My Park Avenue Year


Margaret Morganroth Gullette

   During that dreaded crucial college-prep year in high school, I worked more dedicated desperate hours every day than I have ever worked since. I had to. Although never stated, even by my mother, an immigrant’s daughter who had managed a public college education, my life chances depended on getting into the best college that would accept me. My father hadn’t gone to college; it wasn’t clear he approved of my ambition. One night he turned off the electricity to the house when he thought I was typing too late.    That the junior year is make-or-break was true for so many young people situated as I was, that it no longer sounds melodramatic to say so. My 98.7 average plus my extra-curriculars and letters from enthusiastic teachers did then get me into Radcliffe with a scholarship that paid for all tuition and a good portion of room and board. Without that largesse I could not have attended any private college.    Years earlier, in 1950, another Brooklyn girl named Ruth Bader had not bothered to apply to Radcliffe because it was believed to have a Jewish quota. It still did when I applied, but I didn’t know that sort of thing existed. When my guidance counsellor warned me that Radcliffe was unlikely to accept me, I was hurt that she thought my brain wasn’t good enough. 98.7 wasn’t good enough for them! Salutatorian didn’t count! The literary magazine, both art and stories! Sheltered by my parents and my homogeneous Flatbush neighborhood, I didn’t know about anti-Semitism. Protectively, as they thought, nobody told me. Whole areas of recent history, including the Holocaust and the Rosenbergs, whose executions had taken place when I was thirteen, had never been discussed. My mother used the word “exclusive” about certain fancy places in rather an approving way. I never thought to wonder who was excluded.    Radcliffe was the nec plus ultra. The day the scholarship came through I believed I had triumphed over anyone’s doubt of my worth. I vowed that once in college, I would never work that hard again. Home free.    It was the Helena Rubinstein Scholarship. Early in my freshman year, a dean called me in to say that Miss Rubinstein wanted to meet me, and a date was arranged during one of my (few, because expensive) trips back to Brooklyn. I had no idea what to expect. No one told me anything about her or her work, not even that she preferred to be called “Madame.”    It took over an hour to get from our small two-family house in East Flatbush to her duplex apartment on Park Avenue: a bus to the Nostrand Avenue stop on the IRT and then the subway up to the remote East Side. Certain parts of Manhattan I knew well from high school: the Art Students League and the Met and MOMA, two Village cafes, a lesbian dance bar on 2nd Avenue, and Club 21 (one visit), paid for by a high-school boyfriend whose father was a doctor. Park Avenue was terra incognita. Walking west from the crowded low squalor of Fourth Avenue, it loomed wide as the Grand Canyon and as precipitously towering above me. The yellow bellying ramparts were indeed fearsome. But any wall I encountered was there for me to climb.    The suit I was wearing for the ascent of this day was chosen from a small but choice college trousseau that my mother and I had collected at Loehmann’s discount dress store in Bed-Stuy. That was my first castle, with its gold-leaf walls and marble columns. My taste ran to castles. My suit was a Jonathan Logan, size 5 petite, discreet gray wool with a fitted jacket without lapels, an A-line skirt, a rather low-cut neckline. I had decided to wear it sans blouse, with just a camisole and bra underneath. In the elevator going up this began to seem a poor choice. No hat over my careful chignon, but good leather gloves. No jewelry. We had no jewelry, my mother and I. I had applied doe-eyes from Maybelline, a little green eye-shadow, some rouge (no cosmetics from the Rubinstein line, which was more expensive). At seventeen years old, my model was “the unforgettable” Juliette Greco, whom I had once read described in Vogue as hanging out with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at Le Dôme in Paris.    The door was answered not by a distinguished woman but by a dark-suited man wearing white gloves whom I quickly decided was not Mr. Rubinstein. I had never been in a house with a servant, but I recognized him from readings in nineteenth century novels—I had read Jane Eyre ten times—as a butler. I was led by the white gloves into a strangely dim and unfurnished room, filled with dioramas on waist-high pedestals. Each glass case enclosed a small house, fitted up with wallpaper, carpets, paintings and furniture, probably each of a different period of the history of interior decoration that I was too ignorant to recognize. I was taken aback to be treated like a little girl who would be interested in doll houses. I moved around them slowly and aimlessly, unobservantly, waiting for my audience.    After a while which seemed long, I was led back into a rather ordinary and unmemorable livingroom, also rather dark but furnished, and we sat on two different sofas diagonally across from each other. She was not the grande dame I expected. She was shorter than me. Seated, dressed in black, she made a little mound of a woman. She wore a lot more makeup than I, and had moist, dark, steady eyes. I couldn’t read their expression. I must have thanked her, but I can’t remember how. She must have asked me what I was studying. I was extremely shy (except in classes, where I had the right answers) because I didn’t know what to talk about. Knowing her immigrant background could not have made a bond, as it was my grandparents who had been immigrants, in the previous century, and they preferred to say nothing about it. I didn’t know she was Jewish, but coming from a family of atheists as I did, that fact might have shut down topics rather than opening them. At the time I was a proselytizing atheist, like my father. I was culturally Jewish in many subtle and deep ways I have since discovered, but so ignorant of obvious things that I first spelled the name of a new Harvard acquaintance Eric Seagull.    Only when a play about the rivalry between Elizabeth Arden and Madame Rubinstein opened in New York was I reminded that I had once been grateful to her and had been invited to meet her. It would have mattered then had I known that she was a Princess: she was the widow of a man with the strange and lordly name of Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia. (In my castle phase, I would have quite liked my scholarship money to be attached to a princely house.) But that fact would not have improved my conversation either.    At some point I may have asked Miss Rubinstein about her rings, or, more likely, she decided to show them to me. She wore large dazzlingly bright precious stones—rubies or sapphires, perhaps?—unfaceted, but cut high, like marshmallows. She called them “cabochons.” I knew the word from The Count of Monte Cristo but I couldn’t bring myself to say so, afraid that whatever I said would be of no interest.    It cannot have been an easy tea-time for my benefactor, I’m sorry to say. A poor return for her kindness and generosity to low-income girls. I already knew that, helplessly, on that long gnawing subway and bus ride home. Even with l'esprit de l'escalier, I couldn’t imagine how I might have amused her better or carried off the conversation more like an adult. My greatest goal, unknown even to myself, was to be a conversationalist—to have something to say, really anything to say, on any occasion.    I was disappointed in Radcliffe that year. But every social occasion was far more disappointing about myself. A year after that Park Avenue debacle, an ephemeral boyfriend from the Main Line pinpointed one problem, saying, “You have no small talk.” Or perhaps he said “You have nothing but small talk.” I assumed this was a criticism from his tone—I often learned more from people’s tones of voice than from their words. But neither criticism could have helped because I didn’t have the slightest idea what “small talk” was.    Both statements may have been true, which would explain why I don’t remember his exact words. I had neither small nor big talk. Speech often flummoxed me. I had so few concepts or frames of reference or even information, that before I went out on dates I mentally made a list of topics to raise or ask questions about, as if preparing for a test. At home my parents and relatives talked about politics fiercely and at home we had TV news and the New York Times every morning, but the dorm had neither. Meals in college were not enlivening. Many girls my age read excerpts from their boyfriends’ letters aloud at the breakfast table and in Clyde Kluckhohn’s Soc Rel course, some knitted. We were all supposed to be so smart, but I now heard that many had come for the MRS. Arrogant as I was about my academic preparation, I knew myself as scarcely better than the breakfast clubbers, since I was voiceless, passive, critical of them but unable to dare to raise the level of discourse. Unseen, some butler in white gloves was always leading me around, mute.    Nevertheless, I bore an air of assurance that classmates later told me was convincing. I see girls in their teens now and their faces reveal nothing, smooth as lake tops. I must have looked like that. Yet at some level I derived from my egalitarian internationalist communist formation and my superior public-school education the inner sense that I was the equal of anyone. Like Eugène de Rastignac, whose story I read a few years later, I felt inwardly bold enough, at times. Apparent serenity and even hauteur were quite compatible with social fear and timidity and the certain anxious knowledge that I was likely to be embarrassed in conversation at any turn.    I was back on Park Avenue that year. Twice more. The next time was in the Renaissance hall of a true American palace, much like Mrs. Loehmann’s to my eye but much larger than a store, and private, not filled with women in slips trying on designer clothes. The palace was owned by a family whose name appeared on a chain of five and dime department stores all over the country. I did have a friend that year, who once or twice quietly corrected my table manners; mostly we smoked and typed papers together. Having gone to a girls’ prep school, she knew the daughter of the family; a brother, whom I’ll call Elgin, was in our Harvard class. He had a best friend named Bill, and the four of us loosely hung out together, paired but not dating, laughed a lot, and had some reckless adventures.    That afternoon we were having a sedate tea with Elgin’s mother and two sisters before the boys drove me home to Brooklyn. The family was trying to decide which etchings they were going to buy from a set by Albrecht Dürer. As they were passed around, several came into my hands too. I had never held a real print. Our house had four framed color reproductions, of Utrillo (a street scene), Cezanne (fruit), Gauguin (seated women), and Modigliani (a portrait). I had never seen a real Dürer. (I hadn’t taken art history, and I was not to go to Europe for another year, but I had been drawing for years and drawing was something I liked to do. I knew who Dürer was.) Somebody pointed out the decorative way he made his initials. I could have looked at any one of the prints forever, but the family seemed to be looking each one over rather quickly and passing them on. I was too stupefied and polite to ask for more time and I had no vocabulary to comment. I let each one pass out of my hands.    A third Park Avenue experience that same year was embarrassing, and perhaps for that reason its details are blurrier. The only remote relief in recalling it was that I didn’t pronounce the few words I said in a phony accent. My father had made sure my brother and I did not have Brooklyn accents (he was from Philadelphia and was strict about saying “chocklit” rather than “chawk-lit”), but I had come home at Thanksgiving, having been gone only two months, with a lockjaw North Shore imitation of a Brahmin accent. My homegirl Marsha made such fun of me that I lost it by Saturday morning.    On Park Avenue on the occasion I am speaking of, it was night-time in a large private apartment. All the perfumed girls in the pastel powder room seemed to know one another and were beautifully dressed. I was too, but I knew no one. Some laughing blonde girl looked at me and said, kindly enough, “Who are you?” Well, my name.    I already knew enough about the world outside to know that my name was a mysterious problem. In back-country Michigan years before, while on a visit to my uncle Ben, a boy I might have liked had asked, suspiciously, “What kind of name is Morganroth?” What was the answer to such a question supposed to be? My first name I had willfully changed at age fourteen, when I had my waist-length hair cut into a fashionable page boy and changed my birth-name, Margaret, for “Margie,” after an appealing TV show called “My Little Margie.” In college I was still Margie. So far so good. “Margie Morgan-Roth,” I said, looking her in the eye, “scion of the Morgans and the Roths. With a hyphen.” But I missed the right tone of easy jocularity, and her look changed to one of puzzlement as she moved away.    As for anti-Semitism, I first consciously encountered it in that same tremendously confused first year of college when I also first confronted sexism and classism. Eventually, that term explained the odd reaction to my last name, and why a boy said my looks were “exotic.” It explained why a girl with skin the same shade as my own said, appraisingly, “You tan so well.” To the best of my memory, this happened only a few times, but I was not alert. Information that might have made me critical had been tamped down. Later, when I married, one of my husband’s relatives said, casually, something about “jewing them down.” I knew that doing that—whatever it was–was nasty. She didn’t notice what she had said, so she didn’t apologize. I still didn’t know what to call such remarks, nor what to say back. I was as tongue-tied there as I had been earlier in my new grown-up social life.    What happened toward the end of that year could have been expected by any adult who guessed the impacts of all the strange new miseries that I myself wasn’t conscious of enduring. But there was no one near me who could have.    It must have been spring, because I went to Filene’s Basement for the first time to buy my first bikini. Filene’s was the department store in downtown Boston with a cult following and a reputation for bargains amid the heaps of disparate clothes piled on the huge basement tables. A cramped cavern, a chaotic space filled with determined women. I went alone, which was a mistake in every way. It meant I didn’t have a girlfriend to ask to accompany me; I was again the solitary I had been through most of my good-girl life to date. I didn’t have a boyfriend, I didn’t have a shopping buddy. I had made a failure of my freshman year in everything but grades, and should anyway have been at the dorm studying for finals.    A friend would have helped me with shopping, which I wasn’t good at and didn’t like. Shopping requires skills when you come from the class I came from: patience, a good eye for esthetics in design and quality in manufacture, the psychological ability not to be distracted and overwhelmed by the stuff–its variety, its costliness—or by envy of the ability of others to afford what you have to put back on the rack. My mother had always bought everything with me, and paid; she possessed all those shopping skills I lacked and could not even have named. A friend would simply have kept me sane.    I fumbled through ill-sorted bundles. Alongside other women with strong arms, big shoulders reaching and pulling, I fell into a kind of stupor of rummaging and flinging and leaning in and discarding. For me, it was an hour, and then two hours, of bewilderment. I became dispirited and went on picking up useless items almost at random. I was wasting time. By chance, when I was about to give up, and should have given up and gone home, I stumbled on both pieces of a gorgeous bikini that was perfect for me in size (not that I stopped to go into a dressing room) and color (the basic color of the jungle print was the color of my eyes, my best feature). Holding it, touching its clothy perfection, fantasizing its ability to represent me, I had to have it. I had never felt desire so strongly. The need to have it gripped me far above any slight sexual stirring or any vague academic ambition. Somehow knowing how to do this—how not to look around, not to appear surreptitious, or giddy with glee–I dropped the two pieces almost as if accidentally into my Harvard-green book-bag, my class emblem. The second I gave to the thought of being caught by a cop, and destroyed for life, did not deter me. I walked out.


   That year was marked not only by doing one stupid thing, suppressing my griefs, and partying (my one goal for Radcliffe, intended as a reward for the grinding misery of junior year). I learned a lot, very rapidly, filling my head with knowledge, names, dates, ideas. It was a process a bit like furnishing one of those decorative lonely little dollhouses under glass, each on its separate plinth.    Then by chance I heard Stanley Cavell, a remarkably inspiring professor of philosophy, when he asked the question, “How do we learn to speak?” He didn’t exactly answer it, but he confirmed that it was a process that didn’t end at two years of age, and he implied that it probably got going seriously at about the same age as undergraduate education. Unlike some of my classmates, who married way up, I married another public-school-trained intellectual who had been on scholarship at Harvard; later we both earned PhDs. Along the way I began to acquire the basis for conversation. “Conversation” meant not only uttering opinions, but the desire to listen and speak, to take turns, and to divert someone’s unwanted speech or flash back at them.    Looking back, at “the Morgans and the Roths, with a hyphen” –my whole castle phase–did I want to be not Jewish, or just Jewish-and-rich or just rich and male? Or did I merely want to be me but safe in any setting? I think now that that girl didn’t have a character yet; she was a silent huddle of sensibilities. She was proud, self-centered, ignorant, and confused. The labels applied to her seemed so illogical as to be unreal—there was nothing wrong with her for being them, she had always been them–but still she felt the edge of prejudice keenly. How to escape from the labels would have been beyond her ken, as vague to her as to millions of other young people so situated. She could not have taken notes on her own mind, and I don’t know her anymore from inside.    Eventually, though, the self I do know began to stand my ground. I kept hold of my cherished maiden name, sans hyphen, when I married, and in all my publications. My problem was not that I had come straight outta Flatbush. (It took a while though before I was sure that it was their problem, whoever thought it was mine.)    Consciously, I could recall many standard things about Margie’s first year at Radcliffe: parietal hours, being excluded from Lamont Library as a woman, smoking and drinking bourbon through an all-nighter, breaking up with the high-school boyfriend. I remembered even Filene’s, but only very rarely, and anomalously, as an inexplicable shame never to be revealed. But until now I’d forgotten this Park Avenue side of her self—a weaponless youth driven by the expectable longings of her shockingly changed circumstances.    Time took me farther from sharing her confusions and temptations. But publicity for that Broadway musical about Mme Rubinstein and my learning more about the miniature houses on the plinths (now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art), which she had hoped would delight me, brought back the details of that command performance. The scholarship girl in her one good gray suit, the gloved butler, and my painful shyness, surfaced, little by little, the more I thought about that day. And with that, appeared the Dürers, and the powder-scented room and my awkward laughing word scion, and then, deep beneath those, the label exotic that in the long run explained me or, rather, them.    That unhappy girl lived in the 1950s world, before the feminist movement gave being a woman some dignity and being an intellectual woman some cachet. It was before Jean Paul Sartre explained the Anti-Semite, and the widening knowledge of Holocaust horrors brought enlightenment to any non-Jews I was likely to meet. It was before scholars investigated with empathy the hidden injuries of class. Recent history, however, has brought me back the contexts that made my unconscious teen avatar miserable, and that now explain to me her suffering and her act of stupid resistance. The 1% owning most US wealth. Charlottesville, “The Jews will not replace us.” The Supreme Court in Dobbs, putting women in their place.    These remembrances are oddly welcome despite dragging with them a mess of humiliations. They illumine a faint far difficult country where I once lived for a short while before, in time, with aging and history, its borders closed.


From the archives: In 1953, when it began to be awarded, the Helen Rubinstein Scholarship had been called the Princess Gourielli Scholarship because she was then married to Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia. When he died, she gave the scholarship her own name. The scholarship would be awarded, Radcliffe Dean Mildred Sherman told her, “to some promising student of whom we hope you will be proud. This generous gesture from you shows that you understand the difficulties which young people face in financing their education… . "  (From the Schlesinger Archive, Radcliffe Institute, April 2017). The Scholarship is no longer given at Radcliffe. It is given at CUNY.