My parents were lifelong lookists— people who believe that only beautiful people are worthy of attention and that the handsome are happier and more deserving than the rest of the population. Despite all evidence to the contrary—all the gorgeous actors and models who overdosed on drugs, stole from convenience stories, or were serially and multiply unfaithful to their spouses—my parents rated each new acquaintance’s chances for success based on his or her physical attractiveness. They believed that being born plain or, oh my God, ugly, was a tragedy akin to being a girl child born with a clubfoot in rural China in the 1920s.
My parents were quite good looking. And while they outwardly behaved themselves—my father worked, my mother kept a tidy apartment, and they paid their taxes—neither achieved the fame or notoriety that they felt their handsomeness deserved. It must have been very discouraging.
And then I was born. Even as a small child I displayed a kind of exuberant theatricality that my friends will tell you is quite evident today. I guess a visitor once remarked that with my stage presence I could be a model and this began to insinuate itself like sand into an oyster in my mother’s mind, although what resulted was hardly a pearl.
Once she decided that I was going to make the family famous, my mother did not ask me if this were something I was interested in pursuing, guessing that at eight years old I would find the whole process somewhat tedious. So she didn’t ask but simply proceeded with terrier-like determination.
The first step involved creating a portfolio of photographs of me in different outfits to show to modeling agencies. Then, as now, professional photographs cost a pretty penny, and my parents did not have a lot of money. My parents were not poor, exactly, but my father earned a very modest salary. My mother, as most mothers did in the mid-1950s, stayed at home while I attended Public School 69 in Queens.
So Mom did not explain why we were going from Jackson Heights to a studio in lower Manhattan to have photos taken, or why I had to wear a series of different outfits in the pictures. She operated on a need-to-know basis, and my job was not to question but to be obedient. And I was. An only child, I believed her word was law. I found out much later that other children argued with their parents—an act of daring that I didn’t master until well into my thirties. Don’t get me wrong. She was an extremely loving and doting parent. But she didn’t like confrontations, and her way to avoid them was to not mention things with which you might disagree.
We spent an entire day in a dusty photographer’s studio in lower Manhattan, while I was photographed playing jacks, wearing a spring coat and smiling, or looking coyly up from under the brim of an Easter hat. I know this exactly because I still have those photos. When I would start to whine that I was tired, my mother would hold up her trump card: after I had smiled and curtseyed enough to suit the photographer, we could go eat at the Automat.
Does anyone younger than fifty even know what an Automat was? The concept was clearly linked to our nation’s first obsessions with technology. Even the name has a robot-like quality and implied fabulously quick automated service. In reality, an automat was a cafeteria-style restaurant where all the food was displayed in individual portions behind little glass doors. You put coins into a slot next to the door, like in a modern-day vending machine, and then the door would open so you could withdraw the food item you wanted. Often, a real person’s hand extended the food to you. There were people behind all these little windows constantly refilling the displays.
Everything was amazingly cheap—a slice of pie cost a nickel. Although I was completely uninterested in food at the time, I adored putting nickels in the slot and opening the little door to take out the sandwich, or the pudding, or the coleslaw. As a result, I demanded way too much food, most of which went to waste. It was a frustrating experience for my mother but worth it as long as I behaved. Those trips to the Automat were the high point of my modeling experience.
Once she obtained the portfolio of photos, my mother set out on a tour of child modeling agencies, and in a satisfyingly short period of time, she had signed me with one of them. It was nothing famous like Ford or Wilhelmina. Just some little agency that promised it would make my parents rich. My mother returned home triumphant with a contract in hand and immediately went to tell her friend Jeanine Duckworth.
Jeanine and her husband, Ted, lived upstairs from us on the second floor of our apartment building on 77th Street. They had two small boys, Rommie and Bradley, whom I had known and played with daily since we moved into the unit when I was three and a half. Jeanine and my mother were good friends. They bonded in part because they were both lovely European women married to Americans and stuck in 1950s Queens, and because they could chat in French, thus allowing them to diss anyone they disliked without being understood. They were also totally competitive—about their looks, their husbands and their children.
Before I started modeling, the score was about even. Jeanine was a black-haired, black-eyed tempestuous French beauty, a huge plus on the sophistication scale, but no more beautiful or exotic than my Austrian mother (so no points there). Her husband, Ted, was not nearly as good looking as my father (deduct one point), but was becoming a very successful dress designer, vastly outearning my dad even in those early days (add two for the Duckworths).
As for the children, my mother, Anne, clearly believed she had the edge. Both of Jeanine’s boys inherited their father’s nearly albino blondness, which gave them the look of white rats, especially when they cried, which was often (deduct one point). The boys resembled their mother so little that strangers thought she was their nanny, which enraged Jeanine. By contrast, my mother always held me up as an obedient, smart, pretty child, clearly superior to her friend’s offspring (point for Anne).
My modeling contract (with its promise of funds and fame) was going to give my mother a solid lead. But announcement of this coup had to be done subtly, or the whole effect would be ruined. My mother had coffee with Jeanine nearly every morning. Jeanine was one of those women endowed with truly frightening amounts of energy. She had her entire apartment vacuumed by 9 a.m., and her husband often told guests the story of getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom only to return and find the bed made and coffee brewing in the kitchen.
By 9:30, Jeanine had deposited her children in school and was down in my mother’s kitchen, chatting in French and gossiping. My mother was much slower at getting through her household routine. Once, I remember coming home from school at 3:15 to find the two of them laughing together in the dining room, my mother still in her housecoat with a large mop and a pail of soapy water leaning against the wall.
It was at one of these daily sessions that my mother held out the contract for Jeanine’s inspection. The other woman congratulated her and took down the name of the agency on a small piece of paper that she tucked into her wallet. My mother was feeling pretty smug, so for some weeks I experienced none of the sudden fits of temper that marred her otherwise affectionate personality. And I began to do modeling jobs.
Boy, were they dull. Most of the work involved clothing catalogs for department stores such as Macy’s. Children modeled the latest seasonal clothing lines for ads that were inserted into newspapers, as they still are today. We would arrive at some location at an ungodly hour in the morning. My mother selected clothing out of a huge bin of items, finding things that would fit me. I would put them on, some slight amount of makeup was applied, my mother brushed my hair ruthlessly, and I would have to pose, alone or with another child, until the photographer was satisfied with the picture. All of these were still in black and white; color photography was deemed too expensive for newspaper insertions. Thank God for the trips to the Automat.
And then, the unimaginable. I hadn’t completed more than two assignments when Jeanine called my mother to make sure that they were having coffee the next day.
“Yes,” my mother answered importantly. “We don’t have any assignments for Stephanie tomorrow.”
“Oh, good,” Jeanine answered.
When she came into the apartment that morning, Jeanine carried a copy of the New York Post under her arm. Once coffee was poured, she opened up the paper to an inside page and pointed to the headline in bold 24-point type “MODELING AGENCY CLOSED AMIDST ALLEGATIONS OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY.”
“Isn’t that the agency you’ve signed with for Steffi?” she asked innocently. My mother was speechless. I am sure her genuine horror at the potential danger to me was greater than her humiliation in front of her friend, but not by much. (Deduct ten points for the Wilsons.) It turned out that she didn’t even have to sever the contract with the agency, since the Feds closed down the entire business. And that ended my modeling career. It didn’t matter to me. I had just joined the Brownies, which I found vastly more entertaining.
Of course, the rivalry didn’t end there, but it took a darker turn. The following year, Jeanine’s husband contracted mumps from his sons. While mumps are unpleasant for children, in adults they can be dangerous and, I understand, can render a man impotent for a time, or perhaps even permanently. You could say that was minus two points for Janine.
But then, at least from what my mother admitted later, Jeanine was comforted by my dad in a way that created an irrevocable rift. So minus five points for my mother—two for my dad having an affair and three for his having an affair with her close friend. The comparisons never stopped.
As I grew up and watched the constant scorekeeping ruin my mother’s happiness, I vowed never to place such an emphasis on appearance, and for God’s sake, not to compete with my friends over my children. Even though I still weigh the same as I did in high school, and people tell me I don’t look anywhere near sixty. (Add four points.) And my daughter finished at the top of her high school class and graduated cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania (plus three more). I would never say that out loud, you understand, but just between us….