even lawyers who had appeared before him were compelled to admit that, despite his personal shortcomings, he could sometimes be an excellent judge.

          All that changed in the fall of 1969.  Assigned to be the presiding judge in what became known as the “Chicago 7” trial, Hoffman was suddenly the focus of journalists and lawyers from every corner of the United States, even the world.  Suddenly his courtroom demeanor was under a microscope, probed for rationality and fairness.  And just as suddenly, he became a national villain, even a national joke.

My first encounter with the judge

          In his custom-made elevator shoes and his black robe (double-stitched for longer wear), Judge Julius J. Hoffman would stride imperiously into his courtroom.  He would seat himself behind his imposing judicial bench, his tiny figure almost lost in the high-ceilinged courtroom he occupied on the 23rd floor of the federal courthouse in Chicago’s Loop.

“The motion will be dee-nied!”

                I can still hear the judge spouting those five words, the five words he must have said a thousand times during the two years I worked for him.  He always seemed to be denying motions rather than granting them.  But that was just one feature of this eccentric and soon-to-be-notorious judge.

          Julius Hoffman was a diminutive, bald-headed man with a prickly ego that was easily punctured.  But when I met with him over the Christmas holidays in 1966, he struck me as a charming and altogether reasonable person to clerk for.  I was in my last year of law school, and Hoffman was one of only three U.S. district judges in Chicago who had agreed, in that benighted era, to interview me, a woman, for the job of law clerk.

          For a number of reasons, Hoffman became my first choice of the three, and when he offered me the job, I decided to take it.  Although I had done almost no research into what kind of judge Hoffman was, I was thrilled with the simple prospect of being any federal judge’s law clerk.

          My failure to research Hoffman’s reputation later came back to haunt me.  I soon discovered that I was working for an irascible, difficult man who had unusual proclivities and a bizarre personality that often played itself out on the bench.  So although I loved my job as a federal judge’s law clerk, and I learned a great deal from my experience working in the federal courts, I was sometimes sorry I had so quickly settled on Hoffman as the federal judge to clerk for.

Declare Your Independence! Those High Heels Are Killers

Happy 4th of July!  In honor of the holiday, I’m reviving a blog post that I published three years ago.

Because I believe so strongly in communicating this message, I may turn this blog post into an annual tradition.

If you’ve read it before, thanks for re-reading it.  I’ve made a few changes to acknowledge some current trends.

I’ve long maintained that high heels are killers.  I never used that term literally, of course.  I merely viewed high-heeled shoes as distinctly uncomfortable and an outrageous concession to the dictates of fashion that can lead to both pain and permanent damage to a woman’s body.

A few years ago, however, high heels proved to be actual killers.  The Associated Press reported that two women, ages 18 and 23, were killed in Riverside, California, as they struggled in high heels to get away from a train.  With their car stuck on the tracks, the women attempted to flee as the train approached.  A police spokesman later said, “It appears they were in high heels and [had] a hard time getting away quickly.”

Like those young women, I was sucked into wearing high heels when I was a teenager.  It was de rigueur for girls at my high school to seek out the trendy shoe stores on State Street in downtown Chicago and purchase whichever high-heeled offerings our wallets could afford.  On my first visit, I was entranced by the three-inch-heeled numbers that pushed my toes into a too-narrow space and revealed them in what I thought was a highly provocative position.  If feet can have cleavage, those shoes gave me cleavage.

Never mind that my feet were encased in a vise-like grip.  Never mind that I walked unsteadily on the stilts beneath my soles.  And never mind that my whole body was pitched forward in an ungainly manner as I propelled myself around the store.  I liked the way my legs looked in those shoes, and I had just enough baby-sitting money to pay for them.  Now I could stride with pride to the next Sweet Sixteen luncheon on my calendar, wearing footwear like all the other girls’.

That luncheon revealed what an unwise purchase I’d made. When the event ended, I found myself stranded in a distant location with no ride home, and I started walking to the nearest bus stop. After a few steps, it was clear that my shoes were killers. I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and the pain became so great that I removed my shoes and walked in stocking feet the rest of the way.

After that painful lesson, I abandoned three-inch high-heeled shoes and resorted to wearing lower ones. Sure, I couldn’t flaunt my shapely legs quite as effectively, but I managed to secure male attention nevertheless.

Instead of conforming to the modern-day equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, I successfully and happily fended off the back pain, foot pain, bunions, and corns that my fashion-victim sisters suffer in spades.

The trend toward higher and higher heels has been disturbing.  I’m baffled by women, especially young women, who buy into the mindset that they must follow the dictates of fashion and the need to look “sexy” by wearing extremely high heels.

When I watch TV, I’ve seen too many women wearing stilettos that forced them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago. When late-night TV shows still featured guests walking to greet the host, I couldn’t help noticing the women who were otherwise smartly attired and often very smart (in the other sense of the word), yet wore ridiculously high heels that forced them to have that same ungainly walk. Some appeared on the verge of toppling over. And at the most recent Oscar awards telecast, many women tottered to the stage in ultra-high heels, often accompanied by escorts who kindly held onto them to prevent their embarrassing descent into the orchestra pit.

The women who, like me, have adopted lower-heeled shoes strike me as much smarter and much less likely to fall on their attractive (and sometimes surgically-enhanced) faces.

Here’s another example.  When I sat on the stage of Zellerbach Hall at the Berkeley commencement for math students a few years ago, I was astonished that many if not most of the women graduates hobbled across the stage to receive their diplomas in three- and four-inch-high sandals.  I was terrified that these super-smart math students would trip and fall before they could grasp the document their mighty brain-power had earned.  (Fortunately, none of them tripped, but I could nevertheless imagine the foot-pain that accompanied the joy of receiving their degrees.)

Foot-care professionals soundly support my view.   According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, a heel that’s more than 2 or 3 inches makes comfort just about impossible.  Why?  Because a 3-inch heel creates seven times more stress than a 1-inch heel.

The San Francisco Chronicle asked a local podiatrist and foot and ankle surgeon for his opinion.  He explained that after 1.5 inches, the pressure increases on the ball of the foot and can lead to “ball-of-the-foot numbness.”  (Yikes!)  He did not endorse 3-inch heels and pointed out that celebrities wear them for only a short time (for example, on the red carpet), not all day.  To ensure a truly comfortable shoe, he added, don’t go above a 1.5 inch heel.  If you insist on wearing higher heels, limit how much time you spend in them.

Some encouraging changes are clearly afoot.  Catalogs from Nordstrom, one of America’s major shoe-sellers, have already featured lower-heeled styles along with higher-heeled numbers.  Because Nordstrom is a bellwether in the fashion world, its choices can influence shoe-seekers.  Or is Nordstrom reflecting what its shoppers have already told the stores’ buyers?  The almighty power of the purse—how shoppers are choosing to spend their money–-has probably played a big role here.

Now, the pandemic is unquestionably playing an even bigger role.

The Washington Post covered the changing trends in June.  It noted, “Sales of high heels, loafers and other dress shoes have been tumbling for years, and analysts say the pandemic has turbocharged their demise.”  Sales of men’s and women’s dress shoes plunged 70 percent in March and April.

“High heels are way down,” said Beth Goldstein, a footwear analyst. “The question now is whether they’ll ever rebound. Of course, some women out there are dying to put their heels back on. But I think most of them are saying, ‘I’m never going to wear those shoes again.’ ”

Lately, she said, it’s all about comfort.  Shoe manufacturers are busy creating designs with wider and thicker heels, padded insoles and other athletic touches to add stability and comfort.  Sales of stiletto-shaped heels, she added, dropped 11 percent last year.

“Retailers are recognizing that they’re going to have to rethink what they know,” Goldstein said. “There is going to be a long-term shift.”

Beyond the issue of comfort, let’s remember that high heels present a far more urgent problem.  As the deaths in Riverside demonstrate, women who wear high heels can be putting their lives at risk.  When women need to flee a dangerous situation, it’s pretty obvious that high heels can handicap their ability to escape.

How many other needless deaths have resulted from hobbled feet?

As we celebrate the Fourth of July, I urge the women of America to declare their independence from high-heeled shoes.

If you’re currently wearing painful footwear, bravely throw those shoes away, or at the very least, toss them into the back of your closet.  Shod yourself instead in shoes that allow you to walk—and if need be, run—in comfort.

Your wretched appendages, yearning to be free, will be forever grateful.

[Earlier versions of this commentary appeared on Susan Just Writes and the San Francisco Chronicle.]

Lipstick, Then and Now

Let’s talk about lipstick.

Lipstick?

I know what you’re thinking.  Lipstick is not the weightiest topic I could be writing about.  But it’s a pretty good reflection of how our lives have changed since March.

A few years ago, I wrote about something I called “The Lip-Kick Effect.”  At the time, we were working our way out of a financial recession, and many Americans still felt stuck in neutral or worse.  I wondered:  How do we cope?  By buying more…lipstick?

The improbable answer was “Yes.”  Researchers had concluded that the more insecure the economy, the more women tended to spend on beauty products, especially lipstick.  They dubbed this phenomenon the “lipstick effect.”

(I preferred to call it the “lip-kick effect.”  When one of my daughters was quite small, she pronounced “lipstick” as “lip-kick,” and her mispronunciation struck me as an even better moniker for the “lipstick effect.”)

Five separate studies confirmed this hypothesis.  They found that during recessions over the previous 20 years, women had reallocated their spending, deciding to spend their money on beauty products instead of other items.

Why did women confronted with economic hardship seek out new beauty products?  The researchers came up with a host of reasons.  Most significant: a desire to attract men, especially men with money.

Another reason?  Wearing lipstick could boost a woman’s morale.

In that blissful time BC (before Covid-19), I cheerfully admitted that I was a (credit-)card-carrying member of the latter group.  Like many women, I got a kick out of wearing lipstick.  I added that “while uncertainty reigns, we women get our kicks where we can.”

Believing that a brand-new lipstick could be a mood-changer, I bought into the notion that lipstick could make women feel better.  And lipstick was a pretty cheap thrill.  For just a few dollars, I could head to my local drugstore and choose from scores of glittering options.

That was then.  This is now.  A very different now.

In 2020, lipstick has become expendable.  If you’re still staying-at-home, sheltering-in-place, or whatever you choose to call it, most makeup has become expendable.

By April, I had pretty much given up wearing lipstick.  When I wrote about wearing scarves as face-coverings, I added:  “One more thing I must remember before I wrap myself in one of my scarves:  Forget about lipstick.  Absolutely no one is going to see my lips, and any lip color would probably rub off on my scarf.”  [https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/join-the-ranks-of-the-scarf-wearers/]

The same goes, of course, for masks.

A former believer in the lip-kick effect, I now gaze at my collection of colorful lipsticks and immediately dismiss the idea of applying one to my lips.  I’m not alone.  When many of us decided to adopt masks and other face-coverings, sales of lip products fell.  As a market research analyst noted, “Nobody wants lipstick smudges inside their masks” (quoted in The Washington Post on June 15th).  Today, as cases of coronavirus spike in many parts of the country, there’s an increasing urgency to wearing masks, even legal requirements to do so.

I wear a mask or scarf whenever I leave home.  Now, viewing my wide array of all sorts of makeup, I primarily focus on sunscreen and other products that protect my skin when I take my daily stroll.

Instead of lipstick, I’ll apply a lip balm like Burt’s Bees moisturizing lip balm.  For the tiniest bit of color, I might add “lip shimmer.”  But neither of these has the look or feel of a true lipstick.  The kind I used to view as a morale-booster.

For a boost in morale, I now rely on sunshine and the endorphins produced by my brisk walking style.

Wearing lipstick right now?  Forgeddaboutit.….

Now let’s think about lipstick in a new light.  When a vaccine is proven to be safe and effective, and a vanishing pandemic no longer dictates the wearing of face-coverings like masks, will women return to adding color to our lips?  Will we enthusiastically rush to retail establishments that offer an array of enticing new lipsticks?

The answer, for now, is unclear.  Many women, adopting the almost universally accepted cultural norm that lipstick will make them more attractive to others, may happily put their dollars down to buy those bright tubes of color again.  Some women may continue to view wearing lipstick as a morale-booster.  But others, after some contemplation, may decide that buying lipstick and other types of makeup isn’t where we should direct our hard-earned cash.

Maybe at least some of our dollars are more usefully directed elsewhere:  To help our neediest fellow citizens; to bolster causes that promote long-sought equity; to support efforts to combat climate change and polluting our planet; to assist medical research that will cure diseases of every stripe.

The future of lipstick?  Who the heck knows?

HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD Part III:  “Some Like It Hot”

We’re currently in the middle of a great many “hot” news stories.

But let’s step back, take a break from the news, and think about something else.

Something funny.

How about a film that’s been called “the greatest film comedy ever”?  It’s even been judged “the #1 comedy film of all time” by the American Film Institute.  And it’s one of my all-time favorites.

Countless words have been written about “Some Like It Hot” during the past six decades.  But in case you’re one of those unfortunates who’ve never seen it or haven’t seen it in a long time, I’ll highlight some of my favorite things about it.

Then I’ll tell you my own personal connection to it.

 

HIGHLIGHTS

The writing

Astoundingly clever, can’t-miss dialogue by Billy Wilder and his partner, I.A.L. Diamond, has garnered plaudits from moviegoers for the past 60 years.

The direction

Director Billy Wilder, also heralded for films like “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Apartment,” made his American directorial debut with the comedy “The Major and the Minor” (another film I have a personal connection to; I’ll save that for another day).

Wilder keeps the storyline in “Hot” moving along at an astonishingly rapid pace.  The audience has to stay on its toes to keep up with it.

The casting and plot

Perfection on both counts.

The two male leads are perfect.  Tony Curtis (playing Joe), already established as a young leading man, was cast first.  Once Wilder signed Marilyn Monroe as his female lead, he added Jack Lemmon (as Jerry).   Jack was known for his many appearances on TV, and he’d already starred in “It Should Happen to You” (1954) and “Mr. Roberts” (1955).

Wilder actually had Frank Sinatra in mind for this role, but Frank never showed up for a meeting with him, so he chose Jack Lemmon instead.  Jack turned out to be a brilliant addition to the cast, much better at outrageous comedy than Tony Curtis.

The duo zooms through the film at a breakneck pace, beginning with their desperate search for work as musicians in 1929 Chicago.  When no gigs (for male musicians) turn up, and they happen to witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre by mobsters in a Clark Street garage, they move fast.  They borrow some women’s clothes and makeup and add a couple of wigs, hoping to pass as women so they can join an all-girl band that’s about to depart for Florida.  They know the mob is searching for them (“Every hood in Chicago will be after us”) and fervently hope their disguises will keep them from being bumped off.

Marilyn Monroe (M for short) already had enough star power to get top billing over the two men.  By 1959, she had impressed moviegoers in a number of acting roles.  She had also earned her singing stripes in the film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), featuring her dynamic performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”  She proved she could excel at comedy as well when Wilder directed her in “The Seven Year Itch” (1955).  (I keep wanting to insert a hyphen between “Seven” and “Year,” but darn it, the film’s title doesn’t have one.)

In “Hot,” she confirmed that she’d mastered both singing and comedy as well as straight acting.  (Too bad she didn’t believe that herself.  She reportedly felt terribly insecure throughout her career.)

Her entrance in this film is simply spectacular.  As Jerry and Joe (J and J for short) approach the train leaving for Florida, M whizzes by, stunning both of them. Dressed in chic black, she’s startled by a puff of steam that highlights her provocative derriere.  Jerry notes her enticing walk, famously blurting out “Look how she moves!  It’s like Jell-O on springs!” adding that “she must have some sort of built-in motor!”  Once on the train, M launches into her first song, a terrific rendition of “Running Wild.”

As Sugar Kane (born Sugar Kowalczak), M latches on to J and J, accepting them as sympathetic new girlfriends.  She confides that she’s always had problems singing with male bands, especially with unfaithful saxophone players, adding that “I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.”  (A great line.  She later repeats it when she’s alone with Joe in the train’s bathroom, where he learns of her hopes to marry a millionaire, and he wishes her “the sweet end of the lollipop.”)

Both of the men fall for her, but once they’re in Florida, it’s Joe who devises a complicated plot that leads M to meet with him, posing as a millionaire with a Cary Grant accent, on a borrowed yacht.  There he tells her that “girls leave me cold.”  M is so anxious to land a millionaire that she does everything she can to seduce him.  The lengthy seduction scene is my least favorite part of the film for a couple of reasons.  First, because M (who otherwise comes across as somewhat ditsy but not stupid) is depicted as too easily taken in by Joe’s charade, and second, because it goes on much too long.

Meanwhile, Jerry, who’s dubbed himself Daphne, has met Osgood, an eccentric (and real) millionaire.  We first see Osgood, who’s played for laughs by old-time actor Joe E. Brown, sitting on the hotel porch in a line-up of old geezers ogling the band members when they arrive in Florida.  He soon focuses on Daphne, and while Joe is on Osgood’s yacht romancing Sugar, Daphne is at a nightclub, hilariously dancing the tango until dawn with Osgood.

When J and J meet up later in their hotel room, Jerry, as Daphne, announces, “I’m engaged!”  But when Joe asks “Who’s the lucky girl?” Jerry’s answer is “I am!”

A smaller role, that of hard-boiled band leader Sweet Sue, is played admirably by Joan Shawlee.  When she tells J and J that she won’t put up with her girls getting involved with two things during working hours, liquor and men, Jerry (as Daphne) immediately responds:  “Men? We wouldn’t be caught dead with men!  Rough, hairy beasts with eight hands!”  The audience is clearly in on the joke.

Marilyn’s singing

M does a sensational job performing three 1920s-era songs: “Running Wild,” dating from 1922; “I Want to Be Loved by You,” first performed by Helen Kane in 1928 (who became known as the “Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl” and seems to have inspired M’s performance here); and “I’m Through with Love,” which actually dates from 1931.  M performs this one, a much sadder song than the others, dressed in black and appearing far more somber, as befits the song and her feelings at this point in the movie.

Costuming

First, the men’s clothes: As women, both men wear authentically designed dresses that women in the 1920s would have worn.  Demure high-necked dresses, for the most part.  These were designed for them by the renowned fashion designer, Orry-Kelly, who’s much better known for the gowns he designed for M.  In some scenes, J and J don women’s hats typical of the 1920s.  And for their appearances on the bandstand, they wear more ornate black garb, appropriate for musicians performing for an audience.

M never fails to look deliciously provocative, even in a bathrobe.  But the dazzling gowns Orry-Kelly designed for her two appearances with the band (one of which she also wears in the scene on the yacht) are jaw-dropping examples of gowns that simply shout “sex.” Even though M is almost completely covered by fabric, the fabric chosen is essentially see-through, so that much of her body appears to be nude.  The designer strategically added beads and sequins in especially revealing places, but the gowns have nevertheless left moviegoers agog.  M wears a fluffy white stole that covers the gowns whenever she’s outdoors, and that stole keeps them from being totally indecent by 1959 standards.

The light-colored dress worn on the bandstand for “I Want to be Loved by You” and on the yacht was designed for the 1959 film, but it has always reminded me of the dress M famously wore three years later.  In May 1962, M appeared at a birthday celebration held at Madison Square Garden for then-President John F. Kennedy.  There were longstanding rumors that she and JFK had been intimate, but these rumors were never proved to be true.

At the 1962 fundraising event, M wore a similarly jaw-dropping sheer-fabric bead- and rhinestone-covered dress while she breathlessly sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”  She reportedly wore nothing under the form-fitting dress, which she paid for herself, and had to be sewn into it.

Sadly, with her personal life in a steep decline, M was found dead in her home, a probable suicide, a few months later.

 

Other notable things about the film:

  • The comic depiction of the Chicago mobsters is classic. Led by bootlegger-in-chief “Spats,” played by longtime movie star George Raft, the film mocks the mobsters’ somewhat idiotic personas.  When we first see Spats in Chicago, he protests being apprehended by veteran actor Pat O’Brien, Irish cop par excellence.  O’Brien tells him, “Call your lawyer if you wanna,” and Raft responds, “These are my lawyers.”  When a few goofy guys stand up, Spats adds, “All Harvard men.”  (This line strikes me as particularly funny.)

When the mobsters later show up for a convention of “opera lovers” at the same Florida hotel where J and J are hiding out, J and J immediately pack their things to leave, but their departure is stymied by some hilarious happenings, leading to a terrific chase scene.

  • The last line has become famous. In Osgood’s motorboat, Daphne tells Osgood that s/he can’t marry him, naming one reason after another.  Osgood is OK with all of them.  Finally, Jerry (as Daphne) is so frustrated that he pulls off his wig and yells, “I’m a man!”  Osgood’s reply:  “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

It’s always hard to come up with a great finish, and the writers debated what to use as the last line.  But after some debate, this one became the last line, and it’s now a cherished part of Hollywood history.

  • The film’s original preview, held at a theater in Pacific Palisades, was something of a flop. The audience wasn’t expecting a comedy, and everyone left thinking it was a failed melodrama.  For the second preview, held at the Westwood Village Theatre, the studio wisely signaled in advance that it was a comedy.  The audience laughed from the very beginning.  (The Westwood Village Theatre is close to my heart.  Another story for another day.)

 

  • The “Florida” hotel, called the Seminole-Ritz in the film, is actually the Hotel del Coronado, a luxurious and historic beachfront hotel located across the bay from San Diego. The scenes shot there were shot first, and all went well.  Later scenes, shot at the studio, proved to be more difficult, especially for M, who sometimes needed 50-plus takes.

The Coronado is still a beautiful hotel, well worth a visit.  I was a guest at a rehearsal dinner held there in 2007, and that event was even more memorable than the wedding itself, held at a location in San Diego.

  • High heels play a role in this film. When J and J arrive at the Chicago train station, they’re both struggling with wearing high heels.  Jerry exclaims, “How do they walk in these things?”  Both actors, trained by a famous female impersonator, eventually mastered wearing heels.  But the appearance of heels on Jerry, near the end of the film, is a tip-off to the mobsters that the newly-disguised men are the witnesses the mob has been pursuing.  (A similar giveaway appears in the 1938 Hitchcock film “The Lady Vanishes,” when a fake nun is spotted wearing high heels.)

By the way, I’ve long disparaged the wearing of high heels.  [Please see the most recent blog post where I’ve argued against them:  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/declare-your-independence-those-high-heels-are-killers/ ]

 

MY PERSONAL CONNECTION

Whenever I see this film (and there have been countless times), I can never forget the very first time I did.

When my high-school senior prom loomed, my most pressing concern was who would be my date.  My current crush, a friend since first grade who’d metamorphosed into the man of my dreams?  (I hoped so.)  Last year’s junior prom date?  (I hoped not.)  Who would it be?

As luck would have it, an amiable and very bright classmate named Allen T. stepped forward and asked me to be his prom date.  I could finally relax on that score.

Allen and I went on a few casual dates before the prom.  On one notable date, we saw “Some Like It Hot” at a filled-to-capacity downtown Chicago movie theater, one of those huge ornate palaces on Randolph Street, where we sat in the last row of the balcony.

The film was brand-new and terrifically funny, and both Allen and I loved it.  But Allen’s delight was unfortunately cut short.  When he heard the now-famous last line, he laughed uproariously, threw his head back, and hit it–hard–on the wall behind our seats.

I felt sorry for him—that must have hurt—but I still found it pretty hard to stifle a laugh.  Luckily, Allen recovered right away.  And I don’t think it hurt his brainpower.  As I recall, he went on to enroll at MIT.

Although the bloom was off the rose by the time the prom came along, Allen and I went off happily together to dance on the ballroom floor of the downtown Knickerbocker Hotel.

But what I remember even more vividly than the prom itself is the time Allen and I shared our first viewing of “Some Like It Hot.”

 

[You can see what I wrote about my senior prom, and proms in general, in my blog post, “Proms and ‘The Twelfth of Never’”  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2017/06/17/proms-and-the-twelfth-of-never/ ]

 

Is It Time to Resurrect the “Housedress”?

The HBO miniseries, “The Plot Against America,” which appeared earlier this year, focused on life in America in the early 1940s.  Adapted from the 2005 novel by Philip Roth, the storyline was terrifying, highlighting the possibility that a fascist anti-Semitic regime could assume control over politics in our country.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott, describing HBO’s adaptation as “mostly faithful” to the novel, observed that the world it portrayed looked familiar, yet different, to us today.  He noted in particular “the clothes” worn by the people inhabiting that world, as well as the cars, the cigarettes, and what he called “the household arrangements,” evoking a period “encrusted with…nostalgia.”

The series was, in my view, a stunning depiction of that era, along with a chilling prediction of what might have happened.  Thankfully, Roth’s fictional prediction never came true, and I hope it never will.

One thing I took away from the series was how authentically it created the images from that time.  I was born years later than both Philip Roth and his character, the 8-year-old Philip.  But I can recall images from the 1950s, and I’ve seen countless films dating from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as TV shows like “I Love Lucy.”

A couple of things in the series stand out.  First, people got their news from newspapers and the radio.  The leading characters appear in a number of scenes reading the daily newspapers that influenced their view of the world.  They also listened attentively to the radio for news and other information.  The radio broadcaster Walter Winchell even plays an important part in the story.

The other thing that stands out is the clothing worn by the characters in “Plot.”  Especially the women characters.  These women tended to have two types of wardrobes.  One represented the clothing they wore at home, where they generally focused on housecleaning, cooking, and tending to their children.  The other represented what they would wear when they left home, entering the outside world for a variety of reasons.

The wardrobe worn at home looked extremely familiar.  My mother clung to that wardrobe for decades.  She, like the women in “Plot,” wore housedresses at home.  These were cotton dresses, usually in a floral or other subdued print, that were either buttoned or wrapped around the body in some fashion.  In an era before pants became acceptable for women (Katharine Hepburn being a notable exception), women wore dresses or skirts, even to do housework at home.

Only when they left home, to go to somewhere like an office or a bank, did they garb themselves in other clothes.  In this wardrobe, they tended to wear stylish dresses made with non-cotton fabrics, or skirt suits with blouses, along with hats and white gloves. Working women employed in office-type settings (there were a few, like the character brilliantly played by Winona Ryder in “Plot”) wore these clothes to work every day. (Women employed in other settings of course wore clothes appropriate to their workplaces.)

Now, with most of us staying home for the most part, I wonder:  Is it time to resurrect the housedress?

Here are some reasons why it might be:

  1. Warmer weather is approaching, or may have already arrived, depending on where you live.
  2. Relying on heavy clothing like sweatshirts and sweatpants, which many of us have been relying on during our self-isolation at home, will become impractical because that clothing will be uncomfortably hot.
  3. Pajamas and nightgowns aren’t a good idea for all-day wear.  We should save them for bedtime, when we need to separate our daytime experience from the need to get some sleep.
  4. The housedress offers an inviting choice for women who want to stay comfortably at home, wearing cool cotton (or cotton-blend) dresses that allow them to move as comfortably as they do in sweat clothes, all day long.

I concede that comfortable shorts and t-shirts might fit the bill, for men as well as women.  But I suggest that women consider an alternative.  They may want to give housedresses a try.

Ideally, a woman will be able to choose from a wide range of cheerful fabric designs and colors.  If she can track down one that appeals to her, she just might be convinced by its comfort and then tempted to wear more of them.

I’ve already adopted my own version of the housedress.  I rummaged through one of my closets and found a few items I haven’t worn in years.  I’ve always called them “robes,” although they’ve also been called housecoats or other names.  My mother for some reason liked to call them “dusters.”  My husband’s aunt liked to wear what she called “snap coats.”

But in the big picture, we’re really talking about the same thing.  Cotton robes/dresses in a variety of designs and prints. Today they’re usually fastened with snaps.  Easy in, easy out.

And most of them have pockets!  (As I’ve written before, all women’s clothes should have pockets.)  [Please see my blog post “Pockets!” https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2018/01/ ]

I plucked a couple of these out of my closet, some with the brand name Models Coats.  I had never even worn one of them.  (A tag was still attached, featuring the silly slogan, “If it’s not Models Coat…it’s not!”)  But I’ll wear it now.

By the way, I’ve checked “Models Coats” on the internet, and an amazing variety of “housedresses,” or whatever you choose to call them—Models Coats and other brands–is offered online.  So it appears that some women have been purchasing them all along.

Now here’s a bit of cultural history:  My mother kept her 1950s-style housedresses well into the 1990s.  I know that because I discovered them in her closet when we visited her Chicago apartment one cold winter day in the ‘90s.  Mom lived in a 1920s-era apartment building, filled with radiators that ensured overheated air in her apartment.  [Please see my blog post “Coal:  A Personal History,” discussing the overheated air that coal-based radiators chugged out:  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/01/29/coal-a-personal-history/ ]

My daughters and I had worn clothing appropriate for a cold winter day in Chicago.  But as we sat in Mom’s overheated living room, we began to peel off our sweaters and other warm duds.  (My husband didn’t do any peeling.  He was too smart to have dressed as warmly as we had.)

It finally occurred to me that Mom might have saved her housedresses from long ago.  Maybe she even continued to wear them.  So I searched her closet and found three of them.  My daughters and I promptly changed, and we immediately felt much better.  But when we caught sight of ourselves, we laughed ourselves silly.  We looked a lot like the model in a Wendy’s TV commercial we called “Russian fashion show.”

In our favorite Wendy’s commercial, dating from 1990, Russian music plays in the background while a hefty woman dressed in a military uniform announces the fashion show in a heavy Russian accent.  The “model” comes down the runway wearing “day wear,” “evening wear,” and “beachwear.”  What’s hilariously funny is that she wears the same drab dress, along with a matching babushka, in each setting.  For “evening wear,” the only change is that she waves a flashlight around.  And for “beachwear,” she’s clutching a beach ball.

Wendy’s used clever commercials like this one to promote their slogan:  “Having no choice is no fun,” clearly implying that Wendy’s offered choices its fast-food competitors didn’t.  I don’t know whether these commercials helped Wendy’s bottom line, but they certainly afforded our family many, many laughs.

[If you need some laughs right now, you can find these commercials on YouTube.  Just enter words like “Wendy’s TV commercials” and “Russian fashion show.”]

Mom’s housedresses weren’t as drab as the dress worn by the model in our favorite commercial.   They tended to feature brightly colored prints.  Admittedly, they weren’t examples of trend-setting fashion.  But they certainly were cool and comfortable

In our current crisis, we need to be creative and come up with new solutions to new problems.  For those women seeking something comfortable to wear, something different from what they’ve been wearing, colorful housedresses just might be the right choice.

“Who was that masked man?”

If you ever watched “The Lone Ranger,” a TV series that appeared from 1949 to 1957, you probably remember the question that ended every episode:  “Who was that masked man?”  The Lone Ranger, a Texas Ranger turned vigilante who became a pop-culture hero fighting for truth and justice, wore a mask to obscure his identity.

The question seems more appropriate today than ever before.  With most of us donning masks—or another sort of face-covering—it’s impossible to see the entire face of anyone you encounter in the outside world.  We simply have to trust that we won’t run into any evildoers lurking near us wherever we go.  So far I haven’t felt that I needed someone like the L.R. to come to my rescue.

There’s another concern, however.  When I take my daily neighborhood stroll, I find it troubling that, although most of us are now required to wear masks in public, many people I encounter are walking or jogging sans mask.  The most annoying are the joggers, who don’t seem to care that they are exhaling a whole load of droplets every time they breathe, and heck, their droplets just might be contaminated with Covid-19.

In addition to wearing a mask, walkers need to keep at least 6 feet away from each other, and according to an expert quoted in The Washington Post a few days ago, joggers need to run at least 10 feet away from everyone else.  Although some of the people I encounter try to observe those distances, many don’t.

As I walk, I often mutter into my mask (usually a colorful scarf covering my nose and mouth), trying to restrain my irritation with those violating the current guidelines. [Please see my blog post, “Join the ranks of the scarf-wearers,” at https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/join-the-ranks-of-the-scarf-wearers/.%5D

My mask has actually turned out to be a great way to muffle what I’m not merely thinking but actually saying.  (Sotto voce, of course.)  A favorite:  “Jerk.”  Or worse.  And lately I’ve been borrowing the title of a hilarious children’s book, “The Stupids Die.”

When we were raising our two daughters in the 1980s, we enthusiastically read countless books to them.  Among our favorites were those written and illustrated by James Marshall.  Marshall is probably best known for his delightful series featuring two anthropomorphized hippos called George and Martha.  The series includes five books published between 1972 and 1988.

George and Martha were “best friends,” and one of the things we loved about them was that they were non-gender-specific friends.  So although Martha would sometimes be drawn wearing a hair bow or a colorful skirt, and George sometimes sported a casual fedora, both Martha and George liked to do the same things and go to the same places.  And no matter what transpired, they were always “best friends.”

But James Marshall didn’t confine his talents to the George and Martha series.  As an illustrator, he collaborated with the writer Harry Allard, who wrote a series of four books featuring a family called The Stupids.  Marshall’s colorful illustrations for these books, published between 1977 and 1989, are knee-slappingly hilarious.

The Stupids are colossally stupid, so much so that in “The Stupids Die,” the Stupids leap to the conclusion that they’re dead when a power outage makes their lights go out, turning their home totally dark.  The truth is revealed at the end, and the reader is left laughing at how astoundingly foolish The Stupids are.

The series had its critics, who griped that the stories promoted low self-esteem and negative behavior.  But most kids loved the stories, and copies are still selling to grown-up fans on Amazon.com.

As I witness the choice made by some walkers and joggers on my route–the choice not to keep the prescribed distance or to wear a mask to protect themselves and others from the potentially virus-saturated droplets in their exhalations– “The Stupids Die” keeps reverberating in my head.

Wearing my own mask has the unexpected benefit of allowing me to say whatever I want as I pass these non-mask-wearing and non-distance-keeping people, who are endangering their own lives as well as mine. So in addition to muttering “Jerk” and other expletives, I frequently mutter “The Stupids Die.”

If anyone should hear me, I can promptly explain that I’m simply recalling the title of a favorite children’s book.  And if they want to interpret those words as words that apply to them, I hope they will do just that.

I’m well aware that most victims of Covid-19 are very smart people who contracted the disease through no fault of their own.  I do NOT include them among “the Stupids.”  And I strongly condemn the violent assaults that have recently erupted, where mask-wearers have attacked those who weren’t wearing masks.

But I do judge harshly those in my own surroundings who don’t appear to care about others, and I declare the following:

To everyone walking and jogging, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine that surround us this May, please remember to wear a mask.  Please remember to stay the correct distance away from me.

And for your own sake, please remember that “The Stupids Die.”