Who I Am

I grew up in New Jersey. Our suburban house had a detached double garage with a small  office built into one corner where my father wrote his books. On the wall in his office were a pair of photographs, side by side, in a single frame. One was of a naked woman immersed in water to her cleavage, the other was of a monkey also immersed in water to the middle of his chest. My father worked in that office in the garage from 1964 to 1969–from the time I was two years old until I was seven. During that period, many thoughts occurred to me about those photographs. Early on, I believed the woman was my mother. I was sorry for her because someone had stolen her bathing suit and she couldn’t get out of the water. She even looked frightened and a little angry.

The photograph of the monkey confused me. The monkey was ugly and old and had nothing to do with my mother. By putting those two photographs together, I decided my father was making fun of my mother which I thought was mean, but which also secretly pleased me. Later, I realized that the woman was not my mother. She was someone I had never met. I wanted to ask my father who she was, but didn’t. I was jealous of her because my father looked at her much more during the day than he looked at me. Still, my father had put her picture next to a monkey’s so he couldn’t be all that fond of her.

My parents got divorced and my father moved to a “pad” in town with a view of Firestone Library where he hung the curious duo on the wall above his typewriter.

The Five Sisters of Kintail, Scotland

I have four sisters. For better or for worse, I do not know where they begin and I end especially from my position so squarely in the middle. Without them, beginning, middle, and end would be entirely meaningless to me.

If I were to locate where I grew up from the time I was seven to seventeen, I would not say a pseudo-commune in Ringoes, New Jersey in the 1970s but Hollywood in the 1940s. Day after day, from the time I got home from school until late into the night I watched old movies on television—Million Dollar Movie, The Late Movie, The Late, Late Movie, The Friday Night Movie, the Sunday Night Movie.

For me the ideal woman was a fast-talking dame—Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Veronica Lake, Gene Tierney, Marlene Dietrich, Ida Lupino, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and so many more.

The ideal man was a slick, savvy, tortured soul such as Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell, Clark Gable, Victor Mature, John Garfield, Joseph Cotten. Elegance, glamour, razor-sharp language, dark humor, moral ambiguity, disconcerting perspectives, the unpredictable corners of existence–these were the places I lived and where I was happiest.

When I was in Florence for a year during college, a man I loved, who would two years later introduce me to the man I would marry, took me to a cinema club in a communist community center where we watched Vittorio Gasman in Dino Risi’s 1962 film Il Sorpasso and my torrid love affair with Italy began. Eventually, I called my father to ask him about those photographs on his office wall. Before moving to New Jersey, my father had worked for TIME magazine which shared offices and an art department with LIFE magazine, since they were owned by the same company. The monkey, my father told me, was one of a shipload of rhesus monkeys brought to a tiny Puerto Rican island in 1939 where a free-ranging monkey colony was to be established for long-term study purposes. After the monkeys disembarked, they immediately went crazy–fighting, screeching, swinging from trees, copulating. One elderly monkey took a look at the frenzied scene around him, walked out into the water up to his chest, and watched. He refused to return to shore for hours. The LIFE photographer who was covering the monkey-colony story took a snap. The photograph became one of the most reproduced images in the history of LIFE Magazine and was something of a legend in the offices where my father worked. In April of 1960, the photograph of the Italian film star Silvana Mangano was published on the cover of LIFE.

The setting and her body position were nearly identical to the monkey’s, her expression as defiant and disdainful as his, so my father went upstairs to the art department and asked for copies of both photos. He had them mounted together and framed and then hung them above his desk. “I liked the juxtaposition,” he said.

Not long ago, my mother found in our basement the remains of some old stories I had written when very young on yellow legal paper about sisters, one dark, one blonde who ride on pink and blue flying elephants to Firestone Library where they dismount and get into an elevator which will take them to the planet of their choice by pushing the right button. Even though my writing has become more realistic, I am still lured by my own dreamland.

In college, when immersed in the metaphysical poets, and above all John Donne, I came across Samuel Johnson’s famous criticism of their poetry. He said that in their work, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”

It is precisely this yoking together of images, concepts, and emotions followed by the surprise, delight, and even shock of what can happen that thrills me in a piece of a writing and makes me want to keep picking up a pen.

21 responses to “Who I Am

  1. I LOVE this. I love the picture of you as a child, like an angel. My brilliant sister!

    • Brigid Brown

      I too liked your story (NYTimes) about your family and your mother. I am 81 and still have my marbles as they say. At least I think so, but my daughters (about your age) may not agree!. I hope they will be as loving as your family seems to be when that time comes. I believe we have met as I was working in the Study Abroad Office at RU all those years ago. Your sister went on the program and your father kindly agreed, at a request i made to him, to speak to the RU Honors program. He had remembered me from the days his daughter (s) went to Florence.

  2. Pat Newman

    Love your website — am so enjoying learning more about you and seeing samples of your work. I’ve read the novels but have never seen the articles. Congrats on your brilliant career!

  3. Love the bio – interesting photos & story!

  4. Victoria (Vicky) Gould-Owensby

    You may not remember me but I lived in Princeton until 16 and was friends with your sister Sarah. I went to New Hampshire with you one summer and spent many of a day at the “farm” taking handfuls of vitamins, riding mopeds and swimming in the terrarium which was the indoor pool. Just wanted you to know how much my sisters and I have enjoyed your articles and books, as well as Martha’s. They seem to say so well the same feelings we had as being one of the only people we knew who’s parents were divorced at the time. Our life was shattered as well as expanded. We too became our mothers daughters. We passed you and Martha’s books around between us and shared the memories. We too became our mother’s daughters. Thank you.

    • Hi Vicky, so very nice to hear from you. Those were strange, yet in their own weird way, wonderful times. Glad you were there to share that altered reality as I often wonder if it all really happened. Of course, that may be due to all the “vitamins” we took. Best, Jenny

  5. I do believe this is the best and most surprise-filled ‘About Me’ page I’ve ever read.

  6. This was such a smooth, fluid, awesome read. Thank you.

  7. Tripped over here from your bookslut essay on Muriel Spark’s biography of Mary Shelley , and I have to agree with the above that this is one of the most compelling About sections I’ve come across. I’ll be thinking of that monkey and that woman, isolating themselves from the chaos, for some time.

  8. Hi Jenny,
    Facebook led me here. I was in a class with you at the Writers Studio with Phil. I enjoyed reading this as it speaks to the question of what inspires us to write and I can see how those two images hold an inspirational tension. The muse works in funny ways. Those images would not be it for me but I think it is important to have something at the writing desk to remind us of …

    Happy writing!

    Willard Cook

  9. Hey Jenny–
    I’ve been a fan of the McPhee’s since I read your dad’s article -in the New Yorker- about that restaurant in Wilkes-Barre (or wherever). And so thrilled to see those 40s movie posters on your site; I, too, am seduced by those incredible films. In fact, I knew Judy Garland, and have just written an espionage thriller featuring the 21 year old Judy as an undercover operative for the OSS. I’ve been able to virtually ‘channel’ her voice. There’s much about Metro in the early forties, many film references. You, in particular, would have a great time with the book -Operation Ruby Slipper. Can I request you as a reviewer on either BookSlut or whatever publication you’re currently contributing to?
    Please go to meyerwire.wordpress.com for info about me. I’m so pleased to have found you.
    All best, John Meyer

  10. What a beautifully written bio, very inspiring indeed.

  11. melanie

    Brilliant Jenny – there is always so much more to all our friends than we realise! love Melaniex

  12. Just stumbled upon this and smiled with recognition…wow…us little Princeton Suburban kids both raised with a love of 1930 film stars…keep up the writing tradition!

  13. Hi Jenny….I lived in one of the cabins on your property in the early seventies….me, Clark Farrington, Randy Payne used to hang out there. YOur dad hired me to be a driver and animal feeder for the sheep and horses. That was one of the coolest times I’ve ever had in my life, living at The Farm in Ringoes. Never forget it. Hope life has been good to you……taichipatrick@gmail.com Oh, I’m Pat Dickson…..say hello to everyone for me…..peace

  14. Jimmy Rosenberg

    Good morning Jenny. I am hanging a picture of Silvana Mangana, sans monkey; apparently, it has nothing to do with ironic juxtaposition. My wife, Giovanna, understands. And your ‘real’ mother is much more beautiful, I mean, when I saw her yesterday. From an old(er) ‘commune’ visitor. Jimmy

  15. clyde pannell

    Very interesting. Will be reading your novel very soon.

  16. A most interesting self-portrait – or portrait, am not sure which.
    I was struck by how seldom this idea is expressed: “Even though my writing has become more realistic, I am still lured by my own dreamland.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s