Mary Cantwell arrived in Manhattan one summer in the early 1950s with eighty dollars, a portable typewriter, a wardrobe of unsuitable clothes, a copy of The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a boyfriend she was worried might be involved with the Communists, and no idea how to live on her own. She moved to the Village because she had heard of it, and worked at Mademoiselle because that was where the employment agency sent her.
In this evocative and unflinching book, Cantwell recalls the city she knew back then by revisiting five apartments in which she lived. Her memoir vividly recreates both a particular golden era in New York City and the sometimes painful, sometimes exhilarating process of forging a self.
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"IT WAS A QUEER, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs. ..." That's how Sylvia Plath started The Bell jar and how I want to start this. Because that's the way I remember my first summer in New York, too. It was hot, and before we went to bed Allie and I would set our version of a burglar alarm along the threshold of the door that led to the garden so we could leave it open all night. Any intruder, we figured, would be deterred by that fearsome lineup of juice glasses and dented pots and pans from Woolworth's. Sometimes, soaked in sweat and sucking at the cottony air, I would wake and look toward the black rectangle that was the yawning doorway and wonder if we weren't being pretty stupid. But we would smother without that little breeze from the south, and besides, this was the Village! Afraid to take the subway, afraid of getting lost, afraid even to ask the women in the office where the ladies' room was (instead I used the one at Bonwit Teller), I felt peace whenever, after one of my long, lazy strolls down Fifth Avenue, I saw Washington Square Arch beckoning in the distance.
There was a newsstand near our subway stop, and every day the tabloids screamed the Rosenbergs' impending death. The headlines terrified me, because my boyfriend was Jewish. When my mother, back home in Rhode Island, met him for the first time, she asked him his religion, and he told her he was an atheist. She paused, and said in her nicest voice, "Does that mean you're a Communist?" He said no, but I knew his aunt and uncle had been, and the weekend we spent at their cabin in the Catskills smearing cream cheese on toast was torture, because they reminded me of the Rosenbergs and I thought we would all be arrested and that I, too, would die in the chair.
Somewhere I've read that the Lindbergh kidnapping marked a generation of children; that, knowing about the ladder propped against the second-story window and the empty crib, they had nightmares of being whisked away. Myself, I was marked by Bruno Hauptmann's execution. The radio must have been on the day he died — all I know of the 1930s, really, is what my ears picked up as I wandered around the living room during the six o'clock news — because I remember once asking an uncle what electrocution was. "It means," he said, "that somebody sets your hair on fire."
So I believed — a belief never wholly lost (and is the reality preferable?) — that one sat in the chair, the switch was pulled, the current streamed upward from the toes and erupted in a halo of flames around one's face, and whoosh! out brief candle. The chair. In childhood I thought about the chair, the slow climb and the fast flambé, all the time. And now, years later, I thought of Ethel Rosenberg's peanut face, which became mine. So when I neared the newsstand, I would turn my head and fix my eyes on the dirty stone steps that led down into the West Fourth Street station and the cars with the yellow straw seats that ripped your nylons if you didn't smooth your skirt along the back of your thighs before you sat down. But what I dodged during the day I met at night, in dreams, when I waddled down a long green corridor to the chair.
Sylvia Plath was already a familiar name. I was secretary to the press editor of Mademoiselle, where she'd been a guest editor just a month before, and my first task was to scour the newspapers for notices of her suicide attempt. "Smith Girl Missing," they read, followed by "Smith Girl Found," and I would cut and paste the clips for my boss's scrapbook of press notices, unclear whether all this publicity was good or bad for the magazine's forthcoming College Issue. In retrospect, I suspect it was good. Just as one studies the photograph of the parachutist before the fatal jump, so in the August Mademoiselle one could study the Smithie before the sleeping pills and the slide under the front porch. I studied her pictures myself. "What was she like, Mr. Graham?" I asked my boss. "Like all the others," he replied. "Eager."
Many years later I saw a television documentary on the life of Sylvia Plath, but all I recall of it now is a clip of seniors, black as crows in their graduation robes, in procession along a route lined by girls in white dresses who held an endless chain of daisies. The scene reminded me of my own long march into the Connecticut College Arboretum on Class Day. Our daisy chain was a laurel chain, but everything else was the same: the June day, the pageboy hairdos, the cloud of Arpége. Trust me on that last point. I was delicious then. We were all delicious, and we all smelled of Arpége.
That Allie worked for an advertising agency and I for a fashion magazine was improbable, but no more improbable than our being employed at all. Strictly speaking, we had no skills, and skills were very important in those days. In fact, some of our classmates had gone to Katie Gibbs to get them. Still, New York was full of girls like us — graduates of women's colleges with good looks and good manners and, though not in my case, money from home — and we were all working. Wearing the store-prescribed little black dress, we sold expensive glassware at Steuben. (Often we sold it to our friends, because everyone was getting married that first year after college, and a Steuben compote or a Georg Jensen bottle opener, the one with the acorn, was our wedding present of choice.) We were researchers and news-clippers at Time-Life, whose recruiters had made it very clear when they came to our schools that reporting was not in our future. A few of us had jobs in book publishing, mostly inthe textbook departments, and in some of the smaller art galleries. A lot of us were, like Allie, in advertising, and the luckiest of us were on fashion magazines. True, we were poorly paid — it was assumed by our bosses, even out loud, that we had other income — but at least we weren't locked up in a back room with the out-of-town newspapers and a rip stick.
When I came to New York, on the same train that had taken me from Providence to New London for four years, I had $80 and the Smith-Corona portable my father had given me for my high school graduation. Allie, who had come up from her home in Maryland, had a bit more cash and a sterling silver brush, comb, and mirror given her by a great-aunt. Between us, we thought, we had enough. The funny thing is, we were right. I can't believe it now, that the city opened before us like some land of dreams, but it did.
Of course there were disappointments. We had assumed that the cute little houses in the Village would have cute little signs — APARTMENT FOR RENT — dangling beside their front doors, and that you just walked right in off the street and said to your friendly landlord, "I'll take it!" So it was a bit of a letdown when, after hours of walking, we finally had to call on a real estate agent. That the one-room apartment he showed us was the back half of a basement was also a bit of a letdown, but that we would have to share the toilet in the hall with the tenants of the front apartment was no problem whatsoever. After all, it had taken us only a day to find this place. And what was a toilet shared with two men compared to a multistalled bathroom shared with forty girls? We were used to communal living.
Finding jobs was easy, too. Allie had majored in art and thought she'd like to do "something" with it. But people who ran art departments wanted people who knew layout and paste-ups, and that kind of practical training was as foreign to our college as a course in typing would have been. I thought I'd liketo do "something" with my English major, but what, besides teach, can one do with Chaucer? So instead we registered at a Seven Sisters outpost called the Alumnae Placement Agency, which sent Allie to the ad agency and me to the Metropolitan Museum and Mademoiselle.
The job at the Met — working on the museum bulletin, I think it was — was the one I wanted. There I would improve my mind, which the young man who was half the reason I was in New York was very anxious to have me do. "How can you read this stuff when you could be reading Virginia Woolf?" he would say when he saw me with yet another John Dickson Carr. "God! You haven't even read Tristram Shandy."
The job at Mademoiselle, however, was the one I got.
Mademoiselle's famous College Issue was all I knew of the magazine. For four years I had wallowed in the photographs of that happy land where all the girls had shiny hair and long legs and all the boys had good jawlines. I wallowed in the text, too, about what was happening at Wellesley! At Skidmore! At Smith! I, too, was a student at one of those zippy schools, one of those girls in the Shetland sweaters and gray flannel Bermuda shorts, and this was our club bulletin. But work at Mademoiselle? That was no place for me, the aspiring ... well, actually, I didn't know quite what I was aspiring to, but it had something to do with library stacks and a lonely but well-lighted carrel. My father had hoped I would be an English professor. When he died, when I was twenty, his authority was transferred to the young man who wanted me to improve my mind. Sometimes, even then, I thought of myself as the creation I know now was called Trilby. Only never having read the novel, I thought she was named Svengali.
Afraid the managing editor of Mademoiselle would reject me, I arrived at the interview prepared to reject her, and the entire fashion industry, first. Before she could shame me with her chic, I would shame her with my chill. I put on the pink Brooks Brothers shirt, the black-and-white gingham skirt, and entered 575 Madison Avenue determined to be dégagé. Now, when I visualize myself in that lobby, waiting for the elevator under what I believed was an Arp but wasn't, I am touched by the sight of me: my feet uncertain in high heels and my gloved hands clutching one of my mothers cast-off purses. But I, though dimly aware that suede was unsuitable in summer, probably thought I looked swell.
Cyrilly Abels, Sylvia Plath's Jay Cee, was a homely woman in her forties with a low smooth voice and a box of Kleenex carefully positioned next to the chair at the left of her desk. The Kleenex was not for her but for the younger members of the staff, who tended to cry in her presence. Miss Abels would give the box a little push, a tissue would be withdrawn, and the resultant honk would proclaim to the gang in the bullpen just outside her door that once again C.A. had drawn tears. Calling her C.A., though not to her face, was how they defended themselves against her implacable certainties.
Since only she and the editor-in-chief, Betsy Talbot Blackwell, were known by their initials, however, I figured "C.A." magnified rather than diminished. That is one of the reasons I never referred to her other than as Miss Abels. The second is that I needed no defense. Skilled as Miss Abels was at finding others' sore spots, she never made a serious search for mine. When, years later, a friend who had suffered dizzy spells and crying jags in C.A.'s employ asked why I was one of the few who had not, I laughed and said, "I wasn't sick enough to interest her." Half the office — the half that lived in Miss Abels's sphere — was, as everyone said then, "on the couch." Only the fashion editors were presumed immune from neurosis. They weren't thoughtful enough.
Even so, I was exactly the sort that Miss Abels liked to hire: a graduate of a women's college and obviously not a slave to fashion. She herself had gone to Radcliffe and every fall bought two simple wool crepe dresses, princess-line to show off a bosom of which she was rumored to be very proud, and an absolutely correct coordinating coat from Trigere. After a few minutes' conversation, during which I made it clear that I read a lot and she made it clear that she was a close personal friend of every writer worth knowing, she sent me to the promotion department, to meet the press editor. He, swayed by my plea not to put me through a typing test because I would die on the spot, said, "You kids!," laughed, and hired me anyway.
That afternoon I met the young man I was to marry, in Central Park. He was wearing the navy blue serge we called his Puerto Rican revolutionary suit, which he'd bought for job interviews, and carrying peanut-butter sandwiches, one for each of us. "I'm so proud of you," he said, and I, because there was no father to say that to me anymore, felt tears quickening behind my eyes.
We had met my junior year in college, in the living room of my dorm. He, just back from his junior year abroad, was lean and dark and had a copy of Orlando in the pocket of his beige raincoat. When, along with the girl who lived across the hall and a fraternity brother of his at Wesleyan, I wriggled into his old Plymouth, he studied my backside and said, "Guess we'll have to get you a girdle." Ten minutes into our acquaintance and he had taken over. I couldn't have been more grateful.
The action at Mademoiselle was up front, where the editorial offices were. The promotion department, where I worked, was down the hall. A lot of the staff up front was around my age; here I was with my elders, except for a girl named Audrey, who strangled her every word. I thought it was a speech defect. It was, I found out later, something called Locust Valley Lockjaw, which I had never heard before because the girls afflicted with it went to schools like Bennett Junior College and Finch rather than Connecticut, where the accents were mostly West Hartford and Shaker Heights. I have heard it countless times since, and have always found behind it someone who called her mother "Mummy" and grew up with good furniture.
There was a pretty woman named Joan, too, who lit her cigarettes with Stork Club matches and spoke in hard, fast sentences. And a much older woman named Jean, the promotion director's secretary and the only person in the department who could take shorthand. Only the promotion director and the editor-in-chief had real secretaries. The rest of the editors had to make do with people like me: forty words a minute, a habit of obedience, and a willingness to start at $195 a month.
Audrey never spoke to me or to anyone else in the office — she was forever on the phone, conversing through clenched teeth — and Joan spoke only to be rude. Jean's mind was on her shorthand, her filing, and her home in Queens. So when I talked, which was seldom, it was only to my two bosses: Joel, the press editor, and Hugh, the special projects editor, middle-aged men whom I would not have dreamed of calling Joel and Hugh.
All I ever did for Hugh, who was tall and thin, with the spine of a Grenadier guard and several impeccable pinstriped suits, was order theater tickets, make restaurant reservations, and type the occasional letter. The letters were personal, not professional — I think he wanted their recipients to realize he had a secretary — and in one of them he introduced himself by a completely different name, something that smacked of the Baptist Church and parents named Hazel and Dwight. Until that moment I thought only movie stars changed their names, and I had spent long hours in childhood wondering how to abbreviate mine for a possible marquee. But changing one's name, or having had it changed by one's father or grandfather, turned out to be kind of a New York thing. So, if you were a woman who had a career as opposed to a job, was having three names: Christian name, maiden name, and married name. Mademoiselle was a monument to three-named women, although sometimes the married name was that not of the present husband but of one or two back. A lot depended on euphony.
Joel kept me busier. For him I clipped and read and typed the letters he had painstakingly written out in longhand because I feared dictation. Once, when there was an extra seat at something called a Fashion Group luncheon, to which he assured me I must go because it was the most professional fashion show I would ever see, he scurried around the office and found me a hat. None of the "ladies," as I was learning to call them, would have gone to Fashion Group without a hat, and B.T.B., true to the legend, often wore one at her desk.
The luncheon, as they all were and still are, I guess, was in a hotel ballroom. The younger fashion editors wore Seventh Avenue, the most powerful of the older editors wore whatever had debuted on the Paris runways a few weeks before, and the store buyers wore too much. Carmel Snow, who was editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar; spoke. Or maybe it was Andrew Goodman, who was, the ladies said, "a great merchant." The one had a small head, a slight sway, and a thick Irish accent; the other ended a speech on the American woman's fashion needs with a ringing "If she wants satin, give it to huh. If she wants cotton, give it to huh." They are the only speakers I remember from what turned into years of going to Fashion Group luncheons.
Excerpted from "Manhattan, When I Was Young"
Copyright © 1995 Mary Cantwell.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a story about living in NYC in the 50's. It is a true story. Mary Cantwell writes about her young married life. It is great to get a sense of just what it was like in the 50's, right down to the kind of food that was served at dinner parties. Perhaps the best part of this book is the brutal honestly with which Miss Cantwell writes. She is very hard on herself and holds no allusions about herself. I love how she refers to her husband by a first initial only and how she calls her daughters Snow White and, I think, Sleeping Beauty. She writes is a straightforward, simple style but has wonderful insight and observations. She also loves NYC and writes the book from address to address within the city--something a New Yorker can relate to!! This book is often found in the travel essay section of a book store.
This is another book I had to think about before attempting to review it. Parts of it I loved and parts I found uncomfortable to read. Cantwell has written three memoirs and this is the middle one which recalls her years from college graduation to her mid thirties. She cleverly divides the sections into the five apartments she lived in and tells her stories by location. This is the wonderful part of the book; the looks, smells and even tastes of New York, and especially Greenwich Village, in the 1960's. The way she described the first apartment she shared with her college roommate is so sharp. She loved the one room apartment with the communal hall toilet and her stack of lps with a decent turntable. She had a job at Mademoiselle and all of NYC to explore. Unfortunately, this freedom lasted only a few months until her marriage at 21. The remainder of the book is her progress up the career ladder and her family's moves to bigger and better locations. I would have preferred it if she stuck to writing about her involvement with NYC, her editorial work with the fashion magazines, and her on-target profiles of celebs.But this is a memoir and Cantwell is merciless in discussing her personal life and her mental illness. She is a depressive and under analysis for years. She has enough guilt to bring a much stronger person down and the fact that she doesn't top herself is to her credit. First, she has overwhelming Catholic guilt. She marries outside her faith to a very strong Jewish boy she dated in college. She is guilty about the civil marriage; about not keeping religious rituals, about using birth control and about disappointing her father. And that is another major problem. She cannot accept her father's death and feels she was not a good enough daughter to him. The fact that he never stated he was disappointed in her and only praised her makes her feel worse... like she conned him into loving her so much. She has zero self-esteem and is constantly demeaning her abilities until her husband is so frustrated he has to bully her into accepting her talents. Finally, she loves her husband, but freezes at the physical side of the relationship. (She is committing a mortal sin every time she allows her husband to have sex with her, more Catholic guilt.)Both aspects of the book are an excellent exploration of New York City at its most seductive and of the turmoil of a woman raised with the values of the 1950's who is living in the fast-changing climate of the 1960's. She knows she belongs in the city but feels terrible that she is putting aside the ideals of her small town. No wonder she is a mental mess! Having gone through the Catholic guilt trip myself, I really didn't want to read so much about it...been there, done that. But, oh, her Manhattan is worth a reread every few years1